What it’s really like at FireStop?

I spent almost three months building the FireStop iOS app with Charlie, Leah, and Justin. I thought it might be useful to reflect on my experiences, and to share what it was like working at FireStop.

How did Charlie get in touch with me?

I’m from Purdue, and Charlie is from Princeton. The number of our mutual friends on Facebook was zero. Charlie was outside my LinkedIn network. I don’t use Tinder, and neither does Charlie. So, how did Charlie and I get paired? The answer is HackPrinceton, a Princeton Unversity hackathon I went to with my friends in early April. It took us more than 15 hours to drive from all the way from Purdue to Princeton. It was crazy – few people would drive that whole way just to build something – but that’s how much we love hacking. At Princeton, we spent 40 hours building SmartCar, an iOS app that integrated the current high technology into the old car. At the awards ceremony we recieved “Best Mashary Hack” Prize and Top 20 Hack. This made it possible for Charlie to find me one month later after hackathon.

Why did I decide to spend time on FireStop?

There were two main reasons. The first was that I genuinely liked the idea of FireStop. I’m confident that FireStop will become a big company in the future. Unlike customized ideas, FireStop is trying to solve a real problem that has the potential to save lives.

The other reason was that the timing was perfect. When I received the first email from Charlie, I was having on-site interviews with two companies for full time positions. One was FarmLogs, a Y Combinator alumni company developing software for farmers, and the other one was GPShopper, a company working on iBeacon technology in Chicago. So my first reply email to Charlie was “Let me wait and see the results from these companies, and I’ll get back to you.” Charlie replied “Best of luck on your current interviews. Let me know if you are interested in FireStop and I will set you up with an interview as well.”

The interview results were mixed, with one full-time offer and one decline. But instead of taking the offer, I decided that I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in Computer Science at University of Chicago. Suddenly, my summer became available. Charlie and I scheduled an interview on Skype. I remembered that I sent an email to state my interest in FireStop after the interview. It’s the only follow-up email I sent after any interview. Two days later, Charlie welcomed me to join FireStop.

What did I do every day?

I just kept coding. That’s it. I believe the most important thing for me is to finish the code assignment in time and to write as many high quality lines of code as possible.

What is the most important lesson I learned from FireStop?

The most important lesson is that you don’t need a partner to start a startup. Charlie started FireStop alone. Since Charlie always uses the phrase “FireStop team” in the emails, I thought FireStop might have 3–4 engineers. However, it turned out that Charlie was the only person in this team. He wrote the code for the first version by himself. Leah, our product designer didn’t know him before the summer either.

It’s quite rare because most people assume that partners or co-founders are necessary to build a startup. The team is more important than the idea. I realized that while sometimes that’s true, sometimes it’s not. As we know, senior programmers can find a high paying job easily, and they always have ideas they would like to pursue. Too many opportunities distract their attention. It wastes a lot of time to find partners. If you have a partner who also only focuses on the same project with you, it’s great. If you don’t have one, that’s fine too. It’s easier and easier today, as so many tools such as Leaftagger, Parse, and Mixpanel are developed to simplify the software development process

How did FireStop train my programming skill?

FireStop only had four people this summer, including me. Only Charlie could do code reviewing for me, and only Leah could give me feedback on the iOS app. In some points, it meant that I had more freedom to think about how to build a huge system from scratch. I could make mistakes in coding and I could learn from them. FireStop has patience. I’m not sure whether I could have had this kind of opportunity at a big company. Our goal is to build a cloud platform for fire departments, which makes the iOS app really complicated. It required three rules. The first one is to control every UI element, including annoying UIViews on different layouts and highly customized labels. The second one is to load the data from cloud as quickly as possible and save it as local data. I needed to understand the nuances of AFNetworking. The last one is to build immutable subsystems to ensure the safety of the whole system. All of these helped me to become a more qualified iOS developer.

What will happen after summer?

Honestly, I felt a little bit frustrated when we parted ways after the summer. FireStop is still at very early stage. It needs more space and more time to polish its product. The fire departments also need some time to know it, to learn it and to accept it. So, it became difficult for FireStop to finish seed fundraising the 1.2M we needed. FireStop will make it in the next several months, but not now. For me, I will still support the iOS development of FireStop.

What did I except from FireStop during the time?

After work, I tried to write a short tutorial every two or three days to refresh my skills. I went to Y Combinator Hackathon in Mountain View, CA, and won the KimonoLab Prize. I met Matt, the creator of AFNetworking at a meetup, and he convinced me to learn Swift. By the end of the summer, I successfully published YO iOS SDK and KimonoLab iOS SDK. One more SDK is on its way. Without the help from Charlie, I couldn’t have made it. So, it’s still about coding.

Thanks Justin Ziegler

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