How a former cell phone salesman became a dev lead at Tonic Design - Technical.ly Philly

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Jul. 23, 2014 12:30 pm

How a former cell phone salesman became a dev lead at Tonic Design

An apprenticeship program at DmgCtrl (now Tonic Design) is out to prove that tech talent can be cultivated, no degree necessary. Mike Matranga was the local software firm's first “minion,” running errands for staffers while he studied software in his downtime. “In a lot of ways, he's our greatest achievement,” says a DmgCtrl founder.

Mike Matranga was the first apprentice, or "minion," at the firm now called Tonic Design.

(Photo courtesy of Tonic Design)

Mike Matranga was tired of selling cell phones at the Franklin Mills Mall. He wanted another job.

So when he found a curious Craigslist ad, describing a position for someone who would run errands and, during down time, learn how to build software, he jumped at it.

Why not? “I like computers,” he said to himself. “I used to be a bike messenger.”

The company that posted the job, software firm DmgCtrl, hired him at just above minimum wage, part-time, in the fall of 2010. He kept his sales job, too.

Matranga, 33, is now a lead developer at the firm, running projects at the company, which has since merged with (and is now called) Tonic Design. The South Philadelphian was the first “minion,” as the team calls them, but there have been many since: more than one-third of the nearly 30 DmgCtrl team members have been, or are currently minions, said cofounder Jason Allum. They are former youth ministers, servers, art students.

The apprenticeship program, as Allum explains it, is three solutions in one. It helps the firm recruit from a diverse pool of talent “that everyone is fighting over,” he said. It helps save money (instead of losing billable hours when a developer needs to wait for the Comcast guy, why not send a minion, who’s still learning, to do it?). And it proves that building software isn’t some untouchable skill that only a select few can reach.

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On Matranga’s first day, back in 2010, DmgCtrl’s founders gave him a shopping list: batteries, Windex, motor oil, CDs.

Easy, Matranga thought. The founders — Allum and Mac Morgan — were impressed with his efficiency when he returned. At the time, DmgCtrl was working from digital agency Razorfish’s office in Callowhill.

It continued in that vein: Can you call customer service and cancel Mac’s CLEAR Internet service? Can you go get Mac’s car detailed? He likes having his car detailed and hasn’t done it in a while.

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Yeah, it was a little weird, Matranga admits, but he wasn’t fazed.

mike matranga tonic

Mike Matranga (far right, in yellow) didn’t have any technology experience when he started at DmgCtrl. (Photo courtesy of Tonic Design)

Matranga grew up in South Jersey and started working right out of high school. He took odd jobs at banks and music stores. He spent a few years living in his van, touring the country as a musician, and came back to Philly when he was out of money. He didn’t have any technology experience.

During those first few months at DmgCtrl, he spent his free time at the company watching video tutorials about building Apple software.

And, despite all the menial tasks, he stuck with it. Matranga said he kept at it because he felt he could learn something from the DmgCtrl team. To him, they seemed like “the elite.” People were always asking them questions and they always had the answers. People respected them.

“Whatever they were doing was important,” he remembers thinking.

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The minion program works, in part, because of the way the DmgCtrl team builds software.

They break a project up into very small parts, Allum said. It turns into a to-do list of jobs like like “turn all these red buttons into blue buttons” or “rewrite this copy.” Each developer on the project tackles a task and when they’re finished, another team member has to approve it. Any team member can approve it, not just the project lead, which Allum said allows team members to learn from each other, no matter their experience level.

It’s an ideal way for someone to learn, whether the minion is taking on a task or the one who approves it, he said.

jason allum

Jason Allum helped start the minion program at DmgCtrl in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Tonic Design)

It’s different from the workflow Allum has seen at other shops, where he says developers are encouraged to be autonomous and take on bigger projects instead of small tasks that contribute to a whole.

He said this form of project management “breaks down the assholeishness” you can find among developers working on a team. It’s one way to encourage developers to be less territorial about their work. At DmgCtrl, Allum doesn’t want his team asking, “Why’d you touch my code?”

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A few months after Matranga started at DmgCtrl, at the end of 2010, the company moved into its own office on top of Old City coworking space Indy Hall.

The floors in the new space were a mess, and it was Matranga’s job to buff them. But that was his last errand. Shortly after the move, DmgCtrl offered him a full-time job, with a raise and benefits. Matranga could finally quit his job selling cell phones.

His first responsibilities didn’t revolve around programming. Matranga spent the better part of his first year checking copy on user license agreements and doing a lot of quality assurance — testing products before they went out the door. It helped him understand the process behind building software, and he “got really good at breaking things,” he said. Meanwhile, Matranga studied Python and wrote unit tests.

Then, the projects began.

A mobile app for Kellogg’s. Another for AT&T’s smart-home offering. Now he’s leading a project to build an app for 21st Century Car Insurance.

Matranga said he feels like he’s found his calling (and the 40 percent raise after his first year didn’t hurt, either). It’s just a little crazy to him that it took almost thirty years. He wonders: what if he had been exposed to software development 10 years ago?

Instead of dwelling on that, he’s sharing his discovery with his family.

His youngest brother, Phil Matranga, 25, has graduated from minion to “manion” (their words — not ours) in the summer of 2012 and his cousin, Brittany Boyko, is on her way.

Tonic Design will continue the apprenticeship model that started at DmgCtrl. They believe it’s possible to cultivate local talent, no degree or tech experience necessary. Matranga’s their prime example.

“In a lot of ways,” said cofounder Morgan, “he’s our greatest achievement.”

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