In this episode, we talk about what are the core skills you need to go from developer to entrepreneur with Ben Halpern, co-founder of Forem, which acquired CodeNewbie in 2020. Ben talks about getting into development with entrepreneurship on the brain, building DEV and now his new venture, Forem, and what skills he looks for when hiring developers.
[00:00:05] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today we’re talking about what are the core skills you need to go from developer to entrepreneur with Ben Halpern, Co-founder of Forem, which acquired CodeNewbie in 2020.
[00:00:22] BH: Just like when you’re learning to code, your first coding project is going to be like the ugliest code ever written, and that’s okay.
[00:00:31] SY: If you have a question for Ben after listening, don’t miss the Ask Me Anything Session he’s hosting on the CodeNewbie Community Forum. Just head to community.codenewbie.org and you’ll find his thread on our homepage and he’ll answer you directly in the comments. That’s community.codenewbie.org. In this episode, Ben talks about getting into development with entrepreneurship on the brain, building DEV, and now his new venture, Forem, and what skills he looks for when hiring developers after this.
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[00:02:36] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:02:37] BH: Yeah, it is awesome to come on. I can’t believe I had to buy the company before they’d let me on the show.
[00:02:47] SY: That’s actually a really good point. We definitely should have had you on much sooner than this.
[00:02:51] BH: Oh, no, but it was worth the wait.
[00:02:53] SY: Great. So Ben, tell us about how and when you got into coding.
[00:02:57] BH: I’d say going back to my origins of coding, my parents were separated. So I didn’t spend a lot of time with my dad, but he was kind of in the computers in a way where I developed the fascination, I think at first, but didn’t quite have enough of a relationship with him to take that much further on my own. So that’s maybe step one. So maybe I’m five. And then later on, I think the first time I really like understood that code was a thing and how it really worked was the opportunity to be introduced to GeoCities by a friend of mine who is creating a website for his band. I was probably around 11 back then, but it wasn’t one of these things like, “Oh, it’s stuck,” and I’ve been coding since I was 11. For whatever reason, no one encouraged me to follow it that much more. It never really stuck. I sort of fell off and then I remember in high school I got back into coding, like forums a little bit, like these PHP forums where you could kind of edit the styles. I remember that being something I was really into. But again, the culture around me, for whatever reason, I was the only one who was ever into anything. So it never quite stuck. In college, I first enrolled with the notion of doing a degree in marketing and a minor in fine arts. And part of my college’s general business major required a computer science class, and that was fun, and that got me a little bit more into coding, but that was also something I kind of fell off of. So it’s just like the continued journey of like being curious, but never thinking it was for me.
[00:04:33] SY: Right.
[00:04:33] BH: Then after college, my first job was in marketing. And that’s when it wasn’t so much that coding really stuck, but I got to see what professional coding was as a career and how much more agency I felt like that job had compared to my role in marketing, which I like the task of, but I felt like I always had to justify the whole project before even doing anything in some ways because it’s all about process. There’s no way to show the outcomes in any way that’s meaningful. And at the company I was working for, most of our outcomes had to be driven by product and engineering, which is not too different from Forem. We’ve not set up a company where the marketing team is the one that drives our success. We are driven by mostly product and engineering. And there’s a lot to that, but that was something that really appealed to me. So it’s not like I was over there looking over their shoulders and seeing the if-else statements and saying, “That looks like so much fun.” It was more like, “This is a relationship I want to have with my colleagues.” I had already been entrepreneurial at that point. I had already continued messing around with code as needed in an entrepreneurial capacity, but never giving myself the opportunity to treat myself like a professional who could really close the loop on a coding project and actually get something out the door and do it for real. And that was the first time I was like, “Okay, done messing around.” I’m thinking I was someone who could maybe code a little bit and I really went back to the drawing board and learned to code for real.
