Noah Stokes is a developer, designer, and partner at Bold, a web and mobile studio. He lives just outside of San Francisco with his beautiful wife, two sons, and their dog, Izzy. And eight chickens. And one goat. Actually, the goat died and most of the chickens lost their heads in a run-in with the dog. You can follow him on Twitter or read through his blog, Es Bueno.
It’s true. We were “stoked” to interview Noah and he didn’t disappoint us. Noah was candid about the “odd” path he took to becoming a designer/developer and the risk he took in going out on his own after working a couple less than satisfying jobs. And of course, in full-on Noah fashion, he graciously sprinkled in some seriously funny stories about farm animals, his “typical” day, and how he once wanted to be an astronaut.
But alas, with a twist of the profound, Noah caught our attention as he shared about the importance of not getting caught up in the “fear of missing out” on what’s going on online, why he chooses to invest time in his real world relationships, and his drive to be part of something bigger than himself. So kids, turn on some girly pop music and start reading, but be warned: prepare to laugh and be challenged by the genius of Mr. Stokes… er, Motherfuton.
Also, I’m supposed to write something about a raptor in here.
Interview date: December 19, 2011
Describe your path to becoming a web designer/developer.
It started when I was working at Apple and had a buddy who was doing web development. I wasn’t too happy with my job and what I was doing and thought I would try this web design stuff out. My buddy gave me some Photoshop files and told me to turn them into HTML. That was my first foray into web at all—doing some basic front-end coding. The more I did that, the more I wanted to be a designer. The trouble was that I was horrible at it. Like, really bad.
I kept on with front-end development because the result was still satisfying: work with a brilliant designer, mark up their stuff, it looks great, and you had a small role in it. Over time, I moved into PHP and MySQL, MVC frameworks, Prototype (remember that?) and jQuery, and in addition to all that, I was still trying my hand at design. After you spend that much time around good design, it starts to rub off on you. Now I’m eight or nine years into it and starting to come into my own as far as design goes, but it took me a long time to get to this point because I’m not as naturally inclined as some of the other folks out there.
I’m now at the place I wish I would’ve started at. It was kind of an odd path.
How long did you do side work before starting your own company, Bold?
I did development on the side for a year when I was at Apple and for two years while I was at Palm. It’s funny. During my last review at Palm, my manager said to me, “It seems like you don’t like your job.” I replied, “I do not like my job. Is there something else I can do here at the company?”
You have to understand that Palm is the place where ex-Apple employees go to die. There is no creativity. I had the opportunity to switch what I was doing and work on Palm.com, this huge website, or work at a local web shop run by a guy who my wife went to high school with.
I chose to work at the local shop because it was local and there was no commute. It was a small shop with about eight guys and it was cool. I learned a ton because they let me learn on the job and that gave me the ability to build up my portfolio and resumé. I did that for five years and got to the point where the work wasn’t satisfying enough—I found myself still doing side jobs so that I could have work that I was proud of. That’s when I decided to go out on my own. I freelanced for a year, which went really well, and then I took on a business partner in October 2010. We’re running a three man shop right now and looking to add more; things are going great.
[Ryan] What were you initially doing at Apple?
I was an engineer on the PowerBook team. My first job was the very first 17" PowerBook. I did various testing to make sure that nothing we were developing hardware or software-wise was going to break anything that already existed out there. We couldn’t release a product and have it break something that wasn’t broken before.
I was a total Apple fanboy and it was a really cool place to work. The culture was great, but it wasn’t very family friendly at that time and I had a kid on the way. It was back when they still did Macworld and I was working through Thanksgiving and Christmas because we had new stuff coming out in January.
That’s interesting. Did you go to school?
I did. I have a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from Cal Poly—a bit of a technical background. I’ve never actually done anything with my degree, but going to school taught me how to learn. Everything I do now is all self-taught—it’s all from Google University, which I’ll proudly promote to anybody. If you know how to learn, you can do anything you want to do because information is so freely available online.
