An Interview with Tim Neil, Former Employee of BlackBerry

I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Tim Neil at BlackBerry Jam Sessions America in San José in 2012. At the time, I was covering the event for another site but, at the same time, was there as a prospective developer (I never made it off home plate). However, as I was struggling to figure out where to begin, thanks to social media magnate Twitter, I contacted Tim and he set up an appointment with me.  

I found Tim to be one of the most down-to-earth individuals I'd ever some across. Beyond taking time out of a busy event to help a no-name, wanna-be dev, Tim was pleasant and cordial as well as personable. He and I share an admiration for Subaru as well as tech. His love for Batman, however, is more akin to my partiality for Star Wars (he may be a bit more into Batman than I Star Wars).  

After BlackBerry Jam Americas, I kept in contact wtih Tim via Twitter. I follow his blog where he's building a Batmobile. Then recently, he departed from BlackBerry, took a rest, and then started his own company. As a business graduate with appreciation for entrepeneurs, plus my desire to know more about the man and the myth, I figured I'd inquire of Mr. Neil about his time at BlackBerry and how it linked to his new endeavor:

An Interview with Tim Neil, Former Employee of BlackBerry

Q: What did you do prior to working for Research In Motion (BlackBerry)? College? Employment?

Before RIM, I attended the University of Windsor for a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science and from there ended up on a co-op term with a company where I eventually ended up becoming part owner. The company was focused on field service software which we eventually shifted into a wireless connectivity company called Nextair, focusing on enabling app development on multiple platforms.  

When we first started working with wireless, it was for early RIM interactive pagers, Motorola Pagewriters, Palm Pilots and PocketPC devices on the Mobitex and Ardis networks. We did the good old start-up ride of eventually going public on the Toronto Stock Exchange and then sold the private part of the business to RIM.

Q: When did you start with Research In Motion?

I came onboard with RIM in 2005 as part of the acquisition of our wireless platform technology which was very similar to the yet to be launched MDS Runtime technology from RIM.

Q: What was your position?

I came in as a team lead of a group working on the MDS Runtime technology. 

Q: What were your responsibilities?

When we came onboard, I quickly realized that there were lessons learned from our previous company around tooling and platform development which should be applied to the new MDS technology. I ended up having a meeting with Mike Lazaridis shortly after joining and expressed my concern of going a proprietary tooling route instead of providing plug-ins to existing popular developer tooling.

Mike agreed and set me on my way of starting to build our first Microsoft Visual Studio plug-in for SME developers who were very invested in Microsoft technology. We eventually carried this plug-in approach forward with all of our developer tooling.

Q: What other positions did you hold within the company?

From there I grew into a Development Manager for the teams working on all of our developer tools for BlackBerry 7, PlayBook and BlackBerry 10.

After a few years of managing development teams, I made the move to Director of Product Management for our developer community. More focusing on the “what” we needed to build instead of the “how" we were executing in the internal development teams. These were some great years reporting to Chris Smith who you may know from our many developer events.

This path eventually found me working with Alec Saunders as my manager where we could focus everything at BlackBerry for satisfying the developer community needs under Alec’s leadership.

Q: How did you feel about the progress of the company through your time there?

It was a lot of fun to see the company grow, [to] grow as an individual, and have a chance to learn from some great leaders. I think the company progressed well. There are always challenges and very difficult decisions to be made. It was a fantastic life experience to be part of those decisions and see the passion of the employees working to make them a reality.

Q: What was it like during the transition to BlackBerry10 and Cascades?

Transitions are always difficult. The tricky part is that everyone wants something great, new and better than before ... but don’t want to change anything at the same time.

The other challenge is that, when going in a new direction with a company filled with smart and talented people, it can be difficult to get everyone on the same page as everyone has their own views on what to do and how to get there.

I can tell you that we had some incredible times working as a team to deliver BlackBerry 10 and Cascades with full-out weekend work being done by people volunteering, barbeques and kids coming into work and playing with each other while parents were crunching code. It was an absolute blast and an experience that I think many of us will unlikely experience again in our careers.

Q: How did you feel about Cascades when it was introduced?

As with any new creation, we always wanted to have more functionality available earlier. It’s just the nature of the beast. One of our main goals when launching was to provide a full start-to-finish developer experience with great documentation, lots of samples and an easy-to-use website. I think we did really well on the first iteration.

