Making it: Belle B. Cooper
One idea that I've been wanting to explore for our nascent Larder blog is to interview indie developers and startup founders about how they work, and the process of "making it". I want us to be able to champion good work from people who might otherwise not be getting a lot of press or recognition — because they're small, or still struggling, or because they're part of a group that's under-represented in tech — and in the process learn some interesting stories of businesses on the way to making it big.
So as an easy start to the series, I thought I'd interview my esteemed co-founder, Belle B. Cooper, about her work at Hello Code and how she got here.
Josh: What's your role, and what sort of work does this involve?
Belle: As co-founder of Hello Code, I'm in charge of our iOS apps and our marketing, as well as sharing responsibilities like customer support, customer development, developer outreach, and doing interviews.
I'm not making a salary from Hello Code yet, so I also have a day job doing freelance content marketing. I write for a bunch of different clients, so I spend lots of time pitching article ideas, planning my calendar, and invoicing, as well as actual writing time.
What's your hardware setup?
I use a 15" retina MacBook Pro that I bought secondhand from a friend earlier this year. It's been really good for my development work to have a beefier machine, as my 13" MacBook Air was struggling to keep up with me.
I use a Dell monitor at my desk and a Mathias Ergo Pro keyboard. This is where most of my coding happens, but for writing or other tasks like emails, I just as often take my MBP to the couch or kitchen table on its own.
I also have an iPad Air 2, which I use a lot for first drafts when I'm writing, as it's a lot more awkward and time-consuming to multitask on an iPad. On my Mac, I'm constantly Cmd+tabbing, so it's hard to focus, but the iPad forces that focused work mode. I also use it for TV and movies sometimes, and to watch AFL every weekend.
And finally I have an iPhone 6s and an Apple Watch. Appropriately for an iOS developer, I'm all Apple, all the time, but I have been flirting with Android lately. If it weren't for the Apple Watch, which I love, I might've switched to a Nexus already.
What's your relationship to tech as a user rather than a creator — how does it fit into your life?
I really enjoy switching off from tech when I can. I've started using analogue tools to plan my work more, and at night I use a Kindle to read. It's nice to go long stretches doing these things without looking at my phone.
I also try not to look at my phone when I'm spending time with other people—eating dinner, at the movies, during a discussion, etc. Thankfully, I find when I'm around other people it's a lot easier to leave my phone in my pocket and forget about it than when I'm by myself.
You do a lot of writing alongside coding. How does one affect how you feel about or work on the other?
It's definitely nice to do different types of work. Coding feels like a holiday for me, even though it's hard work and sometimes incredibly frustrating. I always feel lucky on the days I get to spend time coding, because it's so much fun, and it's not something I take for granted.
There's not a lot of crossover between the two, but I think that's a good thing.
When did you realise you wanted to be a programmer?
A long time ago, I think, even though I only got serious about learning to code more recently. When I was a teenager I started to learn how to build static websites using HTML and CSS. I only learned the basics, but I really enjoyed it and spent way too much time doing that when I should have been studying.
For various reasons, I stopped spending time on the internet and focused on other things like school, work, and travel. A few years later I found myself writing content for a Melbourne startup, and working alongside developers every day. I started dabbling in Python and Ruby, but at the time I was only learning to code for the sake of "being technical" rather than having any bigger purpose, so I didn't get far.
After that, I finally decided to give iOS development a go. That's when programming really stuck for me. I'm a big fan of native apps, especially on mobile, and I have lots of ideas for iOS apps I want to build. Those ideas I wanted to bring to life, combined with the tangible feedback of seeing my phone do things I told it to was the catalyst for building my first real app and sticking with programming.
How did you learn to code — did you teach yourself? What courses or materials did you use?
I started by using online tutorials to get the basics of Ruby and Python down, and started working through a couple of books on Python. I felt like there was a big disconnect between what I was learning and the programming I'd seen and used in the real world. After finishing a tutorial on Ruby basics, I had no idea how to start a new project of my own, or what it would be. And I struggled to understand real use cases for the theory in the books I was reading.
After floundering for a while, I started learning Objective-C with Treehouse. Learning online is tricky, and there are lots of drawbacks to using Treehouse, but it did get me familiar with Xcode, and creating new projects that actually worked. After that I relied on a combo of Big Nerd Ranch books, a LOT of searching Stack Overflow, and asking you lots of questions :)
What's a day of coding look like for you — what sort of times do you work, how do you stay productive and motivated, what do you do when you get stuck?
Coding is something I do when my work for my day job is done. I find it hard to focus when I have looming deadlines, so I usually spend the first few days of the week getting through my freelance work. I've been trying to keep regular working hours on weekdays lately, to get a bit structure into my days, and I try to stick to these hours whether I'm coding, writing, or something else.
