CodeNewbie, founded by Saron Yitbarek, started as a weekly TwitterChat to connect people learning to code. Four years later, it has morphed into a supportive, international community of learners with a renowned podcast and one of New York City's most exciting conferences. We recently chatted with Saron about her burgeoning educational empire, her favorite podcast guests, and why she thinks developers need to stop being so self deprecating.
How did your coding journey start?
We can start in college. I was pre-med, double degree in psychology and English, and my intention was to be a doctor. I took all the courses, studied biochemistry, taught organic chemistry. I did all the [necessary] things just short of actually taking the MCAT. I then shadowed a cardiologist for about two weeks, and realized that the thing I was interested in wasn't saving people's lives, [but rather] the problem solving [aspects of my studies].
When I realized that, I thought, "Holy crap. I can't go to med school and become a doctor." And at that point, I felt really lost. What do I do now? Well, I had always done journalism throughout school, so when I graduated, I ended up working for a short time at NPR on a show called Tell Me More with Michel Martin. Then I moved to New York and worked at Discover Magazine, and in that time, I was figuring things out.
I read the Steve Jobs book by Walter Isaacson, and that was the first time I heard the story of a technologist who connected with me. He was very emotional, very design oriented, and thought a lot about users and feelings - all these things that I never associated technology with. And when I read that book, I was like, "Oh, there's way more to this world of tech than I had ever known."
And so at that point, I said, "Well, let me explore further." I read a bunch of startup books. I followed a bunch of startup people. I didn't quite know about coding yet, but the tech startup world was where I began. I cold emailed a bunch of startup CEOs, and asked for coffees, and one of those coffees turned into an internship, and that internship turned into a job. And that was when I finally sat next to engineers and I got to look over their shoulders and see a bunch of gibberish that I didn't understand. For two years, I did everything but technical stuff - account management, design, and marketing. [However], I kept hitting this wall where I couldn't be as useful as I wanted to be to the team, and specifically to the development of the product, because I didn't know anything about products.
I hit that wall enough times that finally I said, "You know what? I'm just going to take a leap of faith, and I'm just going to try this coding thing. I'm going to try it for 30 days. I'm going to go all in 12, 14 hours a day, non-stop. I'm going to do nothing but code, and let's just see how I feel at the end of it." And so I did that, and I said, "Okay, that was really hard, and at times very discouraging, but I want to keep going. I want to keep learning." I ended up doing a bootcamp and then started working as a developer when I graduated.
That’s a great story and one many Thinkful students can relate to. So when in this whole story did you decide to start CodeNewbie?
I looked back at my experience when I was in the bootcamp. It was totally worth it, but one of the main things that was so valuable about that experience wasn't so much the curriculum and teachers. It was the community. It was having people and knowing that it was hard because it was hard, not because I was stupid. It was that support that was so valuable.
It bothered me that if you wanted to find that kind of support, at least four years ago, it was really hard to find. I wanted to find a way to help people who were going on the learn to code journey by themselves to connect and find support, and help each other out.
At that time, TwitterChats were really popular, so I said, "Ooh, let's do a TwitterChat. And we'll call it CodeNewbie, and all people who are new to code can rally around the hashtag and use it to find each other, share resources, and support each other.” That's where CodeNewbie began.
What were the first few months like? Did you expect CodeNewbie to take off like it did?
When I first started, it was never meant to be a business, or even a serious project. It was just a thing I did because I thought it would be fun and help people. For the first six months, we didn't have many participants. Most participants came from me begging other people to retweet me. I reached out to the ten influential people that I knew – the tech Twitter influencers - and asked, "Can you please retweet me about my Twitter chats so more people can find out about us?"
Around five to six months [into the initiative] was when I realized that I didn't need to rely on that anymore. People just came and showed up. At that point, I was like, "Okay cool. We're stable. We have a group going. It's good.” I realized that this can work and people actually care about it.
Roughly eight, nine months after that, I started my podcast. TwitterChats are a really good way to start conversations, but not a great way to have an [in depth] conversation. A podcast is a great format to just focus and dig deep.
We’d love to talk about the podcast, but first want to point out that CodeNewbie recently hosted its 200th Twitter chat. What does that milestone mean to you?
It's really cool because for a time I was worried they were just a fad. When I started mine, I was one of many and I remember having a hard time picking a time and a day to do it regularly because it seemed to overlap with every other TwitterChat ever. And over time, a lot of those have faded so to be able to still last this long is just really cool. It just shows that people want to connect, and they want to help and support each other.
You’ve now recorded over 160 episodes of your podcast. For new listeners, is there a good place to start and do you have any favorite conversations or episodes?
This is a very hard question, because I love all of our guests. [However], I can no longer listen to the old ones due to the audio quality.
We've come so far. Oh my goodness. The very first episode we recorded, we had to record that interview three times. The first time, we messed up the audio levels for the guest. The second time, we messed up my audio levels. I didn't want to ask him to rerecord it three times, so I wrote a transcript for my lines, and I dubbed myself. That's what we did. I don't know if you've ever had to dub your own laughter, but it's really weird.
[Regarding specific episodes] the mental health episode we had with Julia Nguyen is one of my favorites. It was so honest and so vulnerable. Also, Paola Mata’s. Her interview on how she got her first job was so, so beautiful.
