Smashing Spotlight: Jeremy Flores, Associate Technical Director

Wonder what makes Smashing Ideas so smashing? Our people! We sat down with Jeremy Flores, Associate Technical Director, to talk shop, about how the modern web is a mass of contradictions, the role of empathy within product design and development, and the top 5 tips he gives up and coming developers on how to succeed in the tech industry.

 

Let’s start things off with light, softball question. What is the current state of modern web development?

It’s kind of a mess. The web today is a mass of contradictions. It’s informative and misleading, amazing and repulsive, a source of empowerment and community, as well as where we go to isolate ourselves from those around us. Above all, the web is ever-changing.

And because the web is all those things, so is web development. I move mostly in open source circles, and have watched companies gain valuations measured in billions using open source software. That’s great as it gives legitimacy to what I do for a living. It’s weird in that now I’m beholden to companies like Google and Facebook for access to certain technologies. Open source is starting to feel a lot less open.

Still, this is a great time to be building things for the web. Browsers — desktop and mobile — continue to evolve, becoming more capable, and more integrated with the operating system and hardware. We have fridges that can tweet and voice-command devices backed by enormous data centers. The smartphones in our pockets are running plenty of native apps too, of course, but it’s the web that holds it all together, and the majority of it is powered by open source software.

 

What responsibility do digital agencies like ours have in regards to privacy and professional ethics in the Internet of Things (IoT) space?

People and companies reach out to us to do things they can’t in-house. It’s not enough for us to be experts; we’ve got to be leaders, teachers, and accomplices. Acting ethically means assuming responsibility for the outcomes of our recommendations, decisions, and efforts. It means guiding clients toward ethical actions that protect and empower their customers.

A marked side-effect of internet enabled devices in the home is a blurring of private and public space. Recent high-profile blunders in both technology and messaging have underscored the importance of ongoing research and education in how our products interact in the context of the connected world.

 

Beyond being a technical wizard at Smashing, you’re also a teacher at the University of Washington. What are the top 5 tips you give to your students about working in the tech industry?
  1. Learn how to learn and never stop. Figure out your learning style and seek materials/instructors who teach to it.
  2. Try to do good.
  3. Celebrate your failures; celebrate others’ success.
  4. Train your empathetic response. Ask yourself, “What if everyone is doing the best they can to get through this hard life?
  5. Remember that all technology was made by people and people are flawed. Every bit of software is a reflection of the opinions, beliefs, biases, and mood of the team that made it.

 

Some very large and influential tech companies have been making the news lately for issues surrounding inequality in the workplace, discrimination, and general lack of inclusion. This is an area you are particularly passionate about. What are some ways the industry as a whole (or we can think smaller and more local) can start to do better?

Oh dang. This is a huge question. Speaking as a person with significant personal and professional privilege, I am very cautious when speaking on this topic — I can only speak to my own experiences of becoming aware of privilege and how that awareness has helped me push forward — ever so slightly — the cause of social justice. My goal, applicable to both the broad industry and day-to-day work, is to use whatever privilege I have to empower others.

Years ago I had a job stocking paper in printers on a college campus. The director of the IT department liked me and took me under his wing. He became my first professional mentor and opened the door to my career in tech. If I can do the same for someone else — use my privilege as a platform for their growth and success — I will have repaid my debt to him and made this industry a more diverse (and hopefully welcoming) space.

An extraordinarily patient and kind person once explained to me, as I was indignantly defending a faux pas, that being called out isn’t something to be upset about. It meant that they cared enough about me to be disappointed, to want and expect better from me. They were calling me in. Since then, as I’ve learned more and worked toward more just outcomes, I recall that idea of calling in whenever I’m on either side of that situation.

Last thing — seek out diverse voices. Listen to them and believe their experiences. Lately, I’ve been reading The Establishment and have found the articles published there accessible, timely, and well researched and reasoned.

 

Favorite piece of technology that you can’t live without?

The stereo in my living room. It’s a Frankenstein’s Monster of components from four decades and a source of immense joy in my life.

 

What role does empathy have on product design and engineering?

It’s about the only thing that matters. The best, most successful products are rarely the best engineered or fanciest. Rather, the best products solve real problems for real people, and they do it in a way that connects with people on a personal, emotional level.

We can do all the user research and product planning and code review and still make something that doesn’t resonate with people. If we can’t see ourselves in our users (and vice versa) we’re doomed to just guess about how to help them. As we move into the IoT era and the rise of the algorithm, basic human empathy becomes even more critical.

It’s also important to have empathy within and between teams. Even though I’ve been at SI only six months, I’ve seen again and again, real and meaningful consideration for others. Schedules tighten, budgets crunch and deadlines loom, but we do our best to treat each other well, to arrive and leave work at times that support life outside the office, and to be kind (which is a lot different than being nice) to each other.

The net result is a team that respects and trusts each other. A team that values success over the long term. And you can see that in our work.

 

Digital transformation is disrupting nearly every static industry. What are some non-obvious business sectors that will benefit the most from a digital overhaul?

I’m having trouble coming up with an industry that isn’t already deeply affected by the ubiquity of computing and software. Here’s a couple things that I am excited about — video conferencing with medical professionals instead of traveling to a doctor’s office; the rise/return of crafting (as tech access & reach has enabled crafters/builders to reach new markets/consumers); DIY hardware/computing like 3D printers; Arduino electronics platform; the Raspberry Pi tiny computer; and alternate funding platforms like Patreon, Kickstarter, and GoFundMe.

 

The digital/tech industry evolves at an accelerated pace that is not seen in many other industries. How do you, and your skills, stay ahead of the tech curve?

I don’t. I can’t. Instead, I keep up with the folks who keep up with the industry. If there’s a unifying trait across people I admire or follow…it’s passion for what they do. Sometimes that’s their profession, sometimes it’s their hobby. My favorite people are all experts in their own fields, but that’s a list of developers, community organizers, public policy experts, artists, gamers, musicians, authors, and more.

I trust them. When they tell me there’s something to which I should pay attention or that I should learn, I believe (and thank) them.

 

Last, but certainly not least…. you’re stuck on a remote island, but can have one piece of technology with you. What would it be and why?

Life-saving and situation-resolving tech aside, please let me have my kindle and a solar charger. Maybe I could finally make a dent in my reading list.

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