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Fall 2010

One on One with Dom Sagolla

dom_sagolla.jpgWhen Dom Sagolla, Ed.M.'00, was product-testing the earliest version of what is now known as Twitter, he perfectly summed up -- in the site's 38th tweet ever -- what in a few short years would be the feeling of millions of web users: "Oh this is going to be addictive."

That intuition has served Sagolla well over the years, as he parlayed his early interest in computer programming into a long career as a web developer, including stints at Macromedia, Adobe, and Odeo (now Twitter). Sagolla also knew when to strike out on his own, cocreating DollarApp and iPhoneDevCamp and capitalizing on the emerging consumer trends in handheld technology.

But it was earlier in his career when Sagolla's true focus became apparent. At his first post-Ed School job, Sagolla worked at the MIT Media Lab's Future of Learning project with Seymour Papert, the person whose LOGO programming language first awoke a teenaged Sagolla's inner learner. "Papert taught me that the computer is a learner's tool, not necessarily a teacher's tool," says Sagolla. "After this experience, I vowed to turn all of my skills towards empowering the learner."

How does your interest in education translate to your career as a web developer?
I joined Macromedia to work on the Dreamweaver project because I personally used that tool to learn about web standards. It's an education in a box; just using Dreamweaver will force you to accept certain ways of doing things. I used this experience to find a job at the University of California, Berkeley, teaching adults how to build websites, and emphasizing the experiential aspect of learning through building that Seymour taught me.

I left Macromedia to work at Odeo -- which became Twitter -- because I believe strongly in the power of Open Source as an educational tool. One should be able to see how one's software is built, and be able to fix or extend it. Odeo was the promise of Open Source, combined with a new kind of "web app" that allowed anyone to contribute content to the public commons using just their voice. The idea of voice has yet to take hold, but the idea of writing for the public commons was a natural evolution of that idea, and thus Twitter was born.

Tell me about your book, 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form. Who should read it?
Anyone who wants to write more concisely and effectively via e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, or other small spaces. The short form is the oldest form of writing. Consider the possibilities in headlines, lead sentences, kicker sentences, poetry, drama, dialogue -- the list is endless. 140 Characters is a book about writing, and so any writer should benefit.

Keeping your point short and sweet is priceless.

Twitter is obviously a format that young people respond to. How can educators take advantage of this?
The way I see it, we as educators must go where the learners learn. Currently, they are sharing life experiences and learning via social networks, and yet it can be a treacherous road to learn in public this way. We should be guiding learners with our experience in writing and reporting, and providing great examples for them to follow.

How do you personally use Twitter?
I have more than 25 accounts, in which I test every literary and personal style that I can find in 140 characters. My main account is there to represent me personally, and each company or project in which I'm involved gets an account. I'm always writing and recommending the work of others that I enjoy.

One of your companies is DollarApp.
Yes. DollarApp is founded on the principle that one feature, developed in one month by one person, equals one dollar of value. Got an idea? Whittle it down to its best feature and ship it quickly. This approach has allowed us to avoid taking any investment, ship only the apps we want, and sustain a business purely via downloads.

How is it going?
DollarApp will double in size this year to two people.

Do you produce apps yourself, or do you provide a service for others' app products?
At first, DollarApp did do some consulting, and I'm open to it as time permits. Since each of our apps has been well-received, we have the confidence to continue producing our own ideas for the time being.

I did contribute to the official Obama '08 iPhone app just before the [presidential] election. That app was one of the most widely distributed apps in history and is credited with generating more than 41,000 phone calls during the weeks leading up to President Obama's victory.

I've also consulted with iPhoneDevCamp founder Raven Zachary's company, Small Society, to produce their largest app to date.

Tell me about that project.
iPhoneDevCamp was formed one week after the launch of iPhone, in reaction to the critique around the web-only development kit from Apple. As web developers, my friends and I embraced the standard nature of this new browser, and we were rewarded with more than 40 demos that first weekend. Since then, it has grown to an international organization, holding events every month somewhere in the world. We just completed iPadDevCamp, which attracted more than 400 of the world's top iPhone developers, resulting in more than 50 excellent demonstrations.

What is your role?
I am one of the cofounders and an organizer of each event. My responsibilities are to secure the venue, encourage sponsorship, and coordinate our many satellite locations for a simultaneous, three-day contest called the Hackathon. We believe that the best way to learn is to build, and the finest builders are minted in the fire of competition.

What makes a good app?
A good app is extremely simple, high-performing, and reliable. On the iPhone, the typical user experience is 30 seconds to one minute. That means you've got to provide success for the user immediately.

On iPad, there is a longer window that I'm still discovering, but the principles of simplicity and craftsmanship remain. A great app will make a very difficult task seem easy and obvious to complete.

What has been your most successful or widely adopted app?
I'm pleased to say that my most successful app to date has been Math Cards -- quick quizzes in basic arithmetic for iPhone and iPod touch. It has earned a place in Apple's "Apps for Kids" list and consistently garners good reviews.

My favorite thing about that app is when I get e-mails from kids who are using it, some of them very young.

So, when the time comes, how should I tweet the Web publication of this Q&A?
You can mention it like this: "An interview with Twitter cocreator @Dom Sagolla, Ed.M.'00, about his company @DollarApp and the @iPhoneDevCamp."