[00:06:17] SY: I love that example. I love that story so much. It makes total sense that we kind of need maybe a couple pushes, a little bit more continuous exposure before you really commit to anything. And it’s really cool that you finally made that commitment and now you’re here. So one thing that I find interesting about your earlier life is that you were a pretty sporty kid. You rode horses and played football, and you did a lot of stuff that maybe people don’t think of in terms of what programmers generally do. Tell me about some of these interests.
[00:06:47] BH: Yeah. And I think the interests are not so different from coding, but I think that that played a role and no one ever bothering to encourage like any coding curiosity I ever had. Because I think for them, it seemed like my main thing was sports and anything related to computers is like more of a private interest, but really got into football. I felt like that was my social circle growing up. That’s where I made all my friends. I think I learn a certain appreciation for the diverse people in my life through football, which I think like wasn’t available in other things, most certainly not horseback riding. It was a different environment. I mean, it was actually funny. I used to play football and do horseback riding at the same time. And they’re different pursuits. I don’t know. I was the only boy in my horseback riding lessons and football’s like a whole different energy. It’s a funny thing, but I always had like a diverse range of interests and sports was definitely at the center of it. And I am pretty competitive. I don’t know if that’s because of sports or I like sports because I’m competitive, but that drew me and it was a big part of my life.
[00:07:57] SY: What about coding really inspired you?
[00:07:59] BH: It always seemed like magic and it still kind of does. I mean, the more I know the more magical it is. It’s pretty one of a kind. And I don’t know how other people see coding, but it’s hard for me to not see that thing and think of it as just about the most interesting thing in the world at all and how surprising it is that pretty much anyone is allowed to do it, especially these days. GeoCities really blew my mind that way. I knew computers were a thing. It never occurred to me that you could create that way. It helps set a foundation, even though I didn’t start hacking Linux at age 13, or anything like that. But the notion that certain things were possible through coding has always fascinated me and continues to do so to this day.
[00:08:55] SY: So you mentioned that there were a couple times you were exposed to code didn’t quite stick. What were some of the tools and resources that did stick? What worked for you?
[00:09:02] BH: A friend recommended Ruby on Rails to me. That was helpful because that gave me a place to start. I wouldn’t know what to Google if nobody told me, “Hey, just Google Ruby on Rails. That might be a good place to start.” Timing wise, that was just the thing to do. These days you might say, “Hey, Google Node.js or whatever.” But at the time when I was really getting into coding because of a bit of computer science, I knew my way around an if-else statement and I knew my way around a while loop, but I really had no clue how to pull it all together. It was a little foreign to me. But then at the time, I was really broke. So I pirated some courses from Lynda.com, which was one of the first websites with video tutorials. And video tutorials, I think, were good for me when I’m learning something from the first time. I’m not a very good book learner, but written tutorials and written examples are extremely helpful when you’re already most of the way there and you need something you can scan for some insights or something you can kind of consume as you’re going. It’s hard to like scrub a video effectively, but when I was really getting started, it was really good. I felt a real connection with the person who wrote the course actually. I don’t remember their name right now, but I remember I was really, really grateful. I sent them an email afterwards. I don’t know if they got back to me, but I really couldn’t believe someone put together like a 15-hour course on Rails. And now that I’m in the industry so closely, I know that that’s just what people do, like Egghead, Linda, whatever, Udemy. It’s a part of people’s professional lives, but for me it was just like this person stood out to me like any other teacher in my life. And it was really special. So I mentioned I was pretty broke. So I was just doing whatever I could. I paid a friend $20 for a laptop that he had no use for anymore. I actually agreed to pay him 40, but I only had 20. So I paid him the other 20 like two years later.
[00:11:18] SY: Oh, wow!
[00:11:18] BH: He had forgotten about it and I knew he didn’t really care.
[00:11:22] SY: You knew.
[00:11:23] BH: I was like happy to just kind of like, that was, well, I felt like I’d already had a programming job at that point. But yeah, financially I was constrained. But the thing about programming is that, for me, at least if I’m capable of being self-directed not, self-taught, I was taught by the person who made that Lynda.com course, but pretty self-directed and I had the motivation to really follow through with it, and that really sent me along the way. So video courses on Lynda.com was really when I truly learned to code for real.
