An interview with Zsolt Nagy
  • November 21st, 2018

Zsolt Nagy, Author of The Charismatic Coder: The Software Developer's Guide to Social Confidence and Emotional Freedom

1 H 20 MIN
In this Episode

Zsolt Nagy is the author of the Leanpub book The Charismatic Coder: The Software Developer's Guide to Social Confidence and Emotional Freedom.

In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Zsolt about his background, growing up in Hungary, Jordan Peterson and the importance of the "gotcha moment," online poker and AI, professional development tactics like how to ask for a raise, the relationship between genuine productivity and productivity tools and processes, and at the end they talk a little bit about his experience as a self-published author.

This interview was recorded on October 16, 2018.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to the Frontmatter podcast in iTunes or add the podcast URL directly.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.


The Charismatic Coder: The Software Developer's Guide to Social Confidence and Emotional Freedom by Zsolt Nagy

Len: Hi, I'm Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub Frontmatter podcast, I'll be interviewing Zsolt Nagy.

Based in Berlin, Zsolt is a career coach and a software engineer. He is currently head of front end development at Sociomantic Labs, a display advertising company working heavily with sophisticated data science, technology and other methods for creating more effective advertising.

You can read Zsolt's work on, and, and you can follow him on Twitter @DevCareerCoach.

Zsolt is the author of three Leanpub books, ES6 in Practice: The Complete Developer's Guide The Developer's Edge: How to Double Your Career Speed with Soft Skills, and most recently,The Charismatic Coder: The Software Developer's Guide to Social Confidence and Emotional Freedom

In this interview we're going to talk about Zsolt's background and career, his professional interests, what it's like working with a publisher to create video courses - which is something I'm very interested in asking abou - his books and his experience self-publishing, and being a formally published author as well. So thank you Zsolt for being on the Leanpub Frontmatter podcast.

I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. I know you've written a little bit about your background, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you grew up and what your experience was like growing up - and how you eventually found your way into computers and software?

Zsolt: Yes, when we grow up, it determines what we're going to do 10, 20, 30 years later. Because whatever we do when we are six, for instance - we oftentimes makes some unconscious decisions about our future or about our self-worth and so on, that determines how we are going to look at life in general.

Back in the days of my childhood, I spent it in Hungary, in a country that was originally still behind the Iron Curtain. And in the early 90s late 80s, basically it became a fully-independent country, and we got some Western influence as well.

Obviously I started not only looking into some English countries, but also some German. So I also had a look at some German-speaking countries, like Austria and Germany. In fact, I visited Austria quite often.

As a child, one of my dreams was to eventually get integrated into German society because I was really, really into the way how Germans expressed themselves. Back in the days when I was six, I learned, I think, middle level German, B-level German, just from television. It's quite interesting. I didn't have any language courses. I didn't really have anything at all, just pure television.

Afterwards, when I first visited Germany in 2011, that's when I knew that I would want to stay in Germany, and it actually happened I think two years later.

Back then I was already in Malta, by the way, and the question of how I ended up in Malta, was really interesting as well. Because as a university student, I was already looking for opportunities outside my country. And I found it back in 2009, when I became a professional poker player, and also an affiliate manager.

It's very interesting in a sense, because until then I got a master’s degree in IT Engineering. Also, I was involved in providing back- and and front-end solutions for stock traders - basically a stock trading educational company in Hungary. And with this shift to affiliate management, marketing, software engineering - I have a relatively wide insight into what it takes to build a product that is basically bulletproof in all senses, and can be sold.

Based on this experience - well, this is very far from the original growing up story - but based on this experience, when I ended up in Germany, as you mentioned, I joined Sociomantic Labs, which was a 30-person startup back in the days. It was very interesting to see this startup growing. Last year it reached about 250 people, and they got another 2,500 people on top, because it was purchased by another company called dunnhumby.

So out of a 30 people start up, now I'm in a 2,500 people corporation, in a relatively responsible position as head of front-end engineering. My day-to-day tasks shifted from software development to management.

So basically this is my short story - and there were a lot of twists along the way, which we can elaborate later.

Len: Yes, definitely. Thank you for that great description.

I think you might be the first person I've interviewed who is from Hungary, but you're not the first person I've interviewed who grew up behind the Iron Curtain. And for those of our listeners who might not know what that refers to - the country we now call Russia used to be called the Soviet Union, and it used to be in control of what are now independent countries; and living behind the borders of this communist entity was called, living behind the Iron Curtain.

For those who might not know anything about what life was like in Hungary when you were young, can you talk a little bit about that from the perspective of politics and culture?

Zsolt: Actually I didn't really care about politics back in the day, as a child. In fact I can give you a funny story about politics, about how it gave me a traumatic moment in my childhood.

One of my favorite cartoons back in the days was Ducktales. We had a Prime Minister in 1992 who unfortunately passed away, I think it was 1993 or so. And the bad news interrupted my Sunday experience of watching Ducktales. I still remember the episode that was interrupted, and it was when Uncle Scrooge - also known as Dagobert Duck in Europe, Germany and Hungary by the way - lost his fortune, because it sunk in the sea, I think.

So this was some sort of a moment. This was all I observed from politics and so on. The Russian influence was not evident for children. Back then in 1989 I was seven years old. and basically the only Russian influence was that some teachers were obliged to espionage whether any families did any suspicious activities. But in the 80s - the black car didn't come, and they didn't take people away to, let's say, torture them, or basically kill them and so on.

Some of these activities happened back in the 60s though. So, 60s, 70s - not that much anymore. I was fortunate enough to be born in the 80s. Since the age of seven, eight - I was already in a democratic country. So it's almost the equivalent to growing up in Canada, except for the lack of some resources. Which was more evident in Hungary than, let's say, in the United States or Canada.

Len: It's funny - before I go on to ask you another serious question, I just wanted to point out something else to our listenersm which is that in 1992, if you were watching a television show on broadcast television, and it got interrupted, you might never see the ending. You couldn't TVR it, or even necessarily ever find a recording of it that you could watch again. I remember having similar experiences, not interrupted by politics, but just by other things where - I still remember the moments when it's like, "I'll never know the end of this story that I was just deeply, deeply into."

