Curt’s a fan of the local association football team. He also likes woodworking and distance-running, though he has yet to explore the synergistic possibilities of doing both at the same time.
Some other people, places, and things mentioned:
- iOS 11 drag and drop
- OmniFocus 3: tags
- Files app
- World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) (aka Dub Dub)
- Lake Union
- iOS 7
- The notch
- Ethan Schoonover
- Kinkless GTD
- Getting Things Done, by David Allen
- Omni Forums
- Ken Case
- Tim Wood
- The Amish
- Vanilla Ice
- Crocodile Dundee
- Pennsylvania Dutch Country
- Good ’N Plenty Restaurant
- Amana Colonies
- Tim Ekl
- Jim Correia
- Pomona College
- Harvey Mudd College
- Reid Callan
- Tom Bunch
- Major League Soccer Cup
- Boston Marathon
- Support Humans
Brent Simmons: You're listening to The Omni Show. Get to know the people and stories behind Omni's award-winning productivity apps for Mac and iOS. Music!
I'm your host, Brent Simmons. In the studio with me today is Curt Clifton. Curt is an engineer on the OmniFocus team, and by that I mean he clicks checkboxes all day; turns them on, turns them off.
Curt Clifton: Yep.
Brent: Say hello, Curt.
Curt: Hello Curt.
Brent: Very well done, thank you. OmniFocus 2 seems like a thing that shipped or something? What's going on with that?
Curt: Yeah, we recently shipped our iOS 11 and High Sierra updates to OmniFocus 2 and are excited about the things we were able to do there.
Curt: Two of my favorites: On the Mac side, Apple gave us the ability to drag onto buttons and automatically sort of simulate a click when you drag onto them, and the benefit for Focus is, now I can drag a bunch of tasks from my inbox onto a tab in Focus, the tabs are actually buttons, and open up projects or context and drop them where I'd like. That's both very handy, and my colleague Jim Correia did the work, so it was easy too.
The other thing I really liked that we were able to do in OmniFocus 2 was support for drag-and-drop, particularly on the iPad, but we also support it within the app on the iPhone. That has just made the iPad a much more powerful device overall. I like it across everybody's apps, but especially enjoy it in OmniFocus.
Brent: It seems like the iPad it still coming into its place as a real productivity device, right?
Curt: Yeah, it felt for a while like it was maybe, held hostage is too strong of term, but sort of held back because the majority of Apple's efforts had to be focused on iPhone, but this last cycle of updates it seems like Apple's really made the iPad a much stronger productivity tool. That's what we love here.
Brent: That's cool, and that seems to be ... Seeing the larger iPads, and of course the Pencil and everything, there seems to be a real push there.
Curt: And drag-and-drop, and Siri support keeps getting stronger, and so it's been fun to work on.
Brent: Oh, that's cool, and so now with this latest OmniFocus you're basically done, right? You don't have to do any work anymore?
Curt: Yep, yeah.
Brent: That's it?
Curt: We just kick back and put our feet up, maybe play some pool. It's pretty good.
Brent: Yeah, that's fair, that's fair. No thought at all to OmniFocus 3 for iOS, it's never going to happen?
Curt: No, we're working hard on OmniFocus 3 for iOS and —
Brent: Ah, you heard it here first. Well, unless you read the blog, or Twitter.
Curt: Yeah. Focus 3 is going to add some things that we're really excited about and have been looking forward to doing for a long time. One of those things is support for tags.
Curt: So you'll be able to put multiple tags on items instead of the single context that we have always supported in the past, and I think there's going to be some nice things that you can do with that. As an OmniFocus user, I really like the idea of being able to tag something as very important, or less important, or sort of high energy, or mindless work, sort of orthogonally to the context or the place I need to go to get the work done, so.
Brent: I see. So, if you're at the grocery store, with a lot of energy, and it's Tuesday afternoon ...
Curt: That's the time to buy pineapple.
Brent: Then you buy pineapple.
Brent: But you've used three tags to let you know?
Curt: Yes, right, yeah.
Brent: That's great, because right now all you've got is a context, which is grocery store or something, right?
Brent: Tags are going to change [inaudible 00:03:48].
Curt: Yeah, and you'd hate to buy pineapple when you're low energy.