[00:11:54] SY: So what did you use that did not work for you? What were some of the things that you tried and it just didn’t work out?
[00:12:01] BH: Computer science in college taught me some things, but I just fell off along the way. Something about that structure of learning things from the ground up really never fit my brain. Given the opportunity to get so much done with higher level tools, like Ruby on Rails, stuff like that, where I could really put something together I cared about really helped it click, I can’t say I didn’t learn anything in the computer science classes I took, but I left that experience thinking I was not a coder and I’ve seen that story play out with other folks. I also felt like that social environment wasn’t great for me. As weird as it sounds, I felt like just being on the college football team made people not like me as much. I just couldn’t make any friends in that program. And I didn’t really know why. And it kind of stuck with me as a sort of thing, like this was a specific scenario where I felt like I wasn’t able to fit in. But other folks, I think through their entire lived identity go through the same thing. I actually saw in the class, I felt like the women in the class also I think were struggling in similar ways as I was. And I don’t think anyone in the class felt like they were ostracizing anyone else. But the more you fit the mold in the computer science department, the more you’re able to absorb the material, the more the teachers gave you the benefit of the doubt. So I felt like I can walk into a meetup and pretend I fit the mold based on what I look like. It’s not what I wanted to do in computer science or like how I wanted to live my life or in that context and just be motivating. But it was a bit of a learning experience that gave me this like, “Oh, here’s my perspective.” I have it pretty easy otherwise. It really motivated me to think deeply about inclusion in software development as a whole because I’m generally pretty privileged in this regard, but I at least had a few aha moments around the topic, which felt pretty personal enough for me to really think holistically. It really stuck with me. It drove how I thought about the computer industry as I learned more about it.
[00:14:19] SY: So when you got into it, kind of that final time, that time when it stuck, did you have a clear idea of where you wanted your career to go?
[00:14:27] BH: Yes and no. I was pretty bought in on entrepreneurship in general. Towards the end of college, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was happy to get a job along the way, but I really did like entrepreneurship. It took a few aha moments of themselves to kind of understand how that actually works. You’re allowed to do that in the world. Nobody in school ever wants to tell you that’s an option, even if it is. So I had that in mind and that’s carried through pretty much the whole time. But other than that, I had a lot of learning to do, but I was up for the exploration. I’m a dual citizen. I’m from Canada. I felt like I had the whole world accessible. I try to take advantage of that and figure it out from there.
[00:15:17] SY: So was there a moment when you went from being interested in entrepreneurship to really thinking, “This is my thing, this is me, this is going to be a big part of my career”? Was there a moment or something that happened that kind of led you to that?
[00:15:31] BH: I think I sort of followed my interests until I stumbled upon that part of the internet, like the do your own thing part of the internet, circa 2011 when I was in college. So it was a few little aha moments along the way, including like borderline self-help books, just like be your own boss, that kind of thing. Despite like not having much money growing up, I never wanted a job either. So I was always more comfortable being broke than employed, like if I didn’t like the job.
[00:16:04] SY: Wow! I didn’t think I would ever hear that. That’s interesting.
[00:16:07] BH: Yeah. My parents were both hippies. There’s like something about my upbringing, which made me very comfortable like in a certain type of uncomfortable risk-taking scenario, as long as it wasn’t my personal health at risk. I also have to say, props to the Canadian Healthcare System, I didn’t really appreciate some of those concepts until I moved here. But yeah, all in all, I had an interest in getting a good job I really liked, but I kind of felt like the best type of job for me would be to make my own job somehow. I did kind of have that aha moment that that really was the real deal in college, but it didn’t seem like it was a divergence from what the plan was all along. It was almost like, “Okay, this is where I’m headed.” Thank goodness for the timing. I think a decade earlier, it’s that much harder, but these days I feel like startups and entrepreneurship is actually so much more mainstream. It’s actually pretty amazing.
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[00:18:27] SY: So let’s fast forward and talk about Forem. Forem is what you do now. Tell us what it is and what you’re working on.