Zsolt: I did find it a few years later in German.

Len: Oh good, fantastic.


My next question is - one of the privileges of doing this podcast with Leanpub authors, is I get to talk to very smart people, and I get to talk to very smart people from all around the world. Often it's people who might have knowledge of things that the rest of us are seeing in the headlines, but we don't get to talk to someone with a local understanding of.

I'm curious. You grew up in Hungary, and it sounds like relatively early on, you decided that you wanted to build a career elsewhere. You've lived in Germany now for some time. You lived in Malta for a few years. Is there a sense in Hungary that people - is there a discourse about a brain drain, with people going to other parts of Europe?

Zsolt: Yes. It's not only obvious in Hungary, but also in the surrounding countries. Which includes - I've worked with some brilliant software developers from the Czech Republic, also from Poland and Bulgaria, even Slovenia. It's quite evident that when the resources didn't align with what people can earn elsewhere, then you have the freedom to choose your country.

And in fact, I had a development manager back in the day who shared a story with me, that he earned, I think, one fifth of the amount that the person next to him earned, for the exact same job. The only difference was that he chose to work in Hungary after getting hired in Germany, or getting hired in Switzerland, and so on. So basically for the exact same job, if you get five times as much money, in that case, something is really wrong. However, there is also an option to be freelancers, for instance - and then the whole world is your market. Also, if you are, for instance, selling products on the Internet, that's the same story, more or less. You can also sell worldwide.

I think the borders right now are artificial. Some of the laws are going to be challenged in the coming 10, 20 years, because governments simply cannot keep up with the disruptive force of some cutting-edge organizations. Even if legislation keeps up in a sense that after a one or two year lag, they are going introduce some laws to regulate some grey areas, then the companies and even individuals already know what to do next - which is the next disruptive event for which the regulation has to catch up in like two or three years.

Len: Before we circle back to your personal career, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about what it's like being a university student in Hungary under these circumstances - for very different reasons.

The first university that I went to, there was just a general sense that everybody was going to leave the province- this was a province in the middle of Canada, called Saskatchewan - simply because there were just very few professional jobs available. And so the ethos on campus was one of preparing a foundation for leaving. To generalize, is is there a similar ethos at universities in Hungary now?

Zsolt: It depends actually, because once again, if you want to build a company in Hungary, for instance - so if you're an economic student or even a software engineer student, in that case, right now the oftentimes questioned Hungarian government's, or the most positive aspect of the Hungarian government is that there is a very special type of company formation, which is that up to the income of I think about 40,000 Euros per year, you can get away with less than 10% of burden in terms of taxes, social security, and everything.

This is a huge opportunity for people to get started as small businesses. And for this reason, whoever are entrepreneurs, and whoever want to make a difference without getting employed, have a better opportunity staying in Hungary, than for example what I have in Germany [when it comes] to starting growing a business.

So in this aspect the answer is no, if you want to get started as an entrepreneur. At the same time for employment - even though the wage gap is getting smaller and smaller every single year, there is still a difference between opportunities in Hungary and opportunities in Germany.

I know some people from very prestigious companies - not big-four companies, but basically very well-known companies - where basically their salaries are very, very low compared to some other countries. They choose to stay in their environment because their friends, their connections - everyone is there around them, and they don't really want to make a lifestyle change.

For me, I figured out quite early in my life that I'm rather a world citizen. This means that the more you see from the globe, the better. I'm still grateful for my country - by the way, that I experienced that level of growing up, Hungary is in the top one third of all the countries that you can live in, and you can be born.

So in poker terms, I got dealt very good cards, and altogether a lot of people just don't think about leaving their country in general. I didn't really think about leaving my country, I thought about exploring the world, rather.

So it was not a moving-away-from motivation, but a moving-towards. It's very important to frame that, so, if you, let's say, want to escape from your life, there is something wrong. It's rather something motivational, aspirational, that you would love that. That's better to, not necessarily chase, but target and then enjoy the journey.

Len: And why did you decide to study IT at university? I'm curious about that.

Zsolt: I was around 11, and my uncle was an IT manager in the biggest bank of Hungary. I'm not going to say which one it is, but it's the biggest one. It's quite obvious for some people who are in the area.

And back in the day - I figured out that he made a lot of money, he enjoyed what he was doing, he was in the lead position and he was very knowledgeable. He was one of the role models for me in this aspect.

Len: You write in your latest book - this is the reason I bring it up - that your experience as a student was one of very hard study, and a lot of success in that. But at the same time, a kind of social awkwardness. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you think you were dealt those cards?

Zsolt: So back in the days when-- I think it depends on which school we're talking about, because until the age of, I would say, 14, 15, 16 - I was not necessary on the best course in terms of my family, because basically there were some tragic events with my mother, for instance. What happened was, I was somewhat weaker emotionally as of lower grade school, and even as a high school student.

For this reason, what happened was that, as you know, children oftentimes tend to find these weaknesses and exploit these weaknesses to gain significance. I was the target of bullying for several years. At the same time, I also thought of myself as a victim, and the victim mentality is one of the worst things that you can be influenced by.

I also wrote in my book that as soon as I hit rock bottom, and I told myself that this is not going to continue like this, within a week, this bullying ended, after several years. I think I got bullied for about like six to eight years in two different schools for that exact same reason, in the exact same way - so this cannot be coincidental. And then within a week, I got the strength to eliminate all this toxicity from my life.

Even though some people tested my boundaries, I stood firm and I just didn't care. Progress oftentimes happens when you hit rock bottom, and you don't really see the way out. But eventually you figure out that there is another choice that you can make, and the choice that I made back then is that I'm not going to stay a victim.

Len: I'm curious, if you don't like talking about it - how did you start standing up for yourself? Did you literally push people back?

