Kevin Hammer ’99: Creative Thinking, from Music to Tech
We often don’t think twice when pulling out our phones to use as a navigation device, whether it’s getting directions to dinner, calling an Uber, or sending a friend our current location. However, behind this location-tracking luxury is a technology pioneered by Skyhook Wireless, a software company located in Boston's tech-heavy Seaport District, where Kevin Hammer '99 works as a quality assurance engineer.
Hammer found himself at Skyhook after a roundabout journey through many diverse jobs, from filmmaking (Hammer studied film scoring and played guitar while at Berklee) to product support to developing gaming applications. During his initial interview for Skyhook, Hammer compared testing gaming software to Skyhook’s technology, explaining the similarities between a dragon attacking when your game character walks into a castle and a coupon popping up on your phone when you enter a Dunkin’ Donuts.
At Skyhook, Hammer creates campaigns that test the soundness of the company’s technology, which uses a combination of Wi-Fi, GPS, and phone towers to pinpoint accurate positions. The company creates technology that is used in programs and applications rather than developing its own and, in 2007, Skyhook’s location-tracking technology was introduced to the world on the early iPhone as the ubiquitous blue dot on the map that we all recognize today.
Troubleshooting and Creative Thinking
Since then, Skyhook has continued to innovate, not only pinpointing exact positions, but also recognizing a location's purpose, from coffee shop to concert venue, and collecting data from a user’s frequently visted locations to predict trends that can create more personalized experiences.
"Our wall is covered with patents [of technology] the company created," Hammer says, explaining that the innovative nature of the company has offered him a dynamic work experience that is different from previous jobs he has had in quality assurance.
"Usually you're just sitting there checking every box and every little menu item for everything you could possibly do with the software," says Hammer. "Here it's different because sometimes to test something, I actually have to spend two hours walking around Boston or spend three days driving around the suburbs. If you want to know whether you'll be at a gas station in 30 seconds, you have to go to a lot of different gas stations and time it."
A large portion of his work also includes finding out what can go wrong before a customer does, utilizing the ability to creatively troubleshoot.
"It's the kind of thing where you have to push the boundaries of what you think might happen, and you've got to find the problems before they happen," Hammer says. "It might be easy, but it also might be something you never thought of."
Energy and the Art of Making Things Possible
Musicians don't always see an overlap between work in the arts and technology, but, according to Hammer, his music education at Berklee has informed the way he approaches his work at Skyhook.
"There’s a vibrant creative energy here that, as a musician, I gravitate towards," Hammer explains. "What else can we do? What is possible? How do we take things people didn't think were possible and make them possible?"
In addition, there are hard skills Hammer learned at Berklee that have helped at Skyhook in unexpected ways, such as when loud teleconferences held in the company's common area were distracting people from their work.
"So one day when no one was around, I turned the treble [of the TV] all the way up and bass all the way down and turned down the volume," says Hammer. "So basically what I would do if I was mixing vocal tracks for a recording, I did that to the TV for teleconferences, and suddenly they could hear everyone clearly and knew what they were saying, but it wasn't so loud that it was distracting everyone else."
Hammer points to the fact that one does not need to check one's identity as "musician" at the door to work in a non-musical field. In addition to his work with Skyhook, Hammer continues to pursue his own musical projects, which currently includes a progressive metal recording project called Evaded, likely to find interested ears among fans of Dream Theater. He also plays melodica, harmonium, dulcineet, and toy piano in TALZTOP (The Acoustic Led Zeppelin Tribute Orchestra Project).
From location services to filmmaking to gaming, Hammer has held many different roles, but the key link between them has been his ability to harness his creativity at these varying intersections of technology.