[00:18:32] BH: Forem is a code base that powers DEV. It also powers the new special, singular CodeNewbie community, which is at community.codenewbie.org. And it’s a special portal for community around a specific purpose. It could be used broadly. You could create a forum that’s just a general purpose social network. But in essence, it’s really nice that it allows you to define the purpose of the community, the purpose of the space and configure the needs of the platform around it. So Forem is the extraction of DEV. So DEV started as a Ruby on Rails code base, dev.to. We built it up. We allowed people to publish. We allowed commenting. We tried to build in moderation tools and anti-spam, anti-harassment, anti-abuse, all the things that we felt like were important to the software industry. And when I say we, my original co-founders, Jess Lee and Peter Frank, they’re still the executives along with me in the business. And Jess and I really bonded over our shared experiences feeling like it’s hard to find just the right place on the internet to get some answers without the snark that can be demotivating or the sense of entitlement that can come along with certain spaces on the internet. I had already been working on DEV on my own, but Jess, with her experience, I think brought a lot of confirmation that this really was the right thing. So I never thought that I was building it for myself because by that point I felt like I had already overcome some of this on my own. But I didn’t want the Jess’s of the world to enter the industry without something like DEV. And it’s not the one-stop shop for everything you need for your career and your answers. We don’t try to be perfect, but we try to be a good space for learning and for feeling welcomed and for celebrating what’s fun about programming. And yeah, Forem is really the long-term goal. We really want to focus on allowing anyone else to take these tools and build up a community. We have a dozen or so forums launched right now. The big bottleneck is we need to develop new hosting infrastructure to help people do this at scale. We worked on DEV specifically for years. And it’s easier said than done to like get to a million forums or a thousand forums or whatever. We have a really long waiting list of people who want to use the code, which is all open source, but we need a little bit more work to get the overall systems infrastructure up so people can actually host these without spending too much money. And it’s been quite the journey.
[00:21:28] SY: What I’m curious about is what the experience has been like for you to go from developer to founder because you’re not the CTO of Forem, which is kind of what you would expect for a developer to become a CTO. You’re the co-CEO of Forem. And so I’m wondering, how do you compare those two roles? They feel so different, being a CEO and being a developer. You’re kind of more big picture. You’re really in the details when you’re coding. Tell me about how those two roles have compared.
[00:21:57] BH: The reason I didn’t take on the CTO title is because I really am more of an entrepreneur than a developer. I’ve actually recently started stepping back more and more and more and I’m just about to commit my last code to Forem. Maybe not my last ever, but I’m really trying to take an even deeper step back from the coding process, just because we have such an awesome team of developers and we need to give them the agency to not have me like throwing my founder weight around some of the coding decisions too much. I mean, sure, you can understand the ability to kind of cut corners, create a hack as a founder, programmer, and things like that. We’ve had a lot of success with my capacity to take an idea, put it in code, and get it out the door. But as we evolve, we need to do it as a team. So even though I had been coding the whole time, I never felt like my end state was CTO. So now I’m more in that other role kind of than ever. Molly Struve is our head of engineering. She’s really in charge of the big picture engineering. Vaidehi Joshi who, folks in this podcast might know from her other work in the CodeNewbie space, is our lead product engineer. We have Lisa Sy as our lead product designer. We have Michael Kohl as a senior lead developer. We have a really great team all over the world. It’s actually been awesome to be able to step one level up. And what that means is really taking care of the milestones we need to hit as a company, understanding what all the developers in our organization need. I mean, nothing’s worse than a boss who doesn’t know your pain. And taking that perspective to solve for new problems. It’s a lot of fun. I think coding is an amazing trade skill, which can lead to pretty much anything. And that’s how I’ve thought about it.
[00:24:03] SY: So I’m going to go back to your journey from developer to entrepreneur. What did that process look like for you? What kinds of things did you need to adjust? Were there expectations, things that you weren’t expecting? What was that like?
