Ben Noland’s biggest competitor is himself… literally.
In 2008, while working as a developer for Clearwater Analytics, he realized a problem: Technical phone interviews. They were a mess of coordinating conference calls and screen sharing tools. Unlike a traditional phone interview, developer interviews required live coding tests to prove the interviewee was up to snuff. Screen sharing tools required additional software and setup, wasting time for both parties.
Ben knew there was a better way.
“One day I saw an open source project for an online code editor, and then a few weeks later I saw an online library that made it easy to do online collaboration, so I decided to combine the two together.”
He called it Collabedit (collaborate + edit). It was free, and a complete experiment.
“You get a developer from your company to call the candidate on the phone and then you send them a link, you both open the links in your browser and you are now sharing screens.”
Think Google Docs, but focused on technical interview questions. “When [the candidate] types, you can instantly see what they are typing,” Ben says.
In 2008, he launched Collabedit.
And, it fizzled.
“It didn’t do real well at first. Got a little traction in the beginning and then went flat for a few years. I didn’t really work on it.”
But when he discovered a competitor called Etherpad was acquired by Google, Ben jumped back into working on it — adding new features, squashing bugs and keeping focused on making technical interviews better for both parties.
Refreshed and ready to go, Ben launched Collabedit (2.0).
And this time, it took off.
Silicon Valley startups and huge companies like Amazon started using Collabedit in their hiring processes. “A lot of companies use it for internships and hiring new graduates,” Ben explains.
It gained momentum over the next few years, and to this day has over 45,000 tests run each month, with most tests being in Java, C++ or Python programming languages. Beyond technical interviews, Collabedit is used in education and as a collaborative coding tool between groups of developers.
But Collabedit was free. Ben wasn’t making money from the wildly successful tool.
He set out to change that, but wanted to keep it free.
His goal: Build a better version. Something businesses would be willing to pay for. He called it Coding Hire.
“It has to be better in every way to Collabedit.”
Ben tossed in advanced features and customization options, including syntax highlighting, allowing the interviewer to run the code to make sure it actually works. Even HR requirements.
“After the interview is over, it gives the interviewer a chance to document their feedback and give the interviewee a rating.”
And like Collabedit, Coding Hire started to gain momentum. Companies like Netflix, Stubhub, TripAdvisor and even his employer, Clearwater Analytics, started using it.
“I have about 120 active customers right now. Some pay the [monthly] subscription, some pay as they use it.”
With the success, Ben toyed around with the viability of making Coding Hire his full-time gig.
“It took a long time, it was something I had always wanted to do, but I had the assumption that I needed to make enough from my side project to fully replace my salary.”
And then, in late 2014, he had a realization. “We have our house paid off, we don’t have any kids or too many expenses, so I don’t need to make what a full-time developer makes to survive.”
This realization pushed him to go to the company that had supported him for the past 10 years, to his boss and mentor James Price.
“I told him I wanted to go part-time and focus on Coding Hire.”
James told Ben to take a four-month sabbatical, so he could solely focus on making the product viable.
And that’s what Ben did for the next four months — squished bugs and pitched the service to prospective clients.
“At the end of the sabbatical, I realized I didn’t need to go back. It’s doing well enough to support us [Ben and his wife].”
Ben left his position at Clearwater, the company he’d worked for ever since he graduated from the Computer Science program at Boise State University.
“When I started at Clearwater there was like six programmers, now there’s like a hundred.”
The future for Ben and Coding Hire looks bright. He’s started building automation features into Coding Hire, which means shorter tests for the candidate, but still helpful enough for the business to make a decision about whether or not the candidate is right for the job.
“My goal is to create a twenty-minute test. We’ll find out if the candidate is worth pursuing.”
And with those features in the pipeline, he has help from a familiar friend.
“I’m working on new features for Coding Hire, and Clearwater is helping beta test.”
Ben’s advice for turning a side project into a full-time gig: slow and steady progress.
“It’s hard to get anything done in one hour, but if you do one hour five or six times a week, you can get a lot done. It’s amazing.”