The tech side of cheers / Blake Williams
By Danielle Williams /
Chief Design Officer
As business partners and siblings, Blake and I know almost everything about each other. So we decided the best way to share a bit about ourselves with you would be through a little interview. Here are Blake's thoughts on technology, past experiences, and man sized drones.
Current Title / Company: Co-Owner / Chief Digital Officer of cheers studios
Location: Columbus, Ohio
Education: The Ohio State University / Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science and Engineering
Let’s get some context: You and I are siblings, and in 2016 I called you over to my house in Columbus and told you I was thinking about starting my own design studio. You nodded politely and said, “Ok, well I will leave my job and we will do this together.” What the heck was going through your head at that moment?
Well, living in Columbus I knew it was popular and had a lot of growth, a lot of small business, and I always kind of felt that there was a lot more from the business aspect that I could be doing at my role. So I just figured that the best way of working would be to have an awesome designer who can do everything I can’t; join it with myself who is pretty confident there is just about everything in technology that I can do [chuckles] and between the both of us we could either figure out the rest or find people who could help us figure out the rest. So it just seemed like there aren’t too many times you get that Steve Jobs / Steve Wozniak life in the beginning, and we could.
You were mentioning different roles you’ve had, so let’s backtrack to before cheers. You graduated from OSU and started out learning about database management at a local Columbus Software Company (very nuts and bolts engineering) and went on to work at IBM for 3 years doing a range of front and backend development. And now you’re the Chief Digital Officer of cheers studios. What was it like moving from corporate America to an independent design/tech studio?
Before I worked for my first company, I mean, I really just wrote help documents. So I was just a glorified Microsoft Word, a text processor. I learned some high-level database stuff, which was really helpful, but I just kind of watched everybody and did some different kinds of testing. So I really started to see all the soft skills when it came to the software world. It made me appreciate everything else that goes into programming and technology other than code and “building” something. So it was pretty eye opening to see that side. And then I went really deep. At IBM we were doing awesome projects. I pretty much did a 3-6 month long term project in every area: testing, automation, development. And I was able to do some project management, not fully, but with different interim projects where I had a lot of say on things.
So yeah, corporate is very stable and I enjoyed the people that I worked with because there were a lot of very talented people. But you were always working on projects that weren’t your own, per se. And that is the biggest thing that comes from moving to cheers. We just 100% own everything. We are accountable for it, and we have to build it, and we are responsible to all our clients directly. Even to the point where they can just call us up. I was probably never going to get a phone call from IBM about some line of code I wrote, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing! But now you get to see where you’re coming from and where you’re going on each project and it’s fun because you can do things you’ve always wanted to try but probably wouldn’t be feasible in a corporate environment because it isn’t the safest way. Where here at cheers, army of two, you can confidently say “go try that” and if it fails, you know, who cares? All that work was a learning experience and now you have a clearer idea what will work so that you ensure the client is happy and we are too.
So talking about that journey, it sounds like you didn’t really work with creatives first hand at your other jobs. Which begs, what have you learned by working directly with a designer through the whole project process?
I think the biggest misconception when you are in software is that a developer is it’s own creative. That seems like the biggest lie. [Laughing] You know, there is maybe a handful of people out there who know who they are, and they’re gainfully employed making awesome stuff. But everybody else is probably terrible in terms of design, from any sort of structural or definitely academic perspective. So I think what you learn is, “Oh crap. Just because it looks cool to me doesn't mean it is designed.”
We were handed these documents from people who were like, here are your “style guidelines.” We would complain about how this is ridiculous. If we just changed this pixel amount by 10 px we wouldn’t have to write all this code, and if it was allowed to lay out in this way we could save so much time, and to top it all off, this won’t even show up correctly in Internet Explorer. So all this made designers the constant nagging parent that kept telling you to clean your room, and we tried to meet them halfway, but not always. I think a positive thing that happened at my last job was that we really started to push having meetings with the people making these design calls, and that made our job way better because we could see where they were coming from. Then we could suggest the middle ground that would make us both happy. So it wasn’t just someone throwing a made up scenario and hoping we can build it 80%. It’s really saying “this is what we have, how can we compromise so we are both extremely happy?”
