For the past few weeks I’ve been reading a lot of talk on HackerNews about how the quality of the site is going downhill. People say the level of discourse is being lowered, and the amount of negativity is going up. Well, I don’t have any data one way or the other to add to that particular conversation. I just wanted to share one positive story about my personal experience with HN. Besides, anecdotes are a kind of data, right?
About a year ago, I’d found my life stuck in a nice little rut. I had my nice, familiar job as a web developer in nice, suburban Minneapolis, where I’d lived my whole nice life. I liked the work well enough, but I’d been there for five years, and so I’d been thinking about possibly looking for a job at some point in the future, maybe. But I’d also been thinking about how much easier it would be to not do that, and just go in to work again.
In addition to my daytime job, programming had also crept into my nights and weekends as I took up the hobby of iOS development. The interesting thing about this hobby is that not only did it help use up my spare time, it also helped use up my spare dreams. I didn’t have to aspire to a bigger job in a bigger city, because at any moment one of my apps was going to hit it big and then everyone would be working for me. Somehow, inexplicably, that didn’t happen.
Last summer, after it had become clear that Apple was not working on a new type of boat with which to deliver the boatloads of money that my latest iOS effort was not making, I decided to turn my lemon into lemonade. So I wrote up a piece about my experience and posted it to Hacker News. I wanted to give something back to the site that I’d gotten so much from. Once again, however, the balance of “who’d gotten more out of the relationship” quickly swung back in the other direction, as that one little posting led to a complete up-ending of my life. Within a month, I was living in San Francisco, working for a startup.
And that right there is where the magic of HackerNews happens. Unbeknownst to me, my story caught the eye of an entrepreneur in San Francisco who needed an iOS developer. That simply doesn’t happen if HN doesn’t exist. Without HackerNews I’m still just some random dude in Nowhere, Minnesota complaining about stuff on the internet. Say what you will about the tone and quality going downhill, the site is still an incredible meeting point for our community that brings together hackers of all definitions from all corners of the globe. Getting on HN gets you in front of a lot of interesting eyeballs. You never know who’s going to read what you posted today.
My first contact with the aforementioned company came via an email from a gentleman who purported to be co-founder of a mobile development startup in San Francisco. “Yeah, who isn’t, these days?” I chuckled to myself. He briefly described his company and said that he wanted to “chat”. It’s difficult to describe my brain’s reaction to this email: I’d lived in Minnesota my whole life; I’d never been to California; I read Hacker News in my downtime. A “co-founder of a mobile development startup in SF” was a humorous creature I’d read all about on the internet — I may as well have been replying to a hobbit. I was going to politely tell him that I was already doing nicely here in MN, but then I figured, heck, it’s just a phone call. What could one little phone call hurt?
One phone call led to one more phone call, which led to phone calls with the other co-founders, which led to a flight to SF (what could one little flight hurt?) just to check the place out… maybe some interviews — which led to a job offer. Here I was, 2000 miles from home, staring out into San Francisco Bay, a job offer in my hand, and the only conscious decision I’d made in the whole process thus far was “I guess one little phone call couldn’t hurt.” But by that point, though, the decisions were pretty much making themselves. I’d read enough motivational refrigerator magnets to believe that in life, you end up only regretting the chances that you didn’t take.
After the interviews I walked down the street and took this photo
So here I sit after a year in Silicon Valley and I still have trouble believing it actually went down like that. The hacker in me feels like trying to create some sense out of that chaos, and perhaps try to distil something useful out of it. I wouldn’t call the following “advice”, seeing as how I’m still reeling from everything and I’m in no position to be doling out advice, so lets just call them…
Points of Interest
Actually finish your side projects
If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a pile of half-finished apps, or outlines of half-implemented websites, or whatever it is that’s fun to work on in your free time. At least, it’s fun to work on them until you get to the Hard Part. Everyone knows that the last 20% takes 80% of the effort. And since everyone knows that, when people see an actual finished project, no matter how it turned out, you’re already way ahead of the pack because at least it’s finished. Even if it bombs, at least you’ve got something to talk about.
People like stories
A prerequisite to getting on HN is actually writing something down (there’s nothing worse than clicking on an interesting-looking title to find a 20-minute video with no transcript). It would be an even bigger treat if what you wrote down was something that somebody might want to read. I’m not much of an expert there, but I do have a couple of theories. First, everyone loves a good story — everyone does; it’s human nature. Second, HackerNews loves the question “how” — how does this work, how to do that, how did things get this way; how anything. In fact, just put “how” in the title (it worked on you, didn’t it? [meta!]).
When I sat down to write last summer, all I knew was that I wanted to contribute something back to the HackerNews community, and all I had to write about was my failure of an app. But I knew that could still be useful to somebody out there, if only to let them know that they’re not alone — not everyone is an overnight success. So I put down into writing the story of how the app came to be, how I tried to market it, how that failed, and how it affected my outlook. People want to read the story of “how”.
Work on communication
I know that a lot of coders (including me) got into the field because they’re not “people person”s, and a lot of these interpersonal communication skills are not necessary for the day-to-day life of a programmer. But it sure doesn’t hurt to have them. There are millions of competent coders out there, but finding one that can get their point across in an email or blog post without sounding like a jerk can be hard to do. A long time ago I decided that I wanted to improve my writing ability. So I made a point to, at the end of every day, just write something. It could be about what I did that day, or something interesting that happened, or how I’m feeling about things in general — anything — my only goal is to just try to make it interesting. This quickly went from an annoying chore to a task I really enjoyed. It focused my view of my life, helped me document things, and simply made writing easier and easier. Plus now when I feel like doing some interesting reading, I can jump back through the years of entries — it’s like a flip-book of my soul getting crushed!
When people ask how the company I work for found me, I usually say “they saw something I wrote about how poorly my apps were doing, and they couldn’t wait to hire me.” People usually laugh at that, but that’s because they’re focusing on the wrong part. The incredible part of that sentence is “they saw something I wrote”. I was able to take my bad experience, find a compelling story in it, get it in front of actual decision-makers in Silicon Valley, and capture their attention for long enough to make them interested in me. Makes me wonder what I would have written about if the app hadn’t sold so poorly…
Be open to change
A lot of the time, being open to change is much easier said than done. In this particular case, timing was everything. As I discussed above, I felt like my life was in a rut and I was actually looking for a change (maybe not one this big… but, hey, beggars can’t be choosers). Additionally, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in Minnesota during the winter, but…
“If I ever dig myself out of this, remind me to move some place nicer…”
The Obvious Question
So… am I glad that I moved to San Francisco? Well it wasn’t all sunshine and smiles — moving across the country to a state I’d never been to and a city in which I knew nobody was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. It made for some very lonely times, a lot of stress, and a lot of chaos as I tried to get my life re-oriented to a whole new everything. But all this was made much easier by the fact that I get to work with a great group of people, doing exactly the kind of stuff I wanted to be doing when I first started hacking my phone four years ago.
So, yeah, looking back on it after a year, I think I made the right choice. There have been so many experiences that I simply never would have even known about if I’d stayed in my nice little rut back in Minnesota. Just while trying to write this piece, there was so much I wanted to talk about (day-to-day life at a startup, west coast life in general, putting all of your worldly possessions into your car and driving across the U.S., etc.) that I ended up having to cut because this is already monstrously long for something that came from the thought “hey, look, it’s been one year… maybe I should write something”. There just isn’t enough room to write it all down. And it’s only been a year.
Then again, it’s only been a year… Maybe I’ll get tired of it after another 6 months here. I’ll let you know.
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