A while back, I had lunch with Nate Abbott and Natty Zola, the co-founders of Everlater, a TechStars 2009 company. Nate and Natty are two of my favorites – not only because they regularly kick my partner Seth Levine’s ass on bike rides, but also because they starred in last year’s TechStars: The Founders video series.

During that lunch, we talked about how Nate and Natty learned to program.

When they came up with the idea for Everlater, they were both young finance geeks on wall street. Nate was a math major; Natty was an econ major, but neither had a clue how to build a web app. They decided that rather than find a “developer” to team up with, they would learn how to program.


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A while back, I had lunch with Nate Abbott and Natty Zola, the co-founders of Everlater, a TechStars 2009 company. Nate and Natty are two of my favorites – not only because they regularly kick my partner Seth Levine’s ass on bike rides, but also because they starred in last year’s TechStars: The Founders video series.

During that lunch, we talked about how Nate and Natty learned to program.

When they came up with the idea for Everlater, they were both young finance geeks on wall street. Nate was a math major; Natty was an econ major, but neither had a clue how to build a web app. They decided that rather than find a “developer” to team up with, they would learn how to program.

I regularly get asked questions by non-technical entrepreneurs how they should get started if they don’t have a technical co-founder. There are a variety of answers. One is “learn to program.” In Nate and Natty’s case it’s worked out great and their story is an instructive one.

Now, both Nate and Natty are smart, which is obviously a prerequisite. But neither were computer science majors, nor were they “hackers” (although apparently Nate is pretty good at a wide range of video games.) The first question I asked them about learning to program was, “What Was Day 1 Like?”

Nate responded first:

Day one was totally overwhelming. Overwhelming because we didn’t know what we didn’t know. It’s one thing when you don’t know how to do something (e.g., validate email addresses or change a button’s hover state).  But we didn’t know what we needed to learn, and that made it difficult to even start down a path. The first week was spent just googling "web site design", "web site architecture" and "web server" to try to get a handle on all of the acronyms we were coming across (such as CSS, HTML PHP MYSQL, ROR, JS, AJAX). Our goal was to piece together the list of skills that we were going to collectively learn in order to create a web service like Everlater.

Day one was also thrilling and exciting. It’s the same feeling I get when I’m starting a long bike ride in the mountains, the same feeling I got when I first got to college, or when I got my first offer letter for ibanking in New York. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than beginning a large task, and nothing I had done was quite like the task at hand.

Natty responded shortly thereafter with a few things to add:

We also researched sites we liked and benchmarked what they were doing/using to get a feel for what the popular/hot sites were using. Most notably I remember looking at Facebook and seeing .php at the end of the url string. This gave us ideas of where we should start our research.

I was excited like Nate, but also somewhat afraid. We quickly realized we were going to be learning another language, but much harder than a foreign language because we couldn’t rely on familiarities like verbs, nouns, and sentence structure. Worse, we would have to learn the basics of speech in becoming functional at the command line, databases, and editing programs.

The other interesting thing was that before we put any code down or started day 1 of our idea, we had spent a month brainstorming what we wanted to build. While this was pre-day 1 it enabled us to focus on making code/tech decisions and learning the code rather than also having to think about what we were doing with it. I think this sped our research because we had a framework within which to think about the decisions we were making.

Lastly, it really helped to research with Nate because we could bounce ideas around, problem solve, and challenge each other. Plus, it made it significantly more fun knowing we were diving into the unknown together.

To summarize, they were simultaneously overwhelmed and excited, but fearless — they just jumped into the swimming pool off of the high dive and hoped there was water in the pool.

Comment by Bing Chou
I'd be interested in how and when (if ever) you knew enough about the tools (HTML, CSS, AJAX, etc.) to have confidence that you were applying the right ones in the right situations. I'm going through this myself - I don't want to learn PHP just to find out that my site should have been built with something else. Thanks again.
April 2010
Reply from ryanschneider
There's always some new or alternative tech you can use, if you get caught up on that you'll just spin in circles forever. Focus on the idea, and get something (anything) done and in front of people. 90% of what you learn when programming isn't language syntax, it's process: how to take ideas and transform them into something understandable (most importantly by your end users, but also by the computer that turns your code into web pages). So even if you never touch PHP again, you've only "wasted" 10% of your time, but have an actual product to show for it.
April 2010
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