The Fetch Blog

Curated reads and events for professionals

Interview: San Francisco local, Paul Biggar, founder of CircleCI — May 4, 2014

Interview: San Francisco local, Paul Biggar, founder of CircleCI

Paul Biggar

“The best things we did to be successful were to spend a lot of time talking to customers before building the product, and to focus on making a truly excellent product. We spent way more time there than on sales and marketing, and that made a real impact.”

Kate Kendall talks programming, startup lessons, the Irish tech scene and San Francisco life with Paul Biggar, founder of CircleCI.

Having been based in San Francisco for some time now, have you found it has changed much over the past few years?

The main difference is how ubiquitous tech is. SoMa is bursting with startups, rents are through the roof, the market for developers is skyrocketing, and venture money is everywhere. When I started coming here in 2009, there was a lot of tech, but it wasn’t quite popping the way it is now. And the resentment (around Google buses, etc) certainly wasn’t there.

You have worked extensively on dynamic scripting languages. Why do you think their importance has grown in software development?

I attribute it largely to the rise of the web, and also because of a dissatisfaction with Java. When the web as a platform (“Web 2.0”) was really taking off in about 2005-ish, there was massive frustration with Java. Up until that point, there were limited alternatives, and if you weren’t using Java you were probably using Perl (which was frustrating in different ways). That’s when PHP and Python and Ruby really started taking off.

Python had been slowly growing in popularity for about a decade. PHP had become the defacto language for individuals to build websites, since it was incredibly easy to deploy them. The Ruby on Rails came along and really took the world by storm. By 2009, a vast majority of new startups were using Rails, something still true today, even though there are many more options now than back then.

Most of the frustration from static languages came from inflexibility – Java was a giant ecosystem of heavyweight components, and an ugly type system. By contrast, dynamic languages were freeing. It was an easy sell.

You are a co-founder of CircleCI, a hosted continuous deployment provider, how would you describe the benefits of CI to a less technical team/person?

Developers write code, and every time they do, CircleCI automatically tests their code to make sure it still works (that’s “Continuous Integration”). It’s a productivity tool for developer teams, that lets developers ship code much faster, meaning they get their products to market faster, and keep them more reliable.

What have been some of the hardest challenges you’ve faced to date and what insights do you now have from navigating them?

Every three months brings new challenges. The challenge you have as a two person startup trying to get some adoption is a different challenge from being a 14-person startup with thousands of customers and millions in revenue. I’ve spent a lot of time looking forward to figure out what the challenges are going to be three and six months from now, and asking other founders and CEOs what the future is going to look like.

I would say the hardest thing is getting to traction. Once we got to a million in annual revenue, the future became fairly straightforward and was well carved out. But that journey to make sure we had a product that was useful, find customers for it, try to get them to pay, etc, that was a hard journey.

The best things we did to be successful were to spend a lot of time talking to customers before building the product, and to focus on making a truly excellent product. We spent way more time there than on sales and marketing, and that made a real impact. Nothing helps a customer make a decision like a recommendation from their friend, and the higher the quality of the product, the more likely that is to happen.

Do you think your previous company NewsTilt was before its time?

Yes and no. NewsTilt was predicated on the idea that journalism was becoming more niche. Instead of a reader going to a newspaper for all their news, they’d read news from many smaller sites related to their interests, like TechCrunch, or The Fetch, or other small-ish communities built around niche topics. That prediction was totally correct, in my opinion.

The other side of this is that while we anticipated the problem, I’m not sure we got the solution right. We were trying to build a platform where we’d solve all of a journalist’s problems in trying to achieve that, like distribution, revenue, etc. Nobody else has done what we were trying to do, so its hard to see if it would have really solved the problem today. Companies like Medium and Svbtle are doing well with high quality publishing and better tools for publishers, but are not really looking at community as part of their platforms.

What’s the Irish tech scene like? Do people feel they need to move to the US to build a global company?

