Hansel Lynn of theCoderSchool: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a C-Suite Executive
Focus on the things that make you uncomfortable, and the rest falls into place. An entrepreneurial CEO wears many hats, even ones they aren’t comfortable with. As an introvert, I was never comfortable with long conversations with parents — rather I preferred to sling code without interruption. After opening my first school, I forced myself to chat with parents from the time it opened to the time it closed. It drained my energy every day but focusing on it has made me much more comfortable with it — and all the coding and analytical tasks fell easily into place.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Hansel Lynn.
Hansel is the founder and CEO of theCoderSchool, an after-school franchise business that teaches kids to code, based in Silicon Valley with over 50 locations across the country. He and his chief operating officer, Wayne, are co-authors of two children’s coding books written in partnership with Simon Basher from Basher Books. Hansel is also an avid runner and Ironman triathlete, develops residential real estate, and lives with his (super) supportive wife Lisa, his non-binary teen, and two gamer boys in Palo Alto, California.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Back in high school, I had this great computer science teacher — Dennis Johnson. I remember Mr. Johnson used to call me “the Wiz” because I had a natural talent for coding. Mr. Johnson’s mentorship helped me find my passion for coding and was a big reason I eventually got into technology as a career. Around 2013, I started trying to teach my oldest, then age 11, how to code. Like any lazy parent, I put them in front of an online curriculum and left it to them to learn. After they blazed through the lessons, proud papa thought I’d found myself a natural coder. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, I found out they just knew the right buttons to click to finish the lesson as fast as possible. I realized then that in spite of the popularity of web-based education (or perhaps because of it), online curriculum don’t teach kids all that well. Instead, students need a Mr. Johnson, a personal mentor that can have a significant impact, especially one that engages, guides, and most importantly brings out the passion for coding. This idea eventually became the core of theCoderSchool’s business model, where lessons are taught with a personal mentor, someone we call a Code Coach.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In 2010, I ran an ultramarathon called the Western States, a 100-mile foot race. At mile 72, I broke my foot and still finished 100 miles. If I left the story there, it would seem like an impressive (if not a little boastful) feat, right? The truth is, a stress fracture — a “minor” version of a break — on a (very) long distance run isn’t all that uncommon. With some well-timed aspirin, a runner can keep running (slowly!) for some time. The point here is a story can take on its own life, where the audience’s imagination runs a bit amok. Was I hopping on 1 foot for 28 miles up and down mountains while my other foot dangles from my ankle like in the movies? Or was it a long run I’d trained my body for over many years that was a slow shuffle/hike where I finished in 200th place? An interesting story consists of two parts — how it’s told, and how it’s interpreted. Sometimes what makes it interesting is that the two sides don’t match.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Greg Lemond, America’s all-time cyclist great, once famously said, “it doesn’t get any easier, you just go faster.” In biking, it means however fit you are, push your limits to go as fast as you can. In life, it means even if things get easier, keep taking on new challenges. Life is after all a journey made up of ever-expanding boundaries. As I was starting theCoderSchool, I was fortunate that my businesses were already successful. My real estate development was going well, as was my other business venture. I remember contemplating whether I really wanted to add another project to my plate if I didn’t need it. Looking back, starting theCoderSchool and pushing harder even when things were easy was the best decision I’ve made. So much so that with theCoderSchool now successful and stable, my wife and I have another business venture lined up.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
Since my earliest years growing up in Hong Kong, I’ve always been a big fan of Bruce Lee. Many a plastic nunchuck and kung fu shoe laid around my house as a kid. “The Bruce,” as I like to call him, was not only a martial artist but also a philosopher. His daughter recently wrote a book called “Be Water, My Friend” that explores Bruce Lee’s philosophy. The core tenet of Be Water is the ability to adapt to your environment instead of a one-size-fits-all mentality. Like water, become the shape of the cup you are poured into, and be fluid and open to change. theCoderSchool uses this philosophy at every level. Instead of teaching all kids with the same software or the same curriculum, we’re fluid, teaching each with a technology, project, and pace that’s specific to the “shape” of the student. Instead of an exacting structure to our franchisees, we keep it fluid based on their specific personality and location. While the effort level required is higher because interactions are all custom, Be Water is a perfect reflection of theCoderSchool philosophy — thanks, in hindsight, to The Bruce.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
