Michael Kaiser-Nyman is the founder of Epicodus and Impact Dialing. We talk about business, the art of teaching programming, and Michael’s story.

Show Notes

Recorded Monday, June 24th, 2013, and this is episode number 19. Follow Ray, Kandace, Dan, or Needmore on Twitter. Please rate our show on iTunes!

The Interview

Ray:
To get our sense of direction. Where are you from?
Michael:
I grew up in Sacramento. I went to school in L.A. and I’ve spent the last five or so years in the Bay area and moved to Portland about a month ago.
Why Portland?
Why not?
Okay. Really?
Yeah. (Laugh).
That’s why I moved here, and no particular reason.
San Francisco, it never really felt like home. I really like Sacramento but it’s a bit too small of a place for me; not quite enough of a city … where I grew up. I spent my whole life in California and Portland seems half way between San Francisco and Sacramento and it was outside of California. I heard the people were really nice so I figured that all sounded great.
I get to Sacramento once a year and I actually, I was like a kid … or now too in [tow 00:00:52]. The Rail Museum is a highlight.
I love that when I was a kid.
Yeah, that’s super cool. You’ve spent a lot of time organizing for political causes. How was that experience and where does that come from?
That’s a good question. I don’t really know where it came from. I always, I think when I was in … I think I started reading the newspaper when I was in fifth or sixth grade and was really interested in what was going on in the world and always had this political awareness.
During college, I really felt strongly about lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gender rights and how our society deals with people who aren’t heterosexual. I’ve got involved with the campaigning for marriage equality and then after college, ended up working for the Nuanate campaign.
That was actually a funny story. You were having trouble with my last name earlier. I volunteered in college for what was leading up to what became the Nuanate campaign; the being the campaign to try to keep marriage equality in California.
Yeah, I volunteered and then when I moved to San Francisco, I signed up to volunteer again and somebody recognized my last name and said, “Here’s a great volunteer. We should try to hire him.” It’s because of that crazy last name, which I [crosstalk 00:02:15]. (Laughing)
How do you feel that that experience has informed your sense of business … of running a business?
That’s a funny question. It was through a political campaign that I ended up starting my first start up Impact Dialing, because I saw a need. We were making all these phone calls and dialing the numbers by hand and writing everything down by hand. It was so inefficient and so I started a software company to build software to make it more efficient.
I think starting the software company … a lot people start software companies or start to start up and they’re, “I want to make a billion dollars. I want to be the next Facebook or Google.” I never really had those ambitions with that company. It was more about trying to solve a problem and help people out and I think that’s some of the values that got me involved in politics, or wanting to help people out.
It’s a little funny to think, oh, I started a software company to help people, but it really kept me focused on the customers and what they needed. I wouldn’t say that I was perfect. A lot of times I really got distracted by the money. I’m tying to turn it into a big company and make a lot of money and it was always on my mind. As a business owner, money always has to be on your mind as I’m sure you know.
Always thinking about what am I really doing this for, and why am I doing this as opposed to some other job? It was really to help people who had the same problem that I did.
Do you feel it was successful?
That’s a funny question, (laughs) because the disadvantage of moving from political campaigning to running a software company is that you know nothing about running a software company. I knew nothing of software. I knew nothing of running a company. I knew nothing about business and so I made so many mistakes and messed so many things up. Really, what I accomplished in three and a half years, I could have accomplished in six months if I’d known what I was doing.
I learned an awful a lot and we helped a lot of people make phone calls. Sometimes there were really frustrating times, when the software didn’t work the way that I or customers wanted us to … but wanted it to. In the end we’ve build some pretty amazing software and helped a lot people make a lot of phone calls. It felt really good to know that we’re helping people out who had struggled with some of the problems that I had struggled with.
What is the status of that business now?
It’s still going.
