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Squares Conference (feat. Alex Zub) Part 1

Published 5/15/2017

In today's episode, I talk with Alex Zub about starting a company, learning to speak english through video games, and lots more.

Check out Alex's company, Handsome!

Today's episode is sponsored by Dolby. One of the most important things you can do for your application is ensure that the quality of your audio is strong. You already know Dolby and sound quality go hand-in-hand. Check out how Dolby can help you make your iOS applications better at spec.fm/dolby.

Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
From learning English by playing video games to building a company with 50 or so employees. That's the story we're talking about today. We're talking with Alex Zub. My name is Jonathan Cutrell. You're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on this show is to provide you with the information, the insights, the conversations, the coaching, all of these things in an audio format. For you to become a better developer, to become the great developer that I know that you want to be. I've said it on a few episodes. We're going to keep on saying it. I know that you want to be a great developer, otherwise you wouldn't be listening to this show. In today's episode, you're going to hear from a great developer. Alex has created a company that started with basically just him learning how to code. Alex is company by the way. I'm going to get out of the way so we can get straight into this interview. Once again, this interview is done in person at Squares. You're going to hear some background noise, but you can certainly hear some of the great insights that Alex has to offer. Let's jump into this interview with Alex Zub. I'm here at Squares with Alex Zub, who is the founder, are you the sole founder of Handsome? No. Alex is one of the founders of Handsome, an agency based here in Texas. Yeah, in Texas, in Austin, Texas. We met the first night of the conference and we had some really good conversation. As you can probably tell just from the slide accent, Alex is not originally from Austin, Texas. Can you give a general idea or maybe just a full story, background story? Yeah, it's a long story. I'm born and raised in Russia. I've lived 23 years of my life in city called Opsk, which is about a size of... Austin, Texas, which is about 1 million people. That's where I started to pursue my dream since I started to work. There isn't many opportunities out there for software engineers to grow. Most of the opportunities are outsourcing shops. It's pretty much companies, it's agencies that build products for very often US-based companies. I decided to take their out of being a freelancer and I've started to find some of the clients, mostly again, US-based. It's the largest market. That's what most of developers do in the city like Opsk. They're bigger markets. There's Moscow and St. Petersburg. They're bigger markets and there's a lot of product work. There's a lot more companies that actually build their own products. It's not necessarily the case. It's not often the opportunity that they have in smaller cities. I've started to work as a freelancer. I've started to build web products for the clients that I found. It starts very simple. It was very simple front-end development, just HTML, CSS pages. Then evolved into a more full stack work where I would create a front-end, put it into WordPress. The more I've gone into this, the more I have been dedicated myself to not just building the product but making sure it is what the client needs. Very often, they all tell me, here's the design, I need a website. They will not necessarily tell you from their perspective what they want to be able to accomplish with the website. Very often, they would not give any requirements for example for CMS for WordPress. This is where I started to connect technology and business, talking to clients and figuring out what they want. What kind of experience they want from their site? Which is a lot of what I do now, too. As we've grown as a company, we have bigger and more impactful clients. They all have their own requirements. If they are not telling that, if they are not very apparent, they will steal one something from the perspective of their staff who are going to be using the website, their admins. In addition to the consumer side of things, which is something, just like on this conference, like everybody is talking about making sure the product is built for the user for the consumer. It's kind of something a lot of people forget is the actual, does it make sense for the client? Are they going to be able to use it in a very productive way? He's going to solve the problem. This is something where I tried to steer. One of the clients I started to work with, I worked with him for a long while. He wasn't necessarily the direct client for me. Many heads. He was selling the services. He was finding clients who need to build a product for themselves, very often against websites. He was the project manager. He has technical background that allowed him to think, connect this business and technology part together. I was the technology side making things happen. This person is Jon Royscher, who is the CEO of Netsum CEO of the company. He is the co-founder, just like me, along with the two other very design-focused co-founders you have. He's been very successful at bringing the business. With one of the big large clients we decided to make it official and start a business. Put a sign up. We realized it was getting serious and we needed to take it serious and grow, become more mature. That's how handsome started. It was five and a half years ago now. It's been a long while. Just so for people to get an idea of the scale of handsome, how many people currently work at handsome? We have about 50 people at handsome and the size fluctuation is depending on the clients who work with them, products who work with. We're trying to have a very strong core of the company, but also be resourceful to be able to bring in people for a specific client. That's just about the size. We can fluctuate 55-45 depending on the client. It's very easy to hire 10-15 people and all of a sudden you don't have work for them. The market fluctuates itself. A lot of the seasonal projects will get to the end of the year, maybe different from the beginning of the year. Those large clients, they have planned their budget for the year. By the end of the year they might have exhausted their budget. Maybe they have large sum of money