Features, Maker Resources

Building a platform for developers without a CS degree

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I’m a self-taught web developer and I live in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ve been making websites to varying degrees of success for the last two years. This summer I decided to go all out on trying to make a living through entrepreneurship so I’m aiming to get to $500 a month by the end of the year which would pay for my groceries, going out and bills etc except for rent. This is what I call being “pesto profitable” since pesto is my go-to cheap food rather than ramen. 

I am primarily motivated by putting the ideas I have for products out into the world and it’s really rewarding to see something go from a scribbled note on a piece of paper to a website people use and that I can make money from! The thing that attracts me most about entrepreneurship is autonomy and choosing what I do each day. Money is nice, of course, but for me it’s just a means to having more control over my life rather than buying a flashy car or anything like that. 

Solving my own problem

I have been getting to grips with code for the last couple of years, sometimes taking breaks when I was losing motivation or I was stuck on perhaps a course or approach to learning that wasn’t ideal. I’ve been taking a part-time course in full-stack web development recently but I still look for inspiration.

No CS Degree is a blog I set up two months ago where I interview developers who have been successful with either startups or getting good jobs without a Computer Science degree, which traditionally has been a requirement from employers and investors. So it’s really targeted at people that are learning to code who are either attending bootcamps or going down the purely self-taught route with things like online courses.

The interviews provide actionable advice and a pathway to success to coders without degrees. I get ‘thank you’ emails every couple of days from people who have either dropped out of a CS degree, are attending bootcamps or who are teaching themselves to code. It is really great to hear that I am helping to encourage people. I also share a lot of questions and tips from developers without degrees on my Twitter page and that in turn helps connect people together so I’m going to start a community website soon so everyone can hang out in the same space. 

Learning to code can be pretty hard so I think people need to be able to hear stories from developers who didn’t do Computer Science at university and persevered to success. So for instance, one of my favourite interviews is with Tae’lur Alexis who was a waitress and taught herself to code in her evenings. Now she is a developer and a regular conference speaker in the US with a huge following online. So, to put it more briefly the problem I’m trying to solve is breaking the idea that coders have to fit the Mark Zuckerburg stereotype; a maths genius who has been coding since birth and gets perfect exam results in Computer Science.

Filling a gap

I don’t know of any other website which focus on developers that don’t have degrees. When I was working on the idea initially I looked at the Code Newbies site and the first thing I saw was an article about how to prepare for your first Computer Science class at university. So No CS Degree is a very niche website. I have a strict policy of only interviewing developers that don’t have a degree in Computer Science and many of my interviewees didn’t even finish high school.

I think as well I showcase a diverse group of developers as well which can obviously be a problem in tech websites. So I’ve interviewed a few developers that learned after becoming mothers and I am trying my best to have the website reflect the world we live in.

Another point I’d add is that there is a great variety in terms of nationalities. I suppose perhaps the normal way to do a website like this would be only interview developers from Silicon Valley or even just the US in general. I’ve interviewed developers from Austria, the UK, France, The Philippines, The Netherlands, Poland, (including some with dual nationalities) and I didn’t actually interview an American until the 11th article came  out. 

A platform born from natural curiosity

I sort of came to this idea organically because I would ask people on Twitter and in communities like WIP how they learned to code. For instance, one time people were talking about how much they earned Richard Blechinger mentioned he had just won this big contract which he had sort of just decided he should apply for on a whim. So at 21 he got this contract which pays him between $10,000 and $15,000 a month! So naturally I had to ask him how he did it.

So partly it’s my natural curiosity but also as someone who is self-taught myself it’s good to remind myself that degrees don’t matter and that people can be successful. Of course it’s turned out to be a big hit with other people as well which is very rewarding. I even get messages from people with Computer Science degrees saying they love it which I was not expecting at all!

