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Becoming a Solopreneur in Data

Season 6, episode 1 of the DataTalks.Club podcast with Noah Gift

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Alexey: This week, we'll talk about being a solopreneur. I don't know if I pronounced it correctly. Like “Entrepreneur” right? (1:14)

Noah: Perfect. (1:22)

Alexey: [laughs] Yeah. We have a special guest today, Noah. Noah is a founder of Pragmatic AI Labs. He lectures at a number of universities... The list of them is quite long. How many are there now? 10? (1:23)

Noah: A lot. Yeah. (1:38)

Alexey: Noah is a teacher at a number of universities. He also wrote a couple of books. Not a couple – more than that – but we will go into that during today's conversation. Noah is also a former CTO, individual contributor, and consultant. He has over 20 years of experience in shipping revenue-generating products in many industries, including films, games, and SaaS. I think I also saw your post from LinkedIn when you… did you take part in Spider Man? (1:41)

Noah: Yeah, I did. I worked at Sony Pictures Imageworks and we did Spider Man, Superman, Chronicles of Narnia. I really love Sony. Sony Imageworks was probably the best company I've ever worked at. (2:18)

Alexey: Cool. Welcome to our event. (2:31)

Noah: Thanks. Happy to be here. (2:35)

Noah’s background

Alexey: Before we go into our main topic of being a solopreneur, let's start with your background. Can you tell us about your career journey so far? (2:37)

Noah: I probably have not a very replicable career, but I'll tell you my background. I started, growing up in Southern California, my dad worked in the television industry. He had a television production company. So I would go with him when I was 10 years old, and actually be the sound person or lighting person, editing. I learned a lot of that stuff early on. I actually was eventually an editor for ABC network news in Hollywood. So I drove into work and, and edited the news – which at 18 was just like crazy. Like, really, really crazy. I was offered a full-time job, but I decided to go to college instead. That was kind of a different life. (2:47)

Noah: I was always very interested in sports. I had a period of time where I seriously wanted to be either an Olympic athlete or a professional basketball player, or a track athlete. I had this whole period of time where I was tempted by it, and I studied nutritional science in college. After that, I decided to grow up and get a real job. [laughs]

Noah: So then I got a job at CalTech and worked there for a few years. Then I got a master's at Cal State LA, so the public school right next door. I would go there at night, do classes in information systems – which is kind of similar to data science today, I guess. At the time – most people know this – at a university, you don't make a ton of money. But it was really cool. I met some really, really smart people there that I know even today. But, you know… you want to make more money, right? I knew that I had all this experience with TV and I combined all the Python and all the stuff I learned in my Master's degree and all the stuff I learned at Caltech – and I got a job in live TV.

Noah: I worked in a live TV rental company for a bit. That included things like the Big Brother show and those kinds of shows. Then I transitioned to Disney Feature Animation and did work there for a while building film pipelines. Then I moved to Sony. A lot of the film pipelines – this is something that's pretty rare in terms of something people don't know – that, especially in the early 2000s, film is probably the most similar thing that exists to data pipelines today. It’s almost identical. Centralized file systems, Linux, Python – all this stuff. I hate to be the guy that's got the gray beard and says, “We were doing this before!” But, we were doing this before. We already did all the data pipeline stuff.

Noah: Then I moved to Atlanta, and was there for a little bit. I worked for Turner studios and did some startup stuff. Then I moved to New Zealand for a year and worked on the Avatar movie. This also involved film pipelines, high-performance computing – one of the biggest supercomputers in the world. I am still in contact with many of those people from New Zealand and they've actually moved into very similar industries, like ML ops and data engineering. Then I went to the Bay area, spent probably about 10 years there, worked at startups and got another Master's degree. Then I started teaching after I finished my startup, and then for – probably 2017 or so – so maybe four years straight, I've been just working for myself through a variety of different things.

Alexey: Cool. Yeah, that's the first time I hear about “I've done this before.” I mean, when it comes to pipelines, this is a totally different perspective – from the movie industry. That's pretty interesting. So since 2017, you've been going solo, right? You've been a solopreneur since then? (6:16)

Noah: That's right. Yeah. (6:40)


Alexey: What is a solopreneur? (6:42)

Noah: What I would define as a solopreneur – after I had finished working at a startup and really putting a lot of energy into it, I was essentially the first non-founding person to work at the company and essentially went in and built the company from scratch (there were some other people there, of course). It took three years of time. I put 100 hour weeks in, we hired all these people, we made money (millions of dollars) and all this stuff. And then it just didn't work out. It was a sports social network. I just was done. I was like, “Okay, I'm out.” Because I felt like I had put everything in it and many people there too – they had really succeeded and made money and done all this stuff. So I thought, “Wait, why am I doing this for other people?” And also, “Why do I want to ask for permission to be successful? Why should I ask some venture capitalists if I can work for their company?” Or “Why should I ask my boss, ‘Hey, can I make more money?’ Why don't I just make money myself?” So that was the emphasis. (6:44)

Noah: I think solopreneurship is just intentionally being small. It’s not about trying to scale something to be really, really big. It’s about building an anti-fragile way to make money. Just like with distributed computing and cloud computing, you have load balancers, you have machines – you're distributing the load. When you're a solopreneur, you should always have (ideally) maybe three of everything. Three consulting clients, three different things you're doing in software, three things of whatever. Revenue stream, diversify. It gives you leverage. Not necessarily leverage so that you can be a bad person and say, “Hey, give me more money.” But it gives you leverage in the sense that – if someone's unethical, for example, you can say “No.” This is one of the things I was just talking to a friend about, even today. One of the nice things about having diversified revenue is, if you don't like the ethics of a company, you can say “Bye. Out. Next.” I think that's one of the best ways that we could change the world – when people don't need to work for a company.

