This week we sit down Saron Yitbarek, founder of Code Newbie, a company that was acquired by DEV earlier this year. That pairing brought together two fast growing online communities dedicated to helping everyone gain access to the skills and support network they need to become a programmer.
Saron explains how she went from working in the marketing department of a startup to learning code, creating a supportive community for novice developers, and founding two podcasts about the art and science of learning to program.
You can read more about the Dev acquisition and what the dynamic duo have planned here.
Sara and Paul spend some time bantering with Saron on that classic developer debate: why learn computer science? Besides the ego boost and the desire to avoid imposter syndrome, how much of a four-year-degree is actually useful when you're a new graduate trying to land your first job?
Later on, we dig into the debate over toxic positivity. During these challenging times, it can be addictive to watch others flaunt their hustle and hard work on social media. But there is a downside to tuning out the failures and negative emotions we all live with. You can read more about it here.
Ever wondered about the difference between a subview and a superview? Find out more with this week's lifeboat badge.
Paul Ford Why learn computer science? Like what is the point, if you're already able to kind of make your app well enough?
Saron Yitbarek Uh, ego? [Saron & Paul chuckle] Like actually I think that's all it is.
Sara Chipps Hey everyone and welcome to the Stack Overflow podcast. I'm Sarah Chipps. I'm here with my two lovely cohosts, Paul and Ben. Can you say hi Paul & Ben?
Ben Popper Heeelllo. Hello.
PF Hello! It's me, Paul! [Ben & Sara laugh]
SC Today we are joined by Saron Yitbarek who is here to talk a bit about CodeNewbie, which now is a part of the dev platform. Welcome Saron!
SY Thank you so much for having me!
SC Thanks so much for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit, and our audience a little bit, about CodeNewbie and dev?
BP Very cool. So when you were working in tech startups, but were just sort of peeking over the shoulder at the engineering, what kind of jobs were you doing pre-engineering?
SY I was doing some business development stuff, a lot of sales and marketing. It was a startup. So really it was like all hands on deck, you know, like there's one job I had where my title was business development associate, but I also had to do, you know, a little bit of branding here or there. I had to do some social media copy, you know, I got to do fun, like strategy stuff, but also if we need the colors of our brand, you know, switch from light pink to dark pink, um, I was also the person who did that. So I got through a little bit everything, yeah.
BP And so having sort of worked, I guess, in a way to build your own business and then have it acquired, are you now cross-functional like, you know, doing engineering and doing all the other things that you did before, or do you have those responsibilities spread across like a small team?
SY So, um, I feel like I have the best job in the world now. Cause I get to have all the fun parts of running CodeNewbie without any of the worry of running CodeNewbie. So before, um, when I was doing it full time, a lot of my time was spent, some of it was creative and some of it was production, you know, producing the podcast, hosting the show, interviewing people, which was fun. But then I spent, you know, at least half of the time just worrying about the money, you know, and just trying to find sponsorships and making sure our sponsors were happy and, you know, collecting the bills and invoices. So now I don't have to do any of that, which is wonderful. So now I get to be, you know, have editorial input and guidance and I get to still interview people and have say, but I don't have to do kind of the nitty gritty work of making sure it functions as a business.
SC Has your community evolved since joining dev? Is it the same folks that you're seeing all the time? What does that look like?
SY That's a great question. Um, I think for the most part, we've had a lot of overlap, uh, already when we first joined where a lot of the people who were part of the CodeNewbie group, um, we're very familiar with dev and I've posted on dev and the people who were part of dev, you know, listened to the show. So there was already a good chunk of overlap, but I definitely feel like in addition to being part of dev, just the fact that we had our new, our, our latest podcast called the Base.cs podcast, we've been attracting people who are a little bit more senior. I think that folks who were outside of the immediate Newbie world have definitely caught wind of us and we're a little bit more visible to them. Um, so yeah, I definitely feel like our community has expanded a bit since then.