Brent: Yeah, I can't even think about it. That would be a horrible tragedy. Tags I assume are one of the most common feature requests.
Curt: Yes, tags are very high on the feature request list for our customers, and some interesting things with, now the Files app on iOS and the support for tags there, so I think some of our power users are going to find some interesting synergies there.
Brent: Ah, cool. Well, you win the award for the first use of synergy.
Curt: And hopefully the last, we're hoping.
Brent: I think it was appropriate in this case though, because it is synergistic, right? Tags here, tags there?
Curt: Yeah, peanut butter jelly.
Brent: Yeah, right. One of the challenges of working on OmniFocus or any productivity app, particularly on iOS, is adapting to Apple's changes.
Brent: So, what are your summers like?
Curt: We always try to sort of gather our energy at the end of May, beginning of June, because then WWDC is going to roll around, Apple's developer conference, and we're going to find out what they have in store for us, and then usually the first couple of weeks after “dub-dub,” as we call it, we are figuring out what this means for us, and what we can deliver for our customers based on what Apple's given us to work with. Then most of the rest of the summer ends up being a mad dash to get that stuff in place, and bugs ironed out, and good enough for people to use.
Curt: We really like to have stuff ready to go when the new OS ships, so we try to be there on day one of iOS 11, for example, with Siri support, and drag-and-drop support, and all the good things coming down the pipe. Summer's the most beautiful time of year in Seattle.
Brent: Yes, it is.
Curt: And we spend much of it working very hard to have our software ready to go.
Brent: At least we have a beautiful view of the lake.
Curt: Yes, yeah.
Brent: Yeah, we do have that. It's extra challenging, because Apple is often working on these features as we're developing for these features, and their software's in beta, no criticism of Apple, just that they have bugs to fix, and sometimes we're finding them, and helping them at the same time, but it can slow things down. But when we do manage to ship, which is quite often on or near the ship date, that's a great feeling.
Curt: Yeah, it's exciting. I mean people are excited about Apple's release and it's fun to be part of that excitement.
Brent: Right. When people see that their favorite apps have the new features, it's pretty cool.
Curt: Yeah, and it was especially fun this year, because the features Apple delivered were really features that help users of productivity apps, and those are our people. We're those people.
Brent: Right. Though, I do remember one summer, some years ago, where I feel like I spent the entire summer fighting 20 pixels, because it was iOS 7 and they changed the way the status bar worked.
Brent: For whatever reason, it was just so hard to get everything working right. We're only talking about 20 vertical pixels, and yet that was my summer.
Curt: And our fall has been the [iPhone X] notch.
Curt: Sometimes it's a scramble to keep up.
Brent: Yeah. How'd you come to OmniFocus?
Curt: In a prior life I was a college professor, and before that I was a graduate student, and one of the things — maybe the most important thing you learn when you're a graduate student is how to not work on your dissertation. One of the major projects I did to not work on my dissertation was writing a bunch of AppleScripts that ran on top of OmniOutliner. I was already using OmniOutliner to keep notes on my dissertation and this sort of thing.
Curt: But I decided, because I wasn't getting much done, I needed a system to track the stuff that I needed to get done, and so instead of getting things done, I developed the system to track those things.
Brent: The Curt system.
Curt: Yeah, which was this pile of AppleScripts on top of OmniOutliner, and just about the time I had it working, Ethan Schoonover released KinklessGTD.
Brent: I remember that well, yeah.
Curt: Yeah, which was essentially the same thing, only he was supporting his, and so I stopped working on mine.
Brent: Sure, yeah.
Curt: And sort of committed to that approach to things, and then—
Brent: Now, KinklessGTD, “GTD” implies that it was inspired by the David Allen book, Getting Things Done?
Curt: Yeah, it was, and I had been using ... I found David's book super helpful in getting through grad school, I sort of discovered that with a couple years left and kind of credit that methodology for actually getting me over the hump and through. But then graduated and started a job as a professor. I was teaching at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana.
Brent: That's a long way from here.
Curt: It is.
Curt: And we'll leave commentary on whether that's a good or bad thing, but while I was at Rose, in 2007, so that would have been my second year there, Omni went into the first public beta of OmniFocus.
