Smashing Spotlight: Wilhelm Fitzpatrick, Technical Director

Wonder what makes Smashing Ideas so smashing? Our people! We sat down with Wilhelm Fitzpatrick, Technical Director, to talk shop, his extensive expertise and love of Android’s component based architecture, how tabletop gaming is making a huge resurgence, and why democratic societies require democratic technologies.

You’re one of the newest additions to the Smashing team. First off, welcome! Second, what attracted you to Smashing?

Thanks! I think maybe the first thing I noticed about Smashing Ideas was that everybody I talked to seemed genuinely excited about the projects that they were part of here, and wanted to share examples of work they had done that made them proud. Life is too short to be doing work that you can’t derive personal satisfaction from.

I was also attracted by how Smashing puts the notion of multi-disciplinary collaboration across research, design, and implementation front and center in their process. Too many places I’ve been at have either ignored some element of that mix, or built unnecessary barriers between specialties. I’ve always been happiest when immersed in a collaboration, and I feel that I am equipped by my experience to make a unique contribution to the mix that is Smashing.

Your expertise ranges from front and back-end development and numerous systems languages to information architecture. What is your favorite part of your job?

As much as I love learning new technologies, and figuring out the most elegant way to solve a tricky technical problem, the thing that gives me the biggest kick is being able to draw a line between the work I did, and real value for a real person. If the code I wrote or the system I designed made somebody’s job easier, or their life a little smoother, or just entertained them for a while, it makes my day.

You are our resident expert in all things Android. What drew you to this particular operating system?

Three reasons stemming from personal history, technical appeal, and a philosophical stance.

Firstly, I had devoted most of my career prior to coming to the mobile space to the Java ecosystem, so my familiarity with that language and its environment made Android a natural fit.

Once I climbed aboard, I quickly realized that the team that had designed Android had really thought about how to structure a modern mobile operating system, and hadn’t just tried to cram a desktop OS onto a small device. I love Android’s component based architecture, and the power it gives apps to work together seamlessly, and the ability I have to mix, match, customize and extend as both a developer and an end user.

Finally, I see digital technology becoming ever more central to the functioning of society. Our devices are highly personal, and mediate our access to information, education, services, and government. Thus I think it is essential that the operating systems that control these devices be ones that at the end of the day provide primary control to the device owner. Android is the only major mobile operating system that is built from a philosophy of openness that provides the mean to verify and retain that accountability and control. A democratic society requires democratic technologies.

We’re keeping the tech geek/nerd stereotype rolling along. Hands-down, the geekiest/nerdiest thing about me is__________________:

Without a doubt, my love of tabletop gaming, both board games and role-playing games. Computer games and app-based casual gaming are how most people think of games these days, and I enjoy those myself. But the tactile nature of a tabletop game, and the face to face interactions it facilitates are what really appeal to me. And happily, I’m not alone. Even in this heavily digital age, tabletop gaming is undergoing a huge resurgence among people of all ages, which I’m only too happy to be part of.

Beyond your extensive history in tech, you’re a mentor and instructor. What parallels do you see between helping run a project and teaching?

I see both activities, when done well, as being aspects of the gentle art of persuasion. To teach, you cannot just provide information, you have to help the student see how that information is going to help them accomplish things that are relevant to them, to become excited, and invested for their own sake in the learning process. Similarly, good project leadership stems not from handing out mandates, but inspiring each project participant to want to move the project forward together, each for their own reasons.

As a person that lives and breathes technology, what piece of technology can you not live without?

I’ll have to pick my Pebble smartwatch. I bought one of the original Pebbles off a co-worker in 2013, wanting to explore the idea of wearable devices. I expected to wear it for a week or two to have the experience and then set it aside, but it stayed on my wrist until it was replaced by a big sister (Pebble Time) a couple years later. I dabbled with Android Wear, but quickly found myself returning to the Pebble.

Pebble has found just the right of mix of simplicity, convenience, tactile appeal, and playfulness. In some ways, a Pebble watch reminds me of the early Macintosh. It doesn’t just help you accomplish a task; it also brings a little bit of personality and delight to the occasion.

From a technical perspective, what piece of tech — be it software, hardware, smart products, etc. — are you most excited about becoming mainstream in 2017?

It’s pretty clear that there is going to be a lot of activity around intelligent assistants next year. The big ecosystem providers (Apple, Google, Microsoft, and to some extent Amazon) have all placed heavy bets in that space. The things that remain to be seen: how much actual intelligence are in these systems? And what approaches can be found to balance the kind of personal information collection such systems need to be successful with our understandable desire to retain some measure of control and privacy with respect to our own information?

Secondly, I think wearable technologies will continue to normalize; we’re gradually getting used to the idea of things like fitness bands and smartwatches. I think we’ll start to see some surprising and innovative experiences arise out of the fact that our interactions with our devices are becoming more intimate and immediate as we place them on our bodies, not dissimilar to what happened when our devices moved off our desks and into our pockets.

Desert island question time! You’re stranded on a remote island in the South Pacific, and have one piece of technology with you. What would it be and why?

That depends on whether I wanted to stay. If I chose to get home, then I’d definitely opt for satellite phone. But if it seemed like a good place to settle down, then I’d want a water purifier, preferably robust and low tech. Access to clean water is one of the big challenges being faced in many parts of the world today, and I’ve been impressed and amazed by the considerable outpouring of innovation being devoted to solving that problem, at sustainable cost and without heavy infrastructure. The Eliodomestico is one example of such a solution, but there are many others.


Originally published at smashingideas.com on October 19, 2016.