Noah: I could imagine many people, in the Bay area in particular, maybe they have a $2 million mortgage. They're working for a company they don't like – they know it's bad. They know it's hurting the world and destroying it through misinformation or disinformation. But they have no choice, right? Because they have a $2 million mortgage. So they have to pretend like, “No, no. We're connecting everybody. It's not bad.” You know? Like, “Sure, everybody learns about anti-vax through our platform, but…” So you have to kind of trick yourself into this mindset. But if you have diverse forms of revenue, you just say “No, I'm not going to work for an ethical company.” So to me, that's part of it, too. If you stay small and have distributed forms of income, I think you can just live a better life.

Company of One

Alexey: Yeah. I heard about a book called “The Company of One.” I haven't read it entirely, but I read a short summary of it. I think the idea there is very similar to what you said in the sense that you intentionally want to be small. You don't want to be the biggest company in the world – you don't have these ambitions. You just want to be small and earn enough to sustain a good lifestyle. That's the same idea, right? (9:45)

Noah: Yeah, I think it's very similar. I think a lot of people are afraid to say what I say because they want to continue to work in tech. I'll say whatever I want, because I don't care. If you look, a lot of the VC companies – Paul Graham's a good example – they say “billionaires build” etc, etc. It's like, “Well, but what are they building?” Oh, they're tricking people into working for less than market rates, and then taking common goods (like in the case of those scooters), just throwing them on the sidewalks, leaving it for people. No, you’ve made the world a worse place by taking something that was free and exploiting it. (10:22)

Noah: I'm not against venture capital, I love capitalism. I love it. I love people making money and being entrepreneurs. I don't like the exploitative venture capitalists who say “We disrupt.” It's like, “No, you steal from people. You steal the commons, and you exploit people by lowering their income.” I don't want to do that. So to me, that's the opposite of that. It’s saying, “No, I don't want to become a billion-dollar company through exploiting humans and exploiting open spaces (like congestion from Uber and Lyft in downtown San Francisco). I don't want to take over people's sidewalks. I don't want to hurt people. I want to make the world a better place.” I don’t want to take the truth – like Facebook has done – completely monopolizing truth, flipping it, turning it into falsehoods, and then monetizing that. No, you don't have to do that. I think many people agree – especially post COVID-19 – why not just make the world a better place and not work for companies that make it a bad place?

Alexey: Yeah. Another thing you mentioned was – when you work at a company, you depend on somebody to make decisions for you. For example, if you want to get promoted, you have to wait until somebody decides to actually give you a raise. But if you work for yourself, then you just find another client or something like that. Right? (12:09)

Noah: Yeah, exactly. I think there are a lot of extremely talented people – just amazingly talented people – who are stuck in a hierarchical organization, where someone that doesn't have as much talent is their boss. The boss's goal is to have more power. Then all they do all day is talk to other bosses, and then do this and this and this. If someone knows that doing something will be successful, they have to ask someone's permission to do something that's obviously correct. I think at some point, if you're extremely talented, like so many people that I meet, you say, “Well, wait a second. Why would I ask this person to do the right thing? Why don't I just do it?” So that's the idea as well. If you know you have actual talents or skills – you can make money, you can do things – then hopefully, at some point, you ask yourself, “Wait. Why am I asking people to do things? It's just slowing me down from making revenue or doing things that I want to do.” So I call this, ‘Not asking for permission to be successful.’ (12:29)

Noah’s typical day

Alexey: Yeah, I'm really wondering – what does your day look like? What do you do, usually? (13:41)

Noah: I generally try to exercise every single day. I wake up in the morning, maybe, take a walk on the beach, or go rock climbing. I like to do bouldering. Maybe lift weights. I find that it's critical to be fit. I'm already pretty fit, but I could even be more fit. I feel like that's one of the things that's really, really important – to take care of yourself. So, get sleep, wake up, and do some exercise. Then after that, I just have a list. I have a list of things I need to do. You know, “Hey, I need to write a book chapter.” Or “I need to contact this person about this project I'm working on.” It's just a queue of work. The queue is sometimes very big and sometimes there's no queue – and I process the queue. (13:49)

Noah: It's really a prioritization thing. Then I work through that throughout the day. Some days, I'll just decide, “Hey. I don't want to do things.” Maybe it's a Tuesday, and I think “I was doing a lot of work over the weekend. I'll just do nothing. I'll just go sit at the beach.” That's the other thing too. I try to be very careful about not biting off more than I can chew because the work is infinite, right? The work is infinite if you work for yourself. So you need to pace yourself.

