I talked to entrepreneur Derek Pankaew about learning code with no CS degree, building plugins and his experience at the Y Combinator Hackathon. I met Derek at the Bansko coworking site in Bulgaria last year. I hope you enjoy the read!

Can you give an introduction about yourself and what you are working on/having worked on in the past?

So I started off in growth and customer acquisition. I worked with a couple of startups in the Bay Area, did a bunch of freelance marketing work and then ended up running performance marketing for Kine Bars. It is a health food company based in New York, they have stock in Target and Walmart and are one of the biggest packaged health food brands. I was running their Facebook ads, their YouTube ads, AdWords, the entire portfolio of traffic strategies. At that point I had spent about nine, probably ten years in marketing.

Oh, I also forgot to mention I ran several of my own businesses including a t-shirt business that sold about $600k in its first year. Then I ran a vitamin gummy bear business. So a couple e-commerce businesses of my own and then running e-commerce marketing and other types of marketing for other companies. After about a decade in marketing I decided to do something different and switch into something new and got into programming.

Derek giving a presentation

How did you learn to code? Was it just courses in Udemy?

So I tried to learn to code when I was like 14 years old. I actually learned HTML at a pretty early age. I learned HTML when I was like 12 and at 14 I was like, "I already know html, how hard can programming be." So I picked up C++ for Dummies and then within a week I was like "not happening", haha. So I put it down and I didn't try it again for another decade. Then I tried to learn Swift and that was a failure as well. At the time I was 29 I had this idea in my head that I wouldn't be able to code.

I was in the crypto scene for a while and I had some ideas for how to trade crypto algorithmically. I kind of decided to learn to code to implement that into code. So I started of with learning Node because I felt that since I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do with programming, with JavaScript you can use it to write mobile apps, web apps, front end, back end. It just seemed like the most flexible language. If I decided to do something with those skills later I could easily pivot.

So I started off with Node and Udemy was pretty much feels like 60% of it. I think it kind of gives you the outline of what you need to learn. After Udemy there were a bunch of YouTube and Medium articles. Udemy kind of provided the framework and then whenever I got stuck I used other resources to get around those issues.


I know in Bansko you were making a plugin for Facebook. How did you find making that?

It was fun in many ways learning how to write front-end JavaScript especially raw JavaScript. No frameworks, react or angular. Just plain old JavaScript accessing the DOM. Yeah, that was interesting and I think I learned a lot of fundamental skills. If I did need to write Vue JS or something, knowing raw JavaScript would be really useful. I do think coding for chrome extensions is kind of convoluted in some ways. There are certain things that are not intuitive but it was a fun project.

I think in Bansko you were using Node. Have you changed your stack since then?

My stack has changed a lot since Bansko and I don't do very much in Node anymore. I'm mostly in Python. I got really into machine learning. I do some JavaScript every once in a while but mostly everything I'm doing now is in Python because that's where all the machine learning stuff is.

You recently got into Y Combinator Hackathon and finished in the top ten. Well done! Can you tell us about the application process and how you got on there?

The application process was pretty much like submitting an idea and telling them what you're working on. Then it's 24 hours of coding and you present your idea. It was really fun - we had a great team and got a lot done.

Do you have any tips for self taught coders or people not doing CS degree route?

My number one tip is to definitely, 100%, have a project you're working on. That's a really important thing is have something passionate about that you want to build. Because following tutorials are really boring and you'll forget most of what you read anyway. The concepts are not going to stick in your head unless you have something that you're actively building. When you're actively building you're going to run into problems that are not part of your course.

You might be building a website and your course might cover databases and front end design but it doesn't cover how to do user accounts. So to setup a user account you need to understand how to do authentication, how do you include authentication in your headers, how do you salt your password hashes, how do you hash passwords, so how to securely store user data. Maybe all stuff is not covered in your course and you have to go and figure it out.

What you'll find is that if you have something that you're actually building you will have the curiosity to kind of go down the tunnels and the rabbit holes that you need to figure out what it is that you are trying to build.

So what I often found was I often didn't actually go linearly through any tutorials or Udemy courses. I would buy some courses when I was interested in something but I would jump around depending on what I needed to learn to build that particular thing. So have a thing you are working on. If you can dedicate time, I think you will learn a lot faster if you can dedicate a significant amount of time like 20 hours a week instead of 5 hours a week for months on end.

A big thanks to Derek for the interview. If you have made a startup or got a job in tech without a CS degree and want to be interviewed, give me a shout on pete@nocsdegree.com