SC One thing I have found in a world where I'm not, you know, about half of folks have computer science degrees and half don't, is the farther you get along on your journey, the harder it is to admit that you don't understand those particular computer science concepts. Have you observed that and the folks that are joining, how do you make that accessible for them and not like, did you just say that you don't understand and/or works and you've been doing this for 10 years? [Saron laughs]
SY Yeah. So I feel, um, I feel really lucky in that when we started doing the Base.cs podcast, I was only a few years into coding. So I felt like I had permission to admit what I didn't know, you know what I mean? Like I was still like new enough that it was, it was acceptable. So I don't feel like I had the same pressure of someone who's been coding for like 20 years and didn't know some basic things. But I was also really lucky because I had a cohost named Vaidehi Joshi and she wrote a blog post once a week for a year where she said, you know, I don't know computer science, I don't have that degree. I've always wanted it, but let me see if I can teach myself. And so she taught herself a computer science topic every week, she wrote a blog post about it. And I basically said, Hey, let's take that blog post and turn it into a podcast. So that was, you know, really easy to do. Right. The content was already written for us. There was no kind of extra legwork to do, and we just transformed that into a show. And so we had a really great setup where she was the teacher and I was the student. And so I would say like, you know, what is binary and how do you count to three? And then she'd go, well, first we start here and it became like this really friendly, accessible way where one of the co-hosts is admitting I don't know what in the world is going on. You know? So as the audience member is a listener, it gives you instant permission to say, I too don't know what's going on. But I think also just the idea that you're learning, you know, at the convenience and privacy of audio means that, you know, you're, you're, you're not admitting to anyone, you know what I mean? Like you're not registered in a classroom of people and you feel self conscious, you know, you're just really learning at your own pace. So I think the fact that it was a podcast, you know, versus your different mediums, uh, definitely helped.
PF So, six years in, newbies are no longer newbies. Right?
SY That's true!
PF How has, talk a little bit about that. Like the, you've seen people grow in their careers, you've seen people, I'm sure people have been in touch. Like, what do you think? Cause you're seeing lots of people up close, like what's a good first year? Like how, what are the markers of growth that you see for people who are coming to this industry and then trying to get to the next step?
PF So I'm somebody who comes along. I learned because this is how I learned. I mean, I learned by copying, cutting and pasting and doing, I learned it years ago. Right. And then before there was a Stack. Then the computer, why learn computer science? Like what is the point?
SY I think it's ego and, uh, and imposter syndrome. I think that people, especially people who are really experienced in coding, they just, you know, they don't feel like they belong. They feel like a fraud, they're sitting next to their coworker or maybe even people who report to them who have computer science degrees and they're really self conscious about it. So I think it's mostly that. I think there's also, um, just plain curiosity. Like I've always wondered what is a computer science degree really about? Like what, what, what do you really know? [mhm] You know, and there's just a big question mark there. So I don't think it has anything to do with decree development or anything like that. I mean, ultimately it's not really the knowledge that matters with computer science. It's literally just having the degree and even that, you know, can only get you so far. So yeah. I don't think there's anything actually useful about it. I think people are just really curious and they just want to have that, that information.
BP I mean, I guess I was going to say just one thing about that. Like when you're able to understand things in a certain way, I feel like you're able to, you know, if you were an auto mechanic, look under the hood, but like if you're working somewhere that is a digital environment, you have a better sense of how realistic things are. Like, if somebody's asking for a product change or a feature change, or you work on marketing, like you said before, and then they need this color turned from red to pink or black to blue. You know, like when I was working at The Verge, we used to have the CMS updated and sometimes I'd be like, how is it possible that this like little tweak that all the reporters have been asking for for three months, can't be just be done? It seems like this is nothing. And we talked about this with dark mode, well actually it is, it's not a big change, but it breaks 50 other things. So before we make that, we got to fix, you know, all this. So I feel like having that understanding kind of maybe also makes it easier to communicate across departments and to like understand if I'm asking for some product support. Cause I want this feature change. Is that reasonable? And in what timeframe is that reasonable or is computer science more abstract than that?
PF See the great thing about computer science, learning computer science to me is that you actually figure out how utterly banana cakes, things are deep down inside of the computer. [Saron laughs] You're like, Oh, cause software, programming languages are just software and they actually cover up an enormous amount of complexity. But when you're, when you're working with them, you feel that you're controlling the computer directly. You're not, there's like 8 million layers in between you and the Silicon. And you get down to that Silicon and it's like, yeah, actually we do like 700 things at once. And none of them make any sense. And you're like, Oh, I don't ever want to look at, that's like looking into, into like a giant fish's mouth. And you're like, I want to get out of there. [Saron laughs] I don't want to be. So it's actually like, we're so protected by the industry. And so like abstracted away from what's actually happening a little low, low level. But what is really good is it does teach you like how important programming languages are to take away that pain.