Zsolt: Not physically. But I had my ways verbally. Whenever I got bullied in some sense, I don't know why, and I don't know how exactly, but I found some funny inspiration like making the whole thing fun. And I thought, "He's trying it again, yeah this is so funny. Maybe there is some problem with his own ego? Maybe he is trying to project something onto me?" Eventually I made sure that whenever I got attacked, I just twisted my mind, and made it even goofy, cartoonish in a sense, and they just started laughing, literally. They just couldn't deal with it at all, because eventually they looked really, really bad - eventually. And it's really funny.

I even made some of the bullies on some level insecure. This is very much like what Jordan Peterson often calls a "gotcha moment." There was a gotcha moment in his famous interview about the gender pay gap, by the way. There was a debate between the equality of opportunities. Which he fully signed up for, and the equality of outcome. And the interviewer basically got - she just couldn't really find her own words in a live interview. This is very much what happened.

Len: I wasn't planning on talking about Jordan Peterson.

Zsolt: I know -

Len: But, no, I'm not complaining. I'm just sort of thinking through how I want to ask this question.

I've thought a fair amount about this phenomenon. only bring it up because you specifically brought up the "gotcha moment." I think the whole "gotcha" concept seems to be something that's very important in Jordan Peterson's presentation of himself, and his ideas.

It's curious, I was listening to a podcast interview he did with someone called Camille Paglia. And one thing he kept doing over and over, unprompted, was to say, "And what's so sophisticated about that?!" If he was talking about Michel Foucault, for example. And it just struck me - because I was listening to it in order to learn about the phenomenon - that so much of what he's explicitly addressing, but what he's also personally, emotionally reacting to, is humiliation. I've wondered if - and it sounds like you know a lot more about him than I do - if something about the importance of the gotcha moment is related to that sense of being humiliated or insulted?

Zsolt: Well, whenever you feel insulted, this means that most of the time it's shame, it's a shame-based thing. And shame most of the time comes from childhood - unprocessed childhood trauma. This type of thing oftentimes can only be healed with a therapeutic process. So the thing is, that whenever someone gives you a blank face - for instance, and cannot say really anything, it can be just a puzzled mind - which is, which can be healthy.

I got into these states quite often. Even today when there is something really, really surprising - it doesn't mean that I freeze for minutes. But at the same time - if there is something really extraordinary, really, really surprising - then obviously I have to re-evaluate where I stand right now. Whether there is danger, whether there is - let's say, an opportunity. Or I need to act - or I don't need to do anything, just observe it.

Now if it's something where a person freezes and cannot say anything - then oftentimes it's some buried, repressed and suppressed shame that comes from childhood issues. And the fastest way to heal this - and the fastest way to unlock your potential in general, is through therapy.

Now, these kinds of insecurities are basically in everyone's life. I would say 90% of all the population at least would most likely benefit from some form of therapy in general. A small selection of people are special, in a sense that they need to be treated. Because even healthy people have to have therapists themselves.

When it comes to Jordan Peterson's popularity - the reason why he is popular in the current society, according to my opinion, is that back in the 80s, and actually after the World War, the baby boomer population was really disciplined in a sense that they built everything that the war destroyed.

Now, the second generation kept this wealth, that the first generation built. And once we come to generation Y, Generation Z especially, then we see that they're struggling with keeping this discipline, especially some of the youngsters, on some level.

Because there is so much, so many opportunities, so much potential for pleasure around us - that it's basically undebatably a possible lifestyle choice, to just enjoy whatever is around us, and just don't keep up the discipline.

You can choose an easy life. And in this case, you lose control over your own life. And Jordan Peterson, most likely as a father figure for those types of people, especially who lost control over their lives - this is why most likely why his message resonates with so many people.

At the same time there is obviously - in the 80s, most likely he wouldn't have been popular. He would have been just an ordinary person.

Len: Thank you for that very good description. That really helps me understand the phenomenon better. Really drilling in on this, this "gotcha," the importance of gotcha moments though. I would like to ask - is the resonance of the gotcha moment that it's been revealed that the person you're talking to wasn't making genuine arguments, and was really just kind of attacking you, and so the gotcha moment is when the sort of artificial, arbitrary rational construct falls apart, and the true motivation - which is an attack - has been laid bare?

Zsolt: Well, this is a relatively hard question, once again, because it depends on the situation.

If a person feels attacked or triggered - in that case, the answer oftentimes - it is an emotional answer, which is justified by some fake or real rational argument. Now, the problem is that, the more a person is triggered, the less sense the rational argument makes in general. So in a gotcha moment where someone freezes for a short period of time, or a longer period of time - if someone is really triggered - in fact, even the interviewer - she was Cathy Newport. I forgot her name. Cathy, that I know. So Cathy applied vulnerability actually, which is basically a sign for a relatively high self-awareness. And she admitted that it was a gotcha moment for herself. Self-aware people admit that. Narcissistic people, like who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, would never admit that in their lives.

Len: That's that's really interesting, because what I see in this whole discourse of gotcha moments - is actually that Jordan Peterson himself is the one who is feeling attacked, and that's what the gotcha moment reveals. And that's why he's so preoccupied with gotcha moments, and why his supporters are so preoccupied with gotcha moments, because they feel like, particularly the intellectual types that they engage with, are somehow motivated to go after them. And so the gotcha moment is actually the Jordan Peterson person revealing their own emotional attachment to what's going on in the moment. And that's why it's so important to get the other guy.

Zsolt: Yeah, that's Jordan Peterson phenomenon, but basically everyone, every movement, there are some followers who obviously misunderstand the original message. Whenever there is a movement, the message has to be clear enough. Even if it's clear, even then people will misunderstand you. And it depends what unmet needs some people have. So for instance, if a person wants to feel significant by exerting dominance or exerting power over other people, in that case, they will chase these moments when they can get the other person to freeze - for instance, on purpose. Because this is their unhealthy way of meeting their own significance.

This is how they feel that they are worth of, at least, no, not necessarily love - but they are worthy in general. It's very interesting, because if you read the book, The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker, then you can see that all these fears and all these unmet needs actually can be traced back to the fear of death.

