The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

Tim Van Damme

Tim Van Damme

  • designer
  • developer

Formerly a freelance web designer from Belgium, Tim Van Damme started working for Dropbox as a mobile product designer in August 2013. Prior to that, he learned the ropes at Instagram and Gowalla. Tim is happily married, and is the world's proudest dad of the most beautiful princess. He and his family currently live in San Francisco, California. Outside of work and family time, Tim likes to explore the world through the lens of his camera.


What are you up to these days?

Work and family. I’m at Dropbox as part of a 20-person team, which sounds really big, but it feels very small and cozy. My main focus is mobile, particularly the visual design side of it. I specialize in iOS, so I know all the ins and outs of that. Besides working on my own projects, I’m kind of like a sounding board: if other people are working on a project that involves iOS 7, then I can give them feedback and make sure that everything looks consistent.

We all have a range of responsibilities here, and none of us just come in and work on one project and call it a day. That’s probably one of the things that I enjoy most about working at Dropbox: things are always moving and evolving. We question our process all the time, so it’s definitely not an average job.

Outside of work, I try to spend as much time as possible with my girls. I’m a lucky man: every day at the office I get paid to learn from the most talented people in this industry, and after work I arrive home to a hyperactive 2-year-old girl who wants nothing more than to spend the evening drawing or playing with her daddy. I’ve gotten really good at drawing cats—lots of them.

That’s awesome. By the way, we joke about this a lot, but Ryan and I use Dropbox every day, and we don’t know what we’d do without it. It’s nice having that peace of mind—if anything happens, all of our files are safe.

I’m glad to hear that. I trust Dropbox with all the photos I’ve ever taken of my daughter, from the moment she was a few seconds old.

So, what has been your path?

The path of maximum resistance. (laughing) I was born and raised in Belgium. My family was always very loving and supportive of whatever new hobby I wanted to try—they knew well enough that I’d likely quit it after a couple of months anyway.

My parents are middle-class people who run a car dealership that my grandfather started almost half a century ago. It’s common for people who grow up in an environment like that to stay close to home, take over the family business, and enjoy life the way everyone else around them does. Instead, I started a business that had nothing to do with selling cars, and now I live in the US and work for a company that stores digital files.

Taking over the family business wasn’t meant for you, huh. When did you figure out what you wanted to do with your life?

When I was 11, my dad bought his first computer, which ran Windows 95. I’m not sure what he was planning on doing with it, but my brother and I hijacked it the minute it entered our house, and we used it for two things: Duke Nukem 3D and Paint. In the years following, my brother and I spent entire weeks during school vacations playing games in our computer room. Pretty soon, we got a dial-up Internet connection and, besides repeatedly waiting five minutes to download one nudie pic, I also played with Paint a lot. I made signage for my parent’s business and used a scanner to duplicate skateboard brands’ logos, which I scanned from TransWorld SKATEboarding.

At a certain point, I became fascinated with mobile phones, especially the Nokia 3310, because it introduced a new technology called picture messaging. This allowed users to send low-resolution black-and-white images, which were 72x28 pixels, as text messages. There was a free application that allowed you to design your own images. I installed it and starting drawing hundreds of images, pixel by pixel.

After that, I found someone who actually sold these images on a GeoCities site, and we started chatting. He saw my collection of trademark-infringing content and taught me how to add it to his website by editing bits of HTML. To add a new image, I had to copy and paste a table row and change a bunch of values. I never made any money from it, but I thought, “People all across the world can now see my Oakley logo on a website!” (laughing)

That experience triggered what would eventually define my entire career: an obsession with creating websites.

What happened after that?

I taught myself how to use Paintshop Pro and started building websites for local bands. After a while, I started buying books about CSS, and I read a lot of blogs by people like Jon Hicks, Simon Collison, Doug Bowman, and Dan Cederholm; I learned a lot by looking at their source code and seeing how they wrote it. A List Apart was my bible, and I had my mind blown over and over again by CSS Zen Garden. Multiple times a week, my dad would catch me sitting behind my computer at 3am, making websites and learning from people who lived overseas and were in different time zones.

When I started college, there weren’t a lot of interesting majors available for people who wanted to build websites for a living. The curriculum hadn’t had the time to adapt to web standards yet. It was moving too slow for a completely new type of job in an industry that, to this day, is still maturing.

I continued learning new things on my own and quit college twice before eventually finding a job doing web app design and front-end coding. I wanted to be a freelancer, but my parents insisted that I needed some work experience before they would allow me to follow my dream. Then, 18 months later, I left the safety of my full-time job and formed a little one-man web design company called Made By Elephant. I did that for almost three years until I felt an urge to do something different.

