- Alex Styl
I was on Coffee and Coding Podcast talking about my journey into development, working at Apple, and going indie.
Rob Jay: Oh dear. Welcome to the Coffee and Coding podcast where we discuss all things app development. I'm your host Rob Jay and in this episode I chat with ex-happel employee turned indie developer Alex Styl. We talk about working at Apple while he chose the indie dev route, choosing happiness over profit, launching a product, finding your audience and much much more. Now onto the show. Just before we get into today's episode, if you're listening and you're enjoying the show and you would like to become a supporter of the show, you can now do so for as little as $2 a month over at coffee and coding pod.com forward slash support. There's a number of different tiers to choose from and of course they are all aptly coffee names. So if you want to buy me a monthly espresso you can. If you want to make it a cappuccino you're welcome to and if you want to make it the Afogato then you're also more than welcome to. For those of you that are not coffee can a sios, an Afogato is a scoop of ice cream with an espresso port on top. It is delicious. But seriously speaking, if you want to support the show I would hugely appreciate it. Whatever you want to give goes a long way in helping me keep the show running. So coffee and coding pod.com forward slash support. Now let's get into today's episode. We could jump straight into it. So I want to get a little bit of background. So for people that are listening who don't know you are, just like a brief kind of your journey. I know you've been doing Android for like at least 10 years now. It seems like you kind of started around the same time that I started actually, but it seems like you kind of did the opposite where you went from working to going independent and I went from going independent to working. So can you give like just a brief kind of overview of, you know, kind of like your journey into development?
Alex Styl: I started working with Android and working at a company basically at 2012. And I've been working both professionally and on my own projects since then. I've worked on multiple different projects like different fields whatsoever. For example, I started working with building SMS clients. Then later on when I went to the UK for my masters in human computer interaction, I ended up moving to London where I started working at the product agency where we would do all sorts of different products. So I worked on magazines, TV, betting apps as well. So there's a lot of different spectrum of applications that I've worked on. And later on I worked on Shazam, the Music Recognition app, which is more about artists and music in the music industry basically. Overall, even though I absolutely love development, I love other things as well. I love designing as well. I worked as a product designer for a year as well. And my master was born to design and the human aspect of technology. I realized that I like a lot of different things basically. And I realized that the more further up you go into the career ladder, the more specialized you need to become. The more specific stuff you do as well. And when I realized that, I always knew of course, but when you start growing, becoming more serious about it, then I realized that I don't think I'm becoming happier out of this. So one thing led to another, the pandemic as well. And here we are trying out my own things now.
Rob Jay: Okay, nice. All right. So I want to backtrack a little bit because I want to talk to you. I don't even have a blog post. I think it was a, I've got a title over here somewhere, Happiness over profit. So I definitely want to talk about that. But just before we get to that, so I know that you worked at a bunch of companies, you worked at Shazam. I know on your Twitter it says Apple. So I kind of wanted to just very briefly dive into like what that experience was like, because personally I worked for a lot of like startups and like corporates. But in terms of big tech, I have zero experience of what that kind of thing is like. And I think a lot of listeners do as well.
Alex Styl: Yeah. So for those that are not aware, and I get that kind of a lot, Shazam is owned by Apple. They used to have, I think, a very good relationship for years and years. And eventually it got acquired by them. Overall, it is how you would expect like any software company to be. I'm not going to talk specifics, but more of an overview. I think overall throughout my career, it was the best project I've worked on, the best people I've worked with, best salary bonuses, perks and all this kind of stuff. But in the end of the day, you still have what I mentioned earlier that, you know, when you're hired as a developer, you're going to be asked to do, you know, developer specific things. And you know, even though that part of me absolutely loves it, I have other things that I enjoy doing as well. I love designing, talking to people, trying to find out what works with them, what doesn't work with them, and so on, so on. So it felt many times very limiting to me.
