Chris Castiglione Teacher at One Month. Faculty at Columbia University where I teach Digital Literacy. I write about coding, the internet, and social impact.

How Bryan Helmig (Co-Founder of Zapier) Learn to Code

33 min read

This week on the podcast I’m chatting with Bryan Helmig, the CTO and co-founder of Zapier. In our discussion, we talk about how Bryan learned to code, how One Month uses Zapier to save us time and money, and some of the most in-demand tech skills that business owners like Bryan are hiring for. 

In this episode we discuss:

  • What is Zapier?
  • How can you get the most out of using Zapier?
  • What is an API?
  • What does a CTO do?
  • How many job applications does Zapier receive every week?
  • What are some of the most in-demand skills today?

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What is Zapier?

Bryan: So Zapier is, we call it like a platform for automation. And at its heart, it’s a way to just connect a lot of SAS services together and kind of automate some of your life, especially your work life in really interesting ways that make you more productive and more efficient. For example, like I am notoriously bad at getting back to people on Slack so I have a trigger set up whenever I star a message in slack, it goes and sends an email to my Gmail account so that I can follow up, it’s just at the top of my inbox.

I have others apps that are triggering off of other things in Slack as well. I have little scripts that run inside of Zapier. And there’s all these like triggers and actions that connect, you can kind of mix and match them and do all kinds of stuff.

Chris: Cool. Yeah, and let me let me like clarify that that’s not built in functionality of Slack. And Slack is this chat app just in case anybody isn’t familiar, you know, this app where you can chat at work, we use it as well here at One Month. And that’s not a built in function that you can do that, but with Zapier, you’re able to like add functionality to existing apps, that’s more or less the situation.

Bryan: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, that’s right. And this is the kind of stuff that you might do if you were writing some code and talking to some of these API’s that some of these apps provide.

What is an API?

Bryan: An API is, just like a browser might be the way you interact with a website, an API is a way for computers to interact with a website in a programmatical way. So this is exactly what you would be writing code to do. So instead of, let’s say you want to look at every single email you got coming in and try to find all the ones that have a particular word in them or something, you could use Gmail’s API to pull those emails down and iterate through them, which is probably going to be a lot faster than you personally going through and looking at each email one on one. And these are the sorts of things that Zapier, for example, is built on, except we kind of abstract that away so you don’t have to worry about writing the code. You can but for the most part, these are just kind of native built in pieces of functionality you can mix and match.

Chris: Totally. I think it’s a great definition of an API. It’s automation is what we’re talking about, it’s a way to automate, I guess the automation is using the API, but that’s more or less the idea is like you can do these things with your heavy hand and your mouse clicking like a monkey like trying to like go through Gmail over hours. Or you can write a script to do it for you. That’s like the best commercial that I could imagine. There’s like some ape and he’s like, I could click through my emails all day, where you could write a script and have all these triggers and automation and have it do it in the background when you’re not even there, search for things, alert you of things. I don’t know how you feel about that. 

Bryan: I think that’s great. So just imagine all that repeatable stuff you do, whether it’s downloading a spreadsheet and then uploading it somewhere else or looking through and trying to find that Google doc and attaching it to the thread inside of your email client or in your chat software. Like all those just like super routine things that you do week in day in day out, those are the sorts of things you can automate with something like Zapier.

And it gets really interesting whenever it’s starting to do stuff for your business and enabling all kinds of neat things that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to do just because it’s either too much work or it takes too much time. And obviously, computers are much faster at doing those sorts of things. They can do them all day, all night and they don’t get tired. So those are the those are the things that people are using Zapier for. And they’re very close to the things that people would be writing code for. But we kind of like, we abstract some of that, or some of the complexity right away and some of the annoyance away from it.

Chris: Yeah. And the reason I’m really excited to have you on the podcast today is because trying to explain these concepts sometimes, we’re using a lot of words like API and data and automation. And if you don’t have like the basic coding knowledge or experience using Zapier, then sometimes these things are just kind of lost. Yeah, I was actually talking to my friend right before this and I was explaining I was excited to talk with you. And she was like what Zap, I always screw up the name, Zapier, sorry, I was trying to explain it to her and yeah, it took me a little while, you know what I mean? And I found that like when I gave examples, it got her excited.

So I’m going to give you an example because I think for people listening as well, it’s probably best to like learn through examples. One of my favorite zaps is tweets, right? You’re tweeting and it’s this content that, in a way, there’s like, I’ve been on Twitter for a decade now and a lot of that gets lost because I feel that, I mean, I don’t know how good Twitter search is and I don’t know if Twitter ever goes down. It’s like all those links, all that time, all this stuff, I would lose it.

