The Twelve-Second Code Year [part 1]

(With apologies to Merlin Mann.)


Not all tech startups are into ping-pong and meditating on beanbags, you know. Beanbag meditation This one totally is, though. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Two-and-a-bit years in pharmaceutical PR had left me jaded. The day-to-day work that could be done by a shell script (or, more likely, just not done at all), endless meetings, useless project management, incompetent clients, Kafkaesque performance reviews, bullying, railroading. Having to use the same piece-of-shit computer every goddamn day. I wanted things to be done better; no-one wanted to hear it, because doing things better would mean less tedious administrative work, and without that, how are you supposed to get your junior employees to ‘pay their dues’? Going for Makers Academy was a stab in the dark. Was it worth the money? Would I enjoy being a developer? Hobbies often don’t translate well into jobs. Just because I’ve dicked around with the command line in my script kiddie days doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy being a professional dev. Some of the work was done for me. 80,000 Hours, a spin-off of the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute that tries to get people to take careers that will do the most good in the world, very kindly offered me a career consultation. We walked through the things I cared about and the options I was considering, did some research, and found that Makers looked like a near-perfect option: it leads to an interesting career that I’d likely stick with, with high earning potential as a software engineer (virtually uncapped if you include tech entrepreneurship), plus possible direct altruism through working on social enterprise. I described the course to my father. He’s unconvinced that tech is the right endgame – business would be more suited to me, he says. But he called Makers a “must do”; a no-brainer. Shortly after my entry interview, I signed off the single largest payment I have ever made. And as is often the case with the big life decisions you deliberate over for months, you suddenly wonder: “why did I wait so long?”


Makers Academy makes big promises. “Learn to code in 12 weeks”, shouts their site’s strapline. Eccentric and brilliant lecturer Enrique quickly pours cold water on our hopes. “Just to check, how many of you think you’re going to be awesome developers after twelve weeks?” No hands go up. “Good! I’m glad you’re all so realistic.” The course is intense, but the level of effort is normalised by everyone else’s resolve, and by the energy of the place. Students and teachers routinely arrive before nine in the morning and leave after seven at night. No-one’s commitment is in doubt. Everyone is routinely out of their comfort zone. Everyone is here to work hard, and master a new skill. We are told, repeatedly, to expect to feel stupid, every day, for twelve weeks. That social hack alone – that you get more shit done in a place where you’re shoved together with other smart, determined people than teaching yourself from a book or at a distance – makes the course fee worth it. Add to that the structured learning environment, learning from and teach other students, pair programming and one-on-one support and feedback from seasoned developers, and you have a formula for mass-producing junior devs ready to start their apprenticeships in tech. Think of it as like getting your driving licence. You’re not nearly done learning to drive when you pass your test – you’re just beginning. But you have the basic skillset, the confidence, and the clout to be able to strike out on your own and guide your own development from then on.


Of course, feeling ‘stupid’ isn’t quite the right description. It’s more like the feeling you get when you start something as a complete beginner. You lose the heaviness and comfort of the thing you know you’re good at, only to have it replaced with the lightness of starting something new, of not knowing what to expect, of the standard that will be expected of you by your teachers and your peers. The cohort is more diverse than I expected for a tech bootcamp. Ages range from 19 to 40, averaging 27 at a guess. A quarter of the group are women – far higher than the tech average. Backgrounds include business consulting, project management, PR of various sorts, marketing, sales, academia, design, with a handful coming straight from university or high school. A few are looking to start businesses straight after graduating, but most, like me, have quit unfulfilling jobs to pursue a better life. One of the students comments to me that it seems almost unfair that you could be paid money to do something this fun. I’m inclined to agree. (To be continued.)

Currently CTO at Mast. Formerly engineering at Thought Machine, Pivotal. Makers Academy alumnus.

I've pledged to give 10% of my income to highly effective charities working to improve animal welfare. If my startup is successful, I hope to give away much more.

Also founded EA Work Club, a job board for effective altruists, and Let's Fund, a crowdfunding site for high-risk, high-reward social impact projects.

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