Rob Jay: That totally makes sense. So leaving that, what was the kind of decision? I know you said like, you know, developers do development stuff, you want to do other stuff, but was there like a moment that you were like, I need to stop this and do something else? And did you know what the else was that you were going to go into? Or did you just decide that you wanted to do more and you were going to leave and figure
Alex Styl: out? It was more into the, you know, having this feeling that, you know, I don't think this is going to get better. It is nothing about the company or the occupation, I would say, it's more of a personal decision. And even though I didn't know what I would be doing next, I was trying to kind of, let us say that I do this thing to myself. When I want to do something, I kind of try to push myself, remove every kind of excuse that I have for myself to kind of push myself into the place, like corner myself into the place that I want to be. So one kind of issue or weird phobia, I don't know how everyone would call it for doing this transition was, you know, I cannot leave my well-paying job. I cannot leave this. Like I'm going to, I'm going to start, man. I'm not going to have anything to eat. And I'm going to go poor or whatever, which is, it's mental. It's not true. Like if you are conscious about your spendings and, you know, you understand how much money you spend in a monthly or yearly basis, you can do some basic math and say how many years you can, you know, basically do nothing. I understand that, you know, I'm incredibly lucky to be in a position that I can, you know, not to work, basically do not have any income. And for a few years, I can experiment with things. But if you do have this opportunity and that's what we want to try it out, there's nothing else stopping you, right? So it did, again, it was not something happened at the job. And I'm like, okay, that's it. I'm done. But it was more of a, you know, it kind of starts building up. Like, oh, you know, over the years I also had this thought in my head, how cool would it be if I were to do my own apps, for example, get paid for that? So over the years it builds up and at some point you're like, okay, I think it's now we're never kind of thing.
Rob Jay: Yeah, that totally makes sense to me. And I want to dive into some of the stuff that you did because I know, so I didn't know that you had a blog until I was like doing a bit of research for this podcast. And then I started reading your blog, which is actually really good. I'll link it up in the show notes, people can go and read it and super interesting stuff. But something that I wanted to touch on before we get to that, or I guess the question is for you is, so this idea of like happiness over profit, did that happen before after you left?
Alex Styl: It was before, but was much quieter than it is now. As in, it's not one of those things that you get out of bed one day, you're like, you know what would be cool? Just quit my job and do my own thing and just do it. It doesn't really work like that. At least not for me. I don't know for other people. But yeah, it's like you have those, no, I cannot speak for everyone. I have those things, those thoughts, like how would I want my life to be? How the idea life would look like, by the way, I don't know yet. I'm still trying to figure this out. But I know which parts I want to get rid of, and I know which ones some of the things that make me happier, make me want to get out of bed being all excited that I'm going to be doing XYZ, for example. I want to be doing more of those instead of just being paid well. If that makes sense.
Rob Jay: Yeah, no, it totally makes sense because I think I have a similar philosophy which is I don't like to do things that I don't like. I don't like to take roles just because they're going to pay money, but I'm going to hate it for the six months that I work there. And I know a lot of people that are in roles that they pay really well, but they don't like it. And it's like, there has to be a balance somewhere because what's the point of making all this money and being unhappy at the same time? Absolutely. And then obviously there's no point being super happy and broke because then I imagine a lot of people wouldn't enjoy that either. So you got to find the balance yet. But I just thought it was really interesting because I haven't seen any developers kind of speak about that before.
Alex Styl: That is the thing. I think that was also part of the reason why I want to be a bit more open about this because the more every time that we talk to people and friends and family about, hey, you know what? I'm thinking more about the things that I want to be doing instead of how things are supposed to be, if that makes sense. It's like you have this framework like get out of university, actually leave your life, go school, university, get a good job, grow up the career ladder, get married, you know, the usual stuff. And I'm like, sure, that sounds like a good framework for life. I'm sure it works for many, many people. But what if it doesn't really work for me? What if I want to try out to see what works extremely well for my case? And that's what I'm being exploring now. I don't, even though there are people talking about this, like there are books about lifestyle design and so on, at least for the way where I'm from, it's not very common to talk about those things. And it's the blog writing about my experiences basically.