And so, I use to zap that every time I tweet, it puts it, I have a word, it basically makes a post, and it’s like a secret WordPress that I have that basically makes a post out of it. Like it’s not public but it’s just for me because it helps me kind of search through like 10 years of tweets and be like, oh, that’s that link I was looking for, or oh, that’s who I was talking to back then. Felt like it’s a really cool archive of Twitter. So it’s a personal one that I really like.

Bryan: Yeah, we see stuff like that that’s really common, especially trying to, just try to save various bits of information into even like a spreadsheet kind of treat it like a database, sort of a thing, super common because that’s a database you can kind of, you know, almost like touch and feel inside of your browser rather than a database like MySQL or Postgre where you got to like put it on a server and run it and configure it and all this other stuff. And then to interact with it, you have to write SQL queries rather than just like looking at like a table.

So we commonly see people using stuff like spreadsheets as kind of their database. So, that’s a common one. You have someone have a form on their website, a contact form, and then when someone fills that out, that’s a trigger that adds a row to your spreadsheet. And maybe that’s a lead form or maybe that’s a support form. But you can also add like extra steps as well. So it’s like, maybe add it to the sheet but also send a text message to the salesperson or send it an email into my inbox or whatever. And then you can kind of start to build, I think of them as like Rube Goldberg machines where these marbles are clicking and hitting all these other things and you have this really complex powerful machine from a lot of simple components.

That’s kind of the where the power comes from And why Zapier is so hard to explain at times is because it can kind of do a little bit of everything. But unless you have that seed of a thought of how you might use it like I want to save my leads into a sheet, and then whenever someone updates the sheet row, I want to like send it out and tell them thank you for buying, you know, like all these sorts of things, then it really starts to click together and you can see how you can use it. But until then, it’s just like a programming language that you’re trying to learn. It’s not just strictly learning the syntax or any of that, it’s like thinking through the problems you want to solve with that language, which is a totally different exercise and something I think people sometimes have a hard time connecting and why examples really help do that.

What are some business use cases for how they might use Zapier to automate workflows?

Bryan: Yeah, it’s a great question. So, I think a classic one is collecting leads. We have this partnership with Facebook is a good example. My wife is really into like makeup products and stuff. So she sees an ad on Facebook and she fills out that little form that they have embedded in Facebook. Well, if that makeup company is using Zapier, they can trigger off of that lead form being filled out which they paid good money for, right? They can send that directly into MailChimp or AWeber or Active Campaign or whatever their mail subscribers services, and they add that to that. So, my wife now gets weekly updates on some of the new products coming out.

They could also follow up on those emails whenever she clicks on something and interacts with them, it updates another item in their records. You could imagine them adding to let’s say their CRM, so even if it was like a high dollar ticket price or an item, you might have salespeople that are working through this. So instead of going to a subscription service or a mailing service like that, you might go to a CRM where salespeople can follow up and reach out directly to them to try to close a deal and kind of handle it that way. So there are all kinds of different like things that you can do through Zapier or through real automation. It doesn’t have to be Zapier, Zapier is just an easy way to get started.

Chris: I was curious, as you were saying that, isn’t that some functionality that’s maybe already baked into something like Salesforce?

Bryan: Sometimes, but the interesting thing is it’s not everywhere and there’s millions and millions of different ways to work with data, and if you can write an API or write code, a lot of times you can use the functionality that’s built into let’s say Salesforce’s API to do just that special thing you want to do that’s important for your business. But if you don’t have the resources, if you don’t have access to developers to do that, you might find yourself missing that feature that an app has. So it’s a lot of mix and match that really drives this as sort of a necessity.

Chris: Yeah, I see what you’re saying. So I think some of the benefit of Zapier is that you don’t need to know how to code in order to use it. And so if you’re a non programmer, you can show up at a new role or whether you’re starting your own small business or large business, whatever, you can get going without having to necessarily rely on a developer. Is that kind of the distinction that you’re making?

Bryan: I think so. And sometimes I don’t know how many times you’ve sent an email to like a company and been like so it’s really cool you guys do this but can you also do that, and you have like a feature request. A lot of times, you might be the only person that’s ever requested that, they may not prioritize that. So having a tool like Zapier, being able to write code and configure APIs like that gives you the ability to augment the tools that you would like a lot for some subset of functionality but it’s missing another thing that you think would be really useful for yourself or for your business. It’s not just that but it’s also augmenting some of the feature sets which I think you’ve touched on a little bit earlier today.

Chris: Cool. I think you lead yourself to the next question, which I have to ask, and I think it’ll help us understand the landscape a little bit better. But as far as your competition goes, if we want to call it that, I know there’s a few other services that come to mind that do something similar. And the one that comes to mind is If This Then That, ifttt.com, how does Zapier differ from If This Then That if you have an opinion on that at all?

How is Zapier different than IFTTT?