It’s not day-to-day involved with it or …
After the elections last year … I guess, I like solving problems and when I was working on Impact Dialing, I had a lot of trouble hiring developers to build the software and I thought, why doesn’t somebody teach … I graduated in 2008 which is the worst job market ever and it’s been lot better since then. I think everybody agrees that there’s … the economy is never going to be … or in the immediate future, it’s not going to be what it was in the late 90s.
I think it boils down to a miss-match of skills. One of my friends went through college and they had a great time in college and learned a lot, but they came out with skills that weren’t applicable to what the job market needs. What the job market needs right now … well, one of the things it really needs is programmers. I felt, why isn’t somebody helping my friends who are having trouble getting jobs, help them learn how to program and to get jobs … programmers and then help people like me hire them.
That’s what I’m doing now. I’m teaching people web development and helping them move from other careers where they have trouble finding work. The work isn’t satisfying, or not making what they want to make. Or they try and program and they are like this is what I love, and I want to move into this other career. Helping them to make that transition over.
Impact dialling is still running; we still have customers. I hired somebody to do sales and support and can take over the day-to-day operations there so I can focus on the school.
The school is called Epicodus?
That’s right.
Tell me about that. Is that in a small group of people that you do this? Is it online?
Yes. It’s in person. I ran my first class .. between moving from San Francisco to Portland, I made a stop for a few months in Sacramento. I spent some time with my family and I ran my first class while I was there. I had eight students and it’s in person. It’s 40 hours per week. That class I ran for two months and I took people with basically no experience to the point where one of them already has a job. The others are in various states of taking summer vacation and flying for jobs here and there. They can all build web applications; they’re all full stack developers.
It’s really fun to watch people grow so quickly. I’m doing my next class now here in Portland where I’m trying to set down some roots. That’s going to be again in person, 40 hours a week from August to December. Also, a lot of people can’t take that time out of their lives. Other people are in Portland and can’t move here. I am working on putting all the curriculum online so that people who want to do it at their own pace, or teach themselves, or through some other format, can go through the same course on their own.
What are you teaching? Is it a rails-based stack thing?
Yes. We start out … I’ve changed things a lot from the first class based on what I learned. But for this next class, before the class starts, students go through a little bit of a course on HTML and CSS and then basics of jQuery and the JavaScript syntax.
We learn about object-oriented design and JavaScript and test-driven development and then how to be really solid front-end engineers. Then move into the back-end and learn the rails stack, starting with [inauiblee 00:07:51] of the applications. Learning sequel, then learning active record, moving up to the full-blown rails applications; then bringing the whole thing back together.
Wow. That’s fairly comprehensive actually. Are you deploying on Hero.co or something it’s not to worry about.
Exactly. There might be some case where we do something with AWS and raw EC2. I figure that’s the kind of thing. It’s not … nwhen you’re learning development, you can’t learn everything. You learn things that help you think like a developer and … or get you to being productive quickly and then the rest of things are going to be job specific and you can learn that on the job; learn your employer’s specific stack.
It’s like you’re actually teaching several languages really. If they’re learning some JavaScript and then some rails.
I think it’s important. To really think like a programmer it’s good to know more than one language because it helps you abstract a way … you learn JavaScript and you think of things in terms of primitives and objects. If you learn Ruby, you think of everything is an object. If you learn JavaScript and Ruby, you’re like, “Oh, there’s more than approach to this.” You have functions and you have methods and in Ruby you’ve got procs and lambdas whereas in JavaScript you’ve got functions. It’s a different way of thinking about the same kind of code, and different ways of using it.
Then you go to a job and they are like, “We mainly use Java here.” You’re going to learn Java but you already have two ways of thinking about how to write code, so learning Java isn’t that big of a step to make.
It’s true.
If someone is going to sit down and learn a program language … let’s say they’re going to learn … they want to do web development. Besides learning the languages of the trade; the JavaScript or the rails or even the HTML or CSS, what do you think is the biggest piece that is missing from a college education, or to put yourself to some useful task?