Because what happens if I'm not significant? Then I'm most likely going to be not a good part of the tribe. And what happens if I'm not a good part of the tribe, let's say 100,000 years ago? I'll most likely reduce my chances of survival, because I'm going to stay alone, and eventually I'll wander alone and got eaten by, let's say. a predator. Why 100,000 years ago, and why not now? What does it have to do with modern living? Well, obviously our biology, our genetics is lagging at least 100,000 years behind - if not more.

So this is why we have some of these irrational fears, limiting beliefs and so on. We can still combat them, but if we don't leave - don't choose a conscious life - in that case we just live on autopilot, and we just are victims on some level of some circumstances that happened to us. At least this is how it appears. And in reality, there is a way out. But many people never even take an effort to understand these forces, and they meet their significance - for instance, by trying to, for example, get the other person - do something that - they'll influence or manipulate other people, which is horrible.

Len: I think we could probably talk about this for a lot longer -

Zsolt: Yes.

Len: But we should probably circle back to the normal course of these interviews, and get back to your career.

You write in your Leanpub profile about how your transition from university, where you were quite successful, into your first job, didn't quite match what you were hoping to happen, and that this was partly the inspiration for your making changes in the way you approach your professional life, which you've written about since. Can you talk a little bit about what happened there when you left university?

Zsolt: Oh yes, so at the university I had an excellent life actually. I was paid to write my Master's thesis. I was in an EU-funded project. I was also in a Hungarian research-funded project as well. Basically I was writing publications. It was an excellent way of living. I was presenting these publications in public, in conferences, interacting with professors - Ph.D.s, who were well known people in the field of semantic web. Back in the days, that was my speciality.

Afterwards, I wanted to choose a mission that was a bit closer to reality, because research and semantic web in 2006, was a bit far from reality, in a sense that we didn't really have the computational power to use it in real-life scenarios. You can see this in machine learning, for instance, with neural networks and deep learning. Basically, only in 2000, after 2010 we started getting the computational power so that technique makes sense.

For this reason I chose a field that really interested me back in the day, like how the financial markets work. Unfortunately it was a small startup. They didn't really have a lot of resources. They had an excellent business model for the education of individuals and smaller companies. But the company I worked with was just a supplier for this educational company. And the success of the company I worked wasn't really tied into the success of the educational company. For this reason, there was no way for me to grow inside the company. Basically, I was in a lead position already, and other people learned from me. I had to make up my own research, and I didn't really have many people to learn from.

This is why I chose eventually to pursue some other options. And back in the mid 2000s, it worked in the online poker world, if you just raised your hand - money would get stuck on it. It was so easy. Back then, I think American players were still allowed to play. And in the United States, it was a recreational activity to go and play poker and lose money, literally. It's equivalent to going partying, or basically anything along those lines.

It was super easy for me to make three, four, five times as much money as with my regular job. For this reason, I think back in 2008 or so - I chose to become a professional player, and also an affiliate. And given that I had good connections with some affiliate managers, some people invited me to Malta, and that's where I became a county manager or affiliate manager for one of the companies, part time. And during the afternoon and the evening, I played poker.

It was a lot of fun, and it was also very interesting that my base salary was lower than the rent itself. So I was forced to either sell the product - which was a poker, casino, and affiliation product - or make a lot of money playing poker, and it happened for a year. But near the end of that year, I was thinking about, "I'm an IT engineer, I'm just wasting my potential." So I got back to IT right after.

Len: I found a reference somewhere online, in which you talked about working on the application of AI to poker strategy. Was this something you were working on at the time?

Zsolt: Yes, very much. Because even today, it's a big problem in many poker networks. I stopped playing poker, by the way, in 2012. A lot of people think that you get addicted by playing poker. The last thing I want is a recreational poker game, actually. I never wanted to play recreationally. But at the same time, I realized that a lot of poker networks are infested with poker bots, similarly to the trading bots. Now, the difference between online trading and online poker, is that poker bots are illegal.

So for this reason, one of my other poker player friends, who was a professional playing - I think 15 to 20 tables at the same time, it's called multi-tabling - once he got a poker bot check there, he had to answer a question very fast on all his tables. And because of this poker bot check, I think he lost like a thousand dollars. So it's very interesting - because he bet many tables already, and a lot of money was on the table. But he couldn't call the other raises, for instance - or couldn't do anything, then he just got timed out because of the poker bot check.

It was a very interesting area, because poker itself is not a solvable game, because it's a game of incomplete information. But as soon as you go exploitative in terms of your strategy, and not game theory optimal - then you can beat the opposition. Plus, the money that's flowing out of the ecosystem through the fees, for which the poker economy basically organizes the game... this is what I did for a short period of time, and advised some people as well on how to play correctly.

Len: It's a really interesting question. This is reminding me of a conversation I had recently on this podcast with someone who had worked on technology to block robocalling - fraudulent robocalling. You bring up game theory, and it seems like, very quickly, these kinds of situations turn into one where the person trying to cheat, essentially can't be too good at what they're doing - can't be too fast, can't win every game. And in order to succeed, you actually kind of have to look at least a little bit human.

Zsolt: Yes. So basically what I did was not poker bot development, but rather a game-analysis software that aids human decision. It's very much like - last week I traveled more than a thousand kilometres by car. And I happened to rent a car that had active lane-assist steering. And active lane-assist means that with cameras, basically the car reads the lane. All you need to do is just keep your hands on the steering wheel, and the car turns itself. Now the situation is that - in case there is, for example, a roadworks ahead, then the lanes get confused and the cameras cannot read it. In this case, you have to override the decision and take a manual decision.

And what I did was a decision-aiding software for poker players manually. Which was in fact even semi-legalm because it was not running on the exact same computer, but it was reading some of the cards and basically options. It was also something that could be used to analyze the game after the session.

Because I think back in the days when I was a professional, sit and go, it means like a tournament player, there are at most ten players - so six to ten players. I was a bit ahead of the most advanced strategies that were available back then to the public. Because I realized that the strategy's that you force yourself into a certain decision - you tend to lose your chips, before you have to take a stance.

