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The self-taught developer taking on Google Analytics

petecodes profile image Pete Originally published at nocsdegree.com on ・7 min read

The self-taught developer taking on Google Analytics

Jack Ellis is the co-founder of privacy analytics tool Fathom Analytics. It counts website visitors without tracking your data with cookies. I talked to him about taking on Google with a simpler analytics tool and how he learned to code.

Hey, so can you introduce yourself?

I’m Jack Ellis and I’m the co-founder of Fathom Analytics. I’ve been writing code for over 15 years and I don’t have a Computer Science degree. I live in Canada with my wife, daughter, and dogs, close to a city you’ve never heard of, and my time is split between the motherland (United Kingdom) and Canada.

My career path all started with curiosity and rebellion. Whilst we were supposed to be picking out a storybook for an English class, I picked out a book on HTML in the computer section. And I never looked back.

I’ve worked agency, freelance, info product, and SaaS. They all have different pros & cons but SaaS was my dream since I was younger. I would watch Andrew Warner’s Mixergy interviews imagining what it would be like to run a successful company. And as I answer this question, it’s dawned on me that I have achieved my dream. I wake up every day working on something I believe in and love.

How did you learn coding?

I learned coding by looking at other people’s work. I had a “mentor” when I was first learning PHP too. Looking back, you don’t need a mentor, but it does save you time. If you run into stupid problems, and you can ask someone smart, you save a bunch of time. But I learned most of the stuff without boot camps.

To be honest, when I was learning, we didn’t have Team Treehouse and various other things. You had TechTuts and W3schools. Nowadays, it’s 10000x easier to learn, and there are so many different boot camps & courses. Actually, one of my old school friends got into software engineering by starting with Treehouse, and he speaks very highly of it.

One of the most recent learning endeavors was with Laravel Vapor, a serverless deployment platform for Laravel. Back in 2019, they launched it and I was one of the first users to dive in. I spent hours and hours learning about it, running into problems, fixing things and I came out with an abundance of knowledge that I put into my Serverless Laravel Course.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn to code without going to college?

Embrace discomfort. Keep pushing, feel that horrible feeling of not having a clue what you’re doing, and know that it’ll pass. There are tons of great resources these days, and learning to code has never been easier.

The self-taught developer taking on Google Analytics

Can you tell us about why people should use Fathom Analytics instead of Google?

We bash on Google a lot due to their privacy scandals but that’s not really the core of our existence. We exist as a simple solution because we think analytics are too complicated. Fathom has been pushing this since 2018 and we actually created the privacy-focused analytics space. Nobody was doing it back then.

Our goal is to build an analytics solution that can provide business value, protect the privacy of your website visitors, and save you a ton of time. We keep analytics simple, meaning you can actually use them rather than being overwhelmed.

With regard to the privacy aspect, everything we design is built with privacy in mind (we’re privacy by design). We are also investing tens of thousands of dollars into compliance work. This is actually something that sets Fathom apart from competitors.

We charge $14 per month so that we have margin to be able to spend on the world’s best GDPR experts & lawyers. We take privacy very seriously. Privacy isn’t marketing to us, it’s a core principle in how we operate, and we will always invest heavily in it.

In addition to those pieces, Fathom Analytics is a fantastic choice because of our enterprise-grade hardware. We’re serverless, we have thousands of servers on the HTTP layer (we use Lambda), our queue scales infinitely (SQS) and our stats store is infinitely scalable by default (DynamoDB). We take uptime & hardware very seriously, and we are not a budget provider.

How did you make it that websites using Fathom Analytics don’t need to use cookies?

In July 2019, I invented a privacy-focused hashing method. We wanted to move away from cookies, and we needed an alternative. So I got my head down and came up with this solution. Some people get confused about how we do it. It’s not just “fingerprinting”, it’s a method that allows you to keep page uniques & site uniques without being able to tie them back to the user. That’s the innovation. And we’ve innovated further on this since that blog post, and our latest solution is bloody brilliant.

I vividly remember building this method & writing the article because I was so unbelievably wired into it all. It wasn’t easy. That article went viral, and still gets a lot of traffic, because we invented something nobody was doing. I really love innovating like this.

How hard was it building the first version of Fathom?

Pretty simple. The first version of Fathom was much simpler in terms of architecture, as we didn’t have to worry about scale too much. The biggest challenge was finding time because I had full time consulting work.

I only had weekends, and if I wanted to work on Fathom during the week, it would mean that I’d lose money from consulting as I’d have to effectively take a day off of work. In addition to that, we were building a website called Pico, which we had to leave behind. But all went well, as Pico was acquired by Ghost.

Version 2 was harder because we had to think about high scale. Fathom has some huge customers. Governments, celebrities and some of the worlds largest businesses trust Fathom to provide analytics for them. So with Version 2, we had to get serious about how well we scaled automatically to handle traffic spikes. And I still had consulting work.

I had to take a financial loss whilst we were building it, as I would need to take days off. And don’t forget, Fathom was only making around $1300 per month when we were building V2 (and there were two of us), so it wasn’t paying us a full time salary. I had to trust in the process, and we were focused on building the best possible version.

It’s September 2020 at time of writing this, myself and Paul are both full time on Fathom, and we’re currently working on Version 3. It’s shaping up to be unbelievable. Paul has his head down, innovating on design, and I’ve been working on speeding up everything, and making it all scale even better.

How did you get your first entry level software engineer job?

I found an agency job advert on a forum for a developer. £20,000 salary or something. I reached out asking if they’d take me on for work experience as I was still in college. The interview was me answering code questions, pretty much to make sure I wasn’t faking my CV. I answered them fine.

I had a few side projects, and they were most interested in an image upload site I was running. Long story short, I had a site like imgur and it was very popular. When Nicki Minaj first appeared on the scene, my website hosted her MySpace theme’s images.

The self-taught developer taking on Google Analytics

What does a typical day as a software developer at Fathom Analytics look like for you?

My routine has changed so much over the past few years, but I’ll talk about my current day now that I work on Fathom Analytics full time. I wake up between 4 AM and 7 AM, get a cup of tea, and head straight to work. My office is right next to our bedroom, so that helps.

My daily routine will vary depending on what we’re doing, and I have a manager’s schedule and a maker schedule. The manager schedule involves calls, reviewing legal documents, strategizing, accounting, customer support, using Tuple with my co-founder, and doing interviews like this.

When I’m in maker mode, when we have a clear goal we’re building towards, I will have a goal for every day/week. When I’m in maker mode, my head is down and I’m focused on achieving the vision. I will break tasks down into chunks, and I will write them out as a plan for my days. If I go into a day with no plans, I get nothing done, so I always write it down the day before.

Example for you, today I’m working on writing a de-normalization script for some data we have, and it has to run on hundreds of millions of records. At the time of writing, it’s 11 AM, so once this is done, I’ll spend up to 5 hours getting it done.

Before I had a family, I would be with friends or with my head down working. Now I have a family, I have to be very purposeful with my time. I will only work past 4 PM if there’s an emergency, like a customer going viral.

What are your goals for Fathom Analytics?

To continue building the best simple, privacy-focused analytics platform in the world. To keep innovating. To keep improving. And to continue making a positive change in the world. Our goal is to have every person who uses Google Analytics, who doesn’t need all those features, using Fathom instead.

Thanks for the interview!

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Pete

@petecodes

Hey, I'm a developer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. I make www.nocsdegree.com where I interview devs without degrees. I also make www.nocsok.com where I list jobs for devs without degrees.

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