Peter is one of the two people behind Many Tricks.
- What do you currently do?
I create Mac software for Many Tricks, a small two-person indie software shop. Together with my business partner Rob, I’m one of those lucky few who get to work on the projects they want to work on. We like utilities and productivity tools, so that’s what most of our apps are.
- How did you get started in Mac and/or iOS programming?
Part of my thesis at med school was computational modeling based on experimental data from electrophysiology experiments I did with volunteers. The lab I worked at had tons of Macs, and I started there shortly before Mac OS 9 came out.
For the first few years I worked there, I didn’t actually write any native code. I did the modeling with Igor Pro, which had a powerful macro language. I only started writing native Mac apps a few years later, after I bought my first own Mac, but that lab was where I learned to love the Mac platform as a user. And that’s how you get started in programming for a platform, isn’t it?
- What was the first app you created and what did it do?
The first native Mac app I ever wrote was called Safari Roadbook. Initially, all it did was give you a system-wide menu with your Safari bookmarks. So when you wanted to open a bookmark, you didn’t have to switch to Safari first — you could select the bookmark from the menu regardless of what app you were currently in, then Safari would automatically come to the front and open a window with the site you wanted.
Over the years, that app changed its name a couple of times, and it gained a lot of functionality. It turned from a one-trick pony into a many tricks pony — hence the company name. I also met Rob through a review he wrote about this very app a few years later. He didn’t like the user interface, to put it mildly, so I contacted him and asked him for suggestions on how to improve it. We never stopped talking about software after that, and eventually, he quit his day job to take the wonderful risk that is being an independent developer.
The current name of the app is Butler, and it’s still available from our web site.
Now, just in case you’re also interested in the first app I wrote on any platform, that was way earlier, and it wasn’t an app at all. It wasn’t even an application. It was a program — that’s what they were called on the Atari platform. The Atari 1040 STFM was my first computer ever, and it came with a free BASIC interpreter. So I started experimenting with that, while reading the included manual. I wrote a lot of stuff for my Atari in the early 90s, and I think the first project I ever got to run was an early version of a graphics/drawing program called Images.
Images grew over the years, like projects I work on tend to do. It had shapes, a pencil, and it even had a font creator. I was very proud of it. But I’m the only person who ever used it, mostly because most of my geekier friends had Amigas, and because distributing software was really hard back then, before people started to use the internet for that. Too hard for a naive highschool student from Germany.
- Where did you get the idea for the app?
I’ll go back to talking about my Mac apps from here on out, but the answer to that is the same for almost all of the projects I ever worked on: I wanted to do something that I couldn’t do with the software at my disposal, so I wrote an app that let me do it.
- What went well? What could have gone better?
Aside from my answer to the next question (no peeking!), the best thing about Safari Roadbook was that it did exactly what I wanted it to do — I had successfully scratched an itch.
The worst part was that for a long time, I didn’t know where to stop. Adding new features, some of which were based on feature requests, was such a rush, I ended up with something that bordered on being an operating system within the operating system. And that’s bad for a lot of reasons, but I’ll only mention two of them: Maintaining a project like that is a nightmare. And the majority of users is more interested in simple apps with clear-cut functionality.
I did eventually stop adding features, by the way. One of the first projects that started life as yet another Butler feature, but then became an independent app instead was a text expansion utility that would later be known as TextExpander. Incidentally, Jean, the founder of AppCamp4Girls, was the central figure in turning that app into a huge success, after it had found a new home at Smile Software.
- What is your favorite among the apps you’ve developed?
There are at least two answers to that question. Emotionally, I think Butler/Safari Roadbook will always be my favorite app, because it’s been my Mac developer career’s lifeline for so long.
On a more technical level, my favorite app is Moom. Moom is a window layout utility that started with just one simple idea. And even though there is a ton of messy workarounds and approximations under the hood, it still comes across as simple on the surface.
- What advice do you have for young people who want to make apps?
Make an app you’ll love. Then watch it grow up. In the words of someone who is much smarter than I am, be a farmer.
Conversely, don’t try to create an app because you think it will make you rich quick — that’s boring, and you’ll fail. Someone else, who has millions in investor money, is already doing it. If you stick to scratching a personal itch primarily, you have a shot at getting it right for at least one user, and that’s difficult enough to achieve when you begin this journey.
Follow Peter on Twitter.
Help more girls learn software development. Contribute to the App Camp For Girls Indiegogo fundraiser, get a cool perk, and enjoy the feeling of having helped the next generation of software developers.