What I did was, oftentimes I made a decision with a negative expected value, in order to avoid an even more negative expected value - this is in the future, which is going to come. I didn't see any software out there that could calculate with these kinds of decisions. And for this reason, I had to create my own strategy.

I think I was very successful with it, because in terms of 45 player games - as far as I can remember, in 2011, my return on investment was between 30% and 40%. And this was one of the highest back in the day, on $11 and $25 games. So imagine that you - let's say, play games worth $500 in a four-hour night, and basically you get 40% ROI on them - expected. So it was a super, super good opportunity.

Len: Moving towards the subject of your latest book, and your work as a career coach. One of the unofficial themes of this podcast - because I interview so many people who work in IT, is to ask, if you were yourself starting out - say you just finished high school now, and you intended to bec-me a software engineer - would you, as you are now, recommend to your 18-year-old, just graduated self in 2018, that you go to university to study IT formally? Or would you suggest another course?

Zsolt: This is a hard question. I would recommend most likely a good university. Or - this is a gotcha moment for me actually, because I'm not in the shoes of an 18 year old person. So it's actually a big responsibility for me to answer.

"Don't go to university, take some courses and gather practical experience" - because it could work for some people; at the same time, I'm very grateful for the university studies that I had, even though not all of my teachers were the greatest. There were some really excellent professors - including my mentor, and the person with whom I cooperated in writing my Master's thesis with, and also in the EU project. I learned a lot from many professors, and even some Ph.D. students.

At the same time, if you read the book, Antifragile, for instance - I don't have a big hope in university education, if things continue in the same way as they are continuing outside the field of the STEM subjects. Engineering, for instance, is still more or less protected. And working with a lot of people who have a self-taught background, and a university background - I would say both have advantages and disadvantages.

One of my colleagues who is a female developer, she plowed through all the hardship of being a self-taught developer, from being a low level junior level operator initially. Not low level in terms of language, but basically doing some HTML, CSS, JavaScript - in terms of creating banners, for instance - to being a software engineer, with developing client-side rich web applications. Then becoming a respectable team lead.

Then she chose to go back to university to study engineering algorithm theory, and everything that she didn't know before. And she's very happy, because it made her a complete professional. And now she's looking for a job, obviously in a different country, and whoever is going to call me to give a reference, I'm fully standing up that even before her university studies, she could cooperate with us. And now that she has this background, this problem-solving mindset, it's super useful for her.

At the same time - for six years, for instance - studying for six years, it's a bit too much. And there is a lot of, let's put it this way - garbage, that people have to go through, that don't contribute to your future. For me, for instance, electronics was something that, even though it's interesting, I never used it since then. Advanced calculus, I never used it. What else? For instance - hardware architecture, I learned things from the 80s that is that simply not useful for me, because that's not my specialization at all. And if I deal with software, then I don't really want to get into the details of hardware architecture. If you're paying for a university master’s thesis, you get the complete package. And if you can make use of 40%, 50% of that, the rest is just noise. And unfortunately in this aspect - the universities would have to improve their game, otherwise they would be eliminated sooner or later from the ecosystem.

Len: You do a lot of interviewing in your job, if I understand it correctly.

Zsolt: Yes.

Len: What proportion would you say of applicants who get through to the interview stage in your work have formally studied computer science or something like that, and completed a university degree?

Zsolt: I don't have the statistics. I don't have the stats on this. I think - given that I'm interviewing for front end development, API development, mobile development mainly - so software developer jobs - my educated guess would be less than a quarter.

At the same time, it depends on the position. Because if there is a job there - let's say a Master’s thesis is a requirement, in that case, I think at least 80% of the applicants who got interviewed have a Master’s thesis.

By the way - side note. If you see that something is a requirement in a job ad, it doesn't mean that it is a requirement. Oftentimes you can get away with relaxing some of the requirements. And this is why not 100% is going to have a Master’s thesis. It's not that much actually, for us.

Len: That observation gives me a great opportunity to move out of your book and your work on, where you write about all the kinds of really interesting things from - not just an insider's perspective, but someone who's devoted a lot of thought to these things. About like, how do you get a job? What does it really mean when you read a job description? How should you interview? Things like that.

I know that you've written a few posts about how software developers should ask for raises. I don't know why, but I find the topic of asking for a raise quite fascinating. I was wondering if you could talk just for a couple of minutes about - if you could just give the best advice you could in two minutes to people out there who are confused about how they might go about asking for a raise - what would you tell them to do - or not do?

Zsolt: My advice would be to read those three posts on the career at Because there are basically nine steps that I introduce you to.

One of the most important things is that you have to make sure that your contribution matches what you're asking for. Now, this doesn't really mean that you cannot get, let's say, more money than what your contribution is worth on the market. Because your contribution is worth on the market the exact same amount, what you can get from the market.

At the same time, money follows responsibility better than if you just went for the highest-earning ability all the time. So if you went for more money in every single decisions that you can possibly take, it's a greedy type of algorithm. It’s a greedy solution. And as we know in algorithm theory, it's a sub-optimal solution most of the time. Not always - because sometimes really, being greedy is optimal. But oftentimes if you, let's say, ask for more money at an expense of burning bridges - then there is going to be friction afterwards that would decelerate your progress.

For this reason, oftentimes when you ask for a raise, it's important that first you get things straight, you justify what your contribution is worth. You think in a business mindset, in a sense that you either save money for the company that you're working for - or you create some business opportunities. Which is very hard for a software developer, who is, let's say, a junior or a mid-level.

But if you - let's say - create software that automates the work of two or three other people, then you can even measure how much money you saved the company in general. It doesn't mean that those people are going to get fired. They might get a different job where they can be more useful to the company as well.

So it's important to know what your value is in general, and you maximize it. There is also an opportunity obviously to get an external benchmark, which means that you go out to the real world, and get another offer. And you leverage that offer by presenting an "up or out" offer, to be exact, to your managers.

What I argue in my book is that this is not the optimal solution. Because oftentimes if you have a good relationship with your manager or lead, then you can make things happen with less friction, faster, and better.

