Chris Ashworth, developer of the game changing software QLab and OSX Audio Forum member, appeared on the theatrical sound design software scene seemingly out of the blue. In this interview we discuss the business aspect of working for yourself, OS X development and his flagship product QLab.
Give us a little bit of a bio for the man behind QLab.
I’m a Louisville Kentucky kid. In college I intended to be a computer science major but found I was spending more time doing theater, so I made it official and got a double major. Then I went back to Louisville as an apprentice at Actors Theatre of Louisville for a year. After that I decided I wanted health insurance so I went back to grad school to get a masters in CS.
Do you come from an artistic family or are they more the analytical type?
Very artistic. My dad is an amazing musician, musicologist, and teacher. We have pictures of me and my sister in pajama-onesies (that kind with the feet built in, where you had to zip up the side), and we’re dancing while he plays the harpsichord after dinner. That was a pretty typical after-dinner activity for us. My sister got his talent, and she is also an amazing musician. My mom might be the most analytical–she’s always investigating the world around her, collecting information, picking it apart, analyzing it. She’s a scientist at heart.
What are your 3-5 desert island discs or gear and why?
I never know how to answer that question.
Who is your mentor/idol and why?
I try not to idolize anyone too much. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had some extraordinary teachers in my life–I have, and I’m grateful for it. I feel like teachers are terribly undervalued. That saying “if you can’t do, teach” is nonsense. In college I saw a stunning production of Hamlet on a trip to London with the National Theatre Institute. It was the kind of performance that helped define my relationship to theater. It was amazing. In a talk-back after the performance, one of the actors pulled out that saying. He said it while standing next to some of the most incredible teachers I’ve ever had the luck to know. It pissed me off something awful. I think teaching is probably the most common act of selflessness that human beings exercise on a day-to-day basis, and that makes it one of the most remarkable things we do as humans.
What was the best theatrical experience you’ve seen or been a part of?
It’s hard to pick favorites, so I won’t. In the interest of not completely dodging the question, I’ll say I was proud of the production of Art I contributed to for my senior project. The three guys played all three roles, and we switched it up so it was a new permutation each night. It was pretty cool.
Please walk us through your average work day.
The first part of the day is pretty clear-cut. I wake up somewhere between 5:30 and 8:00 AM and immediately check my email for any urgent questions. Even if there’s nothing urgent, there are usually a few inquiries that have rolled in from Australia and Europe overnight.
After that, every day can be different. Some days I spend coding. Some days will be working on the website. Some days will be designing. Some days will be filing taxes. Some days will be developing ideas for new applications. Some days will be nothing but writing emails. Some days will be a mix of all these things.
The one constant is keeping an eye on the support mailbox. Every day, all day long, I’m constantly checking to see if anyone needs help. That’s the one thing every day has in common.
What was the moment or event that made you leave your previous job to work at Figure53 full time?
There was one specific meeting at my last day job that triggered it. I had been thinking about going full time for months and months: planning, saving money, talking about it with my wife, talking about it with a financial advisor, considering the alternatives, fretting about health insurance and job security. But I knew the time was coming. The pressure had been mounting for a long time. Working two full time jobs was burning me out.
There was one particular day, a kickoff for a new project that I was supposed to lead. I sat in that meeting thinking: “This project is exactly what this company should be working on. And it is exactly the last thing in the world that I want to spend any amount of my life doing.” So I came in the next morning and handed in my notice.
By the time I went full time I had very little to fear. I jumped with care, and didn’t jump too early. It was a joyous moment, and I suddenly had twice as much energy to invest in my own work. I can’t imagine doing anything else now.
How did your family react to you leaving your old job and becoming your own boss
They were very excited and supportive. It’s funny, my dad secretly reads the QLab mailing list almost every day. When we talk on the phone he’ll ask me if I was able to solve the problem of Mr. Such-and-such, and it’ll take me a second to think “wait, how do -you- know about Mr. Such-and-such?!” Maybe I should hire him as tech support when he retires from teaching.
Where do you see Figure53 in 5 years and then 10 years?
In five years I expect Figure 53 to be a small team of developers and designers, working on a variety of products.
In ten years I expect it to be similar. I don’t want the company to get too big.
Describe your design process for a piece of software.
Designing, for me, usually means working away from a computer. It may mean I’m working entirely on paper for a day, or it may even mean I’m lolling about looking very lazy.
I don’t like to jump in to write code until I have a very specific idea of exactly what I’m going to write. So when creating something new I’ll spend time running, walking, eating, whatever. The functional pieces need to get carved out in your imagination before you start representing them in code.
In contrast, if I’m in the thick of implementing an idea, or if I’m chasing a nasty bug, I may be glued to the machine for a week or two at a time. That’s when the obsession kicks in, when you stop shaving and forget to eat, because by god you’re going to build this thing or kill this bug, and you can’t step away because the minute you step away from the computer a piece of the puzzle falls out of your mind.
My design process is also tightly tied to user feedback. I don’t see how you can design good software without a tight feedback loop. But the early stages, where I need to set down the overall vision, philosophy, and architecture, are a very personal period. That period can be very odd to watch from the outside.
Who do you consider your direct competitors and why?
Stage Research is obviously a very strong and very admirable competitor in this market. There are others, but I think SFX is my most direct competition.
I’m grateful that they are the competition; they are good guys and they do good work. I think we are engaged in a very healthy kind of competition which benefits us and benefits our customers.
Stay tuned for the next post when Chris and I talk about developing for the Mac and other OS X platforms.