Alexey: That's interesting. So what kind of things do you have on your list (in your queue)? You mentioned writing a chapter – what other kinds of things do you have on there? (15:15)

Noah: It'll be whatever is the most important that week. I'll put it on my iPad and I'll just have it right next to me. I'll say, “Okay, after I work out or maybe even go to the sauna – just really kind of be relaxed, start the day. Okay, what do I need to do?” I look at the iPad and I write it down, “Okay, I need to send some emails to these people. Okay, there we go. Then I write, “Oh! I need to set up this thing that I'm working on for a project. And maybe I need to write some code.” I just write a list of maybe five things. Then I go through it as I work through the day, and I just cross it off the list. And that's really the gist of it. Now if there's something more complex, I wouldn't necessarily put the complexity into the to-do list – I'll put it into a spreadsheet instead. I have projects that are very complex and may take a year to finish. But I'll work on the project and write “Do this part of the project.” So that's really just my board – just a very simple iPad list where I cross things out. (15:26)

Exponential vs linear projects

Alexey: What kind of projects are you working on? Are these clients’ projects? Your own projects? Your small businesses? (16:27)

Noah: It’s a whole variety of things. Basically, a lot of what I do – I've done different things in different years – but sometimes I'll be doing training. I do a lot of work with O'Reilly and a lot of work with other companies as well. Teaching things that I know, like ML ops, data engineering, DevOps, Python. I do a reasonable amount of those kinds of projects, where you have to say,” Okay, here's what I'm gonna build.” I am also working on courses and do a lot of work with Coursera. Those take a while. That kind of work could take maybe six months – I'm working with a group of people, we meet every week and we do a little bit more work. Also, I do some consulting projects. So maybe I'm working with a company and building some solutions for them. (16:35)

Noah: Then I have other things, like teaching at universities. For that sometimes I'll have to build a new course or do some curriculum. When you do work for yourself, you have to be careful to focus more of your time on exponential versus logarithmic work. In the case of working on something like, in my case, a course or a book, or something – that has exponential potential, right? Because many people could read it. Or maybe if I put something on YouTube, or on LinkedIn. If it's consulting work, that's still good. If I'm learning something, I'm able to apply that later. But I try to cap the consulting type of work so that it wouldn't consume more than maybe 20% of my available time. I try to do 80% of my work as more of the exponential type. I mean, it's not like I'm perfectly doing this. But in general, I try to limit and cap and be very, very selective about the consulting work I do. Because consulting work is not scalable.

Alexey: What I’m wondering, maybe I'm wrong, but this 20% of non-scalable work – is this what makes most of the money? Or is it actually the courses and other different things? (18:32)

Noah: It depends. It really depends on what the year is or what it is I'm working on. I think of it more like if I were going to spin a distributed computing job. Let's say you spun up many processes in Python, for example. Say it’s a multi-processing module. You write a function and then you have a bunch of functions that go into a process pool. It's non-deterministic, right? It could be maybe this process takes a long time and it consumes a lot of CPU. But then you have another process that goes [snaps fingers] and finishes really quickly. Then another one's more medium. I think that's the way to think about work. If you have some things where you don't necessarily need to be thinking about them and they have some form of exponential potential, or at least linear or super-linear potential, (like renting a property out) that's not bad. I mean, it's not exponential potential, but at least maybe linear or super-linear. (18:46)

Noah: Then you also have some things that could maybe take a long time to work out. Like if you write a book – who knows? Maybe it's a dud. Maybe it does nothing. So I think that's the trick. It’s very, very similar to doing computer science distributed computing in the sense that you have to think about things in terms of – you're okay with whatever happens because you have lots of different work happening in parallel. So it doesn't really matter which one is necessarily a big win. The thing that you have to be careful about when doing consulting work – it's very tempting to start making a lot of money from a consulting client, and then that becomes all you do. Then you're not actually a solopreneur anymore, you're working for somebody else. This is called something different.

Noah: When you work for someone else, even as a consultant – even if it's a lot of money, let's say half a million dollars a year/a million dollars a year as a consultant – then you can't do anything that's exponential. Basically your virtual machine, the CPU is at 100%. You can't spin up any more processes on that machine. That's all it does. Thus, you don't have the opportunity to profit from some kind of exponential work. Again, that’s why I try to limit the consulting. It's good because you learn things when you’re consulting. It's really fun. You make contacts. I love consulting. At least for me personally – there are people that do consulting and that's all they do – but I want to save most of my time for exponential work.

Escaping the office: digging the tunnel

Alexey: I also wanted to add – I'm a book author myself, I've written three books. Two of them are doing pretty badly. Last quarter, my “Mastering Java for Data Science” book sold like 10 copies, probably. It's nice to write a book, but then if nobody buys it... I'm not making any money from this book. Another book that I have, maybe I have $300 per month from this book, which is also not very impressive. What I mean is, if you invest a lot in these exponential things, not necessarily all of them will give you an exponential return at the end. (21:41)

Noah: Yeah. That's a good thing you bring up – there is no silver bullet. So $300 a month, for example, is probably not going to make many people be able to survive. But what if you had ten $300-a-month things? Now, it's interesting. But this, I think, is the dilemma of a ‘cold start problem’. It's like you’re building a company and you want to get a bunch of users, so you say, “Hey, we have such awesome technologies. People would love the thing we built, but no one's here. No one's using it.” Yeah. That's the hard part. There's probably no perfect formula for doing that. It could take a few years. It could even be that maybe a book does nothing. Who cares if the book does nothing? If you're very opportunistic, there are other things you could do that are beyond just writing a book. (22:33)

Noah: For example, you could write an application on the iOS store and put it there. Who knows? Maybe someone will buy it. But really, I think it's more of a mindset. It's a little bit like – if anyone's heard of the movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ where the lead person in the movie, Tim Robbins, is falsely imprisoned for life in a very bad prison and bad things happen to him. But he works for a while. He works for a long time and digs his way out with a spoon and escapes. I think the thing about escaping from working for unethical corporate companies should remind you of the movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. You need to build the poster and you need to use the spoon and it's gonna take some time.

