Tech Leader Spotlight: Drew Dahlman

Tech Leader Spotlight: Drew Dahlman 

This year, Code was lucky enough to host the 2-day, 350 attendee, celebration of the tech community: Develop Denver. We were also lucky enough to interview the founder of the event, Drew Dahlman. In addition to Develop Denver, Drew is the founder of GifMe and a Senior Developer at Legwork. Here's what he had to say about his event and the Denver tech Community.

What was your favorite part about Develop Denver this year?

The people, the environment, just the overall energy of the whole event. It was great to see people get inspired and leave with new ideas, connections, and after the event I’ve seen a ton of people who have been in conversations on Twitter and continue to talk to speakers they were inspired by. It’s pretty awesome to see the community coming together and getting inspired to create and push themselves in their endeavors--professionally and personally.

What motivated you to start Develop Denver?

It actually kind of just started from a Twitter post. I knew people from their avatars on Twitter and Stack Overflow, and I knew they were in Denver, but we never actually hung out. At the time the meetup scene wasn’t as big as it is now, and there wasn’t a conference in Denver that really brought us all together. So, I tweeted out that we should all get together and hang out and people responded, so I thought why not give it a shot.

The first year was actually kind of crazy. I initially felt like I knew a lot of people here in town, I felt like I would see a lot of the people I already knew. But, I didn’t know anyone. It blew me away that I knew absolutely no one at this event. That’s when it really set in that the Denver tech scene was much larger than I had thought. That was the biggest thing about the first year of Develop Denver, I felt like I knew people in the community, but I just knew such a small sliver of it. And now, every year we’ve grown. We went from about 50 people the first year, to 100 the second year, to 150-200 the third year, 300 the fourth year and then this past year was about 350 people. It’s just grown and grown, but we’ve been trying to keep it at a sustainable growth, so that it’s not too many people. We want to create an environment where you can still really get to know people, and talk to the speakers one-on-one.

It’s all about getting people together, sharing ideas, and making the Denver community shine. Just coming together as a community, that’s the whole idea.  There are just so many amazing people and unique perspectives and through Twitter and Slack, etc., we’re able to come together and create the means to introduce ourselves versus being behind our computer screens or in our workplaces.

In addition to Develop Denver, you also founded an app. Tell me about that.

Right! I have a problem with gifs, maybe not a problem but an obsession. I made this Chrome extension called GifMe and, actually I launched it three years ago today. But basically, I was at the office and one of my co-workers said, “Hey, send me that gif of that thing,” and I didn’t know where that gif was or had it saved anywhere. So I went home, and spent all weekend--I didn’t sleep--on this chrome extension that keeps track of your gifs. So I rolled into the office late for a meeting that Monday morning and sent it to all my co-workers and said “here, just keep track of your gifs!” So you just right click on the gif and it saves to a library that you can access from anywhere, by adding tags it makes it easy to find the exact gif you’re wanting.

I launched it that Monday and by that Thursday it blew up. It was on Reddit, then got picked up by TechCrunch, Gizmodo, just wound up growing and growing! I released a Safari version, then an iOS, Android, and then made it into a search engine. I mean, there are others who have tried to do it, but they always use hashtags. I wanted a more natural language so, for example, instead of “#cat, #wilfordbrimley” you use “Wilford Brimley Cat.” It creates a natural language for the search engine.

It’s really just a hobby that got out of hand. I’ll do updates and patches on it when it needs them, but it’s just a lot of fun. It’s just something I made for my friends and me that other people really enjoyed and use and it’s been wild watching it blow up.

Besides those two major things, what is your involvement in the Denver tech community?

Well, I’m a senior developer at a shop called Legwork which is a small creative studio here in Denver over on South Broadway. We do interactive experiences and motion design. So, we have two parts of our company: we have the motion team who does 3D work and commercials and then the web team, where we do installations, websites, apps, games, things like that. It’s pretty cool, we get to combine forces and bring motion and 3D into web projects for games and sites which gives us a lot of flexibility in what we create.

For example, a couple weeks ago I was in LA doing a project for Nike and the US Basketball team, it was a 30ft by 30ft cube that was lined from floor to ceiling with LED screens. A user would walk into the cube and be detected and the room would come to life, then they would charge the basket to make a dunk or a layup or whatever move and it would trigger a camera array that would capture a bullet time video of them frozen mid air and then play out. We had our good friend Justin Gitlin from ModeSet and Ben Chwirka as well as our motion team working on the wall graphics and then myself and Jasper Gray from Futuristic Films working on the cameras. This was all captured and within 30 seconds it was rendered into a final video clip that the user would be able to get emailed to them. It's cool stuff. It varies on what we get into, but we have a lot of flexibility within our team. We're a small studio and it allows us to work on all sorts of projects.