that they can actually spend. Then they plan for the next year and that's where we need to make sure they know about our services. That's where we are trying to be on the radar of all of those companies because we are providing these strategic services where we want to partner with our clients for one year or two years by the design technology services. I think that's a really important point. A lot of people who are working in the industry, especially for freelancers, to understand. A lot of times our goal is to win a single contract. Really the best type of relationships are those that last a little bit longer. Whether it's a year or two years or five years, these are the kinds of relationships that are going to end up being, you're going to be able to do more interesting work, which is a very important part of it. Perhaps the most important part for a business is it's much easier to maintain a relationship than it is to create an entirely new one. Typically, especially for things that are as intentional or as in depth as something like a brand, the branding website or something. The more you work with a partner like that, the more you can create for them. Just because you learn more about them, you know the business. You have a lot more information to be able to provide value versus having a short two months engagement where you just build something for them than you've done what's going on. A lot of the time, the client is going to be more involved and bought in not just to your process, but to a successful collaboration. People work with a lot of clients on both sides of that fence, at Whiteboard. People who want a longer term relationship, people who want to iterate on a product, they're usually more willing to share in ideas. Typically, the project-based stuff, where it's one project and done, 90% of what we talk about is budget. Budget is certainly an important factor. I think it's money is an important factor, but when budget is the only thing you're talking about, a lot of times you end up not being able to talk about potentially more important things and the long run for that project. Certainly, the kinds of relationships that you want to go after is those one, two year, three year, and beyond, indefinite relationships. I want to ask, rewind a little bit and ask you, at the very beginning of your interest in doing web development and learning HTML and CSS. What was the switch, the moment that the switch flipped for you where you decided, yeah, I do want to do this. This seems like it's something I could do indefinitely. I want to actually work in this space. It's been, I think it starts from middle school, high school, which is where I just had a very old and slow computer. I had a computer, so I'm kind of lucky. My parents bought a computer or a family, we didn't really have a need for that. We didn't have a need to have a computer at home, but they bought it in 1996, which was very unusual. In my school for a long while, I was the only person with a computer, but somehow, naturally, I was getting along with it. I was just sitting and trying to do stuff. There wasn't even a graphical interface. There wasn't windows. We only had, for the first couple of years, we only had dust. We had the common line. We had the file manager. It was like Tetris, the game. I guess my parents figured out that I'm going to be technically inclined in the sense when I would launch a game, like Doom, Doom 1, I would launch it. It would be no sound. I would close the game and go and set up that. The sound. Yeah. Then I would choose all the options to see, try that until the sound starts to work. Trying to make it work, even when I had no idea what I was doing. It was also all in English. Obviously, age I had not known English at all. It was almost like I was blind and trying things out. A lot of cases things worked out and cases they did not. That was something that I've been a kid with a computer. We've been sharing the computer with my brother. He's also software developer now. One of the things that makes it happen is we had a computer access. It wasn't as easy as now. You get an iPad and you can install a game and you can play that game all the time. It was like a puzzle. Yeah, it was a puzzle. That's a good word. It was a puzzle. To launch a game, you had to do a whole bunch of stuff that makes you think outside the box. Right. Now thinking about that, I think that made the major impact in... Do you went from a middle schooler who got a computer that you wanted to run Doom? Yeah. It wasn't even the middle school. I think it was an element school. Yeah. Then I was asking my father to bring some books from a library at his job because he had the books about programming. So I was asking him to bring some books. Just try something out. And I was...I could not read one of them. I was taking the examples from the book and type them in including the comments. Because I could not like... I didn't know what they were saying. Yeah. I could not read the comments, you know, do not actually make any difference. Yeah. But it was just fun trying it out and then changing numbers and see what happens. So I would build those little applications on basic. That would be a bit of a basic. A basic and text file that would run the comment line. So that was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. And then as we got middle school and high school, we actually had the kind of a computer science classes which were very simple. No... really no programming involved. Then a couple of times a year you would be asked to make something visual basic. Sure. Something very simple. Take a sum of two numbers and output the result. The result, yeah. But I've always been accomplishing the job within the first two minutes of the class and I would just do this job. Because you were used to working with computers and other people weren't there. And most of the people would only use computers when they were in the class. In the class, yeah. So it's been interesting. We'll get right back to the interview with Alex in just a second. But first I want to talk about today's sponsor Dolby. You know, we all expect our theater audio to sound great. And this is a space where we're very interested in surround sound. But what a lot of us may not recognize is that people actually demand high quality sound from all of their devices and all scenarios. And this is exactly what Dolby is providing to Developer Today. It's not just for your theater anymore and it's not just for movies and music anymore, either. If you're developing an iOS