Noah: You're gonna need to dig that tunnel. But what do you have now? You're free. There’s an expression “Freedom isn't free.” If you want to be able to wake up every morning, look at the sun, walk at the beach, walk in the park, decide what it is you want to work on – it will require sacrifice. And if you don't want to be free, just stay in prison. Just stay inside, just like the other character that became institutionalized.

Soloprenership formula

Alexey: Okay. So to sum up, you're doing courses like Coursera. Then there’s also work with universities. You're also doing a lot of training and teaching through O'Reilly, about ML ops, data engineering, etc. Then you also do a bit of consulting. You try to devote 20% of your time to consulting and the rest would go to your teaching activities. Right? (25:05)

Noah: Exactly. (25:31)

Alexey: Is there anything else? (25:32)

Noah: Yeah, there's more. That's the formula. I think anybody can have their own formula. There's nothing magical about that particular formula. In fact, you could do only consulting. Especially now, if you only do consulting – maybe you have three consulting clients – and you could do very well. In fact, I was watching a really good show called “Comedians in Cars” and Jay Leno was on it. You can learn a lot about solopreneurship by watching that show. Listen very, very carefully. Because being a comedian is very similar. They're doing the same thing. They make money on shows – that's what I do, right? Like a book or a course. But they also do it in person. So they have to do the work, right? They have to teach it and learn the material. Jay Leno may also have a kind of a ‘contractor consulting’ job with his Tonight Show. (25:33)

Noah: He said he always banks one job and works another. So one job he puts in the bank. That's the other part of the trick – “Yeah, I have money. I put money in the bank – that's investments. I also have other projects that I'm working on that pay out. So, real estate, stocks, cash – all those kinds of things. The more you have of that, the more chances you can take and the more flexibility you have to work on exponential things. I think if you don't have some kind of a reserve of cash and low expenses – if you're living in the Bay Area paying $7,000 a month to rent a house in Marin County, you should probably move [laughs]. Because now all of your money is going to pay for your living expenses, but you could potentially have very low living expenses and have a lot more flexibility to work on other things.

Alexey: Where do you live now? Atlanta? (27:35)

Noah: I live in North Carolina. Raleigh, North Carolina. (27:36)

Alexey: It's cheaper than the Bay Area? (27:40)

Noah: Much cheaper. I would say like, 25% of the Bay Area probably. (27:44)

Structuring goals

Alexey: We have quite a lot of questions. The first question we have is, “How do you structure your day?” I think we talked a bit about that. But the other part of the question is “How do you set your goals and go about them?” So do you have a system for this? Like, “This thing has exponential potential, and this one doesn’t.” (27:52)

Noah: Yeah, definitely. Again, this is just for me, and it would be very different for other people. I try to focus my time on teaching. One of the reasons I'm teaching is (it's not very lucrative – no one makes money, or almost nothing, by teaching.) But the reason I do it is (A) it's enjoyable. It makes me happy, because I'm helping people. And (B) I'm also learning what people want to know. That's an important component. I kind of learn what it is I need to teach people. But in terms of choosing my goals, I think exponential potential would be a big one. (28:22)

Noah: If I have two projects, one project is, “Hey, I want you to work on this thing that 500 people will see for my special new startup’s platform,” or, “Hey, you can develop a Coursera course that we could reach 200 million people,” then I choose the Coursera because [laughs] there's 200 million people. So definitely, the scale is a huge component when choosing goals. But also, as I mentioned before, (not to be self-righteous or anything) but I also if I feel like if there's unethical technology, I won't do it. I don't have a huge list but Facebook's a good one. Anything to do with Facebook, “Nope. Next.” I want to have some capacity of what my goals are in terms of “Am I making the world a better place or am I destroying it?” I'm fortunate to be in a place where I can choose to not to work on things that I feel are destroying the world.

Noah: There’s the ethical component, the exponential component. And then there’s “Is there a capacity for me to work on things asynchronously?” Meaning, even if someone was going to pay me a lot of money, and they're like, “Yeah, you're going to need to show up to a meeting for two hours a day, every single day, for the next year.” I'd say “No, sorry. I just don't want to do that. No matter how much money you give me.” I mean, there probably would be a limit where I would probably say, “Well… Temporarily, I'll do it.” But I just don't want to show up and sit in a meeting and do nothing. I also try to focus more on asynchronous work as well.

Alexey: Then, when you feel like not working, you would just spend time on the beach instead of sitting in a meeting doing nothing. (30:53)

Noah: Exactly. (30:58)

Staying motivated

Alexey: How do you keep focus and motivation? Because when you work alone, sometimes it can be hard. (31:00)

Noah: Yeah, that's true. I think the thing is – you don't have to be perfect. At times, one week, I won’t be as productive. Then some weeks, I'll be really, really productive. So I think part of it is just being okay with the fact that you don't have to be perfect. The other part of it is, naturally, as you get projects, you have to finish them. If you think about most people, they brush their teeth every day, and they take a shower – you know, you have no choice. You have to do this, right? If you're working on a project, and it's got a deadline – you have to do it. There isn't really a lot of wiggle room in terms of this stuff. So that's probably one of them, as well. (31:07)

Noah: I also think if you're happy about the thing you're working on – that's why I mentioned that not being involved in meetings and BS work, or the people you're working with are very unpleasant or unethical – then it's not going to be motivational. If someone’s like, “Hey, let's figure out a way to spread even more anti-vaccine Information on Facebook, and we're gonna really get grandma to click on this link that makes her not take the vaccine.” It's like, “No, I think I'm not gonna do that. I'm gonna focus on stuff that makes me happy.” I want to feel like I'm doing good work. I think that's a big part of it, if you're able to be really happy about what you're working on, the motivation will come.

