mmhmm works everywhere: meet Matt Tonkin

Madeleine Dalton

Jul 7, 2023

Meet lead Apple engineer Matt Tonkin. On a mission to create tools to make remote work better, he embodies the mission to live where he can have the best life and work where he can have the best job a little bit differently as a part-time digital nomad.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I grew up in a very small country town in Outback Australia. My family had an oyster farm. I think there were probably 50 kids in the high school. If you're into computers and mathematics as I was, that's not really the right environment. I had the choice of either going away to boarding school or doing School of the Air, which is either school via telephone or shortwave radio. That was a system built for people who can't logistically get to a school. But if there was no mathematics teacher at your school, you had to do your lesson via a phone call, which is pretty unappealing.

I moved around the country a few times in order to continue studying and working until eventually, I had to move to the US for a full-time Mac engineering role. So, my background was really having to move a lot either to get educated or to be able to get a job doing the things that I wanted to do.

Where are you based right now?

This will be my 10th year of working remotely in some form or another. A while ago, my partner was also able to start working remotely. And then we realized nobody actually cared where we were. We went full nomadic for quite a while. Now we kind of have a hybrid schedule. We live in Adelaide, Australia during the summertime, otherwise, we just go wherever life or work takes us.

Right now I'm in Oaxaca, Mexico. This is our third trip here, and we love it.

Can you tell me about your position and team at mmhmm?

I was one of the original engineers who built the beta of mmhmm. I'm the lead Apple engineer, that's probably the best way of explaining it. Day-to-day I lead the engineering of mmhmm on Mac.

Our team is comprised of a few people working on mmhmm desktop and mmhmm Studio. We have one of the more distributed teams. I am sometimes based in Australia; we have people on the west coast and on the east coast in the US, and throughout Europe. Some of the most important support people we work with are in Asia. So it's a very, very distributed team. We have to rely on being asynchronous. There's no good time to have a synchronous meeting between Australia, the US, and Europe.

What would you say is the goal of your work?

This is a simple one for me. I want people to not have to make the compromises that I had to make. I want my kids to be able to be educated in a way that doesn't involve them moving 700 kilometers away, or to be able to get a job that doesn't involve them moving states or countries. I think that's important. There's so much opportunity in the world and these tools kind of close that gap.

How do you live by the out-of-office principles of living where you can have the best life and working where you can have the best job?

I take a twist on that, which is what I find is better than being able to live anywhere is being able to live everywhere. So you can pick and choose your place, go where you want, live how you want, and get a much more in-depth experience of the world and the communities that exist in the world. My partner says when we're doing this, our cup is always full. We're not looking forward to taking a vacation. It's fun to do that, and it's fun to take some time off, but living the way that we live, I just don't find myself succumbing to the grind of doing a job. It's great to be able to work on something that enables other people to do that.

What advice do you have for someone who is interested in distributed or remote work?

Get rid of all preconceived notions of what you think your limitations are because you've just had them removed. I don't feel obliged to be in one place. I don't feel obliged to be in my office. Even though I have a nice office, I don't feel obliged to work 9 to 5. Sometimes I do my best work on a weekend after I've really thought about something. So I remove a lot of the rigidity of working. I think the temptation is to say, “Ok, I'm living the same life that I had when I was in the office. I'm just doing that at home.” And, that is, in my opinion, a sh***y way to do it. There are a lot of advantages to working remotely; take those advantages. If you're doing your best work, nobody questions the rest of it. So remove your paranoia about the perceptions of whether you are working or not, just because you happen to be traveling or being in a coffee shop or whatever else. Focus on doing your best work and structure your life around how you get your best work done.

What is one thing you think everyone should know about mmhmm?

I think it's important that people know who's building mmhmm is actually a group of people that care about this problem. For a lot of people building it, it isn't just a job. For me, it's definitely not just a job. It's something we're doing with a high degree of purpose, and we definitely don't always get it right. But, I want people to know that mmhmm is being built by people who want to be able to live and work remotely and want to be able to create the best tools to do that. Video is a tool that we care really passionately and deeply about, but we care more about enabling other people to be able to do what we do.