When I first heard about Facebook’s new cryptocurrency, Libra, I literally laughed out loud. I continued laughing as I read this comment on a friend’s post about Libra, which pretty well summed up my reaction: “Can’t wait for a cryptocurrency with the ethics of Uber, the censorship resistance of PayPal, and the centralization of Visa, all tied together under the proven privacy of Facebook.” Notice, however, that I saw this comment on… where else… Facebook. Zuckerberg, as usual, gets the last laugh.
Facebook has some vexing organizational problems and caused considerable chaos on the global stage. Facebook then aggravated that chaos by opting to ignore their own culpability. But, it continues to fulfill its role as a connector of people better than any other service in existence. Many have tried and failed to best Facebook in this regard, yet Facebook still reigns supreme. So, when a juggernaut like Facebook introduces a new global cryptocurrency, I can chuckle all day, but at the end of that day I’m going to read the white paper.
Two years ago I wrote this blog post in which I laid out my issues with cryptocurrency at the time, and made this prediction: “I think that, like the switch from cash to credit cards, a move to virtual currency for day to day transactions makes sense. We are still in the very early, Wild West days of that move. There is opportunity in chaos, and many will opt to prolong the chaos as long as possible to grab as much cash as possible from gullible late-comers. Eventually, however, I think values will stabilize and governments will get behind a handful of virtual currencies.”
Libra seems to me like a move away from the speculative volatility and anti-government paranoia that surrounded early blockchain currencies. I think it’s very telling that they describe it as a “low-volatility cryptocurrency”. Speculative volatility is sexy when it’s making or breaking overnight millionaires, but it’s a terrible way to run any sort of usable currency. You don’t want to discover that the hammer you bought for $10 yesterday is now worth $4,000 today. This is how you wind up becoming one of those crazy people who buy up all the hammers from every hardware store within driving distance, stash them in your garage because you’re sure you’ll cash in on the hammer bubble, and tell everyone that rides in the backseat of your car while you drive for Uber that they should do the same. Don’t be that guy.
Unlike other cryptocurrencies which gain their value from the cost of the electricity it takes to decrypt and create new units of that currency, Libra pegs its value to government-created fiat currencies. “Libra is fully backed by a reserve of real assets. A basket of bank deposits and short-term government securities will be held in the Libra Reserve for every Libra that is created.” I think this makes a whole lot of sense. And, who else but Facebook has both a global audience and pockets deep enough to essentially back a global financial currency with their own assets?
One of the major promises of cryptocurrency is that it would help “the unbanked” be able to finally store their money and join the global financial system. The one billion of us that can afford $3 ATM fees, live in countries where our currencies are reasonably stable, and take it for granted that our politicians don’t randomly confiscate money from our bank accounts, have trouble imagining what it’s like for the other six billion people on earth. For the other six billion people, the arbitrary fees and taxes that come with traditional bank accounts are daunting barriers to entry. I think it’s promising that Kiva and Women’s World Banking are partnering up and part of the Libra Association.
While I’m not convinced that Zuckerberg won’t still manage to mess this up somehow and/or eventually trigger the next global financial calamity, I am pretty certain that Libra represents the logical next step for cryptocurrency. I am cautiously optimistic that Libra will gain traction as a currency, but at the same time, I’m a little sad that the wild west days of crypto are coming to such a boring and corporate end. For today, at least, I’ll enjoy the latest BTC rally, betting irresponsibly on its rise, hoping to cash out before the inevitable crash.
Something I love about what I do is getting to see everyone’s data and business strategy. But, because I deal in everyone’s private ideas, I can’t talk about most of what I learn. This is not only frustrating, it also leads to very boring blog posts. And yet, working on my latest project, for once I feel as excited about the process as I do the final product, so I’m going to talk about my process.
A client asked me to put together a program that automates their data gathering and checking. I’ve done similar projects in the past using Python to scrape and process data from my local machine. However, this client wanted their own user-friendly web portal that non-technical employees could use themselves and upload data ad hoc. I’d never built something so complicated without the aid of existing software before, but decided to push ahead with a “from scratch” idea.