Alexey: How much time do you spend working every week? On average? Is it more or less than 40 hours? (32:42)

Noah: Yeah, that's a good question. I would say probably 40-50 hours is probably what I work on average. It could be really wild. Mostly 40-50, but maybe one week I worked in. But then some weeks, maybe I work 80. But typically, it would be 40-50. (32:51)

Dealing with pressure

Alexey: I imagine if you're working on a book, then there is also a course, and then there is also a client… I know that maybe for you, it's easier because you've written many books. But sometimes, for example, I was struggling a lot with writing, because I know that, “Hey, now the publisher is pressuring me, and I really need to sit down and write it.” But it's just so difficult for me to sit down and write it. Then there is also another project where the client is messaging you saying, “Hey, when will it be ready?” And then you also have a course and people are waiting for this course. So, yeah. All this stuff. (33:11)

Noah: Oh, yeah. I've had all that. But I think it’s just a perspective, in that whenever I think about that, “Oh, I gotta do this course, I gotta do this. I gotta do all this stuff.” The way I think about it is, the suffering that I'm undergoing, of “Wow, I really feel pressure, etc., etc.” It's actually a reminder of how good my life is. The fact that people want me to do work for them and I have all these different projects – means I don't have a boss. It's almost like a reminder, “Hey, remember? You don't have a boss. You can do anything you want.” “Oh, okay.” Then I'm happy. Then it turns into “Oh, I get to work really hard. Yeah, this is great.” So I think it's just a way of looking at it. The more pressure you're under when you're working for yourself, that's a sign that you're successful. (33:49)

Alexey: Okay. Then, since you don't have a boss, you can just say, “I can just stop working on this at any time,” right? (34:44)

Noah: Yeah, just do what you want. I mean, do try your best and, obviously, you can't just not do things. But things happen. You can always tell someone, if you're really, really overwhelmed and you just can't finish it, just be honest and say, “Hey, I'm a little bit slow on this one. I really apologize. I'm never late most of the time. Give me a couple more weeks. I'm finishing up this other project.” It's for yourself, right? You can be as nice to yourself as you want. You can be mean to yourself, or you can be nice to yourself. Why not be nice? (34:51)

Alexey: Okay. So, how many books have you written so far? (35:25)

Noah: I think we're in… eight books, maybe? I think I've done eight books. I've done three for O'Reilly, one for Pearson. Then I did four self-published books. So I think it's about eight. (35:30)

Self-publishing books

Alexey: Oh, cool. So what's your self-publishing experience? Is it better than working with a publisher? (35:44)

Noah: In regards to being self-published – I think there are obvious benefits to doing it with a publisher. I would say I'd probably prefer to have a combination of both. I would say every 18 months or so, I want to try to publish a book with a publisher. At least that’s for me, which may be very unusual. For most people, they may not even consider that to be good advice. It's a very specialized thing to do. But part of it is that, as a consultant, I'm spending all my time trying to be at the cutting edge. I like working with publishers like O'Reilly. I really like that company. I think they're ethical. I like the founder of O'Reilly. I like the president of O'Reilly – I like everyone. They're very, very good people to work with. So it's fun for me. (35:52)

Noah: But if I also just happen to be working on something and it makes it easy to put it into a book. Yeah. Why not? I think of self-publishing as more of ‘accidental products’, where it's like, “Hey, I already have this stuff. Why don't I just put it into a book?” Then the publishing stuff is a little more intentional, and a little more serious. I think the quality definitely improves, when you have really, really talented people like those at O'Reilly for example, working with you.

Alexey: Also, pressure from the publisher can help, I guess. Because if I didn't have a publisher for my last book, I don't think I would have finished it. I would have just given up. But since they were constantly writing to me saying, “Hey, how is chapter five going?” That would lead me to just sitting down one day and finally finishing it. (37:11)

Noah: Yeah, I think it doesn't hurt. I don't know if it's good advice to tell people, “Hey, write a bunch of books.” Because as you mentioned, I think it's probably a lower probability of generating a lot of income. It's more about the prestige when you write a book. But for me – which is in a very specialized, unique area that I'm in – I just happen to be spending all my time learning the latest stuff. So it's an artifact of what I'm already doing to write books. (37:36)

Planning out books

Alexey: The question that we have is also about books. The question is, “How do you plan books?” Because it takes a lot of time, right? You have a topic, let's say ML ops – like your latest book. This topic is a big thing, so you somehow need to chunk it in order to understand which chapters there will be. Then for each chapter, you need to put down something concrete. How do you go about doing this? (38:08)

