DigiDNA devs make apps that rock by thinking like a band
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Sometimes you’ve got to think small to hit it big. For DigiDNA, a Swiss development team that makes popular software for managing iOS devices, that means functioning more like a tight rock ‘n’ roll band than a sprawling orchestra.
“It can get rough, but there’s a luxury in being a small team,” says Jérôme Bédat, CEO of DigiDNA and a member of the company’s six-person core group.
Keeping the DigiDNA crew compact means they can concentrate on the most rewarding elements of software development, like creative coding to make apps that scale the charts.
DigiDNA has music in its DNA
Music has been a part of DigiDNA since the company’s beginning. Bédat and a business partner founded the company in 2008, not long after the first iPhone launched.
DigiDNA’s flagship software, iMazing, grew out of earlier products for getting music to and from iPhones.
“We figured out a way to get the music out [of iPods and iPhones], and it took off really fast,” says Bédat. “A lot of people really needed a way to get their music back on their computer.”
Transferring music back to computers became an extremely popular feature, and DigiDNA’s user base got big fast. Since then, DigiDNA has evolved into a go-to provider for software that eases data management and data transfer between iOS devices and Macs and PCs.
“There are many things that iTunes doesn’t offer, and that is really our niche,” says Bédat. “To help users make the most of their iPhones, to empower them, to give them more access to the data.”
Now nearly a half-million people use DigiDNA’s software.
For DigiDNA, small is good
Despite the success, DigiDNA chose to remain small. The size of the team means DigiDNA stays nimble and responsive, but it also puts a lot of individual responsibility on each member — Zanon, for example, personally handled 1,600 help tickets in the weeks after the launch of iMazing 2.
The small team dynamic mirrors that of a small musical ensemble.
When you watch a group of expert musicians onstage, they interact and respond to one another in a way that just isn’t possible in a large orchestra, where a single conductor controls the action.
The subtleties of movement, the sense of time, the collective response to a sudden idea or change in circumstances — heck, a top-flight jazz group can turn a mistake into a musical event.
“You can be much tighter rhythmically if you’re a quartet than if you’re a full-blown symphony orchestra,” says Gregorio Zanon, who joined DigiDNA in 2013 and became a part-owner in 2015.
Zanon got into coding after training as a classical musician and composer.
“We all sit literally around the same table, so it’s really, really fast for us to react if we see something that needs support. We can react and release a fix in a few hours, and if something goes wrong — if there’s a new iTunes release that breaks something — we’ll be there and we’ll find a solution fast and without a lengthy process.”
Zanon’s first foray into coding came with the advent of the iPad. He saw the Apple tablet’s incredible potential as a platform for digital instruments (he even designed some that made it onto the App Store).
Indeed, there’s a more-than-superficial overlap in making sounds and making software. The relationship between coding and musical composition extends well beyond the dynamics of a small team: You can see it in the abstract relationship between symbols and action, in the act of creating something that translates an idea into a formal structure.
“Many devs are musicians,” says Bédat. “We can see the equation of the two ways of thinking. There’s something similar in the pleasure taken in building musical architectures and code architectures.”
“Especially in classical music, the development of music is a series of patterns which undergo transformations,” Zanon adds. “To memorize hours of music is to figure out patterns and underlying algorithms. This habit of reducing complexity by figuring out structure is very close to what we do as developers.”
Healthy collaboration, from coding to music
It’s important for any healthy collaborative environment to offer room for improvisation — for reacting to unexpected slip-ups or making space for your teammates’ great ideas.
Much like a small ensemble in an intimate venue making a connection with the audience, being involved at the ground level can help developers stay in touch with their users.
In recent weeks, DigiDNA released the second version of iMazing, which landed around the same time as iOS 10 and the iPhone 7. As happens with any major release, DigiDNA’s coders faced a lot of unexpected issues that needed to be handled ASAP.
“It makes you really conscious of what works, what doesn’t,” says Zanon of being on a small development team. “It makes us very, very close to our users in a way. It has its downsides, it can be rough — we didn’t get much sleep in the last 10 days — but we really know how users feel, and we are able to react super-quickly to problems.”
Focusing on the art of coding
One other way in which the coding as music parallel holds true is in the desire of any artist to focus on their art. This is just as true in music making as it is in software development.
Keeping a tight focus on the central spirit of the organization works as well in software development as it does in collaborative songwriting. This is one way in which the current “service as a service” (SaaS) paradigm can be very helpful for software developers trying to make the most of what they do best.
Just as successful bands hire booking agents, tour managers, roadies and publicists, DigiDNA sought outside help from professionals who handle essential tasks unrelated to their central mission.
DigiDNA handed payment operations over to FastSpring, which helps manage tricky VAT issues. Customer support has been enhanced with Zendesk, while DigiDNA’s email system runs through MailChimp. They had also spent a great deal of time and energy developing their own tools for license management and activation, but after meeting representatives from MacPaw at the 2014 WWDC, decided to pass these tasks along to DevMate.
Bringing in experts in a given area leaves the core group — the original band, if you will — able to focus on what DigiDNA’s customers demand. In this case, they were looking for a way to streamline the
Bédat sees the proliferation of third-party services like the ones DigiDNA uses as a welcome trend.
“We try to use as much SaaS services as possible,” he says. “It’s a good trend because you can focus on your core business.”
And that’s how DigiDNA’s crack team keeps cranking out the hits.