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Ways We Work

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Matt Quinn

Digital Product Designer & Photographer

Matt is a digital strategist, user experience designer and web developer. He's been self-employed for the past 12 years and has worked on digital projects for a range of companies from big brands to individuals. Outside of work, Matt has a healthy obsession with photography and in particular capturing the amazing objects that appear in our night sky. This year, Matt is moving to add his passion for photography into his service offerings and connect the dots between content and execution in the digital space. Most recently he's teamed up with Amanda from Ways We Work to create a new series called "A Day With..." where they tell stories about how great people work together.

What do you do?

Currently, I’m a bit of a digital nomad. I’m a solopreneur, freelance web developer and photographer. I plug into existing teams at agencies or businesses and support them with strategy, user experience design and development. My day varies quite a lot from week to week as different jobs require different hats. When I’m developing a web site for a client I’m found hammering away at the keyboard in the basement of my house. When I’m consulting or helping with user experience I can be found in the offices of my clients or in various coffee shops around town.

Most recently I’ve made a bit of a shift in my career moving away from the design studio I co-founded 10 years ago with a good friend Luke Canning. I opted for a more simple approach to business rather than one with scale. I really love the idea of being able to work in flexible and unique ways and try to strike a nice balance between it and the rest of my life. Moving away from my previous business allowed me the freedom to explore all sorts of creative avenues and work anywhere geographically. I also love meeting new people and finding out how they go about making everything work in life and business. My new nomadic approach has already afforded me the chance to meet some great people, so it’s already paying off.

I’m also moving to strike a better balance between digital work and the real world outside of the computer screen. I found that making things that exist only in 1’s and 0’s can leave me feeling a little empty. To combat this I took up photography to get me outdoors, away from my desk and the virtual world. Photography has evolved further into a passion for telling stories, rather than being about capturing the perfect frame. Much like you can use JavaScript to make a great website, you can use photography to tell a great story. I’d love to move my career into a 50/50 split between web and storytelling but it’s going to take some hard work.

What do you find most rewarding about your role? Most challenging?

What I love about what I do is the autonomy and the accountability of it. I turned up the dial on this recently by moving away from having a business partner and flying on my own. Having a business partner gives you a feeling that at least someone is there to catch your little mistakes, and be a sounding board for you when you have no idea what to do and perhaps most importantly share the experience with. Going out on my own cuts the cord in a way and forces me to be 100% accountable for what happens going forward. With it comes a fairly turbulent ride between the peaks and valleys of having work and not having work. However, the freedom of running your own thing outweighs the uncertainty. I’ve been self employed for about 12 years now and I’ve learned that almost nothing is certain anyways, so why not just go for it instead of trying to plan for all the things that could go wrong. Deal with things as they happen instead.

One of the things I’ve found most challenging being out on my own is sales/promotion. For years I hoped that my work would just speak for itself and new awesome work would flow in. However, the digital space is a very crowded one much like photography. To break through you need to get a little noisy so people know you exist and understand the value you create. You need to fight the urge that keeps you from speaking and put yourself out there and have your opinions on record. People need to be inspired by you to want to work with you. The work alone is not enough. For some, like myself, this type of vulnerability can be tough at first. The antidote to this, I think, is to surround yourself with people who are doing similar things. There is this energy that feeds back and forth between people who have a similar passion. It can provide that little push that’s required sometimes.

How do you stay up to date with trends in your industry/field?

I read an absolute ton. I would say 90% of my time is spent on Google. I type random questions, search for definitions of words, paste in error messages and find answers on how to resolve them. I dig through tutorials on the latest and greatest techniques in the coding and photography world. Beyond that, I signed up to a couple great web development newsletters. One is called ‘Web Design Weekly’, another is ‘JavaScript Weekly’ and the last is ‘Node.js Weekly’. These newsletters are amazing as they summarize everything into one nice little newsletter. Huge respect for the people who put these together. Beyond that I would say I read Designer News, Hacker News, TechMeme and Reddit. I’m a YouTube addict as well, not for cat videos, but for DIY, how-tos, documentaries and quantum mechanics (I'm obsessed with it at the moment).

For photography I tend to keep things simple. I tried sites like 500px and Flickr, but I never really connected with the mechanics on those sites. I do actively share my photos on Instagram. I’ve found the most value there because it’s so simple to browse and show appreciation when something great goes by on the feed. Hashtags also make discovering new great photographers really easy. I’ve discovered some amazingly inspiring people on Instagram, and that’s what keeps me going back. For the gear I tend to read the /r/photography subreddit and

Beyond the everyday, I try and surround myself with stories of people doing interesting things with their lives. I loved reading Erik Hormann’s and Rachel Segal’s interview here on Ways We Work. I also love watching documentaries on Netflix. My recent favs are K2: Siren of the Himalayas, Mile Mile and a half, 180 South, and Chef’s Table.

What are your top five applications or tools?

Lightroom - This is where I post process all of my images. I used to use CameraRAW + Photoshop, but Lightroom is just an incredibly powerful app that has made managing your photography a breeze. Kudos to Adobe.

