Interview with… Noah Stokes

noah-stokes-feature

You’ll no doubt know of someone you’ve never met yet you admire their work and the way they represent themselves, Noah for me is one of those people. For years I’ve admired his work and having virtually got to know him over the past months I can’t wait to have him speak at Industry. I did however used to think he was a Jony Ive impersonator. Another deep interview with one of the internets favourite people. Thank you, Noah.

Where are you from? Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the central valley of California in a town called Turlock. There isn’t much there except some agriculture (almonds and diary farms) and a state school, Stanislaus State. You know, it’s a good place to grow up.

Noah Stokes Lives HereNoah currently resides inside of this picture but not actually in the ocean although he loves to surf.

It’s about 5 years behind the curve culturally so as a kid I wasn’t exposed to things that would have made me grow up too fast. I hear these days the orchards are overrun with houses turned into meth labs. None of that stuff was around when I was a kid. I usually spent my time surfing behind a pickup truck through the canals.

Did you go to the State School?

No, I left town two weeks after I graduated high school. Turlock may have been a great place to grow up, but it wasn’t a place I wanted to stay. I moved to San Luis Obispo, a small town on the central coast (where coincidentally I live now) to go to school at Cal Poly State University. I studied Industrial Engineering which actually has nothing to do with what I do now. In fact, I’ve never done anything with that particular degree. College was about learning how to complete projects, work with teams, and most importantly learning HOW to learn. You can take that skill anywhere you want to go, and that’s what I did.

How long did you study Industry Engineering for? Any interesting projects you worked on and did you enjoy it? What happened next?

I studied Industrial Engineering for 5 years. Granted, I had about 30 more credits to take as an engineering student, but I also took my time in school. I had to make time to take classes like “Stretch, Flex, and Relax”. I mean, I was paying good money, so I figured I’d make the most of it! In school I didn’t work on anything cool, nor have I ever worked a job that has anything to do with Industrial Engineering proper; the skill set however is one that I use every day. An Industrial Engineer is usually hired to optimize a process or a business. So for example, Taco Bell might hire an Industrial Engineer to help them optimize the work-flow of their food assembly line. How can we make taco’s more efficiently?

Then one day I saw the website, justwatchthesky.com by a guy named Ryan Sims. It was beautiful. I saw that and I knew then, I wanted to be a web designer.

How can we design a more ergonomical workstation that allows for faster, better, less waste, etc. On the other side you have Industrial Engineers being hired as consultants brought into a business to analyze their processes, and their employees who do them. How can the business be more efficient, where can we cut waste and save money. I take all those skill-sets and apply them to the web. How can I write this CSS to be re-usable, to be the most flexible given the layout of this site? How can I apply these principals to coding?

Anyways, after school I hopped around to a few jobs, and then I ended up at Apple, and after that Palm. It wasn’t until I was at Palm did I start to despise the work that I had been doing for the past few years. I knew that I needed to make a change in my career path, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had a friend who was doing web design at the time.

I distinctly remember talking to him on the phone about how websites even worked. Questions like, where does the HTML live? How do you get it onto a server? How does it know which pages to go to… super basic stuff, I mean, I was clueless. Then one day I saw the website, justwatchthesky.com by a guy named Ryan Sims. It was beautiful. I saw that and I knew then, I wanted to be a web designer.

How did the job at Apple come about and what did you do there? Why did you make the move to Palm?

I had a friend I went to college with who was a Computer Science major. He landed a job at Apple right after college in 1999. He contacted me one day telling me about an opening he thought I’d be a fit for. I had never considered working for Apple, but as a fanboy, it was an opportunity that was too good to pass up.

You have to remember too, at that time, Apple wasn’t the Apple that it is today. I mean, they had been struggling to compete. The processor war was going on and Apple was always behind when it came to speed. I was a a fanboy more because I’m a fan of the underdog than anything else. I had been using Macs since the Apple IIe. My parents bought the original Macintosh and I had been using one ever since. I even had a Power Computing clone in college back when Apple was licensing out the OS. Anyways, I interviewed and got the job because of my extensive Mac knowledge.

It was a contract position for 1 year. After the first year they renewed my contact, but when my second year finished up, Apple was in a hiring freeze so joining as a non-contractor was out of the question. I elected not to renew my contact and moved on to Palm. Like Apple, I had a connection at Palm that got me in the door for an interview. My experience at Apple pushed me to a short list and I landed the job a few weeks after I left Apple. It was an easy transition. I was doing similar work, but instead of working on Powerbooks, I was working on the Palm Treo.

What happened next, after Palm?

I had been spending my days at Palm immersed in the web design community. It was alive with a buzz about CSS based designs and layouts. I wanted to be a part of it, so I thought I’d get into web design. I moonlighted on some projects, but as it turns out, I was horrible at design. Like, really really bad. So I did the next best thing. I started learning front-end development HTML, CSS, Javascript. I teamed up with some really great designers who needed their designed marked up and thus began my freelancing career.

So when I left Palm, I ended up landing at a small local web shop in the town that I lived in. They were a small team that did anything and everything for mid-sized businesses. I had the opportunity (more like sink or swim) to work on a variety of different projects on a variety of different platforms. It was one of the best learning experiences I could have asked for.

How long did you stay at that local web shop for? How did it affect where you are today?

I was at that local web shop for nearly 5 years. You know, being there gave me a lot of experience with a variety of languages and platforms, but what I took away the most was how to run a business. The interactions with clients, the way they estimated jobs, the way the teams were managed and built, all of those insights have helped shaped where I am today. For example, that company used to cover 100% of my health insurance because they were a “family first” kind of company. If I ever wanted to go visit my son’s school or catch a soccer game, I could leave without having to come back and make up my hours like so many larger companies require. I’ve literally adopted those same values for Bold now where we focus on family first, work second.

