Q&A With Alum Joshua Chiet
Spotlight Date:September 17, 2014
Joshua Chiet, Class of 1995 alumnus, spent his years at the School of the Arts in a few different departments: Visual Art, Music, and Theatre. That ability to change, adapt and develop new strengths has helped lead him to a career in the technology world. Now a Software Engineer at Switch Communications, Josh talks to us about his previous experiences at YouTube and Google, and what got him to his current project developing web based communication software.
Q: Favorite Dreyfoos (SOA) teacher?
A: Michael Blair was one of my favorite art teachers. He taught me how to play Norwegian Wood on the guitar, and introduced me to Zappa's Hot Rats. He exudes a cool that cannot be quantified. Breakfast with Michael (and whatever portions of his lovely family happen to be in town) has become one of my new favorite Christmas holiday traditions.
Geoff Johnston was my freshman English teacher. I was not a particularly good English student, but I always thought Geoff's classes were enthralling. He somehow had Shawn Frame ('95) and I up on desks, sparring as Mercutio and Tybalt, and we were pretty avowed non-participants.
John Griffin, who was actually never my teacher while at SOA, suggested to me I audition for SOA as my middle school art teacher. He introduced me to Ray Lynch and Pearls Before Swine, put the first electric guitar I ever touched in my hands, and made me dream of leaving everything behind to live in a yurt and sail the world aboard the Kon-Tiki.
Dennis Sims made me truly believe I was an actor. He treated me, and the rest of the cast of The Diviners, alternately like professionals and like his family. If it weren't for Dennis's amazing dedication to his craft and his students, I wouldn't have blown two years of college as a theater major.
Q: What is the most profound change you experienced at Dreyfoos (SOA)?
A: I both fell in love and was heartbroken for the first time. I started my first band and discovered the music that still continues to enthrall me. I painted a silver spoon in William Walter's class. He stood over my shoulder and told me to look closer, that, if I broke it down, every reflection that seemed impossible to render was actually just a series of greyscale shapes that could be easily translated to 2 dimensions. It was a moment of extreme clarity, where I realized that the ability to solve a problem is directly proportionate to your ability to really see what the problem is.
Q: Is there something Dreyfoos (SOA) could have provided that could have better prepared you for your college and career?
A: I don't think so. I emerged from SOA still pretty larval, but in hindsight I learned something there that has stayed with me: if I want to be anything, all I have to do is start doing the work. One day I decided to start singing, and suddenly I was a singer. One day I decided to be in a play, and suddenly I was an actor. It never occurred to me, later in life, that I couldn't be a software engineer: all I had to do was write some software. My personal experience at SOA was perhaps atypical, in that I don't think a lot of students were switching departments, but what I learned about myself is how much I enjoy being able to learn and adapt.
Q: College attended?
A: University of Central Florida
Q: College degree?
A: BFA (Drawing/Printmaking) / Minor in Music / Minor in Theater
Q: College graduation year?
Q: You have worked for Google, YouTube, UberConference. Tell us a bit about how you got involved with web development and software engineering.
A: In 2002 I was trying to find work as an illustrator in Seattle. The closest I had gotten was a retail gig selling art supplies, after a brief stint as a short order cook at a bowling alley. I was lucky to have a few of my paintings featured in a Miami-based magazine, and the brief interview that accompanied the spread led to some short writing assignments. After a few months I received a call regarding our art director: during a vacation in the Keys a chance mosquito bite had landed him in the hospital and I was recommended as someone who could complete that month's layout. That gig led to a later call from his assistant, who was looking to sub-contract some outstanding freelance work. The question was posed: did I know anything about web development? At this point I had about a month's rent in the bank, a stack of rejection letters from various publishers, and zero experience with software. Of course I said yes and immediately started devouring everything I could on the subject. Joshua Davis had just published his first book on Actionscript development, and I found it surprisingly accessible and inspiring. I read everything I could get my hands on and spent every evening and weekend writing code. Soon, I was taking on larger and larger jobs. My wife, Emily, and I moved back to Florida in 2003, where I parlayed my portfolio into a gig creating motion graphics for web, television, and DVDs. After working through a few firms, from whom I continued to learn a great deal, I went freelance full-time in 2005 specializing in web sites for video games. One of those games, Guitar Hero, ended up being a big hit and granted me a decent amount of professional visibility.
