An interview series that highlights the human side of interesting people in tech
Hakim El Hattab interviewed by the FT.
What's your job title?
Co-founder of Slides, so I’m my own boss at the moment. Slides is a presentation platform that we’ve built from the ground up by creating our own editor and solution for presenting. We’re a very small 2.5-person company. Before starting Slides, I was Lead Interface Engineer at Squarespace.
How did you get there?
I started out really early on. I was interested in writing code in high school, and I… do you want the full story? Like, should I start from “I was born in Sweden and…”?
Sweden, is that where you are now?
I am, yeah. I’m in Jönköping. My wife and I are both Swedish but we moved to the states to work in San Francisco and then New York for a few years. It’s been a difficult journey to trade downwards from New York to Stockholm and then, Stockholm to Jönköping. I love living in bigger cities but when we started a family, the priorities changed and we wanted to be in Sweden, close to our family. But I really miss New York, honestly. It’s my favourite city on the planet.
Tell us more about your background?
I taught myself to code in Flash using books because, at that point in time, there weren’t really a lot of great online resources out there. So I had to resort to the “The ActionScript bible” I think it was called, which contained the full ActionScript language definition. I learned by looking at each property and function in the language and just trying them out to see how they could be useful to me. It was not an optimal way of learning how to code and I wouldn’t recommend it for anybody.
Eventually, I got an internship at my favourite web design agency and that turned into a job offer, so I quit school. I learned so much in the beginning there, finally working with people who knew how to code professionally. After years of working exclusively with Flash, I shifted my focus to HTML. I’ve always been interested in interactivity, animation and rich motion in websites. When HTML5 became the new standard, it was this promising new technology that very few people were doing anything interesting with. People who had experience working with Flash and creating “richer” web-based content saw the opportunity, myself included. So I started building demos to show what was possible.
A question that seems taken out of the blue: are you a cat or a dog person?
I am 120% a cat person. I’m grown up with cats — we’ve had cats my whole childhood. I don’t dislike dogs, and overall I’m a big animal person, but cats are my favourite. We really want to get a cat of our own. We don’t have one now and I feel like my kids should have a cat just like I did when I grew up.
In one of the companies I used to work for, they had a spreadsheet where the employees could fill out whether they were cat or dog people. Turns out that most frontenders were cat people, and the backenders were dog people.
Somehow that makes sense! I don’t know why but I feel like that makes sense to me. I just quickly mapped out all my friends and colleagues and I can see the correlation. Definitely, most frontend people I know are cat people.
What do you do on a normal day?
As co-founder of a small company you have to wear a lot of hats. I spend the majority of my days coding. I also do a lot of design work, but I don’t usually separate that into its own task — I design, write copy, and code in parallel. Beyond that, there are a lot of small tasks: I handle customer support and sometimes coding in response to that support, fixing bugs, writing help articles, meeting with customers or promoting new features.
I’m a very hands-on person. I love my craft and that’s something I want to hold on to. If we were to grow into a bigger company, I would still want to be very much involved in the day to day work on the product.
I’ve always been fascinated by the experiments that you’ve posted on your website, and it seems to me that at the time each experiment was posted, it did something that the vast majority of people would label “impossible”. How do you break that boundary of what’s known to be doable and that which isn’t?
I think it’s mostly a matter of finding ways to look at a technology with fresh eyes. Many times, it’s not going to be the people that are the most experienced with the technology who will do that, it’s people coming in from somewhere else, forming a synergy of different fields.
For me, it’s also been important to avoid having a specific plan for my experiments. Oddly enough, I’ve noticed that the more specific the idea I have for what I want to build, the more likely I am to be unhappy with the result. I think it’s because any in-the-moment change in plans feels like a failure, and failure kills any feeling of creativity.
Where do you get the inspiration from?
I think it comes down to video games and movies. I’m a huge gamer. Well, you can’t be a huge gamer when you have small kids, but I used to play a lot of video games when I was younger. That’s where my interest in user interfaces grew. I started noticing how some interfaces were fun to use, while others were painful and sluggish to interact with. That interest eventually led me to want to build interfaces myself.
Inspiration isn’t only things you’ve experienced, seen or read. In my eyes, inspiration is, to a larger degree, a state of mind. It’s when you get into a flow state. When you get into that moment of thought, where the thing you’re seeing on screen — what you’re creating — inspires the next step in and of itself. That’s inspiration for me. So a lot of the time for the experiments on my website, I’ve just jumped straight into code with no plan and an open mind.
My most popular project — Sketch Toy — is one that very few people in the frontend community know about. It’s an app that just lets you draw, share and replay sketches. It’s the project that has seen the most number of users out of all the things I’ve created. And it’s had a very silent success because it became popular with an unexpected demographic: kids in Turkey, Brazil, Argentina and other places around the world. It started as an experiment that I put on my website. It sat there for like six months and only a couple of people tried it out. And then, all of a sudden out of nowhere, all these kids found it and this small experiment ended up seeing millions and millions of hits. It’s got half a billion hits up until now and there are 70 million sketches saved. It’s been really crazy seeing that.
When I say Financial Times, you think…?
I’m a very bad person to ask this because it’s not a newspaper that I read. I think of the nice two-letter domain name. And I think of high-quality news, definitely. And England.
Thank you Hakim El Hattab.
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