Why coders code: 7 LA developers on what got them into programming

March 9, 2017

For all the glory we heap on founders and C-level executives, the success of a given startup is determined behind closed doors, where teams of over-experienced, underpaid developers slave away to create some of the most innovative products. Now it's their turn to speak. Here's how these seven developers got to where they are today.

 

FieldTest Co-Founder and CTO Eric Martin started out his career as a software engineer as a temp for Disney in the early-1990's. By his own admission, his career has followed a bit of a serpentine pattern, but his genuine curiosity for coding has taken him to the top of LA's community of developers.

Why did you get into coding?

I’ve been a professional “coder” for 27 years now. My interest in software development goes all the way back to 1979 when my father brought home a “demonstration” Durango F-85 computer. We had that computer for a couple of months and I spent countless hours playing with it. I learned basic CPM commands and played the Trek game that came with every CPM install. After the computer went back, I begged my father for a computer and in 1983 he bought me a Commodore-64.

The attraction to software development for me has always been the intellectual abstraction mechanism by which software is developed. I love the creative problem-solving process of taking an idea from design to a completed system.

Once you decided you wanted to start coding, how did you turn it into a career?

Turning my desire to be a software developer was not an easy task in the early 1990’s in Los Angeles — there was no startup community. I graduated from college in 1989 into a recession that made finding a job difficult.

My first real job after college was at Walt Disney Imagineering. I was hired out of a temp agency I was working for to help them build large resource planning models in Excel to help executive management figure out the hiring needs to support the “Disney Decade” announced by Michael Eisner.

I transferred into the IT department where I was part of the desktop technical support group. In order to get noticed by the WDI software development group, I started writing tools for the desktop technical support group. One of the tools I wrote integrated with the work management system to automatically send a text, or, alpha page to a tech when a new ticket was assigned. This got the attention of the software development team lead who offered me the opportunity to join his team.

After playing with the internet-based technologies for a while I started pressing the director of IT about building public-facing websites for Disney. A group out of Studio IT had a few sites they ran and I thought that we should be doing something parks related.

Bob [the director] wasn’t interested, but he did me the huge favor of getting WDI involved in the budding “online service” project that was going on inside Disney at the time. Jake Weinbaum who ran Disney Publishing NYC proposed to Michael Eisner that Disney create an AOL style service. Jake did not have a team to help him build the prototype — so Bob convinced Jake to have WDI build the prototype for him. I spent the first six months of 1995 working in the super secret VR labs at WDI developing the prototype. 

In August of 1995 Michael Eisner approved the new Disney Online business unit and I transferred there from WDI. Finally, I had my dream job in software development… building user-facing products— best of all, it was for Disney.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to an aspiring software developer?

Take any job where you can get in an organization that supports the kind of work you want to do. Then work like hell to get noticed. Don’t be afraid to leave a good company if your career appears to be stalling. Also, don’t turn down a promising job just because they are not working with a specific technology. Technology comes and goes, good developers are always learning and evolving.

What do you love about LA's coding community?

I really love the passion I see in the LA coding community. I attend all kinds of meetups and I love seeing the interest in coding from people you wouldn’t normally associate — marketers looking to understand the tech, clothing manufacturers who want to build an app to sell their product lines, people looking to change careers. Los Angeles has become a major hub for tech startups and the coding community that has formed around this reflects that.

 

Like many software engineers, Verifi's Jeff Hirono learned many of the basic skills on his own. It was at his first job that he was given the opportunity to hone those skills and acquire new ones, and since then, he has advanced up the totem pole.

Why did you get into coding?

I started out in college as a business major at USC, but after graduating and pursuing a business career I realized it was not for me. I had an uncle who brought me into the field of coding. I got interested very quickly and saw the potential.

Once you decided you wanted to start coding, how did you turn it into a career? 

I was self-taught and continued my education through the jobs I acquired. My first job was in Pasadena doing basic HTML, CSS and JavaScript work. People in the company gave me the opportunity to learn new technologies and programming languages and provided me a launchpad to grow. I’ve advanced at Verifi into a Team Lead role and I am now able to pass along knowledge to others on my team. 

What do you love about LA's coding community?

It’s full of opportunities, which gives us a very big pool of resources to pick out the fields which pique the most interest. There are so many different industries and programming technologies in the LA area. I can pick and choose what I like to learn. I think most people learn through their jobs so this is essential! 