You went to school for something different than what you’re doing now. Did you have an “aha” moment along the way when you knew that design/development was what you wanted to do?
It was more like I knew what I didn’t want to do—what I didn’t want to do was what I was doing. As I got into web, I realized—not to toot my own horn—that I was good at it and I enjoyed it. I’m a firm believer that if you’ve got natural talent for something and enjoy doing it, then that’s what you should be doing—that’s what you were made for. I do think that there was a point in between starting out with this and where I am now where I thought, “I love this. This is all I want to do.”
I’m all for figuring out what you want to do and going for it. When you spend eight to ten hours a day working a job that you don’t love, that’s horrible—that’s like a crime against yourself.
Was creativity a part of your childhood?
Definitely. I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler so I wasn’t creative in that artistic aspect, but my parents bought me a Lego Space set back in the early 1980’s and I would tinker and build with those things constantly. I still have those Legos and my six-year-old son plays with them now.
We also had Macs when I was growing up because my dad taught computers; we had the Mac SE and the Apple IIe. I used the handful of available fonts to make posters that said “Space is cool” and hung them around my bedroom. I wanted to be an astronaut for a little while (laughing).
[Ryan] I know you’re big on guitars. Was music a part of your childhood?
My parents made me get lessons when I was eight and I wasn’t a big fan of that. I picked it up again on my own in junior high school, but I was really stubborn about it. I had to write my own tunes because I didn’t want to play anybody else’s music or cover anything. I regret that now. You learn so much by covering people’s music. It’s the same in any creative field—you study somebody else’s work and it inspires you.
Did you grow up in the Bay area?
No. I grew up in Central California in a little town called Turlock. It’s an hour and a half East of San Francisco and is agricultural with a lot of almond orchards and dairy farms. Two weeks after I graduated high school, I went down to the Central Coast for college and never went back. I’ve been out in San Francisco for about ten years now. The Bay area is beautiful and the weather is as good as it gets. There are still seasons, but they’re on the milder side.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do and who has encouraged you the most?
My parents were a big influence on me. They paid for my education, which I’m grateful for, but they never pushed me to go get a job with my engineering degree just because that’s what I went to school for. They’ve always been supportive of what I do.
My wife has been very supportive of me going out on my own—I was initially reluctant and she pushed me to do it. It was a huge risk, especially because the day I went out on my own, we had adopted a little boy. I wouldn’t have gone freelance if my wife hadn’t supported me because I really needed her to be behind it. It’s been all up so far, but I’m confident that at some point, there will be some downs and I’ll need her to hang in there with me.
I also have a friend, Harold Emsheimer, who has been very supportive. He was the guy who got me started with doing web work. He has always encouraged me and given me feedback when I needed it.
Along those lines, do you have a mentor?
Yeah, I think Harold was definitely a mentor for me for a number of years as far as my design abilities go. Right now, he’s the one guy who I show everything I’m working on to. I appreciate his feedback because I don’t want to show my work to somebody who is going to give me a fluffy answer and say everything looks great. I want the critique more than I want the praise. I’ve also looked up to Harold on the business side of things. He ran a web shop for while and now runs an iOS shop, Overcommitted, so he’s always been a few years ahead of me as far as experiences with clients. And, on a personal level, he’s one of my best friends.
Another person I’ll mention is Greg Storey of Happy Cog. Greg reached out to me when I was just starting to transition out on my own. He told me to try it and said that if I couldn’t find work, he would help me. To have the support of a guy like Greg, who I respect a lot, was very encouraging. I’ve talked with Greg a lot about the professional end of things and how to handle certain situations with clients. He’s a really generous guy with a great heart.
“I want to do something that has real value to help. I’m not seeking an ‘I want to change the world’ title, but there’s definitely a feeling in my soul that I need to work on something bigger than myself.”
You talked about going out on your own. Was that the point in your life when you took a big risk to move forward or was there another risk along the way?
The big risk was definitely going out on my own. My wife has a chronic illness called lupus so I was hesitant to go out on my own because I’ve always needed insurance for my family’s medical needs and insurance is such a nightmare when you’re not covered under an employer. That was a big risk personally: how do I get insurance and how much will it cost me?