When did you leave Belgium and move over to the US?

I had this romantic dream to spend part of my life on a different continent; as a TV junkie, the US was at the top of my list. In early 2010, I started looking around for opportunities and came across a small company called Gowalla. I sent Josh Williams an email that said: “Hey, I’m Tim and I live on the other side of the world. I know this is a long shot, but if you’re up for it, I would love to talk about a job at Gowalla.” To my surprise, he agreed to fly me over for a try-out, and I worked in the office for two weeks. I loved the product, the team, and, most of all, I loved Austin. Gowalla made me an offer, I talked it over with my then-girlfriend, and we agreed to give it a shot.

Because I quit school twice and didn’t have a lot of professional experience, it took longer than expected to get a visa. A year after I started the process, I got a phone call that it was finally approved. After marrying the girl I’d been dating for eight years, she and I packed up our stuff and moved to Austin, TX, in April 2011.

How long did you work at Gowalla?

I started freelancing for them when I began the visa process, so I guess it was about two years. Around November 2011, it became clear that Gowalla was running out of options after a big product update didn’t work out the way we wanted it to. When the news broke about a possible acquisition by Facebook, I said a lot of things that I still regret saying—we were all devastated, and it was a very emotional time. The company we all loved working for ceased to exist, and there was no one to blame but ourselves.

It took a couple of months, but everyone who was involved now understands why what happened, happened. And all my old Gowalla colleagues and I are great friends to this day.

What happened after that?

Facebook had job offers for some of the people working at Gowalla, but not everyone. A lot of people think that I said no to an offer from Facebook, but I never got one. I completely understand why I didn’t get an offer, though: I was so inexperienced back then.

At that point, my wife was eight months pregnant, and the only thing I could think was, “Holy shit, we need health insurance.” We didn’t have the resources to move back to Belgium at that point, so we had to have our baby in the US.

I took my phone and started looking at all the apps I used on a daily basis. The first one that stood out was Instagram. I sent a message to Kevin Systrom to ask if they were looking for a designer. After a couple of phone calls and a digitally signed contract, I started working for Instagram—my daughter was six days old. I worked from the kitchen table while our newborn was crying in the living room of our tiny apartment. It might sound like it was a terrible experience, but looking back on it, my wife and I learned a lot and it made us closer than ever.

The contract I signed for Instagram stated that I was to relocate to San Francisco as soon as our daughter was old enough for the move. In April 2012, we enjoyed the roller coaster of finding an apartment in the city. We lucked out and found a place that was pretty affordable, according to local standards. We now live in a family-friendly neighborhood, have an amazing view, and—most importantly—have rent protection. (laughing)

What was your reaction to the news that Facebook was acquiring Instagram?

That whole morning was super weird. The day before that I had been on my way back from a trip to Tahoe with some friends from Gowalla. I got a phone call from Kevin, who asked: “Can you come in tomorrow at 8:30am?” I thought, “Holy shit, they’re going to fire me! They’re calling me in way before anyone starts working, and they’re going to fire me so that I’m out of the office before anyone arrives. That way there’s no drama.” I was really nervous. I went in on Monday at 8:30am and everyone was there. I thought, “Cool, I’m not getting fired. So what the hell is going on?”

Then Kevin, our CEO, broke the news to us that Instagram was being acquired by Facebook. Philip McAllister, another ex-Gowalla employee who was now leading Android development at Instagram, looked at me in disbelief. Ten minutes later, Scoble arrived outside in his white Prius looking for someone to interview and we all had to use the back exit for the rest of the day due to the never-ending stream of reporters outside our office.

A couple of months later when the FTC investigation cleared, the team moved from a cozy office space in South Park to Facebook’s massive campus in Menlo Park, one hour south of the city. The first couple of weeks in that new environment were the lowest point of my professional life. It was hard for us to focus on work and, as a team, we went through a small identity-crisis: “Are we still Instagram? Are we Facebook now?” Kevin sat us all down and assured us that even though our paycheck now had a Facebook logo on it, we were still very much the small team from a few months ago. That was the little pow-wow we needed, and we went back to work as if nothing had happened. We started building new features, hiring more people, and, collectively, we learned a lot from the whole experience.

Tim Van Damme
Taken on a photo walk at Point Reyes National Seashore; photo by Chris Connolly

“Facebook had job offers for some of the people working at Gowalla, but not everyone. A lot of people think that I said no to an offer from Facebook, but I never got one. I completely understand why I didn’t…I was so inexperienced back then.”

You’re now at Dropbox. How did that come about?