Noah: Yeah, I think that's a good question. Step one, you must do an outline. Must. If you don't build an outline, you will not build a book. That's by far the most important part. And it's actually pretty easy. If anyone ever wants to write a book with you and you want to figure out if they're serious or not, just ask them to help build an outline. The people that won’t write anything, won't do the book either. So, that's an obvious one. It’s a great way to weed people out. (38:38)

Noah: Once you get the outline, I personally like to build projects first. So, I would build some projects for the chapter, maybe put those in GitHub. Then once I build the projects, to me, the book writes itself. You just go through and describe what you're working on. You say this and this and this. Especially if you're already doing that work. Let's say you're working at Twitch, for example, and you're a back-end engineer. I just happen to know somebody who works at Twitch. You're a back-end engineer, and you're doing a bunch of stuff with HTTP API's and you're already doing this documentation for work and you're doing all this stuff. So, you already wrote it. It may not be exactly what you’re going to put in the book, but you wrote it somewhere already and/or it’s in your mind.

Noah: I think a lot of times people get stuck and they hurt themselves mentally. They're like, “Oh, no! It's so stressful.” But it's like “Wait. Don't reinvent something.” That’s the other part – “Don't work really hard. Do things you already know how to do.” You think that people won't think that it's interesting because they're not in your brain. But most people don't know what's in your brain. So you just need to take what's in your brain and put it on a piece of paper. I would say those are probably the main tips that I would have.

Alexey: It sounds easy, but taking something out of your brain and putting this on paper takes time. How often do you publish books? Is it every year? I think you said it’s every year and a half, right? (40:25)

Noah: Yeah. Year, or a year and a half. I think for me, the last several years, I've definitely done that. At least a book a year. Again, it's more a combination of, “It's enjoyable to me to do it” and “I have the time to do it.” That's part of my strategy of just forcing myself – It's really like a goal. If you ask someone, “Hey, why do you run marathons?” Most people know someone that runs marathons. Why do you do it? “Well, it's just something to do.” I trained for the marathon. I have a race towards the end of the year. So it’s just kind of a fun thing to do to stay in shape – to run a marathon. I think writing a book, if you do become someone like me and write a bunch of books, it's just a great way to be relevant and stay up to date. Just keep writing books. (40:37)

Writing books is like preparing for a marathon

Alexey: Yeah. Still, taking stuff out of your brain and then putting it on paper requires time, right? Also it takes practice and skill. And then you actually become better at this. (41:34)

Noah: Yeah, well it's the same as the analogy. Again, if anyone has ever run a marathon – it's not that the marathon is actually difficult. I've run seven. It’s that you think it's difficult, but the real issue is that it's self-discipline. You just have to get your body used to running for a couple hours. Once you can run for a couple hours, you can run a marathon. It's really just the feedback loop of “Oh! Yeah, it's actually not that bad. Because a lot of it – running a marathon in particular – your mind is telling you “This is bad! Your body hurts so bad! No, stop this!” You know, it's tricking you. It's telling you,” Oh, this is awful!” But it doesn't hurt. It's not bad. And it's relaxing. You can just run for a couple hours and just relax. Same thing with a book. Really, writing a book is not that bad. But you think it's bad, so you torture yourself. But actually, you just have to do it. You just have to put it onto paper. But the more you do it, the more you realize “Yeah, of course it takes some effort.” But it's not as bad as people think, the more you do it. (41:49)

Distributed income

Alexey: There is a question about distributed income. The question is “Can you give some tips on how to get distributed income?” I think we already talked about books, which is one piece of the puzzle. Let's say, if you have eight of them, it contributes something every month. A little bit, at least. Some books do well, some books maybe don't. But overall, eight books together, make something. How do you go about the other pieces of the puzzle? (42:56)

Noah: Just any way you can. For example, I do YouTube videos. I make some money on that. I published for O’Reilly. I make some money on that. It's basically just an accumulation. If you're not in a hurry to make money, then it's much easier to make money. I think the way you never make money from distributed income is to think like you're a salaried employee. Because when you're a salaried employee, it's like, “Ah! I must make $200,000 a year. I can't live in the Bay Area.” But that's the wrong way to think for distributed income. What you should be thinking is, “How can I make $200,000 a year in 10 pieces?” And it may take five years, or it may take three years to do it. (43:31)

Noah: It's even better if the sources are not related. Maybe a book is a little bit. Let's say you need to make $10,000 a month – maybe 1000 bucks comes in from books. But what else could you do? You could also build an app. Maybe the app gets lucky. Maybe it does 2000 a month. Now you're at 3000. It's like points on the board in a basketball game. Okay, what's next? Well, maybe you could buy a duplex. So you do a little consulting first and you build up a lot of money. You buy a duplex, you rent out one side. Now you have another 2000. Now you're up to 5000. Then eventually, you add up the pieces and they're all different and they're unrelated. Say the real estate market all of a sudden goes “Oh! It's horrible!” Who cares? You have the other money. Likewise, nobody buys your books – who cares? You have the real estate money. That's kind of the idea – to be patient and to think about it. It may take a while to build up all the things. But also, I think it's much, much better to not go all in on just one thing because anything can happen to it.

