The tech space is full of creative people, exciting projects and interesting products. With Noted Interviews, we tap into the brilliant minds of the individuals behind such works, letting you know why and how they do what they do as well as giving you a better insight into who they are as people.
Who are you and what do you do?
How did you get into software development and what came before?
I graduated with a Bachelor of Information Technology and got my first IT job as soon as university finished. Before that I had lots of odd jobs in retail. In terms of progression I spent 4 years as a low level Java developer working on mapping, logging and communication systems. I also built user interfaces in Visual Basic of all things — a language I hope I never have to see again. I spent the next 4 years as a Web Developer working on front and back end applications for clients.
I’d love to say that I had some burning passion for IT at age 2 and was some kind of whiz kid but honestly I was just an ordinary kid and teenager. I spent a lot of my teenage years assembling and tinkering with computers but didn’t get into programming until university.
In 2010, you went indie full time with Shifty Jelly — how did you come to that decision?
A light shined down from the sky and struck me…no not really. Philip and I built a fun side app in 2008 that really took off. It was #1 in the Australian App Store for a long time and a lot of people bought it. By the time 2010 rolled around we had been working on our full time jobs as well as this side project. We both realised that this was the best chance we’d ever have if we wanted to go indie. We had a successful app, we had 3 months of income saved in our bank accounts and we had a passion to go and build something fun and new.
Shifty Jelly is most well-known for Pocket Casts. What inspired you to go from developing an Australia-specific weather app to an internationally available podcast client?
The previous answer probably gives you a bit of a hint. The Australian weather app was built just for fun, we had no idea it would take off. When we went full time on Shifty Jelly we thought long and hard about what our first new app should be. We realised that we both loved podcasts but that the process of syncing them from desktop iTunes to our phones was just too painful, so we built Pocket Casts.
One USP of Pocket Casts is its cross-platform availability with iOS, Android and most recently Windows Phone apps. Why did you decide to explore software development on platforms outside of iOS?
That’s an interesting question. Much like our first iOS app, our first Android app was also a lucky accident. Our users had been begging us to bring our iOS apps to Android but we had concerns about that platform. We’d also never used it before. At the time Google also wasn’t allowing Australian Developers to sell apps in their store so it seemed like the obvious choice to stay away from it. We also didn’t want to spend $700 on a new phone. We explained this to our users on various forums and emails and before we knew it an Android phone turned up in the mail. Two weeks later Google started allowing Australian developers to sell in their store. With both our reasons knocked down we figured ‘why the hell not’ and got to work. It worked out amazingly well, these days Android accounts for 80% of our revenue.
How has supporting multiple platforms affected your development process (the decision to go Android first with updates being an interesting and fairly unusual choice)? How do you find trying to stay on top of each platforms’ trends?
"We're not fans of lock-in"
We develop all of our apps natively on each platform so the most obvious thing it’s done is increase the effort required to bring new features to things like Pocket Casts. Strategically it gives us a big leg up on our competitors. We have lots of users who tell us they buy our apps because they either use two platforms (say an iPad and an Android phone) or want to. Our apps let them do that seamlessly, especially Pocket Casts which syncs your playback progress and podcasts across all the platforms we support. We’re not fans of lock-in, I myself have switched from iOS to Android and back countless times.
Going Android first with the Pocket Casts 4 release was also interesting. It caused our (up until then) great relationship with Apple to become very strained. It was clear they didn’t appreciate a company they’d worked so closely with no longer being Apple exclusive. This was a temporary blip though, these days we are once again on friendly terms with them.
In terms of staying on top of the trends of each platforms we find that really easy. All of us at Shifty Jelly love new technology. We love buying it when it comes out, reading about it on various sites and just keeping up with what’s new every day. It’s one of the reasons I love working in IT, things always change, there’s always something new and shinier just around the corner.
Tell me a bit about your current setup. What tools do you use to get the job done?
At work I have a Mac Pro plugged into a 34” curved display. It’s amazing to work on. I’ve never heard the fans spin up and everything is lightning fast. I’ve fallen in love with ultra-wide displays and I really can’t go back to working on anything smaller.
Philip and I have always held the belief that a company as tiny as ours can’t afford to skimp on development hardware. If there’s a way to take your build time from 30 seconds to 20, we’ll do it. Every second counts, I know it sounds like a cliché but it really does. It also has the side benefit of making people feel good. I’d like to think that everyone at Shifty Jelly appreciates the fact that we care about their work enough to buy them the best.
As much of your business surrounds podcasting, and you host a show of your own with Topical, what do you make of the recent mainstream media attention that podcasting is getting?
"I’m honestly not sure how I feel about it"
It was obvious even before shows like Serial went ‘mainstream’ that podcasting was going to be a big deal. When you’ve been in this industry as long as I have, patterns like that are really easy to spot. The interesting thing now is that you can bet that Serial got a lot of investors interested in podcasting. Since then I guarantee that a lot of companies and startups have it in their head that they want to become the new platform podcasting runs on. Apple has gotten us this far, but it’s clear that they haven’t been the best steward a platform like this needs.
I’m honestly not sure how I feel about it. I want podcasters to be successful but I’m wary of VC funded companies burning money to build out platforms that they will one day have to monetise in crazy ways. I’m also mindful that some of them will think that having podcasts exclusive to their networks and slowly killing the open-ness inherent in podcasting is in their best interest. I’ve lost count of the amount of people that have tried to throw money at Pocket Casts to do just that. For now we’re sticking to our guns and just making great apps to listen to podcasts on. We’re not stupid though, 2015 and 2016 are most likely going to see some upheaval in the podcasting space and we’ll have to be on our game to keep ahead of that.
Wearables are the latest trend in tech. As a developer, how do you think Android Wear devices and the Apple Watch affect how we interact with technology, apps and each other? What are your hopes for the product category?
I have almost every Android Wear watch made to date, as well as the Apple Watch. My honest opinion is that right now they are nothing more than gimmicks. I love mine, and I enjoy having it, but my benchmark is this: if I leave home and am 10 minutes away before I realise that I’ve left my watch there, would I go back? The answer for me today is no. If it was my phone on the other hand I’d instantly turn the car around without hesitation.
"Right now they are nothing more than gimmicks"
That said the wearable space has a lot of potential to become far more useful. The beginnings of tracking all sorts of metrics about us and our bodies are there. Developers and hardware makers are exploring new and interesting things to do with them. I think this is a category that has a lot of potential and that we’ll look back 5 years from now and wonder how on earth we ever got by without wearables. I also suspect that wearables will be far more invisible than they are today.
What does the rest of 2015 hold for Russell Ivanovic and Shifty Jelly?
At Shifty Jelly we never plan in detail more than 6 months ahead. The industry just moves too fast and I don’t think there’s any value in that. The first half of 2015 was mapped out in intense detail and we’ve managed to hit almost every goal we set ourselves. Now we’re taking a short break to attend I/O and WWDC as well as take some mid-year holidays. After that we’ll regroup and decide what to do next.
With the above in mind I can say that we’re working on some exciting updates for the iOS side of things. On the Google side of things, we’re thrilled to have won the first ever Material Design Award and we want to hit similar heights on iOS. For the next 6 months it will be my job to make that happen. I’m friends with a lot of our direct competitors, and they’ve always inspired me to do better. I hope to return the favour very soon!
Luckily we have more than one developer though, so expect to see more from Shifty Jelly before 2015 is out ;)
Where can people find out more about you and your work?’