 

Magnopus is a VR/AR experience company founded by a team of Academy Award-winning artists and technicians.By combining storytelling, art and advanced technologies, they are able to develop high-level augmented, virtual and mixed reality experiences. For Lead Holographic Developer Sally Slade, coding was a means to an end. In order to develop a fan site for her favorite novel, she started learning HTML, and her curiosity for the technology only deepened. 

Why did you get into coding?

I got into coding because I wanted to make a fan website for my favorite fantasy novel, "A Spell for Chameleon" by Piers Anthony. This sent me down a rabbit hole of HTML and JavaScript: It was my first introduction to computer programming and I found it enthralling.

Once you decided you wanted to start coding, how did you turn it into a career? 

After my first taste of code, I wanted to find a career that combined the style and efficiency of computers with contemporary art. I found that the film "The Incredibles" did exactly this, so I studied careers related to computer animation. I quickly idolized the role of technical director and pursued a degree in computer science to reach this goal. Armed with my fancy piece of paper, I was able to get my foot in the door of the visual effects industry. I served a charmed eight years in VFX, split between the rock 'n' roll mecca of talent that was Digital Domain in Venice followed by the startup-turned-titan Scanline VFX of Culver City.

It was around that time that I visited some colleagues at Magnopus in DTLA, where they allowed me to demo Google's Tilt Brush on HTC's Vive System. My departure from VFX was near immediate as I fell in love with virtual and augmented reality as platforms for artistic expression. That was one year ago, and I have been happily coding in C# as a Unity developer for Magnopus ever since.

What do you love about LA's coding community?

I have only recently investigated LA's coding community outside of my existing network. What I have found is that the collaborative spirit far outweighs the Smeagolly race to finish first, and I love that. 

 

Appetize's Mobile Lead Stuart Prillaman first became fascinated with technology as a kid and spent many of his formative years developing everything from games to rollercoaster databases. Having relocated to LA from Austin a little over two years ago, Prillaman finds the LA tech community to be fascinatingly diverse.

Why did you get into coding?

It really started with my love for the Commodore 64, and a desire to write games. I wrote my first line of GW Basic when I was very young, maybe six or seven. My mom would buy me quarter books from the library, in most cases, I didn’t even know what they were about. Watching the computer spit back at me: “Hi, I’m a computer!” really got me hooked. My first game was a two player “tic tac toe” that used the koala pad (a rudimentary touch pad) to tap where to place your mark.

Moving over to the PC, I started cranking out games, first with Visual Basic and then VC++ (I asked for both on consecutive Christmases). One of the books that I got from the library was about obscure, ancient games, and not wanting to make yet another clone of Tetris (I did that too), I made games like 21 Nim, mancala and a variation of trap. Starting a new project, it’s always exciting to see that first response of the operating system drifting into the background as a new creation takes form.

Writing mobile software brought a lot of that early joy back.

Once you decided you wanted to start coding, how did you turn it into a career?

I was 17 and I was making weird software at home (a database/compendium of all roller coasters, presentation software for elementary level kids and BBS doors), when my school librarian referred me to her daughter who had just gone back to school and was working as a web developer.

I interviewed, they offered me a job and I took it, sure I would be found out to be a fraud at any moment. Still to this day, the thing I take with me from that job is that this is a profession of people that love what they do, trying to figure out a better way to do it.

In the short time I worked there: I participated in client pitches, built a flash website for M&M Mars, sliced and coded a major production site (AmericanMusical) and built a tool that would auto-generate Javascript for dropdown menus (which everyone thought they wanted in 2000).

What do you love about LA's coding community?

I moved to Los Angeles from New York City, by way of Austin, which makes it hard not to draw comparisons. I think the thing I like most about the Los Angeles coding scene is the ease I feel here. It’s very easy to strike up a conversation, and you’re just as likely to be speaking with someone whose cranking away on YouTube as you are someone working on a new stealth-mode startup. The meetup and community workspace scenes are both very strong here, which is something Appetize is starting to realize, hosting our first Swift meetup this month.

 

Repost Network is a multi-channel SoundCloud network that allows users to generate revenue from their SoundCloud accounts. Co-Founder and CTO Joey Mason said he always had a fascination with computers, but an introductory computer science class sent him down the path to where he is today.