To make a long story short, after much trial and error, I landed on a combination of Flask and PythonAnywhere, and wow am I glad I did. PythonAnywhere is designed specifically to host Python apps, and the back end user interface makes it easy to upload, deploy, and edit source files on the fly. No weird file configs or SSH bash screens or total absence of error messages leaving you wondering why nothing works. Turning on HTTPS doesn’t break your website for no reason. It’s easy to point a CNAME at your app from your domain registrar and have a custom domain name with zero fuss or hard-coded messiness. The point: I’m a big fan. PythonAnywhere is definitely the best hosted server I’ve used.
Flask, too, radically simplified my web app build compared to what I was used to doing in Django. Flask pretty much works right out of the box with a few lines of code. The documentation is reasonably clear, making it simple to fix bugs and build out your app. The genius of Flask is that the default version is so tiny, yet all the extensions are out there waiting to be added as you need them. You need security? Just add the security extension. Session support? Just add that extension. I love that Flask can be incredibly complex, but is only ever as complex as is needed. You never have to wade through a million unnecessary features just to get to the one you want.
Its amazing how much more fun coding is when you’re not just secretly crunching data behind the scenes and can actually see it working online.
One of the great things about no longer having a company or a farm to run is that I’ve been reading a new book every week or two. I’ll save the fiction reviews for Goodreads, but a few of them are worth writing about here.
I’ve worked at giant companies where everything was so hierarchical and top-down that if the employees wanted to get anything cross-functional done, they basically had to bribe co-workers from other departments with favors or after-work drinks. I have also worked at a tiny start-up where everyone worked on everything, all ideas were considered, and we moved extremely fast. I knew we used tools like Trello and Asana and Google Docs, but I found that I had trouble explaining why we did it that way. When people threw terms around like Waterfall or Agile, I Googled them, but until I read this book, I never really understood the history behind these vastly different methodologies. When I mentioned this gap in my understanding, a friend suggested I check out the Agile Manifesto, the Scrum Guide, and read Lean UX, and I’m really glad I did.
The book borrows heavily from existing Scrum concepts, but expands on it to ensure that research and design (and legal and whoever is needed to ensure the thing works) have a voice within that ritualized framework. There are a lot of great examples of how to incorporate diverse thought into the ideation process, and how to ensure that the desires of the end user (and not just developer bias) are honored in the final product. Best of all, there is no dogma. They recognize that some organizations are hierarchical, and maybe it’s ok to be inefficient in certain contexts. The point is not to adhere to some perfect process, it’s producing great products quickly, and realistically.
As an intuitive autodidact, I’m all for faking things until you find yourself making things, but there comes a time to backfill whatever you figured out on your own with some book learning. When I have cluttered, unorganized thoughts, and I know everything seems to work, but I don’t really know why, I absolutely love it when a book comes along with a framework that allows me to tidy all those thoughts up, declutter my brain, and store them away. Lean UX is like the Marie Kondo of software development. It’s a framework for working with a team, keeping just the bare bones of what’s needed, and chucking all the unnecessary documentation and bureaucracy. To borrow from Marie, it brings me joy to know that the next time someone tells me about the pain of their waterfall process, I can simply hand them my copy of Lean UX. P.S. Go read this too.
One of the hardest things about stepping up from my back-office analyst roles to client-facing executive roles was learning to sell. My method of selling was to learn everything I could about a problem, then walk into a conference room and drop a knowledge bomb on my prospective client. I’d deliver a fully-fleshed out analysis of what they were doing well, what they were doing wrong, and a plan to fix it, then shake hands and walk away. I think this approach terrified my co-workers, who were afraid I’d offend the client. We were all a little surprised to discover that my approach worked about 75% of the time. But why?
In my mind, sales people are supposed to be annoyingly nice, calling all the time, bothering people, never taking no for an answer. I, on the other hand, encouraged clients to tell me no. I considered myself the anti-sales guy. This dissonance of disliking sales yet having to sell, and yet somehow having it work out… it was a problem for me. I couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening. So, I decided to face things head on and be the best darn sales guy I could be. I made an effort to be friendly and bought lunches and emailed interesting articles…and I sold nothing. What was I doing wrong?
I asked my friend Alex Boyd, CEO of RevenueZen.com, to suggest some books that would help me learn how to finally be one of those nice but annoying sales people. Instead, he told me to read The Challenger Sale. What I found was not a how-to guide to bug people, but hard data that helped me understand why my no-nonsense style had worked, while my overly-friendly style had failed.