SY Oh yeah. Absolutely.
SC Yeah. One thing that tell you about the infinite monkey theorem is it takes them years to come up with Shakespeare, but they come up with WordPress like twice a week.
PF Ohhhhh. [Sara laughs] Oh you just, no, no. Sara. You just threw like 30% of the web under the bus.
BP Paul always says this, the smaller, you don't want to get too small. Like when Antman goes into the quantum realm, you know, you may never come back out. You want to just stay at a high level.
SY Yeah. I'm with you. Like when we finish the series, I think it took us like, it's funny. It took her a year to write the blogs and I think the blog post, and I think it took us like three years actually cover them as a podcast. But anyways, what I definitely appreciated is that there's so much in computer science that doesn't, that like barely relates to what I actually do. Like it there's just so much distance in between and it really makes you appreciate programming languages and the tools and the software and the frameworks. Like it really makes you appreciate all that stuff. Because like, to me it feels like, you know, I'm trying to make scrambled eggs and I'm learning about like the molecular structure of, you know...
PF Or the function or the function of your liver. Right. You're just like, yeah.
SY That's a better one! That's a better one. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So there's, I mean, there's a huge, huge gap and I'm, I'm really happy about that gap. I'm happy to be on this side.
SC One thing I think about all the time and I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, Saron, is how I would change how computer education or programming education is done in universities. Right. Cause there's like, there seems to be so many different verticals that are mushed into four years. How would you, how would you change it if you had a magic wand?
BP Yeah, the CodeNewbie college course, let's hear it.
BP That's interesting. I mean, right. All of these sort of like Silicon Valley industry legends about going to school, starting to study computer science and deciding that you have found product market fit with your startup idea, leaving and going on to, you know, become a CEO of a company. And so it's almost like you were saying if, if the abstract is less interesting to you and you're, you're actually building things on the, on campus and seeing that people are responding to it, you're like I'm outta here. Forget that. [Saron laughs]
SC That's so true. Yeah. Why am I paying them $80,000 when I can be getting paid?
BP The only thing I could think of was, was I think PageRank was like Larry Page's senior thesis. I think that was like a, he went all the way through and did like a PhD on it or something.
SY Yeah, I think it was, yeah, yeah, exactly.
BP And then they were like, what if we did this for advertising? [Saron laughs]
SC The class I would teach, I think is, was rails actually Webscale? That you could, you could do. You could do a real deep dive on that. And I think that would help a lot of people coming out being like, how do I evaluate technologies and how do these things change? And what's the culture like, and that kind of thing. I think those things are lacking. Yeah, definitely.
PF Just the term webscale is extremely loaded. [Sara & Saron laughing]
PF It would be me and Paul is arguing for hours.
BP If you got a degree in economics and then you wanted to run a business, you'd probably have to leave and either get real world experience or go get a, like a, you know, like an MBA, right? Like there, there's a level of abstraction there that doesn't allow you to just simply walk into a job interview.
BP Right. So Saron, would that make the sort of rise of bootcamps and these shorter form educational opportunities and things like even CodeNewbie and dev, those are more like the technical university, the two year college that I just want the nuts and bolts that would let me enter the work force kind of education. Right?
SY Sort of, I think that, I would say a lot of it is also getting a four year degree is not an option. You know, like I'm 28, I'm 32, I'm way past my, you know, I'm not in my early twenties where I could just drop everything, you know, leave my family, go live in a dorm. [totally, totally] You know what I mean? That lifestyle is very realistic. Also. I need a job and I need to continue working and paying the bills. And so I think it's more of just, you know, what are your realistic options? And I think that bootcamps and learning how to code and stuff, those are just the best options that we have available. Like I think that's really what it comes down to in terms of it being financially feasible. Time-wise, you know, to the most time efficient thing to do. Cause you know, adults, we have bills to pay and we can't just, you know, drop everything and just focus on learning.
BP You're making a great point. Right. Which is that a lot of people in the bootcamps may be older and doing a career transition. [absolutely] I would love to see a breakdown of how many people are going into that, you know, as their first move, like are there 18 to 22 year olds who are like forget college or I did a year of college. I didn't like it. I'm doing a boot camp and going right into the workforce instead. I wonder what that demographic breakdown is like.