I start work to 1pm, after having the morning to work on personal projects, exercise, or just relax, depending on my mood. From 1pm until dinner time I'm in work mode, and just try to power through my to do list for the day. I usually write a bigger to do list than I can get through, so I never have to wonder what to do next—that's been my biggest time waster in the past.
Once I've started coding, I don't like to stop, so I often get a sore back from sitting down for hours without a break. If I'm really stuck I try to take a short break and grab a drink or walk around while I think about the problem. Sometimes doing something mindless and physical helps, like unpacking the dishwasher. Even when I'm super stuck, I have a hard time giving up. I'll often walk away from the computer and act like I'm going to do something else, only to think of a different solution to try and be back in my chair five minutes later. If I can't make something work, it weighs on me until I figure it out.
I'm also lucky to have a more experienced developer in the house—
Why thank you.
—so most of the time I have the privilege of asking questions and advice that often stops me going way too far in the wrong direction.
How do you feel about the tech industry, having first written about it before switching to coding? Would you like to see it change in a particular way?
When I started writing for technical companies I was more aware of general trends in the startup world, but these days I'm less caught up in news and gossip. I like it better this way, as I can focus more on what we're doing without the distractions of other people's news. I'm easily influenced, so it's better for me to not be so exposed to other people's opinions or decisions.
As far as how it could change, I've realised that running a lifestyle business is something I'm happy with, and there's nothing wrong with it. It'd be nice if that sentiment was echoed more in the wider technology industry, so new founders didn't feel like fast-growing startups are the only respectable way to start their own companies.
What are your thoughts on the issue of women in tech?
I've struggled with my thoughts on women in tech a lot. I've been extremely lucky in my own experiences, and never noticed any sexism in the industry myself. I've always felt safe and welcomed, and had no desire for any kind of safe space within tech that a lot of women do want. But I know the industry as a whole is unfriendly and unfair to women, and I've realised that as a women myself, it's my duty to improve the situation. I don't believe it's enough to "lead by example" and simply be a woman in tech. I think it's important that all women in tech support each other to promote equality and call out sexism and other types of bigotry.
I do find it hard sometimes, though, when I see initiatives aimed at promoting women in tech that play up female stereotypes. I'm not interested in cupcakes, yoga, and Beyoncé, and I'm really turned off by events that act like those things will make women comfortable. They make me less comfortable than ordinary tech events. So there's plenty of work to do to figure this out, and improve the industry for everyone, but I think we all need to play a part in those changes.
How do you juggle the need to keep freelancing with the work you do for Hello Code? How do you stay motivated to do both?
It's hard! It's really difficult to maintain enthusiasm for both. I tend to go through phases. Sometimes all I can think about is Hello Code, and I find it hard to find the motivation to get through my freelance work. Other times my freelance work I'd so encompassing that I don't have the energy to think about or work on Hello Code.
These days I try to get all my freelance work done early in the week so I can relax knowing my deadlines are covered, and turn my focus to Hello Code for the rest of the week. Trying to switch between the two in one day has never worked well for me.
It can be emotionally draining and isolating to work on your own business, especially if success seems a long way off. How do you manage the struggle?
I'm not sure I'd still be going at it if I was a solo founder. I'm lucky to have you, an awesome co-founder who has different ideas and perspective to me. You balance out my tendency to be influenced easily and to be cynical about how soon we'll find success.
We also have a second product now, which sometimes adds to our stress as we worry about finding time to work on them both, but it also means we can move our company forward even when we need a break from one product. It's easy to get burned out when you're not seeing progress, so being able to work on something else is a good way for us to mitigate that.
There's a culture of overwork and long hours in tech, particularly for startups and indie devs where you're free to regulate your own hours (or not). What are your thoughts on that, and how do you manage work/life balance?
I've never had much trouble with overworking. It's usually a rare thing for me that happens when I'm wrapped up in coding something I'm excited about. But I try to manage the balance between life and work these days by having regular work hours on weekdays.
In the last couple of years weekdays have bled into weekends, so we both tend to work some amount every day. I miss the true relaxation and reset you get from a weekend off, so I'm trying harder to protect my weekends from work these days.
What's the end-goal, what does "making it" look like to you?
The next step for us is to simply make enough money to pay us each a regular salary. That'll give us the freedom to both work full-time on our company, and we'll be able to move forward much faster.
But the end goal for us at this stage is to get beyond that to where we're making enough from Hello Code to each have a comfortable salary, be able to afford more travel, and have money to spare that we can use to support causes we care about. We also want to have that financial freedom so we can use Hello Code to keep experimenting with new product ideas, without the pressure of needing to make two salaries from everything we release.
And finally, how excellent would you say your co-founder is?
I've only had one, so I don't know what I'm missing, but I can't think of a better word to describe my co-founder than "excellent". I feel very lucky to be half of the Hello Code team.