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VOL. 125 | NO. 138 | Monday, July 19, 2010

Former Government Programmer Finds Passion in Unseen Things

AISLING MAKI | Special to The Daily News

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Photo: Lance Murphey

When computer programmer Greg Dunn willingly left his job in the Shelby County District Attorney’s office last November to pursue his own freelance business, Unseen Things Inc., he was repeatedly asked the same question.

“People would say, ‘Are you crazy? We’re in a recession,’” said the Arlington resident, who has a history of freelancing.

Prior to joining the IT department at the DA’s office in 2007, Dunn spent 10 years as a self-employed programmer.

When his wife, Valerie, a Bolton High School teacher, became pregnant with their second child, Dunn found himself drawn to the benefits and steady paycheck that came with being a full-time government employee.

“And I loved working in the DA’s office. I loved the people and I loved what we were doing. It worked out well for them and for me,” he said.

His projects included programming for the Memphis Police Department’s Blue Crush database, “consolidating and taking it to the next level,” he said.

But Dunn saw opportunity elsewhere.

“I started making iPhone apps on my own time, and it got to a point where I was making more money from doing that than I was at my day job,” said Dunn.

“I saw tremendous potential, and I needed to take that opportunity. I didn’t want to regret not doing that.”

Dunn has used Unseen Things as his brand name since the late 1990s. The name was originally inspired by a Bible verse, but Dunn said “unseen things” also refers to programming.

He’s currently working on a variety of Facebook and iPhone games as well as ways to improve mobile sites.

Dunn regularly collaborates with other freelancers, like Chris McGee of Fuse9, a local, one-man graphics and animation company.

“Greg is a great problem solver. I never doubt his knowledge as a programmer and his ability to find solutions for whatever technical challenges may arise. This allows me to stay focused on the visuals,” said McGee.

“I leave the many technical challenges to Greg, and I don’t even pretend to understand how he overcomes many of those challenges.”

Dunn also works closely with The Danse, a small, Cordova-based 3-D animation and illustration company.

“I love working with Greg for many reasons, but what I appreciate the most is his ever- expanding skill set,” said Madeline Ward, account executive at The Danse. “It’s not often you find someone who continues to develop skills and challenge himself to the level that Greg does.”

Dunn and The Danse have collaborated on augmented reality pieces – interactive 3-D environments that combine the real with the virtual – for CS2, Methodist Healthcare and Smith & Nephew.

“Augmented reality is just on the cusp of breaking wide open,” said Dunn, whose knowledge has helped to create virtual operating rooms.

A self-taught programmer, Dunn knew from an early age that he would work with computers.

His passion was affirmed in the 1980s when his parents bought him an Atari 2600 programming kit.

They also sent him to computer classes with much older students.

“They had to tell the instructors, ‘we know it’s not a class for kids, but my son really knows what he’s doing,’” said Dunn.

Dunn briefly attended both Louisiana Tech and the University of Memphis as a computer science major, but, he said, he just “wasn’t that interested in school.”

He continued programming on the side as a hobby, making games for himself.

“I began to learn that I could make the computer do what I wanted it to do. I had a desire to dig deeper,” he said.

He started programming professionally in 1995, including a stint with Memphis Online, a now-defunct Internet service provider.

But whether by choice or necessity, Dunn always returned to freelancing, finding clients mostly through word of mouth.

“Memphis is a big small town. If I don’t know someone, someone I know does,” he said.

Like most freelancers, Dunn relies on heavily on networking to keep his business moving forward. While Facebook and Twitter keep him connected in cyberspace, he stays plugged into real-world social networking by attending BarCamp and TribeCamp Memphis, and Mercury Tech Coffee – a weekly tech talk gathering held at Republic Coffee on Walnut Grove Road.

“I really enjoy it. There’s a lot of discussion about tech stuff, but it’s also about entrepreneurs. There are a lot of freelancers and folks involved in startups,” he said.

Dunn said more programmers need to put energy into developing strong communications skills.

“You have to care about the business and especially the people side of things, not just the technology. I take all those things into account,” he said.

“If you take the time to communicate with people, you can see what their needs are and be able to do it for them. Even if it’s just a small aspect of their business, that small aspect could save them 30 minutes a day.”

Dunn said that one of the aspects of freelancing he enjoys most is spending more time with his 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.

“Seeing my kids grow up is a big part of it, too,” he said.

“In the middle of the day the other day, I took my son to see ‘How to Train Your Dragon.’ It was great. I love that flexibility.”

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