Bryan: Yeah, we think that this like marketplace of automation is growing really fast because I think lots of people are trying to be more productive and more efficient and automation is going to be I think a big part of all of our lives, certainly of this generation. It’s going to change a lot of the world. So, we’re generally really excited about just anyone who gets into automation in any way. We’re big automation nerds. I’ll start there.

Some of the other companies we see doing this, we think some of that stuff is really interesting as well, If is particularly interesting, they have a big focus on IoT. So I know have lots of like hue light bulbs and switches and things like that. And they really have a big focus on those sorts of things, which, you know, for us, we’re a very small and medium business oriented kind of company, that’s our customer and where we spend all of our time. So we spend a bit less time on the IoT sorts of things. So that would be like the easiest sort of distinction at that level.

Chris: Yeah, I think that makes sense. And that’s kind of how I feel about it and that’s why I was curious to hear from you. To me, I mean, this is just my perception, I don’t actually know the answer to this. But to me, If This Then That, I’m actually not even sure if that’s a company as much as just a few, it seems more like a project sometimes, I’ll just say that that’s my perception. I don’t know, do you know the answer to that? Is it actually.

Bryan: They are a company.

Chris: Sorry to them, because I love their products.

Bryan: Yeah. And we also look at just this as a general thing that people are just not aware of what you can do with automation. So we still see a ton of people just relying on, trying to get developer resources or a friend to put this thing together or whatever, where in a lot of that they can do themselves and use a tool like Zapier to automate parts of it. So a lot of this is really just awareness and people, you know, in terms of competition, a lot of it’s just people satisfied with downloading and uploading spreadsheets and CSVs all over the place, or copying and pasting this or that or just settling for, oh, I guess you can’t do that. And that’s really the thing that we’re trying to address, it’s just changing the mindset of the marketplace to, this stuff is possible.

What does a CTO do?

Bryan: Yeah, so a CTO, well, in the early days, I wrote a lot of code as you can imagine. As we’ve gotten bigger. It’s changed a little bit. And this is super, super common in companies that are growing, is there’s a million things to do and not enough people to do them. So you end up wearing a lot of hats. So, while I started coding and writing a lot of the early code and working on the early product, we eventually hired people who are even more talented coders than myself and have a lot more specialties in different stuff. So they were doing a lot more of the work. So I would spend more time growing the team, more time on hiring, which I’m sure we’ll get into a little bit.

Chris: You said like in the first few years of the company?

Bryan: Yeah, 100%. A lot of it was, you know, again, many hats, it was doing customer support. Like that’s one thing that’s unique about Zapier is everybody at the company does customer support because at the end of the day, those are the folks who are paying our mortgages and doing all this, making all this work. So being able to really connect and understand the problems they have is really important. So, it’s really, for me, it’s been doing all the things.

In more recent times as we’ve gotten bigger and we’re about 230 people now, what my time is dominated by is certainly, recruiting is a big part of it. But a lot of it gets to be more architectural. It’s where are we going with the platform with the technical decisions we have to make? How do they line up and build alignment around where we’re trying to be a year or two years from now in terms of what we’re building and what we expect to be building coming up?

So it’s more strategic at times, although I still try to sneak in quite a bit of code because I do love it myself. So I try to keep a healthy balance to that.

How did you learn to code?

Bryan:  I learned to code in college and I learned because I was building lots of little projects. I started mostly in like the WordPress and Joomla ecosystem and that’s where Wade Foster (co-founder of Zapier) and I did some consulting stuff together, where we would just be trying to put together little forums on a page or do consulting work for a real estate agent in town or whatever, just standing up a website, a little bit of web design stuff.

And that’s where it really got started. And then I realized there’s a whole layer beneath WordPress. It’s actually written on this language called PHP. And you can write plugins for it. And that kind of opened up a whole bunch of interesting facets of what WordPress could do.

Now, it wasn’t restricted to what I could install from their amazing plugin ecosystem. But I could kind of just install this little plugin here or there and then go into the code and change its behavior and make it do something a little bit different. And that was really where a lot of it got started and is also where a lot of this stuff with Zapier got started to.

But for me, where it really took hold was, once I figured out how to do the basics, I really got into Python and Django, which is a great web framework. That was really kind of the upswing of stuff. By then I kind of wanted to do a start up so I literally probably started like, I don’t know if you can call them startups or businesses at that time, but let’s say projects. I did maybe a dozen different projects of all a varying success, everything from selling digital downloads to, what were all the silly things that I did. I had like a website that would help match make you to like a mentor because I was trying to find people who were in the technology industry to like teach me a little bit about it. I tried to do like an email list, I did a lot of guitar lessons, I’m a big guitar nerd. So I tried to do all these online guitar lessons and built my website around that.