Curt: And I'd been active on the forums with OmniOutliner, and scripting, and I knew Ken and Tim from the forums, and from email, and felt like I knew almost everyone in support at Omni because I was a customer who wrote in a lot.
Brent: You did, yeah.
Curt: So, they invited me part of that first beta, and so I've been using OmniFocus since anyone outside of Omni was allowed to use it.
Curt: That means I have a 10 year old database, because I have never replaced the entire database in that time.
Brent: No kidding? Doesn't OmniFocus have, like when you're debugging it, doesn't it use a separate database that you can just—
Brent: Right, yeah.
Curt: Our debug version of the app that we're using internally is using a separate database.
Brent: Right, so you can do anything to that, yeah.
Curt: I blow that away multiple times a day.
Brent: Sure, yeah.
Curt: But the live database stays live.
Curt: And you always know we're getting close to ready for a public test phase when we start putting our real data into the test databases.
Brent: Oh, OK.
Curt: That's always a fun hurdle to get over. So, been using Focus ever since then and continue to file bugs, and feature requests, and participate in forum discussions and so forth, and it's just fun to be part of that development. It's an app that I love and have loved for a long time.
Brent: What were you teaching at Rose?
Curt: I was a professor of computer science and software engineering.
Brent: Well, that's convenient.
Curt: Yeah, it's a good fit. I would not have been a good philosophy professor, I don't think. Taught everything from intro level programming courses up to courses on software architecture and compilers, so kind of stem to stern. It's a teaching school and so we taught a lot, but I enjoyed that.
Curt: I love working with students, seeing the light come on as they get something, and seeing them mature over the years. The maturation of a student from their freshman year to their senior year is really phenomenal.
Brent: Oh, I bet, and in four-ish short years, yeah.
Curt: Yeah, and to see that change happen, and go from nervous and or confident, to ready to face the world.
Brent: So, it was a system where you actually would know freshman as well as the seniors?
Brent: You weren't just like ...
Curt: We had advising responsibilities, and so I had students that were with me all the way through.
Brent: Wow, that's awesome.
Curt: Yeah, it was great fun.
Brent: So, you're a teacher, OmniFocus user, OmniFocus beta tester. How did you end up at Omni?
Curt: Rose had an interesting program for faculty where they encouraged us to take sabbatical every seventh year, and on sabbaticals, encourage us to go to industry so we could keep track of what the current practice was in engineering, and so we could bring that back to the classroom. I knew Ken and Tim, was familiar with Omni. Omni had sponsored a senior project with a team of students that I helped coach.
Brent: Oh, nice.
Curt: And so there'd been some interaction there, and so I sent an email and said, "Hey, I've got a sabbatical coming up. I'd love to come out and spend a year seeing, you know, how the software's made at Omni, how you make such responsive apps," and they said, "Sure, sounds great," and so in June of 2011 I came up to Seattle with the Subaru loaded to the gills and settled in for what I thought was going to be a wonderful year in Seattle.
Brent: And you're still here.
Curt: Yeah, I'm here on the ... halfway through the seventh year of my sabbatical, it's been good, and really enjoying it.
Brent: Wow, that's awesome. Do you still have, at Rose, do you still have a position even nominally or technically?
Brent: OK, there's no...?
Curt: The deal is generally that you go on sabbatical for a year and then you have to come back for at least a year, but we all kind of realized after just a couple of months at Omni that this was where I should be.
Brent: Right, that makes sense.
Curt: And Omni felt the same way, and so we negotiated out of the contract, and ...
Brent: It's kind of like being Amish, and then you take that trip and you're like, "No, I think I'll stay."
Curt: Yeah, it's ...
Brent: What do they call that? I can't remember, there's that year off with ...
Curt: All I can think of is—
Brent: It was like in a reality show I guess, yeah.
Curt: Yeah, all I can think of is ... Was that the one with Vanilla Ice?
Brent: Maybe, I don't know.
Curt: Yeah, all I can think of is “going on walkabout,” but that isn't the Amish; that's Crocodile Dundee.
Brent: Yeah, right, yeah. Enough about the Amish. You're not Amish.
Brent: No, me neither, yeah. I grew up not far from Pennsylvania Dutch Country.
