When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I certainly had an interest in architecture. I thought that that would be a cool pursuit of using design and math. I never really explicitly liked doing math problems, but I really liked what math allows you to do. Math is like an instrument that guides you, it's like a map. You get to start at the beginning and create your own little universe, and math is like the building block that sets all of that up. Honestly, if high school me heard me say this now he'd be like, "What are you talking about?" I did math and I was okay at it, but I really didn't think of it past math homework.
Before architecture, actually, it was computer animation and modeling and concept art for movie and video game studios. I can thank Toy Story for that. About the time I decided that I wanted to transition out of architecture was when I started really finding an interest in digital art. I was doing a lot of character design on my own. I bought all the Lord of the Rings concept art books, basically anything that had Orcs or swords or aliens or something like that, I was all about it. I knew I wanted to be a creator of some kind, I just didn't know what avenue I was going to go [down] yet.
How did you decide to attend Westmont College?
First I went to Cal State Northridge, because they had a budding computer arts program and I thought it would be cool to get in on the ground floor. But looking back, I don't know what I was thinking. Coming from Alaska, Northridge is just a very strong contrast from what Alaska is. You go from the wide-open wilderness to pavement for miles in every direction. Really I decided to go there mostly because of its proximity to LA, and I felt like I could get an internship in Burbank, working at a studio.
I lasted an entire semester, and then I transferred to Westmont College in Santa Barbara. I decided that I didn't want to be a computer animator or modeler as much as I [wanted to be] an illustrator. I did a semester in Florence, Italy at an art school there, and I graduated from Westmont with a degree in art with a studio art emphasis.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I interned with a design firm back in Anchorage during my junior year, and then they hired me after I graduated. I also got a call out of the blue from my academic advisor in college, and he said that he had thrown my name into the hat for a teaching position. I had never even considered teaching, and when people had asked me if I had ever considered teaching, I said, "Hell no." But when he asked me if I was interested, for whatever reason I said yes. Three months later, I drove down from Anchorage and I started teaching in the art department at a school about an hour south of Santa Barbara.
I got hired thinking I was only teaching high school, but the week before classes started they told me that I was also teaching middle school. That was a fun awakening.
I read Teaching for Dummies, and then I honestly just kind of winged it. I think one of the things that I understood early on was that a lot of the mistakes that I saw teachers make when I was in school was putting curriculum over relationships. The teachers that I remembered most and the teachers that I learned the most from were always the ones who engaged me. So when I started teaching it was like, “Okay, establish a relationship with these kids.”
I taught for four years. After that, I was slated to join the Peace Corps. They had offered me a position in Kenya teaching in a deaf school, which was great, but ultimately I decided against it. I had just come out of the classroom, and I was looking for something completely different. I just didn't feel like going back into a classroom was going to be the best use of my time. So I didn't accept my Peace Corps assignment, and I went to work in an iron forge as a blacksmith's apprentice.
It was fun. I only set myself on fire a few times. I really developed an affinity for plasma cutters and welding and hammering things into shape. With the plasma cutter, I could design something on the computer, load it into the cutter, and then cut it out in metal. Going back to that tactile creation was perfect for me, because it was a combination of my digital background with my need for the analog result.
I was still at the forge and we were still in the downturn of the economy. Work was good, but I could either continue doing this and only this, or I could do something different and start working toward some of the longer term goals that I had for myself. Ultimately I chose that and what that ended up looking like was I was really set on this idea of - I didn't know what it was called at the time - digital nomadism.
In 2011, I was very connected to a publication called Matador, which is an online travel publication, and they had a travel writing school. I started positioning myself to be a travel writer. After I left the forge, I went full bore into that. I launched my own personal website and I also started traveling around and writing about it. I did that for about nine months. Then again, it was the same decision where I could either keep doing this or I could branch out a little bit and start going for some of the bigger goals that I had for myself. What that meant for me was putting writing to the side, and going back to doing design work. I kept the remote aspect of my work, but I went from writing travel articles to designing book covers. I got a contract with Amazon and their self-publishing company, and I started out doing book covers for self-publishers and bootstrapped publishing companies.
