Skyler Vander Molen

Posted by on Aug 30, 2013 in 2013, Interviews

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Skyler, I ran upon you when looking for places to read my poetry in Brevard county. I discovered Brick & Mortar through word of mouth. I have not gone yet, but it seems to be the most interesting space in Brevard at this point in time.

How did B&M come about?

In 2010 my wife, Allie, and I had been married for a little under a year and were looking for something a bit more. We’d been living in Tallahassee for about five or six years and despite having a few good friends, we didn’t have much of a community. Being a college town, naturally once people graduate they tend to leave. Early in the year we started talking with Allie’s sister, Lindsay, and her soon to be husband, Denny, about possibly moving back to our hometown somewhere in Brevard to try to do something community oriented. Growing up in the area, we saw how despite having quite a bit of local talent, most people left after high school and never came back. As someone who did that myself, a lot of the reason was because of a lack of opportunity and things to challenge me. So we all thought, what if we did something to try to change that. Brick & Mortar was an attempt to rally people around a physical space that would encourage great conversations and support the arts in an area that we felt largely ignored those things. So in about August of 2010, myself, Allie, Lindsay and Denny Kolsch, and Rich and Ellie Sullivan started what became Brick & Mortar.

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What type of shows have happened there?

Some of our first shows were concerts. We actually kicked off our first event with a guy named Andy Zipf, Damion Suomi and the Minor Prophets, Lauris Vidal and another band I’m totally forgetting the name of now (If you’re reading this, I’m sorry!). Shortly after that we did a huge Mad Men New Year’s Eve party which was a combination art exhibit, concert and costume party all in one. We’ve had blues shows, BBQs, art exhibitions, comedy shows, film screenings, improv and poetry slams.

Who is running it now?

When we moved back to Brevard my wife started an online Master’s in Public Health. We’d hoped we could stay in Brevard while she finished school, but in her last year we realized that wasn’t going to be possible. So in 2011, we moved to Tampa and remained loosely involved. Lindsay, Denny, Rich and Ellie kept things going, and we helped where possible. At the time Denny had just started hosting poetry nights, and they quickly became one of our most successful events. Over time we just couldn’t be involved from so far away, and eventually we stopped being involved. Sometime after that, Joe Snyder started showing up to the poetry nights and really got the vision of what we were trying to do. By this point Rich and Ellie had also moved away, so Lindsay and Denny were running things on their own. At some point Joe mentioned wanting to organize events, so over time he’s transitioned to basically running everything.

If anyone is interested in putting on an event there, who should they contact? What is the curatorial process?

Joe’s probably the best person to contact. The best way to get ahold of him is probably through the Facebook page.

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I noticed on your personal site: http://svanderm.com that you worked for a couple of cool companies.

You were the lead designer at Postmates before you went to Facebook.

How did you get the gig at Postmates?  What a cool service. Do you ever see that service coming to smaller cities? I would love to be a bike deliverer in downtown Melbourne. Also, Five Points, Riverside, Jacksonville, FL would be perfect for it. There is already a huge bike culture.

While we were in Brevard, I was freelancing full-time. It went ok, but I was barely making enough money to support myself and my wife and I realized I needed to step things up a bit. So when we got ready to move to Tampa, I started looking for jobs in the area and was really disappointed to find that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to do work I was interested in. The only jobs that I was interested in tended to be in other cities, San Francisco in particular. So I just decided to start applying and see what would happen. After sending out over a hundred applications, I got a bite from Postmates. After a bit of cajoling, they decided to give me a chance working remotely. I ended up doing that for about a year and a half before we finally decided to move to San Francisco after Allie finished her Master’s.

I think it’s possible Postmates could move into smaller cities, but it would probably be awhile. Expansion’s obviously a tricky problem and it’s something that needs to be done strategically. Right now it makes the most sense to focus on densely populated urban centers, so it may be awhile before you see Postmates in a place like Melbourne. Who knows though?

How did you get involved in software application design?

I sort of fell into it. When I was about 15, I made a website for my church’s youth group. I had no clue what I was doing, but had a good time doing it. When I moved to Tallahassee for college, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career.  I just knew I needed to find work where I could make better money than I had been as a server. One day I stumbled on an ad for a tech support position at Homes.com, applied and got it. I still don’t know how because it was pretty important that I know HTML, and I sort of bluffed my way through that part of the interview. At Homes.com, I slowly developed my skills and got exposed to design for the first time. I really enjoyed design, so I tried finding ways to do more of it whenever possible. Over the next three years, I got promoted twice and eventually ended up on the design team. By that point, I realized I’d stumbled into a career and couldn’t have been happier with how it all worked out.

Do you have a big coding background as well?

Sort of. Like I said earlier, I had to do a lot of front end development at Homes.com, so I started developing those skills at work. When I finally settled on a major in college, I decided to do Information Technology since that was the closest thing FSU had to a Web Design degree. While in the IT program I had to do quite a bit more programming and took classes in C++, Java and PHP. I’ve never been a very good programmer, but having that foundation has been incredibly helpful. Especially during times where I needed to hack together a prototype real quick to better communicate an idea.

How much of a coding background do you think someone would need to get into application design?

I definitely think it’s important, and it seems to be getting only more so in the last few years. I don’t think designers need to be doing development on all their projects, but having an understanding of the development process and being able to prototype designs is key.

Do you have any advice for someone trying to go from web design into application design?

It’s kind of hard to give any specific advice because there are so many different ways people make that transition. For me it sort of happened at work and was a combination of mentorship and self teaching. I started getting little Product Design projects and I just did them. A lot of them were terrible, but it got me started making things, which is really important. It’s not enough to just read about things, you actually have to practice to get good. Eventually I realized Product Design was a distinct discipline separate from the marketing design I’d been doing and read as much as I possibly could on the subject. But since coming to Facebook I’ve realized everyone’s got their own path for how they got to where they are. Some people go to school, others have friends who can mentor them, others take the route I took and sort of figure it out as they go along.  There are a million paths to get there.  You just have to figure out which one is best for you.

I read an interview you did with Fast Company about the development/design of Facebook’s Home. It seems the quality that you mention when speaking of product development is empathy. What type of role does empathy play when designing a product for its users?

Design is a service. In every project there are specific goals and problems that need to be addressed.  In order to do them well, it’s my opinion that you’ve got to understand and care about your client as well as whoever will end up using whatever it is you create. You’ve got to understand their unique situation and think about how what you create is going to affect them. How does what you’ve made make them feel? How does it help them accomplish THEIR goals? Without that I think the work tends to come up short.

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What role do you think empathy should play in other art mediums?

It’s hard to say. Like I said I think design is a service where art is more about provoking thoughts and questions. As a result, not everyone will always like what you do. That’s ok though.

Through your working at Facebook, your products could influence millions, even billions of people’s lives each day.

If you could dream up the one super gadget that would be your life’s legacy what would it be? Maybe silly but science fiction has really become science faction. I’m waiting for the chip, so I can be integrated into the internet and have my memories saved to the cloud.

I’m not sure… As much as I love technology, I’m cautiously optimistic about it. There’s been a lot of good that’s come out of all the advancement in the last 20 years, but there have also been a lot of unintended consequences as a result. So I’m not sure that I’d want my life’s legacy to be a gadget. I guess if I was really trying to think of something crazy, teleportation could be pretty awesome.

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