Protagonist Lab at ComiconIt’s month six of the Protagonist Lab startup venture, and that puts us toward the end of our second 3-month sprint. We started with a 3-month customer sprint, which was SO FUN. Talking to college students about how they form study groups and what motivates them in school was just about the coolest thing I would ever want to get paid to do. Not that we got paid (yet).

Our second sprint is for design, where we’re taking what we learned on the campuses and working it into an app wireframe.

On the first week of this sprint, it became crystal clear that it wasn’t going to be nearly as fun as talking to students. We’re self-training intensively on design and development tools and reaching out to our network for additional advice and expertise. As any new developer will tell you, it can involve some long and tedious hours.

Over the weeks, though, the designing has gotten more fun. Our process involves working individually on a small set of screens or functions, and then working together to identify the best features from each of us. What happens is not a choosing of a or b, but rather an exhilarating discovery of concepts and approaches that arise from comparing, listening, and digging deeper.

Every day I feel more like an archaeologist digging up treasure, and less like an architect.

Thing is, I’m also still holding down my previous job as a database developer. I work on weekends and evenings to get my client work done so I can have days free to work at Protagonist Lab.

The other day, I was driving my kids and a friend’s daughter to an extra-curricular activity. Making conversation, I asked my friend’s child how her mom was. She said, “Busy. She always has a million deadlines.” and my two kids chimed in, “SAME.” It didn’t sound like a complaint, though, and when I looked in the rear view mirror, I could see that both my friend’s kid and mine were smiling proudly and looking like they felt pretty awesome.

I like knowing my kids are proud of me and that they feel I’m doing something valuable, or at least interesting. Sometimes people ask if it’s hard to be isolated from the family so much. That part can be hard, but on the other hand, it’s important for them to see that I’m a real person with my own hopes and dreams that don’t revolve around them, at least not directly. I want them to grow up and have something purposeful to do in their work, and that’s what I’m modeling for them.

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns though: I took them to NC Comicon today and we saw a programmer/inker friend of mine. We talked about everything we’re both up to — I’m venturing into mobile apps and he’s learning Python — while the kids stood there more or less patiently. Upon leaving, the kids, with eyes rolling, said, “WOW Mom, you really geeked out there for a minute.” I’m sure you read that in a middle schooler’s voice.

But honestly, the only thing I really don’t like about it is that they see me at my laptop so much. I wish my work involved other visible activities, like painting or welding. Someone sitting at a computer looks like she might be working, but might be playing Minesweeper. They trust I’m doing something cool, but it doesn’t look that cool. Oh well.

Now… for some coffee.


Erika Williamson, founder of Protagonist Lab. Database developer and IT consultant. Future philanthropist.