The premise of The Challenger Sale, to paraphrase aggressively, is that the best sales people tend to do the hard work of becoming experts before they try to sell anything, then fundamentally challenge the way the client is doing business, reframing the way their clients think about their business. Before pitching anything related to what you have for sale, you need to make sure the client understands the solution – not your solution. It turns out I had meandered accidentally into doing the right thing, but I needed a book like this to give me a framework in which to think about it and help me understand why being direct worked, and why my attempts to “act like a sales person” generally failed. Right or wrong way, I have a lot more empathy for sales people these days, and no longer experience that dissonance when it’s time for me to sell.
OK, so I know the last two were business books, and this is a book about what Barbara Kingsolver ate for a year. I promise, there’s a reason for this.
This book follows the Kingsolver family as they grow or locally source all their food for a year on their small Appalachian farm, preaching about the absurdity of flying bananas 6000 miles, or the even more absurd practice of trucking lettuce 3000 miles when there’s perfectly good lettuce available at a farm down the road, or in your own backyard.
The good: I love the insistence on thinking about petroleum as an input when growing food, both when used on the field as a fertilizer or pesticide and as gas in transportation. I love the idea of eating food that’s been grown locally without pesticides. I love the idea of eating heirloom varietals of plants that were bred for taste rather than ease of transport. I agree that processed foods are a huge part of the obesity epidemic and think we should shift our diets towards high quality foods. I agree that we, as a society, need a much better understanding of where the ingredients in our food are coming from, even if it’s just to become better shoppers.
The bad: The book really downplays just how much work this family of four had to put in to extract roughly half of their yearly calories from the animals and plants they cared for. The work of farming was presented as a benefit: it’s like meditation, yoga, and you can cancel your gym membership for the price of a shovel! Nope. I had a farm. I grew my own food. It was really, really hard, and the reason I stopped going to the gym was because my joints hurt too much after all that repetitive physical labor.
The frustrating: There is a puritanical insistence on eating extremely seasonally throughout the book. Mason jars and freezers are offered as the only acceptable way to consume warm-weather plants during cold-weather months. While I get that seasonality is important to think about when picking up a tub of strawberries in January at a grocery store in Minneapolis, real farmers use all sorts of greenhouse-esque contraptions to grow plants out of season, and are rewarded for doing so. It’s very normal to extend the growing season in cold climates with hoop houses, shield the sun in hot climates with screens, use hydroponics in dry environments…etc. If the Kingsolvers had employed a little technology, they might have been able to grow their own indoor oranges and bananas, and they definitely could have been eating fresh greens in February, the lack of which was much lamented throughout the book.
Now, why am I writing about this at all? I can’t stop thinking about the idea of employing tech in urban agriculture. If 2 out of 3 Americans live in cities, and we all agree that eating locally sourced food makes sense, why aren’t we growing food for cities in or immediately around them? Is it really easier to fly food across the world than to figure out how to grow it on your roof? I am fascinated by startups in this space, and have been checking out a bunch of them. I think whoever figures out how to grow high-quality veggies on a large scale, year-round, in a place like Chicago, using winter sunlight (or other low-energy methods), inside dense, automated growing facilities, is going to revolutionize how we eat, and where a big chunk of our food comes from. I think it’s very telling that Jeff Bezos, the proud new owner of Whole Foods, has invested in Plenty.ag, and that IronOx.com came out of Y Combinator. This is very exciting stuff, and I think scaled urban agriculture is an industry that is just getting started.
Less than a year after we launched EmotionReader, another company, Kairos, came along and bought it. I am continually amazed by the whiplash pace that tech moves at. Startup life truly is a bit like riding a tiger. It demands your full attention, and there is room for little else once the ride starts.
The last couple of months have been a bit odd, as I was still publicly the COO of a company, yet anyone paying attention to my Instagram account knew full-well that I had sold my farm in Portland and was living the high life in France, Spain, and British Columbia. I knew the company sale was happening, but until the sale went through, I couldn’t announce anything. So, I just mysteriously retired at 40, explaining little to anyone for months.
I first realized that the news was public when I suddenly got a wave of financial advisors trying to add me on LinkedIn. I did a quick search, and sure enough, TechCrunch had broken the news. These enterprising folks were hoping to take advantage of my newfound riches, and all rushed to get to me first. I politely declined, but as a marketer, did appreciate the effort.
