Alex Chernikov grew up in a Soviet-style city in the east of Ukraine, now war-torn. He taught himself code and now makes a successful living making apps. You can check out his excellent MateTranslate app which can translate text in 103 languages without changing tabs and is the top-rated translation app for iOS and macOS. You will get 50% off when you use the "nocsdegree" code with this link. I chatted to Alex about how learning to code has changed his life and his tips for developers without a Computer Science degree.
Hey, thanks a lot for doing the interview! Could you give an introduction for coders who want to know more about you?
Now, I’m trying to run & scale my own company. We’ve gone through different phases: from having zero clue about where we are and what to do next; to seeking VC money & being halfway accepted at Y Combinator; to picking an independent way & focusing on iOS & macOS apps. And, that’s where we are now.
What first got you interested in programming?
My brother. He’s 13 years older than me so when I was in middle school he was already working in IT & making good money. He was my role model and I wanted to be as successful as him. Roughly at the same time he gave me all his programming books. This is what actually pushed me towards not only wanting but actually doing something in that direction. I wasn’t guided by anyone, though.
At first, I was trying to make web pages in pure HTML. I still remember when I once called my brother, read aloud some HTML code I wrote and asked if it was correct. I don’t know why I did that and how is it possible to validate code from hearing but he replied affirmatively. At that time, I didn’t have an internet connection at home, so my endeavours were all offline.
At the end of the day, it’s probably every coder’s dream to make a game at some point. So, I started taking after Notch and trying to write a game in Java from scratch. It was a time when I didn’t care about the monetizational or marketing side, I was just having fun from building. I managed to finish only two games, a dozen others are buried deep on GitHub. One is still live.
You made a Chrome translation extension when you were only 16! What was it like making that and turning it into MateTranslate with your school friend?
Obviously enough, I was lacking vocabulary to effortlessly understand everything. Having to copy a word or paragraph and go to Google Translate was a normal part of my daily routine. At some point, I thought it’d be cool if it were possible to get translations right on web pages, without a need to leave the browser tab. That’s how I got sucked into extension development. I released the first version in 2011, I think. It was called Instant Translate.
I had absolutely no clue about user acquisition, marketing and likewise, I had no thoughts about monetization. However, it took off, even though the only thing I did was uploading it to Chrome Web Store. That’s a caveat given to all fledgling entrepreneurs - users won’t beat a path to your door themselves. In my case, they somehow did. By the time I made the first $100 with it, Instant Translate already had around 130,000 users monthly.
I was in the same class with my now-co-founder Andrey in Kiev. When I was looking for people who can help me port Instant Translate to more platforms, he dropped me a message and said he can help with Safari and I agreed. We never released that Safari extension he was working on because his laptop with all the code was stolen. But, somehow, it came up during one of our conversations that he can also make iOS apps and would like to try making Mac apps, too. However, we received a refreshing kickback this time. It didn’t take off all by itself. It took us four years of constant learning and experimenting to make the Mac app our main revenue-driver.
Renaming Instant Translate to Mate Translate was a piece of advice from our friend. We were amidst our attempts to differentiate from Google Translate & iTranslate, so we picked this way of making a well-integrated app for people who need to translate a lot of stuff and want to save time on switching between browser tabs or apps. That’s why we went for Mate - a friendly app that has your back with translations.
Can you tell us about moving from Ukraine to Austria?
I’ve been dreaming about moving away from Ukraine since I was in the 10th grade. The easiest way was to apply to university. I got accepted at Vienna University of Technology. At the time of acceptance, I was already in the second year of my CS degree in Kiev, Ukraine. I dropped out in order to pursue my desire to live abroad. I need to thank my parents because they helped my both emotionally and financially with this undertaking. I wasn’t making a living at the time of moving.
After five and a half years in Vienna I’ll be moving again soon. This time as a self-sufficient adult though! I’ll head over to Berlin, Germany, to pursue my next goal - to build a sustainable software company which builds amazing products, and which employees are happy to work at.
I’m miserable when I have to do something against my will. I’m feeling I don’t like it here in Vienna anymore, so I see no reason to force myself staying. I’m very happy that I have this freedom, so I can do whatever I want. That’s probably also the reason why I’ve never had a proper job, and hopefully never will.
I think you dropped out of CS degrees twice - do you find it better to learn with real projects rather than by theory?
The university didn’t work out for me, right. I studied for a year and a half in Kiev and then for two and a half years in Vienna. Just as I mentioned before, I felt downright miserable. I hadn’t been feeling I was doing something interesting or important. I hadn’t been feeling I was doing my best, either.