So I did all these little things and that is what really propelled me to continue learning with kind of a direction rather than just read the next chapter of some computer science textbook, but I was like, I want to get to build something. So starting with WordPress, Python, Django, building my own little projects, and then eventually getting to Zapier, which took on its whole life of its own, but it was all in service of trying to do something I guess.

Chris: Wow. Yeah, so just making a lot of projects. What was the first time that you went into WordPress? I mean, Who gave you permission in a way to like start coding? Do you know what I mean? There’s probably that moment when, you know, you kind of have to cross the line and like start, it sounds like you were hacking at a, I don’t want to use the word hacking like hacking positive way, but it sounds like you like looked at some some WordPress code and you were like, oh, maybe I can do something here. Is that more or less how it got started? You just kind of took something and ran with it or did you use a book or a person to teach you?

Bryan: I definitely did a lot of googling as one does. But I definitely don’t have any sort of a formal education in computer science or any of that. I don’t think it’s necessary really to get started building a startup or make your life better with code to have any sort of a formal education. If you want to be a professional engineer and go to like the nth degree, it can be very helpful but it still isn’t necessary. So, that’s one of the things that I would say is like a kind of misconception, is that you need to have, you need to go to school for this. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true at all. In fact, I think being able to write a little bit of code or automate parts of your life is going to be an even more critical part of just the economy in the future. But also just a professional skill.

I mean, I would compare it to, let’s say, typing, like being a typist. It used to be that you’d hire folks who were really great at typing and they would be your typist. And that was a skill. You would take classes on it. Now, everybody just does that. There’s no special skill to being a typist, that’s just literally a part of just being in modern society. I think in another couple of decades, being able to work on logic-based automation or however you want to kind of like categorize it is going to be a pretty core piece of that. Coding is a way to express that, right? It’s a mechanism to express that. I think it’s a rather fun one and it’s one that is pretty straightforward in terms of its awareness in the world. But I don’t think it’s the only way to kind of accomplish these sorts of things. So I think it’s a little bit bigger than that.

Chris: Yeah. one skill that I see in demand a lot is HTML and CSS.

Bryan: Yeah, I think that’s a good example. Like HTML and CSS is kind of the foundation of the internet, which is where a ton of value is created, is where most people spend their lives, certainly digitally now. I think that’s huge. But I think there’s other ways you can kind of look at this as well, because I would, the one thing that’s missing from HTML and CSS is like true logic. It’s a display, it’s kind of a declarative display thing, which is amazing and can on its own be a very powerful medium. But you’re missing some of the logic if you stick to that only. But you can get it through other ways. You can look at things, I mean, even things like spreadsheets have a lot of logic baked into them with formulas, that’s getting pretty close already.

If you start to pepper in a little bit of JavaScript, let’s say, into your HTML and CSS, if we’re back on HTML and CSS side, then you start to get a lot more power. And maybe, I don’t know if it’s still as popular as it used to be, it used to be all the like MooTools and jQuery and all these little libraries, and you would work with a lot of that. And you can get a lot done with that without leaning into some of the more in vogue frameworks out there, like I had mentioned Django before, but the things like React or Django or Ruby on Rails or Angular, like all these frameworks, they’re great but they’re not necessary to do some of this stuff. Just going with simple JavaScript, HTML and CSS, you can get a lot done.

So I think that that is definitely something that is, lets you punch way above your weight if you have even just a rudimentary understanding of that, as well as, I might also throw a SQL in there as well. Being able to write and think through SQL and some of those, just the representation of how that data sits and how you can query it and think through it, it gives you a powerful mental model of how computer systems work because under every big website, be it Facebook or Google or Airbnb or Microsoft’s website, you name it, it’s probably predominantly SQL. So if you’re writing SQL, you’re writing the same language that every single one of these big tech companies is using to power their data layer. So, it’s really powerful and it’s not crazy complicated. It can get a little topsy turvy but it’s not crazy to just get a little bit into it and get a lot of value out of it still.

What are your thoughts on learning Python?

Bryan: Well, I am a huge Python fan. So, I am super biased on that front. I do think it’s a great language to learn on because it gets out of your way syntax wise. I see a lot of people, it’s a needless part, and it’s necessary. But it’s this kind of like annoying part of programming that once you’re good, you forget about it, you just kind of don’t even think about it. But it’s so ever present when you’re learning, it’s like why does this colon need to be here, why do we need parentheses here? All this stuff just kind of gets in your way, but just like the syntax of the English language, it doesn’t get in your way when you’re trying to communicate stuff. It takes a long time and a lot of practice to get past it. And I think it’s quite a bit quicker with Python because they’re just so little of it. And it just feels a bit more natural. So I like it for that.