And that’s where I feel we are at cheers. It's in everything we do. You're able to throw out the crazy stuff and I can complain and grumble a little bit, then I see what I can do. And maybe I can give something else back that’s either a compromise, or sometimes it’s just new and cool and we didn’t know it was possible. So I think when working with creatives like you the best thing to do is just communicate. I’m not going to jump in Illustrator and you’re not going to write my code. But through communication I’m able to be a designer through you and you can code through me, so it’s crucial really.
Do you have any advice for other developers who are looking to be more collaborative with creatives?
Communicate and be open. Be open minded and accepting of what the others are saying because they have experience and a reason behind it. They aren’t just trying to inflict pain [Lots of laughter]. So that’s a two-way tip for designers and developers because understanding and then coming back with some sort of probable solution is key. Just saying no is never a good answer. There is always something that can be done.
How do you think technology is changing the design world or playing a bigger part in it?
I would say that as a consumer I see more edgy design in terms of pushing the bounds of the different technology formats consumers are interacting with. You have VR headsets, you have augmented reality coming out, you have monitors that can do crazy renderings. There are awesome web browsers, like Chrome and Firefox, that are always with you on your phone. You have all these mediums now and I think you can literally just create new experiences with that just didn’t make sense before because somebody probably didn’t want to see a 16-bit rendering of something. But now you can really be immersed in what you’re watching, what you’re seeing, you can tell a much different story. Even when you are shopping, things can be branded and you can feel like you’re in a new place due to technology that makes it feel real. Well, virtually real.
Do you think work-life balance ever really exists when running your own company?
It exists when you’re willing to say “no.” Otherwise it exists when you probably have to sleep [Laughing] or are encouraged to eat. I try to make evenings for myself, but even then I’m most likely reading about new technology or how to articles, so it never really stops. I think that’s more out of interest and being enthusiastic about it than necessity. It’s fun and it’s cool to make cool things so you don’t really want to stop, which I think is different from most 9 to 5’s where you just go home for the day.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy the flexibility. I absolutely love the fact that I feel like I’m more creative and focussed and motivated at different times. I absolutely disagree with the “being in your chair at 8am, leave at 5pm and sit in rush hour with everyone else” mentality. Here, I might be the most productive at 11 o’clock at night and other times I might be in a groove all day getting work done and putting out fires. So flexibility is key and helps to the work-life balance. I also enjoy from an internal cheers perspective not worrying about co-workers getting their stuff done. It’s the biggest weight off your shoulders because it’s understandable to be dependent on another firm or client to give feedback, I mean it seems like half of my life is waiting for a response on something. [Laughs] So not having to worry about that with your coworker is very relaxing and important to build trust knowing that things are going to get done. And more importantly, they get done correctly in a way that you wanted them.
The Lightning Round
What would your dream project/client be?
If the "Iron Man" Elon Musk needed a private development firm for everything he dreamed up that would be great. I’ve always been interested in those systems where technology is going to change the lives of people, without people really noticing. I think that’s cool.
Favorite thing to do in Columbus:
I’m always at Easton. I don’t know. I loiter a lot. I like to shop without buying things. I enjoy seeing what other people buy and find interesting so Easton is fun to walk through to see the crazy things I would never buy or that I want to save for. I also love taking walks around downtown and by the Scioto Mile.
Something people would be surprised to find out about you:
Nothing. [Laughing] Maybe, that my first job was selling firewood at Eldora Speedway for $5 a bundle out of the back of my dad’s truck. I was in, like 6th grade. Splitting, bundling, and then driving out there asking absolutely every single camper if they needed firewood. And then we started to get competition with adults! Then eventually the woodpile ran out, so we just quit.
Your guilty pleasure tv show recommendation:
Geez, honestly like guilty pleasure where you’re not proud to tell people? That’s what a guilty pleasure is, right? But I would honestly tell everybody they need to watch the Kroll Show. I love Nick Kroll even though most of the show is just extreme to every sense of the word.
I wish I knew how to…
Hmmm. For whatever reason “dance” came to mind. It was my first instinctive reaction. But I want that stricken from the records. [sorry Blake] But if I could learn how to do anything and be good at it I would want my pilots license. Planes would be more mainstream but, I love helicopters. Maybe I just wait for the first man-sized drone to be created so I can just hover around.