The Guy That Did That Thing: An Interview with Andrew J. Clark


My internet friend Andrew J. Clark has been gaining a lot of attention the past couple months. (Or is it notoriety?)

Not satisfied with a budding podcasting career, Andrew has also shown himself to be quite the iOS developer. He's a little hard to pin down but he has an interesting way of looking at the world, something that comes through in the following interview.


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Tell me a little about yourself. Who are you, where are you from, and what are you most known for?

Hi Chris! My name is Andrew J Clark. I’m a 26-year-old nobody who lives in South Australia where we have lots of hot weather and I spend most of my time programming, podcasting, and video-editing. I am primarily known as the giggling half of The Menu Bar podcast which I do with my heterosexual life partner Zac Cichy.

I also recently released my first iOS app Numerical: Calculator Without Equal, which people seem to have liked. I do lots of things but I presume those are the primary avenues that people find me through.

Oh, I wouldn't say you're a "nobody", not these days. Numerical alone—which, by the way, I used a lot while preparing my taxes—got reviewed on MacStories and mentioned on Gizmodo, so I'd say the word has definitely gotten out.

So, let's just jump right into it. What has life been like for you following the release of Numerical?

Chris, things have been… surreal. I’d spent most of the 2 months prior to Numerical's release thinking that the app was nearly done and would be available the following week. As usual that ended up being very optimistic but we did finally finish it and get it onto the App Store.

What followed was one of the strangest days of my life. I’ve never made something that has had that amount of feedback, that number of reviews, that many people talking to me out of the blue. It was a total whirlwind that is still beyond my comprehension. Things have settled back down now which is a kind of bittersweet.

“Part of me was thinking, "Heck yeah! This app is awesome and I know it's awesome because I worked really hard to make it awesome."”

The fact that it has been received so positively is also very hard to fully understand. People have picked up on all the subtle little details that we spent so long trying to get right. Everything from the sounds, to the UI design, to the fundamental philosophy behind the whole idea.

People seem to “get it”, and that is an incredibly precious connection to have with an audience.

I agree, having your work go viral truly is a strange thing to experience. And nerve-wracking, if I'm being honest. Nearly every word written about Numerical after its release has been positive from what I've seen, but did the sheer scale of the attention you were getting terrify you at all? Or were you comfortable with it?

Myke Hurley said something really interesting to me recently: we are all secretly egotists. To be someone who makes things and puts themselves out into the world you intrinsically must have a certain amount of ego and self-confidence.

So, on the one hand it was bizarre to get so much attention in a short period of time, but there's definitely a part of me that was thinking, "Heck yeah! This app is awesome and I know it's awesome because I worked really hard to make it awesome." Then again, I'm so often plagued by self-doubt and a feeling that I'm not as smart as I pretend to be, so it's been a complex few weeks.

One amusing thing I've noticed is how...angry a few people have been about the fact that you, a newbie developer, could somehow put together such a well-thought-out app on the first try. Some of these reactions are clearly half-kidding, but there seems to be an undercurrent of, "Who does this guy think he is?" from the developer community. Have you sensed this as well?

For the most part people have been phenomenally supportive and I understand how incredibly lucky I am, by any measure. But there is definitely an undercurrent of “What the hell? I thought Andrew was that Australian kid who gets drunk on Skype once a week”.

I think people react like that because we're pattern recognisers. Categorisers. People naturally want to organise you and rank you. It’s perfectly simian. As such, I don’t feel it’s my business to try and control how other people see me. Hence the tagline on my website: I’m the guy that did that thing. It’s not my job to be simple or easily dismissed. My “job” (and I use the term loosely here) is to keep making things as Great as I possibly can and never stop learning. If that means people are occasionally confused then I’m okay with that. They’ll just have to adapt.

However, I have to assume there is some jealousy out there—that I haven’t earned the right to be “successful” (whatever that means). I know I get jealous of other people all the time, but I’ve recently started thinking of it less as “a simple envy" and more a kind of cost-blindness.

