Turning into a Hacker aged 27

Hacker for Dummies

oxymoron much?

One of my biggest realizations having been in the trenches of a startup for 2.5 years was this: you will not be very helpful if you cannot code pre product market fit. At my previous startup, my CEO was also the CTO. So when he was out fund raising, development essentially grounded to a halt.

In any case, at the very early stages of a startup, what are you going to do if you can’t code? There are only that much research/admin/strategy/cust. dev/misc work a non-technical person can do. I also do not think division of labour works very well at the early stages. It’s the kind of thing you do when you got scale and need expertise. Right at the beginning, you got nothing but a gut feeling about something and what needs doing is the building of a prototype to validate those feelings.

Therein lies my problem. I can’t code ergo I have a major liability if I wanted to do another startup. At a ripe ol’ age of 27, I needed to turn into a hacker and fast.

The term hacker has the usual connotations: near genius IQ, scant regard for authorities, young whiz kid types and depending on whether you’ve seen Swordfish, blowjobs. I have exactly none of those attributes (ok, bjs aren’t an attribute but whatever). It helps that I have chosen a more functional definition of a hacker — that is someone who does a hackjob that is just barely good enough to get the job done. No more, no less.

In a bid to accelerate my learning progress, I’ve took to cold emailing startups who code in Python, hoping for a sort of internship/apprenticeship type gig. I can count with 2 hands the number of startups that made the shortlist. Luckily for me, the kind folks at Insync (google docs sync, not the band) took me in.  So this marks the start of my journey from zero to hacker. I’ll be posting my learnings along the way so if you’re interested, check back!

50 thoughts on “Turning into a Hacker aged 27

    • Maybe we can meet in the middle and swap notes? I think you have a lot more experience being a hacker than I have being a ‘hustler’ though.

      Also, would you say a hacker is a Terran Programmer then?

      P.S Love the title of your blog!

  1. Nai, please do keep us updated. I am basically the same age and have been waffling, not doing too much with my “OK” coding skills and getting real itchy to put them to work. Someone jumping into the development cycle, feet first is obviously an interesting expose on startup life for the less than qualified.

    Completely agree on the part about there being only so much work for people who don’t want to think hard and produce some code at startups.

    • Will do! Can I just saw that I think the environment you’re in and the people you interact with play a pivotal role in determining your actions. It helps if you find like-minded people to ‘do stuff’ I think.

      This is another reason why I decided to intern and take a 1 hour commute to work as opposed to just ‘learning at home’.

    • 35 is the new 22. I was too stupid to see the value of being a hacker back then. And had I focused on that goal when I was young, it would’ve come far easier than it has for me recently, and I would’ve taken it for granted, right along with not getting hangovers and other perks of youth.

    • Wow. I think I need some time to fully digest that. But you’re completely right. I slotted into a sort of ‘marketing’ role at my last startup and even then to do my job effective, I had to learn SQL just so I can get the data out and analyse what’s working and what’s not. I know most purists won’t consider SQL programming but I think that kind of sowed the seeds for where I am today. Thanks for leaving the link, I’m gonna have to read it again later.

    • Do you sometimes feel that the first 25 (2X) years of your life is like just one being assumption about which you had to slowly realign to the realities of life and that at some point you’ve only just started living?

    • My top tip is just do enough book reading so as to not ask ‘stupid’ questions on stackoverflow then get stuck in and try to create a shitty little app asap.

  2. I’m in the same boat with you guys, I currently work in IT, but I would like to start programming professionally. I would love to find an internship/apprenticeship at some Start-Up.

    • All the best! I see from your blog that you are based in London. That was where I spent the last 5 years (3 studying 2 startuping) of my life. Great time but don’t miss the weather so much 😉

      All the best for your startup!

  3. Hi, interesting blog you have here!

    Could you provide some details on how you went about finding and contacting startups on apprenticeship opportunities?

    • Roughly in this order:

      1) Read local startup news
      2) Hunt the job boards looking for companies who are recruiting in Python
      3) Research each company
      4) Choose a small-ish company to approach
      5) Write a personalised and passionate cover letter
      6) Cross your fingers
      7) Go for a run

  4. Thanks for sharing your story. I am in a similar position as you. I have been in IT as a Sys Admin for almost 6 years now and have had so many ideas along the way, but no real way to bring them to fruition. I’m 30 now and started hacking about 2 months ago and am about 60% finished with my first project, which I hope to launch soon. Its been an amazing ride so far and I have learned a ton. I really like your approach to learning by finding an apprenticeship.

    Please keep us updated on your progress.

    • Thanks for your kind words Jeff! What I have found on my short journey so far was the amount of sys admin that a programmer kinda needs to know. It’s really such a mixed bag of skills you need to get good at. Now that you have a little application that sorta works, how do you deploy it? How do you set up apache? How do you configure the security etc. Just so much to learn!

      And do post back about your project here or on HN. Think it would be interesting to share and give feedback on each other’s work! Good luck too!

