Creative Lives — Daniel Demmel, full-stack web developer at ustwo, uses technology to make people’s lives easier
Growing up in Hungary, Daniel Demmel used to sneak into his dad’s office to use his computer, igniting an early interest in programming and digital design. While laziness is generally viewed as a negative trait, for Daniel his desire to kick back has become an ongoing incentive to create the simplest possible solutions in his work. Now part of the team at digital design agency ustwo, Daniel marries analytical skills with empathy to solve essential problems. So whether he’s analysing traffic to help commuters or sketching out new ideas, making people’s lives better is at the heart of his role.
Full-Stack Web Developer and Digital Product Technologist, ustwo (2007–present)
Freelancer Flash Designer and Developer, Budapest, Hungary (2006–2007)
Flash Designer and Development, Carnation, Budapest, Hungary (2005–2006)
Budapest College of Economics (Budapesti Gazdasági Főiskola) Economics, International Marketing, Total Quality Management (2002–2006)
How would you describe your job?
My primary responsibility is delivering the right technical solution to whatever business problem the project I’m involved with is trying to solve. This is mostly writing code, but can vary – for example, building communication bridges between various technical and non-technical teams in a client organisation.
The main aim for each team at ustwo is to deliver something (mostly a digital product) which solves the right problems or helps to test various assumptions. To achieve this in a collaborative way, team members needs to support each other with whatever needs to be done, so I’ll often find myself sketching on designs or filling in a product canvas [a product planning tool to quickly capture the strategy of a product on one page].
What does a typical working day look like?
Most days I cycle to our Shoreditch studio from the other end of Hackney, except for Wednesdays when I’m always off to be with my young family. I usually have a quick stand-up meeting with my team, followed by bursts of collaborative sessions and a good chunk of heads-down production time. On an ideal day if I plan my time well, I can also spend a bit of time learning or thinking ahead.
How did you land your current job?
By lovingly creating a portfolio website from scratch and replying to literally hundreds of job ads. I didn’t hear anything back from most of them, but luckily one recruiter recommended me to ustwo after the previous job I applied to was filled. I almost didn’t get hired as my verbal English skills were really poor at the time, but Mills, Sinx, and Marcus agreed to have me in for three days as a trial.
“It’s not always writing code. Developers at ustwo are not grumpy engineers hidden in a dark corner, but more technologists who apply their skills in whatever way is most useful.”
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I spend most of my work time in the studio. It’s nice being around smart people and picking up on random conversations. That said, I also enjoy occasionally working from home or nipping out to a café for a change. Nothing stops anyone else from doing this, they just have to check with their team.
How collaborative is your role?
It’s super collaborative. Developers at ustwo are not grumpy engineers hidden in a dark corner, but more technologists who apply their skills in whatever way is most useful – it’s not always writing code. This means I also often work with various people from client organisations directly. Sometimes unlocking a better technical solution relies on getting things moving there.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The least enjoyable thing for me is when I have to wait for some code to compile or by getting blocked by some external dependency. There’s usually plenty to do, but even if I’m completely blocked there’s always a possibility to help a team member out.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
A series of experiments to take the pain out of travelling around using multiple modes of transport. It was personally very challenging as most of the work was on the back-end. I collaborated with our data scientist to analyse traffic flows and social media to surface real-time information that could help commuters avoid delays and crowds.
Daniel at work
Daniel's screen at work
What skills are essential to your job?
Curiosity; a flexible mindset; eagerness to continuously learn new things and decent interpersonal skills.
Do you run any self-initiated alongside your job?
I maintain and contribute to various open source libraries, but with two small children I had to park all my bigger ambitions, like my DIY open source smart home ideas. I did manage to start a little journaling app last year in the breathing time between two projects. It was a good opportunity to try out a few new things.
What tools do you use most for your work?
As many open source tools as I can! My favourite editor for programming is Atom which is where I get the ‘serious’ work done, together with iTerm which is a modern terminal where I run Docker and various other tools. I’m very digital, so prefer to keep notes in Evernote (which is sadly not open source), but for sketching, paper still works best.