Brent: I realize I'm on a tangent now, but it was always fun, and we'd drive around, and there'd be the horses and buggies, and we'd go ... I think it was called the Good ’N Plenty Restaurant — and it was a good, and there was plenty of it.
Curt: There was plenty of it? Yeah, good.
Brent: Yeah, and they sat you at long like picnic tables, and so you'd meet other whatever, families, and couples, and everything. I just remember loving their mashed potatoes.
Brent: But then again, I love all mashed potatoes.
Brent: But these were exceptional.
Curt: Sounds good. I grew up near the Amana Colonies in Iowa, which — not Amish, but a similar utopian community kind of thing, but what I remember is the family style meals and the mashed potatoes.
Brent: Come to think of it, Omni is maybe a utopian style community where we have really good meals, and—
Curt: It is, that's true.
Brent: ... we sit at big tables.
Curt: Yeah, we sit at long tables.
Curt: We don't shun technology though, that may be the difference.
Brent: No, that's true, we make technology, yeah, right. It's our own form of utopia. We're totally on a tangent. So, you were followed by Tim Ekl, who was a student of yours?
Curt: Yeah, so since I was planning on going back to Indiana at the end of the year, and my wife and I decided we'd rent our house out while we were gone so it would be there when we came back, and rented it to a group of Rose-Hulman students, one of whom was a student of mine, Tim Ekl, and partway through my first year at Omni, I knew Tim was graduating, and was a phenomenal student and excellent developer, and so I mentioned to Ken and Tim that hey, maybe we should try to hire this guy.
Curt: And I'm very, very, pleased that we were able to do so. Tim managed to keep my house from burning down over the course of that year.
Brent: That's an endorsement right there.
Curt: Yeah, it is.
Curt: And then he's been managing to keep our software from burning down since then, so.
Brent: That's a good point, he has, yeah. Man, Tim, he must be, what, 16-17 years old by now? He is phenomenal.
Curt: Yeah, I mean he might have turned 20 along the time he's been here.
Brent: Yeah, OK. Yeah, I'm not sure.
Curt: And the only thing I really regret about that is he makes me look bad because he's so good.
Brent: Luckily, he doesn't listen to podcasts.
Brent: Since you've been at Omni, you've done some mentoring of younger developers. You've also, between you and Kristina, who was Episode 1, you've on a few occasions run an internship program.
Brent: How's that going?
Curt: That's been great fun. We've done the internship program for three or four summers and recruited at Rose-Hulman, and at Harvey Mudd and the Claremont Colleges, Pomona ... Harvey Mudd primarily, and have had different groups of students come in, which is great fun to introduce them to iOS and Mac development, and—
Brent: They're not really learning it in school? Is it more sort of ...
Curt: Yeah, some of them have some exposure to it, but because the field changes so fast, what we really focus on in the internship program is ability to learn, and so when we bring interns in, if they haven't seen this stuff already, we get maybe a clearer read on how fast they can come up to speed on it.
Brent: Oh, OK.
Curt: And it's been fun to act in a coaching role that way. One of the things I really miss about teaching is the ability to work one-on-one and in small groups with students and just see those light bulbs come on.
Curt: And have it happen in a professional environment where they're shipping software, and at the end of the summer we deliver an update for the new iOS, and they get to see this app that they worked on in the store. It's exciting to share that experience with them.
Brent: So, this is ... Teaching, being an educator has really been a theme with you...
Brent: Throughout your career, whether you were at school or here?
Curt: Yeah, I think there's always an opportunity to help other people learn and that's very satisfying.
Brent: Yeah. Can you say more about how that's satisfying? I mean you're doing an obvious good thing, but how does that excite you, or how does that make you feel? What's ...
Curt: I've talked about seeing the light bulb come on, but there's also this sort of, this transitive effect, like you help somebody learn something, and then you see them helping somebody else learn it.
Brent: Oh, yeah.
Curt: And you recognize this branching effect, and the number of lives you can touch by that sort of change, and I just love that idea that through simple kindhearted actions we can cause positive change in the world, and it's just satisfying to be part of that.
Curt: And it's a large part of why we're here.
Brent: Yeah, very cool, and so the internship wasn't about finding people to hire, but we did actually eventually hire Reid Callan, who was-
Brent: ... possibly the tallest of our interns.
Curt: Most certainly.
