Tyson had been an entrepreneur since the dot com bubble, starting and helming numerous tech companies for 14 years. In 2013, after watching the internet startup founder 'prototype' transition from an MBA to a software engineer, he decided to gain this skillset himself, so he enrolled at Hack Reactor to become a more effective entrepreneur. But Tyson’s goals changed. After graduating from Hack Reactor, he started a nonprofit to teach kids to code, and then became a senior software engineer at Nike. Tyson wasn’t expecting to fall in love with coding, but discovered he enjoys it as much as company building and product development.
What is your pre-bootcamp story? What was your previous career path and educational background?
Since 1999 I’ve been an entrepreneur and general manager of fast growing consumer, internet and mobile companies and products. My first company was a music discovery platform called Gigmania, providing live music content to Yahoo, AOL, and MTV. During the 2000 downturn we sold it to a big concert producer.
In the early 2000s, most digital company founders were Harvard and Stanford MBAs, so I decided to get an MBA. I went to INSEAD, an MBA program outside of Paris. After that I started an internet gaming company called Pixelfix, and then I joined a company in NYC called Bold Media, an early social network where I ran their games and business development units. Then I moved to the West Coast to run the internet development group of media company Future. After that I joined a social activity ad tech company called Appssavvy, where I ran the publisher side of the business.
In 2013, I had an idea for a new business. I talked to engineers who I’d worked with in the past and to Pivotal Labs in San Francisco. But ultimately Facebook's 'Hacker Way', which reflected the startup culture of the SF Bay Area, convinced me that to be a more successful, creative and agile entrepreneur I needed a deeper understanding of technology, and the skills to build prototypes myself. It was with that goal in mind that I went through Hack Reactor.
So you had been involved in managing and running all these companies, but had you been involved in building the products?
In all my roles I’d been deeply involved in product development, but I’d never written a line of code.
What made you want to be able to build those prototypes yourself and write code yourself?
For a couple of reasons. In 2001 when I got an MBA, most early stage company founders had MBAs. But by 2013, it was now engineers building their own prototypes. The market had shifted, so to be relevant in the industry, particularly in early stage companies, I was doing myself a disservice by not having a technical skillset. You can be a lot more agile and iterate more rapidly if you’re creating the product prototype yourself. It makes me more flexible, and on the management side it would make me more effective at working with engineers.
Did you try to learn on your own before you thought about a bootcamp or did you just dive into the bootcamp?
No, I pretty much decided I wanted to do this quickly. I should have started this process years ago, but I didn’t. So I quit my job and joined Hack Reactor. An immersive learning environment made a lot of sense. And I didn’t have time to go to back to college; there’s way too much slack in that traditional education path.
Did you research other bootcamps or just Hack Reactor?
Was your class diverse in terms of gender, race, life and career backgrounds?
It was pretty diverse- around 33% women. People had varied backgrounds, but I was the only one who had never done any coding before. I passed Hack Reactor’s admissions coding challenges, but everyone else had been writing in another language or knew another language. Some had done Dev Bootcamp and were now doing Hack Reactor, some had studied computer science in college. I had the least exposure to code, but I had a ton of relevant industry experience.
What was the age range in your cohort? We get a lot of questions about whether people in their late 30s or 40s should do a bootcamp, and whether they can get a job easily after graduating – what’s your take on that?
There were a few people in my cohort over 35, then there was one young person under 20. Everyone else was in the in 22 to 35 age bracket. Everything seemed to work out well for those in the older age bracket. I think one of the people in the older bracket is now a Hack Reactor instructor. But there is an age bias in Silicon Valley – it’s a cultural thing. I am currently a senior web engineer at Nike in Portland, Oregon, and I would say there’s no age bias here, and many of the engineers at Nike, perhaps half, are over 35. So I think it depends on the type of company you want to work for.
What was the learning experience like at your bootcamp — typical day and teaching style?
It was like being caught up in an information tsunami! We started at 9am, we would have a very light lecture, then you could choose to stay on for the second part of the lecture, or start the coding challenge. There was a lot of guided self learning, which was a very effective way to instill the discipline we would need on our own, or in a job to figure out how to solve problems. There was very little front-of-the-room lecture time. But tons of availability for advanced people to discuss advanced ideas, or for beginners to get help when they needed help.