Noah: Part of it, again, is probably lowering your expenses by moving somewhere cheap. Also saving, if possible, a bunch of income. If you are working at FANG company or something like that. If you could move, bank the majority of your money, and then you have a pool of cash – way easier to do all kinds of distributed income. In California, they have all these droughts. But if you think about it, how does the whole water system work? You have a lake. Inside the lake, it’s full of water. There's water coming out and there's water coming into the lake, right? So you need a lot of water in the lake if the water's coming out. You need to put lots of streams that feed into the lake. I think that's another analogy – the bigger your lake is, the more time you have to find other streams to put into the lake. The smaller the lake is, the more chances you have to take and potentially get yourself in trouble. So it’s helpful to have a pool of money while you're getting started.

Escaping the prison and starting as a solopreneur

Alexey: But do you need to be financially independent to start? Or can you start by being a full-time employee? (46:27)

Noah: Yeah. Why not? Yeah. Why take chances for no reason? It would be the same thing, if we go back to that movie, The Shawshank Redemption. Can you escape prison without digging a tunnel? Yeah, you can. But what if you get caught? It can be very risky, right? But what he did was – which I think was the right strategy – he took his time. He still pretended like he was happy. Every day, he was friendly with the warden of the prison. So, be happy with your boss. Meanwhile, you're slowly digging through the tunnel with a spoon. Every day you take it out to the yard and drop it off into the dirt. But there's no rush. (46:38)

Alexey: What could this tunnel be for somebody working as a full-time employee? A book, course, consulting gig or? (47:21)

Noah: All those things. Books, consulting, etc. Again, I think that's why having low expenses and a lot of money in the bank – the more money the better – you can basically start to put streams into the lake. Here's another example. If you have enough money in the bank, you could buy a stock that gives you dividends. You're done. Right? You could get 5% from it in dividends per year. So there are a lot of little streams that you can put into it. But I think from a risk/reward perspective, why blow yourself up and quit your job and all this stuff? If you have lots of expenses, it's much better to slowly build stuff. (47:31)

Noah: Network with people and find some consulting clients that you can work with. Maybe do a little bit on the side – have a side gig. Maybe build an app, maybe build a book, maybe do rental property. Again, the more different it is in what you do (in some sense), the better. If you have money in investments, like index funds or something, and then you have money in stocks, and then you also have some consulting projects – and all that’s happening while you're working full time at a company. Then you also have a good reserve and low expenses, you have a lot more flexibility to try things out. I think it's not necessarily an ‘either/or’ situation where you have to say, “Hey, I want to work for myself. So, I'm going to just go all in and live off a credit card.” I think that's actually a very bad idea.

Lowering expenses and adding time

Alexey: Let's say you already work 40 hours per week or maybe 50-60 hours per week at the company (for somebody). How do you find the time to actually do all these things you mentioned? Well, I guess one thing is, if you have money, you can invest it. What if you don't have money? (49:12)

Noah: Well, let's tackle this one point at a time. The first one is “What would you do if your company makes you work a lot of hours?” One is just to work less. Work 40 hours a week. What are they gonna do, fire you? Say, “No, I will work 40 hours a week. That's it.” That's one possibility. If that's not an option, hopefully, you're able to just quit and get a job where you can work 40 hours a week. Then the problem solves itself. I think sometimes a simple solution is obvious. I also think startups in general are a very bad bet for most people. If you're financially independent, maybe a startup is okay. But if you're not financially independent and you live paycheck to paycheck, why work at a startup? Why not just work somewhere that you don't have to work 60 hours a week – go somewhere where you work 40, and now you have 20 hours a week to spend on yourself. So I think that's a big part of it. (49:37)

Noah: Another one is – get rid of the commute. Go somewhere where you can work remotely. A commute could be two hours a day. I think you can definitely figure out a way to work less at your job. Also, just be better at it, especially if you're remote. I think most software engineers could probably work four hours a day and be totally fine. Then you have the rest of the day to do whatever you need to do. As long as you're really efficient, zoned in, you're caffeinated, you're ready to go and just get your work done. That's one part of it.

Noah: The second one, if you don't have any money, I would say it's pretty simple – profit and loss. Right? If you don't have a lot of money, in my opinion – get out of somewhere expensive, immediately. Go to the cheapest place you can. It's a goal. Delete your expenses to 25%. Now that you have low expenses, now you have money. Start putting that money into the bank and save it. That's the easiest possible way to do it. Then start building more projects.

Alexey: But imagine, let's say you work in the Bay Area and you have to live there. If you go to some other place, the salaries you have there are lower. I guess now with the remote work thing, it's better. But still. In the Bay Area, you get more money, but you have to pay more to live there. (51:29)

Noah: Well, I don't think that's the case. I think anybody that's in the Bay Area can move. But let's take the experimental argument at face value. I would say, “Okay, then move to a bad part of the Bay Area that's cheap.” Right? [laughs] And move into a smaller house and take another job where you have to work less. Because again, are you betting on yourself or are you betting on other people? To me, I think many talented people should bet on themselves, not their company. Not that I have anything wrong with companies. (51:51)

Noah: Although I will say that, I think we're at a weird period of time. Look at the just insane CEO to employee ratio. I don't know what the CEO of Google makes, but it's completely ridiculous. Why should the CEO of Google make 1000 times what an employee makes? The contract is broken. Now, if the company's made things more reasonable, like 50 times more – or if they had a little bit more of a reasonable way that they compensated people’s salaries, I think it'd be different. Then I would say, “Okay, maybe you should work at a company for a little bit longer.” But I personally think it's broken. So why would you bet on this company? They're paying the CEO 1000 times what they're paying you. They don't care about you. Why don't you just bet on yourself?