app that has any kind of audio assets at all, your users can benefit from Dolby's codecs. Now what exactly is this that Dolby is offering? Well, basically it's going to make your audio more clear. It's going to make it easier for your users to understand the dialogue. And you can have multi-channel audio. And you would think this is once again only in a theater environment. But the Apple iPhone 7 supports multi-channel audio. This is something that you may not even recognize when you're going through the process of building your app, but certainly your users will. You likely don't even need new audio assets. Most likely all you need to do is use Dolby's already existing tools. Of course, you can use things like Adobe Addition, but you can also use a free encoding tool online. Go check it out. Spec.fm slash Dolby iOS. Spec.fm slash Dolby iOS. Thank you again to Dolby for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. Well, let me ask you this question because I get this question quite a lot. I can't really speak, you know, authoritatively on it because English is my native language. How important was it to you along the way? Because it sounds like you started learning before you knew English and you're typing in comments. And, you know, that's some of the first exposure potentially that you had to English written language, and particularly in Russia, the character alphabet is different, correct? So you have kind of a different introduction to English language than the average person. When did that happen and how important was it? Yeah, it's actually interesting. I have... Well, we had the English language classes in school and it started from second grade. Yeah. And to go all the way to high school, so we would have 10 years of English. Okay. But it wasn't very effective just because it was so disconnected from practical usage. Yeah. You know, during those 10 years, you would not speak to a single person whose native language was English. Right. So you would, you know, the students would lose the knowledge, you know, the summer that they would have to try to, you know, recall everything. Yeah. And learn everything again. So that wasn't very effective. Right. What was effective to me is, well, again, computers and programming languages, but even more than that, it was the online games. Uh-huh. Wow. Interesting. So, you know, end of high... Well, end of middle school, you know, beginning of high school, I've been playing all my games a lot. Yeah. And most of the games, you would not get them in Russian. Like they would not be translated at that point. Now, now it's ever, everything gets translated just because the market is so big. Yeah. Back then, it wasn't very, you know, it wasn't big enough to justify. Yeah. So, a lot of games would not have translation. Yeah. So you would have to deal with English. Yeah. And it's the best kind of education is not where somebody tries to make you remember words over, you know, remember some rules. It's when you actually, you know, see them in front of you. And then in order to play that game, you need to figure out what it means. What it means, what it says. And I was playing, I was playing the, you know, worms. Uh-huh. Yeah. Yeah. Like 2D. Uh-huh. That was fun game by itself just to play, you know, a single, single mode game, but I was trying to play online. And really, I was always fascinated to learn other people's culture. Yeah. I mean, yeah. About it now, I realized that and it's probably resulted in the fact that I love traveling so much now. Yeah. I have, I like to speak to people who are not like me. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. And, you know, to people who are like, yeah, you want to learn a lot that way. To speak the other language, um, they, you know, speak differently. Yeah. So in worms, you don't actually speak, you don't use voice, but there's little chat window that you could open up and you could type, type something in. Sure. Yeah. And I like a lot of, you know, English slang because everybody with is it like all this online games slang. Right. Uh-huh. But also that's something that helped me solidify my English language knowledge and actually not, not that, you know, textbook, uh-huh, English. Yeah. But the actual English that people do use, right? Even if it was not 100%, you know, correct English. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It was still, still something, you know, people use. Sure. And I've played it for a long time. Yeah. Um, then I switched to world of work crafts, which is not a, you know, very popular game. Sure. And again, most of the, um, you know, most of the people of my age at that point, they, uh, they played, you know, they had little local Russian servers and they play with people, you know, with all, you know, Russian speaking. Yeah. So it wasn't to, well, to me, again, for some reason, I tried to get an American servers. Yeah. Yeah. Again, there's not no voice speaking. You would type, type and, you know, kind of talk to people in text. But again, that's, that's something where I got so much English language knowledge so that in high school, English classes has, you know, stopped being a problem to me. Right. Yeah. I struggled a little bit before, but at that point, it became so easy for me. That's so interesting. Uh-huh. So it's kind of like online games. You would think about online games as a waste of time. But not in this case. Yeah. To me, it actually helped a lot tonight. Potentially instrumental in helping your career like advance, right? Like, yes. You were able to become conversational in English. Yeah. We're going to talk more with Alex in the next episode of Developer Tea. If you don't want to miss out on that, go and subscribe in whatever podcasting app you use. There's some great apps out there and pretty much all of them have the subscribe feature. So make sure you subscribe. If you don't want to miss out on the second part of my interview with Alex and it is one of my favorite interviews, I highly recommend that you do listen in. Thank you again for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea and thank you to today's sponsor Dolby. If you're an iOS developer and you are not paying attention to the quality of your audio, I can guarantee you your users are. Go and check out what Dolby has to offer to help you create better quality audio experiences for your users. Check out FM slash Dolby iOS. Spekt out FM slash Dolby iOS. Thank you again for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea and until next time, enjoy your tea.