At the same time, I wasn’t going out blindly with no clients. I hedged my bets and had lined up almost 35 hours a week of retainer work so I had work ready to go. It’s been two and a half years and I look at my ledger every so often and think, “Wow, it’s been a great year. We’re still making it.” We haven’t had to pursue clients or advertise; work has come to us through previous clients or word of mouth.
It’s been rewarding working for myself and running things how I want them to be run. I don’t hesitate to say I’ll probably never have a boss again.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
Yes, but it’s only in the past four or five months that I’ve started to realize I want to use my skills for something bigger than myself. I’m not sure what that is yet.
Brooklyn Beta touched on that theme this year with a focus on healthcare and education. I’m not sure if those are the things for me, but Bold does do some work with non-profits. I’m going to be sitting down with one of those non-profits to ask what I can do to help. Is there a tool I could build for them to make their job easier so that they could help stop sex trafficking in Thailand?
I want to do something that has real value to help. I’m not seeking an “I want to change the world” title, but there’s definitely a feeling in my soul that I need to work on something bigger than myself. There’s something I need to be doing that’s not about me, not about followers or status, but just about doing good. If somebody has something for me, feel free to reach out.
Our industry has a lot of praise for useless crap that has no value. There are a lot of really bright people who are in our circle—designers and developers. Imagine using those skills to better society and people’s lives.
[Ryan] I was really intrigued by the post you wrote when you returned from Brooklyn Beta, especially since you started it off with saying you were tired of web work.
Yeah. I’m grateful to Cameron and Chris for putting that agenda together. Who would have thought to do that? There were a lot of smart people in that room and I think the majority of the audience was captivated. People from health care were saying they had data coming out of their ears and asking us to take it and do something with it. It was an “aha” moment; it confirmed that I have to do something bigger than myself.
In that same vein, is there anything you would like to be doing in the next 5 to 10 years?
The next five years… Recently, I was helping the kids in my son’s first grade class learn math. There was something really satisfying about seeing their little brains click as they got it. I don’t think I could teach it to first graders, but I do think that HTML should be a required course. The web is not going away and kids need to learn how to use it and create on it. I’m really interested in teaching the basics—a foundation. Building a foundation will give kids a great starting point to be able to do anything they want with the web.
In the collegiate system, there is a focus on academic teaching and I’d like to get in there from a practitioner point of view to say, “Hey, here’s what we’re working on out in the real world.” Technology changes so quickly that it’s probably impossible for a lot of professors to keep up on whatever the new buzz is for the week. I’d love to be an Associate Professor and come in and share my experiences, but still be able to practice and do what I love doing.
I don’t know. I’m in like a third-life crisis or something right now (sighing).
So, are you satisfied creatively?
I am satisfied creatively. I’m satisfied when I work with smart people and we solve problems. The two guys I work with here, Sam Hernandez and Garrett St. John, are incredibly bright and it’s really, really satisfying to come together with them, work on projects, get ’em out the door, and look back on it and say, “Man, that was badass.” I think if I’m with the right team, I’m satisfied.
[Ryan] It really is a lot about who you work with and who you work for. That connection is so important.
Yeah. What everybody says about startups and getting the right people in the door really is true. Sam and Garrett are smart, but we also click socially and have similar tastes—although we do give Garrett crap for the music he listens to and Sam makes me feel bad because I don’t like Wilco and I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong with me (laughing). But, we can hang out together; we go get beers every Friday afternoon. I can’t stress the importance of working with the right people.
“Our industry has a lot of praise for useless crap that has no value. There are a lot of really bright people who are in our circle… Imagine using those skills to better society and people’s lives.”
If you could go back and do one thing differently what would it be?
In high school, I probably wouldn’t have kissed my best friend’s girlfriend—that was a mistake! Even earlier, I probably would have tried to cover more songs on guitar and not have been so stubborn.