We’re really starting to get into a bunch of Virtual Reality stuff, just diving head-in on that. Playing with that has been pretty awesome, seeing the differences between the HTC Vive and the Oculus and everything that’s out there, and then thinking about how we can apply this to our clients.

At Legwork, what’s the office space like?

It's pretty open and relaxed. We've got a few long open desks that everyone sits at and a giant mural our buddy Scot Lefavor painted that represents Denver and our culture. Our office spirit animal is David Lee Roth. We also have a front wall area that serves as a rotating art space, so whoever wants to do something with it can. Right now we have a bunch of metal deer we painted black and the wall is red behind them. Before that we had a graffiti artist from London who came by and tagged the wall. It's a fun environment to work in and we are all friends so it makes a great space to create.

What projects do you like working on outside of work?

I’m all over the place. I’m a big fan of passion projects, like just for shits and giggles. For example, last year, when .news domains came out, I bought and I basically made a robot that scrapes newsfeeds from all over the place and then through an algorithm called a markov chain, it constructs sentences using them. It just writes really shitty news headlines, and then finds a picture that kinda, sorta has something to do with it. One of the first headlines was something like, “I’m 1% Cheese?” So, yeah it’s just for fun.

But I also really love doing print, I like tangible items. For instance Develop Denver, which is a digital conference - to have something tangible, like the wooden engraved passes, is always fun for me to make and for others to have. My background was in design, so I actually started as a designer and then turned into a coder. So, when I was at Cactus, I wore both hats: art director and senior developer. It was cool being able to balance that and doing design outside of interactive and creating stuff, making art. It’s just a lot of fun to make things for no other particular reason than to make them and gain experience from that.

Up-and-coming tech trends you’re excited about?

Super nerdy side... but I'm really excited about things like Crystal Language that bring power of older languages to a more modern syntax - being as slick as ruby but with the power of C. It's really interesting, it seems that the language world right now is really blossoming, people are looking at functional programming, which has its pros and cons. We're coming to a point where there's a lot of ideas coming out, and people are really getting out there and exploring them.

The web is moving out from just being the web on our computers, and with our phones becoming more powerful and devices like Arduinos or Tessel that are running NodeJS being available things are getting super interesting. It's a really cool time to be creating and there are a lot of options out there that we didn't have even a few years ago.

What’s your favorite part about the Denver tech community?

The people are just incredible. It’s really, really cool and humbling. When you go to the Valley and all these other hubs, there’s this level of pretentiousness, but not here. You hear it all the time from those who moved here, the pretentious culture is not as prolific. The people are willing to reach out, mentor, work together. It’s an overall healthy community and it’s growing so quickly through initiatives like Denver Startup Week, Boulder Startup Week, Slack channels, all these things that are really instrumental in connecting people. So, seeing it grow and people being able to connect with each other, that;s been one of my favorite things to watch. It’s very exciting to be here right now.

If you change one thing about the Denver tech community, what would it be?

I don’t know if I have anything I would change, well, I’d like to see more outreach. More mentorship programs and outreach towards those who might not be necessarily school-driven but have the ability. The Denver Public Library has a great code camp for students, for example, but it would be cool to see more of those types of things that introduce tech and coding to students - plant the seeds.

I just think of myself when I was in high school, I didn’t even know [the tech community] really existed, and it blew my mind when I found out about it. It’d be great to see us continue to grow and expand, and more outreach is a big part of that.

What will the most important technology be in 2017?

I’m gonna go with home automation, the “internet of things”. There’s a really big push right now for that. We have our phones and we have our computers, but we’re getting to this point where we’re interacting with the real world with our technology and being able to talk to it. There was this great talk at Develop Denver called “Say Please,” that looked at how we're interacting with technology and if it was potentially hurting us. But, there's a big push of interacting with real life through our technology, walking into my house and my lights turn on, or things like the Echo that you speak to for ordering things or asking questions. All of these big companies are making huge investments into this stuff. I don’t necessarily know if that’s going to be next year, but it’s really starting to actually become viable.