I had the privilege to meet Isaac, while working for Greenhouse Innovation, a young startup in the heart of Amsterdam.
Before this interview I knew he is from Spain, he listens to good music and he likes good beer. Little did I know what an interesting story he has to share …
In this interview you will find out how a social anthropologist learned to code all by himself and landed a job building Android apps for a startup. #selfDetermination
Who is Isaac?
Isaac is a self-taught Android developer with a background in social anthropology.
He was born and raised in Madrid but after his studies he traveled the world, working on social projects and even publishing a paper about his work.
At one point he decided it was time for a change so he started coding. Soon after, he got a job as Android developer in Amsterdam.
What project did he work on?
Isaac had an idea to create a simple Android app that would allow Spanish-speaking expats to read news from their home country. If you look at it the app is quite simple, but considering he learned everything while coding it, it seems pretty impressive.
You can take a look at his app here: Noticias Latinas.
For this interview I met Isaac in a noisy bar and recorded our 1 hour-long discussion. Below you can find the summary of our chat. I tried to transcribe as much as possible of the conversation.
Me: How did you come up with this idea?(What, when, how, where or who influenced you?)
It all started when I joined a programming course. I liked it but realized that if I really wanted to learn how to code I need to build my own product. I wanted to do something free and useful.
I think that my background influenced my choice. Being an anthropologist, living in Latin America and doing projects with emigrants/expats, I noticed people need to connect with their home country or city.
Also I noticed that most news available through news agency were quite broad and talking about the broad economic situation. I wanted to build an app that would inform people what happened in their own neighbourhood. Just pick a country and automatically get the news in a mobile friendly format.
I wouldn’t say this was a problem in the real sense of the word or I don’t see it as a problem. I just wanted to help Spanish-speaking people feel more connected to their homes.
Me: I bet you had a lot of ideas. What made you choose this particular project?
Being my first project I was scared to start something and not finish it, so I wanted something that would be easy enough to finish.
However, I learned that once you start, you also start growing and you learn more by the day. Big tasks like sorting the news in reverse order or selecting if you want to download the news over Wi-Fi or Internet become small tasks.
Additionally, I also did a research and I saw that there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people abroad and thus there is an existent market for an app like this.
Me: So who developed the app and why?
I did everything from scratch and this was the first time I ever built an app.
I did this all by myself because I was trying to make a shift in my career. I remember thinking that there are many people taking courses and graduating from university but when you go and apply for a job people want to see what have you done. So I wanted to be able to show them the app and say look this is what I did. With a background in social sciences this was even more relevant in my case.
However, I did have a good friend to ask when I got stuck. There were moments that I didn’t know where to go. When you hit a wall and spend a week on a problem it helps to have someone to ask for help.
As a programmer you develop a way of looking at things. When people study for 5 years in university they slowly develop it, but for me it was difficult at the beginning.
Me: Did you ever considered stopping? (What were the roadblocks and how did you move around them?)
Yes, there were a couple of moments when I really considered stopping.
At the time, I also had a job as trainer. I was coding 100% in my free time. I didn’t go out that much. I was starting Friday afternoon, continuing through Saturday and even Sunday.
Then I got another job teaching some of my coding skills and on Thursdays I used to play music in a bar. I was coding during the weekend and Monday back to work. And I did say to myself “I cannot handle this anymore”.
Me: And how did you solve it?
When you face a challenge that you really like it, even if you don’t have time for it your brain keeps working on it and sometimes you find yourself thinking at the project again, trying to solve this issue or that issue, or you even dream about it.
And that was the case for me. So I quit. I quit my work and I focused on programming. I packed my bags and moved from Madrid to Guadalajara, which is ~50 km away.
There, I had a friend with an empty room and who was willing to be my landlord for a while. I moved to a village to code and not let anything disturb me. I wanted to be in a place where I knew nobody, where I have nothing to do and I stayed +8h a day working on the project.