Rob Jay: Yeah, I totally get it. I mean, I definitely, I think I've even read some of those, like those books, but I feel like the people that find those books are the people that are already thinking about that stuff and the people that have no concept of this, they don't find it unless, you know, they summon across your blog post or they listen to this podcast and they'll be like, oh, what is that? What are they talking about kind of thing? So yeah, that's what I always find really interesting. But okay, so we can move on a little bit, so you quit, so you've quit your, your quote unquote, you know, proper job and you've decided you want to do indie stuff, right? And like I read the posts that you wrote on it. I thought they were super interesting. I had similar experiences, but kind of just, I guess if you could go through kind of not so much the ideas, but like the good and the bad, because obviously you made this decision. I don't know if that first six months or how long is it since you quit your job now? It's less than a year, right?
Alex Styl: So, oh no, it's less than a year. It should be around nine months now, I think.
Rob Jay: Okay, gotcha. So I guess the question is, is it what you thought it would be and kind of what have been the pros and the cons and like the things that you've learned doing it so far?
Alex Styl: So I can definitely say that has, it is absolutely nothing that I was expecting it to be. To be honest, I didn't have much expectation, but as in the target, how exactly life would it be? But the process of it, I was not expecting it a lot at all. For example, while building your own products, there are always these kind of ups and downs, mental, emotional up and downs, where sometimes you feel like, oh, I mean to something, I'm building this and people will love it. And then you get stuck on something for a good period of time and you're like, oh my god, this is horrible. Why did they even consider doing this? What I'm doing and so on. And you kind of need to control that. Like in the very beginning, for me, it was a rollercoaster, man. Like I remember just being stuck at my place, working, working, coding and not being happy at all because I'm like, where am I going with this? And one of the main things that you kind of come across, you need to figure out soon, in my opinion, is, you know, if you are independent, you're not just a developer. And more because it's not as if you have clean tasks that you need to figure out and just do them, right? You need to figure out what is the most, what is the thing that people will value the most, for example, and build that. Hygenses are you're not going to get it right the first time. So it gets down to trying to narrow it down to a point that you can see it very quickly. See what people think and iterate basically. That takes a little while to get used to that. But yeah, other than that, for example, you need to figure out how to get people, it's not just building the thing, but also marketing it, right? That is not something that they teach you while being a developer, right? So you have to figure out ways trying to find out who you're building for, what do they like, what they want to talk about and so on. And also how to reach that. So it's a whole interesting journey, I would say.
Rob Jay: Yeah, 100%. Yeah, I mean, I can relate to most of that because it is like the development part for us and people listening is easy because we're all developers. It's the rest. It's like, you know, there's no point building this great thing. No one's going to use it because they don't know about it. So you have to learn marketing and all that kind of stuff. But what would you say is out of the things that you've done so far. And I know what they are. I don't want to shout them out, they're totally up to you, but I was going to say, like, are there any things that you definitely would say I did this wrong and I would do it differently in the future? And then on the other side of that, are there things that you're like, like my next project, I'm definitely going to do this because I feel like this is the way to do things.
Alex Styl: Absolutely. Yes. So the very first thing that I built that I think was a good idea, but it didn't really get anywhere. It was a website basically where you would, for people that have podcasts or any audio-related files for their businesses, they would upload the files and I would create short video clips for them, like to have transcripts at the bottom of the page and have an audiogram and so on. Even though people were really excited about the idea and I did have regular hits, I didn't want to make any money for it, basically. And I think that the problem there was two things. The one is I wasn't quite sure or I wasn't quite ready or I didn't have the understanding yet of how to monetize things. I thought you built something, you built a great product and that's it and everything else would come naturally, each note like that, at all. So two things about that is to first figure out how to talk to the people, to understand who is going to use that first because on paper what I just said, it's very, very broad. Who in reality is going to use this instead of, oh, I'm building this website that converts your audio files into video? Like it's much easier to figure out a niche basically and try to talk to them, get to their community. Now with the internet, you can reach basically anywhere in the planet or the target audience, at least. So it's a no-brainer to try talking to people first, go on Reddit, see what they're discussing about what the problems are, try to reach out to them as well and then start building or try to build something so small to get some first users, build some connections there and see how it goes on. So about this, I realized that all these years that I've been working basically, it's not that I was also part of the Android community a lot. I was writing blog posts, I like hanging out with people as well. So I realized that you know what, that communities are people that I genuinely care about, I know them. I know how information travels around the communities, the places people hang out and so on. So I'm like, it would make way more sense for me to build something valuable for those people instead of trying to get into a new community from scratch basically and make myself known there. So my new take on this is trying to find out a place where you actually hang out already and you know people and start to build out things for them. So far it seems like it's working so I'm pleased.
