This is a guest post by 2012 hackNY Fellow Sean Gransee.
I wasn’t always a hacker.
There are some people who have always had it in them. Programmer by age 12. Software development internships in high school. A moderately successful business under their belt halfway through college.
I am not one of those people. I wasn’t a programmer in high school. Not even at the start of college. In fact, I went through my first year of college as a film major. Computer science? That was for the people much smarter than me.
My life has since taken a huge turn. I am now diving head first into the tech startup community. In less than half a year, I’ve developed a few small apps that have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people and gotten press ranging from Lifehacker to NBC. I’m now working on an idea that I hope to convert into a sustainable business, something that I wouldn’t have even dreamed of doing a little while ago.
Four months ago, I had never made and released any software on my own. I had spent a year building enterprise software and honing my (very new) programming skills, but I never had a project of my own. I always thought of starting my own projects, but never had the motivation.
Then hackNY happened.
I spent a summer living with hackers far more experienced than me. Most of them had been programming for many years, and I only had about 9 months of experience. I was one of the most inexperienced hackers in my class (the class of 2012 hackNY Fellows), and I quickly realized how far behind I was.
This lit a fire under my ass.
The people I lived with that summer are some of the most motivated, passionate people I’ve ever met. They were always working on some new tool or project. I was jealous of their ability to think of an idea and immediately execute it. What was this barrier all of them had crossed over that allowed them to build and launch products so quickly?
Turns out, there is no barrier. If you make something that you personally want to use, other people will want to use it as well. It can be twenty people or twenty thousand people, but no matter what, you’ll learn something from the experience and make the next project even better.
The key is to start small. The first piece of software I released was a small Google Chrome extension called Facebook Nanny. It’s very simple — less than 150 lines of code. All it does is stop you from aimlessly browsing Facebook, while still allowing you to communicate. I wrote Facebook Nanny in a couple of hours one night because I wanted it for myself. I built it, and I’ve been using it every day for over 4 months. The tool I built has been immensely helpful in making me more productive.
I didn’t think anyone else would want to use it. After all, I didn’t make it for other people – I made it for myself. When it came time for the hackNY DemoFest (an event where we all show off something we built that summer), I didn’t want to present Facebook Nanny. I thought no one would care about some little tool I had built in a night, since everyone else was showing off something they had spent weeks building.
I was completely wrong. The reception was overwhelmingly positive. The tool was simple, it solved a clear problem, and it was something that anyone could download and use when they got home. A couple of months later, Lifehacker featured Facebook Nanny on their home page. In the following week, it was picked up by dozens of smaller media sources, including a web show I’ve been watching for years. People loved it.
My next project was a fun little website called WikiLoopr.com. (Go to the website and play with it for a bit, then come back here and read the rest).
It started when I read a blog post about how the “first link” on Wikipedia works — it generally takes you to a higher level concept from the article you’re reading. Keep following the first link on a series of Wikipedia articles, and you’ll eventually get stuck in a loop of high-level concepts. When I found out about this, I was addicted. I wasted an entire day on Wikipedia playing with this concept.
Then I thought to myself, what if there was a way to see this network of first links without manually doing all the clicking. The idea fascinated me. So I built it that night. I went to bed and released it in the morning. In the next 24 hours it was visited 40,000 times and was featured in the NBC News tech blog. Dozens of people were posting links and screenshots of WikiLoopr on Twitter. Everyone seemed to be having a lot of fun with it.
These two projects share some important traits. First of all, they’re very simple. They’re both things that me, someone with less than a year of programming experience, could build in one night. I wasn’t trying to solve some big technical problem. It’s proof that you don’t need to think big or execute a massive project to get noticed. You just need to make something people want, no matter how small.
Which brings me to my second point. These are both tools that I wanted to use. I didn’t make them for other people, I made them for myself. I wasn’t following any set of specifications, but rather tried to make something I would find fun and useful. With this mindset, there was no way I could fail. If no one looked at anything I built, it would still be a success because I had fun and learned a lot through the process of building.
The main thing I see that stops people from starting projects is lack of experience and lack of potential users. One great way to get over that mental hurdle is to make something small for yourself. If you make something small, your next project can be a bit bigger. If you make something that you find genuinely useful, other people will use it as well. This becomes a stepping stone to greater success.
So, where am I headed now? I’m working on a much bigger idea. It’s called Twichr, and you can sign up for the mailing list to learn more. Right now we’re a team of three people in Chicago and London, and we’re giving the public a taste of our tool on January 2, 2013. Stay tuned!
It’s weird to think back on what my life was like a few months ago. In a few short months, I went from working on other people’s projects to executing my own. I surrounded myself with great people in New York City this past summer, and great things followed from there. I wouldn’t call myself a major success. Far from it. Others in my hackNY class have worked on much bigger and more successful projects than I have (looking at you, Emmett). I hope to reach that level eventually. For now, I’ll just spend my time working on things that genuinely interest me and go along for the ride.