I now find myself in an interesting spot. I went from owning a farm and part of a company, totally asset heavy, to being nearly free of possessions. Just about the only thing I actually own now is a new (used) surf van (it’s a minivan, I’m not that cool). I’m living out of Airbnbs, and working out of coffee shops. Making this massive transition, nearly overnight, was breathtaking, but I did it all for a specific, strategic reason.
Today, I’m in Santa Cruz, riding my bike from coffee shop to cafe, stalking respecting the privacy of my favorite author, Jonathan Franzen, visiting the outsite.co co-working house, hanging with friends eager to convince me to be their neighbor, and looking at rentals to see how far my buck would go here. I love that I get to try on Santa Cruz like a pair of pants, seeing how it fits, seeing if I look different in the mirror. Tomorrow I’ll be in Sonoma. All the while, I’m scanning for the next opportunity.
As much as I look forward to whatever the next version of my life looks like, and have trouble imagining being a nomad forever, I love these interludes. I know full-well that too many options lead to analysis paralysis, but as I ping-pong around the universe this summer, I am careful to appreciate such infinite options. I do not rush through the afternoons spent napping in the surf van with a view of the waves and the setting sun. I do this because I know I’m resting up for a reason.
After many weeks spent quietly working with Padraig and Stephen on our prototype, and years of thinking about using computer vision and AI to hack together the perfect video analytics software, I finally got to update my LinkedIn profile today to: COO at Emotion Reader.
I am stoked.
Lots more to come, but if you’re reading this and you’re curious, please get in touch.
It began a bit like some spy-thriller novel. While in Lisbon, Portugal this July, I attended a meeting in a dark room with an international group of hackers and hedge fund traders to talk about cryptocurrency. I told the group about my background, after which I was approached by a young man with a proposition. His partner was a Chinese cryptocurrency expert, and he wanted me to write a book about cryptocurrency for them. I was instructed to use an encrypted chat app for any communication, and would be paid via international wire transfer.
I had no idea if any of this was legit, but I found it fascinating and agreed to take on the job. I had been wanting to get some hands-on experience with blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and more advanced trading strategies. And, I have always thought that the best part about being a researcher is that you get paid to learn about new things, not the other way around. So, strange as it was, after a Chinese wire transfer appeared in my bank account, I began work from a Copenhagen coffee shop using instructions received via encrypted message.
Over the next few months, I researched the murky origins of Satoshi Nakamoto, got into the weeds on the fine differences between proof-of-work and proof-of-stake blockchains, day-traded Bitcoin, was dazzled by the conceptual leap Ethereum offers over Bitcoin, and even set up a mining pool program in Linux.
I’m not going to get into the details of how cryptocurrency works here (but feel free to head to my client’s site if you want to learn more: www.cryptominded.com). I’m much more interested in thinking about the big picture implications of what I learned. In the gold rush to get rich on speculative investments, I think a lot of the really interesting technical innovation is getting trampled and minimized. There are also some really vexing issues that arise when moving from government control of currency to global, decentralized systems of storing and transacting value.
1. Is Bitcoin a bubble?
On the one hand, yes, Bitcoin is obviously in a bubble. Whether thousand-dollar tulips or million-dollar timeshare condos in a Florida swamp, the fact that someone is willing to pay 10x more for a thing today than they did yesterday says a lot more about timing than inherent value, and making money on a bubble is all about timing. Successfully betting on a bubble is not creating wealth, it’s stealing it from tomorrow’s sucker.
On the other hand, Bitcoin, like gold, is an arbitrary, scarce, universal method of storing value. It is as valuable as people think it is, and tends to be worth more when other stores of value (property, USD, stocks, etc.) go down in value. Who’s to say that Bitcoin makes less sense than gold as a store of value? If anything, it probably makes more sense.
