What was your career journey like? Which software development roles featured along your career path?
My career in software development started by accident. A friend of my father wanted to take computer classes in the year 1982 and although he wasn’t really interested in computers, my father volunteered. I was about 12 years old at that time, and I read every book I could put my hands on, including the manuals on computer programming.
At the age of 14, I had already written a word processor that could search and replace words in a text and could split Dutch words correctly.
I wrote a flat file database system which resulted in my first venture. I went to all the cultural organizations and I asked for the address lists of their members. I put all those addresses into my database and when I returned the lists I gave those organisations a set of printed labels. I distributed the first set of labels for free, and after a while, many organisations started to call me for more.
It wasn’t until I graduated from University that I returned to my former hobby. I entered a course to become a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) engineer. This course consisted of 5 months of training, learning how to use software and programming languages such as C and C++.
I changed jobs three times in the first years of my career. I started my fourth job in IT at Ghent University and during that time I was responsible for the design and development of almost all the software for the student administration. I really liked that job, but after hours, I was constantly working on private projects.
One of those projects was iText, an open source software library. It became very popular very fast, IBM was among the early adopters. I received many questions on how to use iText. I decided to take some time off to write a free online tutorial. I was an early adopter of Google AdSense in 2015, I made about a thousand dollar a month from the ads on the tutorial pages. I mail asking me if I would be interested in writing a book about iText. In 2006, FedEx delivered the first box containing the first 50 copies of “iText in Action.”
I decided to create a company for iText. In January 2008, my wife and I founded 1T3XT BVBA with the goal to commercialize iText. Unfortunately, we encountered several setbacks in our first year in business. We almost decided to close the shop and to abandon iText altogether.
Fortunately, I had made a friend in the US and he advised us to explore opportunities in the US. He founded a second iText company for us, iText Software Corp in Silicon Valley.
We started a third iText company, iText Software BVBA in Belgium, and we hired 3 employees in the same year. At the age of 41, I was the CEO of a small, but promising startup. Deloitte acknowledged iText Group as the fastest growing technology company in Belgium. We closed that year with a consolidated revenue of 4.9M euro.
In April 2015, we agreed to create a new company, a joint venture called Thinkfree, and sold the four iText companies to this new company. I stepped down as CEO, and I am now the Chief Technical Officer of iText Group, and the Chief Strategy Officer of Thinkfree. In the first year of our cooperation, iText Group made about 8.2M euro. For 2017, we are aiming to break through the 10M ceiling.
How important is it in software development to know multiple coding languages?
I don’t think it’s important which programming languages you know, as long as you know more than one. There’s a high chance that you know every programming language if you have a good manual at your side.
Personally, I would be reluctant to hire a developer who only knows one programming language. But I wouldn’t mind hiring a developer who knows several languages. A truly great developer is always interested in learning about new technology, and it usually doesn’t take that long to get the hang of a new language.
In your experience, which processes work best?
In my first job, in the late nineties, we were forced to use the Waterfall method. An analyst would write a complete book defining all the specs; afterwards a programmer would completely ignore those specs and build the application.
One of my friends, told me that he had hidden one special line in the specs of every project: “If you read this line, call me at this number and I will give you a bottle of wine.” He didn’t receive a single call.
At Ghent University, there was this new approach called eXtreme Programming. I immediately fell in love with that approach, and even before I knew the word Scrum, my team started experimenting with short development cycles, stand-up meetings, pair programming, and so on.
However, as my career evolved, so too did my preference in process, currently, Agile is the process I prefer.
How did you learn to code?
I’m a self-taught developer, and I think that’s the best way to learn how to code.
How have you seen software development as an industry grow alongside your career?
In the past, software was very expensive. VISICALC, the first spreadsheet program I used, costed 40,000 francs. Today, there is plenty of open source software that doesn’t require purchasing an expensive license if you respect the open source license. Anyone can create a product with a minimum of up-front investments.
When I started coding, I didn’t have access to the World Wide Web. That was only invented in 1990. I depended on paper magazines and books I found in the library to learn about new technologies. Today, any developer has access to information about new technology, and anyone with an internet connection can start a world-wide business.
What’s the best advice you could offer someone looking to climb the ranks of software development and achieve your role?
I often use a quote that is attributed to Churchill: “I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” iText Group has 30 employees on different continents, and I am proud that there isn’t one job that I haven’t done myself to some extent at some point in time.
It’s important not to look down upon a job, especially not at the start of your career. There is always something you can learn; you’ll benefit from the experience later in your life.
Some people think I’m smart. My former professors would not agree. Where other students at the got their masters degree in five years, I needed seven as I failed many classes. In hindsight, discovering that I had the courage to do efforts that I really dreaded, was one of the most important lessons I learned in college.
What attracted you to a career in software development?
When I grew up, I felt like “a nobody”; a career in software development seemed like the best way to become “a somebody.”
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