Advertisement has been removed
Alex Styl: It was completely by chance as in, I remember ages ago I wanted to build a contacts app and I realized how bad the contacts API in Android was so I ended up, I ended up more or less abandoning the product, the idea for building a contacts app and a few months later on while I was this up and down, as I was saying earlier, the emotional roller coaster I was in, I needed something that I knew to keep me happy basically. The closest thing to that would be a side project basically, that you build something for yourself, something that makes you happy. So I ended up doing that and instead of building the contacts app, I ended up building the library for contacts. I open sourced it, people liked it and I'm like okay, this feels nice basically but I didn't really give much thought to it. I kept adding more features as a side project because I was interested in the project and later on I came with the idea of compose is kind of new and people seem to be very excited about it. Why don't I try to build a compose app using the API that I also enjoy using, it's so nicely done at that point and try to put the price on it to see what would happen basically and that's how it happened.
Rob Jay: Okay, nice. Alright, so would I be right in saying that because I went on the website and you did this interesting thing where it's like, you know, the first, I don't know the numbers exactly but the first 10 people that buy it gave for this price, then the price goes up and then the next 10 people and to it gets to like a price that you would expect that sort of thing to sell for. Were all your sales so far primarily through Twitter or were they through other avenues?
Alex Styl: No, it's mostly Twitter. I'm still trying to explore other ways for traffic but I would say traffic Twitter is the number one source of traffic for my stuff for the time being.
Rob Jay: Nice, nice. Okay, cool. Yeah, that's a really good way to leverage it. I thought it was really interesting. And for people listening, I'll link up the library and I will link up the project in the show notes if they want to go and check it out. And then I want to move on a little bit. So you did all that stuff and then now you have a book coming out. I think it's coming out because it's still pre-orders, right? Which is going, essentially, and correct me if I'm wrong, but the idea is to take an Android developer that understands the regular views in XML and stuff to compose. Yes. Okay, so my question on that is when did you have that idea and what has that process been like? Because I don't want to jump into compose yet because I have questions about that separately but just kind of in terms of the book, when did you get that idea? This is a project. Because I imagine when you left the job to go and be an indie developer, I would think that you weren't like, I'm going to leave this to go and write a book. So how did that kind of come about?
Alex Styl: So it's kind of a fun story because I was out with a friend having coffee and we're talking about in the development, doing your own thing. And at some point, we talked about compose and this friend of mine kind of brought up that you know what? It's so annoying how there is no such thing to know how to do things from you to compose straight away and I have to go through everything basically to understand how to do the most basic things. And that kind of like, I kept thinking about it over and over again. When I realized how basically when someone, including me, when I was learning how to use compose, I would search the web, go to stack overflow, go through different comments. One would be outdated, I would have to go to the next one, search on blog posts and so on. So I'm like, okay, how about I write a blog post? I wouldn't want to start writing a book just to see straight away if people would get or not. So how about I write a simple blog post, do a very basic introduction to compose. Like you know how to use views, here's how to understand, to get the basic idea how to set up compose basically in your project and how to do the most basic things in compose. So I wrote that and I did a Twitter thread as well and people seemed to like it a lot. Like to my standards, what kind of viral in the community, like 500, 600 plus likes, retweets and so on and so on. So even though, you know, with the notes they have now, I wouldn't say that, you know, this is a clear sign that you are going to make money out of it. I'm like, there's definitely some interest there. So I started exploring a bit further and I'm like, okay, so this keeps going on and on. And I remember doing a tweet saying if we manage to get 2000 followers on Twitter, I'm going to write a book about it and people keep falling more and more and more. To the point we got very, very close. Like I think I was like until on Friday, if we managed to do this, I'll write a book and we didn't get to 2000, but we got very close. So I'm like, okay, I'm going to do it anyway and see what happens. So the next days I created the pre-order of the book and people had that many people actually pre-order in the book. I'm like, well, to me that's a good indication that, you know, I should do this no matter what happens. I don't care. I'm not aiming, you know, to make the huge profit out of the book, but it's more, I see it as an education, trying to find out basically how the whole selling products work basically. So I see it as a very good exercise. So so far it has been going pretty, pretty good. The book keeps getting pre-orders every few days and I'm very close to getting the last part done and then move on with the next projects. It's a learning experience.