SY I'd be interested in that too. Yeah.
SC Yeah. What I've seen from these classes that, you know, I've been on the, I've worked at bootcamps, I've spoken to boot camps, and this is purely anecdotal, but I don't see a lot of 18 year olds. It definitely happens, but it's fairly rare. The one thing that always surprised, the two things that surprised me are always how many doctors and lawyers there are, you know, like it's not a majority of people, but it's just like a lot of people that you're like, wow, you're in a fairly lucrative career, but this is something you're really excited about. And how many new grads there are, how many, like university new grads will go on to a boot camp because they don't, they want to get that practical knowledge that they're not getting in school. It's definitely not. I think the majority of people are Saron, who you're talking about is the folks that are in their late twenties, early thirties, realizing that they want to do this and moving over. But I definitely, those are the folks I'm most surprised about.
BP That's interesting, Sara, because I do remember when we had the pursuit fellows come to the Stack Overflow office. Yeah. I felt like the age range was, was pretty young. Maybe there's a lot of people and this happened to me who graduate with a degree in dance or philosophy. And they were like, whoops, I either need to get another degree or, yeah. I got some kind of training in order to like, you know, find my way into a lucrative career. Otherwise it's like back to academia for me, you know, for the next six to eight years.
SY Right. Yeah. Yeah. I've definitely heard those stories. I met, um, I had a, uh, informational virtual coffee with someone recently, exactly in that position. Um, I forget what she majored in, in undergrad, but she like just graduated and she was like, Oh, my mom told me about coding and it's actually really cute. Her and her mom are going through the bootcamp together, which I think is like just the most adorable thing.
SC That's adorable!
SY It's adorable, yeah. And she's like, yeah, I've, I've like heard about coding. I never really had a chance to really dig into it in college, but you know, don't have a job yet.
BP This just confirms that liberal arts education America has just become a four year summer camp [Saron laughs] where you spend a ton of money to have fun and leave with nothing that will make you employable.
PF It's also adorable until the mom was like really into Java. And the daughter is like, if the daughter gets really into like functional programming and now, now Thanksgiving is ruined!
BP But maybe a lot of people are going to take this route over the next year or two, because they've lost the ability to go back to college on campus. So it's like, well, there's no social scene and there's no idyllic campus. There's no this or that. Maybe I should just be investing in something that, A, I can learn remotely. And B leads me into a pretty lucrative career, which for which I can be hired and work remotely, you know? So like in a lot of ways it might make a ton of sense. We might see a huge boom in that.
SY Yeah. It's very much an economic decision. Like for most people, not everyone. I think for a lot of people, like Sara mentioned, definitely it's, you know, like passion and interest, but more often than not, it's also like a very economic decision.
PF You can learn. You can learn to love. You don't have to love everything day one.
SY You can learn to love! That's right!
PF I've had a lot of jobs in my life. Like I love technology just flat out, but I've done a lot of things with it where I'm like utterly exhausted and that first couple of weeks, and then afterwards, I'm like, Oh, this is fascinating. Like, you know, you just, yeah, the same is true in tech. Like if you're, if you're alienated by it at first, like you can learn to love it. It does take a minute and the culture doesn't always help, but the actual material is good.
SC What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about bootcamp graduates?
SY Ooh. Oh, that's a really good question. The biggest misconception about bootcamp graduates... probably that I think people assume that they know less than they actually do, which is unfortunate. I think that I don't know the demographic breakdown, but I know that a lot of bootcamp graduates don't start learning at the bootcamp. They've been learning how to code for months. Sometimes even years before they get to the bootcamp. And then they get to the bootcamp to kind of solidify their education and have that foundational knowledge. But they've been like coding and building their portfolio and doing a lot of, you know, code examples and tutorials and all that for a long time before the boot camp. And so I think that a lot of people assume that if you do a three month bootcamp, that means that you have only three months of experience coding and that a lot of the work you do on the side late at night after work, early morning, like that doesn't really count, which is unfortunate. I think a lot of that side hustle, a lot of that grinding doesn't really count towards the education. So that's probably the biggest misconception.