At a certain point after we shipped video for Instagram, it felt a bit as if life was too easy: I had a great job, and it didn’t matter where I went in the world—as soon as I mentioned that I worked at Instagram, people went crazy. They looked at me as if I was a celebrity, and it just felt wrong. I didn’t want to be recognized because of where I worked; I wanted my work to speak for me. I also knew that a change in environment would allow me to start learning again. I didn’t want to slow down yet, so I started looking for a new challenge. One of the companies that immediately caught my interest was Dropbox.

Dropbox was the change of scenery I needed: the team structure was new to me; it was a product that people trusted; and it was a product that people paid money for. On top of that, their team was filled with designers who I’ve always wanted to work with. I started the interview process with them, and every single person I talked to was down-to-earth and passionate about Dropbox. That sealed the deal, and I decided to join the team.

Also, before I moved to the US, Soleio offered me the opportunity to come work with him at Facebook. I was honored, but the job felt completely outside of my league at the time. Years later, I was excited to finally take him up on the offer and reconnect at Dropbox.

How long have you been there?

I joined Dropbox in August 2013, but it feels like I’ve only been there for a couple of weeks.

Have you had any mentors along the way?

My grandfather is probably my biggest mentor. He started a tiny business, worked day and night, and, over the years, it grew into the small family-run empire that it is today. He taught me the values of working hard, having a vision, and looking after your family. Even though my family was always able to give me everything I wanted, my grandfather inspired me to get a job when I was 13. I used to work at summer camps mentoring younger kids. From that point on, I’ve always had weekend and summer jobs.

After I quit college, Frédéric della Faille gave me a summer internship at his design agency that worked for clients like Renault and Disney. He hired me on the fly and taught me how to work on big projects. Today he has a startup in San Francisco, and I’m their creative advisor.

Josh Williams was another huge mentor. By the way, he’s still a designer—he might tell you something else, but in his heart, he’s still a designer. When I worked at Gowalla, our desks were next to each other. He taught me how to handle feedback, because I was a little brat and thought that everything I designed was perfect. (laughing) The feedback was always valid, even though I might not have always recognized it at the time.

After Instagram joined Facebook, we hired Chris Weeldreyer, a design manager who used to work for Apple. Even though we only worked together for a couple of months, I learned a lot from him. He taught me how to prototype small animations really fast in Keynote as well as how to communicate with decision-makers inside a company in order to get them on board with ideas, and that was invaluable.

These days, besides working with Soleio on a daily basis, which is a huge honor, I consider all of my coworkers to be mentors. Dropbox has a culture of helping others become better at what they love doing and supporting them if they want to try something new. We all sit together in a big design pod, so there’s always a shoulder to tap on for some feedback. When it comes to the feedback, there are no egos involved: it’s pure and honest.

“If you want to venture out into something new, it’s always good to cut costs. Live with your parents for as long as possible and, if you have a full-time job, hold onto it for a bit longer. The hiring bar for a designer is constantly being raised, and you need to put in as many evening hours as you can to learn as much as possible.”

Was there a point when you decided to take a big risk to move forward?

There were two. One was moving to the US, away from family. That was a less conscious risk, though: like I said earlier, it was more like a romantic dream that I wanted to fulfill. I had kind of lost hope after waiting so long for the visa to get approved, but once I got the call, I thought, “Oh, shit! This is really happening.”

The second biggest risk was leaving my comfy job at Instagram.

Are your friends and family supportive of what you do?

Yes, my family is definitely supportive and always has been. They obviously miss us, and we miss them, but we FaceTime every single day so they can see their granddaughter. My wife and daughter travel to Belgium a couple of times a year and I’ll usually visit once a year. Our families also come visit us in San Francisco. We just got back from four weeks in Belgium and there was a small family emergency right before we left, which made us realize how far the distance is between San Francisco and Belgium.

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?

All the time. When I was starting out, I bought books on CSS and HTML, but as we all know, the people who wrote those books didn’t get rich doing so. They did it because they were passionate about the subject. When I read blogs and looked at people’s source code, I was amazed by the amount of knowledge they gave away—I hadn’t found that to be the case in any other industry, and it was fascinating.

I wanted to thank the people who had helped me get to where I was. I asked Leigh Hicks to make me a bunch of felt pouches with my old logo—a little black elephant—and I sent them out to all the people who I had learned a lot from, like Jason Santa Maria, Jeffrey Zeldman, Veerle Pieters, and others. It got me a lot of press, but that wasn’t what I intended; I just wanted to thank them from the bottom of my heart.