Rob Jay: Yeah, that sounds really good. So I definitely have had the same experience as you. So I've literally, I think yesterday as we're recording this properly sat down to start learning compose because doing the contracting and stuff that I do, like there's nobody's using compose, right? So I never had to know it and I feel like now it's time to catch up. So I need to start learning it and I have the time. But I always, when I've looked at it before, you know, I've watched the videos on YouTube, that Google puts out and stuff and I always found it really annoying that they give you all these new concepts, but they don't tell you like, right, if you want to like a horizontal linear layout, this is kind of the equivalent. If you want a recycle view, this is kind of the equivalent. So it is really difficult to be like, I can knock up this layout in five minutes and now it's going to take me an hour just because I don't even know the terms that I'm supposed to use. So I think a resource like that, definitely that's something that's something that I've been like in. But I wanted to get a little bit about not the writing processes, but like what's the process of going from writing this stuff out to actually having a published book?
Alex Styl: Keep in mind that it is a self published book, like for the time being, everything is through generating it on through, you know, tools on my machine, creating a PDF and then publishing on a site called Gumroad. So basically the process is in the very beginning I created table of content to understand whether people, whether it resonates with people, whether it makes sense, you know, for someone to purchase a book that has this sort of information. And in the very beginning, I wrote the first chapter, which was about text and I basically gave it away for free. If you go on the website, you're going to see the actual first chapter and that helped me, you know, do a little bit of user research to understand whether, you know, I personally think if I had this, that would have helped me a lot, but it's not what I want or what I need, but what other people want and need. So I created the first version of that and I gave it a few people and they absolutely loved it. Like, oh my God, this is amazing. First of all, it's, you know, mapping one to one how text, text works and how text in Compose works. And also it's very onto the point. I'm trying to write as little text as possible. It's literally, if you check the table of content, it's like, how do you use custom fonts? No, how do you use custom fonts? And below that, I'm giving you very little information about the sort of theory, like one liner that you need to know, like get the full, the font files into your resources. That's how you read them and that's how you use them. And that's it. So you can basically copy paste the thing. Also the PDF makes it very, you know, straightforward to copy paste. It's, that's about it. I think that the book itself as a format is kind of a lie. It's better to see it as a resource where, you know, all the information that you need to do the job, to get the job done is in one place instead of looking at it as a book that you need to go through, you know, read on yourself and so on. It's more of a companion to your development time, basically. So I gave the first chapter out there. I got some feedback and after that, I kept writing and writing. And every now and then I update the, I share some updates on Twitter. Again, get feedback from people. Maybe some people like something, maybe they don't move on to the next one.
Rob Jay: Okay. All right. That totally makes sense. And then just on a side note, because this is interesting to me is why a book are not like a Udemy course and do you have any plans to kind of make it into like a Udemy course or something like that?
Alex Styl: So it is a book because I decide to, I always go with the simplest approach I can, meaning if I were to do a Udemy course, it means that I would have to understand what Udemy and how it works as a whole. So instead of that, because I do have a lot of experience writing blog posts, to me writing feels kind of like a very straightforward thing to do. I know how to use Markdown as well. I like how to, I know how to format code and how people would read this as, let's say that I understand the medium. So it was much more comfortable for me to create this book instead of trying out different medium that I'm not aware of. And also in the end of the day, what's more important for me is to understand how to create something, find the audience and sell it instead of creating, you know, training courses, for example. I believe Udemy is for read the courses.
