It’s easy for front-end developers to feel overwhelmed these days. What should you learn next? Which framework is going to take off? There are no absolute answers, of course, but if full-stack developer Wes Bos creates a course on a new technology, it’s safe to say it has matured enough for you to be able to pick it up and not waste your time on it. The latest one is CSS Grid ( cssgrid.io), a free video course that more than 35,000 people signed up to in the first week alone.
This new course took Wes around two and a half months of full-time work to build, requiring a lot of upfront investment so he could understand and explain it comfortably. To pay for this massive investment, Mozilla came on board as a sponsor and in exchange Wes used Firefox Devtools to demonstrate to viewers how they work and how effective they are when it comes to CSS Grid. Clearly Wes’s courses are learning by doing at its best. Yet he says he’s actually a very slow learner himself.
“It might seem like I can just consume anything and understand it,” he laughs. “But the only thing I can attribute my understanding to is just pushing through those harder points and sheer time. I have a big chunk of my day dedicated to learning new skills, which is extremely lucky. That’s why it seems like I’m always a bit ahead of the curve.”
His style of teaching has clearly tapped into a need. Around 220,000 people have taken at least one of Wes’s courses. Often they enjoy them so much that they're willing to pay for others – such as ES6 for Everyone ( es6.io), React for Beginners ( reactforbeginners.
com), and Learn Node ( learnnode.com). So what’s his secret? “There are two parts to a successful course,” he says. “I think I’ve cracked being good at both parts. The most important thread is obviously good content. It has to be up to date, engaging, a little bit funny, and the thing that you’re building has to look nice. People need to be able to have fun, pause and have lunch halfway through. You can’t overwhelm them too much.”
Then there’s the marketing side of the equation, which again carries Wes’s personal
style. “Every single one of my courses has a different domain name, which people tell me is not a good idea,” he chuckles. “Each course has a new design, look and feel, and different intro music. I have a certain style but I can use new fonts, colours and patterns for every course, which is really refreshing to me. Often people have really good stuff in their courses but they’re not able to open that up to the landing page. That’s an important piece.”
Wes’s strategy is relatively simple: to be on every single platform – whether that's Instagram, Facebook or YouTube – although he has found the most important are Twitter and email. On the former, he has more than 120,000 followers and often tweets helpful little nuggets of information to his eager audience. Email is an even bigger channel for him: his list boasts 208,000 subscribers.
“I don’t do a lot of emailing, which is sort of against the book,” he explains. “A lot of people say you should be having all these auto-responders and sending three emails a week. That’s very true, it works really well, but developers have a very low bullshit tolerance. You can’t do that stuff to developers and not leave a bad taste in their mouths. My emails are very much just me writing what’s going on with my life and what people should expect next. The open rates are much higher than industry average, even though sometimes I go a month or two without sending an email.”
“With the exception of ShopTalk [hosted by Chris Coyier and Dave Rupert], I didn’t like listening to most web development podcasts because they stress you out,” Wes explains. “Scott and I have a good grasp on making it fun and being able to distil information to a general audience about web development. I think it’s also important to remember that web developers are humans that have other interests, too.” Wes sent out a few emails and almost instantly the show got between 20,000 and 30,000 downloads.
Amazingly, this training empire is basically a one-man operation. Wes now has an assistant, who manages his emails and sticker business ( https:// bos.af/), but the course design, development and promotion is all done by him. He has created a Node application, built on React and server render templates, that hosts all of the different parts of the platform, which he calls the Bos Monster. It handles free and
“Often people have really good stuff in their course but they’re not able to open that up on a landing page”
paid courses and includes an affiliate system, which is a big sales driver. People recommend the courses and Wes pays them a portion of the profits.
Wes has always been an entrepreneur. When he grew up he had a lawn-mowing business, sold pears by the side of the road, and fixed and cleaned up road bikes to resell them for ten times the amount he had bought them for. He studied Business Technology Management, but while doing work experience soon realised he hated working in an office for other people. He also discovered he could make much more money developing WordPress sites as a freelancer.
Local Canadian organisations Ladies Learning Code and HackerYou got him into teaching, where he ran in-person workshops on WordPress and introductory web development bootcamps. It was there that Wes honed his teaching skills. “It really helps being there in person, talking to people and working through their problems,” he explains. “You’re able to see their frustrations or how they react when things work. If someone watches a video and they don’t get it, they just turn it off. You can have stats on that and see drop-off rates, but it’s nowhere as good as being there in person.”
Initially Wes wanted to learn how academics teach but quickly noticed that people started to latch on to the way he explained things. Now he regularly receives emails from people telling him he changed their lives.
“It’s really weird, you don’t expect it,” he enthuses. “At the end of the day I’m just some guy recording my screen, but somebody emailed me recently saying they went through a bunch of my courses and got a C$15,000 raise from their boss [around £8,600], which is life-changing for a lot of people. Obviously, I’m not going to attribute just my courses to it – these people are selfstarters – but they said that my courses played a large role in them either getting raises or jobs. They also said that I’ve reignited their love for web development. There’s a lot of burnout in our industry, people get sick of it after a while, and need to continually update their skills. I want my courses to be fun and remind people of that little spark they experienced when they first started learning and worked things out.”