[00:24:19] BH: One really nice thing about being a developer and not an entrepreneur, and I did that, I took some detours when I first got into coding, I kind of knew I needed to build up some chops. I always worked for small companies and startups, but not being the boss is really nice. Being able to really spend your days coding and working on things when it’s going well is the best kind of work. It can be frustrating as an individual contributor when you’re not given the tools to succeed or the support you needed or the context you need to do your job. And I’m saying this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t always set the stage effectively for our individual contributors. So I can say like that’s based on feedback, not based on just getting it right all the time. But it is really nice to be able to sit there, do your job, clock out, not really worry about it when you go home. That’s never totally like something you get as a developer. I think sometimes you’re working through problems in the back of your head. You’re trying to figure out the bug or occasionally you got to stay late because this bug really probably has to be fixed right now. But the difference in being an entrepreneur is just having that next step on the horizon, constantly having to be something you worry about. The developer gets to really worry about the problem at hand, most of the time, hopefully they’re thinking big picture architecturally if they have the capacity to do so or if they’re that far along in their career where the company is leaning on them for that. But you get at least somewhat of a sandbox for your problems. The entrepreneur has all the problems. There’s no problem that isn’t theirs. So all the problems that might arise from a software development calamity are totally their problems because it’s their company, but all the problems that might arise from any other scenario are also their problems. So I don’t know, the company gets sued. You can’t make payroll. You can’t earn the right revenue. You need to take out a loan. You have a board meeting coming up, if you’re later on in the company’s life. You have a team waiting for a new roadmap or a new quarterly report. You just have to deal with the reality of the uncertainty of the future of your company and the concern that if you have employees, they expect to remain employed. And it’s a responsibility that is so much deeper than being a developer. I wouldn’t suggest it to someone who isn’t listening to some of this and feeling it’s worth it with all of those things you have to keep in mind. I’d hate to encourage anyone to be an entrepreneur if they weren’t up for that.
[00:27:12] SY: I feel the same.
[00:27:12] BH: Because it’s really exhilarating and awesome. Your financial returns are higher if it goes well in the long, long run, but you’re the first person who’s not going to get paid if the company starts to struggle. You’re the first person to defer any positive outcomes. You’re probably going to have to work the hardest from time to time and it’s totally distinct from just being a developer, but being a developer gives you the best outcomes as an entrepreneur these days. Because imagine if you wanted a painting done and you needed to tell the painter every brush stroke because you didn’t really know how to paint yourself, you’re much better off knowing how to paint and translating what’s in your head to the canvas with your own skillsets and being an entrepreneur who can code is basically that. You can get so much done because when you see an opportunity or when you have an idea, you need to be disciplined not to pursue all of your own ideas all the time, but you get to make that idea a reality without having to translate it all to someone else. And that is probably the best way to start a company, in 2021 and beyond, is to have an idea and make it a reality and not have to invest that further resource. So if you’re not a developer and you want to start a company that has anything to do with code, you’ve got to hire a developer. And the difference between paying nothing and just kind of working on it yourself and paying the cost of a developer or having to negotiate some kind of equity deal that is never going to totally feel fair for everyone is so different. So I think the journey from developer to entrepreneur can be incredibly fruitful if you’re willing to take on all it takes.
[00:29:14] SY: So when you’re hiring developers to work on your product, what are the main things you look for in terms of technical skills or professional development or soft skills? What kinds of things do you value in search for?
