Photo by: Azlan Cuttilan / hereticsun
Two weeks ago, I took a leap of faith and flew across the country to take part in the software development education experiment that is Dev BootCamp. Learning how to “code” is one of the most challenging things I have ever attempted.
I’m fortunate to be accepted into the inaugural class of Dev BootCamp, an eight week intensive training program located in downtown San Francisco. We work sixty plus hours a week in an intimate class/lab setting, Monday through Friday, and are learning to build Ruby on Rails web applications. I like to think of Dev Bootcamp as an incubator for aspiring developers.
So why did I decide to take this leap of faith? I am convinced programming ability has become an invaluable business skill for the 21st century. While reflecting on my own experiences, I have come to realize my inability to code has had negative effects on my business career.
In high school, I ran an auction business where I sold items on consignment for people who had items to sell online, but did not have the time or knowledge to properly do it themselves. When searching for leads, I frequently poured over listings on Craigslist.
Hours of crucial time could have been saved with a basic programming script that notified me when profitable items were posted in my area. Another custom written program could have made listing items on eBay a breeze, freeing up more time to meet with potential clients and take on extra work.
During my college years I operated College Getaways, an online travel service for students in the Boston area. I had a unique idea for a booking system integrated with Facebook Connect in order to make it easy for my customers to plan weekend trips with their friends.
At the time, Facebook engagement was at its peak and people actually paid attention to their event invites. (Remember those days?) A booking system integrated with Facebook would have certainly helped my business “go viral.”
However, I was a bootstrapped founder in college who didn’t know many developers; my only option was to outsource the work overseas. After two frustrating months of exchanges, the firm I hired failed to deliver and disappeared with my cash.
During my junior year (and during the early months of the Groupon clone craze), I launched ShareLI, a competing daily deal website focused strictly on Long Island, NY. Once again I was forced to outsource development to a remote team.
The project was launched successfully but issues arose when my content management system was covered with bugs. To top it off, on the morning of launch, our payment processing system went down for a couple hours. A few weeks later, I found it difficult to respond and act upon the customer feedback we were receiving. Simple tweaks or restructuring of the website were slow and expensive.
Not knowing how to code also makes it increasingly difficult to build a team. How do you know you’re hiring the right talent? How can you earn the respect of your engineers if you cannot identify with them or understand how they think? Understanding the mindset and needs of coders is essential for running your business.
Fast forwarding to the present, my current projects (Regents Help and Boston Nightlife Express) all have some aspect of code involved in their product. I have worked with projects involving code in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
My experiences may not hold true for everyone. Some people do a remarkable job of hiring talent the first time around. I’ve learned to refine this skill over the years, and with the help of my co-founder, managed to get Regents Help off the ground without any major setbacks or losses.
However, it’s never too late to learn, right? So why has programming ability become such a critically important business skill? For a bootstrapped entrepreneur, it’s almost a requirement.
“Your product isn’t competing with other products; it’s competing with nobody giving a shit.” – Michael Staton, Founder and former CEO of Inigral
Michael was kind enough to visit Dev BootCamp and talk to us about programming, entrepreneurship, and the “Lean Startup Methodology.” Prior to BootCamp, I spent some time studying and practicing Lean Startup principles and am convinced it’s the best approach to entrepreneurship. The premise of Lean Startup is the number one reason startups fail is founders spend all their time building something nobody wants.
Instead of spending all your time preparing for a big launch, break the project down into small chunks, or minimum sets of features necessary, in order to get potential customers excited. The earlier you put your idea out there, the earlier you can start collecting feedback from customers and move in the right direction. The Lean Startup approach allows you to build the best service or product over the long term by learning from these smaller chunks, rather than trying to get everything right all at once.
“In today’s time, this set of skills (programming) is like bringing a fleet of tractors to the California gold rush while everyone else is using shovels.” – James Fend, Founder of Freelancify
Knowing how to code unleashes the potential of bootstrapped founders because it gives them the ability to execute the “lean approach” without the need for any capital or special resources. You can put together the first version of your product independently.
When both the problem you are trying to solve (your customers’ needs), and the solution to that problem (your product or service) are well known, it’s okay to outsource. However, the problem and solution are rarely well known and this is why so many startups fail. It’s difficult to iterate through your ideas and test them in small chunks when your startup budget is small, and you have to rely on people located halfway around the world.
Sometimes this issue can be solved with landing pages, or by using simple screen shots of your product. However, there will eventually come a time when you need to actually build a working prototype. The bottom line is, once you know how to code, your ideas no longer remain ideas; you are simply able to execute independently.
“Programming is like wizardry.” – Christian Fernandez
Christian, one of our mentors at Dev BootCamp, summed it perfectly. Programming is exactly like wizardry. We take pure thoughts from the ether, combine them with a few key-strokes, mix in electricity, and just like magic, we are able to create a product we can see and physically interact with. It’s exciting to think with just internet access, sweat equity, and a laptop, we can literally create and manipulate the world that we live in.
We have reached a point in history where technology is blatantly all around us. Things like laptops, Netflix, our DVR, and the countless number of apps on our phones. Every product in the modern world either contains software, or was created with the use of software.
This technology trend will continue to grow and accelerate. We’re living in a software dominated world and your knowledge of programming (or lack thereof) will either mean you are submissive to the changes around you, or you’re playing a role in helping to shape those changes. As technology escalates, and becomes more important in how we communicate, work, learn, travel, and live, our ability to make it do what we want will become increasingly valuable.
“Programming is the new literacy.” – Roy Bahat, President of IGN Entertainment
Roy recently visited Dev BootCamp and gave a talk that stressed the fact we are at a unique time in history where coding is now becoming a new form of literacy. Roy took it upon himself to learn how to code. As the CEO of a major corporation, it’s impressive to see him find the time to undertake this task. Quite frankly, if he finds the time to do it, anyone can.
Roy communicated the fact that only a few centuries ago, reading and writing were confined to a small particular class. Eventually these skills permeated into all social classes and became a necessity in order to function and succeed in society. One can argue not knowing how to code in the 21st century is comparable to not knowing how to read after the invention of the printing press.
Programming is no longer just a career path. It will soon define how we interact with all the objects of our modern world. People who have needs and ideas related to coding will increasingly recognize this and make use of their skills. It will become common to program tools in order to solve problems we encounter in our daily life.
Coding isn’t dark magic. You aren’t born a programmer. It’s a skill that can be learned and developed, just like anything else. You don’t need to become an expert engineer; you just need to learn enough to make yourself effective, then continue to develop over time.
There’s an infinite amount of resources available online making it easier than ever to pick up this skill. If you live in a major city you can also attend meet-ups and find mentors. If you’re looking for a more intensive approach I suggest you apply for the summer cohort of Dev BootCamp. My experiences at Dev BootCamp will be covered in later posts.