I can’t speak to any particular CS program because I did’t study computer science myself. What I saw in my own education and a lot of my friends’ education, what I’ve heard people talk about the CS programs, is the lack of real world experience. You go through this program and it’s, “Okay, do this. Write this code. Do this. Learn this thing.” A lot of times it has no real world application and it’s … I think the college is really valuable anyways, because it teaches you to think. You practice thinking. You practice learning and that’s invaluable.
No matter what you’re doing, if you can learn to be a better thinker and learn to be a better learner, then whatever else you don’t know, the specifics you pick up on the job. As long as you’re learning to think and to learn, why not also learn something that’s practical and useful and immediately applicable. That’s a piece that I’m trying to bring in to it that I think is really different from the CS program.
The way that we teach … and this is maybe a little more controversial. I think that the way that most people teach isn’t really very effective. Having the model of a person sits in front of a class and talks, and students sit there and they write some stuff down, and they go home and they do the homework on their own. This is not actually a good way to learn. This is not the way that our brains work. We learn best when we’re working with other people; when we’re actually trying to solve problems on our own; when we’re trying to make things. In my class, there’s no lectures. There’s no homework. Their homework is to watch a lecture on a video or to read some text and then you come class and you work collaboratively in a group and you build things.
It’s not contrived; it’s actually building real problems. It’s writing real code and it’s not you siloed off working by yourself and getting frustrated. It’s working as a team and learning teamwork and learning collaboration which are as important as any other skills that you’re going to have.
When you’re finding students for this, do you feel pretty much anyone can be a student of this or do you feel there’s a certain type of person who’s going to be?
The two things that I look for are have you actually tried coding and like it? If you haven’t tried coding I’m going to say, “Great, you seem like a good applicant, but go try coding. Make sure it’s actually something that you like and that you feel you’re good at and if you do, then great, I’ll take you. The second thing is that you aren’t a jerk; that you can work with other people, that you can take feedback, that you can give feedback, that you want to be on a team. Your classmates aren’t going to hate and you aren’t’ going to hate your classmates by the end of the class.
If you’ve got those two things; you’ve tried programming and you like it, and you think you’re good at it and you’re not a jerk; you can learn the rest.
This is a ridiculous question. Do you think everyone should learn to program? That’s often been a debate among programmers and non-programmers.
I don’t know. I think it’s a little bit of a silly debate. I don’t think that there’s an answer. Yet there’s a straight forward yes or no answer. Do I think it’s really useful? Yes, to I think … do we think drawing is really useful? Yes. Do I know how to draw? I’m really bad at it. Is it something I should learn how to do? Well, probably … maybe. It would probably make me a better person. It would be satisfying to me in some ways, but it’s really frustrating when I try to do it.
I would say the average person is much better at drawing and learns much faster than I do. It’s probably true of a lot people with coding. Should they learn how to code? If they want to and they’re really driven to and they’re motivated, then great; go for it. If you don’t want to learn to code, I don’t think anybody should be pressuring you to.
I know this personally from having hired people but also having worked with a lot of different companies with a lot of different programmers. It seems pretty well known that there’s a distinct lack of woman programming. How do you think that can be fixed?
If I had the answer to that … (laughing). It’s like there’s so many layers of that, right? There’s the very simple thing of going to any company that has a lot of programmers; 99% of the time it’s going to be very heavily male dominated. I was talking about this with somebody who is interested in programming and she works in a kitchen right now. I was like, “Take a room of 20 men and put one women in it, and that women is going to be uncomfortable some of the times because some of the men are going to be jerks. What do you about that?” And she’s, “I know. I work in the kitchen.” People say things like, “Why did you say that?”
From the very beginning, employers … we need to do a better job of saying you can’t say some things at our work place, because whether or not there are women around, it’s not acceptable to say some things.
