OTIA - Interview

23 minutes read

A few weeks back I had an email sitting in my inbox, an email from LinkedIn. Muscle memory prepared me to hit the delete button but something in the email was different. It wasn’t an “amazing opportunity just for you $first_name!” it was something else. This other human was explaining me that they run a project called Otia, which highlights artistic endeavors in the tech community and they wanted to do an interview with me regarding my photography.

Well, what else could I say? “I’ll see what I can do!”

The guys sent me a file with topics and questions and over a few hours I squeezed what I could out of my noggin in barely coherent words. They then proceeded to turn said mumbo-jumbo into something that resembles natural human speech, which you can read here. I, however, given I shoot RAW and not to be undone by public shame or embarrassment, would like to preserve what was a special moment for posterity - until multiple server and backup failure finally kills this blog - and publish the full text, straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

Hopefully someone out there might enjoy this, I certainly did. A big gigantic thank you to the guys at Otia, who are looking for people to do profiles on, and I know some of you absolutely fit the bill, so check them out.

Here be dragons

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is David Ramalho, I’m from the distant past of 1979. I’m also a father of two and husband of one - so we’re a nice group of four Portuguese humans :)

Work wise I’m a software developer for Homestay.com where I’ve worked for the past 5 years, since it was a baby company :) . I also own and fill the role of CTO at my own company - Blackorange.

I have a blog, I use Flickr and Instagram for my photography and I have a separate photography related project at ThingsDavidLikes (Twitter and Facebook).

What inspired you to choose your job?

I’ve asked myself this question a few times and I’ve pretty much settled with the one answer - LEGO . I grew up with LEGO and especially the Technic blocks, something about taking individual mechanical pieces and making a working system clicked right with me.

The second click moment was realizing, very early, how unbounded you are by software - and this was a bit before the internet was affordable enough. At the time - naively of course - I got this image in my head that, given you can program anything into the computer, you can do anything your mind wants. If you’re into Chemistry in contrast - as an example - you’re much more dependent on equipment and access to resources. This click was further cemented when Internet became affordable enough to have at home and I understood I was no longer limited to what I was taught at school or to what books I could find in the local library.

This feeling that you can go as far as you want to go, is definitely what got me into this line of work, it’s also what led me to open my own company - it’s one of the first things I did professionally :) .

Have you always lived in your current location? If not, what brought you there?

I grew up and lived almost my entire life in Portugal. Some 8 years ago, on the back of a bad period with my own company, I had to find work and I decided to take a dip in a bigger company. At the time I started working for Sapo - part of PT Telecom - where I stayed for a few years, but as good as Sapo was - especially compared to working for consultancy companies or full blown Enterprise Rated entities - it was still a very very big company that I joined very late in it’s life and while I made my own room in it, I knew it was hard to take it as a project I could grow into.

So somewhere on the Summer of 2012 I got an email from a recruiter, which in our line of work is not exactly something remarkable, but this one was somewhat different from the others and I engaged in conversation. Turns out this 4 month old company in Dublin was looking to bring people in to build their product and after a few tests done remotely I ended up flying to Dublin for an interview. I brought my oldest kid and my wife along, we’ve never been to Ireland and if this was going to happen, we all needed to feel comfortable with the city, so in August 2012 we came, I met the guys and did the interview. Everything went well that day and when I left the office, happy with the way the interview went, I walked down a sunny Grafton Street - it rained quite a bit those days we stayed in Dublin. It felt good, the buskers, the people, the city … that’s pretty much when I new I was looking at a major life change.

What is the most unique thing about the place where you currently live?

For someone coming from Portugal I can tell you the weather is a definite contrast, although, for me, a welcome one as I’m not a fan of hot weather - although, 5 years here, I’m recovering. Irish people to this day are the nicest people I’ve encountered, and Dublin just feels safe - although, when bad things happen here, they seem more extreme.

Apart from the weather the architecture of the city was a big contrast. Portugal - the parts where I lived at least - builds up while Ireland builds horizontally. I lived in apartments all my life prior to Dublin, now if I go back I’m sure I’ll want to live in a house. The absolute downside is, of course, the current housing crisis, although as Lisbon gains popularity, I regretfully report this is no longer something unique to Dublin :)

I live on the North side and both Howth and Malahide are my go-to places, both great places to shoot pictures from.