More recently, I wish that I knew I was interested in web design and development before I went into college. We were still using dial-up my freshman year in college. The internet was really young and I don’t think I really grasped the possibilities. If I had somehow had a way to know the future of the web, I probably would have studied computer science or graphic design or something like that. I would have appreciated more of a formal teaching because all of my learning has been trial and error.
[Ryan] That said, though, do you think your technical background at Apple and Palm has helped you to be better at what you do now?
When I worked at those places, I did a lot of problem-solving and trouble-shooting. I gathered a good insight about how to isolate an issue and work toward resolving it. That is all a big part of what I do now, so my previous experiences have lent themselves to my current profession.
As I’m teaching myself things or trying to make my junk look good in IE, trouble-shooting is a big part of what I do. Why doesn’t this function work? Why doesn’t this markup work? There are always things that come up that need to be solved. That’s where I think a lot of people tend to get frustrated and throw their computer out the window, but I thrive on that kind of problem-solving.
If you could give one piece of advice to another designer/developer starting out what would you say?
Iterate, iterate, iterate. I’ve come to love iteration, which is strange for me because in college, I would never proofread anything that I turned in. I didn’t want to read it and see how horrible it was and have to rewrite it. I’d rather just be naive and turn it in, which is probably why I ended up on academic probation (chuckling).
As my design skills have grown, I’ve found a lot of joy and satisfaction in iterating. I’ll get feedback from Harold or Phil Coffman on things and then do them over and over and over. What ends up coming out of that is something that is awesome and something that I’m super proud of. Of course, there are days when I’ve got nothing and I know enough to step away and let my subconscious stew on it. Then there are moments when you sit down and it’s “aha, that’s it” and you crank it out in an hour.
I think that if you’re young and just getting started, it might be intimidating to visit a site like Dribble and think, holy cow, these Russians are crazy! How do they do all of this? It’s just doing it over and over. If you’re working on something and it’s looking pretty good, do it again and make it look better—it’s a rewarding process.
[Ryan] I’m the same way with stuff. I went through four to five different designs with TGD before we finally ended up with what we have now.
Yeah. And how hard is it to scrap it and start over? That’s so hard to do, but look at the outcome.
I don’t know how it is for you, but there’s something inside of me that knows if something is not good enough. I might as well just recode it instead of hating myself every day for having done it that way—because I won’t be happy until I redo it. I’ve kind of become a perfectionist in that sense. It’s okay for work, but I just have to keep it from overflowing into my personal life where I freak out because the lawn isn’t edged properly and I’m getting out scissors to clip those few blades of grass by hand (chuckling).
You’ve talked a lot about the Bay area. How does where you live impact your creativity?
The Bay Area has actually attracted a lot of talent. People started moving here a couple years ago, whether it was to work for Facebook or another startup. One of my favorite designers and good friend, Ryan Sims, moved out here and Naz Hamid also moved out here. I could go on and on. It’s cool to roll over the bridge and hang out with those guys.
The East Bay where I live isn’t as creative as San Francisco—it’s more suburbia and people with their kids and Land Rovers. But as far as the physical location, this is one of the most beautiful areas to live in. Our office looks out over this big ridge. You don’t need to go any further than out your front door to be inspired.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
It used to be, but now it isn’t as much. I’d actually probably stop using Twitter if it didn’t help with business as much as I think it does. I’m almost to the point where I crave conversations that have nothing to do with work. Maybe it’s what I referenced earlier—my third-life crisis.
Lately I’ve been more interested in “real life” as opposed to what’s going on in the online community. Part of that is just due to the fact that when you run a shop, there’s no time to read RSS feeds, update your blog, or catch up on Twitter. It takes a lot of effort to do the work, let alone procure the work, contact clients, and update your books.
All that said, our community [the web and design community] is full of the warmest, most inviting, and kindest group of folks that you’ll ever meet and I’m proud to be a part of it. I would encourage anybody to shoot an email to their design hero and if they’re not a jerk, they’ll probably respond to you. It’s just that easy to do. There’s not a lot of ego out there. It’s a cool community to be a part of.
