Introduce yourself! Who are you? Where do you work?
My name is John-Daniel Trask, known as JD to most. I’m the co-founder & CEO of Raygun.
I love living at the intersection of business and technology. I personally view both business and technology as categories that focus on the amplification of human ability. Both have the goal of creating achievement beyond that of what an individual can do by themselves.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in several tech businesses - running one, investing in several, and helping others grow. I’ve also been awarded the distinguished alumni award from Massey University, and Wellingtonian of the Year in the category of Science & Technology.
Today I split my time between Wellington, New Zealand and Seattle, USA. Raygun is HQ’d in Wellington, with offices in Seattle. I’m on twitter as @traskjd.
Who or what got you into programming?
I’d always been interested in how things work. I’d dismantled remote control cars when I was around 5 years old to try and figure it out. When our family got a computer, I was about 9 years old. I remember being fascinated by the machine. This was in the days of WIndows 3.11 and DOS, and I often found myself at the DOS prompt. I remember just going through every command to work out what it did. Edit. Mem. Dir. Then eventually I stumbled upon QBasic.
QBasic was a very simple editor that compiled BASIC code to run programs. It was super easy to get started with and I remember learning to write some programs. Simple guessing games, musical tunes through the PC Speaker, and so on. It was amazing. I remember thinking “This is like I’ve found a box of lego with infinite pieces!”. I realised I could build anything that I put my mind to, and was hooked.
I went on to learn C, C++, Assembler, Visual Basic, PHP and Delphi in my teenage years and started selling commercial software at school when I was about 14.
What is it like to create a product for software developers?
It’s both challenging and exciting. On the challenge front, many software developers run adblockers (hard to market to), think they can build something themselves easily, have very little say over how budget gets spent, and can be very opinionated.
Having said that, just like if you were a builder who got paid another builder to build their house: you’re forced to do a really awesome job. Their bar is high, and the demands are plenty. You can’t get away with a half-assed solution that doesn’t really solve a problem.
One really nice thing is that you’re communicating with expert users. A user might make a feature request, and you can discuss in very detailed terms what would be involved in delivering it and what might impact timeline. It’s great having those conversations because it creates a more intimate relationship with our customers.
When did you get the idea for Raygun?
It was a throwback to what myself and Jeremy (my business partner) had done when working as software developers at an IT Services company. We cared deeply about the quality of our software and hated having pissed off customers. So, we would have errors emailed to ourselves. It was crude, but it worked a treat.
So when we built some products in our own business, we kept thinking back to how we could report on issues to ourselves. Rather than just emailing, we developed out Raygun Crash Reporting and made it available to everyone. Turns out we weren’t alone in wanting to ensure the best quality software was being produced!
What’s it like being a Microsoft MVP? What impact has that had on you/your business?
Being a Microsoft MVP is a huge honour and privilege. It has been beneficial to our business through the relationships we build with the other MVPs in the network. It also provides a channel to see NDA discussions and software improvements that are coming down the line from Microsoft. This helps us by ensuring we can support new technologies on day 1.
I’ve never blogged or done public speaking because of the MVP status. Those things have always been things I love to do. So I greatly appreciated when Microsoft recognized my efforts with an MVP award.
What has been your toughest lesson to learn in your software career so far?
I don’t think it was painful, but I think back to a few lessons I learned once I started working after university:
- Coding is the easy part, by a huge margin. People are the hard part.
- Always, always communicate early and often about the reality of where a project is at. Project & Product Managers usually aren’t upset that something is running late unless they only discover it on the due date.
- If you think you’re only “2 weeks” away from completion, you’re lying to yourself. Software engineers seem to default to thinking everything is achievable in 2 weeks.
- Don’t be the person who’s on twitter/reddit/hacker news all day. Trust me, everyone sees it, and everyone thinks you’re not working very hard (... and you’re not).
- Being negative and cynical seems to be a trait that we cultivate in software development teams for some reason. It doesn’t help - always focus on solutions. Rather than thinking about why we shouldn’t do something, think about why we should (to quote Elon Musk: My first question is if there’s a non-zero possibility of success).
- Always offer to help. When somebody asks a question, looks for input, asks for volunteers - opt in. You’ll get noticed for it, achieve more and get ahead faster.
What would be your number one piece of advice for a successful software career?
Take action. This isn’t limited to your career in software. I meet with so many folks who want to do something (get a promotion, ask out that person they like, start a business, renovate the bathroom - the list goes on). Stop waiting for permission, stop reading inspirational quotes on Facebook - basically, stop fucking around and do what’s necessary to do it. Nobody will ever hand you things.
I recall starting at my first job out of University. I was 19 and I met this guy who was an absolutely amazing software engineer. I felt like I was useless compared to this guy (keep in mind - I’d been coding for a decade on home projects, so I wasn’t terrible but I felt it!). I was determined to be a great engineer. So I started getting up at around 4am and coding at home on projects. I’d do my hours at work, come home and play a game, then I’d start watching software development tutorials (at the time on Microsoft’s Channel 9). I immersed myself in the craft of software development. By 21, I was a team lead across several projects and had developed some key internal tools to help manage some of the software systems the business used.
I use this example to underscore that I did not wait for permission. I did not make excuses. I decided it mattered to me and went into overdrive.
What is it like to manage software development and running a company? Do you “miss” the coding sometimes?
These days I don’t directly manage our software teams. Jeremy Norman is our Director of Engineering. I still look at some pull requests, and enjoy discussing the team dynamics with Jeremy.
I both do and don’t miss coding. I still write some code on the weekends, and experiment with things - so it’s not like I don’t do any coding. The appeal now is that writing code is an order of magnitude (or two!) less stressful than running a company. So sometimes my weekend coding sessions are more for cathartic purposes than to achieve a specific goal.
I’m also still very much obsessed with how things work. So I do cut off some time to play around with things. For example, recently I took some time off and investigated Google Tensorflow, so that I could start wrapping my head around machine learning systems (it was also a nice excuse to buy an nVidia 1080 Ti!).
If you one day do dream of running your own business - enjoy your time coding. Being in your own zen mode, listening to music, and having very few interruptions is a great place to be! :)
What books/resources would you recommend?
I don’t tend to read books about software development these days -- there’s just too much good stuff on the internet. In terms of resources, let’s talk mentors.
I’m a huge fan of always reaching out to people that you respect and want to learn from. You’d be amazed how many of them are not approached to tell their story -- everyone puts them on a pedestal and is afraid to ask! They’re just people.
Some of the best things I’ve done to move forward is try to connect with achievers. At the IT Services company I worked at out of University I made a point of getting to know the founders & directors even though I felt intimidated being “only” a graduate developer. I remember reaching out to Rod Drury and taking him for brunch when I was contemplating starting my own business. Oftentimes, successful people welcome advice seekers because they can see themselves from earlier times. Just be respectful and don’t waste their time.
Finally, make your shoutout! What would you like the readers to go have a look at?
Zheng is the VP of Product at Raygun, and shares much of my views around personal development. She has run her own successful business in her 20s, and now leads Product at Raygun.
In my desire to surround myself with people better than myself, Zheng & I got married in 2014.