The best example is my own career, where I literally three x'd my salary. It's not just three x'ing, because it's going even further relatively soon. In this aspect, it's very important to know that you're in the same boat with some other people, and people who make decisions on your salary or your colleagues salary are not paying that from their own pockets. But if you make them successful in their jobs, by being useful to the company - then their interest is going to be to keep you.

There is obviously an exception when, let's say, a person just doesn't care about you at all. In that case, I would recommend changing to a different team or a different company.

Len: You just reminded me there of the importance of showing someone the value of a proposal that you're making, whether it's for a raise and/or for a new project. And someone I think had some experience with middle management, that I interviewed not too long ago, joked about how, "Just say the word 'revenue' a few times, and you'll at least prick the ears of the manager that you're talking to if you're proposing something." But the fundamental principle is, don't just say, "I deserve it." Talk about what you're planning to do, and how that's going to improve things for the person you're talking to, or for your team or for your company more broadly.

One thing I really like about your work, is that you place an emphasis on emotional intelligence. And perhaps on a deeper level, just being aware of one's emotions - one's own emotions generally.

You have a neat metaphor where you talk about the good wolf and the bad wolf inside us, which really struck me, and the importance of being careful about which wolf you're feeding. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you're getting at there?

Zsolt: Oh yes. Most likely you've heard of some jokes about rabbits and bears. This reminds me of one of them, where the rabbit needs a ladder. And to get that ladder from the bear, he wants to obviously approach them. But the problem is that the bear is not really happy usually when he sees the rabbit, and the rabbit is very much uncomfortable when it comes to talking to the bear. And so on his way, he's having his doubts. "Oh this bear last time, what did he do with me? He's not going to give me the ladder, no chance. But anyway I'll try."

So the rabbit goes over, he sees the house of the bear already. But, "Oh this bear, last time, it was so horrible with me. He's evil, he's very evil. But anyway - I need it, so let me get it."

Eventually he knocks on the door of the bear. The bear opens the door, "Hello little bunny, what can I do for you?" In a happy mood. And then the rabbit, angry, "Fuck your fucking ladder, you fucking bear. I don't want it." That's the summary of what we can do to ourselves if our internal narration is off.

So we have 50 to 70 thousand thoughts a day. In general, most of them are unconscious. And the more awareness we get at catching some of the triggering thoughts, the better we get eventually at controlling our lives. The more control we have over our own lives, the better we can enjoy it in general. Because just going with the flow, anything can really happen to you, and if you have no control at all, it's basically horrible - because two things can happen to you.

You mentioned both of them, basically. One of them was the victim mentality that we talked about half an hour ago, approximately. The other one is entitlement. So, if someone thinks about what the company can do for you - [you'll get] nothing. Like if you don't do anything - the company is not a charity organization. There are exceptions, obviously - especially governmental organizations. That's another story.

So if you if you want fire, for example - or warmth from a fireplace - then you have to put some wood in first. Because if you don't, then you don't. That's the thing with the good wolf and the bad wolf. The idea is that there is a good wolf and a bad wolf in us, it's your choice which one you feed. And my advice would be, don't feed the bad wolf.

Len: Is an example of feeding the bad wolf - I'm just going to articulate something I do all the time, which is constantly being preoccupied with the worst possible outcome from something you're going to do - rather than visualizing a positive outcome more often?

Zsolt: Once again, it depends. Because being a realist and knowing every single possibility doesn't hurt. But at the same time, if you don't believe in yourself in general, you're not going to reach much in your career, unless you're super lucky, but we're not depending on luck. It's harmful to put your thoughts into things that are - you don't believe that you're worth something, or you don't believe that you can do something. Because in that case - whether you think you can, whether you think you cannot - you're going to be right eventually.

I'm not sure who said this, Henry Ford or someone. But there was a quote that sounded very much like this. Anyway, even if no one said that, it's kind of smart and funny.

There is also another aspect: motivation. Motivation is a big trap - because if you keep on brainwashing yourself that only good things can happen to you, the universe is for you, [then] you just have to order things from the universe. This is total bullshit on some level - because if you don't do anything, the universe is not going to do anything either to you. This is basically just some esoteric's, and some other things - some people made a fortune of spreading this advice. The reason why this advice resonated with millennials, especially - is that basically it's very comfortable to believe that you can order things from the universe, and you just don't have to do anything in your life.

So motivation is a trap in general, because if you rely on motivation, it becomes a drug. And if you have to go back to your motivation drug every single week or day, then you're not going to get the results - you're just going to waste your time. It's important to align in general on what you want, and have a clear vision. But then action and execution is everything.

Len: You just reminded me of something I read - I think on, that surprised me in the context. Which was that you talk about the importance of doing effective work, without using productivity techniques. If you recall writing that, can you talk a little bit about what you mean there? Why shouldn't people use productivity techniques as the foundation for effective work?

Zsolt: Actually, I don't believe that you shouldn't use productivity techniques, because I use some productivity techniques myself, including the Pomodoro technique, for instance. The point of that article was rather that, there are some productivity techniques that are harmful for you, if you just execute the techniques for the sake of executing them, without adding any benefit to your life. In this context, you are not for the productivity technique - for the execution the productivity technique. The technique should aid your progress. And there is a difference between being productive, being efficient and being effective.

My argument was that productivity is not enough. Because if you are productive, then the problem is that if you are productive on something that doesn't matter from the perspective of your life, you are not going to achieve anything. For instance, if you are productive at, let's say, making coffee at work, and you give everyone coffee, even though they don't ask for it - you're not going to be a software engineer who's going to bring value to the company. This is an exaggerated example, but some people shape their identity that they are, say, the hero of the coffee break. I've heard of that before.

Effective work is when you use your resources in an optimal way, but if you are effective at something that doesn't matter for your future, once again - what's the point? You're just executing something because you have a habit of executing it.

