Building stuff in your free time.

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Bouncing around the internet after lunch on Friday I found myself reading Megan McArdle’s economics blog at the Atlantic. She was discussing FICO scores – specifically, the troubling fact that some businesses are using them to screen new employees.

I have nothing to say on this subject. But following Megan’s links I came across this comment from a small business owner named txjim on the Coyote Blog :

BTW my favorite interview question that has held up well for 25 years is “what was the last thing you built in your free time?” For some reason it works surprisingly well no matter the industry or type of position involved. Some struggle with answering and some can’t wait to tell you what they accomplished. Guess which I favor?

That’s a question I’ve never encountered in a job interview, but I hope it catches on. (And while we’re on the topic, would someone please drive a stake through the heart of “what is your greatest strength / greatest weakness”?) I’m not in charge of hiring around here, but I’d say that “building stuff in your spare time” is a strong indicator of the kind of temperament VendAsta looks for in an employee: creative, curious, hands-on.* This point isn’t entirely moot, because we’ve got several job openings right now.

Not only are we encouraged to build things at home, VendAsta gives us a couple office hours each week to build stuff and bone up on new technologies. It’s called Jam Time, and it starts right after our Friday demos.

This Friday, Ryan and Dave showed off their new Jam projects.

Ryan Baldwin is going on “a jaunt into the unknown”. He’s working on a mobile app for the Android platform that he describes as “a location-centric version of Twitter” that will let users “tag” locations in the real world with short messages, pictures, or videos. (“There’s a million other guys out there with variations on the same idea,” he admits.) People standing at a certain location will be able to see, pinpointed on a map, tags that other users have left within a certain radius of that location. Eventually Ryan foresees an augmented reality view where the screen will display a live picture of whatever the camera is pointed at, with tags superimposed.

That’s in the future. Right now Ryan is just learning his way around the Android framework. He’s never developed a mobile app before. Why start with Android? “Because it’s on the way up. It’s what I use and it’s what more people are using. And the market is less diluted. There are over 130,000 iPhone apps, but only 50,000 or so for Android. There’s a better chance of getting noticed.”

Ryan deliberately chose a project that would expose him to core mobile technologies like map integration and location awareness. “There’s so much stuff in there I want to learn,” he says. But it’s not just an academic exercise; he intends to develop a releasable application. We’ll let you know when he does.

BlendAsta logo (draft)Dave Mosher, meanwhile, has been messing around with the latest version of Blender, the free open-source 3D animation suite. In the past he’s used Blender to create, among other things, “a 3D drumkit and a bouncing pea”.

Right now he’s working on a 3D version of the VendAsta logo. (“I call it BlendAsta”, he says.) In the finished version, the pieces of the “sail” icon will fly in from the corners of the screen and assemble themselves.

It’s a little scary. If Dave gets good at this 3D animation stuff, it’s going to make my contributions look rather flat by comparison. Maybe it’s time I started building something of my own…

* On the other hand, it’s possible that asking “what was the last thing you built in your free time?” unfairly penalizes people with a less creative bent. If you put in eight quality hours at the office every day, does it really matter if you spend your evenings vegging out to The Real Housewives of New Jersey rather than, say, creating an Android app or learning 3D animation? If your main pastime is playing video games or Ultimate Frisbee, you can’t really be said to be “building” anything, except perhaps hand-eye coordination. Are you less deserving of promotion than the Lego enthusiast in the next cubicle? I dunno…