Dublin has a nice tech scene now. There’s a lot of people building products and tools and starting companies. It wasn’t that way when I left in 2010. One of the major changes since then has been the massive explosion of US companies setting up in Ireland. Dublin was always a tech hub, and Google very famously set up there, but in the last few years about 40 large US companies like Yahoo, Facebook, Hubspot, Zynga, Dropbox, etc, have all set up there too.

During the mid-2000s, when the Celtic Tiger was booming, tech wasn’t a very glamorous profession, unlike finance and real estate which were major drivers of the economy. Now, developer salaries are rising, tech is booming, and most of the rest of the economy still hasn’t recovered. So tech is important and interesting now in a way that it never was before.

There is a lot of debate in Ireland about whether you have to move to the US and to San Francisco to build your company. I suspect its the same debate being played out in New York and Austin and London and Berlin, with the caveat that emigrating for better opportunity has been something the Irish have done for hundreds of years.

Whether or not to move has the same factors in every city: does your market and company and product benefit from being in SF, through access to capital, customers base, press, engineering talent, startup experience, etc. I’m a firm believer that the best thing an Irish investor can do to help their company is to buy the founders a one-way ticket to SF.

Where’s your favorite place to relax in San Francisco?

This sounds a bit lame, but my most relaxing time is walking my dog near my apartment in SoMa. We live just by the Bay Bridge and walk down to AT&T Park along Embarcadero and under the Bay Bridge.

What local events do you recommend checking out?

Once your company starts kicking off, you kinda stop going to that many events any more. I really enjoyed going to tech meetups once I got to SF, and then more once I started using them to network and find customers and early hires. Once CircleCI really took off, I’ve mostly stopped going to meetups, with the exception of particularly high quality events, in particular events where successful operators are presenting. 

For me, the best recent events I’ve been to are at Heavybit and Y Combinator, both of which are unfortunately members-only.

About our writer // Kate Kendall is the founder of The Fetch and CloudPeeps. She also blogs about startup life and advises businesses on the role of community. Follow her via @katekendall.

3 reasons to level up your programming skills — March 23, 2014

3 reasons to level up your programming skills

This is a sponsored post from our friends at General Assembly London.


There was a time when computer nerds were seen as misfits (watch the 1984 movie ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ if you don’t believe me). These days, that characterization couldn’t be further from the truth. Programmers, computer engineers, and data scientists are hailed as leaders in the business, technology, and design communities.

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Can you learn to code in one week? — August 11, 2013

Can you learn to code in one week?

Rik and Kumar

“Without numerical fluency, in the part of life most of us inhibit, you are like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”

~Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway

This was true and always will be, but what is becoming increasingly important is the ability to code. It’s something I’ve always wanted to learn to code so that I can execute some of the crazy ideas in my head instead of relying on someone else. Thankfully The Fetch gave me the opportunity to attend an intensive week long front end web development course with the equally lovely people at Steer, to learn some of the skills to pay the bills.

My bags packed and an early night sleep I was raring to go on Monday morning. Which happened to be the day after Andy Murray effectively earned himself a knighthood and the start of London’s heatwave, so thank God, Steer’s Farringdon office had air conditioning. We were greeted by the our teachers for the week Rik and Callum, the cat loving Jedi knight and his young ex-rock star Padawan, and then introduced to the rest of the class, an eclectic bunch, mainly consisting of designers but there were also people in private equity, publishing, teaching, those ad types.

The course was excellently put together, we started off with a simple one page CV site, just to get the basics of HTML then moved to a great little photo blog to learn about floats and layout. After which we moved to TeaTime, on which we learnt responsive design for mobiles and tablets. By the end of the week we got to jQuery, that’s when things started to get a little more difficult, but especially rewarding, as we built some really cool expensive looking websites.

Rik is clearly supremely skilled developer, his Jedi skills on demonstration at lunch one day when he was showing us some websites and then decided to copy one which he duly knocked out in approximately seven minutes straight from scratch.

The sequence of sites we built gave us the skills to build real websites and not just learn the syntax of HTML and JavaScript, so all very practical knowledge. They’ve almost nailed the pace, we get a lot packed in whilst still having the support of the teachers so that no one gets left behind. Oh and they have excellent food and drinks to keep us nourished throughout – I love hummus bros now.