This is very much like refactoring, or refactoring all the time because you have a new idea. In JavaScript, for example, there was a huge churn rate. So there was nocache.js, there was backbone.js, there was marionette.js, there was React and there was Redux. Oh no, there is also Angular. Oh by the way, there is wu. This is an excellent thing as well. And if you keep on jumping to the newest shiny marble, and you keep on rewriting your application all the time - then your company is going to be in trouble.

You can be very productive and you can be very efficient. But this is not going to be effective work. Effective means that it is going to create results. So what is the most important task right now that makes the biggest difference in my life? This is the number-one thing. If you do it in a productive way, even better. So I don't have a problem with productivity - but it's not the outcome, it's just a tool.

Len: I'd like to read my favorite line from your book. But before I do that, I want to preface this by saying the book is very charming and full of humour and forthrightness. So, I'm not saying this to imply that there's a darkness to the book. It's more like a kind of briskness, I would say. Like a bucket of cold water when you've been thinking fuzzily.

With that preface, my favorite line was, "Back then I didn't realize that one day I would be dead." You brought up death earlier, and I was wondering if you could just expand on this a little bit, about how important is it to reflect sometimes on this ultimate outcome of our lives?

Zsolt: I'm glad that this is not some kind of darkness. I mean I was entertaining the idea of writing, "The Fifty Shades of Zsolt," but that's not necessarily the context in which I want to become famous.

So - one day all of us are going to be dead. And this is why it's important what you do today, because there might be no tomorrow. And there might be - one day, for example - that you look back at your life, and you think that basically you could've done something that you may be postponing right now or procrastinating.

For instance, I have seen on YouTube once there was a video where 100-year-old people summarized and gave advice to youngsters. Most of the advice was not about what they did that hurt them, but what they didn't do. This is why it's important to live life every single day in a way that if you don't live to the fullest, then basically - now, what's the point? You're going to regret it one day anyway.

Len: That reminds me, I came across a similar study which involved talking to peopl in palliative care - so people who weren't necessarily very old, but who knew they were about to die. And consistently, those who had had children, said that their biggest regret was not spending more time with their families.

Zsolt: Yes. When we are born, let's say at the age of two, this is when a child realizes that they cannot do anything unconditionally. For example, you cannot be loud in certain environments. You have to go to the toilet if you have some sort of an urge, and so on. And for this reason, it's a big traumatic event for children. This is why I said - most people have some therapeutic issues. Because a two-year-old child doesn't think that there is a problem with his or her behavior, a two-year-old child simply thinks that there is a problem with themselves.

And this is an identity crisis on some level. For this reason, children develop some coping strategies. And even though some coping strategies - for example, rebelling or retreating, being a recluse or a hermit - is something that doesn't resonate with spending more time with our children. The coping strategy that determined my childhood, was becoming an achiever. And an achiever basically studies like crazy, and makes sure that they meet every expectation, so that they go forward in life. Many software engineers are like that, actually. Many software engineers are like that.

An achiever oftentimes get caught up in work, basically operating in a rat race, as basically a rat or some sort of an animal. You choose your own punishment - in a sense that, let's say [you change[ your metal cage to a golden cage when you get a better job. But if you, say, get a better job at a consulting company, where you have to put in 14 hours a day, and then a few years later, you figure out that your child has no idea what your name is - not even father, or not even like dad or something - then there is a big problem.

The achiever basically just keeps on repeating his mental program, or his or her mental program for achieving and trying to get the love of their parents - even though they are like 30 or 40 years old. And this is why there are some people - I think Brian Tracy calls this A-type people, the A-type like achiever, kind of obvious - who will just keep on keep on achieving, without living.

Len: Moving on to the final part of the interview, I'll be asking you about your writing. But I also wanted to ask you about your experience making video courses. This is something that is becoming more and more popular for people such as yourselves, who are who are authors, who are writing about things about career development, but also software books and other types of kind of training content. How did you get involved in creating video courses, particularly with Packt?

Zsolt: By the time I got started with Packt, I already created the video course on JavaScript. In fact it's even on Leanpub. If you select the video course edition, there is also - I think, 700 megabytes of videos added. So I think it's 4 hours, almost 4 hours of JavaScript videos. Originally, I wanted to get started with screencasts, because I had no idea how to set up the equipment to create video courses. Also back then - I didn't get started with method acting lessons, that have been really helpful for me.

Method acting is basically the type of acting that some people like Marlon Brando used, and you use your own emotions to play a role. That comes with some emotional freedom, and also higher expressive power.

Now, I was always interested in creating some video courses, and even some entertaining and compact content. I found that I could keep the attention of my audience a bit better if it's engaging video content.

My development is very obvious, because let's say, what I did two years ago, has really nothing to do with what I'm doing right now in terms of emotional freedom, for instance. So in my first videos, I even read my book content, adding some additional explanation, and some other twists to it, and illustrating it on screen with some examples.

But later as I got better and better with Packt publishing and also without Packt publishing, I created some course, YouTube content and so on, and it became some sort of a hobby for me.

Now with Packt publishing, it's a bit different, because you have no control over the process, and eventually in the editing.

My funniest story about an editing mistake, was that I got an [? 1:12:05] sheet from someone who had no technical competence, that there is an interlacing error in my recorded video. I got around like 10, 20 occurrences in a video where I had to fix interlacing errors. And it turned out that the interlacing error was the 80 character ruler of my text editor. Because they thought that there is a line that didn't belong there - and eventually it was just a tool for software developers to write code that fits in 80 characters. It was kind of funny.

So in this sense there is some random noise, and they also edited the videos in a way that I had no control over. So unfortunately this is going to be my last course, my last Packt publishing course on artificial intelligence, that I'm working on right now, "Beginner AI with Python." And then I will mostly create self-published courses, possibly Leanpub.

There are many opportunities. I can even self-host it on WordPress. There are quite a lot of options for that.

Getting back to this popularity of like courses in JavaScript. My first book was, ES6 in Practice. It was really stunning for me, how popular it became.

Basically, I got better. I got a better deal at self-publishing the book, than writing it with any publishers. Let alone, had I known how to market it, it would have been even better.

