I had a chat with Richard 'Pretzel Hands' Blechinger about earning a high income at a young age and advice for people with no CS degree. It was great fun and I hope you enjoy the interview.
Pete: So I was wondering if you could sort of introduce yourself. What your background is, what you are working on, what is your stack etc?
Richard: Sure! The name is Richard Blechinger and I am 22 years old. My preferred stack is PHP on the backend, usually paired with Wordpress or Laravel. For frontend things I rely heavily on React.js.
I work as a full-stack developer for various clients. Notable projects include payment integrations for a bank, a website called fishbreak.ch on which you can book your ideal fishing trip and being the go-to guy for landing pages for various sporting brands such as SUUNTO, Salomon or Atomic Skis.
Earning 10,000 Euros a month at 21
Pete: Something that really caught me eye in the WIP group chat last year was that you were 21 and earning 10,000 euros a month as a programmer? Plus, I think a few thousand more with smaller clients? You must live in San Francisco, right?
Richard: My monthly revenue currently lies between 10,000-15,000 EUR a month before taxes. (Hahaha, and no, I don't live in San Francisco, thankfully. I live in an old farm house in Austria that we're currently renovating. It's very cheap to live in.)
Pete: Wow! If i'm right, that is like $200k a year?
Richard: Well, around $150k if you take fluctuation into account. Not every month is super amazing 😀
Richard: And taxes/insurance leaves me with about half of that.
Pete: Sure. But for a 22 year old that is crazy!
Richard: Having $50k in savings at any given time is certainly very calming.
Pete: OMG, interview over!
Richard: Hahaha, I'd totally understand. But I still consider this mostly luck.
How Richard got into coding
Pete: Can you tell us about your background?
My background is a bit unusual. Originally I was super into making video games which is why I participated in Ludum Dare. It's a competition where you try to make a game from scratch in 48h. I first joined at 13 years old and it got me interested in programming.
After a lot of self-teaching I got hired by my high school professor to make an educational app in Delphi, but I left that place relatively quickly. Then I completed an apprenticeship at a web agency called 'NCM'. After that was finished, I started freelancing in 2016 at 19 years old.
High school dropout to freelance developer
Pete: And you dropped out of high school, yeah?
Richard: I dropped out of high school in the middle of sophomore year. After that my only formal education was 27 weeks of vocational school for my apprenticeship. I learned mostly about print design and other such media stuff.
Pete: So you were 16 or 17 when you started the apprenticeship?
Richard: 16. I started in October 2013. It was planned to go for three and a half years, but I shaved off the last six months and took my apprenticeship exam early so we could move.
How to learn PHP without a CS degree
Pete: So did the agency teach you lots or did you self-teach as well?
Richard: The agency didn't teach me too much from a hard skills/technical perspective. I did develop an expertise for designing email, though. I think most of the stuff I picked up there were soft skills, which is a good thing in itself.
My self-teaching was mostly done by trying to complete projects that I had in mind. One thing I did was to start my own little game jam called the New Year Game Jam (featured in Polygon!)
I always tried to do new things like learning about databases or learning about file uploads. Whenever I got stuck I would pore over the documentation or ask on StackOverflow. In that regard I got very lucky, because that site was already around when I first learned programming. :)
Pete: Great! So I guess this is the similar technique to Pieter Levels - search, ask online and learn by doing?
Richard: Yeah, his approach seemed very familiar. I did have to play a bit of catch up with more formal programming practices, though. The agency I worked at for my apprenticeship didn't really use tooling like Continous Integration etc, so the step up to "enterprise" was a bit of a learning curve
Getting your first clients as a self-taught programmer
Pete Codes: How did you get your very first freelance clients?
Richard: I actually started on the platform that everybody loves to hate: Upwork! I really put my all into it and did all of their exams and assessments. It helped me find a few small clients which paid about $300 for a landing page or $1000 for a small website. It wasn't good money, but it was money.
Pete: Wow! Upwork, PHP and LinkedIN got a 10k contract?!
