Where to begin to describe Corey? “Where” is actually a great word to begin with, since as of the publishing of this article, Corey may not even be in the country. Maybe he is in Europe, maybe the west coast, maybe sitting on his couch.
You see, Corey has been proudly bestowed the title of “Journeyman Coder” since his travels have led him to endless places, couches, floors, and tents all in the pursuit of one immense challenge: master the art of coding (and spread happiness).
That long journey and thousands of hours of developing software has led him to Chicago, the home of Ruby on Rails, and an entrepreneur community that he has become fascinated with.
“There are major things in Chicago. The first is my girlfriend, Sarah Gray. She is the idea behind and co-founder of our start-up, MercuryApp. The other is the community. There is a great sense of technical community and more people are coming in all the time. You can pretty much find a group every night where you can go and talk tech. There is a great sense of getting an idea and running with it here.”
When he starts talking about Chicago, he shares the same enthusiasm that so many of us at Technori share. There is an overwhelming feel of what is to come in the next few years, both in the entrepreneur community and breakdown of the traditional Chicago career path.
“I love Chicago… The companies here are actively supporting their employees starting something. There is this critical mass coming in. People are coming in and doing things. It’s going to get brighter and brighter and Chicago has that potential to be that place where all that great stuff happens here in the next decade.”
For someone with such a passion about Chicago, you might think he was born and raised in the city or at least has spent most of his life here. Actually neither, instead you would have to rewind 37 years back to Seattle, Washington, to find him.
“I grew up in a suburb called White Center… I remember reading it was the second most dangerous part of Seattle. There was a lot of poverty there.”
From an early age Corey had two passions: one was roaming around his town and the other was hacking code.
“I wandered a lot in my neighborhood. I remember coming across places that I had never been before and found that very exciting. I love to wander and travel and journey and meet new people, but I love coming home. It’s a great feeling to come home.”
“I was an avid skateboarder for probably four years. I would be outside constantly. I would always be outside skateboarding and I would tend to skateboard to someplace so I could read. A lot of science fiction and a lot of outdated Isaac Asimov’s science essays.”
Our conversation drifted in and out of the world of mathematics, physics, astronomy, philosophy, abstractions, and various coding languages. Never have I had a conversation with someone that went from skateboarding to coding abstractions to Hungary to Buddhism to clowns to sleeping on couches. We’ll get to all of that later.
His fascination with technology all started with a Commodore Pet and the discovery that software programs didn’t have to function the way the provider wanted, but that you could make them do what you wanted instead.
“I started by cheating at games. So, I would be playing a game and you could hit the Break key and it would say break at line 70. So, you could then list the source code around line 70 and you could look to see what was going on and continue past that point in the game…. It was very much break, enter, continue, break, enter, continue.”
The computer belonged to his father, who himself was a long time software developer at Boeing. Corey relates how his father had a similar sense of joy of writing programs for the simple sake of creation.
“He had a couple programs he would write. He had a coupon database and he had a lottery number script that would pick the number. He seemed to keep rewriting these programs over and over.”
Corey had a great home life, but he often ran into problems in school. Probably not for the reasons you might think though. He attended a private Christian school that based their curriculum around the notion of free learning where you learn at your own pace. What happens when your pace is double everyone around you?
“The school was interesting because it was an independent study program. You got these little booklets and when you would finish the booklets the next day you would take a test on the material. There were teachers roaming the room and if you had a question you put a little flag up. You sat in a little cubicle almost… I used to plow through the math booklets. It would be like: math booklet, ALL OF IT! And I would turn them in the next day. So, they started to withhold the math booklets from me.”
Always excelling in school and doing work well above his grade-level, he found himself struggling to deal with his social environment and his coming of age.
“I was the youngest and more of a homebody. I was kind of nerdy and played dungeons and dragons rather than going to parties. I love to read.”
Corey hit a point where he wanted to be in control of his education. He needed to be a in a place that he could excel and meet people who actually wanted to learn. High school had driven him to the point of breaking.
“I dropped out of high school at about 15 and a half and enrolled in a local community college…I didn’t like the classes. I was having emotional problems. It was just not for me. The things you get from high school aren’t necessarily things you need or want or can handle. It all came together that it wasn’t the right choice for me and I had a friend who was working at a local community college. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who were actually interested in learning.”
In college, the purity of mathematics would take him down the eventual path of developing complex and often unexpected software. “I realized what I loved was the purity and beauty of mathematics. Trigonometry was wonderful and I loved it. I switched my major to math.”
“One of my professors was actually a professional clown. I actually went and shadowed him. I did a party as a clown, did balloon animals, a little magic. And… I don’t know… it was kind of normal teenager years. I survived it, which is sort of a feat on its own.”
Corey continually follows his heart throughout his early life. Reading, instead of socializing. Leaving high school for a better path. Wherever he felt happiest, that’s where he went. In such fashion, when an opportunity came up to study math abroad with top-notch professors in Hungary, it took all of a second to make up his mind.
“I took part in the Budapest Semesters Mathematics Program. They would take undergrads, maybe 20 of us from around the US in math, and they sent us to Budapest and we studied under the professors there. I didn’t know where Hungary was. No idea. I didn’t know until for probably after a week of being there I finally looked at a map. I didn’t care, I was going.”
