Back to the Future fans will recall that Marty McFly wrote a letter to Doc Brown in 1955, with instructions not to open it until 1985, a move Doc later borrowed when he was zapped into 1885. Wouldn't it be great if you could provide your future self with a similar heads-up about upcoming events?
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That exact scenario is not (yet) possible, but it was the inspiration for software developer Sten Pittet and his Futurospective app (Android, iOS). It lets you record a video to yourself and set a virtual time lock; it'll ping you to watch via push notification sometime in the future—a week, three months, a year. With an eye on privacy, you don't create a Futurospective account; videos are stored on your phone (which means you'll lose your future messages if you get a new phone).
PCMag tracked down Pittet in Lisbon, Portugal, to ask him a few questions about building Futurospective, and how working in tech has taken him from Europe to Australia via Africa.
Sten, firstly tell us how you came up with the idea of Futurospective?
Well, I'd recently quit my job to start my own business and, to be honest, it was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, so I thought that maybe I could tackle the whole confidence issue in a new way, and encourage myself "from the future." It does sound a bit weird saying that, but it worked.
What was the first "future-Sten" video missive?
I recorded a short video telling me to trust myself. That it was okay to feel down and it's part of the process.
Nice stress-avoidance tool. But let's reference the fab DeLorean graphic on your app - which sets it apart from other ping-me apps. Do you remember where and when you first saw Back to the Future?
[Laughs] Wow, that takes me back, no pun intended. I definitely thought that the DeLorean would be a great imagery for the application, but I can't tell you when I saw the movie for the first time. I just really liked the concept [from the movie] of being able to go talk to yourself in a different era. When I was a kid I wanted to write a letter that I would open when I get old, to make sure that I don't get too serious.
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You kept the application super simple: it's free to use, there's no user account, data stored locally, no remote server sync. Clearly this is a genuine geek-to-geek offering, not a potential business, right?
Exactly. I wanted to keep things simple, including the maintenance of it. By making everything local on your phone I got rid of a lot of issues that I would have had to solve with a centralized server.
In fact you posted on Medium about building a fresh React Native app in just 37 days. What's the biggest piece of advice you'd give to someone about to do something similar?
I've been listening to a few podcasts lately, and there's one in particular between DHH and Tim Ferris that had some interesting insights: your happiness is defined by your expectations rather than your achievements. In my case things got better when I accepted the fact that I'd be spending a few weeks just trying to understand the framework instead of being able to get a working app within a couple days. If you're going to build an app from scratch using a technology that you haven't used before my best advice is to accept the initial struggle and to change your estimates accordingly.
As an open source advocate, you published the app's code here—and your project planning on Trello. Has anyone jumped in to collaborate or use the concept for another app?
Not yet, but I'm hoping that the code will help some people to solve their own issues. I've had some people reaching out directly via the Medium post to chat about my experience so I feel like it was worth it. I really want to find more ways to contribute back to the community, [because] there's so much that you can get out there for free!
Let's back up a bit, I'm calling you in Lisbon, but you were educated in Paris, ran a web agency in Cameroon, and worked as a product manager for an enterprise software giant in Sydney for five years. A global nomad indeed. What brought you to Lisbon?
My wife—who is Australian—and I had a baby boy, almost two years ago, and Europe is a big part of my culture. I was born in Paris, and then grew up Cameroon. Portuguese settlers arrived in Cameroon in the 1500s so there's an influence there too, and Lisbon seemed a great way to share that side of me with them. Plus we really wanted to travel while our son is young; before he gets to school-age.
I've been happily surprised by how easy it is to get by here. I don't speak Portuguese yet but most people have an excellent level of English and they're extremely welcoming. I still really want to learn the language and fit in. The city is changing fast though, and I'm seeing lots of digital nomads and expats moving here. I just hope that the culture doesn't suffer too much as a consequence.
Talking of culture, your curated playlists on Spotify "aim to bridge cultures through music." Tell us what are you're listening to at the moment and does it help when working?
I've been listening to some African Jazz and Funk from the 70s lately, Hailu Mergia is pretty great. I also have a weird obsession with an Australian musician called Jordan Rakei. I really enjoy listening to music when I work as it helps to isolate myself from the noise outside and focus.
What's next for you?
The new venture that I'm focusing on is a platform for team analytics called Squadlytics. It's in private beta right now. We're extending our integrations and testing pricing models right now as a Software as a Service product; probably freemium with some tiered extras.
What was the inspiration behind Squadlytics?
There are many tools out there that are used to build a business but often times these tools exist in isolation. You have to go from one platform to the other to understand if you're on the right track. With Squadlytics we want to simplify that and provide insights to help you understand your team's activity and identify bottlenecks. Basically we want to provide a general overview of your "team health."
Useful stuff, especially in this age of remotely distributed teams.
It's all based on my experience of doing just that, and I wanted to share it with others to be helpful. People need to keep a pulse on what's going on without tapping into lots of different tools.
What's it built in?
It's much more complex than Futurospective. The front-end is a React app, back-end is in Rails with a few other services which talk to Trello, Github, Jira, etc. Essentially it plugs into the APIs of all those other products and presents it in an attractive, and useful, dashboard as a single view.
When is it going live?
Q1, 2018 is the plan for the public launch. Right now, we have a few beta customers giving us great feedback to help us build the right product. The beta is private for now but we will open it up soon. It's been really helpful to be in Lisbon as I've met some great people that helped me with this project. I've been working out of Second Home, a co-working space that feels much more like a startup than a desk-renting space. Every Friday there's a mingling event so you can find out what other people are working on; we even have a live DJ! Both this, and Futurospective, are tech ideas which improve people's lives, in some way.
It's important for me to have a good work/life balance. I'm a father now, with have another one on the way and anything that makes life smoother is a good thing, right? [Laughs]