Were you nervous even though you had the 35hrs a week? Did you mean to grow the business, was it always your plan to create Bold? Why not just stay one person?

I was totally nervous. I had a wife and a son, and was in the process of adopting a child as well. I need to make sure that I could provide for them not only monetarily but with this like health insurance and a safe and secure quality of living. My wife was probably my biggest encourager which made the move to going solo that much easier, but I was definitely still nervous to take the leap.

Bold Office

I had no visions bigger than make enough money to cover my everyday expenses. In fact having spent time at Apple and Palm if there is one thing that I knew it was that I didn’t want to be involved with a large company again.

I’ll be damned if Bold ever gets bigger than 10-12 people

I didn’t like being a number in a sea of employees and I’ll be damned if Bold ever gets bigger than 10-12 people. It’s important that everyone, where ever you work, feels a sense of value in their job and at their workplace.

Why not just stay solo? I had more work coming in than I could handle, and I had gotten to the place where I wanted to take on another challenge. The web can be a high margin business if you do good work and work with talented people. Doing some simple math you realize that you can either take on help, do more work and make more money, or continue working for yourself and be at a fixed income forever.

Chillaxing

There are only so many hours in a day and ultimately only so much money you can make in a year. So if I was to stay solo I would have been limiting my potential. Taking on a partner and hiring employees was the next logical step — almost as nerve wracking as going out on my own. I’m challenged everyday with the projects we work on at Bold along with the challenges of growing a business and finding new clients and going the extra mile for our existing clients and our employees.

How does a day look like for you? Are you still very much hands on? Will you still look to be hands on when you’re at your 10-12 people?

My day usually starts pretty early. The littles get up around 6:30 or 6:45 and come rushing into my bedroom.

Noah Breakfast Time

Depending on the day it looks something like this:

  • Wake, check emails and stocks
  • Go to the gym
  • Breakfast / Get kids ready for school
  • Head to work between 8:30 and 9:00
  • Team call at 9:00 am
  • Work*
  • Lunch around 11:30am
  • Work *
  • MFCB (Motherfuton Coffee Break) at 2:30 or 3:00
  • Head home at 5:30pm
  • Dinner at 6pm
  • Play with the kids
  • Put the kids to bed at 8pm
  • Hang out with my wife, watch a movie
  • Sleep around 11pm

*I’m lucky if I get 6 billable hours in a day. My work usually consists of fielding client inquiries, design reviews, client calls, doing actual design and development.

If/when we get to 10-12 people, I hope to still be hands on. In fact, if we were to launch a successful product, I’d likely want to transition to customer support. It brings me great satisfaction to be able to help folks understand things, or simply help make their lives a little easier. But yes, I would want to be hands on. I don’t think I could handle it if I wasn’t creating something.

Have there been any mentors or other people as you were growing up which have affected what you do today (in a positive way of course)?

My parents were always very supportive of me doing what I wanted, but my path to web work wasn’t a traditional path. I didn’t grow up interested in design, or code. I stumbled upon this well after I left college. Once I did get into this industry my good friend Harold Emsheimer was a big mentor for me. Some of the first projects I ever worked on were with Harold. In fact, I cut my teeth on just about everything front end on projects that Harold brought my way. He helped shaped a lot of my design sensibilities as well as my drive for perfection–iterating until something is perfect. If you were to look at his work and then mine, you’d see a lot of where I get my style from.

Outside of work and the web, what do you love to do and why?

I love music. I play a little guitar, and I try to do that as much as possible. Sometimes I play with the gospel band at my church. I’m also a big sports fan; I like to play basketball and surf.

Any thoughts on goals that you’d like to achieve in the next 5 to 10 years, both work and personal?

Professionally we’d like to have a couple of “widgets” out there. Something we build and support. Personally, I’d like to start building things with my hands, I guess I do that already, but I’m talking about tangible things.

Noah can build guitarsNoah likes to build guitar’s in his spare time. Pretty cool, huh?

I’ve been thinking about building electric guitars. I built one a few years back, and I’d like to try my hand at that again. Anything to get away from a computer.

What’s your current office setup? Your Hardware / Software?

I use a 15″ MacBook Pro (matte screen) connected to a 30″ Apple Cinema Display. The MBP has an SSD drive in it which is the only way to go. I use an external keyboard and mouse. Both are wired because I hate Bluetooth devices.

As for software I use:

  • SublimeText 2 – code
  • Photoshop CS6 – design
  • Terminal – Git and SSH
  • Safari – Web browsing
  • Color Schemer Pro – design
  • I use a Magic Trackpad for gestures

That’s it. It’s pretty gnarly to think that I can make a living off a couple thousand dollars worth of hardware and software. Times sure have changed.

Favourite movie, book, music?

Fav book: The Alchemist
Fav movie: Usual Suspects
Fav music: Blues and rock. Specifically Stevie Ray Vaughn and Pearl Jam.

If there’s one piece of life advice that you could give someone reading this, what would it be and why?

If you love it, and you’re good at it, it’s what you were meant to be doing.

I say this because I spent five-some-odd years in different jobs that where I didn’t love what I was doing. I felt trapped and couldn’t even envision myself doing that type of work for the rest of my life. If you don’t like what  you’re doing, change it. You can go out and make something happen for yourself. It doesn’t even take much talent, I mean, look at the Kardashian’s. If you work hard, you’ll be just fine.

The StokesThe Stokes’

What’s the one little imprint on the world that you’d like to leave?

That I would have been a good father to my three boys. Supporting them in all they do and enabling them to succeed in life.

Noah’s Social Links

You can follow Noah on Twitter, view the Bold website and read his blog.