The problem, however, is that while Bitcoin is scarce (there will only ever be 21,000,000 Bitcoin), cryptocurrency is not. Literally anyone can invent their own cryptocurrency, put it out there on the free market, and see what people are willing to pay for it. If I want to make TimmyBucks, I can organize an ICO (initial coin offering), or pay a service to do it for me, and I’m off to the races. And, whenever the mining community forks the Bitcoin codebase, it massively complicates the equation regarding Bitcoin’s worth. Imagine if California forked the US dollar; overnight, they gave everyone holding US dollars an equal amount of CaliDollars. If you had $500 USD in the bank, you now magically have a second bank account with $500 CaliD in addition. You can no longer spend USD in California, but you can still spend it anywhere else. Arbitrarily creating a bonanza like this creates a huge incentive to fork a currency, and so it logically follows that all the states would start making their own, increasing the total amount of currency in circulation by 1x every time. This is basically what’s happening right now. The whole point of Bitcoin was to have a single, scarce, universal currency, but when it’s this easy to create a new currency, how can any currency really hold its value?
2. Is the hype around blockchain bullshit?
Crypto is a uniquely paranoid world, with its initial growth fueled largely by anonymous transactions for illegal items. Thefts of millions of dollars worth of coins are so common that NSA-level security against hackers comes standard on any crypto wallet, it is the currency of choice for ransomware pirates, and many of the pioneers of cryptocurrency exchanges are in jail or wanted for fraud or money laundering. And yet, at its core, there is this pure idea: the blockchain.
The blockchain is simply a public database with very specific rules that make editing it fraudulently very difficult. Once released into the universe, a blockchain can exist outside of any government or ruling body, making it nearly impossible for any bad actor to mess with it, as long as a big enough group of people support it, and there is no large-scale collusion among that large group of people.
Blockchain is really a very simple tool. Rather than trusting one person or a small group of people to guarantee and safeguard your data, you put everyone in charge. Thousands, maybe even millions of users, all share the burden of safeguarding your data by making sure it stays exactly where you put it, in plain site of the entire world.
Personally, I think blockchain is worthy of hype, but that the wrong people are hyping blockchain. It seems like 90% of the much-hyped ICO’s I see are for ridiculous “Blockchain of X” solutions to problems no one actually has, because they have nothing to do with trust.
Where is the Blockchain of Gun Ownership, or the Blockchain of Real Estate Titles, or the Blockchain of Vaccinations? Why not store records of marriages on a blockchain and skip churches and governments altogether? These uses of the tech may create as many problems as they solve, but they do actually solve existing problems in radically new and transparent ways.
3. Will paying for stuff with cryptocurrency go mainstream?
The first person to pay for something in the real world with Bitcoin asked a stranger to order and deliver him a pizza. The amount of Bitcoin spent on that pizza is now worth the equivalent of many millions of dollars. When the value of currency goes from pizza to millions over a few years, why on earth would anyone actually use it to buy anything? Any logical person would stuff it under their digital mattress.
And yet, I think that, like the switch from cash to credit cards, a move to virtual currency for day to day transactions makes sense. We are still in the very early, Wild West days of that move. There is opportunity in chaos, and many will opt to prolong the chaos as long as possible to grab as much cash as possible from gullible late-comers. Eventually, however, I think values will stabilize and governments will get behind a handful of virtual currencies.
While it’s tempting to jump on the anti-government bandwagon and say that I’d rather trust in a decentralized global system, participating in a black market economy of any kind almost inevitably leads to finding oneself working with organized criminals, and we all know how that ends. If some Chinese hacktivist mob manages to pillage Bitcoin before burning it to the ground, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. While government control can be stifling and even fraudulent on a large scale, it is at least relatively predictable and stable. Without a coalition of governments backing some form of cryptocurrency, I have trouble believing that it will ever really go mainstream as a normal method of payment (as opposed to a form of speculative investment). Give it a few years though, and I fully expect to be offered my choice of global cryptocurrencies to pay in at the coffee counter.
It may seem like a silly thing to go all the way to Costa Rica to pull out your computer and work, but after my first experience with Nomad House, I’m hooked. I’ve spent a lot of time working on the road, from Chiang Mai to the south of France. Friends and relatives assume I’m ruining a perfectly good vacation by working from these locations, but the reality is that without work I get bored. Maybe it’s just me, but I can only sip so many pina coladas on the beach before I get antsy and start looking for problems to solve.
When I work from the road, I’m intensely focused. I tend to stay in a place for at least a week or two, and after I figure out where the grocery store is and how to get around, there’s a lot of down time. It’s easy to carve out five or six hours of time each day with almost no distractions. In fact, when traveling alone, I often wished for more distraction. My main complaint on solo trips was that it was hard to meet interesting people.