I can give some advice, it would be to make a business which solves your own problem. I see sometimes people with an idea like for instance an app for arranging tennis games with people. But they don’t even play tennis themselves so really they don’t understand any of the issues or interests that tennis players have. So if you make your business based around something that helps you, the maker, then you are going to be really motivated to see it through. 

I use a relatively new blogging platform called Ghost. It was started by former WordPress people and I can definitely recommend it. I sent a tweet to Pieter Levels asking what blogging platform I should use in 2019 and he replied “probably Ghost” so that’s how I found out about it. I think around the same time Steph Smith mentioned she used it and I could see people liked her blog so I figured it was a good option. Steph has also been invaluable in giving me help along the way with setting up Ghost.

It’s got a lot of cool features. They have an RSS feed so you can export articles to places like Dev.to. You don’t have any of the annoying plugins like you do with WordPress. Also, it has things like a built-in SEO tool which shows you how your post will look on Twitter and Facebook and how long a meta title and description you should write. For the mailing list I use Mailchimp and most of my signups come from a pop-up that comes as readers move to exit the website. 

Building a profitable business

Most of the money I make is from people sponsoring the newsletter that goes out to over 800 people and has high open rates in the region of 45%. I should give a shout out to Code With Hugo who regularly sponsors the emails. Others have included other makers like Leave Me Alone, Simple Analytics and Swizec, a React online tutor. 

I’ve also made a bit of cash from using the Buy Me a Coffee website. It’s not ever going to be the main part of the business model but money is money and to paraphrase The Wire “I’ll take anyone’s money if they giving it away.” 

I also have affiliate deals with organisations like Triple Byte, which finds self-taught developers and places them in top companies like Facebook and Google if they pass a skills test. So I will get a finder’s fee for that. I have some other deals with people like Wes Bos who teaches Javascript courses online. In fact I just got $37.50 because someone bought a Wes Bos React for Beginners course this week. 

A successful launch

I was a bit paranoid that someone would see it and share it which would mean I wasn’t in control of the launch. Although perhaps this is arrogant as well! I made a @nocsdegree account on Twitter a couple of days before I was ready to launch and I got up to 100 followers with just the handle and no content. I just had in the bio something like “a website for developers without degrees coming in a few days”. So having people follow me just based on that was a vote of confidence. 

So a couple of days later on August 23rd I put the first four interviews (Richard Blechinger, Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Steph Smith and Harry Dry) on the website. I then started tweeting about it and started to get more followers. I launched on Product Hunt and started to get lots of nice comments and messages from people. It ended up finishing in the top 10.

The launch was going well so far and at about 3pm I made myself comfortable in one of my favourite cafes for working in and posted to Hacker News. I had actually signed in with the account for YC startup school so I didn’t have any reputation when I posted. I had heard a tonne of negative things about Hacker News like they are super-aggressive. So I was really surprised when I posted there and it took off!

I was top of the site for something like four hours. Meanwhile, I hadn’t added a good email CTA so I was frantically messaging people like Steph Smith who showed me how I could add exit pop-ups and have an email sign-up link in the header. (The only gripe I have with Ghost is they don’t seem to have a theme with a big email sign up in the header). 

I was really excited and buzzing from all the attention. I had 32,000 hits on the first day! I was tracking them all in Simple Analytics which is a privacy based analytics tool made by a Dutch maker, Adriaan Van Rossum. There were some nasty comments but you have to have a thick skin on the internet and in life in general. It’s a good rule to realise that not everyone is going to like what you make so that way it doesn’t both me so much when there are haters because I expect there to be some. 

The best thing about the launch was I got 30 emails in a couple of days from developers wanting to be interviewed. A decent number of people I’ve since interviewed have come from these emails. I did get an offer for $200 to sponsor the site for a month which I probably should have taken straight away but the person took the offer away after the traffic spike was over. 

