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SXSW Insight: Yipit And Ohours Founders On Learning To Code

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The Sweat Lodge: 'Idea guys' turned programmers recall the process of learning to code.
The Sweat Lodge: 'Idea guys' turned programmers recall the process of learning to code.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Got an idea for a hot new Web app and need a software developer to build it? You may want to consider an alternative: Do it yourself.

That's what Nate Westheimer and Vinicius Vacanti did. Both knew next to nothing about coding, but quickly taught themselves the basics, and in less than a year, became lead developers at venture-backed startups. Westheimer recently created Ohours, an online platform that lets people schedule face-to-face conversations with strangers. And Vacanti quit his job on Wall Street to build Yipit, a service that recommends local deals by learning users' tastes.

How did they do it? Speaking to an audience at the South by Southwest conference on Sunday, the two recalled rigorous multi-day studying binges they referred to as their "sweat lodge experiences."

Vacanti spent his early days poring over a Python programming book on an extended visit to Brazil. He would start at 4 p.m. and continue on until 7 a.m. the next morning. "The goal wasn't to become the next CTO of Facebook," he said. "It was to learn just enough -- the bare minimum -- to get my idea out into the wild." Ultimately, Vacanti said he was surprised by how easy it is to build Web apps.

Westheimer, who joked that he's not as smart as Vacanti, recounted his own sweat lodge experience: five grueling days locked in his apartment in the fall of 2010 during which he studied an online tutorial book from the time he woke up until he went to sleep. "My girlfriend brought me food and reminded me to shower," he said. "After the first day, I didn't know anything. After the second day, it still didn't make sense. But after the fifth day, I felt like I could solve problems."

Both agreed that the here and there approach to learning code doesn't work, and argued that it's necessary to reserve a chunk of consecutive days for a relentless coding crash-course. In addition, the speakers said, beginners need only learn one of the many programming languages and not bother with anything else at first. In choosing which language to learn, they suggested picking one that a friend knows, so to have someone available for troubleshooting help.

Westheimer and Vacanti also urged the audience to have an idea in mind before diving in. "One hundred percent of the time you spend on your coding education must relate to your idea," Vacanti said. "Do whatever it takes to build that specific thing you want."