After that, I started focusing on how I could help others. I tried to start a blog, but realized that I was very bad at writing. Then I started speaking at conferences, but realized I was bad at speaking. (laughing) The thing that works best for me right now is a personal approach. I try to respond to every single email or tweet from individuals asking for help, or sometimes I’ll grab coffee or lunch with them.

Just the other week someone contacted me about working on an Android project. He was uncomfortable because he had never designed for Android before and his boss expected him to do it. I invited him to the office to have lunch and I basically dumped everything I had learned about designing Android apps onto him.

This approach doesn’t scale, and sometimes I don’t even have the time to respond, but it’s satisfying to help people face to face. Even though I’m not the best or most experienced designer, I can help others solve problems with the limited knowledge I do have. I think it goes back to the early days when I was reading all of those blogs: I felt like those people were my mentors. If they hadn’t been there, then I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Are you creatively satisfied?

Very! I don’t have a side project right now, partly because I have a family and a full-time job, but also because I don’t feel the need to do something else. I’m satisfied with what I do day-to-day, both creatively and with the amount of responsibility I have. I go home exhausted every day. When I do want to do something else, I grab my camera and go on a photo walk with friends.

Is there anything new or different that you’re interested in exploring in the next 5 to 10 years?

I have no idea. The only thing I know is that I still have a lot to learn, and my current position is perfect for that.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

If you want to venture out into something new, it’s always good to cut costs. Live with your parents for as long as possible and, if you have a full-time job, hold onto it for a bit longer. The hiring bar for a designer is constantly being raised, and you need to put in as many evening hours as you can to learn as much as possible.

Young people want everything immediately, but it takes time. What I love about our industry is that it doesn’t matter what kind of degree you have: you have to show up and show people what you can do. There’s no bullshitting yourself through an interview process. You have to work really hard for it, and there’s an honesty to it that I love.

Where do you live in San Francisco?

We live on the South edge of the city, which is about a 10-minute commute to the office. The hill we live on splits through the fog, so we get a lot of sun.

How does living in San Francisco impact your work?

Personally, it’s the perfect place to be right now. There are a lot of opportunities and a lot of people to meet and learn from. If you want to build things, San Francisco is probably the best place to live—everyone is looking to hire a designer or developer in this city.

It sounds like being a part of a creative community is important to you.

You pick how much time you want to spend in it. For me, it’s a bit less because I prefer to spend time with my family. But you could go to an event or something every single day if you wanted to.

What does a typical day look like for you?

In the morning, I’ll come in around 9 or 10-ish, just a bit earlier than my colleagues, so that I can go home around 6:30 or 7pm to spend time with my family. If people want to meet up, I’ll either do that in the morning or invite them over for lunch at the office. I have a couple of meetings every day, and I end up spending about half of my time designing, which is a good balance. At Dropbox, communication is really important. I’ve seen big design teams that are completely out of sync, so we need to spend a bit more time communicating and making sure that everyone knows what they—and everyone else—are doing.

In the evening, I go home and spend time with my wife and daughter. After they go to bed, I might do some more work. On the weekends, we’ll go skiing or drive to Yosemite or go to the beach in Santa Cruz. That was a big selling point for living in San Francisco: we’re so close to all of these beautiful places.

What music are you listening to right now?

I enjoy a lot of different styles of music. The best way to describe it is: I appreciate music when I feel like the artist cares about what they create. That can range from techno to death metal, and everything in between. It also depends on what kind of mood I’m in or what kind of work I’m doing.

Do you have any favorite movies or TV shows?

Breaking Bad is awesome. Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Sherlock, and Fringe are all great shows, too. I like watching TV; I watch a lot of it. (laughing)

It’s a nice way to decompress. Do you have a favorite book?

Not really. I mostly read technical books or biographies. I wish I had more time for fiction, though.

What is your favorite food?

Right now, it’s probably Asian food—mostly sushi and ramen. When it comes to food, San Francisco has an unlimited supply in every price range you can think of. My guilty pleasure right now is a restaurant called Ichi, where you walk in and ask them to keep bringing whatever the chef is preparing. You go home with a $100 bill per person, but it’s worth it.

Okay, last question. What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

This is going to sound really cliché, but I want to touch people’s lives without them realizing it. I’m fascinated with products that work so well that you don’t realize how much time and effort went into making them. I don’t care about having my name on it; I just want to see people live a happier life because they used something I helped create.interview close

“I want to touch people’s lives without them realizing it. I’m fascinated with products that work so well that you don’t realize how much time and effort went into making them.”

Tim Van Damme
Another shot at Point Reyes National Seashore; photo by Chris Connolly