In my particular footsteps, I’ve built what’s known as a Lifestyle Business. That means I’m not aiming to be a billion-dollar company; my goal is a successful business venture that I’m passionate about that’ll pay the bills (and with luck, a bit extra). In a Lifestyle Business, you have to get your hands dirty, and you have to learn everything. As your company leader, it’s your job to have a working understanding of what the HR rules are, what the legal team is doing, or how the marketing team uses Google or Facebook to advertise. That doesn’t mean you can’t outsource, it just means understanding by asking detailed questions and never tossing a task over the fence. And, of course — all young folks should be at least exposed to coding. Even if coding doesn’t become a career, learning to code can build confidence and logical skills important for any job in our incredibly tech-centric future.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
We’ve had countless folks recommend a static curriculum to us as a way to quickly scale and provide consistency. It’s like selling software — write it once, sell the same thing to as many customers as possible. When we first started, we used a static curriculum for our novice coders and told our Code Coaches to follow it to a tee to ensure consistency. While the first iterations worked well, over time, quality dropped. Using our curriculum the first time was a confidence boost. But using it the fifth time was tedious micromanagement for a coach. We soon realized that our core product is a human coder, not a repeatable machine, so we have to treat it that way. Instead of micromanaging with a curriculum, we give guidelines with proprietary tools to stay in our methodology. By allowing our coaches to teach to their own passions and be flexible, we generated much more ownership and engagement from both our coaches and the students they taught.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
• Combining Left and Right Brain. Coding is an analytical skill, but designing what to code is a creative skill. How a website looks and interfaces with the user is every bit as important as coding the website to work. Businesses often split these skills into separate teams — a design team determines what to build, interacting with a development team who codes it. The ability to do both has let me straddle both sides, allowing me to design the interface and graphics while iterating with my own code, saving countless cycles and time between multiple teams.
• Willingness to Learn. In a Lifestyle Business, you have to learn it all. Perhaps more importantly, you have to want to learn it all. When my accountants told me we had to be GAAP compliant, I looked that up. When a parent asked me about blockchain and crypto, I learned the architecture. It’s too easy to nod your head and go along with any term you hear. In the age of the internet, anything can be learned if there’s a willingness to do it.
• Antsy with To-Do Lists. Our leadership team is well known for our speedy responses to emails and requests. Responding to emails within minutes shows dedication and imparts a level of priority or importance to the sender. This stems from a certain restlessness when my task list becomes too long and helps the company move along faster than it would otherwise. It also helps set a tone that school managers should respond to customer requests with the same urgency.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
A CEO doesn’t just do and manage — they lead. That means they make sure the business is running, but they’re also constantly building, evolving, creating and improving.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, in a family of three — my older brother and a single mom, a then-recent immigrant. My mom wasn’t (and isn’t) the most business-savvy person in the world, but she was a highly regarded social worker. We had a modest lifestyle — our entire two-bedroom house only cost $34,000. Mom even worked nights at McDonald’s at one point to support the family, something we’ve never thanked her enough for. Fast forward to today, my brother is the CEO of a $100 million company. He’s an East Coast extrovert, a button-down guy that runs his company on charisma and smarts. He’s a great leader who throws wine and cheese parties for his staff. As for me, I’m also a CEO, but I’m a west coast introvert. A hoodie-and-shorts kind of CEO that still slings code daily. I spend long hours training for Ironman, long hours hanging around my family, and few to no hours at dinner parties. You see, every CEO is different. We come in all shapes and sizes for all kinds of companies with all sorts of backgrounds. Anyone can be a successful CEO if they have that passion for the right kind of company.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The other day my teenage son went shopping and wanted a budget. Sure — $50 we said. So my son went out and bought $50 worth of clothes, half of which he didn’t want. Why? Because the budget was $50. The phrase “here’s your budget” or “manage to your due date” have become all too common in business. The fallacy here is that we think we know what budget and timeline a project requires. With a new team or especially a new company, we actually don’t — it’s a guess, often a wild one. A team that’s under budget spends frivolously, knowing they have money left. A team with a tight deadline cuts quality to hit the date. To avoid managing a project to artificial numbers, manage instead to the process. A focus on using, evolving, and improving the most efficient process reduces waste and retains quality. Like we all tell our kids on a long vacation drive — we’ll get there when we get there! (as long as we’re taking the most direct route.)