[00:29:26] BH: So coming from the perspective of someone who is an entrepreneur, and that means I run a company that is still making its way in the world. I don’t know if being the head of a 20-year-old company, even if you started it, makes you an entrepreneur. But the difference is that our organization is growing and facing new challenges all the time. And we don’t want to just dump that load on the people we hire. We don’t want to say, “Hey, there’s no direction here. We have a vague problem over here. Maybe you’re flexible enough to get it all done.” That would be wrong, but a lot of startups and companies do kind of take that approach where it’s like, “Oh, can someone who’s kind of got a broad set of skills just come in and handle all of this?” I’m not sure what the actual job is for you. So we try to be deliberate in the expectations around what it means to be a software development contributor. We have a difference between say our principal software engineer and a lead software engineer, even though maybe they’re both jobs for experienced software engineers. But we certainly look for folks who within the capacity of the job are able to think holistically and to communicate effectively. And thinking holistically is both a technical challenge and a soft skill or a capacity to contribute effectively. But we ask questions like, “How do you prioritize your tasks when they’re not clearly described to you?” Because you might be given a task at the beginning of the week and you’re always able to ask for help, but you’re not going to be given the entire to-do list in order. It’s always going to change a little bit, prioritization skills, time management, being able to recognize when you might need to go in a different direction and bring someone in who can help. And so beyond being able to think a little bit more big picture about maybe the software you deal with, maybe like understand where Ruby on Rails fits in to the ecosystem as a software, having an appreciation for abstractions, for what might be happening under the hood that I might need to be concerned about beyond just learning how the framework works. You don’t need to know everything, but I think demonstrating an interest and a bigger picture mindset is good on the software side. But having a little bit more holistic view on what it means to be an employee and a part of a team is a big, big bonus. I think the worst thing you can do is come in and be narrow-minded about what it means to contribute because that’s not going to necessarily set you up for success. And it might also bring some concerns about the folks hiring you. They’re really hoping to bring someone on who can help the company succeed both at the challenge at hand, and also someone who can grow to take on bigger challenges. And it’s the entrepreneurs who ultimately want to find people who can help them, not just like take an instruction and put it into the computer, but to be able to discover problems and communicate to someone else about how this problem might fit into the bigger picture and to try to learn what the bigger picture is and not just because it’s laid out point for point, but because there’s a nuance to it, and there’s a bigger picture goal in mind, there’s society and politics, and how it all plays together. So I think that big picture mindset, like the capacity to think a little bit more broadly and demonstrate that in an interview is really kind of what can turn someone into a seemingly special candidate.
[00:33:33] SY: Coming up next, Ben gives his biggest piece of advice for developers who want to get into entrepreneurship after this.
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[00:35:07] SY: So what would you say is your biggest piece of advice for people listening who are maybe getting into development or they already are developers and they’re looking or they’re considering the entrepreneurship route either it’s being a CEO of a venture-backed company like you or something smaller, maybe more of a lifestyle business? What advice do you have for people who might be thinking about the transition?
[00:35:28] BH: Yeah. So from my perspective, I want people to know that whatever path you take is going to be one of constant discovery. I didn’t start DEV as an eventual venture-backed business, but that wound up being a good path because we saw the opportunity to broaden our ambitions, but also to create a business model, which wouldn’t be a constant treadmill. So Forem really is that we feel like we’re not trying to just grow DEV to infinite size where we have to extract value, run a million ads, or have job placement products everywhere because that’s where the money is or anything like that. We eventually identified that Forem really was something we wanted to be bigger than DEV could be, and that was a discovery process. But DEV was flexible enough along the way to help us discover that and to focus on the sustainability of the business and the overall journey of what it could be. But if you’re currently employed as a developer and you’re curious about being an entrepreneur, I would recommend thinking about it a lot and pretending to be an entrepreneur a little bit on the side, like learn some of the skills, even if you’re not jumping into it. Play around with a side project. Find out what it’s like to earn a dollar on the internet. Read a lot of books. Don’t be rushed. I really started DEV with a ten-year plan in mind. I knew I didn’t want to give up on it too soon because I thought if I kind of fiddled with it for a long enough time, I could really help it be the right thing. And that’s really like kind of how it turned out. We gave it the room to breathe and to become what it is today. And to not take all advice literally, but to just take it as good data. So like what I’m saying now, don’t take it all literally, but use it to guide yourself. So find out what you agree with me on and what you disagree with me on and develop that context.
[00:37:45] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:37:45] BH: And then use every bit of your own skill background. Everyone has a million skills, I used to play football. I played it all through college. And in college, I actually played against the player who’s on the Chiefs, the Super Bowl Champion.
[00:38:07] SY: Oh, cool!
