This summer marks my third year of being an entrepreneur. Running First Code Academy has been a rewarding and challenging journey. At First Code, we teach kids how to code, and when I reflect on being an entrepreneur so far, I always think of how coding has helped and shaped my thinking and actions as an entrepreneur.
The beginner’s mindset. As a coder, the basics are about grasping the syntax and programming language. Yet whilst working as a full time developer, I noticed that my most competent colleagues are those who are constantly learning. They scour the internet resources to learn new libraries, new frameworks and sometimes even new programming language. The programming world is always evolving, and in order to keep relevant and improving, the mindset of a beginner is really important.
As an entrepreneur, I find myself learning new skills all the time. Every few months, my job scope changes drastically; from curriculum development to hiring, fundraising, training new staff. It requires reading a lot, talking to experts, and asking for help. To stay nimble, I find it helpful to keep the mindset of a beginner, always learning and always curious.
There will always be bugs. Programmers know it so well; every piece of software has bugs (errors) in it. I remember as an intern developer in my first programming job, sitting next to an experienced data scientist with a PhD from Stanford, he was always banging his head against the keyboard, solving the programming errors each day!
Running a startup is similar; everyday there is something broken. Adora Cheung from HomeJoy once said, [while running a startup], expect two bad things to happen each day. Managing your psychology is most important. Somehow, setting the expectation helps prepare myself for dealing with the situation.
Iterate. Good programmers run a lot of tests. Under the Test Driven Development approach, programmers write the test to validate the code’s action, before writing the actual code. Whenever a small piece of code is done, it is a good practice to run a test to make sure it does what it is supposed to. At the same time, having bugs in programs also shows the importance of iterating. When I first started coding, I would write a large piece of code for an hour or more, then run it, just to realize there were bugs, somewhere in the hundred lines of code!
After all, as Steve Blank once said, “Startups are a temporary organization that searches for a scalable, repeatable pattern to scale”. To me, the highlight of the sentence is “search”. Running a startup means doing things by searching, by iteration. The faster the iteration cycle is, the faster we can search for the pattern. I realize in marketing, developing curriculum, and building training materials, the concept of iteration permeates all through the startup.
Bias towards action. A programmer’s job is to solve problems. There is a problem or a software feature in front of you, and your job is to figure out how to build it. It has a lot to do with dealing with ambiguity, finding out ways to do things. Often times, it means that you are doing things first time. Often times, there is no one to show you how to do it. Instead of trying to find out all the answers before starting, I find that coding requires us to be comfortable with solving problems on the go, get started with what we have and figure out the solutions along the way.
As an entrepreneur, I find my job also a lot about solving problems, collectively as a team. One of the most powerful things I’ve learned when facing a new problem, is to adopt a bias towards action. “What is the action item from here?” is one of the main things we ask in discussing a new challenge. An action could be talking to customers, prototyping, and testing a solution. Once we start acting upon it, the action reveals more learning, which in turns inspires thinking, and sheds light on how to overcome that challenge.
A side learning here is that a bias towards action also means being comfortable with imperfection. Perfectionism can sometimes stand in the way of creativity (some even say it is the antithesis of creativity!). It is tempting to want the product, the marketing message, or even the Instagram photo alignment to fit perfectly. Yet the main learning comes from shipping products for feedback, then iterate from there. Whenever I feel stuck in the mindset of perfectionism, I find it helpful to remind myself and the team of the habit of iteration and a bias toward action.
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