It is funny. That’s the biggest way that TGD has gotten exposure—people talking about it on Twitter.
That’s the thing. I really feel like it’s so promotional and for whatever reason, it is what is is in that aspect. But, on a personal level—Caterina Fake, who co-founded Hunch and Flickr, wrote this article about FOMO, which stands for “fear of missing out”. In the online world, I feel like there’s a bit of, “Oh my goodness, if I haven’t read all of this, I’m going to miss out.” Miss out on what? (air quotes) friends you’ve never met?
Some of the people I correspond with I’ve only seen a handful of times in person. Some I might not be able to pick out on the street. In fact, I was going into the Rdio offices the other day and rode in the elevator with this guy. He commented on my bag and we started talking about it and walked into the office together. A few hours later, I tweeted something about being at the Rdio office and he replied, “Holy crap! Was that you in the elevator?” He had no clue. Part of it was probably because my hair is now four years longer than it is in my avatar.
It’s a strange world. If you get caught up in the fear of missing out on something that’s happening online, it will be all-consuming. There are way more important things in life than Twitter. But, like you said, from the aspect of promoting something or trying to get your work out there, it’s an excellent, excellent tool.
Alright, the fun questions. What does a typical day look like for you?
Okay. I read some of the other ones and I think mine is more interesting than other people’s. I’m just gonna lay it out for you. You ready?
I get woken up by a two year old jumping on my face saying, “Daddy, daddy, daddy.” I push him off and then grab my iPhone and check my email to make sure there are no panicked clients. I shower; I don’t shave; I put on my suit and tie because that’s what I wear every day to work. Then I help my six year old get ready for school, I empty the dishwasher, and make sure the chickens didn’t freeze the night before. I help my wife out by making her a juice out of kale, spinach, carrots, bok choy, and parsley. Every morning she drinks that—very tasty.
I drive or sometimes skate to work and grab a bagel downstairs at the bagel shop. I read three websites. Ironically, as a web guy, I can’t think of more than three websites to go to every day so I go to Uncrate, Rolling Stone, and Drudge Report for news. I get started on work and have lunch with Garrett and Sam or sometimes I’ll just eat at my desk. I head home around 5:30pm, hug my kids, kiss my wife, and eat dinner. Then I play Legos or wrestle with the boys and put them to bed. Sometimes I’ll watch a show with my wife. We just finished Friday Night Lights—one of the greatest shows on television—and now we’ve been getting into Parenthood, which is by the same guy. Then, lights out is around 11:00pm. That’s my day.
[Ryan] That is pretty interesting. Do you really wear a suit and tie to work?
Not at all.
[Tina] Do you really have chickens?
I do have chickens. We used to have a goat. The dog ate four or five of the chickens and the goat died—from eating chicken food. If you’ve ever had to dig a hole to bury a goat in, you would know that it is a difficult, difficult job. It makes me grateful for being in web because my delicate hands really had a hard time digging that hole.
Current album on repeat?
I have to check Rdio for this. It’s an album called The Reckoning by NEEDTOBREATHE. I was turned on to them by my wife, who went to a Taylor Swift concert where NEEDTOBREATHE was the opening band. It’s good, straight-up Southern rock ‘n’ roll—really good melodies and really good music. A close second would be Noel Gallagher from Oasis. He’s got a solo album out that’s really catchy.
I’m the kind of guy who listens to an album for a month or two straight until my ears can’t take it and then I move on to the next one. And I have to listen to it all the way through—start to end. There’s no jumping ahead to your favorite songs. That’s not what the artist intended, so that’s not what I’m gonna do.
I was on to Beyonce for a while. I thought her new album was great. We used to crank Britney Spears all summer—it was the summer of Britney. I have no shame about my love for Kelly Clarkston and the like, but every once in a while you need balls to the wall guitar riffs. There’s this band called Chicken Foot that does that for me. It’s Sammy Hagar, Joe Satriani, Chad Smith from Chili Peppers on drums, and Michael Anthony from Van Halen on bass. I gotta listen to them every once in a while to stay centered.