I was there for 3 months: June, July and August and it was great for me. Those were the months I learned the most. It was great.
There are times when you wonder what are you doing. You are on a Sunday typing code which is not really visible. Your friends think that you are stupid because you are coding, you girlfriend doesn’t understand a word from what you do and you try to understand problems that you really don’t need to solve.
Me: But how does it feel now? I can imagine it was difficult back then, but after did you get any satisfaction from overcoming those challenges you didn’t really need to solve?
It is an amazing feeling. At the end, I had this amazing feeling of completing something. That was incredible. Going from an idea, to the visual design to launching it on market, to adding social sharing, to picking the right newspapers … I did it all by my self and I learned a lot.
Me: Do you think luck played a part in achieving your goal? (If yes, in what way?
I believe that luck can play an important role in certain aspects of life. I believe you can get a head start in something or another.
In my case, I was lucky to have a certain economic stability that allowed me to focus. It did come at a certain cost but it was ok. For example, I love to travel but for one year I didn’t travel at all. I had to cut my expenses to make this happen. But yes I was lucky because not everybody can do this.
Also, I was lucky to have met the guy who helped when I got stuck, the one I mentioned earlier. I met him in the programming class I took and he clearly knew more than anybody else. So that’s also a bit of luck… but I think is more about persistence. I believe that if I hadn’t have met this guy I would have stumbled across somebody else…as long as I kept actively looking for help.
Overall I wouldn’t say that luck played a key role here in my case.
Me: Why did you go Android first? Why not web, html5, iPhone?
First of all, Java was the first language I learned and since Java and Android are related, it was an easy choice.
But that is not the only reason. I also have a lot in common with the Android philosophy. The idea that I can offer something good and free is very close to where I stand.
Also, I tested different mobile platforms and Android felt extremely easy. You can download a file, open it and share it with anybody. I felt free using an Android smartphone and that is why I wanted to develop for this platform.
Me: How did your background influence this project?
I did two or three big projects in my life. The previous one was a documentary which I did while I was in Mexico. It was pretty difficult because I had to meet with many people, prepare for every interview, record everything, ask for material from them and many other things. This experience gave me the confidence needed to take on big challenges. I learned that it doesn’t matter if something looks big and scary at the beginning. If you are persistent you can do it, don’t worry.
It’s all about the persistence.
Me: What skills you don’t have but wished you had for this project?
There are two things.
I have a friend who studied economy and he always told me: the best product is the one you can spend 1$ and 99$ in advertisement. For me this project was all about personal satisfaction. When was done was done. But afterwards, I realized you need to promote a project like this. Otherwise people will not download it. In other words, some marketing skills would have been welcomed.
Planning is the second thing. When you start a challenge and you don’t really understand it, it is very difficult for you to plan for all the things you need.
I learned that the first week/month you should not code a single line. Take some time. Take a pen and paper or an iPad and start wireframing, look at the flow, screens and features. When you have a pretty good idea of what you want, then you can start. Your plans will change later, I am sure, but at least you have a clear direction.
Sometimes you want to start coding as soon as possible, just to have something to show to your friends and family but I learned it is very useful to plan before.
Me: I am under the impression that is not about planning but having a final vision/ a point that guides your journey. Is that true?
Yes that is the case indeed. I am not talking about scheduling when I say planning. I am not saying that this week I should do this and the next that. It’s too early for that. Think about stuff like: must have features, good to have and nice to have. Almost like a mini backlog.
Having a point on the horizon will help you go around issues and you can try different solutions if the first one doesn’t work. If you know you goal will be less probable you will get stuck in a “I need to make this solution happen” and go more to a state of mind of “I need to solve his issue. What solutions can I come up with”.
Me: Do you think your location (city/country) influenced the project in any way? (Was is a Positive or negative impact?)
Well, positive or negative is how you want to look at it. I had a pretty good career path in social sciences, I did my master and I also publish some articles. But as you know in Spain the entire branch completely collapsed after 2008 and that really pushed me into new places. I think I made it positive.