Creativity costs. Time. Money. Happiness. The energy required to create something… it comes out of your soul. You can look at what someone else has made… an app, a business, a podcast, a book… and (hopefully) all you see is the perfect final product. What you don’t see are the late nights and long hours. The mental and physical drain on the persons body. The friendships and relationships that have withered or died. If all of that was evident on the cover, if people could somehow see what it actually takes to manifest something from imagination into reality, I don’t think they’d get jealous.

A cost for everything. Everything at a cost.

Well said. And speaking of success, I hear that the app has climbed to "Best New App" status in the AU App Store, possibly elsewhere as well. Does that make Numerical a "success" in your mind? Or has it at least boosted sales to a point where you won't need to fill out job applications for a while?

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is…maybe—it really depends where the sales go from here. It had a great first week and I’d be deluded to think that kind of attention could continue, but if daily sales ended up at a reasonably low but sustained level then that could really change how I approach my entire life.

“Success" is an interesting word though. This started as an experiment. An attempt to see if I could, using my limited knowledge of development, make and release an app. It wasn’t meant to be “good”—it was just meant to be mine. I’ve now come to realise something very important: I love programming. The process. The language. Even fixing bugs.

If all Numerical had taught me was that programming was something I should do more of then, yes, I would call Numerical a success. Everything else on top of that is an astonishing bonus, so I’m trying to keep that in perspective.

Let's step back for a moment. Could you describe the path that led you to becoming a podcaster and programmer? Has anyone inspired or mentored you along the way?

At the beginning of 2013 I wanted to take a few months off work to explore some interests not related to film or video (my current day job). I spoke to Dan Benjamin on an early episode of Quit and he convinced me to go for it! Take a few months off and let myself experiment. I built a 3D printer and started a podcast called I Like This Podcast.

Meanwhile, me and Zac [Cichy] had one day been talking about the fact we’re such great friends but we can never just “hang out” and get a drink, as we live 8,000 miles from one another. I laughed and said we should start a podcast where we do exactly that and it should be called The Menu Bar. A place for “us”, meaning the broader community we’re involved with. So we did.

“At this stage I don’t think I’m a “good” programmer or podcaster but if you put enough time and love into anything it makes up for any other deficiency.”

I’ve also done some little experiments on the side such as a daily podcast called the Andrew J. Cast which recently metamorphosed into an occasional show called Life and Code and Stuff where I answer listener questions about, broadly speaking, how to be a human. I have big plans for doing more podcasts and taking it all a bit more seriously this year.

Programming kind of evolved out of The Menu Bar and, oddly, the absolutely terrible state of dealing with timezone scheduling apps. It’s so awkward and annoying scheduling guests to come on the show when everyone will be awake and oh wait when you said tomorrow did you mean "my today" and oh-my-gawd my brain is not meant to do 4-dimensional math! Since 2008 I've always wanted to try and make some simple iOS apps but I’d only done a bit of programming in BASIC as a kid so I always assumed that I’d have to go back to University and do a computer science degree.

Eventually I got so annoyed with timezone nonsense that I bought some books off Amazon and started learning about object-oriented programming, hoping to eventually “solve” the timezone problem. I haven’t done that yet and I think at least 3 of my friends are each working on such things, but to be honest I don’t think any of them are going to solve it. So I made Numerical instead.

I haven’t really had any podcasting “mentors” exactly, but Myke Hurley and Merlin Mann have been great inspirations. However, with programming I’ve been lucky to meet some very smart people via Twitter who have given me advice, and even bits of code, while I’ve been getting the hang of it. I owe them more than they know.

At this stage I don’t think I’m a “good” programmer or podcaster but if you put enough time and love into anything it makes up for any other deficiency.

Oh yeah... in the time since we started doing this interview I’ve released an iPhone game, Car, Plane or Boat?, which is basically a joke from the Bionic podcast that somehow grew into an actual game. It has 20 five-star reviews, all of them satirical and part of the Bionic universe, so that seems like a win.

You mentioned friendships and relationships earlier. Are your friends and loved ones supportive of what you do?

