Full-Time Indie iOS Dev and Music Enthusiast: A Top Dev Interview With Alex Andrews

Check out our interview with Alex Andrews – a successful full-time indie iOS developer, Swift lover, and music enthusiast. By Adam Rush.

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Full-Time Indie iOS Dev and Music Enthusiast: A Top Dev Interview With Alex Andrews

25 mins

Welcome to another installment of our Top App Dev Interview series!

Each interview in this series focuses on a successful mobile app or developer and the path they took to get where they are today. Today’s special guest is Alex Andrews.

Alex is a full-time indie iOS developer, Swift lover and motivated musician. He is well known for running his own company Ten Kettles, producing high quality apps for enthusiast musician’s alike.

When Alex is not running Ten Kettles, he creates various tools to help with his job and explores his own Scrum variation.

Full-time indie

Most developers struggle to make the leap from paid project work to fully indie developer. Can you explain how you made this leap?

Before I jumped into Ten Kettles full-time in 2014, I worked as a research engineer in a few different labs around Toronto (lots of signal processing and data analysis work) while spending a lot of time making and performing music. I loved it and worked on some very cool projects with people I’m proud to know, but I felt like something was missing.

Alex’s typical workspace

I’d started a company back when I was 18, and I had just loved the experience so much that I knew I’d return to it one day. I think I just needed to wait for the right time—a time when I had enough experience under my belt to know what it was I wanted to build specifically (i.e., apps!), and to have the skills to get started.

What pushed it over the edge for me was that I’d been working in what would have been my dream “real job” for two years, but it was just feeling less “right” as time went on. I couldn’t stop thinking about going out on my own and began learning iOS development in my spare time.

Not to say it wasn’t a struggle. It took some time to get off the ground (i.e., stable paycheques), and it was a pretty big financial and emotional challenge in the meantime. Living in Toronto isn’t cheap either! But I think I just really believed in Ten Kettles and what I was doing… so I just had to keep at it.

What benefits do you get working as an indie?

I think it just fits my personality. I love building things, learning from users’ feedback, iterating products, making big plans and chipping away at them week-by-week… there’s actually a lot in common with writing music and playing in a band.

And though it’s mostly solo work with Ten Kettles, doing the occasional consulting project or collaboration (e.g., working with our designer) has been fantastic for pushing me outside of my comfort zone and has taught me loads.

All your products at Ten Kettles revolve around music. For example, your latest product Waay helps musicians songwriting. How did that focus on music-related apps come about?

When I started Ten Kettles, I didn’t know what type of apps the company was going to build beyond the first one or two. My background at the time involved lots of signal processing/data analysis, audio/music apps, and teaching. So, I just kept picking the ideas that most inspired me, and over the first year or two that ended up being music education, which actually pulls in all that stuff.

Waay an app produced by Ten Kettles

I used to teach quite a bit of guitar and music theory, and a big part of my approach was putting together custom courses for my students based on their interests (e.g., songwriting, learning cover songs, or developing solo technique). It turned out to be pretty effective, and an app seemed a perfect way to bring that approach to anyone with an iPad or iPhone. hearEQ was similar: I was helping to train my band’s soundperson and wanted a tool that could let her practise ear-training on any track she wanted.

So, app ideas tend to pop out of personal experiences like that for the most part, and I’ll add the potentially good ones into a master text file. There are a lot of terrible ideas on that list too, but I think that’s OK. Quantity over quality when it comes to brainstorming, maybe?

A lot of indie developers have more ideas for apps than they have time to build. How do you choose which of your many ideas to build to completion?

Picking ideas from that list to actually build, and have them be successful, is tricky. I’m still getting the hang of it. But there are definitely a few solid points I’d recommend to people when deciding on an app to start building:

  • Pick something you can get—and stay—excited about, even on the dull or frustrating days. The apps I’ve been most happy building were ones that I couldn’t stop thinking about until I got started.
  • Pick an idea you can feel a little more qualified to work on than most other people. It helps to bring a unique perspective, skill set, or approach to an app idea—especially if the market’s a bit crowded.
  • Don’t think (just) like a programmer, think like a product maker. Will people actually want to use the thing you’re making? Will they be excited about it? Can you name a few people who will definitely use it? This is where some market research can probably help.
  • Think of an app like an ongoing conversation. Creating an app and then shipping it is kind of like thinking of an idea and then telling it to a friend. You’re starting a conversation. Listening to a friend’s feedback on your idea—or your users’ feedback on your app—is maybe the best way to make it better. So, the fourth point is to get your app into other people’s hands for feedback ASAP, even if it’s a little rough around the edges at first. And then listen! It’ll make your app waay better. (I learned this one the hard way.)