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  6. I started on a similar journey over the summer. Went from zero to getting a fun social app up and running within a few months. Now I am moving on to bigger ideas that I never would have even considered had I not jumped into hacking some software together. I continue to absorb as much as I can, and take on small coding projects for myself and ffflourish.com. I keep thinking about setting up a blog about my experiences and do occasionally share some thoughts on a general blog at http://www.putafonit.com. I find your ‘get it done’ approach very inspiring and wish you the best of luck.

    • I think my blog was the first sign of resolution from my part to get things done. Thanks for your kind words and good luck with your hacking as well! I think the HN community and people like myself can benefit from your shared experiences if you have the time to talk about it. Do post back here or on HN if you do!

  7. Congrats on the journey! I was in your exact shoes back in July. It takes a while to get going, but I am finally well on my way.

    The single best piece of advice I can give you: code every day.

    I started with Python which is a good place to start. If you have any questions or get stuck, just shoot me an email.

    • Thanks for the offer and tip and good luck! Know what you mean about taking a while to get going. Feels like I’m walking through your path right now. Heh.

  8. I couldn’t tell what your startup does, but it sounds software related-ish. First, (and don’t take this the wrong way) your code will be crap, don’t sell it to customers, don’t mix it with your good code from an experienced programmer. However, you can do something that will improve quality and that will be genuinely helpful, which is software testing. There are LOTS of ways to test software, but unit testing in the same language that your product is written is a good way to start. You can maintain the unit tests (which if there is a couple of bugs, your customer doesn’t see them anyway), and your programmer can write production code. If you are already doing unit testing (which you should be), you have a perfect place to start to start “hacking”. Also, if you are doing test driven development (also good if used correctly), then you can write the tests during the development cycle (i.e. as the features are added/bugs are removed). The symbiotic nature of developing and testing code in parallel can be very productive.

    • Hi Josh, I don’t think the team is letting me anywhere near their code base. I will be working on independent boltable type mini projects so its all good.

      Writing unit tests sounds interesting, something I will bring up to the team. Thanks for the suggestion!

  9. Hey There,
    Its been great reading everyones posts, I’m 20 years old going for a mechanical engineering major/ computer science minor and have just started using python which have been told by a hacker friend is one of the best places to start, as Java and C++ are easy to master afterwards(but if you go from java/c++ to python it doesnt make as much sense and is harder). I’ve found so far programming is just getting familiar with the language and using it everyday. I personally would like to create a startup before i’m out of college and your posts are inspiring, thank you. I’m sure you will succeed in the startup world if you keep dedicated and focused, as hard work and dedication beat out genius any day in my opinion. I also believe knowledge is exponential, growth of a growth, the more you read/do, the more you learn, and the more your capacity to learn, the more you can read/do etc. etc. Anyways, good luck in your endeavors, I wish you the best!

  10. Hey Nai:

    Interesting! I am at my 27 now and I seriously need the “Hacking for dummies” to get me started as I was involved in merely academic research for the past 6 years rather than any hardcore programming!


  11. I’m 34, a SEO/marketing guy, over the past two years i did this, learning Rails at night and on the week ends just building stuff. It’s hard, more in terms of dedication than actual technical difficulty but it’s doable. You need tenacity. My end goal is doing the startup thing but at worse i now have a valuable dual set of skills.

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  14. Hi! Inspiring . Im in the same situation as you. 27 .. also picking up python. I am from Singapore. Good work on the election site btw.

    Would it be cool if we grabbed a coffee together someday? It would be awesome to meet like minded people.

  15. Me and my business (Shaun 27, Myself 24) partner raised £420k from ourselves, friends, family…. even a loan shark! This was 2008- and although were London and Manchester based, we commissioned the job to a company in Sydney,Australia as they were the only company who would commission a project of that size and we were rushing thinking someone else might do it(shame on us, we encourage others now and know we know how to execute), we have a game changer in our concept- So after the tears, bye bye girlfriends, standing up to a loan shark ( not impressive, simply have nothing to lose), we spent 2 years trying to make £200k we had set for one years wages to get the team going to investment stage, Reputable coder in Sydney willing to re-locate his wife, 2kids and the dog! to sunny Manchester to lead our team…..

    To say we have tried is… well i would like to know who else has pushed themselves or put themselves in such positions as hard as us for a start up, yet whether it be the climate or social media consultancy contracts not paying up or reducing their orders as worried about their future….. Well, whatever we have gone on to do(might save it for a book at what has been!), we still face delays, people problems etc,

    Like the scene with Bradley Cooper in Limitless- We were Blind but now we both see- that the way to do this- is to learn to code from scratch- 3weeks of winding down commitment’s then it’s go go go for as long as it takes- We have just seen your blog and it’s very cool- we will definitely be keeping a watchful eye on this and we appreciate you putting it up

  16. Your blog is awesome, keep it up! I stumbled across it because I am also teaching myself Django at the moment. I enjoyed your musings a lot. It’s good to know there are other people older than me trying to become hackers and going through the same stuff. 加油 to all of us! 🙂

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