Since the course I’ve manage to land a commission to build a site for a little pharma company in India,  so it’s already paying dividends (Rik you’ll see me at your free Thursday drop in help sessions a lot!) and hopefully once I get a bit more experience I’ll be enrolling onto the back end course.

Thanks all of you guys for the opportunity, I’ll won’t forget you guys when I’m sitting in my ivory tower after selling my company for 100 gazillion pounds.

So  yes, it does look like you can learn to code in one week. For a listing of other great offline workshops and future Steer sessions, check out The Fetch in your city. Keep a look out for future scholarships so we can send you along.

About our contributor // Kumar Kolar was the recipient of a Steer scholarship after he submitted a brilliant application for our competition in London. He also visited India recently and blessed a Fetch-coloured tennis ball to bring us prosperity – what more could we ask for! Pic here. Views are his own and not led by Steer!

Image credit: Kumar and Rik during a code session

Interview: Melbourne local, Steven Farlie of OpenTechSchool — January 22, 2013

Interview: Melbourne local, Steven Farlie of OpenTechSchool

This week, we chat to Steven Farlie – the person bringing OpenTechSchool in Australia after he was across the initiative in Berlin. The workshops supporting education and sharing across diverse backgrounds in technology are kicking off in Melbourne next month. Stay tuned for more event announcements in upcoming Fetches and we’ll see you there!


What is OpenTechSchool and how does it differ from user groups, dev bootcamps and the like?

We are a group of volunteers who offer free programming workshops. It began in Berlin back in April 2012, so we are still fairly new. Some of us became quite fond of OpenTechSchool in Berlin and decided to start up local chapters once we left.

Our workshops are fairly small and we like to bring a lot of coaches who are themselves professional programmers. There is only so much you can teach in a couple of hours so we like to keep it practical, keep it fun and encourage people to experiment.

It’s all open technology, and free of charge, so why not just have some fun and poke around?

In addition to the workshops we have a regular beginner meetup. These are usually evenings where we have a couple of talks such as introductions to algorithms or programmers talking about how they started programming. Beginners also share their experiences over the past few months with a particular language or personal project.

You started out with clear positioning saying OTS was for women? What prompted you to change the language?

We started after the first RailsGirls Berlin workshop, so OpenTechSchool is from the women in tech movement but isn’t specifically women in tech, if that makes any sense. We like to think of ourselves as complementary to organisations like Rails Girls and Girl Geek Dinners. There is a strong cross-pollination of coaches and organisers and we hope to keep that going over time. The fact of the matter is that the women in tech scene is the most fun, vibrant and exciting community in technology right now and OpenTechSchool wants to bring that to everyone.

picAn OpenTechSchool session in Berlin

Why do you think it’s important the wider popular and diverse groups learn to code?

The issue of empowerment is often overlooked and yet so much of our lives are controlled by technology. When someone learns how to program then they start to experience technology in a much more informed way. Possibilities open up and people are able to solve problems that programmers haven’t even considered. From farmers managing their crops with Android apps to journalists crunching data with Python you can actually get a lot done without having to be a professional programmer.

One the other side, bringing in a diverse group of beginners actually strengthens the community. Many of the things we do as professional programmers are actually dictated by history or convention, often with detrimental results. Beginners ask the right questions and call us out on doing stupid things that we’ve always put up with before. The end result is that our original assumptions get challenged and a lot of really good ideas come out.

You started out of Berlin – have you noticed many differences between Melbourne and it? Where else is OTS headed?

After Berlin I will never complain about the weather in Melbourne ever again!

Of all the places I’ve been in Europe I found Berlin to be the most Melbourne-like. Both are multicultural, dynamic cities with a lot of new things happening all the time. It’s interesting that there are so many analogues between the two, even in the tech scene. Berlin coworking spaces usually have a spiritual equivalent in Melbourne, though the Berlin ones can be quite large. We both have interesting startups and well established larger tech companies. I say to people if you love Melbourne you’ll also love Berlin.