This is why my most recent trip was so great! Nomad House set up a trip to Costa Rica, where thirteen people came together to work and hang out in paradise. From day one we were riffing on startup ideas, and it was clear that this was not your normal group of tourists. It was completely normal for people to go for a run or do some yoga in the morning, then work for a few hours in the air-conditioned co-working space, before surfing or grabbing a few beers to watch the sun set over the ocean.
Think about the best conference you’ve ever been to–the kind where you left with a pocket full of business cards, inspired to take on new challenges. Did you actually follow up with all those people? Have you ever talked to them again? Now think about what it would have been like to spend a couple weeks with those people, talking shop over dinner, taking time to get to know each other. It’s a totally different and far more meaningful experience.
Back on my farm in Portland, it’s hard not to eye the pasture and wonder how many yurts I could fit out there, as I scheme about the best ways to blanket the property with fast wifi.
I’d like to officially welcome into the world the newly legal entity known as Full Stack Research. I’m launching this little company with no more fanfare than this blog post, but I look forward to pushing out more news in the coming months and years as it gains momentum. While my consulting business has been doing just fine, I am very aware of the flaw in that business model, which is that my time is a finite resource that does not scale.
I’m not expecting Full Stack Research to be too much of a departure from what I’ve been doing as an independent consultant, but I feel like a new name is warranted given my desire to focus more on creating scalable research products, and the fact that I am doing so in partnership with some of the smartest people I’ve had the pleasure to work with.
If the best way to achieve success is to start with modest expectations, I consider this a triumph from day one!
When yet another friend asked me “is coding bootcamp worth it,” wondering whether they should learn to code too, I found myself giving a very long and convoluted answer that I realized would probably be better off written down. I know that before I signed up for bootcamp, I had trouble finding a straight answer myself. So, my answer is: Yes, but…
1. Upon graduating, be prepared to be a specialist of limited use or a master of little
Building a decent software app is kind of like building a house. The electrician knows very little about installing plumbing or sewage. The roofer probably can’t lay the foundation. A software app combines lots of independent skills. As a developer, you have to make a choice whether to be a decent plumber right away (focus on one thing) or be a general contractor, and know a little bit about everything, but not really be expert at anything for a very long time.
2. It takes a huge amount of time
This may seem laughably naive to long-time software developers, but I don’t think regular people realize the sheer volume of information a person needs to absorb in order to be even a mediocre developer. To be a decent coder, you need to learn three to six code languages and be able to read and write them with some fluency. Code languages are just as hard to learn as, say, a European language. If you wanted to learn to speak French, German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, and Portuguese all at once, would you try to learn them all in four very intense months? No? Because that is essentially what I tried to do.
My bootcamp was four months, or sixteen weeks long, with five hour classes every weeknight (fridays too). To keep up with the pace of the class, I had to read coding books, do online coding exercises, and write code for my class projects outside of class. When you add in all that study/coding time outside of class, it added up to about fifty hour weeks spent coding. In other words, it’s about as difficult as a mentally demanding full-time job.
I was freelancing and working part-time, and I was completely brain-fried and had no social life during those four months. I felt incredibly sorry for my fellow students who had full-time jobs on top of school. I watched them put on weight and grow increasingly haggard by month four. We all agreed we were seeing ones and zeros in our dreams.
3. It’s expensive
I’ve heard people say that coding bootcamp is a waste of money since you can teach yourself everything online for free. The thing is, even in coding bootcamp you’re still teaching yourself to code, and you’re still using those free resources. The difference is that in bootcamp you have an experienced developer guiding you and a structure that limits the complexity and chaos of coding. Realistically, a coding bootcamp is just going to take months 6-18 of your coding education and compress them into months 6-10. What is the price for 8 months of your life? That’s really up to you. I spent $3,400 on tuition, and that seemed like a bargain to me. If you have more time than money, by all means, figure it out on your own.