I got continuous feedback from the video course. One of the feedback was actually that it is not a beginner's content. So for this reason of what I'm doing right now, is - I created the book, which is going to be free, by the way - just the book is free, because I believe that information itself without exercises or anything - it's fine if it is free. And then the added value is understanding through examples, explanations and so on.

The book is called, A Practical Introduction To Modern JavaScript. I'm going to publish it relatively soon. It's interesting that I only created the cover and like 20, 30 pages of content, without making it accessible at all. I already got some feedback on how much money they would spend on the book. I think I got something like even like $10, even more possibly. So the Leanpub process of not publishing the book, but just putting a cover out there and sending it out to your email list, really works, in a sense that you get some feedback, on how many people would be interested in a book. This is a really helpful feature.

Len: Yes. Thanks for that very great description of your experience making video courses and courses, and books and things like that.

For those listening, we leave this part of the interview until the end, because this is the part of the interview where we get into the weeds of the kinds of decisions that one needs to make when one self-publishes content.

You mentioned some of the value in making the price for something be free. One of the most successful books on Leanpub, in terms of revenue that it's earned, actually has a free minimum price. This is something that I think people who are familiar with Leanpub aren't surprised by, but people who aren't familiar with it are often surprised by. We've encountered people who have seen value in having a free minimum price for their work in a number of different ways over the years.

One person, for example, had been part of a scientific team that had had public funding from the American government, and so they weren't allowed to sell their book for money. Leanpub recently launched our courses feature through a partnership with Johns Hopkins University. They've made this course set on data science that has a free minimum price, and a $300 suggested price, which is a really interesting experiment. What they're partly up to is they actually want - they see themselves as playing a role in changing the world by introducing more people to data science techniques. And so for them to make the minimum price free, is actually a really important part of what they're trying to achieve.

At the same time, they know there are a lot of companies out there that actually often prefer to pay for training material. So that's why they have this relatively high price that you can pay for the entire course set if you want to, but at the same time they also have a free option.

Zsolt: That's absolutely fair, because not everyone will choose to pay for content right away, obviously. What I saw is that this is where the world is moving towards - that even 90% of what you do is free, and the last 10% is going to be something that people pay for - not because they desperately need the organized content, but because they value the work and the changes that already happened so much.

For me, the way how I view this is that I'm not in the information business if I'm writing a book, for instance. Because information is normally free. I'm rather in the transformation business, meaning that I want to make changes in other people's lives for the better, obviously. And this happens through inspiration. If you have no idea what I do or who I am - in that case you're not going to trust in the quality of advice or explanations, or examples, or exercises that my book can offer or my course can offer. And this is [the same] with everyone.

Otherwise you can simply go and do the Udemy model, which basically decreased the prices of many even flagship courses of very popular people. For instance, what I saw is - I was funnel-hacking a very popular person called Brian Tracy not too long ago, to see how he is selling his self-publishing toolkit with some webinars and some other things. And what I noticed is that there was a hack. There was a hack placed in the process - that earlier he sold his content for $500. Now he can only get away with $300.

And the depreciation of video content, thanks to the Udemy effect - by the way that you have, let's say 50,000 courses that you can buy, "Usually for $200, but just today it's going to be $10.99." It's basically making video courses that don't transform your life, but just present some information and some entertainment a lot cheaper than before. And for this reason, you can do two things.

One is that you make some of your content free, and basically make sure that whoever wants to read your content for free - fine, you're happy that you could help them. The premium product offers some premium value on top, which is not available everywhere else. So this is where most of the most successful authors go towards. I've seen some very successful people still today selling courses for thousands of dollars. This exists here, today,, and they make real changes in other people's lives as well.

Len: On the topic of transformation, that gives me an opportunity to move onto my final question. Which is always, if there was anything we could do to improve Leanpub - say one feature we could build or one bug we could fix, what would you ask us to do for you?

Zsolt: If you give me the opportunity to ask for features - I'm quite creative in this sense, so there is quite a lot, let me choose one.

One feature would be in the course area definitely. Because the books are quite slick and solid, actually. So, in the course area, I would encourage some more interactivity and moving towards the way that it's not just content and examples and code and so on, and possibly some multiple choice questions. But also, code examples for which you can, let's say, specify acceptance criteria in the form of some automated tests in some languages.

I can see some course platforms moving in this direction. But this is hard work, and I'm not sure that this will be your next step right now. Because there might be some bigger pain points right now for some authors. So this is, on some level, some luxury.

Len: Thank you for that really good suggestion. We like working on hard problems, maybe a little bit too much. It's just in our DNA to do that kind of thing. And there actually are some pretty sophisticated things going on with our courses, partly because of this teram from Johns Hopkins University - they had run a very successful MOOC with millions of students in the past, and so they were quite ahead of the game technologically, or at least with respect to an understanding of the requirements.

Zsolt: So then the question is that you're working on hard things, that's very much appreciated. I would love to see some of these hard things on the platform. At the same time if - let's say, authors have bigger pain points or actually the customers have other needs - in that case, obviously if you choose basically the hard things, and it doesn't sell - you go bankrupt, and no one wants that. We don't want that either.

Len: Yeah, no - I should say I meant that in a self-deprecating way. What I mean is we, we have to push - we do do this all the time, but we always have to give ourselves a little bit of a nudge to fix the more mundane problems. And we do that primarily by, well, doing interviews like this, and asking people direct questions, but also by paying detailed attention to every interaction we have with customers, both readers and authors.

This isn't an original observation, but it's by paying close attention to what people are contacting you about - including what they're not saying - that you help improve things in it. In the end it does come down to the details, whether you succeed for the customer and for yourself or not.

Well thank you very much Zsolt, for taking the time to do this interview. I really appreciate it, and thanks for being a Leanpub author.

Zsolt: Thank you very much Len for having me. I wish you the best of success for the future of Leanpub, because I would like to keep my books and courses in there.

Len: Thanks.

Podcast info & credits
  • Published on November 21st, 2018
  • Interview by Len Epp on October 16th, 2018
  • Transcribed by Alys McDonough