A Book Apart

Get to Know David Demaree

Feb 06, 2019

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This week we’re celebrating three years of David Demaree’s Git for Humans. Since you can get to know the book anytime by reading it, we decided to ask David some questions to get to know him a bit better! He shares how he organizes his work each day, why he thinks the web has as much revolutionary potential today as it did in the ’90s, and why sometimes shorter is definitely better.

David Demaree

ABA: What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day on the right foot?

David Demaree: I have a very spirited four-year-old who likes to burst into our room as soon as her OK-to-wake light goes off at 6:30am every morning; I’m not sure being ordered out of bed to play unicorn stickers is starting my day on the best foot, but it certainly gets things moving.

My proper workday usually starts on the 45-minute train ride from my house in New Jersey to Google’s NYC office. I’ll grab a coffee before the train arrives, grab a seat once I’m aboard, turn on a wireless hotspot, and start to organize my day. Even though I live by Google Calendar and a fancy Getting Things Done to-do list app, I often like to start my day by sketching or mind-mapping on my iPad. I used to use Microsoft OneNote for this, but now I’m either in Paper or Concepts. I’ll often start with a list of important meetings or presentations as columns, then I’ll jot in two-three things that are important about each one. I’ll copy tasks into my to-do list; mostly just to organize my thoughts. (I don’t ever keep the notes.)

Unless it’s 10ºF out or I have an urgent meeting, I’ll enjoy the fifteen-minute walk from the train to my office. Sometimes I listen to music, sometimes it’s noise-cancelling headphones, and I focus on getting into a good headspace.

ABA: In your opinion, what should someone consider before starting out in web design / development?

DD: Recently I wrote in a Slack channel that what makes the web so hard, is that it both changes all the time, and carries all the baggage of every previous iteration as it does so. I can’t say what it’s like to start out working with the modern web. I started doing what we now call “web design” around 1995, and though my skills are (if I do say so) legit and up to date, I definitely remember how magical it felt just to get some HTML and CSS working when I was in college. HTML and CSS are just text, that when parsed and rendered well, turn into a whole visual experience. I still think that right there is essential to appreciating the web—plain text that browsers turn into magic, documents and applications that can work simply and well on devices anywhere in the world.

So: understand the medium, and appreciate the web. The web isn’t better or worse than, say, native apps on our phones; it’s its own thing. And I still feel like the web has as much revolutionary potential today as it did in the ‘90s. Think about it: the majority of web pages can be accessed from most anywhere by most anyone—all someone needs is a browser. The web can scale from a plain-text version of a Dickens novel to ridiculously powerful, connected apps like Google Docs or Slack, and everything in between. You can update content or whole applications on your server, and then everyone has them. A lot has happened in twenty years, but I think the fundamental magic of the web is still there. If you can find and appreciate that, and don’t mind learning a whole new JavaScript-y thing every couple years, you may be well set up for a long career doing this stuff.

Also, please get off my lawn.

ABA: Is there anyone you’re following the work of right now, that you’d recommend others pay attention to?

DD: I’m in the middle of getting established in a new job leading product for the Material Design system team, and a few times I’ve come back to Christina Wodtke’s work (talks, blog posts, her excellent book about OKRs). I think she’s amazing at putting some of the most business-y elements of successful product work into a human context and framework, which I think is really critically important leading teams of designers and other creative people.

ABA: What does the tech industry need more of? Less of?

DD: Less ridiculous, godforsaken money, tbh.

Also, one thing Adobe (where I worked for seven years until last March) did that was really nice, was celebrate work milestones—for example, when I had been with the company for five years, they not only sent me an attractive glass “A” logo with my name and the number five etched on the bottom, they added a little number ‘5’ icon to my employee badge. Five years is a nice milestone to celebrate—not such a huge chunk of one’s life, but still long enough to have formed really good relationships and gotten to know a space very well. I think many tech companies try to incentivize people to stay around for four or five years by having their stock grants pay out over that length of time (if my employers are reading this, please do continue to send me money), but I think we underestimate the value of a silly glass tchotchke and a new badge to recognize an accomplishment. I wonder what tech would be like if people were thinking more about five years than one year or one quarter.