And a big, big bonus is, it’s very, very widely used within the industry, it’s a serious language. Our entire company is built on top of it and there’s a lot of value created through that. So, it’s not a toy language, it’s a pretty easy to get started language and it has quite a bit of depth as well. But I’m also a huge Python nerd, I love it. So, you have to take that with a grain of salt perhaps. There might be others who disagree.

Chris: No, that’s why I’m here from learning and it’s great to hear kind of how you got to where you are, like the languages that you got to and also what, you know, what I’m trying to get from this as well is what skills should someone learn, what skills are in demand? Let me transition to, you know, Zapier is a big company now. You guys are over 200 people. It’s a remote team so there’s not one central office, you guys are looking all over the place. You’ve done a lot of hiring. So, based on kind of everything we’ve talked about to this point, what are some skills, you know, whether they’re technical skills or not, what are some skills you think that are really in demand? Maybe we’ve covered a few already but what else comes to mind?

What skills are most in demand in the job market?

Bryan: Yeah, a lot of what we covered already is really important. And those, a lot of them are foundational, so for us, while we don’t necessarily always expect folks we hire on the engineering side let’s say to be experts in JavaScript or Python or whatever, we expect them to be really deeply invested in some language, to be able to kind of dive deep into the concepts behind programming. We find that really important. One of the things we really focus on is kind of the basics of, let’s say, state management is understanding kind of just how would you model a problem with data and work through that. We find that really, really important.

And the great thing is that is transferable between domains. Certainly between programming languages, because that’s like, that fundamental pieces everywhere, but it also escapes programming as well and helps you think about models in the real world too. If you think about spreadsheets and pivot tables and columns and rows, that sort of awareness enlists all that stuff, that is really close to some of the data modeling you need to do to be a great programmer as well.

So if you’re thinking about honing those skills, a lot of what I do when I’m trying to solve a problem isn’t Python wizardry, really, it’s thinking through how would I even model this. Would I use a dictionary here to lump all of these values together and then I’d iterate on that, or oh, actually, that wouldn’t work because I need to look up the values too. Like, you’re thinking through that more so than you’re thinking through a particular language per se.

How do you learn modeling?

Chris: I know what you’re talking about, how do you learn modeling? I guess that’s what I would call it, what would you call it?

Bryan: No, I think that’s a good way. It’s modeling problems.

Chris: Like problem solving.

Bryan: Problem solving, yup. I think probably the best way to learn it is by having problems. That’s one thing that I remember getting a lot of value out of let’s say, when I was doing early stuff with just trying to start little projects is I always had something. Whether those problems were macro in the sense it solved some market need, not always the case. But I always had like, I got to get this page to show up and I want to be able to, I wanted to pull data from over here, like those are the kinds of problems you want to just like work through and you got to work through hundreds of them before the patterns really emerge. So, it’s a lot of, it’s a lot of like perspiration per se to really do that. It takes a long time to wrap your head around it.

Chris: Yeah, I guess I feel like when I’m learning to code, whether it’s in the past or a new language, there’s this moment where I feel like failing is when I learn the most. And so, reading out of a book is often like teach you how to use the tool. But it’s really like putting the book away and then googling, breaking things, that’s when I feel like there’s this skill that my brain starts to, and it’s not a thing that I feel like I could necessarily teach you in like a book, you can’t read about it, but it’s like in the body almost, this kind of like abstract thinking.

Chris: I got one for you. Like you’ve seen a problem, you start to see patterns, you start to see, oh, I’ve seen this three or four times in various different settings, various different programming languages, and you know how to solve it. That is this kind of skill that I think you can really only get by doing things, like your story of like, when you’re starting, you made a lot of projects, and there were small projects. I’m sure you didn’t make them thinking one day, I’m going to start a 200 person company and all this stuff, but you were just invested in solving these little problems and learning.

Bryan: Yeah. Here’s a really pretty tactical one that I see often, like in the kind of, the kind of thing you need to bump into before you just even are aware of it. Let’s say you’re reading a guide, let’s use Django because I’m familiar with that. It’s a web framework and it comes with a lot of cool stuff. It comes with a like a way to query your database and a way to render HTML and route, it has everything. One of the things you would, if you read the tutorial it shows you how to do is well, here’s how you would use the database tool to the ORM they call it to pull some data out. And it could be anything, it could be articles or it could be products or whatever, whatever thing you’re building.

And the default one they show you is how to pull them all in, right? Well, that works great. I want to show a page that has every product. That works fine when you’re testing and maybe in the early days because you may be only have a couple hundred products or maybe even a couple thousand and that’s fine. And then someday, you have 10,000 and your page takes 12 seconds to load. And you just never knew about this thing called pagination. Like, that’s just a thing you have to learn about. But it’s just another like step that kind of starts to fold in other concepts like, oh, I don’t want to pull in every piece of data I have, I want parts of a data. And then, some user can click next page and get the next one, and I just give the next chunk of data.