There’s the situation of making the work place better for women. Then there’s the situation of there aren’t as many women in education, in the stem education and higher education. What do we do about that? There was a … I’m trying to remember what school did this. They basically said, “We don’t have enough women, computer science majors.”
The problem was that they thought that they were discouraging women from the beginning because women weren’t coming in with strong backgrounds in computer programming. There’s so many guys who in their teams were teaching themselves how to program and had already really gotten a head start on this, and not as many women were doing that. They said, “Let’s drop the requirement. Let’s make it so that we’re taking people at a lower level and we’re having more introductory classes.” By doing that, they were able to get more women into their classes.
That brings us back to, “Okay, now let’s look at high school. Why aren’t as many women doing as well in math classes and taking as many as math classes, and getting as far? Why aren’t there more women in the computer classes in high school?” Let’s go back to as kids … how do we socialize our little boys versus out little girls. What are we telling them to do? Telling the girls to play with Barbie, telling the boys to build buildings and how is that shaping our minds?
It’s such a huge question. I’m sure there are a million things that I’ve left out that are really important and so what do I do? I try to reach out to women programmers and talk to them about what I’m doing. I try to talk to women who are interested in programming and really encourage them to take my class. My last class had eight students and I had three women in it, which is a good start. I’d like to go even further and I’d like to keep pushing that to the point where we have half or more women. It’s something that … that it’s a conversation we need to keep having and keep pushing the envelope on it.
How do you find students? Are you putting an add on craigslist or are you using your personal network and meeting people?
In Sacramento, it’s actually amazingly easy because there’s … Sacramento is a little bit … people would kill me if I said this in Sacramento. It’s a little bit of a tech-wasteland, but there is a small strong core-tech community, and it’s based around this co-working space called hacker lab, that’s a non-profit.
I went to a Ruby meetup. I met somebody who worked at Hacker Lab. He was excited; he e-mailed out to everybody on the Hacker Lab list. I rented an office from them and they got me all my students and they connected me with all the local employers that I end up working with. It’s a really a dream (laughs) in Sacramento.
For here, and working through the Ruby meetup group and I’m going to sending out e-mails, hold the meetup groups and posting on Hacker News. There are people who come in from Cora who are asking where do I learn how to program, and who’ve found a couple of posts that I’ve put on there. Yeah, I actually should look more closely at this, but I get people everyday singing up for the e-mail list, who are interested in taking my class.
What have you been doing in Portland? What’s got you excited since you’ve been here?
Biking around, eating all the good food, meeting all … there’s so many nice people. It’s amazing how hospitable everybody is here. Enjoying the good weather when we’ve got it, and then getting ready for my class. Writing a lot of new curriculum for the next class. Trying to meet as many people in the local tech-scene as I can to find; students and employers and people who are interested in Epicodus. Everybody here is so generous with their time and with connecting me and pointing me in the right direction for things.
Do you know that Team Treehouse, that service that’s …
Yeah. When I was learning how to code, I watched the two of their videos.
Ryan Carson moved here from … the founder of that, from England or whatever. He’s moved to Portland.
Cool. Yeah, I think Candice was telling me about that once.
Male: Is this the office?
No.
Male: I’m sorry. I’m looking for the main park for this.
It’s in the other building under the orange colors.
Male: Around the corner?
Female: I can point you in the right direction.
(Laughing) That’s a first. We’ll edit that out. I always saythat and I never remember to. (Laughing)
Anyway … Every town probably has this now but there’s some space where people recycle computers and assemble new computers and stuff. They sometimes have cool meetings there. I was trying to think of some things but I’m not really thinking of anything.
In these classes, are you thinking of a final project? Are people going to walk out of there having made an actual web service that people can visit and stuff?
Yeah. I’ll have a few. In the last class, every student … the last class is two months, this class is going to be four months. In the last class, every student had to come up with an idea of an app they wanted to build and then they worked on teams of four. By the end of the class, everybody had built four apps within a team of four; one of which was their own idea.