What would you miss if you were to move away from your current home?

The green and the peaceful life we have. Things are generally more hectic in Portugal, people are more stressed out and with the current weather climate - Portugal is still getting temperatures of 30º , in NOVEMBER - the scenery is definitely not trending towards the Irish Green.

You love to do photography outside of your job, do you do it often?

I try to, for the longest time I had DSLR cameras, the 300D when it came out was my first Digital camera, then the 10D and finally the 30D . This last one began to develop sensor issues and I didn’t want to spend too much money on a camera, so I started looking at the Canon EOS M, it’s mirrorless prototype - lets say :) . The first generation of the M was being replaced and I saw a very interesting deal on Amazon, so down that road I went.

The camera was super tiny and when I used the EF-M 22mm pancake lens, it was so small I could put it in my coat’s pocket. So I started going everywhere with it, every day. At the beginning of this year I replaced it with the EOS M5 which is a tiny bit bigger and no longer fits my coat’s pocket, but it’s still portable enough that I can take it with me on my backpack, so I do.

I won’t say I shoot everyday, but I try. On weekends and vacations I carry my entire gear around and I use it extensively.

When did this interest start?

I’m going to say some 18 years back. My uncle had a old Minolta XE-1 that he gave to me. It felt right, I started experimenting with rolls and exposure and all that, of course, back in the day experiments ran over weeks, you would finish a roll, take it for processing, wait a few days - yes days - and finally get disappointed with the results … well, not always :) . I found a few camera shops and I bought a few used lenses and I was hooked. Then finally in 2000-something, Canon announced the 300D and that’s when I made the transition to digital - never to look back again :)

What sparked this interest?

Those first days with my Minolta and the learn by experimentation method. Photography starts by being approached from a technical point of view, exposure time, aperture values, lenses, film types, etc. This felt good to me and it was cheap enough that I could keep it going, and occasionally some picture would come out ok and I would feel good.

Is this a good creative outlet for you? Does it change anything in your life or is it just for fun?

It is, I physically feel a need to create things. While I think that developers have to display and use a fairly good amount of creativity on their day to day life, we don’t always use it for goals we can personally relate to or feel proud of, necessarily. Art is always a personal and any expression of creativity there is bound to what you are as a person.

I think I would like to draw and I like visual arts quite a bit, but I’m not particularly gifted and I suppose drawing never produced enough good results to get me going, whilst photography did, very early on.

As with any other area of knowledge, once you start to develop your skills you’ll start to remove these patterns from the subject you’re developing and generalizing them to other areas. In photography this tends to be lighting, composition and subjects and these are very transferable skills, certainly into other art forms, but things like composition you can abstract a bit more and take to the visual aspects of my job.

I also ended up benefiting from the current boom of photography that platforms like Flickr and Instagram brought. I’ve met more people in recent years from going to photography meet-ups - and mind you, I’m definitely in the shy department and I only attend a fraction of all the meets that happen just in Dublin - than from other things in my life.

Photography is also something I can easily share with people, from strangers who follow my online accounts or site, to family that lives far from me and with whom I can share bits of my day-to-day life with ease.

Do you think that having a creative outlet can be of benefit to your technology career?

I suppose everyone’s experience is different, but I do think artistic creative outlets are a very positive aspect in one’s life. Software development is around taking complex systems and giving them shape. A lot of the solutions we end up finding, architecturally and otherwise, are sometimes inspired by other aspects of life - not necessarily related exclusively to Software Development - and sometimes while working on artistic problems - they exist - you find analogous solutions.

Another aspect is that, if you’re sitting down 10 hours in front of a computer writing lines of code, your forcing your brain into a fairly abstract work mode, worse, one that is very hard to share with other people - who never heard a friend saying “It’s just a button, how hard can it be?”. Art can be a very immediate and direct concrete way to express yourself and it’s something you can easily share with a greater audience. If can also be simultaneously very subtle, you can leave little hints here and there to other aspects of your psyche.

Art is also something in which your final output only needs to cater for a handful of scenarios - maybe just one even. You CAN take shortcuts, you can find creating solutions for your process that you don’t need to have second thoughts about - you don’t have to worry about scaling a picture to 1000 servers, or if your picture’s code is going to be readable or maintainable - once art is done it’s ready.