[00:38:07] BH: That was my life. That was my skill. Those skills were like a bit of grit and determination, like teamwork. That’s really the skill set that helped me be an entrepreneur. And the coding was sort of like what unlocked a lot of it for a lot of the success, but I’m pretty sure everyone has as that. And they have some kind of intersection in their life that makes them kind of close to the best at something. So I’ve met people who are concerned about their coding skills. But then if you find out like, “Oh, they also knit or they bake.” If you bake cookies really well and you also code, you’re now maybe top 1% of coders who bake. If you can find some of those intersections where you can excel, even if you’re not the best at either one of them, you don’t have to be the best cookie baker, you don’t have to be the best coder. But when you combine those things, you’re the best baker-coder. Just look for those opportunities, but don’t think that you found the opportunity and now you need to jump all in, because it really is tough and I would recommend people waiting in the shallow waters if they feel like it. And don’t take the advice you’ll find from people who want you to either be all in or all out. You know, Saron, I think when you started CodeNewbie, that was your perspective. I felt like when you said that you are leaving your job at Microsoft to really do CodeNewbie for real, that was really inspiring for me. So do you want to kind of speak to that a little bit?
[00:39:34] SY: Yeah. I mean, for me, it just really felt like the right time. It felt like the right move. It kind of felt like I was juggling a bunch of things at the same time and I just kind of had to pick, like, “Where’s my future? Where’s the next couple years?” I try not to think too far ahead because I would just get stressed out. But where the next couple of years take me. And I think the other question that I like to ask myself that’s really helpful is, “What decision would I regret more? If I do this option and I leave the other one on the table, am I going to regret that more than the other choice?” And so between those a couple of things and ways of thinking it, it became a really easy decision.
[00:40:13] BH: Yeah. And you got to that point with some proof that it was for you. You didn’t have the idea to start CodeNewbie and then you woke up the next day and quit your job.
[00:40:25] SY: Right. Right.
[00:40:27] BH: And I’m not saying everyone needs a side project because it’s actually kind of nice not to have that for as long as you want because you kind of get to just commit to your skill building. You got to commit to developing some career capital. You get to learn along the way. But then keep the background process in your mind going. Identify what little things there are to do. Maybe start things that don’t need to be big picture ideas, but you can develop a few skills. If you start a little thing where you need to accept payments, you’ll learn what it’s like to maybe go to stripe.com and sign up for that API or whatever. And that’s not a coding skill necessarily, but it’s an entrepreneur meets coding skill. What does it mean to create a payment flow where I actually really care deeply personally about the outcome? And maybe do some of that where the stakes are a little lower, but you’re kind of learning how it feels. You’re developing some muscle memory around thinking like an entrepreneur. You’re finding some new passions, I think along the way, but don’t like try to invent the passion. I think just like learn about yourself by doing some of these things. And I think it does lead to good things, but usually not the first time around. So it’s almost like better to have a practice failure. Pretend you want this to be a big deal, but don’t quit your job and make it like that. Just like when you’re learning to code. Your first coding project is going to be like the ugliest code ever written, and that’s okay. If you still have the project around years later, you’re going to say like, “What on earth was I thinking about how this is how you wrote code?” And getting into entrepreneurship is totally the same way. I think I was able to get some of those failed reps out of the way early on. I didn’t take on a big investment when I was in college to do any of the random entrepreneurial stuff I was doing. So it was easier to fail because nobody was financially backing me, but it was also easier to fail softly and also be thrifty as I mentioned. I didn’t have any money going in and I barely had any money coming out. So it’s really like a learning journey and a skills development journey. And when you’re ready with that aha moment, it’s nice that you have some repetitions under your belt.
[00:43:06] SY: Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:43:12] BH: Yes, I am.