For this class, since we have some more time for it, they’re going to have more apps they built and, also, there’s going to be a project at the end. One of things that I also … I’m going to be reaching out to people about, is anybody in Portland who has an idea that they want to build, can submit it to me and I’m going to take … I haven’t decided how many projects. I have to do a little more planning but let’s say, a handful of these projects. Then students will work on teams to build somebody’s app for free.
If you went to a consulting company and said, “Hey, build my app.” They’d charge you, whatever, $50,000, $100,000, but they’d do it in a month. We’ll do probably a smaller amount of the work in a longer amount of time, but you’d get this app for free and the students get the experience building it and working with a project manager. Actually going through, and seeing what it’s like to work with a client and build a real app that ends up in the hands of real users.
Nice.
It should be fun. I’m really excited about that part.
That’s really cool. In general, you seem like the kind of person who’s ready to go, take on the next …
Do you have any advice for someone who’s feeling they want to pursue some wild and crazy idea of their own. What would you tell someone who … let’s say, it’s not building a website, but maybe it is. What do you tell people to inspire them? Give us some inspiration.
This actually happened with a friend of mine who … she graduated from college about a year ago and she studied psychology. She’d always planned on going to grad school for psychology but the more that she learned about it, the more that she decided it really wasn’t what she wanted to do and she’s feeling lost. She’s really good at voices; she can copy anybody’s voice. She can speak in any accent and she does this all the time. It’s this really funny corky thing about her.
She started calling me every one time, being like, “Hey, I’ve been thinking. Maybe I should be a voice actor.” I was, “Great, do it.” She’s, “How do you do it?” I was, “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about voice acting. Are there schools for it or jobs that you can get?” Then I remember that a friend of mine had done a voice-acting gig, and so I called him and I was, “Hey, can you tell my friend what you did for this and how you got it?” She ended up getting a similar job that was very part-time; every once in a while. She kept learning about voice-acting. One day, she was searching online and she found that there’s a school for voice-acting in San Francisco and she happened to be going out there the same weekend that they’re having an open house. She went to the open house and met the person here in the school and said, “I think this is for me.” She decided to quit her job and move across the country and go to a voice-acting school in San Francisco. I think there are a lot of fortuitous things happened, and they’re … I happen to know somebody and she happened to be going out to San Francisco the same weekend as this.
It’s really being … I think it’s being in a place where you’re open to different ideas and to doing something else, and continuing to learn.
I didn’t just … when I had the idea for Impact Dialing, I didn’t quit my job the next day. I started spending a lot of my nights and weekends searching around online for people who’d done something similar; for how to start a business; for people who had worked in telephones before and trying to talk to people and meet new people.
People can be really generous with their time too. I talked to somebody who had built a dialer like what I had built. I emailed out to a list and somebody replied back. He spent an hour on the phone with me telling me about his experience with that, and giving me suggestions and warnings about things. You put yourself in a place where you’re open to a big change and to trying something new, and it’s amazing what comes your way.
Yeah. Fortune favors that prepared mine.
Do you personally have anything exciting in the works after this? Do you have a goal for the classes that you’re doing? Do you have a picture of where that’s going to be in five year or do you refuse to think past the next course?
No. I think really long-term about this and I think really short-term. The short-term is get through this class and then get to my next class and the long-term is I really want to build a big company. I want to be training thousands of students every year. That dictates some of the short-term of, “I’ve got a [mech’s 00:24:53] class after this one, I’ve got a higher teachers and I’ve to figure out how to grow the company, and how to connect with bigger employers who are going to hire more of my students?
My vision is to be training thousands of students a year, and five years from now, I’d hope to be not training people in web-programming but also branching into other fields. Healthcare is huge and there’s … the need for nurses is probably on the same order, even more than the need for web developers. Five years from now, I’d love to have a program for training people in nursing, or something else in the healthcare fields and gowing out.