We’ve been a bit lucky, starting in Berlin. There are so many expats and temporary visitors that movements like OpenTechSchool can spread very quickly. We have plenty of Germans, French, Americans, Australians and Italians on the team, and when people do leave they have a tendency to take OpenTechSchool with them. Stockholm is quite well established now, having hosted several workshops and beginner meetups. Soon we hope to also be in Munich and Paris. We even made a blueprint guide on our website for people wanting to start an OpenTechSchool chapter in their city.

What can attendees expect on the day? What tech knowledge do they need to know beforehand?

All we ask is for people to bring a laptop and a smile. Our beginner workshop does not require any programming knowledge at all. Our coaches are there to help people with any problems that they have. We design our workshops to be at your own pace, so there is no such thing as “being behind”. We try to get a basic level of coursework that most people will finish before the end and then add extra topics for people to explore. All our coursework is free and available online after the course, and all software we use is free so you can continue the journey after the workshop has finished.

What upcoming events should we keep a look out for?

After the beginner Python workshop, well, maybe I shouldn’t say, but… things might get a little political! The past few years have seen a rise in data-driven journalism and some people have expressed interest in seeing what actually goes on behind the scenes. In case you haven’t heard, data journalism is the new punk. If enough interest is there we might do a workshop looking at things like transforming economic and political data into infographics and maps.

Check out the first event with an Intro to Python here!

For a great round-up of upcoming programming events and news from OpenTechSchool plus other related goodness, subscribe our free email digests via The Fetch.

About our Curator // Kate Kendall is the founder and CEO of The Fetch, a community where professionals can discover and share what’s happening in their city. Before this, Kate led product, content and digital at magazine companies, handled outreach for new startups and organised too many communities and events to mention. Follow her on Twitter at @katekendall.

Event Review: Programming for Non-Programmers at GA — September 14, 2012

Event Review: Programming for Non-Programmers at GA

When: Saturday 1 September 2012
Where: General Assembly, 
9 Back Hill, 
4th Floor, London EC1R 5EN

Amanda Foley, London Community Ambassador, recently attended ‘Programming for Non-Programmers’, an intensive day-long workshop at General Assembly London, designed to teach you the basics in web development.

The course was a full-day intensive workshop at GA London led by Devin Hunt, YC 2007 alum and founder of Lyst, and was assisted by Rik Lomas. It was designed to give total beginners a crash-course in web development basics, including HTML, CSS and javascript.

Long before class was due to begin, the room was completely filled with eager mac-wielding students keen to learn and get their hands dirty with a bit of code. The crowd had varying levels of experience, from complete and total newbies, to folks who had a bit more experience, like myself, who just wanted to brush up on their skills.

We were warned that it was going to be seriously jam-packed day of information, so if you’re a total web development newbie, I’d recommend a full night of sleep and a strong coffee before you attend this course. Staying up late unpacking boxes is definitely not recommended. You may or may not nod off halfway through*.

You may think that six hours isn’t enough time to teach a complete newbie how to code a website, but you’d be wrong. Lucky for us, Canadian-born Devin can teach as fast as he talks, and after a mere six hours, we walked away having coded an entirely functional “business card” site. Courtney Boyd Myers, GA London’s Director of Audience Development took part in the day-long workshop as well, and even uploaded her website to dropbox to share.

Personally, I learnt a few amazing new tips and techniques to help my basic coding skills, which is invaluable for my career. It made me hungry to learn much more…and I’m already browsing the GA course lineup for more advanced courses!

If you’re interested in learning the basics in development yourself, they’re hosting another ‘Programming for Non-Programmers‘ in October. If you’re hungry to dive even deeper into learning front-end code, they’ve got an 8 week intensive crash-course on front-end development which looks seriously awesome and should turn into anyone into a front-end wizard in no time.

And lastly, you’re interested in any of their other courses, do check out the full GA London course lineup as listed in The Fetch each fortnight. They’ve got more design, development, social media, business and UX courses than you can shake a stick at!

*I may or may not have stayed up until 3am moving house the night before. Oopsie!

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