Why did you get into coding? Was there a cool idea you wanted to execute, a hero you looked up to or something else entirely?

When I was growing up, I was really into building computers. Because of that, when I got to college, I decided to major in electrical engineering. One of the first classes I had to take was a Java programming class, and I fell in love with coding almost immediately. There was something so rewarding about teaching a computer how to solve a problem. I changed my major to computer science the next semester and never looked back. 

Once you decided you wanted to start coding, how did you turn it into a career?

Even as a computer science student, my ultimate goal was always to be a startup founder. To do that, I knew that I would need to become a solid engineer and that I would need to network. I think that for a lot of people — even those with CS degrees — before you get your first programming gig, there can be a lot of self-doubt about how well you will do on a dev team (see imposter syndrome). This certainly was the case for me, so while I was still in school, I aggressively pursued work experience. I found that, in general, if you have a good attitude and are able to learn, companies will take a chance on you. I hacked away on personal projects and managed to do four different internships. My final internship at DirecTV ended up becoming a full-time job once I graduated. 

Working at DirecTV helped me land a job at an LA-based startup, FreedomPop. Back then, the dev team at FreedomPop was only six or seven people, so during my time there, I learned a ton. In my free time, I continued to learn and network and eventually, I was able to co-found Repost Network, where we help musicians earn a living through their audiences online.

What do you love about LA's coding community?

There’s a huge amount of pride and optimism in the LA tech community right now, so it’s really fun to be a part of that. The community is also incredibly friendly toward newcomers. If you’re interested in learning how to code, I’d definitely recommend attending a local hackathon or coding meetup.

 

Reed Morrison, a software developer with Verizon Digital Media Services, started out his career in electrical engineering. Over the years, however, he has meandered towards the computer science side of business.

Why did you get into coding?

My earliest memories of coding are in BASIC on an Apple IIe in elementary school. I was originally drawn to computer graphics and I even worked on little animations on a Macintosh Quadra in high school. In high school, my best friend and I were avid readers of 2600 and talked a lot about cybersecurity topics.

Jon Carmack, one of the lead developers of Doom and an early 3D game engine, was easily one of my original programming idols.

I became a software developer mostly due to circumstance. I majored in signal processing in college and had intended to work for a Telco — until the telecom bust of 2001. I ended up working in software/firmware development for radar systems for a small defense contractor.

Once you decided you wanted to start coding, how did you turn it into a career?

I've always been coding ever since elementary, despite my major in college, which was electrical engineering (although I did take a few CS classes as well).

My career path has been a steady progression of more and more software development and less and less electrical engineering. I used to spend about half of my time in my first job designing circuits, and now I'm nothing but a full-stack developer, working in the cloud.

What do you love about LA's coding community?

A very personal observation about the coding community in Los Angeles is that it appears to be one of the more diverse developer communities. I just heard on NPR that of the 40 languages spoken in the United States, 39 are spoken here in parts of Los Angeles

Verizon Digital Media Services' Director of Engineering Natasha Julka always thought her brother was stuck in his room playing video games, until the day he showed her what he was really up to: programming.

Why did you get into coding?

As a child, I was always interested in solving math problems and my younger brother got me interested in the programming world. I remember the first time he showed me what he used to do when holed up in his room. I used to think he was playing video games like most kids, but he was actually programming. I was impressed. Once I got into it too, I began to realize that programming is no different than solving a math problem. You are pretty much figuring out a solution to a problem. 

Once you decided you wanted to start coding, how did you turn it into a career?

Once I started coding, I loved the challenges and the process of thinking through those problems. I worked on my bachelor’s degree in computer science, followed by a master’s degree in computer science. Initially, I was trying to figure what I was interested in, so I worked on a lot of different systems like mainframe programming, desktop applications, web programming and mobile programming. Over the course of my career, I wanted to grow as a web programmer. I have been working on that since 2008 and I am still constantly learning and enhancing my craft.

What do you love about LA's coding community?

What I love about L.A.’s coding community is its diversity in both people and technology, which enhance creativity and empower people to grow their skillset to become leaders. 

 

Images via participating companies. Some responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Have a news tip for us or know of a company that deserves coverage? Let us know and follow us on Twitter @BuiltInLA

Jobs from companies in this blog16 open jobs
All
Finance
Developer + Engineer
HR
Legal
Marketing
Operations
Product