STEAM Career Profile: Tony Wallace, Web and App Developer

He’s a whiz with code, but Enable’s web and app developer Tony Wallace has skills and experience from the arts too.  Tony explains what he’s learned from combining what seem to be two very different sets of skills.

Tell us about how you’ve combined arts and sciences in your career.

My formal education was in music, not programming or design. I studied jazz guitar, improvisation, composition and production at Humber College and I started my career as a private music teacher. Teaching has become the default first gig for professional musicians, because you can actually pay the rent with it while you try to build a career, but it was beneficial to me in some unexpected ways. First, it sharpened my communication skills. I was a shy and awkward kid, so having to communicate to a dozen students and their parents every evening helped me open up a bit and learn how to break complex topics down into manageable chunks. It also forced me to re-evaluate how I worked. Nothing pokes holes in your technique like having to explain it to others, so I developed a habit of identifying and improving upon my weaknesses so I wouldn’t pass them on to my students.

In programming, that translates into fixing your mistakes before they go into production, which is a good habit to have. While I was teaching, I wrote several tutorial DVDs for digital audio workstation software and developed a side business configuring and maintaining equipment for local digital music studios. This led me to start thinking seriously about user interface design. Nothing is more important to musicians than user experience. It’s critical that they are able to forget about the equipment they use and focus on creative work. Just like UX design in software, that means sorting through a mountain of barely interoperable formats, protocols and configuration options and finding a way to make it all work seamlessly together, or at least make it feel that way to the user. Tutorial writing also put me in the awkward position of explaining how to use software that was often designed quite poorly, which was an important lesson in UX, testing and documentation all at once. I learned Basic programming in high school (on ancient IBM ATs with monochrome displays) back when the internet was still a curiosity to most people.

A decade later, I needed software to help manage my teaching practice so I quickly upgraded my skills to include the web stack common at the time: PHP, MySQL, HTML, CSS and JavaScript (not a bad investment – another decade has passed and I still use these languages every day). I gradually started building websites and web apps for local businesses, then expanded into native iOS programming when the iPhone SDK was released in 2008. I released my first iOS app in 2009 and worked with several start-ups as an independent consultant before joining the Enable team at the end of 2012.

In my spare time, I experiment with lo-fi musical electronics (video / audio) and audio/video programming environments like Max/MSP and Supercollider. My long term goal is to make a career developing software and hardware tools for audio, video and imaging professionals.

How has combining the two subject areas made you more successful? What advantages have you gained because you do both?

Musical study requires discipline. You spend most of your practice time memorizing and applying patterns and working through technical challenges until you get it together enough to play the whole song. Programming follows more or less the same process. You spend most of your time working on small components and linking them together to form a working application. My experience in music helps me stay focused on how those components interact with the application as a whole, in the same way that a single phrase has to integrate smoothly into the form of a piece of music.

Have you ever been surprised by areas of overlap between the arts and science? If so, can you give a specific example?

There are a lot of parallels between musical form and application architecture that weren’t obvious when I started programming. I think I would have become a better programmer in less time if I had grasped the similarities between the two disciplines earlier. I have also been surprised at the number of programmers who are also artists. Most of the other programmers I have learned from have been actively interested in the arts, and a few of them followed a career path similar to my own.

What advice would you give to learners who can’t decide on one or the other? What about educators who have students looking to combine them?

If you examine the tools and processes you use in your creative work, you’ll find that you’re applying scientific principles. Musicians manipulate frequency, harmonics, amplitude and time in complex and subtle ways. Photographers, illustrators, painters work with colour, light, perspective and proportion. Video artists deal with all these subjects. Learn about the science behind your art and determine how you can use it to make new or improved instruments and tools.