This is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, as I’ve recently become single. There were a lot of factors to that but whats become increasingly apparent is that this aspect of myself, this strength, where I can sit down and pursue an idea with a laser-like focus has a tremendous cost associated with it.

So friends and family have always been very supportive of this stuff, and I know my parents in particular are very proud of me, but I’m realising now I need to put some boundaries up around myself so that I don’t end up working 24/7, so that I do have time off and let my mind wander, so that I do pursue friendships in the real world.

I would naturally just work all day every day if given the chance but that doesn’t lead to a very happy life. “Being happy”: the ongoing project.

A lot of people reading this right now can totally feel your pain. The web is this constant, churning thing that never shuts off, and working in such a space makes it tempting to be always working, always producing new things, always shipping. This is especially true for those of us working for ourselves rather than someone else—we have to draw that line on our own, or risk damaging our relationships with the people around us.

Do you have a plan yet for approaching this problem in your own life, or are you simply trying to figure it out as you go?

It’s an existential quandary. If I slow down and stop pursuing everything at once, "who am I"? I’m an Andrew but I’m not this Andrew, and this Andrew is making some great stuff at the moment.

I think long term I need to grow up, get an office, and start partitioning my life into work and not-work. Train my mind to take some time off and do nothing. But this is the most creative I’ve ever been, and the most productive, the most imaginative and (crucially) the happiest I’ve ever been. So it might be that those sorts of serious relationships simply aren’t a priority for me right now.

Chris, I have an armada of awesome things to create. There’s some stuff coming up in the next few months that is going to blow your mind.

I know that you're working on an iPad version of Numerical. Are you able to discuss any other projects you're working on or thinking about?

I am and that’s moving along swiftly! It was a lot easier to make Numerical universal than I’d anticipated, and according to my beta testers it seems to mostly be working. Mostly.

I’ve also started noodling around a few app ideas. I’m thinking a lot about quotes at the moment and tweeting a bunch of short sentences that inspire me, so maybe the next app is sitting in there somewhere. (Examples: 1, 2, and 3). I’m keen for my next app to be something smaller and simpler. I want to get more experience before trying to do another “big” app.

However, the big thing I can't talk about right now is something that launches in mid-June. It’s the most ambitious, audacious, and ridiculous project I’ve ever been a part of. I don’t say that lightly.

It’s going to be a big year.

Sounds exciting! Can't wait to see what it is. In the meantime, what does a normal day in the life of Andrew J. Clark look like? Any particular schedule or routine you try to stick to?

Not really, no. I've been wanting to get into a routine and a habit but at the moment I have so many things going on that I’ve declared scheduling bankruptcy and just work as much as I can at whatever hour makes the most sense. I am not a role model.

What is it that's driving you creatively at the moment? Are you merely perceiving voids in the world that need to be filled, scratching your own itches, or something else?

That’s a fascinating question! I think, for the most part, I am trying to make the things that I wish existed, but don’t.

“There is an undercurrent of boredom pervading our online lives at the moment. [...] That hunger is an opportunity.”

The world didn’t need another calculator, but I hated all the other calculators and wanted to use MY calculator. There are plenty of tech podcasts, so Zac and I started The Menu Bar—a place for us to have the conversations that no one else seemed to be having—and we built a community around it.

Big picture, I think that’s probably what drives me creatively. A sense that the world is not complete. Not yet finished. That if I’m not happy with all the current “solutions” then it’s worth pursuing something new. So far, my experience has been that there are usually many people who feel the same way, it’s just a matter of finding them. There are so many stones left unturned.

What sorts of stones do you see being left unturned?

I think you’ll agree with me that there is an undercurrent of boredom pervading our online lives at the moment. The subtext of the reactions to so many things is “Really? Is that it?”. I know many of my friends are tweeting less, or even taking Twitter sabbaticals. Tech news. Podcasts. Apple rumour mongering. I keep getting this feeling of “Haven’t we done this before?”.

That hunger is an opportunity.

Agreed. Well, it's been great having you here Andrew. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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You can follow Andrew on Twitter at @andrewjclark.