Sublime Text - This is the app I spend most of my day in. It’s a text editor extraordinaire and what I use to code websites. I use a wide variety of packages with it as well via the Package Control system, including Text Pastry, SASS support, Twig support, bracket highlighter, trailing spaces and JSONlint to name a few.

Google Apps - I couldn’t run my business without them. I use them for almost all of my document management. Writing stories, blogs, this interview and even my estimates are done using the app suite.

Instagram - This is where I have the most fun and share images and processes. Love the simplicity and power of it. #awesome

Grunt - This is probably one of the best apps ever created for web-developers. It allows you to create tasks and complete them based on changes in your code. It’s been indispensable. I use the following tasks: JSHint, Browserify, Uglify, SASS and copy. I read that Gulp is closing in on it, so things may just get a little better.

Best way to stay on top of email?

The best method I’ve found to managing email is to create filters and folders for people I speak to on a regular basis. Then I manage my email by sorting by people rather than sorting by time. I’ve found different people have different priorities and having their email be stuck in a queue doesn’t do them justice. I have a lot of folders in Gmail and I’ll promote folders based on priority of the person I’m speaking with.

When I’m working I’ll rely on my phone for Gmail push notifications. Based on the sender, I’ll stop what I’m doing or carry on coding, writing, editing and get to it later.

What is your best time-saving trick?

Creating time blocks is how I keep sane. Different blocks have different tasks. I usually start my day with a small 10-60 minute block dedicated to email and business admin. Then depending on the project I’m working on, a long 4-6 hour block dedicated to code or writing. I try to keep focused on the task at hand within the time block. Like I mentioned above, I’ll have my phone in front of me during the blocks and if a message is important enough to break the focus, I’ll break out, but for the most part I’ll make a mental note of the email and then respond when I’m done the current block. Most of the time I manage this process in my head and it’s fairly organic based on the priorities of the day. When things get a little hectic, I’ll use Google Calendar as a backup to keep me on track. It doesn’t work all of the time and in those cases I just take everything as it comes.

Matt's workspace

Structure of your typical day, how do you divide your time?

In the morning I get up with my kids around 6:30am and get them going for the day. My wife usually takes over so I can get some breakfast made. While I’m eating I’ll be processing what needs to be done that day and doing the mental gymnastics on how to prioritize the tasks.

After breakfast my wife and I will walk my daughter to school. I get back to my desk around 9:30am and start tackling my time blocks. In the morning I try and tackle email communication, setting up meetings, and other administrative type work.

After this I tend to flow into a long time block where I code or write. Some days I’m super lucky and my wife makes me lunch so I can coast on through. It’s a really nice treat. On the days I don’t have this, I tend to forget to eat until like 1 or 2pm, not always the best thing to do (I’ve been called grumpy when I don’t eat). After lunch I’ll do another smaller block of email responses and admin followed by a medium block of time coding / writing.

After dinner I’ll play with the kids and do bedtime. After the kids are down is when I work on creative things like photography, writing blogs, learning new things or getting out of the house and shooting the night sky. Some nights I just throw in the towel and binge watch Netflix.

Working from home can definitely have it’s challenges, but I have to say one of the best things about it is that I’m present for my kids when they need it. If they need a little attention or they fall and hurt themselves, I’m able to be present in the moment and help out.

Why do you do what you do? What makes everything worth it?

There is a two part answer to this one. The first reason why I do what I do is to produce that feeling that’s often followed by the words “awesome”, or “wow” or “amazing”. I love experiencing it myself and if I can reproduce that sense of inspiration, awe or wonder for someone else, then mission accomplished. Over the past year photographing and learning about what’s in our night sky has provided a lot of that feeling for me and I’m happy I’ve been able to share the experience with others. The other reason I do what I do is because I love connecting with people and helping them solve a problem and overcome challenges. The digital space allows for all types of expression and enables me to do this in a really unique way. The gratification that follows seeing someone do something they couldn’t do previously is a great feeling. It’s a lot of fun to share in that victory together. Bringing these two things together would be my personal holy grail.

The Orion Nebula taken with a DSLR and a 400mm lens.

What is the greatest piece of career advice/wisdom you’ve ever received?

I would say it’s a mix between Malcolm Gladwell’s 10000 hours rule and a great little nugget from Ira Glass about how to be great at anything you really need to get out and produce a huge volume of work. It’s along the lines of: your creative work probably won’t meet your expectations at first, but over time as you practise and do more work, it’ll improve and eventually (perhaps after 10000 hours) your work will be in line with your taste.

The bottom line between both of these things is that if you want to be amazing at something, you first need to find out what you love to do and then just attack it. Produce a lot of work and get it out into the world for people to see. Only by putting in the hours and producing a volume of work will you see things start to happen.

Who would you like to see featured on Ways We Work?

would love to see Ira Glass, Mike Monteiro, Jon Lax, Geoff Teehan, Ev Williams, Chris Burkard and Indre Viskontas because I love the Inquiring Minds podcast!