Favorite track right now is “The Daily Mail”, a B-side from Radiohead’s King of Limbs, which is just fantastic.
My favorite movie is The Usual Suspects because of the twist at the end. I saw it in high school and rewound the VHS tape as soon as it was over because I couldn’t believe the ending. I don’t want to ruin it for anybody who hasn’t seen it, but it’s fantastic. A close second would be Get shorty for the fantastic writing or Moulin Rouge—great colors and cinematography. I’m a big Baz Luhrmann fan.
Favorite television shows… you said you liked Friday Night Lights?
When I first started watching Friday Night Lights, I thought I was getting into a CW show and that I was going to be ridiculed, but it’s the best marriage I’ve ever seen on T.V. next to the Huxtables on The Cosby Show.
Seinfeld is definitely my go-to show. Funny story about that. When I worked at Apple, me and a guy I worked with loved Seinfeld so much that we decided we were going to digitize all of it—this was before it was out on DVD. We recorded it on VHS and pieced together the entire series. The day we finished it, the news came out that Seinfeld was coming out on DVD. All of our efforts were for naught.
Okay, I’m into the twists. I don’t read a lot and I don’t want to sound too dumb here… I will say The Partner by John Grisham. Great twist in the last paragraph of that book. On a more serious note, I’ve read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho a few times over the past couple years. It’s described as a fable about following your dream and I really liked it because I feel like I’m trying to follow my dream and go out and make something for myself.
Pizza—Round Table Pizza, specifically—any day of the week. Round Table is made of premium ingredients, but the reheat value of the Round Table Pizza is the best. You can reheat it and it’s at the same quality it was when it came fresh out of the oven. I credit that to the premium ingredients. Other pizzas aren’t the same reheated. Round Table is what God made on the eighth day after he finished resting on the seventh.
[Ryan] Before our interview, Tina was catching up on your Friday Futon posts and laughing like crazy. What’s the story with those?
I created motherfuton.com a long time ago. At the time, I was no good at designing, but still wanted to have a web presence. I wasn’t versed enough on web stuff to have anything to say, so I decided to go the funny route. I published one a day for a year. I was working at Palm during that time and it was easy to write four or five entries a day. My goal was never to whine or rant about anything, but there was definitely a little sarcasm and cynicism in there.
It carried over to the new site, Es Bueno, and became Friday Futon. Although it’s died down—it’s harder to get into that mindset when life is good and I’m enjoying my work. However, I did buy fridayfuton.com and thought that maybe I could turn it into more of a variety show at some point (laughing).
That would be awesome. We also like your old site.
I made that little portfolio site in 15 minutes. At the time, portfolios were a dime a dozen and they all looked good. I thought ninety percent of the designers out there are better than me—how am I going to compete?
I decided to make a portfolio that had no images of work in it and instead, I just talked about how awesome I was—it went viral. I got 250,000 hits in two days and had job offers from Facebook and Apple to come do web stuff. I wasn’t even looking for a job. It was funny; it was a joke, but I think what worked was that I actually had links to real work that I’d done. If I had nothing to back it up, it would’ve been pretty bad.
That’s great. Alright, are you ready for one last mind-blowing question? What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I think the best legacy I could leave would be to be a good husband and a good father for my kids. The work stuff is all fleeting—I could disappear today and somebody could step in and fill those shoes in a heartbeat. The stuff that really matters to me is the kind of legacy I leave for my kids, how I am to them as a father, and how I am to my wife so that they can be good husbands when they grow up. Those are my goals. I’m nowhere close to those things, but they’re at the forefront of my mind when it comes to the things that matter. That’s the kind of legacy I’m hoping to leave—that and to solve world hunger, but that’s like a side thing.
“I think the best legacy I could leave would be to be a good husband and a good father… The work stuff is all fleeting—I could disappear today and somebody could step in and fill those shoes in a heartbeat. The stuff that really matters to me is the kind of legacy I leave for my kids…”