What sort of projects did you work on?
My own personal project was called Yummy Show. It was an online cloud-based software for presentations, leveraging reactive data and data visualization. I thought learning D3 was really cool, and realized if I had known D3 when I was in business, my business presentations would have been much more effective. With Yummy Show I wanted to enable people to make their presentation data come to life without knowing how to code. The group project we worked on was a kids interactive game using the computer camera and HTML5, for face and object recognition.
Tell us about Mission Bit and what you did after graduating from Hack Reactor?
When I graduated from Hack Reactor in June 2013, I spent the summer building up Mission Bit, and launched the first classes at the end of summer. Mission Bit is a non profit providing computer science education pathway for public high school kids. The teachers are volunteer professional software engineers from top companies and startups in the Valley. We bring the kids to different companies to show them what they can do with coding skills. We try to convey to kids that this skillset is a booster for your life no matter what job you choose. You don’t have be a software engineer – if you were a farmer, you could write scripts to work out how weather is affecting your crop growth rates. Whatever job you choose to do, coding skills will help you do it better.
How were you using your programming skills at Mission Bit?
I built some software for our volunteers and students to use for class scheduling and for attendance tracking. I also built a text message management platform called Yummy Text. One challenge we had was communicating things to students across classes. Kids just don’t read their emails, and they didn’t want to download a Mission Bit app, but they all had cell phones so the most effective way to communicate was via text message.
When and why did you decide to start looking for engineering jobs?
While I was running Mission Bit, I set up a shell company where I could prototype different ideas, so I was building products all along the way. Initially I’d decided to learn to code to be a better entrepreneur and be more effective at iteratively making products. But I realized that I love the process of coding and I love the problems you have to solve. I love the scope of the knowledge, not just the end point of having the finished product. So that was when I decided I wanted to work and become a better engineer. So I started the search and took this role at Nike.
Tell us about your job at Nike.
What does a typical day look like for you these days?
We have stand ups at 9:15 am and 11 am, with sprint planning on Mondays. I deploy to production twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When I’m not in standups and sprint planning, I’m coding – it’s all coding all the time, and it’s awesome. I know I like coding my product ideas. Luckily, I like building other people’s products too!
How does your schedule and life compare to when you were working as an entrepreneur?
I work all the time anyways because I have all this other stuff. At Nike I put in about 40 hours a week, but I fly to Portland for work from San Francisco on Monday mornings and come back Friday night. I’m on a couple of different boards, and I’m always trying to learn new stuff. So I have entrepreneurs’ hours regardless. I don’t know how sustainable the lifestyle is, but it’s totally working for now and Nike is an awesome company. That was the main reason I wanted to do it.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you since you graduated from Hack Reactor?
Being a middle aged man figuring out what to do through a midlife pivot. Seeing the reflection of yourself in your kids makes it impossible to dodge things you’ve maybe tried to dodge in your life. That forced me to reevaluate what I was doing, what I was working on, and make sure I was focused on doing things I truly wanted to do. I would say working through all that was hardest thing. Hack Reactor was part of that process of changing myself.
What sorts of things are you doing to maintain/learn new skills?
Recently it’s been playing around with React and Redux and getting familiar with those frameworks, and getting familiar with Angular 2.
What advice do you have for people wanting to change their careers after a long career and take a bootcamp?
I kind of fell into the change. I wanted to use it as a propellant to what I was already doing, and just realized through that process that I liked building stuff with code. But my advice is to be clear about what you actually want after a bootcamp. Either you know you love being an engineer or you know this new skillset will help you attain or achieve your specific goals, because bootcamps are intense and you basically shut off your life to do it for three months. To get the most out of it you need to love the thing you want to be, whether it’s an engineer or CTO or a better entrepreneur.
Any final comments about Hack Reactor?
The Hack Reactor community is very special and I attribute that to the relationship among the founders, because those guys are really tight, and that permeates through the rest of the community. The community is solid, energetic, and really helpful, and the founders are super invested in nurturing and catalyzing that energy and possibility.