Solo Developer

Building an app without quitting the day job — 6am coffee shops and the corporate grind

“If you want something done, ask a busy person.”

Why is it that the guy who tosses in his job to follow a start-up dream fumbles and procrastinates while so many great apps shown on Hacker News are rolled out by someone in full time employment?

Why is it that the starting-out tales of so many great writers tell stories of chiselling out an hour or two here and there, in between jobs and kids, while the creative writing student — who has an abundance of time — never seems to finish that first novel?

Busy people find the time. They know how to use the little time they have to productive effect. Do you want to write a novel? Build an app? Start a business? You can do all of this and keep the day job.

Last year I built a new desktop app called Atomic Scribbler. It was a passion project of mine — a full writing environment for creative writers to replace Microsoft Word and maybe even give Scrivener a run for its money. I built it in Starbucks in the early hours of the morning and in Café Nero after work, spread over the course of a year while working full time contracts in Dublin.

Anyone who’s worked on big corporate projects knows that the pace of development can be glacial, with days assigned to tasks that a good developer could polish off in hours. This slow pace can sap the will and passion from the bright and the eager.

I’d worked in these environments for many years and I knew that the way to survive was to let my creativity and energy flow into other projects. Do the corporate job, but don’t let it define you. Define yourself by what you do before and after the job — make the corporate grind a small part of your day, not the centre of your life.

My day… what it looked like.

I’d rise at 5:30 each morning, take an early tram into Stephen’s Green in the city centre and walk down to Starbucks on the Quays, passing the homeless of Dublin rising from their shop doorways as the delivery trucks arrived.

The mezzanine area of Starbucks was empty at that time of day and would remain so until 8:30am when I left for work. Lap-top out, I’d fire up Jira and start working on the next item on my list, usually a small enough piece of work that could be completed in two hours.

Each day, the same routine. Two hours working in Starbucks then head into the International Financial Services Centre to start work on a Big Data project for a German bank. We were housed in a classic corporate building close to Connolly train station, complete with open plan offices, sci-fi access gates and a single pool table placed in a strategic location so that it could be seen from the street outside.

No one ever used the pool table and everyone wore black shoes. There wasn’t a Metallica T-shirt in the building.

When 5 o’clock rolled around I’d stretch my legs and take a 25 minute walk through the city to Camden Street, stopping at Café Nero where I’d order a mint tea — no caffeine that late in the day, not if I wanted to stick to my daily routine and rise at 5:30 the next morning.

An hour here would see me finish off the work of the morning or start something new. Three hours a day in total, ending at 6:30 — a whole free evening ahead of me to go out with my girl, immerse myself in a good novel, see a film or take long walks up and down the pier at Dun Laoghaire.

Five days a week would see me put in 15 hours on my app — but those were not corporate hours. There were no meetings, no requirements gathering, no liaising with or waiting for other departments. There was no uncertainty — decisions that needed to be made were made and acted upon on the same day.

In 15 hours I achieved more than I would in three weeks at the day job.


As the months passed, the app filled out, required features appearing in skeletal form and then popping up fully implemented in the user interface a week later.

Big Data gave way to a web app project at one of Ireland’s leading banks. A new office in the same part of town, interesting for a few months until the project ground to a halt as the many different teams across the company failed to work together.

The Jira list got shorter and shorter and the end was soon in sight. The backlog, which had stretched to hundreds of items, was soon reduced to the final 20 or so that signify a project about to go live: website, license keys, hooking up to a payment collector — all things I’d done before but steps that so many app developers discount.

I paint a picture that looks simple and problem free, but it wasn’t all sailing. Into the mix of long days I tried to fit a social life of sorts — dates with the girlfriend, hill walking in Connemara or Killarney at the weekends, the odd piece of work that the various family businesses required.

And then there was the ugly mug of the lizard brain that kept telling me to stop, to slow down, to take it easy for a while. The closer I got to the finish line the louder my inner demons shouted, doing their damnedest to wreck Atomic Scribbler before it got out the door.

This is the point where so many creative people fall down. They listen to that inner voice and they let it win. They abandon their novel after the first draft or after a single editor expresses displeasure. They stop working on an app that’s 90% complete.

Those final weeks with the finish line in sight are the most dangerous. It’s here that the amateur slips up and starts working on something else — a new project that they thought of only yesterday or a shiny new framework they read about on Hacker News — taking the focus and the passion away from their almost complete app.

And it’s here that the professional powers on through and pushes version 1 out the door, warts and all and to hell with the haters.

As for Atomic Scribbler: it went live, as did versions two, three, four and five over the following months. I’m using it to write this post and it has a community of dedicated followers, growing each week. It fits nicely into my wider portfolio of products for writers.

The work goes on. SmartEdit — a sister app to Atomic Scribbler — is my focus for the coming months. The alarm still rings at 5:30 each morning. There’s a new contract with a new company in a new location. And there’s a new coffee shop — but no mezzanine with a view of the river. You can’t have it all.

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