Alex, what does a typical day look like?

I tweak this every once in a while, but here’s a normal day:

  • 5:15–8:15AM: Meditate, walk dogs, exercise or practise music (alternate), tech learning (programming katas, side projects, reading), family breakfast.
  • 8:15–12:00: Work, taking short breaks every hour.
  • 12:00-1:00 Lunch
  • 1:00-6:00PM: Work, taking short breaks every hour.

Ideally, I’d aim for about 7 hours of sleep with about half an hour of reading and a little day-planning first. So, for most weeknights, that’s about 10:15 PM by the time we actually turn the light off.

That schedule is for a normal Monday–Friday, though on Friday I’ll usually sleep in an hour which opens up Thursday evening a little more. :]

When it comes to non-work hours, they are pretty much strictly non-work. I might play around with a framework, work through a raywenderlich.com tutorial, do a side-project, or read some tech books (just finished up Working Effectively With Legacy Code), but nothing that is too immersive or stressful. Work’s for the workday.

I split the workday into one hour chunks that include a short break, kind of like a long Pomodoro. I’ve been doing this for maybe a decade and despite trying a few variants over the years, this split works great for me. The work part (45–50 minutes) is all work: no texting, tweeting, email (unless it’s a specific work task), or anything like that. Just work. And then the break (10–15 minutes) is the opposite. No rules. Maybe I’ll hop onto Twitter, have a snack, go for a short walk, wrestle with my dogs, whatever.

Alex will often take time-out

Needless to say, I use my stopwatch and iPhone timer quite a lot (though inexplicably, Siri still only understands “Set a timer for 45 minutes” about half the time…) Besides keeping me focussed, this approach has been great for doing those occasional tasks I really cannot get excited about (taxes!)… because I’m only ever 45 minutes away from a break. :]

So many developers are talking about the “indiepocalypse” as there are very little indie devs out there now. What’s your take on this?

Alex is never too far from a musical instrument

I don’t know… when playing in bands, I’d hear other musicians say lots of stuff like “there’s nowhere good to play,” “there’s just no scene here,” or “it’s so hard for musicians.” That kind of thing. And I was always that annoying guy who’d be wondering “Well, what about venue X? What have you done for promo? Why are you booking shows on Monday at 1 a.m.? Who are you booking with?”

So, yeah, there are challenges to being indie anything but I find focusing on that stuff too much can be unhealthy. There’s often a workaround if you look for it. Or maybe there’s not, and I should be paying more attention! ‍

I mean, my business model involves doing consulting work a few months a year and maybe market forces will make that a month or two longer one year. But, to be honest, I’m still blown away that we have these tools and ecosystem that allow us to come up with an idea, put it together with these free/cheap tools, and then upload it to a store and have users emailing us with their experiences within a week or two. Plus the fantastic iOS dev community.

It’s all amazing, and I feel lucky to be making it work now, regardless of what’s to come. Who knows if I’ll be an indie dev in 10 years time, but I know that it’s pretty awesome for now.

What advice would you give to developers wanting to be an indie developer?

If you want to be an indie dev that makes your own products, I’d start by asking yourself if you want to start a business. Because at least in my experience, that’s really what you’re doing. That means marketing, design, assessing products, killing products sometimes, some days without any coding.

Did I mention lawyers and accountants? Because if your preference is a stable income and mostly coding, plus having a team to fall back on (and support), I think a standard coding job is probably a better fit!

Being an indie product developer is hard. There’s lots of pressure, you bear sole responsibility for every mistake. Plus, at least in my experience, it can take a while to get profitable.

But the flipside is pretty fantastic: you get to dream up ideas, make them into reality, share them with the world, and earn at least a good chunk of your living that way. You’re always learning new things and putting them to use. And not little things either, big stuff: new programming languages, how to market products, new design approaches, better communication skills, video editing, color theory, Canadian tax code (OK, maybe not always that exciting…).

There’s a middle ground too: if you want coding and independence, there’s always the freelancer route. It can be a much smarter earning opportunity, and you get many of the same perks.

I found the articles on raywenderlich.com on this really helpful when I started integrating some consulting into Ten Kettles (I do about 75% of my own product work and 25% client work). Asking advice from people in your community is always a great call too: before Instagram scooped up Toronto’s (and raywenderlich.com’s) Greg Heo, I took him out for a beer to pick his brain on client work, and I definitely learned a lot.