Every conversation I've ever had with Dave Thomas is amazing and inspiring. The What Is Code? episode with Paul Ford is definitely one of my favorites. If you listen to the podcast, [don’t] start with season one and two, because that's before we got all the new mics. So for my sake, start a little bit later.
You also recently tweeted about a new podcast that you're hosting. Could you tell us a little bit more about that project?
I would love to tell you about that. I'm so excited because I wasn't allowed to talk about it for a long time, and I was like, "God dammit, I just want to tweet about it." It's a new show that we're doing with Red Hat. They're producing a show called Command Line Heroes, and they reached out and said, "Hey, would you be interested in hosting it?” And it's really cool. It's all about storytelling. We talk about the history of different operating systems, the history of open source, the history of different cloud competitors. It's all about stepping away from the keyboard for a moment. Let's appreciate that it's not all about the latest build, and the latest release. There are real humans involved, and there are different motives and organizations involved. So it's really focusing on the bigger picture of tech. It's been a lot of fun recording.
Congratulations on that project. You must be very busy considering your conference Codeland is coming up in May. Can you talk about why attending conferences like yours can be valuable for people that are learning to code?
So this is a question that I have a really hard time with, because for me, conferences are so important. They're so valuable, and I always wonder, is that just my unique experience, or is it because conferences are so awesome? So it's hard to be objective about that. But for me, conferences have changed my life in so many ways. I've met lifelong– well hopefully lifelong friends - through conferences. I've encountered new ideas through conferences. I've been able to just experience a new city, a new restaurant and a new type of food through conferences.
Conferences are also a great way to explore ideas that you didn't know that you might want to explore. A lot of times when we code, we are very focused on a problem and we get stuck, and then we say, "How do I get unstuck?" I work for myself so my biggest fear is that I'm too heads down and focused on this one thing. [Meanwhile] there's this whole world of solutions out there that I just didn’t know to look for.
Speaking of exploring new ideas, what are some of the more interesting conversations that are going on in the developer world right now and what should we be talking about more?
That's a good question. To be totally honest, I am not even a little bit interested in the latest release conversations. I don't care about the latest this and that unless we're talking about security vulnerabilities. What to me is kind of more interesting is the conversations that we keep having.
For example, there's this culture of self-deprecation in the developer community which I find fascinating. I don't know if other industries are like this, but it feels like we like talking about how much we suck. It seems like every other day I'm seeing a tweet from some popular, famous developer saying, "Don't worry, I still don't know what I'm doing,” or, "I'm a fake," or, "I'm a phony". I get why people do it, and I understand that especially for newbies it feels better to know that, "Oh, look, even so and so is struggling." You know?
But for me, after a while, it just became depressing. It became discouraging to look up to people you admire and you're like, "So you're still lost and confused? That's my future? That's the whole thing?" You know what I mean? So I think that's one thing that I would like to– when I think about my conference and the podcast - what I try to do is highlight interesting stories, interesting applications, and interesting use cases of code to get people excited again, even when they're past the newbie phase.
I think there's so many people doing fascinating work with technology and their technical skills, and I want to show [them] off. I want us to be proud. Yes, we should be critical. Yes, we should think about ethics. We should be better about privacy. There's a lot of things we need to fix. But at the same time, I think it is healthy to take a moment to be proud of the cool things that we're doing. Of the helpful things that we're doing. The things that actually do change people's lives.
And I don't feel like we spend enough time as developers congratulating ourselves when we do do cool things. So that's one conversation that I would like to see expanded upon.
How have you used CodeNewbie to address this problem?
With CodeNewbie, whether it's through the TwitterChat or the podcast, one thing that we try to encourage is celebrating small wins. So whenever we see people say like, "Oh I just learned how to make the background yellow in CSS," we're going to applaud the crap out of you. We try to make every step feel like a special moment. By creating a space for that to exist, people end up celebrating each other more. So when someone makes a really great post, or a helpful resource, I see the spirit of CodeNewbie in other people in how they interact, and they use the hashtag to find people who are like them.
You’ve celebrated a number of wins both big and small with CodeNewbie. What’s next?
Right now, everything we've done with CodeNewbie so far has been very iterative, and frankly very reactive. We saw that TwitterChat wasn't cutting it as a good means for communication, so we started a podcast. We saw a need for people to come together in real life, so we have a conference. What I'd like to do moving forward is to be a bit more purposeful in where we go next.
One very common problem that we see is that – and this is a great problem– there's too many resources. Everyone's writing a tutorial. Everyone has a book out. There's always a new course, a new web series, a new whatever it is, and it's really hard to make sense of it. It's hard to know, "Is this a good fit for me? Do I need to learn video-based tutorials? Do I need to be comfortable with that to be a good developer?"
So I would like to be in a place where we can provide guidance to say, "Yes, there are a world of options in tech. There will only be more options in tech for you, but looking at our resource, or our platform, we can help you make better decisions about what you want to learn, what you want to do, and make learning a more efficient process, and hopefully more of a level playing field.”
That aligns with what we're doing at Thinkful in terms of providing a more customizable learning experience. We think it’s important to understand that people learn differently and that certain resources work better for some students more than others.
When we talk about trying to make technology and technical skills more accessible to more people, a big part of that is breaking the myth that there is a way to do it. We need to encourage and promote the idea that there are many ways to become a developer. There are many different skills that you can develop, and it's really up to you to figure out what works for your life, your constraints, your interests, and just encouraging that idea of a customizable path.