And secondly, I think that Spain is the second country in Europe in terms of number of smartphones. So almost everybody you know has a smartphone, even one of my grandmothers has a smartphone. So, living in Spain makes you aware that if you make an app there will be a market for it.
Me: How do promote your mobile app and why did you choose so? (Ads, word of mouth, SEO, anything else)
After I finished the app, I created a Facebook and a Twitter account. Then I tried to get in touch with some local newspapers and expat communities in order to promote it.
But other than that I didn’t do much.
Me: Do you have a motto, an inspiring quote or an idea?
Well … yes there is something that I believe in.
Most people that I talk to tell me: “Oh, you are so talented, you studied anthropology and then switched and built your own app”. Of course there is a bit a talent, but I believe in 10% talent and 90% is persistence.
Of course you need to be also realistic in certain aspects, but in most cases is all about persistence and pushing ahead.
One day you say you don’t see a solution but the next day you do. I know that when you keep persisting your skills improve dramatically.
For me it’s like riding a bike. When you come here in Netherlands you can’t ride that well but everybody else does, so you keep going. The first time you try it’s difficult but after 2 months of practicing in the Amsterdam traffic you feel that the bike is an extension of yourself. It is the same with your projects. If you put in effort every day you will get better.
Me: Where do you get your news? (What blogs you read?)
I use a mobile app that selects the best news in technology. It’s called Appy Geek and this is the main source of inspiration for me. They are always on the edged of what is new, sometimes in terms of technology and sometimes in terms of ideas.
Another way I get ideas is to look at crowd funding websites, like Kickstarter. Here you see the public’s reaction to new projects and ideas. Whenever you see a project that gets 5 times what they ask for you need to stop and look at it. Ask yourself: why are people so enthusiastic about? Is it the idea, the hardware, usability … what is it? What need do they answer to?
Me: Do you read the news in English or Spanish?
I prefer to read in English because usually you get the latest news immediately. I believe that if you want to know what happened today, you need to read your news in English.
Me: What was the TED talk, book, blog post, life lesson or anything really, which inspired you the most in building this app?
I think What Would Google Do?: Reverse-Engineering the Fastest Growing Company in the History of the World, by Jeff Jarvis inspired me the most. The idea is to use technology to solve people’s needs.
What I got from him is that if you work with technology you must understand that technology is nothing by itself. Technology is a product that satisfies people’s needs. If you are not solving a need you can create the best technology ever and no one will use it.
Of course there is s cycle of solving people’s needs and creating people needs. This book made me think: does the world needs this, will anybody use it? What gap do I fill?
Me: How do you feel about competition? (Like it, like to kill it?)
I wouldn’t say I am very competitive but I always liked to look around and see what others were doing. And I must admit, is pretty cool to compare features with others and see that you did it better. It gives you a lot of satisfaction; even if is just a subjective perspective. 😀
Key learning points
Me: What would be the most practical advice you could give someone that would like to do something similar? Something he could use if he would start tomorrow.
Your project doesn’t finish when you release your app. You have to be ready to listen to people and constantly improve the app.
Start small. Focus on 2-3 features and after you put you app live improve it. It doesn’t make sense to have a 100% perfect app from the beginning. Get in two good features and start asking for feedback
Think iterative. Think MVP. Think “The Lean Startup“. Start small, test your assumptions and grow together with your users.
If you wait too long there will be 20 other developers who launched a similar app. Looking back that is definitely something that I would like to apply.
– The End –
My startup lesson:
There are many interesting things that I’ve learned from Isaac, but the idea that I loved the most, is an extremely obvious one: *drum rolls*: “Use Kickstarter as a inspiration source for what the market wants”.
I can’t believe how intuitive and obvious this idea is and yet I never thought about it. Blew my mind.
What about you? What did you learn the most from this interview? Please let me know in the comment section below.