Keeping the momentum

A lot of the growth comes from using Twitter. Every time someone likes or retweets an interview of mine I will add them. I’m definitely glad I made a company Twitter account. It means I often get mentioned when people are asking Twitter questions about starting out in code. I also follow a lot of developers who are starting out and help them where I can by connecting them with other people or by retweeting their questions. I’d say my account does add a lot of value to people this way so it creates a positive impression on people. 

I sort of stumbled upon using Youtube. I don’t make any videos myself but I interviewed someone who I later found out has a big youtube channel. He put a link to my article in the description of a video and I also added a comment. From that alone I got 1,300 views last month. I also do things like post from a Facebook page to big groups with thousands of developers. Again, I try to add value as well so it’s not just self-promotion. I also have a twice weekly newsletter with high open rates where I send out the articles to people on Tuesdays and Fridays. 

One novel thing as well is every month I share how much money I make. I also put this on the /open page of my website. It’s nice to be transparent and be honest about how things are going but it is also great marketing. I mean, it gives you something else to talk about besides the product which is something I learned from Pieter Levels. I added No CS Degree to a website which shows these open startups as they are called and I think in September I got more traffic from that link than Facebook! I have a few more marketing tricks up my sleeve coming soon but that’s for another time…

Managing my time

I probably spend a few hours each day on it. I could do things like automate the interviews and save time but I’m somewhat resistant to that. Most of the developers I send interview questions to reply back saying “love the questions!” So that little bit of extra research I do about a developer means better questions which means they invest more time in their answers. 

I love using Twitter so I don’t automate that either. Although, I should use it only a few times a day. I can be guilty of spending more time on it than I should! Probably the biggest time suck is the back and forth of talking to developers and trying to get them to complete interviews on schedule. Of course a lot of developers are great at this! For some though I have to chase them. 

Another chunk of my day goes to trying to increase revenue. I’ve got a meeting coming up with a coding bootcamp which will hopefully sponsor the website or at least sponsor an interview featuring one of their graduates. So there is also a lot of sending messages to prospective sponsors. This is one area where not living in a tech hub is a disadvantage because somewhere like San Francisco I could just walk into offices and approach people in person all day long. 

What’s next

I really didn’t expect such a strong reaction but I get messages every couple of days from developers saying they love it! I even get messages from friends with CS degrees who are really enthusiastic as well which I definitely was not expecting. 

In terms of feedback, I’ve had a few people asking for a podcast but I’m not sure that’s practical just now. I think I’d prefer to follow the model of someone like Courtland Allen of Indie Hackers who made a really good website full of articles and only made a podcast later when he could do it properly. I’ve only been doing No CS Degree for a couple of months so I think it’s a bit soon and I don’t want to spread myself too thin. There is also the fact that podcasts require a lot more time than blogging so I’d need some pretty decent sponsorship to make it worth my while.

Although the site has only been up for 2 months I actually launched a job board as a sister site a few weeks back. It’s called NO CS OK and is aimed at the same people as the blog, developers without CS degrees.I know first hand that it is really annoying to be locked out of jobs due to not having that Bachelors of Computer Science so again it’s a situation where I’m solving my own problem. I’ve looked at great looking job adverts before and then the final line reads “essential: CS degree”. I think in the modern era this is so anachronistic given that lots of developers without a CS degree are getting into top tech companies.

Also, you have people like Wes Bos who I interviewed recently, who is one of the most successful online Javascript teachers, that does not have a Bachelors in Computer Science. So would these same companies who demand a degree really not want to hire him? 

You’d be surprised how many people this affects. One of my interviewees with 13 years of development experience was passed over for a job this summer due to not having a CS degree so it’s not just for junior developers. I made $198 on my first day from selling listings to companies and I’m in the middle of talks with some tech companies in Edinburgh about listing their job vacancies on the website. My ambition is to reach the $300,000 mark that Pieter Levels has set with Remote OK. It’s early days but over the next 20 years there are going to be so many developers without degrees so I think I can take advantage of this trend just like Pieter did with remote working.

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