ABA: In moments of self-doubt, how do you recharge and rally to keep going?

DD: In my first year at Typekit, I worked with some really big names I knew from web design blogs and Twitter—Jeff and Greg Veen, Mandy Brown, Jason Santa Maria, Tim Brown—and I wasn’t very experienced at giving presentations. I was always really nervous both before and after I’d show slides (and we did a team all-hands every week on Friday, so there were many opportunities to be nervous!). One time after a meeting, I admitted in our team Campfire how nervous I’d just felt while giving a presentation, and Jason very kindly said something along the lines of: everyone wants to see you do well. Not just our team and me specifically, but in general—people watching something want to be receptive. This was a good prompt to think about why I was nervous, which turned out to be more about my own fear than any real risk of failure.

I’ve come back to that again and again: if things are swirling and feel too big, I try to get back to ground truth. Who are the people in the room and what are they thinking as they walk in? That helps me get out of my head and back to work.

ABA: What characteristic do you most admire in other driven/creative people?

DD: Because I am particular about tools and processes, I have a reputation for being very well organized. I am in fact very poorly organized, which is why I’ve tried every single to-do list app, calendar, notebook, or productivity system under the sun. None of them completely solve my lack of discipline about actually doing the things on my list. I also have a freakishly good memory, which is kind of a problem—I remember things well enough that it might seem silly to write them down. And then I’ll forget some of them, or never write them down, and that’s why my coffeemaker’s “please clean me” light has been on for two weeks.

Anyway, I admire people who have discipline—to organize their thoughts and work and get things done, and also to do meticulous work like graphic design, animation, or maintaining a blog for more than a week.

I spend a lot of time routing around my own brain, and it mostly works, but sometimes I wish I had the patience and focus to make more things.

ABA: What tool, object, or ritual could you not live without to get you through a week?

DD: Beyond the obvious (laptop, phone, coffee), one thing I noticed as I packed my work bag earlier, is that I just do not feel okay if I don’t have pens with me. I packed five pens in my bag and kept one in my pocket. I almost never use them anymore; in fact if I do write something down in a meeting I’ll often grab a pen from the table rather than take the one out of my pocket. I carry a pen—usually a nice-but-not-ostentatious one, like a Baron Fig Squire or Lamy Dialog—because I have always carried a pen and cannot imagine surviving without one.

ABA: Is there a piece of professional or life advice you’ve gotten that has always stuck with you? What is it?

DD: I don’t know that this was “advice” so much as an “admonition” or “annoyed challenge,” but when I was in college at the Film/Video/New Media program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I took a film editing class under Jeffrey Skoller. I managed to step in it a couple of times over the course of one term, and Jeffrey graciously and constructively declined to put up with my bullsh*t. The lesson I think about most often from this class was when I turned in a sixty-minute cut of a film I’d shot, and Jeffrey challenged me to cut it to a mere ten minutes. Initially I was furious and could not imagine that a ten-minute version would work. But when my own ridiculous twenty-year-old-kid anger faded, I had a real lightbulb moment: if I was right, then trying to cut it to ten minutes would prove me right because there’d be evidence that cutting so short killed the film. And if I was wrong, I’d have a better film. I ended up cutting the video to seven minutes, and it was just so much better.

This is maybe an ironic thing to cite as a lesson; many people who’ve worked with me joke about how long my emails and presentations can be, and Caren Litherland once described my writing in Git for Humans—which I think remains one of ABA’s longest books as “Proustian”(btw, thanks Tim for making Flexible Typesetting even longer).

HOWEVER, I’d say the lesson was not (just) that shorter is (much much much) better, but rather that often it’s really important to just try something rather than discuss or react to the idea of doing something. I used to say at Typekit that code was the best way to settle a debate. These days, I like to cite art school crits and push teams to go off and make something concrete we can focus on and pick apart. Sometimes just the shift in thinking from debate to having to make a prototype, is enough to get to answers.

Have you checked out David’s book, Git for Humans, yet? Grab a copy and learn how to wield Git for collaboration on any digital project today!