Brent: Most certainly the tallest of our interns.
Curt: Tom Bunch is another colleague of ours in the engineering team. He was just talking to me this week about how people don't ... Tom is quite tall, and people tend to divide the people they know into tall people, normal height people, and short people.
Curt: And normal height people are people the same height as you.
Brent: Right, of course.
Curt: And, so I mentioned to Tom that he probably didn't know any tall people, and he said, "Well, until we hired Reid."
Curt: Yeah, Reid played basketball for Pomona.
Curt: Before joining us. We don't have a basketball team, so he no longer plays basketball professionally.
Brent: Yeah, and he's good natured-ish, partly. Actually, we usually just see his face on a screen, because Reid's been working remotely lately, and at Omni we have two, well, we call them robots, but they're like, it's wheels, and a stalk, and a screen.
Brent: And one of those is always Reid.
Curt: Yeah, and Reid has gotten much shorter since he works via robot.
Brent: Yeah, that's true, yeah.
Curt: He's exactly the exact same height as Shannon now, who also works by robot.
Brent: Yeah. Enough of this. Let's talk about your hobbies. You had one of the greatest experiences of your life through no action of your own really.
Brent: But your team won the World Series finally last year.
Curt: Yes, a long-suffering Cubs fan.
Brent: Those two words go together.
Curt: They do, you actually, you have to say them in that order. Maybe not anymore, I don't know, a formerly long-suffering Cubs fan? Still a Cubs fan, but last year's playoff run and World Series victory was just a phenomenal moment. There's a shot of a fan next to Bill Murray in the stands when the Cubs won, and of course they're showing it on TV because it's Bill Murray, but it's just a random fan next to him, and he has this look on his face after the last out's recorded, which is, "Oh my goodness, what just happened, I don't believe it," and this was my wife and I in our living room, looking at each other after the last out is recorded, and we jump out of our seats, and we're like, "They really did it! I don't know what this feels like," and so that was a tremendous high, through no fault of our own, as you said.
Brent: Well, cheering counts, it does.
Curt: Yes, yeah, and I made sure to wear the lucky jersey on all games.
Brent: Oh, thank goodness.
Curt: And we had the peanuts in the shell, and the 7th inning ice cream, so we kept adding a tradition every time they won a game.
Curt: And they've never gone so deep in the playoffs, so we had a lot to do by the last game.
Brent: A lot. Oh, man. Nice, you were busy, wow.
Curt: And then another great thrill, I'm also a big fan of the Seattle Sounders MLS team, and—
Brent: Oh, is that association football?
Brent: That's the same question I had asked Kristina. I just like to be totally—
Curt: Did she give the same answer?
Brent: Basically. She's like, "I think so." I like to pretend I'm completely stupid about soccer. Right, so the soccer team in Seattle.
Curt: It's, yes, it's Seattle soccer.
Curt: 41 years running, but they, in an improbable run made it all the way to the MLS Cup and added their first MLS Cup Championship to their trophy rack.
Curt: So, had both of those experience.
Brent: Why didn't I hear about this?
Curt: Yeah, it was pretty quiet-
Curt: ... all around here. There are not many Sounders fans at Omni.
Brent: Was I here when that happened? Was it recent?
Curt: It was last fall.
Curt: There were other things in the news at the time that may have drowned out.
Brent: Well, the cops, especially.
Curt: Yes, especially the cops.
Brent: Yeah, OK, that's fair.
Brent: That's fair. So, you've been getting back into woodworking?
Curt: I have.
Brent: Just to take a 90 degree turn from sports.
Brent: Woodworking much slower than kicking a ball.
Curt: Yes, and much more tactile than just typing on a keyboard. I've been into woodworking since as long as I can remember. My father did woodworking, his uncle did woodworking, it's something we did in the family, and kind of took a break from it when I was teaching. Teaching was kind of all consuming, but have slowly been getting back into it. It's nice to have some creative outlet that isn't just bits, and bytes, and pixels, and so it's fun to take raw lumber and turn it into a box, or a table, or whatever.
Brent: There are though, similarities between that and making software, which I find interesting.
Brent: Attention to design.
Brent: Or detail, and design, user interface.
Curt: Right, there's working with the materials that you have, being true to them, and being true to the interface design of the platform that you're on is a similar sort of thing.
