David is an entrepreneur, computer engineer, and alum of Y Combinator. After teaching himself to code as a teenager, he worked for Basecamp and Intercom before founding his own company. David is from Ireland and is a huge rugby fan! Here’s his story:
What is the current role/passion/project you find yourself in and where can our readers find you?
I’ve just finished up the Y Combinator S19 batch, so pretty much all of my time is taken up with our new company. We applied on a whim with nothing more than an idea so it’s been a whirlwind few months getting to the point we’re at now. We shut down our previous product and are now working on something new.
I guess that technically makes me an entrepreneur now, which isn’t something I ever wanted to be. I always thought of an entrepreneur as someone who sells things just to make money; that was never my aim. I’ve always been infatuated at the prospect of building something that people really appreciate, and I think companies are an incredible vehicle through which you can make that your life’s work. The opportunity to work with great people on something I am really passionate about is much more appealing to me than any potential monetary gain, and that’s essentially what I’m doing now.
How did you come to be where you are now?
I used to think about this a lot when I just got my first job in the tech industry 4 years ago. There were a couple of really key things that happened that I felt very much “shortcutted” me to that point. Funnily enough those “shortcuts” have continued, to the point that there are now so many that I realize it’s just a natural progression of increasing interest and involvement. You can’t connect the dots looking forward but I can probably summarize them to date.
When I was younger, I had enough of an interest in technology that I wanted to learn to code but I didn’t really know where to start. No one I knew could and the book I took out from the library was so antiquated that I gave up within two days. CoderDojo had just started to take off and despite being a little too old to attend (I was 17 at the time) I finally realized it must be possible to teach myself. I started learning HTML and CSS on Codecademy (which coincidentally sprung up around the same time), and eventually moved onto an amazing book called Ruby on Rails Tutorial. I literally spent an entire Christmas racing through that book to become “proficient” enough to build web apps.
At the same time the entrepreneurship society was just getting off the ground in my university. Their first event was a series of local startup founders talking about their companies. The thought that I could make cool software at cool companies was a real revelation to me at the time. Up until that point I thought the only places to write code were in boring banks and multinational corporations.
I found MiniCorp, a product development agency in Dublin, Ireland, who took me on as a summer intern at a time when the Dublin tech scene was as far as my mind could imagine. A vibrant community wasn’t something I’d ever experienced before and I felt like there was so much going on around me that I could participate in. A sort of competitive jealousy set in and I wanted to emulate the success of others I was meeting and actually organize something for myself. I ended up putting together a weeklong event of my own, where we gave 20 students office space, mentors from startups, talks on everything from customer development to pitching, which culminated in a sold-out 150 person evening with talks from VPs, VCs and startup founders. For me at the time, this was all wildly ambitious and to be honest, looking back, I’m not even sure I’d be able to do it now. There was something about that time, the drive from those around me, and a hint of naivety that spurred me on.
A couple of months later, I worked as an intern at Intercom, and after my final year in university I interned at Basecamp. That one really was a dream come true as I owed a lot of my success as an engineer to Ruby on Rails, which they are famed for having created. I went back to Intercom for just over a year before the opportunity to do Y Combinator came along.
In an alternate dimension, every job pays the same. With that in mind, what career would you pursue?
There’s something to be learned from every opportunity and careers are no different.
It’s interesting to me how heavily we weigh income in our career decisions. For example, I could earn more as a software engineer than I do as a founder but that’s not something I’d even consider right now. I once read that the top 10% of plumbers earn over $84,000. That just goes to show that there is money to be made everywhere as long as you’re the very best at what you do. And people tend to do best at what they enjoy doing because they learn quicker. So in short, do what you love and the alternate dimension might not be all that different to reality.
But just so I don’t totally avoid the question, I think there’s a lot of unique perspectives to be offered from working in different environments with varying levels of income. It’s too easy to get caught up in the next promotion or pay increase and lose sight of the bigger picture. I think it’d be really cool to spend some time as a pig farmer in Norway, olive picking in Spain or running a cosy café.
Oh, I also have a dream to make a blockbuster movie about Donegal winning the All Ireland football championship in 2012 because it’s such a great story.
Did you ever have a make-or-break moment where you had to risk it all?
Not that I can think of. I guess it’s somewhat against my “20 mile march mentality”. Try not to leave all your assignments until right before they’re due, don’t let things get so bad that the consequences are irreversible. Sometimes it’s unavoidable but I think a much healthier growth and improvement strategy is to make as much progress as possible each day and take some time to rest. Momentum builds up through consistent hard work over time and it’s a much healthier pattern in the long run.
If you have nothing on your schedule or an unexpected quiet moment, how do you choose to use your time?
I’m conscious of the fact that I’ve always worked hard, to the point that it’s been detrimental. Extended periods of hard work are okay as long as you set aside appropriate time in between to relax. I’m optimizing for taking an appropriate amount of time off while also feeling satisfied that I’m working hard enough. For me, the best way of doing that is simply by scheduling my breaks in advance. I find that I work better when there’s something I can look forward to. I have a tendency to be lazy if I let myself, so the structure is also a good way of making sure I don’t get distracted. Then, when the time comes to down tools I can do so in guilt free totality.
Occasionally I have to make sacrifices and miss out if something spontaneous comes up that doesn’t fit with my work schedule. I don’t mind that because I think the discipline helps overall. It’s also infrequent enough that I can decide on a case by case basis if I do really want to do something.
The breaks themselves are usually as mundane as an episode on Netflix, Friday night video games with my school pals or going to a soccer match with my dad.
If you could tell your 16 year old self one piece of life advice, what would it be?
Keep working hard and the rest will work itself out. Trust in yourself and try not to get too distracted by what everyone else considers success to look like. If you think the 30 under 30 list is a bunch of self promoters, you’re probably right, but channel that energy into what you enjoy doing.
Not everything will work out as you want it to but as long as you keep trying your best and are proud of what you put in, things will work out in the long term.
What piece of advice or request do you have for our readers before you leave?
Especially in our industry, people have a tendency to go all in. They equate their own happiness with the success of their career/company. And I’d expect most people reading this are in a fortunate enough position to be able to choose what they do with our careers and lives – many aren’t. We have the opportunity to make those around us happy, to help others and to give them purpose. I try to focus on that and think others should too. Especially in today’s world, I’d love to see people being kinder with each other and trying to understand things from each others perspective.
We can be all too self serving when it comes to progression and growth, but things compound when we focus on more than just ourselves