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
It takes both time and money to run a company, but it’s time that’s often underestimated. For a busy business owner, time is worth more than money not only because there’s so little of it, but also because it’s harder to budget hours than dollars. Before starting theCoderSchool, I built many versions of profit and loss estimates with detailed Excel formulas. But daily schedule estimates? Like most people, I assumed I’d find the time when I needed it. As a Dad trying to fit in 2–5 hour training sessions between meetings, coding and family time, I’ve found a daily schedule on Google Calendar to be indispensable. Everything goes in — two hours of coding at 9 a.m. tomorrow; Wednesday’s long swim at 1 p.m.; family lunch at 11:40 a.m. when the kids are remote learning. By budgeting my hours and sticking to them, I’m making sure I put extra focus on estimating and planning my time.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1) Focus on the things that make you uncomfortable, and the rest falls into place. An entrepreneurial CEO wears many hats, even ones they aren’t comfortable with. As an introvert, I was never comfortable with long conversations with parents — rather I preferred to sling code without interruption. After opening my first school, I forced myself to chat with parents from the time it opened to the time it closed. It drained my energy every day but focusing on it has made me much more comfortable with it — and all the coding and analytical tasks fell easily into place.
2) What the company looks like to others may not match reality — it’s up to you to bridge the gap. As a company that teaches kids to code, folks often think of us as a technology company. A company that uses an artificial intelligence-driven curriculum, or one that automates everything from scheduling to emails — but we’re not. We’re a brick-and-mortar, personal service and human interaction company that just happens to teach technology. By using human-focused marketing with professional photos of coaches with kids, we’re trying to tell our story — we’re teaching kids how to use machines, but it’s all about the humans.
3) A Lifestyle Business can be every bit as successful as a Unicorn. There’s a strange assumption out in the business world (especially Silicon Valley) that if you’re not growing the fastest, you must be failing. Turns out you can also be successful by being purposeful and steady, if that’s what you want. A Lifestyle Business lets you balance work-life in very different ways than a Unicorn business lets you earn fame and money. Success, after all, isn’t defined by profits, but rather by the eye of the beholder. The important thing is to find your own definition of success and use that as your personal target, regardless of what the business world tells you.
4) “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Teach me, and I’ll remember. Involve me, and I’ll learn.” — Ben Franklin. At theCoderSchool we teach our kids to code through immersion, not curriculum. Memorizing commands or learning coding concepts isn’t nearly as effective as coding a custom app that the student wants to build. That’s how people learn best — being immersed, involved and most importantly, actually doing it. Training decks are fine and good — but don’t forget to actually DO it.
5) People think, react and gravitate differently — so don’t treat everyone the same way. A one-size-fits-all model might make it easier for you, but it often doesn’t get the best results. Boilerplate, repeatable, standard — use those words carefully and sparingly, only in the right situations where everything IS the same. Don’t fit a round peg into a square hole.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Whether it’s sharing through end-of-year bonuses or social potlucks, work culture is born out of a trust that the company is there for their staff and a feeling of support between the staff. Our business is particularly challenging because most of our 700+ Code Coaches are part-time, and our locations are spread across the country and owned by different franchisees. So we’ve learned to build system-wide culture digitally through messaging platforms. Our Code Coaches talk about gaming, the latest movies and teaching tips with each other on a Discord server. Meanwhile, our owners and managers use Facebook’s Workplace for constant advice, congratulatory stories and moral support. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the real relationships these platforms helped us build.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Everyone should run a 10k race and do it as fast as they can without walking. It doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympic runner or have never run before. Whether your fastest time is 30 minutes or an hour and 30 minutes, it doesn’t matter — it should be uncomfortable if not downright painful. But what if you got used to it? Focused on it or decided to go even faster? Pain or discomfort, after all, is a state of mind. It’s often just our brains telling us we’re pushing our limits. The more comfortable we are with being uncomfortable, the more we can push our limits — physically and mentally.
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