Tom Bates

Tom Bates — Duffel

São Paulo-based designer, developer, muppet, and co-founder at Duffel. He’s obsessed with building tools, designing in code, and consuming his weight in pasteis de nata.

What led you into design?

I’ve always wanted to make things. I remember when I was younger it usually involved taking something apart, breaking it, and never being able to use it for its original purpose again. Great huh? After this destructive phase, I really bounced around different creative outlets.

Making videos, websites, stickers, and stencils to promote me and my friends skateboarding video? Of course. A year of drawing weird monsters with Posca pens on anything and everything? Naturally. Being that intern that gets the privilege of lovingly staining 100 clothes labels with tea for a Wrangler campaign? Check. Letraset on toilet paper? Sure, why not.

It really wasn’t until I got to Central St Martins that I realised where my passion lay. All my projects kept coming back to the digital world. I loved the challenge of solving both the creative brief and the technical challenges that came along with it. I mean “solving” is debatable (see Letraset on toilet paper), but I digress. I guess the biggest takeaway is that I was never content with just showing mockups for something. It needed to be real. Flash forward a few years and I’m still designing and building things that solve problems with the tools and mediums that make the most sense. It’s great.

What does a typical day look like?

I like to think of myself as having a good structure around how and when I work, but realistically I don’t. It’s more organised chaos, which isn’t a totally bad thing. It allows space for discovery. I’ve worked remotely since I moved to Brazil a few years back and honestly, it’s been the best decision ever. I’ve had to learn how to keep myself focused rather than sporadically chasing any idea that pops into my head. Lists are my saviour when it comes to keeping on track. I’ve also had to set up a series of alarms throughout the day to remind me to stop and eat after I got into some seriously bad eating habits after the first few months of working from home.

I work at home and it really suits me. I’ve tried going to coworking spaces like WeWork in the past, but I find the open space setting too distracting. So I only tend to work outside of the house when I’m finding being at home particularly unproductive. As I don’t commute I feel like I have more time in the mornings to sit and have breakfast with my wife before she heads off to work at Intuit. Then I get down to work (well, I go upstairs to my office).

The workday starts with checking in with the rest of the Duffel team who are already halfway through their day in Europe. We heavily rely on Slack for team communication throughout the day. Being remote, it’s important to almost over communicate everything with the rest of the team; so Slack really helps with this. I also use Slack to get feedback and bounce ideas off people outside of Duffel.

The rest of the day is pretty free flow between quick meetings to keep us all in sync, “lifting heavy stuff” at the gym and focused production work. Recently, I’d say I spend around 70% of my time designing directly in the product’s code rather than in Sketch (or insert favourite design software of choice here). I tend to sketch on paper and use Sketch to lay down the foundations and really spend most of the time iterating and fleshing things out in code after I’ve got those basic building blocks.

That said, I spent a long period of time in Sketch designing a system for Duffel. Although, realistically I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a design system. It’s more of a tool to make sure everything is consistent and save some time when building out our products as we already have the CSS for our basic building blocks.

Half the week I also have my crazy wall-eating dog Luna (or as she’s also known, The Loon) at home with me, so I can sprinkle my day with walks and playtime.

What’s your setup?

I use a Macbook Pro and a Cinema Display that is really beginning to show its age. Dead pixels, condensation, the lot. Not to mention that I dropped the cables in a cup of tea years ago and they don’t really work so well anymore. Not really sure why I added that detail but it’s there now. The thing I really love is my sound setup as I tend to listen to stupidly loud music during the day. A colleague at Palantir had this valve amp on his desk while I was visiting, which I thought was amazing — and pretty. After the tiniest bit of research, I picked one up and I’ve never looked back. Thanks Ryan.

Where do you go to get inspired?

Honestly, I tend to step as far away from the screen as I can when I get stuck on something. I don’t really like to stay still for very long and tend to pace a lot. Way too much, sorry to anyone this has annoyed. Basically, I use exercise as a way to think and get inspired. Outside of exercise, I check the usual sites for inspiration, such as siteinspire, ProductHunt, Dribbble for pretty things, and HN.

Also, just getting out there and talking to people, but more importantly, passionate people. Listening to people talk about something they are passionate about is contagious, it really makes you think about your own drive, and where you want to get to. Just pushing your drive that one bit further. You’ll get little insights into things outside of your day to day, and often end up getting lost in a conversation about something completely random and that neither of you can trace back to its origins. This is something that co-founder of ustwo Mills talks about it The JFDI Cast (in between his constant tangents). In fact, there’s a bunch of great stuff he talks about around passion, growth, and an almost self-destructive need to keep moving forward. Worth checking out.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

We recently switched from using Quip to Notion at Duffel. And it’s fresh. We use it to keep all our notes, goals, and tasks (actually we use it for a basically everything written). The reason I’m such #bigfan of Notion is that I can actually find things again, that’s not to say that Quip is bad, but I constantly missed or lost documents. Notion even lets you assign an emoji for a document, it’s just a little detail that I really enjoy.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

I can instantly think of two projects that I’m pretty proud of. The first isn’t the most exciting of projects but I was so pumped once I got it launched.

In between leaving Palantir and starting Duffel I gave myself two weeks to learn Elixir, build a product, and launch it (I think it ended up taking a few days longer than two weeks). So I launched a little habit tracking app called mooji.tools that got around 300 sign-ups after being featured on ProductHunt. In the end, I didn’t continue working on it, but I learned a lot and managed to break an unproductive cycle I was going through. It pushed me back into making things.

Which brings me to the second project, Duffel. We’ve only been going for six months but we’ve already achieved so much. It’s been an exciting journey and I’m super excited to see what we can achieve in the next years.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

We’re building tools for the travel industry, starting with flight distribution. We’re creating a flight booking API that allows anyone to search, reserve and manage flights through direct connections to the airlines. Recently, I’ve been focused on using our API to build an application for travel agents that work with corporate travel. It’s an interesting area because the existing solutions haven’t really changed for the last 20 years. Companies like Amadeus and Saber are still offering text-based solutions that can take months to learn properly. Actually, I’ve been doing an online course to learn their terminal-like software and its kind of soul-crushing.

One of the interesting challenges we’ve been thinking about recently is how to balance the simplicity you can achieve with a GUI against the speed that power users are able to achieve with a text-based interface. There’s are a bunch of great services for flight booking that we can draw experience from but these solutions are designed to be used in short bursts rather than all day. So we’re exploring how we can make the initial learning curve virtually non-existent but also create a tool that is fast, complex, and powerful.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

It’s probably been said a million times, but asks as many questions as you can about anything and everything. It’s really important to get a deep understanding of the subject that you’re tackling, plus you’ll probably pick up some interesting bits of pointless information along the way.

One thing I wished I learned a long time ago was how to think without doing. I guess this refers more to those passionate side projects. It’s good to let things really sink in before jumping into anything. Take time to talk about it, even if you’re talking to yourself (that’s another benefit of working from home as no-one is there to judge you for talking to yourself). The more you talk about an idea the better you understand it yourself.

Basically, surround yourself with passionate people that you can bounce ideas off and really think about what you’re doing. f you’ve got an idea and want an extra set of ears, give me a shout. I’m always happy to chat with anyone and feed off whatever it is that you’re passionate about.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

I’ve been super lucky to have had great mentors and people around me, especially during the early stages of my career and I’d love to give back. So whether you’re just looking to bounce an idea off someone, looking for an intro or have a question about working remotely, give me a shout. My metaphorical door is always open and I'm more than happy to help. Just slide into my DMs on Twitter.

Also, if you’re interested in building a product in the travel space check out Duffel.

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