Noah: Yeah, it's gonna take a while and you're gonna have to juggle things around, but do you have an option? It's like the guy, again, in Shawshank Redemption. “Hey, I don't like it that I'm in prison.” Well, you're in prison. You can't magically… aliens can't come from outer space and transport you to a new planet. You're in prison. What are you gonna do about it? What he did about it was dig his way out. It's gonna take some stuff to do, but you can do it – if you're motivated and you're patient.

Quitting full-time job

Alexey: Let's get back to this person who wants to get out of the full-time job and start being a solopreneur. You said “Put money in the bank and start investing.” Then you can work on courses, on books, and you also mentioned that you can start getting consultant gigs. Once you have these things, when is the right time? How do you know it's time to quit? When you have enough money? Or when? (53:49)

Noah: Yeah. I think that's a good way to do it. If you have enough money where you feel like you're not putting yourself into financial Jeopardy, then I think that's a good time to quit your job. Because now there’s a balancing act, where once you know you have the ability to make money, then the more time you spend at a company, you're losing your own money, right? That's one where it's obvious. It's like, “Wait a second! I'm making way more money on the stuff I'm doing on the side than I'm doing at my company. And I don't like my company. And, it's just not exciting. Why am I here?” That would be the obvious time to quit. (54:22)


Alexey: Do you think building a network is important for being a solopreneur? (55:06)

Noah: Yeah, I think it's very important. I think you need to be able to have trusted people that you work with. That's one of the benefits of having a career – you get to know people. You know who's good, who's bad. You build a network. So I think while you are working at a company, my recommendation would be – and this is probably non-conventional – I would say, “Do not be a middle manager.” Especially for solopreneurship, avoid any form of management at all because you're deleting your value. (55:11)

Noah: If you're able to focus on your skills, get to be as good as possible at your company. Be so good at your company that people are just terrified if you left because of how competent you are, and how good you are, and reliable you are. That helps build your network and then also helps build your skills. A good example would be comedians, if we go back to them. I think they're so fascinating to look at for technical people. A person that's booking a famous comedian like Jerry Seinfeld – who cares about that person? Nobody cares about the manager. Nobody cares. They want to see Jerry Seinfeld do a comedy special. Right?

Noah: So it’s the same thing, if you think that the extra $10,000 a year or $20,000 a year that you make as a manager does anything, you're mistaken. Because you're deleting your value by doing that. If Jerry Seinfeld started managing other comedians, instead of improving his comedy, no one would care about what he does. That I think is also really critical as you're moving forward. Impress people and get very good at what you do so that you're extremely valuable.

Noah: What may happen as well is that the opportunity may present itself in the company. Maybe another person wants to do some kind of side project and hire you to work on it. They're like, “Wow, you're the smartest person in the company at this.” Because you're just so impressive, they give you a consulting job. So it may just come to you.

Alexey: Basically, the best tip for building a network is “Be good at things.” “Do not go into middle management.” and “Just talk to people around you.” Right? (57:14)

Noah: Exactly. (57:22)

Alexey: And I guess “Be visible.” If you're good at something, you should also tell people about that. Otherwise, they will not find out about you. (57:23)

Noah: Yeah. Well, that's why writing the book is helpful, right? Just be so good that people know who you are. Maybe that's why you write the book. But also, when you're at your work as well – because remember, if your mission is to escape the prison – avoid anything that is counterproductive to that goal. For example, engaging in useless meetings, office water cooler chatter, company retreats, etc. Anything that's optional, just delete it. Get better. Just get better. Improve yourself. You're doing something different. Everyone else is still walking around the prison. You’ve got to go back to your cell and open up that poster so you can just keep digging through. Because you’ve got to get out. (57:34)

Teaching at universities

Alexey: Yeah. I see that we should be wrapping up. But I have one question that I wanted to ask you. “How did you get into university and start teaching there?” Let's say somebody wants to do that. For example, I want to go to university and start teaching while still working. I don't know how it happened with you. How can people do this? (58:24)

Noah: Yeah, I think that's a great question. Part of it is exactly the advice I just said – be good at what you do. Then people will reach out to you. If you're really, really good at a subject and you stay in touch with your professors – you’re networking and you write a book on it. In my case, my professor just came to me, like “Hey! You teach machine learning. Can you teach this class?” There you go. And you just teach a class. So I think just be very good, network with your professors, write a book, and it's very likely that someone may come to you. That's an easy way to teach at a university. (58:46)

Alexey: Okay. Sounds like writing a book is helpful. (59:19)

Noah: It could be helpful. Yeah. It could be very helpful. For that reason. And for many things, yeah. (59:23)

Alexey: You mentioned networking – for consulting, for teaching. When you teach, you network even more. Because students know you and you get this exponential effect. (59:27)

Noah: It's just like a comedian. (59:39)

Alexey: Okay. Right. Do you want to say anything else before we wrap up? Any advice? (59:40)

Noah: Yeah. Just be really good at what you do. I think that's the best advice I could give somebody. And – bet on yourself. (59:49)

Finding Noah online

Alexey: So how can people find you? (59:59)

Noah: LinkedIn is great. You can go to LinkedIn – Noah Gift. I’d be happy to connect with you. is also great. (1:00:00)

Alexey: OK. Thanks a lot. Thanks for your time. Thanks for sharing your story with us. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. Also thank you, everyone for joining us and asking questions. Good bye. (1:00:10)

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