In­ter­view

Wes Bos teaches hun­dreds of thou­sands of de­vel­op­ers from his home of­fice. Here he re­veals how he cre­ated and built a com­mu­nity around his cour­ses, and why he ini­tially hated JavaScript

net magazine - - VOICES - Words by Oliver Lind­berg Pho­tog­ra­phy by Jenna Bos of Bear and Spar­row Pho­tog­ra­phy

We catch up with Wes Bos and dis­cover how he cre­ated and built a com­mu­nity around his cour­ses, and why he ini­tially hated JavaScript

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.”

That was also the think­ing be­hind JavaScript30 ( javascript30.com), a free 30-day JavaScript cod­ing chal­lenge, which teaches vanilla JavaScript with­out frame­works, li­braries, com­pil­ers or boil­er­plates. Peo­ple were al­ways ask­ing Wes how they could learn faster and im­prove their skills. “My ad­vice is al­ways that you need to build 1,000 things,” he sug­gests. “It’s go­ing to take some time, you need to ac­tu­ally put in the work, but once you get through those 1,000 things, I can guar­an­tee you’re go­ing to be a lot bet­ter. The JavaScript30 are your first 30 of 1,000 things to get you rolling.”

But Wes recog­nises it's not that easy to get started: even he hated JavaScript ini­tially. “I very clearly re­mem­ber be­ing ex­tremely frus­trated with jQuery,” he sighs. “It just breaks, so there’s a pos­si­bil­ity you waste four hours not get­ting any­where. I see that all the time. Of­ten I get nasty emails from peo­ple, and a cou­ple of hours later they apol­o­gise. You just get that rage blind­ness of how hard it is to learn. I hated it for a long time, and there was no ‘aha’ mo­ment for me. I just kept at it and slowly but surely, over the course of three or four years, it started to get a lit­tle bit eas­ier and I be­came more con­fi­dent.”

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.”

Wes added around 85,000 peo­ple to his email list in the last year alone, some­thing he puts down to JavaScript30, his most pop­u­lar course, which stands at around 145,000 sub­scribers so far. Still, he hasn’t done any mar­ket­ing for it in over a year. Peo­ple just keep rec­om­mend­ing it to friends be­cause it’s one of the things you need to do in or­der to get bet­ter at JavaScript.

The lat­est chan­nel Wes uses to reach his com­mu­nity is a new pod­cast called Syn­tax ( syn­tax.fm), which he co­hosts with fel­low web de­vel­oper Scott Tolin­ski ( twit­ter.com/stolin­ski). They call it a “tasty treats pod­cast for web de­vel­op­ers” and cover the nitty gritty of JavaScript, CSS and HTML, as well as re­lated tech­nol­ogy and soft skills like man­ag­ing email, pro­duc­tiv­ity and get­ting on the con­fer­ence cir­cuit.

“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.”

At Gen­er­ate New York, Wes is go­ing to talk about new things com­ing to JavaScript that will make web de­vel­op­ment much eas­ier and more en­joy­able, while his work­shop will be an in­tro­duc­tion to Re­act. “It will start you from the ground up and ex­plain all the dif­fer­ent Re­act con­cepts,” Wes de­scribes. “You’ll leave be­ing able to build an ap­pli­ca­tion that fetches data from an API that is routed on the client side and pulls in your CSS.”

An ad­vanced Re­act on­line course that will fo­cus on GraphQL is also in the pipe­line, as is a course on Vis­ual Stu­dio Code. In ad­di­tion Wes has been try­ing to fig­ure out how to teach the ba­sics of JavaScript and CSS from scratch. “A lot of peo­ple tell me they can’t take my cour­ses be­cause they don’t un­der­stand the ini­tial part of JavaScript,” he ex­plains. “I’d like to work out how I can teach those things in a re­ally nice way. It’s such a huge topic.” If Wes man­ages to crack it, the in­tro cour­ses will open him up to a whole new au­di­ence. The Bos Mon­ster may still just be at the be­gin­ning.

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