4. The hard way is probably the only way
Zed Shaw’s “Learn Python the Hard Way” is generally considered the best course for those trying to teach themselves Python. He intentionally makes the course difficult. When a piece of code doesn’t work, his answer is “Google it”. Realistically, learning to code is as much about rote memory as it is about training yourself to be patient and resilient. You have to first spend lots of time practicing writing code so that you can memorize and internalize the patterns. However, that’s the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what to do when you think you’ve done everything right and your code still won’t run correctly. It’s easy to copy and paste someone else’s code. It’s hard to know why it isn’t working in the context of your project.
I heartily recommend going all-in. The more time you can invest, the better. I spent 50 hours per week, but I recommend spending 80 hours per week the first few weeks you’re learning. Mix it up, and read books on coding, then go to online practice sites like Codecademy.org or Treehouse.com, then write some actual code. Every program does something different, so when you’re done with one, write another one. Tear apart an old program you wrote and write it better. Like playing the violin, the more you practice, the more you’ll internalize the skill. If you want to learn quickly, the only way to do so is to devote yourself.
5. Pick your language carefully
Back in high school I decided to learn Italian. In college, I took Japanese. Not to knock these languages, but I use them so rarely I’ve forgotten most of what I learned. In retrospect, I really should have learned a practical language I can use all the time like Spanish. Picking a coding language works similarly.
Before you pick a flavor, know that everyone needs to learn HTML and CSS. Before you even think about enrolling in a bootcamp, teach yourself these languages. Once you can construct a static HTML page writing raw HTML and CSS code and get it up on a server, you’re ready to pick a path.
You will need to figure out what you want to do with the software you write, and which language will best support that task. If your primary goal is to make a lot of money right away, you could learn the languages that high-salary finance companies use, like Scala, Java, and .NET. If, on the other hand, you want to work at a hipster start-up, learn Ruby, Python, or C++. It’s not a bad idea to look at the job postings for the companies you want to work for first to see what they’re asking for.
Once you pick a language, then you have to pick a version of that language. New versions will be relevant longer, have cleaner code and do some cool new stuff, but old versions are more stable and have more libraries built for them. Every choice is a trade-off, and nothing will work 100% of the time.
6. Get used to frustration
One of the most profound things my teacher told our class is that we weren’t really learning to code, we were learning to debug. As normal consumers, even tech power-users, we’re used to stuff just working. Restarting a computer once a month to update some software seems like a huge hassle. Well, guess what, programming is about 10,000,000x more annoying. The code you write that works great locally won’t run on the server. Why? Who knows. And to find out, you’ll need to individually tweak each of the fifty things that could be causing a glitch until you figure out the cause, and when you finally fix that thing, your fix will probably break something else. That is coding.
Have you ever punched a hole in a wall, thrown your phone across the room, or (egads) sent a computer tumbling? If so, coding is not for you. But if you’re still with me, you must be a mellow individual that can handle frustration without smashing a screen. You have the calm demeanor to simply copy error messages, paste them into google, and spend thirty minutes reading five different and contradictory stackoverflow.com suggestions, trying three to find that the first doesn’t work with one of the drivers your app has running in the background and produces new errors, the second actually does the wrong thing, while the third sort of fixes your problem, but forces you to update some other seemingly unrelated part of your code for it to work.
When I was learning to use git and github, I was stoked to find out about the ability to clone projects in github and add them to my own. Similar to code libraries, you can just grab someone else’s code and incorporate it into whatever you’re working on. Sounds easy, right? So after weeks of work, customizing the clone with all my own code, I decided I would create a git repository and upload my project back to github, so other people could see my work. But, when I tried, there was a weird error telling me I had duplicate repositories. I hopped on stackoverflow, followed the directions I found, and… erased all my work. Yes, while attempting to back up my project, I erased it, all by following directions. It turns out, when you clone code from github, it automatically creates an invisible repository. This is just a thing you’re supposed to know, and since I didn’t know I had created a repository at the time I downloaded the clone, I didn’t understand that by resetting my repository, I would wipe out all changes made over the weeks since I added it. Want to know what I did? I sat down, and calmly spent the next three days recoding all my work from memory. And THAT is what coding is like.
7. Get used to very little help
I had a boss who once described his management style as “handing you a fortune cookie, then leaving you alone in the woods.” It turns out this was good training for coding. Most tutorials tend to fall into one of two types: those meant for week 1 beginners that are far too simplistic to be of much use, or those that are written by experts for other experts. These experts have been coding for decades and will intentionally leave out steps they find to be obvious (you will probably not find the missing steps so obvious). This is actually a big reason why I signed up for bootcamp, and why I recommend it. It is incredibly helpful to have someone around to fill in all those missing pieces for you and help guide you during that intermediary phase.