Rob Jay: Yes. If you were going to take your book and put it on Udemy, it would basically be a video of you reading a chapter with some screenshots of the code or something. It's kind of like a lecture in that kind of sense. But I imagine for you, like you could easily do like five, 10 minute videos, like super short people to loop through. Yeah, that's my experience of it. I've seen, I've bought a few Udemy courses, but I know a lot, a lot of developers, when they are trying to teach something, they always go to like Udemy or video courses on YouTube or they self publish and stuff. I don't know that many again that do a book that is quite unique that you chose to go that direction. But the fact that you stick to what you essentially stick to what you know is the fastest way to get it done. So that totally makes sense.
Alex Styl: Yes, absolutely. I did try experimenting with the video a bit. Like I did some very short clips, literally taking content of the book and turning them into a very short screencast, like two minute stops and saying, you know, this is how to do, how to use custom fonts in compose. You do this, you do that, blah, blah, blah. And people again seem to like it on Twitter. So I think that more of those are going to be coming as soon as I finish the book because it's taking a lot of my energy. So as soon as that is done, I think I'm going to focus more into short screencasts for compose. But Udemy courses, I'm not sure. We'll see. There's one more tool in the whole, one of the things that you can do online these days, right? Those are a lot of different options these days.
Rob Jay: Yeah, I was going to say it's just an option that's available to you. So yeah, that doesn't mean that's the direction you have to go. Cool. All right. So before we wrap a question that I like to ask everybody. So the question is, what do you think in your opinion separates a good developer or an okay developer from a great developer?
Alex Styl: I would say that everyone can become a developer. As in, technically speaking, for becoming a developer, you need to be able to develop apps, software, like to know the technical things and build a solution to them. A great developer on the other hand is the person that can work great with other people and actually understands that we are a team, we're heading towards a common goal. And if we have a disagreement on something, it doesn't mean because I don't like you personally or I don't like the opinion that you have your solution, but it's because I believe that this is the best approach. Let's discuss and come into the best solution that we can get so that we can get closer to the end goal that we have. I think that a lot of people see development as a very technical occupation, but in reality, I think I would say it's a very social one because unless you know how to coordinate and work with other people, then you're not really going to get far, even if those are other developers, designers, products, people and so on. So yeah, that's the distinction in my mind.
Rob Jay: Okay. Yeah, that's a great answer. I would 100% agree with that and I would just add to that that the people that I have worked with that I would consider, I don't know how to term it, but not the best developers that I've worked with in terms of that. Like technically, they're great. Everything else is not there and you don't want to work with them. So it's not just about the technical skills, 100%. Yeah. Okay, that makes sense to me. Okay, cool. And then final, final question is where can people find you online? Can they find out more about the book, where can they find out about the compose kit, all that good stuff?
Alex Styl: Mm-hmm. So I'm very active on Twitter. You can find me on Alex still. That's my handle, which is an SDYL. Lately, I've been uploading those video clips, the screencasts that I mentioned earlier on YouTube. We're going to find them similar in the similar user handle, Alex still, which is SDYL. And you can find the book on viewtocomposable.com, which has the first subter of the book, which is about text. And you can preorder it from there and read everything. Any kind of question you might have is answered there. But if you need to reach me out for any way, please do so on Twitter. Like tweet me or message me and, yeah.
Rob Jay: Huge thanks to today's guest, Alex Styl. Make sure you check him out on Twitter at Alex Styl and over on his website, alexstyl.com. All the links are in the show notes. And that's it for this episode. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with a friend or fellow developer. And if you really want to support the show, you can do so with a coffee donation at coffeeandcodingpod.com forward slash donate. And if you don't want to miss future episodes of the show, make sure you follow or subscribe in your podcast app of choice. Thanks for listening and I'll catch you on the next episode of the coffee and coding out.