And then that is just now this idea of chunking data up so that you don’t pull the whole thing in. That’s not just pagination but that’s also how you can handle lots of big data problems as well. So here’s a primitive that’s reusable that you learned in a totally different context that you didn’t even know you needed to worry about. But it didn’t stop you, you still got to the next stage to where you were lucky enough to get to the point where you had so many options that it was slow. That’s great. That’s an amazing success and an amazing win.

So it’s not something to be like, oh, I just didn’t know and I don’t know these things. But it’s an opportunity to get to the point where you need to know them. Because a lot of that stuff doesn’t necessarily matter in the early days, and especially if you’re doing this in a semi-professional, just if you’re a marketer that’s doing these sorts of things. Writing a quick little Python script that is quick and dirty and works over a couple hundred leads is amazing and you should celebrate that. It doesn’t necessarily need to scale to a billion leads because that’s not the problem you have. You can learn that stuff but it’s not necessarily the path you need to take or worry about. There’s lots of cool little ways to reuse things that you didn’t even need to know later.

Chris: I love this. And you know, what you’re reminding me of, I’m having a bit of nostalgia for how I learned, you know, I’m thinking like how did I learn about pagination, I take that for granted. You take it for granted a lot of these problems. And I also learned hacking WordPress now that say it, because with WordPress and what I liked about it and what I still like about it is that you get out of the box, this, I call it a framework. You get a lot of code and then there’s already a lot built. And you can try these plugins and you’re like, oh, I’m going to try this. And then you get to also, the thing about PHP that I like, is that I feel like it’s easy, PHP gets a lot of crap in the industry because there’s a lot problems.

Chris: But one of the things that’s nice about learning especially is that it’s really easy to just look under the hood. It’s so approachable and you can kind of tinker and like, let’s try this, let’s try this. And it’s pretty forgiving, which is also why a lot of people don’t like it because it’s really forgiving, which leads to security things, blah, blah, blah. But when you’re learning, it’s super helpful.

And I would, in the early days when I was starting my career freelancing is, I would just, I’m going to make you a WordPress site, I’m going to make a WordPress site. I didn’t have a problem with pagination but I took on a client who had a lot of products, for example, and you’re like, all of a sudden, you’re getting to learn from other people’s problems. It’s almost like a form of [inaudible 00:37:13] or something. You’re like, what problems do you have and now you’re trying to figure out like, and what’s the word, like deconstruct the code, because the code’s written but you’re trying to make it work for them and it’s a lot of learning.

Bryan: Yeah, now you’re giving me a lot of nostalgia for that. You’re trying to make, you’re like, I just, I know what I want it to do, I don’t know, and you’re looking through the code and you’re trying to connect the dots and it’s not coming. And it’s frustrating. And that is, that is a big part of learning this. So, I don’t know how many hours I spent just staring at code being just completely utterly confused. So if you were feeling that-

Chris: And you’re learning.

Bryan: You’re on the right path, you’re on the same path-

Chris: I mean, I would spend. Just for anybody listening who doesn’t connect with us, like, I would spend, I remember like nights and you would spend like four hours and you’re like, well, I’m really stupid and this doesn’t work and I’m going to bed, and I’m going to do something else in the morning. But then, and this doesn’t always happen, but then, but I’m sure this happened to you at least once. You go to sleep and you wake up in the morning and you just know the answer and it’s the craziest feeling. You’re like, what the hell. Where did that come from? Now I know what to do.

Bryan: Yeah, that does happen. And sometimes it doesn’t happen. Sometimes you wake up the next morning and you’re like, I still have no freaking clue how this is supposed to work. And that happens too. So it’s all those things. I think that’s just kind of part of it. I would definitely encourage folks, especially now that you’ve kind of like struck my empathy bone there and it’s like remembering that struggle, it’s real and just keep at it, a lot of that stuff is not as important. Doing a little bit wrong is okay in the early days and you learn that stuff over time. It just takes some time.

Chris: Do you think that learning Django is comparable to the example of learning WordPress, as far as what you get out of the box and being able to hack it and ease of getting onboard into it?

Bryan: Yeah, I almost kind of think of it as like a reverse foundation. Let me explain what I mean by that. Like you go to a computer science degree or a college to learn the foundations of data structures and computing and instructions and you build a foundation that way. I think a totally valid way to do it is the complete opposite. Don’t start at the fundamentals, start at the thing that you want to do, which is the WordPress and then the Django, and then the next thing under that, and you learn the layers as you need them.