There was one publisher in particular that I really liked working with, Brash Books, they focus exclusively on mysteries. When they were launching their lineup, they did a few test ones with me and they liked me enough that they kept me for their entire series. That was a ton of fun working on those books. They had initially been published, in the late 70s, back when crime noir was really big. These books hadn't been noticed by the public for 30, 40 years and they were picking them up again. It was cool to be able to almost have this dialogue going back decades with the other cover designers, and just expand on what they were aiming for.
I contracted out to my good friend and my cousin, and the three of us worked on these covers together for three and a half years. I think we did something like 750 covers. It was great because it enabled me to continue to work remotely. I lived out of a backpack in 2013 and went to 17 countries. And I got paid wherever I was in the world, so I could keep going. Once, I was on the back of a volcano on an island in a lake in Nicaragua, and I had just uploaded a cover and I thought, "I really can do this anywhere."
When I came back I was talking to a friend of mine who is also a designer, and I noticed that he was pretty proficient in front-end code. As we were talking about it I realized that I should have seen it years prior, but this is where design is going to be. So I started teaching myself front-end design and front-end code.
I had a few books, and there were some online schools and online workshops that I went to. I became friends with one of the owners of a coworking space I was going to in Santa Barbara. Every once in a while he would look over my shoulder at a book cover I was designing, or he would see pieces of the code that I was working on, and after maybe nine or ten months of being at this co-working space four days a week, he said, "Hey, why don't you come talk to my product manager? I have another company, and we're building this thing. "
I was confused, I wasn't really sure why he wanted us to meet, but I said okay. They showed me what they were working on, which was a piece of software for building automation and control. I thought it was pretty interesting and I was feeling a little strong, so I casually mentioned, "Oh, you must be using Angular for your front-end framework." He looked surprised, and said, "How did you know that?" And I said, "That bracket right there." I had no idea how to use Angular, and to some extent I still don't, but I think maybe that was one of those fake it 'til you make it moments.
We talked a little bit about design and the things that I look for when I'm designing something. It was two days later that I got the call with the job offer, even though I wasn't looking for one. It was a contract offer first, for the first year, and then they brought me on full-time in 2015. Actually, four days ago was my two-year W2 anniversary.
And then I ended up teaching again for a little while. Like most things in my life, it was kind of a fluke. I was on a road trip with my girlfriend at the time, and I got a call in the middle of the Utah desert from the same professor who had gotten me my first teaching job.
He said, "Hey, what are you doing in two weeks? Do you want to teach college?" I ended up teaching an Intro to Art class [at Westmont], and it was fun getting my hands dirty again. It was very different from doing front-end code and designing products. What I do now is hyper-specific, and getting out to that eye level, broad, general overview of what art is, was a good stretch for me.
But I also realized that I want to make sure that I always devote all of my energy reserves to the task at hand. Splitting my focus between two things can be very hard. There's a great quote in Parks and Recreation from Ron Swanson, "Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing." I like to go back to that every now and then.
Honestly I don't know if I've ever really thought about anything as long-term, in terms of vocation. I just know that I always want to be building or making or creating something. If people can be archetypes then I know that at my core I'm a maker, and whatever expression that takes, I think I'll be okay with that.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I think the greatest teacher of perspective on life, for me, has been surfing because it teaches you this interesting tension between patience and awareness. It teaches you how to think about your position relative to what you want. It teaches you about how to embrace the wave and how to attack the wave. There are a few waves in my memory where it just opened up all of these avenues of reflection and introspection for me, and I'm not even that good a surfer. But I really think that there is value to finding an activity that allows you the head space and the clarity to make these little ties between what you're doing and who you are, what you're about.
What I wish I had known earlier is that it is so important at that age to have that one thing. It very well might not look like the thing that you do after school. I was a soccer player, soccer was a part of my identity, but it didn't really teach me anything. I just really liked scoring goals and I was good at it. But it didn't teach me anything about me. Once you have that thing that you love doing, that teaches you about yourself, it allows you to fall in love with yourself and you are so powerful when you love yourself. Find that pursuit, even if it's weird or quirky. Go for it and do it and put your whole heart into it. And maybe allow yourself a vice or two.