That year I was contacted by an entrepreneur in California, Craig Walker, who pitched me his vision for a web based telephony platform. I was a bit trepidatious, as this appeared to be a project which pushed at the bounds of my technical acumen, but Craig is a very persuasive guy and Emily and I were ready to get the hell out of Florida. I flew out to meet the tiny team, was offered the job, and flew back that same night to pack. We hit the road 3 days later and arrived in California on the 4th of July, 2006 at which point I officially began working for GrandCentral. We had a crazily productive year in which we built a free voicemail platform for San Francisco's homeless (Project CARE, for which we partnered with SF Mayor Gavin Newsom), launched our commercial product, and were acquired by Google in the summer of 2007. GrandCentral became Google Voice later that year, and during the transition I started doing some work on the side (Google's famous 20% time) for YouTube, which Google had also just recently acquired. YouTube was putting together a small engineering team to completely redesign its video player and I joined them full time in December 2007. My first teammate was Geoff Stearns, who previously had been the technical editor for Joshua Davis's book, Flash to the Core. Small world! I was privileged to be involved in a number of ambitious projects during my tenure at YouTube: the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, VEVO.com, and the NIN Ghosts Film Festival to name a few. It was a once-in-a-lifetime merging of pop culture, art and technology, and something I was very proud to be a part of. However, in mid-2011, I received another call from Craig Walker. He said, simply, "I'm putting the band back together." I left YouTube a month later and started at Craig's new venture, Firespotter Labs. We changed our name to Switch Communications in early October, 2014.
Q: How do you think a background in art has benefitted you in the tech world?
A: My mentor in college, Robert Rivers, ran a very disciplined drawing department. I think the three biggest takeaways I got from Robert are: 1) Blank canvas is scary, no matter if you're a painter, printer or programmer. The first step is always making that first mark. Make it with gusto and resolve, and then step back, look at it, and react to it. I've gotten to work on some projects that are used literally billions of times daily. Some took months to complete and contain thousands upon thousands of lines of code. Dealing with the daunting scope of such a thing hinges on being able to make that first definitive mark on the page. 2) You have to produce the work. Want to be a printmaker? Make prints. A lot of them. You need to have that stack in front of you before can you start figuring out your strengths and weaknesses. I knew when I started programming that the only way I was going to actually get up to speed was to start cranking out code for production, rather than simply learning theory. Google has an internal mantra: launch and iterate. If Robert wasn't an elephant trainer from Alabama, he might have couched it in those same terms. I know for certain he'd agree with the sentiment. 3) Robert always said drawing is a tool for seeing. Your drawings, he insisted, were a document of the dialogue between your eye and your brain. I find computer code to be similar: a tool for thinking. While software development may seem to the uninitiated as very mechanical it is, in fact, a highly subjective and extremely personal creative process. Having learned to investigate my own drawings for insight into my seeing, I love turning to my code for insight into my thinking. When I read through the code my teams have produced, I can pick out individual contributors by the style in which they choose to solve problems. Being able to identify and assimilate the components of those styles is, I believe, the same process any artist uses when discovering their own voice.
Q: As a software engineer for Switch Communications, what are you currently working on?
A: Switch Communications, as the name may imply, specializes in web based communication software. We launched our first telephony product, UberConference, at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2012, where we took home first prize in the Startup Battlefield competition. That was a blast! Since launch we've released a V2 of UberConference, including a dial-in integration with Google Hangouts. On October 1st we released Switch.co, which is our flagship business-grade phone system built for Google Apps users. It builds on all of the things we learned at Google Voice (Craig, it turns out, really does know how to get the band back together) but where GV is geared for individuals Switch.co is a system built for distributed organizations.
Q: What do you feel has been the highlight of your career so far?
A: It's pretty amazing to be fairly certain, when meeting someone new, that they've used something you created and having been an early part of Youtube at Google means that's a daily occurrance. However, the fact that I now get to work every day with a small, incredibly talented, and dedicated team of genuine friends is even more amazing. The level of creative autonomy I'm now afforded is a priceless thing.
Q: Have you had the opportunity to work with any other Dreyfoos (SOA) alums?
A: Not to any great extent. Nelson Downend (Class of '94) and I are constantly threatening each other with musical collaboration, but I have yet to run across another SOA alum in a professional context. I think a lot of it is proximity: everyone else seems to have ended up in NYC or LA!
Q: What recommendations do you have for our current DSOA students?
A: Make things. Make bad things. Figure out why they're bad, and then make better things. Make some of those things noises, and make some of them things you can look at, and maybe even some you can touch. Figure out which parts of those things make you happiest to make. Make more of those. Also, take Spanish with Mrs. Smith.
Q: In a brief statement can you explain “What Dreyfoos means to me”?
A: One of the differentiating factors in the arts components of my early education vs the more academic was that while the academic subjects were taught often isolated from any application, the arts education was always presented with the admonishment that it was useless unless you actually produced something with it. So much of my personal happiness comes from making things, I'm grateful to have been educated in an environment where the act of deliberate creation was the expectation.