Meet The Tech Lead of Team Pilot: Chris Kief

This week we’re interviewing each member of the winning team from the Co.Labs and Target Retail Accelerator. Here, the technical lead talks about HTML5, Target’s API, and mountain biking.

The Co.Labs and Target Retail Accelerator challenged entrants to design and build an app that would extend the Target customer experience into new areas, leveraging mobile software--native or web-based--to produce new and pro-social effects in their community, family, school, or social network.

This week, we’re interviewing the winners: Team Pilot, which created an app called Divvy. This interview is with the technical lead, Chris Kief.

What was your role in working on Divvy?

I was kind of the technical lead on Divvy. So I focused on our overall technical strategy and vetting the ideas as we came up with them. For example, looking into the Target API and anything else that we could leverage for this project. My role transitioned as we went through the process. At the beginning I was just concepting with the rest of the team, working through ideas. Eventually we narrowed things down to just a single point of focus. I kind of stepped back a little while Chris Reardon and the design and UX guys did their thing. After that I provided a very small write-up for the initial contest submission.

Once we were picked as a finalist, then it got into a very different mode--building the prototype out and just diving in, writing code, all that good stuff. So I kind of transitioned through roles, as we went through the process, which is very normal for any type of life cycle like this. Sometimes, you might have more prototyping up front, but with a quick turnaround like this project was, it was best to just do paper-based stuff at the beginning and then just dive in to code once that was kind of solidified.

What were some of the tools and frameworks you used to build Divvy?

Well, we looked into a bunch of options right at the beginning. Because the concept could be submitted in a variety of formats, whether it would be native apps or an HTML5 webapp. So we kind of looked at what our options were, whether you're going to build something full on in native code using Xcode and submitting it through the App Store, that kind of way. Or using a framework such as PhoneGap or just doing a straight HTML5 webapp. Then just based on the time constraint, we went with the latter, just because that's the quickest. Even the PhoneGap route takes a bit too much time for what we needed.

So how did you find working with HTML5 for Divvy?

Oh, it was good. I mean, we've been doing web development for many, many years now. HTML5 is quite fast and our developer Charlton is a rock star with JavaScript and CSS. So it was pretty quick once we got into it. I think the challenge was not in writing the code itself; it was deciding what we were going to write. So using HTML5 was a choice that had trade-offs. We had to decide what we were actually going to make just functional, what would be the best we can make it, and what's the stuff that we can prune off and reduce it to something that fits within the window of development that we have?

What were some of those trade-offs or features that didn't make the cut?

Well, the first big one was contacts. The app is all about sharing a list of items with your friends. So it's natural you should be able to access your contact list. Well, that's super easy to do with a native app. Unfortunately, you can't do that with HTML5. You just can't access the contact list from a web app. So that was the first thing out. There were some other ideas around using a camera to capture items, that also had to get tossed. Anything that was dependent on native APIs to the device we had to cut. Our goal was just to get the idea across and then kind of fake it enough like, “Okay, this is what it should do.”

How was it hooking into Target's API?

They're huge fans and they should be. It was really straightforward to work with. They don't make it publicly available, so no one [on our team] had ever worked with it before. But once we got hold of access keys, it was a fairly straightforward REST API. They offered quite a bit of information. It's pretty amazing what they exposed, between all their product data and whatnot. So I think there's definitely a lot of room to grow the app with that, just with some more time and experimentation.

Can you tell us a bit about your work background?

I've been working in technology since college. I started a company out of school, basically doing Flash development. I built that up to a few folks when Flash was huge. Then I moved just from the vendor side of things into the HTTP side of things about six years ago now. And I've worked from a variety of shops, from Saatchi & Saatchi out in L.A. to Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Boulder. Had an opportunity to work on a lot of great stuff, everything from Domino's and working on their Pizza Tracker and their Pizza Builder, as well as their mobile application for ordering. I got to work on tons of great stuff for Toyota while I was at Saatchi, like toyota.com. We did a huge owner's portal for that as well as lots of mobile stuff. I'm now here in New York and working with the folks at TBWA and our little techie group here. So it's been a mix of things. It's interesting to see how technology has changed over the years from what we were doing originally when I first start coding, which was like 2001. So it's come a very long way. And I have to laugh when I hear people complain about how long it takes them to get their server running on Amazon. It used to take quite a lot more back in the day to go to a website or get an app up and running. The ease with which we can do things now is quite amazing.

So what you do when you're not coding?

Well, I'm originally from the West Coast, Los Angeles, and now living here in New York. As someone from L.A., I like to be outdoors a bit. I've been mountain biking for, I don't know, 20 years now, downhill mountain biking since I was 12 or 13. So that's my away-from-computer activity. I grew up in Pasadena. Back then, when downhill was becoming big, the only guy that was making long-travel bikes was this guy Brent. I was racing for a long time then. The rest of the industry started catching on but I still stuck with small builders in California. I bought one from this guy Jeff Steber, who runs Intense Cycles. I had an Intense for, oh gosh, probably five or six years. And now all those guys are getting eclipsed by what's going on with carbon development, which obviously takes much larger budgets for research and development. So I still have an aluminum bike, but I'm looking at getting a carbon, but I'm not sure what yet. Trek Session and Santa Cruz are pretty awesome. So there's a bit of choice out there. East Coast is definitely a different flavor of riding than going out west to California, Colorado, Utah. Definitely way more flat and way more wet, which is not the best combination for riding off-road.

[Image: Flickr user Dan DeChiaro]