Given the fact (without being too haughty) that I already had a chance to learn most of the things taught in classes by myself, I wasn’t missing out on knowledge. On the opposite, the amount of things I learned in, for example, last year doing actual software business is probably worth ten years of college.
Working on my projects means some real-life application of my skills & knowledge. Real people will use it, probably even stick to it, love it, recommend to friends and family. So there’s also a psychological aspect involved for me. As opposed to often irrelevant assignments which will be buried on my harddrive the moment I get a grade for that class.
The logical question would be if I regret spending 4.5 years & not getting a diploma at the end. No! I met some cool people. Also, making mistakes is an important part of experimenting, that’s what brings us forward. So, I’m happy I figured out what’s not for me, so I don’t even feel guilty now.
Can you talk us through the process of getting your first clients as a web developer?
I did freelance work only twice in my life. Both times were a very long time ago when my projects weren’t making me a living, and a few hundred bucks could be put to good use. The first time I made some sort of a gaming community site on Drupal with a lot of custom PHP code. I didn’t get paid for that project because we didn’t discuss the price beforehand. I was too shy to do it at the beginning and thought I can just present the client with an invoice at the end. The second time it was some front-end work for a social app on VK.com - the Russian Facebook - which let you place football bets.
After that, Mate Translate started making some money, so I fully switched to making my own projects. First of all, I hated doing what I was told to do. Secondly, I was totally not OK with the fact I was selling off my skills & knowledge just for money. To be more clear, I was putting effort into making a good product, and then someone else would be its owner and get all the credit from users for making it. So, vanity was part of the equation, too, which made me give up on freelancing.
Can you tell us what a typical day for you looks like just now?
I get up at 7am, arrive at my coworking at around 10am. The workday normally starts with replying to support requests. Then I may do some Twitter. Recently, it's become a part of my job - connecting with other tech people and building relationships. Sometimes, we may have a catch-up call with my co-founder Andrey. Most of the time, all our communication is done via Slack. Then I’m hopping on my main task until the end of the day. Tasks vary widely: it may be back-end stuff, designing mockups, setting up Twitter Ads, making a landing page or sending out a newsletter.
I’m trying to be efficient & rest well as opposed to hustling 24/7. I try to eradicate any kind of possible distraction during my workday, including lunch. I pre-make something for lunch so as to not to spend an hour looking for a place, going there, ordering, waiting for order, waiting to pay, and finally getting back to work. Also, it distracts me from I was doing before. So, having lunch right at the desk saves me time & concentration.
I leave the office at around 5–6 PM. With time, I understood that resting well is an essential part of doing quality work. I never do any work on the weekend. It helps me recharge the batteries - to have thoughts together and avoid burn-out. Of course, a lot of ideas pop up in my head during that rest time but I only write them down to think through for a longer time and revisit on Monday.
Do you have any tips for people that want to give learning to code a go?
All of us have plenty of app/site ideas. I’d recommend hopping on them. Try implementing your own ideas. This will definitely keep you interested in what you’re doing. I was trying to write code from scratch without any structure or clue about where to move next. I was googling how to do this and that. Like, “how to make a simple PHP site.” I’m not sure it’s the most efficient way, though. However, it was definitely fun! I just had a lot of time as a teenager.
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How do you find working with a friend compared to working on your own?
It’s better! When working with smart people who share your values, goals, & enthusiasm, quality and efficiency skyrocket because new people can bring in a fresh perspective and ideas. Almost every thing I ever made was made with someone. I had another classmate who I was making games with. It was my friend who was helping me with websites. I love working with people.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, my dream now is to build a big, sustainable company. Unarguably, it’s impossible without great people, so hiring is a challenge I’m facing now. Given the fact that I have no experience in it, I expect it to be as challenging and full of experimenting as it was with coding some time ago.
Can you tell us about any other projects you have?
Mate Translate is still making us the most revenue, but in recent years we’ve also launched a bunch of other apps: Artpaper, Reji, Breaks For Eyes. We’re trying to experiment as much as we can. This ambition is even reflected in our company’s name: Gikken - derived from a Japanese word “jikken,” which means, “to experiment.”
Artpaper is a unique-in-its-class wallpaper app for iOS & macOS for art lovers. All images are actual scans of artworks from the best galleries all around the world. Breaks For Eyes is a small macOS app which reminds you to take breaks to avoid eye strain & headache, which a prolonged working at a computer can result to.
Reji is an iOS app for language learners. It lets you save & practice your own words in 48 languages. You type in words, the app suggests translations and images on the fly, then you can practice saved words using the learning mode. It’s a more-automated and single-focused alternative to Anki, so to say.