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This course introduces Branden Hall, a software architect and programmer, who has spent well over a decade pushing the limits of the web, and teaching others how to do the same. The cofounder and CEO of Automata Studios, Branden is an acknowledged expert in the field of interactive media, producing award-winning work and authoring books that serve as touchstones for the design community.
Branden opens up his personal studio and explains his fascination with “making,” whether through programming or woodwork, and the magic behind bringing his ideas to life. Branden and crew also visit the BLOOM installation, a project designed to display artwork for La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a museum dedicated to Mexican American history and culture in Los Angeles. Lynda then interviews Branden one-on-one, and they talk about Branden’s beginnings, most notable projects, and where he sees himself and technology headed in the future.
(music playing) Branden Hall: I have always loved programming because it lets me take what's in my head and craft reality around that. It's exactly like what you see in The Matrix. It's a cheesy way of putting it, but I loved it, where I sort of looked into the screen and kind of fall in.
I love that with the tools that we have now, both in programming and everything else I do, I can think of an idea, see it in my head, and then bring it to reality. There is just this deep magic there for me, and I love being in that state where I am just making. There is this flow there that I think anybody in a creative profession recognizes, where you literally fall into your work.
Lynda Weinman: Hello, I am Lynda Weinman, co-founder of lynda.com, and I am so excited to be here today with Branden Hall, who is the chief software architect and co-founder of Automata Studios in Washington D.C. Branden Hall: Thank you. Lynda Weinman: Welcome. Branden Hall: Thanks. I am really excited to be here. Lynda Weinman: Well, Branden you and I go far back, because I think we figured out that we Lynda Weinman: have know each for about twelve years. Branden Hall: Yep. Lynda Weinman: And long ago, I had started the first conference in the world that focused on Flash. At that time, it was Macromedia Flash, then it became Adobe Flash, and I remember meeting you when you were a young software engineer before the conference had even begun, and you, at that time, were working in Flash and doing some very cutting-edge work.
Tell us a little bit about how your career has evolved from those early days as a Flash developer to what you're doing now. Branden Hall: It's been a very interesting ride, to say the least. I started learning Flash because the woman I was dating at the time, she and I had a very sort of adversarial relationship, and anything she learned I had to learn too. It was really good for both of us. She was learning in Flash, and I had a real interest in animation. I loved making flip books and things like that as a kid, in addition to the programming.
So it seemed like a perfect thing for me to learn. I started playing and got involved in the online community, sharing, making tutorials, things on those lines, and that led me into a career doing what I've just been doing in my off time. Since then I have founded two different companies doing this and my current one, Automata Studios, is now five years old, and I am incredibly lucky to have actually founded it with my best friend. He and I met him when we were eleven, both learning how to program, and somehow here we are now making stuff for amazing clients and just having a blast.
Lynda Weinman: How did you get interested in programming to begin with? Branden Hall: I got interested in programming because of just some amazing people in my life. I think it actually goes back, oddly enough, to even kindergarten. My kindergarten teacher somehow got a hold of some old computer, I think a mainframe of some kind, and put it in our school in some closet, and we were allowed to go back there and play on it on occasion and learn how it worked. Because I didn't grow up terribly wealthy. We didn't have a computer for a long time, but my parents were always looking to help feed my interest.
So at one point, at a construction site where my dad was working, there was an office and they were throwing out all of their old computers. They were old Apple IIe's. And my dad filled the whole back of his truck with these beige boxes and brought them home, and it was like Christmas times ten for me. We got one working and that was mine, and donated the rest to my middle school. And my orchestra teacher was actually the one who was really interested in the new computers and he had programmed some.
He gave me all these books on Basic and I started making games, and it got me even further into math, because I would go into math class, I would learn how to do something, and then I immediately apply it to try to make more things with games. Then with just great relationships, like that I have had with Keenan. His dad was a professor of computer science at Howard University, and so he was already seriously into it. We would go home after school sometimes and literally have little programming competitions between the two of us.
We had this one little program called Probots where you would write little robots that would fight in Pascal. And so one of us would spend all the time on the computer writing the robot. The other person would be sketching the notebook for when it was their turn to code. I have always had that. I have always had amazing people in my life that helped shape this desire to build things, because really that's what all comes down to, because I love creating. It just so happens that I was lucky enough to be born in this era, where I have a job where the things I think up in my mind, I can make real.
Lynda Weinman: Yeah, very true. What's it like to own your own studio and be able to do projects of your choosing, I imagine? How do you choose your projects, and what's that been like to be a businessperson as well? Branden Hall: That's probably been my biggest challenge, and it's why I partnered with Keenan, because I definitely can be kind of, at times, the ADD artist type, just bouncing all around, wanting to do kind of everything. So it's been a real challenge forming a business, but you're correct that the whole reason we made the business was not to make money; it really wasn't about that at all.
It was about essentially building freedom for ourselves, the freedom to do the kinds of projects we want to do. It's been amazing of the last few years, because as we've grown, we have been able to say no, which is a wonderful power to just simply say, "This isn't the kind of project I want to do. This isn't something I believe in." Because when all the projects you work on are things you believe in, they just keep getting better and better and better, and you get more and more opportunities.
It's not a power we had at first. At first we were doing jobs that we didn't necessarily believe in, but we had that goal in mind and we were constantly working towards it. In terms of, on the business side, as I said, it's been a challenge, but it's also been one where we've been able to look at what the status quo is, look at how businesses are run, and at times, take the advice of others on how business has to work and other times say "No, it doesn't have to be this way.
We want to do it our way. We want to run a really humanistic business." We actually just recently got an HR firm to help us out for that, since we are hiring new people, and it's been wonderful to kind of tell them "No, we are not having set nine-to-five hours. It doesn't work that way. We want our hours to fit into people's lives. We want it so that my business partner leaves early a couple of days a week to go volunteer at an animal rescue." I leave early to go do, to help coach my son's tee-ball class, and we all have all of these other interests.
So we are trying to build a company that is part of people's lives, not something that they do to go live the rest of their life.
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