Basically, my vision is to be helping people get jobs that are going to be really rewarding, that are going to pay well, that are going to be in good industries, that are growing. I think starting here with training a few students in web-programming is opening up the doors for what could come next with training more students and in more fields.
Do you have a favorite … Is there some music you’re listening to right now that you really like? Now, I’d like to ask some cultural questions.
I went to … have you heard of the Scottish band, Trishas?
No, I have not.
I think they’re a little bit bigger in Scotland but they’re getting some traction here. It’s [inaudible 00:26:09] with a ‘v’ instead of a ‘u.’ hey played at the Wonder Ballroom, I think it’s called.
One with the bouncy floor? That one?
I didn’t notice a bouncy floor.
Wait, no. That’s not the Wonder Ballroom. Never mind.
Yeah. It’s in the north east, actually only few blocks from where I live, which is very convenient. My brother got me a ticket there for my birthday and we went over there. It was a really fun show. They’re … really fun dance, had some catchy, fun, electro, indi-pop tunes.
You haven’t been here that long. Is there some restaurant where you’ve eaten or you’ve been like, “This is totally awesome.” Not … lik nothing in San Francisco.
San Francisco had some really good food too.
It does, yeah.
Portland, you can’t throw a stone without hitting an amazing restaurant and eat a lot of good stuff. My parents came and visited the other weekend and we went to Screen Door, which is fantastic.
That one is known.
We went to Biwa, which might be the same owners. I don’t know, but it’s in service, similar neighborhood. Then we have the omakase, but it wasn’t sushi but it was like Japanese food. It was interesting.
Ken has probably mentioned Trigger to you if you were in the Wonder Ballroom area. That’s in the basement under there, it’s like Tex Mex. It’s really good.
All right. I’ll have to check it out, that’s my neighborhood.
As is the restaurant that’s above it but there’s always a line. They do this small plates. I can never remember the name of that restaurant. Oh, it’s terrible.
Yeah, you’ll have to drop me a line.
Yeah. It’s above Trigger.
Okay, I’ll find it.
(Sighs) Okay. Some of the answers get shouted from the peanut gallery.
Where can people find out more about you or Epicodus online?
The easiest place is epicodus.com; E-P-I—O-D-U-S. I’m really easy to reach, michael@epicodus.com. I love chatting with people, even if you’re not interested in taking the class. I had coffee with a guy today and gave him some tips about how to learn front-end web-programming. I love helping people learn. Programming is so much fun and so rewarding, and anybody who has any questions about that, or how to learn or where to start, I’d be happy to help out.
I’m in the process of putting all the curriculum for the class online at learnhowtoprgram.com.
Okay. Elizabeth points out … that I can’t remember. It’s Total Bravo. They have excellent small plates. You could go in there and try out a bunch of different stuff which I love … excellent stuff and I used to commit. If I’m going to avoid committing their full meal and … especially if … I don’t even had to order it all. you can actually go in there and have the chef’s the menu and then it’s chaos. Food after … or a little bit of this, a little bit of that. You feel so spoiled.
Whenever my parents and my brother and I go out for food, we always order four things and then rotate it through.
There you go. Did you like Screen Door?
It was amazing, although I felt sick afterwards. It was so heavy.
Have you been to Voodoo Doughnuts yet?
I went when I visited five years ago, I think I went …
That’s the last time I’ve been there. It used to be a little hole in the wall and there was never another customer. You walked in there and it’d be like dungy, and now there’s a rope line.
Some people visited my brother I, and they tried to go there. There was like 200 people on line and they said forget it, we’re not going. Although I hear the one in north east is a lot shorter of a line … a lot easier to enter.
I didn’t even know there was another one.
Yeah. I don’t know.
A little tip. You heard it here first. Cool. Well, thanks for your time, Michael. I appreciate it.
Yeah. Thank you.
All right. Nice.
Cool.