Moodnotes by ustwo, an app that aims to increase a user’s mental wellbeing
Moodnotes by ustwo, an app that aims to increase a user’s mental wellbeing
ustwo’s work for Jaguar resulted technology that connected the user to the vehicle with wearable technology
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
A wealthy investor who could splash his money around and watch it grow with his feet up on the desk. Yes, I’ve always been quite lazy, but combined with pragmatic creativity, that can actually be a useful trait for a developer as it pushes you to the simplest possible solution.
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
I grew up in a small town in Hungary while communism was still around. But I got lucky as the Iron Curtain fell just as I started school, so I could learn English instead of Russian as a second language. My Dad worked in a big, heavy machinery factory which got bought by General Electric. Their offices were one of the first places in Hungary to be connected to the internet, so I would sneak in and use my Dad’s computer while he was out and about on the factory floor.
This opened up the world for me and made it easy to learn English just by reading stuff on the web. It also made me more interested in computers, and eventually programming and digital design. so I just self taught these skills first without even realising.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied economics which has almost no value at all as a developer, but I did recently use this knowledge as a foundation to build some product management skills on.
What were your first jobs?
In my very first job I assembled bits for roadside signages in my Dad’s friend’s factory, which, in all honesty was quite grim. It made me determined to push on with studies so as not to end up spending a lifetime in a job like that.
“I’ve always been an introvert, but now I regularly speak at conferences – sometimes in front of thousands of people. It’s been a big journey to say the least.”
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Moving to London. I wanted to find a place where I could use my digital skills to work on useful design problems, rather than making people smoke and drink more with well crafted advertising messages.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Each and every project is helpful for development; my attitude is to try and make the most of any situation by looking for opportunities rather than agonising on negatives. For example I’m currently filling in for a QA (Quality Assurance) colleague, which is obviously very different from what I normally do or what I have in my personal development plan, but it’s been a great learning experience.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Web development changes so quickly that if you miss out a for few months, it feels as though you’ve already lost the plot. But even with all these rapid changes on the surface, the fundamental principles of programming move much slower. And taking a further step back, the purpose of technology is to make people’s lives better, so in the end it’s about cultivating empathy to understand people.
“My attitude is to try and make the most of any situation by looking for opportunities rather than agonising on negatives.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
I’ve always been an introvert, so building up people skills was a big stretch out of my comfort zone, but ustwo has been a great environment to gradually build up confidence. I started out by sending emails which made people gasp in disbelief (luckily these were internal), but being open to constructive criticism and making myself coachable helped me learn to be more empathetic above all. Now I regularly speak at conferences – sometimes in front of thousands of people – so it’s been a big journey to say the least.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I didn’t really have many preconceptions, but it was definitely surprising to see how integral interpersonal skills can be – even for something as analytical as programming.
What would you like to do next?
I’m very passionate about the environment, so I have been learning a lot about sustainable development, and lately, degrowth. I’m hoping that ustwo will keep on working with clients who have a strong social purpose. As for my personal development, I’m focusing on product and leadership skills to grow into a more balanced developer-product hybrid role.
Could you do this job forever?
ustwo, my role, and the industry itself are constantly changing, so things don’t really have a moment to become boring. I’m happy to keep on learning and pushing myself with new challenges into the foreseeable future. Forever? I don’t know, we’ll have to check with our robot overlords later.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position? As we get older and have more responsibilities outside work, keeping up with all the new things in programming can become challenging. It makes sense to work on leadership skills, and instead of doing the work directly, focus on helping others to shine and grow. But of course everyone is different and I personally don’t feel like stopping yet.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a developer?
While it’s of course essential to be passionate about technology and building analytical skills, it’s equally important to cultivate empathy and care about people. Otherwise you can easily find yourself working on projects which try to solve the wrong problems. It’s also important to stay curious about people working in other disciplines around you, as mutual respect is a fundamental part of collaboration. After all it’s more important to pull towards the shared goal of making something useful as a team, than to obsess about the details of your work and personal achievements.
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on ustwo.