And finally, I think :) , it’s fair to say that you’ll want people to see your art. This means putting your individual work in out there for people to see. Not after running 1000 specs on it, not after validating if filled carefully structured requirements, but just then, when it’s done and ready. And there’s no v2 you can deploy, there’s no tiny fix you’ll push later, the first time you publish something is probably the last you’ll publish that same something. This can create anxiety and self-doubt but in a safer environment than your usual one, you’ll learn to deal with this and this, is an extremely transferable skill :)

What type of photography interests you the most? (Nature, fashion, people, portraits, etc)

Hummm I was going to say I like good photography and that falls into a number of categories. I love portraits as frozen human expression can be incredibly powerful and beautiful, I like street photography because when done well, you take slices of everyday life and make permanent works of art and I like landscape or cityscape photography because there’s only so many places you’ll visit in person during your lifetime and photography takes you places, figuratively and if you’re impressed enough, literally :) .

Do you like to edit photos or use special effects software or prefer photos in their original form?

I definitely like to edit my photos. I use Lightroom for almost all my editing although I’m aware that there’s a much greater level of refinement and power available to me in Photoshop, but I haven’t made many attempts, at least not enough to make Photoshop something familiar to me.

Having said this, what I try to do with my editing is bring the final result closer to what I saw when I took the picture. Cameras have limited range in terms of the light it can take in, there’s only so much contrast it can see so the camera tries to balance things out, sometimes this means areas will be too dark or to bright, or the colors might be wrongly corrected because there’s a mix of lighting conditions, etc. On top of that I always shoot in RAW, to get the most information I can get from the sensor. Of course the downside of this is that no image correction was done by the camera, so pictures always look flat and bland.

Editing is meant to bring out the things you saw, the colors, the contrasts, the shadowy areas that didn’t look so shadowy when you were there, etc. Same with leveling pictures or fixing bad geometry your lenses might have given you. I think this is an absolutely fundamental step to photography, it was what studios did when they processed your films - or what savvy photographers did, say with their black and white films, where manual cropping, dodging and burning and other tools you have available were done on film and printing. It’s also what cameras do FOR you when you shoot in JPG and the camera applies certain auto-corrections.

I draw the line at more extreme transformations, removing or - especially - adding image elements, at least as far as my process goes.

Regarding other photographer’s work, what genres of photography would you enjoy the most as a fan?

Like I said, I’m a fan of good photography and I have a hard time calling out formal genres. I run a project called Things David Likes at http://thingsdavidlikes.com - yes, it’s as literal a name as you’ll ever see :) , vintage me. I use it to showcase stuff I find online, the majority of it on Flickr. There’s a bit of everything in there, but I think there’s a baseline quality to these people’s works that drives me to put them up there. Talent abounds in this world, in a very real and humbling way, this site is a reminder to myself.

Do you have a favourite photographer or photography website or magazine?

My previous response applies here as well, I certainly use Flickr and Instagram as my main photography sharing sites. I also use EyeEM to published licensed work - my goal is to sell enough pictures to pay for a round of Dominos :) … half-way there.

Other than that I don’t visit other sites often, there’s enough influx from these two to keep me busy for a long long time. As for favorite photographers, there are a few people that make more frequent appearances in ThingsDavidLikes for sure, and some have very distinct styles or run very consistent series, but I’m not a fan of singling people out, I always feel bad for the people I leave out that are equally good, so I don’t :)

Are there any similarities between photography and your work in tech?

Hummm interesting, for example, I stay away from UI / frontend work as much as I can, I like building up systems and I do my best work with backends and architecture. Photography by contrast is incredibly visual and nobody really cares if I do something clever with Lightroom or not, so in that sense it’s hard to draw parallels. I’m going to be optimistic here and say that I approach both fields differently :)

When was the last time you tried something new?

For the past couple of years I’ve been flying back to Portugal to help organize the Trojan Horse was a Unicorn festival that my business partner started. In very few words it’s a Festival dedicated to Visual Arts, digital or otherwise, and it’s been steadily growing these past few years. It’s really an amazing week where I’m surrounded by artists and - this year - producers from all over the world.

This year my role in the Festival grow a bit more and I ended up taking more responsibility doing things that I don’t usually do, like planing and assembling special areas for some of the sponsors and running a couple of activities, the Colabs - where artist get together for the duration of the festival and they work on a product - and the B-sides - a new track that brought a more business side to the festival.