Curt: If you're doing it well, you're designing for the human who will use it, and it's really a craft in the highest sense. I don't aspire to art with my software or my woodworking, but I aspire to high craft.
Brent: Which is completely noble, and you don't need to aspire to art to ...
Brent: In my opinion.
Curt: Yeah. If you build something that's both useful and beautiful, I think that's a great contribution to the world. Mentally, it's a similar sense to what — to my feelings about teaching.
Brent: Yeah, right.
Curt: And it's a way to give and to help people.
Brent: Yeah, that's cool, and the last thing. You're a long distance runner. You run marathons.
Curt: I do.
Brent: How many marathons have you run?
Curt: I've done four marathons and more halfs than I can count.
Brent: Wow, that's a lot of running.
Curt: It is a lot of running.
Brent: Do you plan to continue? Still going to run marathons?
Curt: Oh, I hope so.
Curt: Sometimes you need to take a break from it and step back a little bit.
Curt: But one interesting thing is the older you get, the slower you can run and still qualify for the Boston Marathon, so there's a chance that—
Brent: You have not done that one yet?
Curt: I have not done that.
Curt: I have not qualified, but I have come close, and there's a chance that I'll become old enough to actually qualify some day, so that's the hope.
Brent: Wow, getting old enough, that's something to aspire to. In many ways, sure it is.
Brent: Yeah, of course. That would be awesome though, because that's the big one, right?
Brent: There's no other, yeah.
Curt: There are lots of big ones, but that is sort of the hardest one to get into.
Brent: It's the one that people think of.
Brent: The Boston Marathon.
Curt: It's the original big marathon.
Brent: Yeah. Well, there was that one.
Curt: Well, yeah.
Curt: Yeah, well, I mean there was the original, I mean only one guy ran it.
Brent: Right. He won.
Curt: He won.
Brent: His people won.
Curt: He came in first, but he never ran another race.
Brent: Yeah, he didn't need to though.
Curt: No, yeah, that's true.
Brent: Good for him. So, it occurs to me that marathoning, it's probably occurred to you too, is a bit like software development, at least here at Omni?
Brent: Omni, a 20-year old company, we do productivity apps ...
Curt: Yeah, so what a lot of people like about software development is making the brand new thing. You're unconstrained, you haven't yet realized that the way you built it is not going to last, or not going to work, and so it feels like everything is new, and clean, and fresh, and it's just great. You haven't had anyone use it to find the bugs in it yet.
But we build apps for the long haul. Part of what we're about is supporting our customers, and we've got this phenomenal support department that answers telephones, and responds to email, and is on social media answering questions.
Brent: Made entirely of humans, I'll add.
Curt: Yes, 100% support ... humans in our support human department. So, that sort of spirit of taking care of our users means that our apps last a long, long time, and so we're doing very little sort of greenfield fresh software development. We are polishing, and adding to, and fixing bugs, and keeping up with Apple in these existing pieces of software that have lived for a long time, and so occasionally we have to kick a little bit and sprint across to a finish line, but mostly it's a matter of maintaining a solid sustainable pace, not giving up, just pushing through, and that's what distance running is about. It's like you get in a zone, and you just go, and you keep going, and you keep going, and it can be immensely rewarding if you approach it with the right mindset.
Brent: And it's another noble thing, right, it's ... It's easy and selfish to just always make new things or tear down old things and start over, but to keep the building, a beautiful building going, is nobility, and working with software, caring for the users for a long period of time I think is also a high calling.
Curt: Yeah, I think so too, and that's, I mean — it's somewhat self-promotional, I suppose, but there's a great reward in making something that lasts.
Brent: Yeah. We're going to stop on that note. Thanks, Curt. How can people find you on the web?
Curt: I'm on Twitter, @CurtClifton.
Brent: Curt Clifton.
Curt: That is correct.
Brent: No double letters?
Curt: No double letters.
Brent: C's, no K's?
Curt: Yep, C's, no K's.
Curt: And also CurtClifton.net on the web.
Brent: Cool. I'll also like to thank our intrepid producer, Mark Boszko. Say hello, Mark.
Mark Boszko: Hello, Mark.
Brent: Very well done. And especially, I want to thank you for listening. Thank you. Music!