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Q&A with Dane Lyons

CTO and cofounder of Knowtify, San Francisco

Hi, I'm Dane Lyons. I've been the CTO and cofounder of Knowtify for the last 18 months. It's hard to briefly describe your role in an early stage startup because every day is different. My days can include any or all of the following:

  • Building new features
  • Improving old features
  • Scaling our infrastructure
  • Collaborating on design/ux
  • Fixing bugs
  • Supporting customers
  • Collaborating with other developers
  • Thinking about or prototyping new ideas
  • Supporting sales
  • Supporting marketing
  • Data entry
  • Anything else that needs to happen

How did you become an engineer and developer, what is your background?

In high school I dabbled with programming games on the TI-86. I didn't have access to the internet or any resources to teach me how to code other than the manual and a ton of trial and error. For better and worse, that early experience has heavily influenced how I've written code since then. I'm too self reliant which is a bad thing but I also tend to tinker with things which is a good thing.

From there I skipped college and joined the Marines. My role was essentially to be a mechanic and fix all kinds of machines without any real formal training. That helped me start to develop my early development skills by appealing to the tinkerer in me while showing me old machines that were inefficiently designed. I spent a lot of my time dreaming up new ways to redesign those machines or even invent better machines to accomplish the same task.

While in the Marines I also took up chess as a hobby. It's a beautifully complex game that I could immerse myself in for days straight. I'm sure that experience has influenced how I approach problems.

After the Marines, I've spent the last 12 years teaching myself to code while working for various web companies and startups. Over that time I've developed into a generalist. There are a ton of people out there more experienced and efficient at any given programming language or technology. I'm ok with that. I'd personally rather know something about everything than everything about one thing.

My path to becoming a developer wasn't very common. I see that as a good thing. The more diverse we are as developers, the more unique perspectives we bring to the table. That allows us to solve different problems in different ways.

Where did you study? Looking back, would you recommend your path to beginners?

I learned by reading books, looking up documentation and a hell of a lot of tinkering. I would definitely recommend this path for beginners.

People are so enamored with the idea of these courses that 'teach you to code' in 4-6 weeks. I'm not entirely against this route because everyone needs to start somewhere. The problem I see with them is the level of abstraction. Sure you can learn to glue together a few libraries in order to achieve a very specific result. But these solutions don't work for every case. Good developers are capable of inventing and adapting solutions. To do that, you need to know the fundamentals. So start with simple patterns and high level abstractions but don't ignore the fundamentals.

What are the books and weblogs helped you to improve your professional skills?

Early on I used to read a lot of tech books but these days information is so readily available online that I've gone away from that approach. I also wouldn't say that I have a set of blogs that I specifically follow. I really value diversity of information so I try to read from a lot of different sources. I mostly use Twitter, Google, Hacker News, Product Hunt and Medium for discovery.

What is your ideal work environment? Do you work at Knowtify or mix a few activities?

I'm honestly not a fan of this whole coworking and open workspace movement. There are a ton of benefits to mixing people together from different backgrounds and roles. The idea is you'll create these chance collisions where 2 people get together and combine their unique experiences to invent new solutions. In the real world that rarely happens. More often, it's just a big distraction with very few productive chance collisions and everyone gets less work done in the process.

The workspace needs to be reinvented. I don't have the solution to this problem but I'd like to see an experiment that is similar to the following:

  1. A work environment is broken down into 3 different types of spaces.
    • Work: These could be sound proof pods where people work in isolation and are not interrupted while they work.
    • Common: These are spaces without desks/computers where people take frequent breaks from work and converse with other people.
    • Collaboration: These are spaces that are designated to a specific problem or topic. Anyone with ideas to contribute can freely enter and exit these spaces as they see fit. The number of spaces and topics should dynamically change and optimize for activity.
  2. Workers should be self governed. The idea is to use the common space and collaboration space to figure out what needs to be done then use the work space to do it.

Who are the people in San Francisco or outside, colleagues from Knowtify you admire most?

The world is full of people to draw inspiration from. Instead of fixating on a few people, pay attention to the good qualities in everyone you're exposed to. I could talk about so many people here but I'll just cover 2 that are out of my industry for example.

  • Evy Wilkins: In addition to being my substantial other, (substantial > significant) Evy inspires me every day. She is the VP of marketing for Unyq and has an amazing work ethic. She constantly accomplishes amazing things with limited resources. It's a daily display of creativity, adaptability and grit. On top of that, she works out 5 times a week!
  • Jay Lyons: My brother and a great collaborator of ideas. When you explore new ideas with people, it's a natural tendency for people to immediately evaluate the idea and label it as good or bad. I don't think this is generally a good approach. Instead treat new ideas like improv and just imagine that they're real. Then go about describing that world and imagining what it would be like to live there. Jay and other people who treat new ideas like improv are the proponents of innovation.