“About a month in I called my father and said, “I’m staying. This is where I want to be. You gotta help me talk to Mom about this.” My Dad replied that he had spent too much on his son’s education to not see him walk at graduation. So I went back, walked, got my diploma, took all the money I got for graduation, and bought a one way ticket back to Hungary. “
He would teach English in Hungary to pay the bills, but found teaching your native language wasn’t as simple as one might think. Growing frustrated with things not progressing, a change was in order.
“I got tired of teaching English in Hungary. I sucked at it. I hated it. So, I went down and got a paper and started going through the help wanted ads. I was completely fluent in Hungarian and people actually thought I was from Romania because I spoke so fluently but with an accent. The issue was the people that thought my accent came from the Romanian border where there were gypsies. And there was a huge anti-gypsy thing there. This was all over the phone, but they would say, “We don’t hire gypsies” or “foreigners”.”
As fate would have it, the next company he approached would end up taking him back to the US. To the sunny shores of Florida? No. The beautiful skies of San Diego? Nope. The icy shores of Lake Erie? Bingo.
“I ended up getting a job with an American company called TMW that had a remote team in Hungary. The owner of TMW was Hungarian. They brought me to Cleveland for orientation. I fell back in love with America and moved to Cleveland. Then I got stuck there for 12 years!”
After a few months back, he left TMW. Wandering from company to company, none lasting more than 18 months, he finally found himself at Progressive Insurance, where he was able to satisfy his need for different experiences for over seven years. As you can imagine, having a programmer with a strong background in abstract mathematics on staff made for some interesting “projects”.
“I wrote a really good automation system that could basically automate anything… We had it operating the Robosapien robot at one point… But we got told that we couldn’t build it at work. The rest of the people in the department were getting upset that we were automating this Robosapien. So we had to stop.”
The journey from Progressive Insurance in Cleveland to Chicago was an odd one and difficult to summarize quickly. Here is the best I can do: The journey involved quitting Progressive, joining a startup, breaking up with his girlfriend, getting fired from the startup, watching Babylon Five non-stop for a whole month, chatting with a mentor about couch surfing while coding, and leaving on his “journeyman coding” odyssey which eventually took him to Chicago. All in the course of 2008.
“When I left Cleveland, I told friends that I might be back by the weekend, as I had no concrete plans or destinations past the first week…then I didn’t make it back for three weeks. I went to Chicago to Champaign to Chicago to Muncy to Columbus to Cincinnati and back to Cleveland. Over the course of it, people noticed there was this guy going around doing this and they started asking questions.”
Contributing to Corey’s growing popularity were the video interviews that he would do at each of his stops, simply setting up a camera and letting his hosts talk and share their ideas about software. This helped create a sense of familiarity for the people following his travels. Once he left on his first journey, he quickly discovered it was going to cost him a fraction of what he thought it would.
“It turned out that if you have other people pay for your food, you can live a lot longer than a couple months. My three months worth of money lasted me several months. Then my tax return came in and I got like ten grand back from the government. I realized I didn’t have to get a job for a while. “
Expanding on the idea of coding for free in exchange for room & board, I wanted to know more about the motives behind spanning the country to work in so many different offices.
“It wasn’t just that I was making connections with people, but there were more and more companies that knew what I could do. By going and working at a company for a few days, they knew what I could or couldn’t do. I was unintentionally interviewing at place after place.”
The idea of letting someone come into your company and have them actually sit there and dive into your proprietary code seems truly bizarre. However, Corey is quick to point out that he was almost never asked to sign a single NDA.
“Most of the places realized, the code is not your intellectual property. It’s the idea. Especially in today’s world of web, your advantage over your competitor is how quickly you can make the change. If you’re the one that is pushing the ideas out, and you can do that quickly, that’s your competitive advantage.”
As far as where his coding journeys have taken him recently. “I have been on every state the touches the Atlantic. I camped or stayed with people while programming. “
As Corey and I wander through the interview, he names off places he has lived or stayed so casually, they seem more like points in time then actual destinations. His location seems to have no real-world meaning to him.
“Home is where you hang your heart. I have lived in Seattle, Hungary, Bellingham, Berkeley, Cleveland, and now Chicago. It’s really about the people around me and what they are doing, not the physical location. I love to see new places. When I say I love to come home, I mean I come home to where my heart is.”
Corey has definitely hung his heart in Chicago, settling down with his girlfriend, Sarah Gray, a fellow software developer. They had done some small projects together, enjoyed how they worked, and decided to try their hand at building a start-up: an application called MercuryApp. Based on a project Sarah had written a few years prior, MercuryApp is a tool to track a person’s feelings over time to help them make decisions or monitor progress towards a goal. For example, tracking whether or not your job satisfaction is trending up, down, or flat-lining.
It’s about giving people useful information to allow them to affect change in their lives; to create more happiness. Everything that has led him around the globe and all across the US has been derived from this innate desire to be happy and to constantly chase more happiness.
Now with MercuryApp he wants to bring that to the masses.
Settling down to start a business felt strange to me, so I asked Corey whether this was just a temporary stay before picking up and wandering off. He has a very easy-going attitude towards whatever he’s working on at the moment and how he has arrived there.
“I don’t consider it a stepping stone. I just consider it part of my path… When I am working on something, that’s where everything has led up to. It’s taking all that I have learned and applying it.”
Throughout the interview I kept asking if there was something driving him to always want to get out of town, out of state, out of country, or if he is trying to escape something. Every time his response would return to the same underlying principle: happiness.
“My goal in life is to be happy. I don’t care about much else.”