Much to my surprise, living a mostly digital life, coding books (made from trees!) are actually extremely helpful once you’re done being a beginner and get to the novice/intermediary phase. They provide a coherent level of structure that is hard to find online, and are good for reference when you forget something specific. However, they still assume a basic level of know-how that will constantly trip up the novice developer.
8. Bootcamp is just the beginning
The point I’m trying to make is that bootcamp is a great way to kickstart a career change, and really a life change, but your first job out of school is probably going to be entry level, because your skills will only be entry level. If you make less than $50k now, you’ll probably be able to make that much or more with an entry-level software job after going through a bootcamp program. However, expecting to be a full-fledged software developer making six figures and signing bonuses after a four month program is sort of like expecting to be a successful novelist after a summer creative writing program.
9. Learn to learn
The most important thing bootcamp taught me was how to teach myself. Learning to debug, see patterns in my mistakes, and knowing where to go for answers was absolutely worth the time, money, and effort. I am continuing my education by taking classes through Udacity, Coursera, Codecademy, Udemy and whatever other books or online tutorials make sense. I also continue to meet with my bootcamp teacher for mentoring. I’m still doing difficult stuff, but the pace of my learning is continually speeding up. While it may take a novice coder months to learn a language, an experienced coder can probably pick it up in a few days (or so I’ve been told). This virtuous cycle will continue the longer you code, but you have to keep at it for years.
10. Always be building
You get the idea. Now go code something. And remember…
The best time to plant a tree is 30 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today.
I’ve been an Adobe loyalist for far longer than most of my developer buddies, but after seeing yet another $49.99 charge for Adobe Creative Cloud after another month of not really needing it, I finally decided to just kill my subscription and use other programs. At least, that’s what I thought I’d do. First, I clicked through about twenty screens, following the digital bread crumbs from click to click to attempt to find a screen that would let me cancel. I finally landed on a page that gave me two options, A) call and talk to a human, or B) chat with a human. No simple unsubscribe box. I tried calling first, but the person I spoke to could find no record of my existence. Next, I tried chatting. Spoiler alert: despite my best efforts I am still an Adobe customer.
Prabhudev: Hello! Welcome to Adobe Customer Service.
Prabhudev: Hi Timothy, I understand that you wish to cancel your subscription and I can take care of that for you.
Timothy McAtee: yes I’d like to cancel my account
Prabhudev: May I know the reason for the cancellation?
Timothy McAtee: I don’t use it
Prabhudev: I see that you have subscribed to Creative Cloud membership (one-year).
Prabhudev: We are sorry to see you go, If you are willing to continue the subscription and complete the annual commitment I can get you 2 months free subscription and you will not be charged for the next 2 months.
Timothy McAtee: Please just cancel the subscription
Prabhudev: Before I go ahead and cancel your subscription, May I ask if you are interested in continuing your plan if I make an exception and get you next three months free?
Timothy McAtee: Please stop. Cancel it.
Prabhudev: Timothy, I am sorry to say this, If you cancel the subscription now there will be an early termination fees, as you are under one year annual commitment.
Timothy McAtee: But I signed up more than a year ago
Timothy McAtee: What is the fee?
Prabhudev: An annual subscription requires a commitment for the full year and monthly payments. If you decide to end a one-year membership before the 12-month period is over, you are charged 50% of the remaining amount left on your contract. Which amounts USD 200+Tax.
Timothy McAtee: When is the 12 month period over?
Prabhudev: Your plan will end on Jun 26, 2016
Timothy McAtee: Well then, cancel it effective June 26, 2016
Prabhudev: we will notify you via email so that you can cancel from your end. [NOTE: I clearly can’t cancel it from my end, or I would have by now]
Prabhudev: Do you wish to continue your plan with three months free and complete the annual commitment?
Timothy McAtee: You don’t really give me much choice, do you?
Prabhudev: If you continue the subscription you will get next three months free and you can save 3 month’s subscription charges, you will also avoid paying the early cancellation fees.
Timothy McAtee: ok. let’s do that.
Prabhudev: I am glad that you are continuing your subscription