And I think that is probably the way that I connect better. It’s this idea of the kind of, it’s more instantly gratifying. It’s more effective, I would say because you actually create something that you’re trying to. It can be probably more frustrating in some ways. I think of it as it’s the reverse foundation. It’s all the high-level stuff that is built on the top of, you know, off the backs of hundreds and thousands of other really sharp developers who have contributed that stuff to open source. And then you get to widdle your way down into how it all works.

And for me, I do think that that was a, I think that’s a really great way to learn that stuff. And I actually do think Django is a great, and Python, Django is written in Python so I think it’s like a double whammy, Python’s an easy language to learn. I think Django is an easy web framework and it’s a serious one. Zapier’s still built on it. It’s a really good way to kind of learn how the work is really done and then kind of layer on pieces under that. It’s not the traditional way, I would say, universities or things like that would try to teach you, but I do think it’s a totally valid one. So yeah, I think that doing the WordPress, Django, that route to learn that stuff is perfectly valid.

How much is hiring part of your role these days?

Bryan: It’s quite a bit. I spend a lot of time interviewing folks. I am lucky that we just recently brought on another executive on the engineering side, our VP of engineering. So we’ve been able to split that up a little bit and he’s been diving in a bit more there, which is nice. That means I get to do a little more time, spend a little more time on architecture and technology and product and things like that. But it’s still a really, really big part of my life. And the part of anyone who is a part of a growing company, every single engineer is involved in hiring in some facet or another, either doing interviews or reviewing some of the exercises that we give candidates. And all that stuff, everybody is a part of it. So it’s a big part of everyone’s life in a growing company.

Chris: What are some of the most in-demand jobs or hard to find people at this moment?

Bryan: I would probably say, for us, we have a hard time finding a lot of front engineers that would really specialize in that sort of thing. Some of that’s changed over the years, like we used to be very heavily React based. I mean, we still are very heavily React based I should clarify. But we’re starting to like loosen up a little bit of what we’re looking for there sometimes. We go through all this stuff, like no matter what you settle on in terms of how you hire, you’re never quite satisfied with it, you’re always trying to tweak it and improve it. And what the perfect sort of way to do it changes over time as well.

So we’re constantly going through that too but we’re trying to like maybe zoom back a little bit and look at those fundamentals again and try to pull people in from all over the world because we are 100% remote, which is something that’s unique about us. We don’t have to hire from a centralized location or around headquarters, which opens up the candidate pool a lot. And if you can lean into that and really make anyone effective inside of Zapier, then that is a really, really powerful sort of, really powerful sort of leverage you have as a company. So that’s something we’re trying to do a little bit better job at is open it up a bit.

Some of the stuff you know specifically for us, we care deeply about Python, JavaScript and React, and especially I would say a little bit of the functional programming side on the front end, we care quite a bit about. We have quite a bit of data needs. Like as you can imagine, Zapier, we connect all the services with all kinds of crazy data coming in and out. So, being able to just dive straight into problems with lots of messy, weird data is really important to us and trying to make sense of that. So that’s one.

And you know, for us, it comes back to being good people as well. You can be the smartest person in the world and the most talented engineer but if you’re not a good person at heart, we will probably pass. Like one of our values is empathy, not ego. I know a lot of really smart people that have an ego but I also know a lot of really smart people that are super empathetic and I’d much rather work with those than the ego filled folks.

Let’s talk about empathy — if you’re interviewing somebody, how can you tell someone’s empathetic?

Bryan: There’s a couple things. I recently have been interviewing some managers. And here’s like a good tell for us is if a manager is proud about the people they’ve worked with previously that have gone on to do bigger and better things, that’s usually a really clear signal that they’re a highly empathetic person. They might say something like, oh, I had this direct report two companies ago, they’re now a senior engineer at Google, they were amazing, and they can’t stop raving about how, like those sorts of things are usually good signs that they’re empathetic.

Being able to just ask questions and be thoughtful. Even when you have like tough situations be able to like articulate them through the lens of the other person as well, so it might have been hard for you but even adding a comment of saying, I think it was really hard for the team or this person and having that other perspective is important. And we look for very specific things like that whenever we’re hiring because some of that stuff can slip into culture fit sorts of things. And unless you have really clear and crisp things that you’re looking for, it can be basically, do you like this person, do they look like you or do they feel like they’re the same person as you? That’s not the intent at all. So we have to really hone in on more specific behaviors. So that manager example and also talking about tough situations in a very empathetic way are two things we look for during interviews.

Chris: What is something that is a no go when people apply to Zapier, whether it’s like something on their resume or in their cover letter, or do you even need a cover letter? Like if people are trying to apply to work with you right now, I guess, maybe like what is something you would really like to see in the kind of opening intro and one thing that you would hope they don’t do?