BP And I wonder to what degree, like some of the experiences that you bring in from those other departments could be really useful. Like you're saying, you know, if you come in as a lawyer, if you come in having worked in marketing and design, that might make you able to better design features better, you know, work better across departments. Like you're bringing a big skill set that doesn't just have to do with the six months you spent, you know, mastering some of the entry level languages.
BP Let's switch things up for a minute and talk a bit about social media, which is always great. What's happening there, how people are exchanging ideas in a positive way, but too positive, uh, surround your, you, you introduced to us the concept of toxic positivity, which I'm not familiar with, but it sounds oxymoronic. [Saron laughs] So try to define it for us and then we'll work through how I will just solve the problem. I'll solve it and we won't have it anymore.
SY Yes. We'll solve it. There we go. I love this. Yeah. So it's a term that I didn't make it up. It was a term that I saw on Twitter a little while ago, maybe about a week ago, and I've seen a lot of conversation around it. And so I just pose the question to my community and I was like, what, you know, what is this? How do you feel about it? So the general and people have different variations of what they think toxic positivity is. I think the definition that it seems that most people agree on is this idea of being so, so positive, such that you dismiss people's actual problems and actual reasons for either a failure or just not being where they want to be. So an example of this is if I said something like I did it in six months, you should do it too. All you do is work hard, no excuses. That's... you know, like the intention is, you know, probably to inspire and to encourage. But it's also like if it's taken me two years because I have like three kids and I'm a single mom and I'm working my butt off and I just can't do it. That hurts. You know, like clearly it's not just like, Oh, work hard. And that's it. Like there, you know, it's, it's dismissing real circumstances. And it's particularly dismissive of people who have, you know, have hardships, people who are discriminated against, people who just have different life circumstances that are just don't have privileges that means that working hard is the only thing or the most important thing. And so, yeah, so it's, it's an interesting conversation topic because a lot of those tweets have always annoyed me. Like I've looked at them and like, Oh, here we go again. You know, it's just, it's just kind of annoying, but I didn't realize that people were genuinely like, upset about it until I started reading a bunch of people's tweets and people having these conversations. I was like, Oh, this is like, people are really not happy about this. So it was interesting.
PF Human nature is to think that you're doing somebody a favor, when you say the words. I mean, if I can do it, anybody can.
SY Right! It's very innocent!
PF You're coming, you're coming down everybody level and saying, look, look, look, I've, I've literally put the ladder right here. Look, check it out, come on, come on to my side. And they're, and they're looking at you and going, I don't look like you. I don't have what you, I have two kids. I have $1,400 in my bank account on a good day. And I have a really junior job maybe over here. And you're telling me like, all I have to do is just grind a little harder. That's not fair. And I think on the other side, then the person is going like, Oh, well they're just jealous. Right. They just don't really want it. All of this is just like incredibly difficult because it's really, really hard for people on the other side.
SY And I think like the worst version of that is I've seen a lot of examples that are like, you know, I did it, you can do it too, to find out how to do it, here's my book! And I'm like, Oh God.
BP So this is the time in the episode where we shout out a lifeboater. Saron, I'm going to give you just a quick overview here. You familiar with the lifeboat badge?
SY No. Tell me about it.
BP Okay. So the lifeboat badge is awarded to somebody on Stack Overflow who answered a question that had a score of negative three or less meaning it was going to be closed and not going to be answered. And now they have a score of 20 or more. [aww] Uh, so this week's lifeboat is in the iOS category. What is a super view and what is sub view and the award was given to Kamar Shad. So thank you so much for answering that question, spreading some knowledge and, uh, yeah, seven years and eight months, people have been wondering that. So we appreciate it.
PF Good work Kamar! Thank you.
BP Good work.
SY Good work!
BP Thank you. Alright. Awesome. Let's say our goodbyes and where you can be found on the internet. If you want to be found. I'm Ben Popper, director of content here at Stack Overflow, and you can find me on Twitter @BenPopper
SC I'm Sara Chipps. I am director of community here at Stack Overflow, and you can find me @SaraJo on GitHub.
PF I'm Paul Ford, friend of Stack Overflow, cofounder of a software and services firm called Postlight. You can find me @Ftrain on Twitter.
SY Hi, this is Saron Yitbarek. I am founder of CodeNewbie, and you can find me on Twitter @SaronYitbarek. First name, last name.