Richard: The world is a weird place.
Pete: Sure is, my friend.
Richard: Eventually someone reached out to me on Twitter. They'd been following me since way back and offered me to do a few projects with them. That's when I managed to push up my income to about 2k a month.
Then I started working with a friend who's currently spearheading digital marketing for various sports brands. From then the recruiters started pouring in.
Asking for Fuck You money from a big client
Pete:So can you tell me about pitching your services to a big bank?
Richard: Oh, that was a bit unexpected. I was in the middle of another project with a different client when a recruiter on LinkedIn reached out to me for a project with a freelance team at an enterprise client. So I said I'd be happy to come by for a chat and brought a few of my references along. Because following up on a lead can never hurt, right?
We discussed the job, it would be integrating payment plugins for various PHP-based shop systems (WooCommerce, Magento, ...). I showed off my references and was actually a bit scared, because I didn't have so much experience in eCommerce.
Eventually they called me and told me they'd like to do an assessment of my skills. It wasn't super difficult. There was a class with some pre-defined functionality and you had to fill in the gaps. It took maybe an hour of my time.
Afterwards they said they'd be happy to work with me if I name an appropriate hourly rate. So I just went ahead and doubled what my rate was back then. And they accepted it pretty easily.
Pete: Hahaha, what a baller move!
Richard: I researched the company and saw that they had 5000 employees. Might as well ask them for "fuck you" money.
Pete: Roughly when did the contract start?
Richard: I signed the contract and got started. After the first few months the contract was extended and is now running until August 4, 2019. The contract actually started a year ago almost to the day. Oh wait, actually today it's been exactly one year. Happy anniversary to me!
How Much Does This Meeting Cost?
Pete: Well done! I remember you made a cool website for showing how much meetings cost people by finding out their hourly rate. It came 3rd on Product Hunt when you launched! How did you make How Much Does This Meeting Cost? Is it a fairly simple question of dividing the hourly rate by 3,600 and then just counting up each second? Do you still have plans to make B2B product from it?
Richard: Yeah, it originally started out as a joke, because I was so sick and tired of meetings with zero results. So I wanted to make a little page to motivate me.
Eventually I added the ability to add your team members to it for fun. It was essentially an afternoon hack on a boring Saturday built with React. The business logic really comes down to taking the sum of all hourly rates and dividing it by the second. The main logic is probably a single class.
Pete: Nice one! Do you think you could sell it to businesses?
Richard: As for a B2B product: I know there's some competition in this space. A Czech company got some $2m in funding.
Pete: Wow, millenials hate meetings!
Richard: I think if you add some more useful statistical tools to it, it could provide value by avoiding unnecessary meetings. I'd love to work on it, but between working at the bank 35 hrs aweek plus my other clients that keep me busy for 15-20hrs, I kind of lack the time right now.
Pete: Wow, yeah that is a lot
Richard: And of course I also have to spend time with the family :)
Pete: Don't burn out!
Richard: Nah. If the contract gets extended yet again in August, I'll reduce hours quite a bit. It's a cut in my paycheck, but it's still plenty.
Advice for coders with no CS degree
Pete: Nice one - just a couple more questions. Did you ever pay for coding courses online? Any advice for people doing the self-taught route?
Richard: Yes, I have indeed! When I first picked up React in 2017 I paid for Tyler McGinnis' React Fundamentals. I also subscribe to Laracasts on an "as-needed" basis to catch up on various topics.
As for advice to people who go for self-teaching: Find out what learning method works best for you. Some people learn best by reading, some people love listening to audio material. I personally prefer watching videos and typing along with the project. Once you find your own best way to retain information, learning will become *so* much easier.
Pete: Yeah, I can see with React it makes sense to buy a course as it is so in demand now. That's a good tip on learning style!
Richard: Best $149 I ever spent :D
Pete: Haha, ok, this meeting is over. I dread to think how much your time costs. Thanks a lot for this!
Richard: Alright! Thanks for the fun interview
And my time is 75$/hr plus tax :)