[00:43:14] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:43:17] BH: So I wouldn’t say the outcome of this advice was bad, but I think the premise of the advice itself was kind of bad. So before I moved to New York, I was working on a hypothetical startup, kind of one I was willing to go with the right momentum. And I actually got on the phone with someone in tech, which I didn’t know what that even meant. But I rummaged around and was able to email someone to say like, “Hey, can I like run this by you?” And he was sort of like kind of narrow-minded with the whole thing, I thought in hindsight. He kind of told me like, “Hey, don’t pursue this because this other similar thing is also in existence.”
[00:44:05] SY: Oh, interesting.
[00:44:06] BH: And I’m kind of glad I took that advice because I’m glad I kind of put myself just towards getting a job, even if I knew I liked entrepreneurship, but like, “Hey, this job is going to be a part of the journey.” So I’m glad I like heated that, but the advice itself happened to be in hindsight totally not correct. The thing I was working on had its own awesomeness to it. And just because there’s a similar thing out there, it’s like so, so not important. So yeah, that was a bit of advice. It’s like fine to take it, but question that kind of advice, where someone is like, “Oh, there already is a website that does this.” It’s like, “Sure.” There can be two.
[00:44:59] SY: Yeah. I mean, the example I always go back to is like, “How many pizza places do you know?” Right?” Just because Papa John’s exists doesn’t mean there isn’t room for Domino’s and Pizza Hut. Yeah.
[00:45:08] BH: But also how many websites or tech things change over time? You might start in a similar place and they diverged massively. Nintendo was a playing cards company, I’m pretty sure, when it started.
[00:45:20] SY: I know! Yeah. Wow! I would love to read a book on that story. That must have been incredible. Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:45:31] BH: This is so hard to answer. So I’m just going to come up with the first really good advice I can think of.
[00:45:39] SY: Okay.
[00:45:40] BH: Someone told me to consolidate my risk.
[00:45:43] SY: Oh, what does that mean?
[00:45:45] BH: It’s kind of unclear to me exactly what that means, but I took it to mean like you always have risk in a venture or an entrepreneurship or whatever, but try to make the risk more about a certain topic and not everything you’re doing is risky. So you’re always going to have risks, but try to make it so your company will fail, if the database goes down. Not like your company will fail if a certain politician is elected or whatever.
[00:46:17] SY: Oh, interesting.
[00:46:18] BH: And if your company will fail if a certain politician is elected because you’re in a certain space, that’s a good reason not to fail by your database going down. So if your risk is like the macro environment, in this context it’s like regulation maybe is the risk, then don’t write your own database. But if the risk is in the database, try not to also be in a risky field. Make your risks more related to one another so you don’t have a million risks out there.
[00:46:50] SY: Yeah. Yeah. I like that. Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:46:55] BH: My first GeoCities website was about fantasy sports and I was young. I was like in junior high and really into fantasy sports, which is like kind of weird for a kid to be into, I think. It’s kind of like adults who bet on sports or whatever, but my friends and I, we played fantasy football and my website was about that. And I employed my friends to write on the website, which was pretty fun. And actually I really like solved problems along the way. It was weird to me that writing in pure HTML I had to rewrite the header in each section. So I kind of like learned about how you can do coding dynamically in certain ways without really learning to code. But one of the people, actually, two of my friends who wrote for that website are now professional journalists in sports. So I kind of like gave them their first gigs as sports journalists. Thinking back on it, I’m pretty proud that I was the first webmaster who gave them a job writing for the internet. So yeah, that was my first ever coding thing.
[00:48:08] SY: Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:48:12] BH: I wish I had like any clue how complicated websites worked because I just mentioned like I hacked my way to some interesting solutions, but I wish I like knew the difference between what you could do with just this and what you needed to do this other thing, because I always kind of just messed my way through it. I remember I’d open the source code for a website and copy and paste it and see if that would work on my website. I didn’t know what a server was. I didn’t know what anything was and I kind of wish I did.
[00:48:50] SY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Ben.
[00:48:54] BH: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me and thank you to all the CodeNewbie listeners and hope you all join the CodeNewbie community.
[00:49:02] SY: Absolutely. This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us for our weekly Twitter chats. We’ve got our Wednesday chats at 9 P.M. Eastern Time and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 P.M. Eastern Time. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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