Meet The Team: Alex Castellani, Product Design Manager
Welcome to a brand new feature called “Meet The Team!” In this ongoing series of conversations, I want to introduce you to the people behind the software you use every day. When and why did they fall in love with technology? What does their day-to-day schedule look like? What attracts them to open-source projects? And what’s their playlist of choice when hacking away on Thunderbird?
Let’s kick it off by getting to know the person leading the charge on Thunderbird’s modern redesign: Product Design manager, Alex Castellani.
Alex’s Origin Story
I’ve always been fascinated by learning about the initial spark that ignited someone’s love for technology, open source, or programming. Everyone loves a good origin story, right? So that’s one of the first questions I’m asking every member of the Thunderbird team.
At the young age of 12, after his father taught him how to paint, Alex initially wanted to be a comic book artist and attend art school. But a few years later, this wondrous new thing called the Internet distracted him.
“I started doing some web design very loosely, and I was participating in a web design forum where I was doing the design and other people were doing the development,” Alex says. “But I was getting very upset about the developers not recreating my design perfectly! Because I am who I am, I said to myself ‘I’m sure I can do better than them, so I will teach myself.’ So I started learning PHP and HTML — by the way, at that time CSS didn’t even have floating elements.”
It didn’t take long for Alex to fall in love with coding. But his journey took another step forward thanks to, of all things, an Italian-language Star Trek role-playing game.
“I was fascinated by how they were doing online activities and multiple people chatting,” Alex says. “I found out it was built on PHP and MySQL, and I wanted to learn how to build it myself as well. And yeah, I’ve never had a full night’s sleep ever since!”
Pricey, Proprietary Tools: A Gateway to Open-Source
Alex’s fondness for coding and design would eventually lead him to discover the concept of open source. But first, he learned a hard lesson about what “proprietary” meant in the real world.
“After High School, I wanted to be an architect,” Alex says. “So I went to university — and dropped out after 3 months because I hated it so much.”
Alex came from what he describes as a blue collar family, and while he didn’t live an uncomfortable life, certain things were unaffordable luxuries.
“I couldn’t afford a phone,” Alex says. “I couldn’t even afford textbooks, especially old, important architecture textbooks that cost hundreds of Euros. So I tried to sneak out, grab them from the library and photocopy them. But that wasn’t even allowed because these restrictive policies were in place.”
Alex tells me he felt shut out. Blocked from accessing the tools he needed.
“And even little things like, you need this specific type of paper, this specific pencil, this specific compass,” he explains. “You need all these tools that are so expensive…”
“I’m not forced to pay thousands of dollars to learn these things that are just out there,” he says. “That influenced a lot in my way of thinking. Since day one, everything that I coded and everything that I built, I always put the source code online for free. I never thought about other people stealing it. I thought other people could learn from it!”
A Typical Week At Thunderbird?
Alex manages the entire front-end team, which means a typical week involves lots of meetings. But each day starts at 7am when he rolls out of bed and walks his dog. Then, before enjoying some breakfast, he sits down and filters through hundreds of emails to see what he can contribute to. He points out that since we’re a global, remote team, it’s important for him to answer any European-based messages so that the senders have a response to wake up to.
Those meetings though? They definitely couldn’t just be an email. Right now, as Thunderbird 115 is being built, the team is looking at the entire user interface, every single pixel, every single tab, discussing what doesn’t work and what needs to be fixed. They’re evaluating various mockups to see what can be applied. They have regular design sessions and generally work toward making Supernova awesome.
After the meetings are over, Alex typically does patch reviews, then dedicates some time to coding.
And yes, those coding sessions have a very specific soundtrack: Eastern European, female-fronted heavy metal.
What Excites Alex Most About Thunderbird Supernova?
As the person heading up UX and UI design, you might think Alex is a little biased when it comes to naming his favorite Supernova feature. And you’d be right! But when pressed to name a very specific favorite feature about the upcoming Thunderbird 115 in July, Alex points to customization.
“A lot of our current users put Thunderbird on a pedestal for how customizable it is, but it’s actually not,” Alex exclaims. “Thunderbird is customizable in a manner that you can hide a panel, change some buttons in the toolbars, and change the theming.”
“But what if I want my reading list in my message pane to be like a vertical layout, with only three lines of preview text, or zero lines of preview text,” he asks. “What if I want my calendar to have tiny dot colors and not block colors? And I want to hide the notification icons, and not be shown which ones are recurring? What if I want to collapse my Saturday and Sunday to smaller chunks instead of hiding them entirely? What if I want to see the subject line larger, and I don’t even want to see the ‘From’ and ‘To’ labels? I don’t need to see those, it’s been like that for 20 years. Let’s hide them!”
Alex explains that he — and by extension the entire team — wants the Thunderbird experience to feel more personal, and more suited to what individual users want and expect. “That’s why we needed to rebuild it from scratch, but make it behave exactly like the old version,” he says.
How Can The Community Help You?
We’ve written previously about all the ways our community — and any open source project’s community — can contribute without knowing how to code. So I asked Alex what our community could do to have a direct, positive impact on his specific role at Thunderbird.
VIDEO: IN HIS WORDS
“What I love about our community is they are extremely involved and they care about everything that we do,” Alex says. “So in general, using more Beta and using more Daily. Be aware though that Daily is literally alpha software and could crash. But testing the operating system, integrations, the usability and accessibility of the whole interface is something that’s really important.”