Despite the 9 days of non stop work, with 18 hour non stop work days, I ended up meeting and talking to amazing people, from the President of Polygon - a Japanese animation studio - to the person who produced movies like Storks and Ratatouille, or one of the first people to run Electronic Arts and such.

This is something outside my usual competency and definitely very much outside my work career so far but it’s incredibly beneficial to my growth.

When did you last push the boundaries of your comfort zone?

A couple of years ago I bought a Ukulele and I started taking lessons, 1 hour a week, nothing crazy. Music is, again, a technical field at the beginning of the learning curve and once you develop enough muscle memory more creative and artistic elements start coming into play. It’s also very relaxing and lights up other parts of your brain, to do with melody and rhythm, so I also try to get some exposure to that.

Every August there’s an event in Dún Laoghaire called the Ukulele Hooley. It runs over one weekend where Saturday they run workshops and other activities and ends on Sunday with a big concert that runs for the entire day. One of the activities on Saturday is an Open Mic night, and this year some people on my Ukulele Group wanted to enter it, so we did. Now, I’m not an especially gifted player, but I like the strumming and the rhythm - I’m a percussionist at heart - so in a three element group, I was responsible for sustaining the song.

I practiced plenty and I was fairly comfortable with the song, what I didn’t practice and what I wasn’t comfortable with was doing it in front of a crowd :) , but that was exactly what why I signed up. There’s two parts to that night, one was the hour before going up on stage, that was completely atrocious and every drop of water I had came out of my body as sweat, the second part was when the music started and that, I have little memory of :) , but they tell me it was good and I’m happy to believe them.

That was definitely a new experience and my comfort zone was completely destroyed and it took a few weeks off to recover :)

What are you looking forward to?

Last year I did what I called David’s Photo November. One of goals was to develop one project related to my photography that had a physical dimension to it and that would let me connect directly to people. So I decided to print a few of my pictures as postcards and let people contact me to request one. It was simple enough and although it didn’t had the reach I wanted - still have a few postcards that I’m very happy to send out to people :) - it was fun to do and organize. This year I’m a little bit behind and I’m not sure I’ll still call it David’s November but I want to do something different but with the same requirements - a physical thing that let’s me directly connect to people, I’m looking forward to that project.

What risk would you take if you knew you could not fail?

Well, I have a history of taking risks, I started working at Sapo on the back of an almost catastrophic failure of my own companies, following a very big, risky, bet on a massive project that absolutely fell through after months of work and investment. When things stabilized enough the opportunity to move abroad came up and me and the family moved to Dublin, leaving behind a safe job that definitely paid the bills. 5 years in, funny enough, it’s beginning to feel like another risk taking move is coming up.

Like I said, I still own a company in Portugal and I want to make it grow, so that’s a big thing for me. I then have a cliché project that I’ll eventually do, which is to take a full year of traveling and working around the world, possibly with the kids with me. It’s definitely something that would push every single comfort zone I might have to extinction and in more ways that one, it’s a very risky project.

Those two things, I would bundle in one single project and definitely do it, if Huge Gigantic Risk wasn’t a factor.

Whose biggest fan are you?

I don’t like to put people in a pedestal, I don’t think it’s healthy for anyone, so I have a hard time being a fan of individuals. I do have great admiration for people that produce and put things out there. This is more rare than one would think, people that do completely original work, from the ground up are hard to come by. People with the strength to drive projects to conclusion, big or small, I hold great admiration for. Talent is a nice thing, but work and purpose is the powerhouse behind what talented people create and they awe me.

Do you have an interesting story from a relative that you would want others to know about?

More of a very proud moment than an interesting story. 5 years ago we came to Ireland, we flew in on a Friday and both School and Work started the following Monday. My oldest kid was starting primary school that year, his English was non existent and we yanked him from his native language, country and familiar environment. He takes after his father, in that he’s extremely shy, so I was honestly concerned for him, especially because he would spend half a day in a new school on a new country where nobody spoke his language. I can’t see a more daunting scenario, but to my eternal pride, he survived the first weeks, learned the basic vocabulary quickly and in a few months time he gained proficiency. It was amazing to me to witness that.

Favourite photo / song / movie of all time?

I don’t have a single one :), I might have a top 50 of each though :) but that might be too long