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The 3-Step Recipe For Making Cool Things: What I Learned as Firebelly's Intern

Aug 18, 2016 – by Bryant Rebecca Smith

Step 1. Make Thing Babies

Why do animals have sex? It turns out that combining two different things is the best strategy for making new, cooler things. Nature figured this out on Earth about 1.2 billion years ago. Firebelly has been around for about 18 years.

Nobody at Firebelly has just one thing. In my corner of the office alone there is Nate Beaty–a coder/cartoonist/animator/cat mom/breakdancer/BMXer–and Matt Soria–a coder/photographer/illustrator/skater/backpacking explorer/rock climber. Because of all of their many things, they each do their job in a way that no-one else would. Or could.

In fact, EVERYONE I've met here is a multi-thinger. Far from by accident, it's encouraged. And when two things meet and fall in love in someone's mind, the result is a new baby thing that could come about in no other way.

From what I've observed, Firebelly's office is an orgy of things in a maelstrom, spinning about and spitting out incredible babies.

Step 2. Take a Far-Out Joke Seriously

Dawn will occasionally give me instructions that sound like they are jokes:

"Wouldn't it be cool if you built a big sign that lit up and alerted the whole office that someone was in the bathroom? Then noone has to get up and look down the hallway!" she kids.

I joked right back "Ha! What if it integrated with Slack and gave play by plays?"

"Ha! Well. I'm sure you'll figure it out. Get on it."

I often hear far out wouldn't-it-be-cool-if statements like this. I, as the intern, usually confuse them for jokes. I guess in many places they would be just that. But Firebelly takes them seriously.

It's never: "Ha! Good one! ...Alright. Back to work."
Rather: "Ha! Good one! ...So how would that work exactly?"

It's not that every far-out joke becomes a mind-blowing idea. Most don't. But almost every mind-blowing idea starts out as a far-out joke.

Step 3. Leap Before You Look

So, your things had sex and out came a far-out joke that might be a good idea.

BUT. It's too hard. It's outside your expertise. You don't know where to start.

I've noticed people at Firebelly are good at ignoring these feelings.

Ask Ross and Will how much they knew about programming Arduino computers to operate armies of synchronized servo motors before they committed to doing so for this year's Typeforce display.

From what I've watched, the secret appears to be just committing, jumping in, and knowing how to put one foot in front of the other. If you're in a position where you HAVE to figure it out, you'll figure it out. If you give the idea supremacy, the execution follows.

The process is a trial of experiments and failures, but if you continue pushing it's only a matter of time before you break through. And every time you tackle something in this way, it gets easier–and more fun.

The Repeater Orchestra

After watching and analyzing this process in action for months, I thought I would give it a try:

I build web sites, but I'm also a classically-trained trombone player. Sweet! I have two things! (Step 1.) Sometimes at my desk I think about how much I miss performing in orchestras. Ha! Wouldn't it be cool if I could somehow perform live as a one-man orchestra? Could I do it with the coding languages I'm learning? (Step 2.) Matt tells me about a meetup he runs where web developers share bits of code. I tell him I want to perform a piece with trombone and code. He excitedly agrees. Truth is: I actually have no idea how to do this. (Step 3.)

The three weeks that followed were filled with sleepless, highly-caffeinated nights.  But I emerged with a prototype!

"The Repeater Orchestra:" a web-app that repeats whatever music is played into the mic 50 separate times. Each repetition is given a randomized time delay, volume and simulated location in space. The resulting soundscape allowed me to perform Terry Riley's "In C"–a work for full orchestra–as a solo trombone.

Here is my slightly-inebriated-because-I-got-nervous-and-there-was-free-beer performance:

That was one of my favorite, stranger experiences performing trombone.  It makes me want to hold onto this recipe and keep trying to make cool things!

Try playing around with The Repeater Orchestra yourself! (It's best to use a computer with Chrome.) 

Or check out the annotated source code on Codepen.