Bryan: Yeah. That’s a good question. Here’s a really, I think probably pretty easy one. We’re a remote company, we hire from all over the world. So it often just attracts folks who liked that idea of working from home, which is great. We’re big fans of that. But sometimes, that’s the reason rather than what the company is doing. So learn about the company a little bit and be able to engage with that and see if you connect with it. And try to, try to genuinely connect with that because every now and then, you’ll get on an interview with someone who has never heard and kind of acts a little bit like they’re not interested in it but they do like the fact that they can work from home. I mean, that’s great. But also, you’re competing against seven billion people now, right? So, that’s a really high bar.

So, that’s often advice I give folks is spend 15 minutes researching the company even. Try to figure out some of the big problems you’re trying to solve and what they’re all about. So I would recommend that. And that goes for any company. That’s not just us obviously. There’s people on the other side that they’re passionate about it and if you can match that level of passion, that’s a big one up.

How many people apply to work at Zapier each month? What’s the process like for finding new talent for Zapier?

Chris: If someone applies to Zapier, what could they expect as far as how long is the interview process and how many candidates do you generally receive just roughly? Because I thought it was interesting that you said, you’re competing against seven billion people. What does the job market look like now on your end? How many are you receiving? And you might not even see them all because I’m sure you have people that serve them to you, you know, that kind of deliver them to you. But roughly, how competitive is it to work at Zapier or what’s that like?

Bryan: It’s on the order of thousands that we get every week.

Chris: Every week?

Bryan: Yeah, it’s a lot. And this is across a lot of roles. So if you’ve been on our website, we have, I mean, we have like 30 something roles up right now. So as you can imagine, it doesn’t take many, and you add them all together, and it adds up really, really fast. So you do have to have ways to kind of stand out above the crowd. Writing like a giant essay is often difficult for us because if we had to read a 10,000 word essay for every person, like that’s overkill. So being succinct, writing style is super important. We’re remote so writing obviously matters a lot. That’s how most of our communication happens. So, we get a lot of candidates that come in.

I would definitely recommend keeping it succinct. We don’t do a lot on the resume side because we have found in the past when we allowed it, people would just send the resume in and it was, I mean, then we got an order of magnitude more people. And we couldn’t get people the attention they deserved at that point. So, we took resumes off and we have just a short set of questions, tell us about your experience, what you’re excited about in Zapier. Just a couple questions that really give, I mean, even the questions we ask give you a bit of an insight about the things we care about. So if you pay attention to those, it’ll help prep you for the next stage. And it gives us an insight into the sorts of things that you care about as a candidate.

So, it’s a little more time consuming but we’re able to give everybody more attention as a result of that. Like a lot of things in this, it’s always a trade off and a balancing act. So that’s what I would generally recommend folks maybe look at when they’re applying for jobs like that.

Chris: That’s awesome. Great. And just to send us off, I’m curious to know, what are you really excited about right now, whether it’s in your personal life or in the future of the company? What’s exciting to you?

Bryan: Well, probably, I mean, we’re talking about hiring, probably, it’s just all the folks that we’re bringing on to Zapier. The fact that we can just bring anyone in from around the world to work and be a part of the team is really exciting. We also believe that opportunity, it may not be evenly distributed but we think talent is. We think that there’s really talented people all over the world. And being able to be in that position to work with those kinds of folks is really, really exciting. It’s great for us, it’s great for folks who join the team.

That in conjunction with all the stuff we’re trying to do to bring automation to the forefront of everybody’s kind of professional work life is something we’re really excited about. I mean, we think that automation is going to be one of the really defining things over the next couple of decades. We would really like to be a big part of that story and make everybody more productive. So, that’s something that we’re really excited about. And yeah, anyone who’s interested, they can always check out Zapier and even some of our jobs as well. So we’re hiring.

Chris: So exciting. Bryan, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today, it was really wonderful.

Bryan: Of course.

Chris: Hey, how’s it going? You still there? Yeah, so that was good, good chat with Bryan. He’s a really bright guy. Had a really fun time chatting with him. I learned a few things, got a little nostalgic about WordPress, which I still love to this day and about Python. That was really fun. If you are interested in learning more about Bryan or Zapier, you can go to zapier.com. There’s also a job page if you’re interested in any of those jobs, it’s just /jobs like that. Go to type really slow, it’s just J-O-B-S. I don’t know guys, I’m on a microphone, things get weird sometimes.

Chris: And and if you make any really cool zaps, I want to know because I want to make more cool zaps. So let me know what you make. Tweet at me, I’m @onemonthedu. So you can just tweet at me and let me know what you’re making. I’d be curious what you think. I think it’s a pretty addictive service to check out. Bryan, he’s also on Twitter, he’s @BryanHelmig, that’s B-R-Y-A-N H-E-L-M-I-G.

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Chris Castiglione Teacher at One Month. Faculty at Columbia University where I teach Digital Literacy. I write about coding, the internet, and social impact.

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