Q: What do you think of it today? Advantages? Limits? Challenges?

We made some fantastic strides forward with Cascades and after personally coding on many other platforms, I can say it is still one of the easiest and best documented development platforms that I’ve seen.

I believe a lot of its advantages are around the simplicity of the QML markup for the UI and having a lot of the functionality built into the UI so that you don't have to deal with the boring details.

I think the challenges are like many other structured platforms. When you want to do something very specific outside of what is provided, it can be challenging. But this holds true to any platform such as iOS, Android or even the web.


Q: What about the decision to drop Air and Flash?

I can't really say much about dropping Air and Flash. The licensing of that technology, and the ability to renew a distribution license, is based on where Adobe wants to go as a company.

Q: What was your favorite part of working at RIM/BlackBerry?

Easy ... the people!

What an absolutely fantastic group of people. I have never witnessed a group more passionate and more willing to do what it takes than my time at BlackBerry. All of this while building friendships that will last a lifetime.

Q: You were a part of some great short videos regarding coding for BlackBerry10.  Whose idea were they and what went into producing them?

Those videos always make me smile. I came to Alec Saunders and said I have a really weird idea. I think we can make telling developers about what’s coming a little more entertaining than a blog post.

I said, picture a really sappy soap-opera meets Inside the Actors' Studio. We did a test shoot of one video, reviewed it and everyone in the room looked at each other with the strangest “what the hell was that " look on their face. Alec says “That is one of the strangest things I've seen ... I love it ... lets do it!"

We spent about 2-3 days in total filming them in the local BlackBerry production studio and then started posting them.

Q: How do you feel about the official name change from RIM to BlackBerry

I was neither here nor there on the name change. The biggest impact I had was trying to chase down legal for updated EULAS for the SDK and website.

Q: When and how did your relationship with the company end? 

Last summer I had come to the point where the direction the new leadership at BlackBerry was taking the company was going to bring me back focusing on areas similar to when I started at the company. I felt that, from a personal and professional growth perspective, I would instead head out on my own.

I actually decided to go in on my last day of work dressed as Batman to see if I could get one last laugh and smile from the people I've had the privilege of working with.

I have nothing but good things to say about BlackBerry. They have treated me well, provided me the opportunity to grow, allowed me to travel the world and create valued friendships and professional connections.

Q: What are you doing now?

I have an incredible love for all things automotive and technology related and I get extremely excited when those two passions can come together. This was the idea behind starting my own company called Workshop 12.

The goal of the company is to bring all of the exciting concept car technology (that never seems to come to market) to existing cars today. I've been performing a lot of experiments over the years of how I can bring technology and cars together and felt that there’s big gap that isn't being addressed.

At Workshop 12, we've been starting to build a product called Brainiac which I've heard best described as a combination of Fitbit + Forza + Connnected car for your vehicle today.  We're in the early prototype phase and have been posting a bunch of updates via Twitter and our Facebook page. We’ll be posting more up on the official website shortly as well.

Q: Where did the name Workshop 12 come from?

I wanted to have a name that was fairly abstract that didn't lean towards any certain one market. Our goals are to explore various different vehicle & technology projects. Brainiac is our first project of hopefully many more to come.

Ever since I can remember, the number 12 has played a role in my life. It's one of those strange things that seems to pop up everywhere I go. So I figured I would take that as a positive sign and incorporate the number into the company name.

Q: How did your time at RIM/BlackBerry help you move into Workshop 12?

I’ve received an incredible education from my almost 10 years at BlackBerry. From solid foundations of software development, effective product management, go-to-market strategies and community and ecosystem engagement.

I think the key takeaways that I bring from my time at BlackBerry are:
- Learn something new every day
- Don't be afraid to try something you know nothing about
- Do what you can to make someone else’s day better.  Whether that be a customer, co-worker, friend or family member
- Don't worry ... Jump ... a net will appear below you 

My deepest appreciation to Tim for taking the time to answer my questions, for being honest, and for keeping a positive outlook on his whole experience. It's obvious that BlackBerry/RIM holds a special place in his heart along with the people he met along the way.  Our best to him is his new endeavor.  If you're in the Mississauga, Onatrio are and are looking to mod your auto, check in with Workshop12 and see what special project Tim can do for you.