“I will kill you if you repeat this conversation,” Shlomo told me. “I think this web thing is going to be big.” This was 1995.
“I want to undercut all of the stores on the street and sell diamonds direct to people at cheaper prices.”
Shlomo was the wholesaler to all the retail shops in NYC’s diamond district. “But my name can’t be anywhere on the site at all or else these guys here,” and he waved his hand around his head, “will kill me.”
I had $0 in the bank. I knew nothing about diamonds.
He showed me the “4 Cs.” He showed me what a GIA certificate was. He showed me his spreadsheet of all the diamonds he had.
I told him we could make a website where people could search on price, any of the 4 Cs, and then I would generate a GIA certificate that would look like the diamond and people would be able to buy directly.
I would also make the content explaining the 4 Cs and why each was important.
“How long will it take?”
“About a month,” I said. But I had no clue. I had no idea how I was going to do this. If I did this in C or C++ it would take me too much time.
At the time there were no tools for making websites. No WordPress. No Python. No MySQL. Nothing.
Everything had to be created from scratch.
And I had no idea how to generate graphics, like the certificate, on the fly.
But I had been living in New York for over a year and I was living on a foam futon in Astoria, Queens with no other belongings and I wanted to make some money.
He was going to pay me $17,500 cash. I would be rich.
When I got to NYC I had an undergrad degree in computer science and had spent two years in grad school for computer science.
After I got kicked out of grad school (another story), I then spent three years as a programmer.
I had put in my 10,000 hours of programming.
I thought I was good.
When I got a job offer at HBO to work as a “junior analyst programmer” for $40,000 a year, I took it! I was so happy.
HBO felt like the real world. New York City felt like the real world. I bought a suit. I wanted my coworkers to like me so I would go down and talk when they took their cigarette breaks.
But I was awful at my job. I couldn’t do anything. It was so much harder than an academic environment.
Whenever I asked, “How can I do this?” my boss would say, “If you want to work here you have to learn how to figure things out without asking.”
One time, only about a week after I started, he came into my cubicle. I had an 8×8 cubicle. He breathed loudly and took up the entire cubicle.
My boss, Ken, spoke loudly enough so that everyone could hear. I turned red almost instantly. I was hoping he would quiet down.
He said, “You are not doing well. But we want to give you a chance. We want you to take a month or two of remedial programming classes.” He gave me a pamphlet and told me to sign up.
Everyone in the cubicles around me had all quieted down. Nobody was moving. I knew everyone was listening.
I could’ve reached over right then and grabbed Ken’s neck and twisted it until he died. I thought about doing it while he was talking.
If I were in prison I’d have an 10×10 cell and my own toilet. Here I was stuck in my 8×8 cubicle and I was being punished.
But when I wanted to take this side job to build this website, I felt a bit overwhelmed.
I was afraid to fail. I didn’t really know how to do it when I said, “I’ll do it!”
But I wanted that $17,500. It was more money than I had ever seen before.
I called Chet. Chet was the best programmer I knew. He worked at IBM but we had been in school together.
One time, from his apartment, he networked all of IBM’s computers together so they would have the bandwidth to stream the Olympics live on the web. I think it was the first video streaming.
Chet and I would hang out and he told me about the projects he was working on.
I told him all of that was BS. “Just learn the internet,” I said.
And he did. He ended his career 23 years later at Google as a very rich man.
One time he did me a favor that saved a business I had started. But that was a long time later. In 2008.
I offered to give him a piece of the company in return for what he did.
“No,” he said.
“Please Chet, I owe you.”
“Consider the debt repaid that I owe you.”
“You told me to switch to the internet. Thanks.”
But that was 12 years later.
Now I was stuck. How could I quickly program this diamond dealer’s website? I didn’t want to use C to go through his Excel spreadsheet and I wasn’t sure how to make the graphics on the fly.
He said, “No, no, no, no. What are you doing? Use PERL.”
“What’s that?” I was lying down on my foam mattress. I had a phone and a 3-inch black and white TV in the apartment that didn’t work.
Every night, if I got up to go to the bathroom, I had to jump up and down before opening the door. That would make all the cockroaches disappear before I opened the door.
“Just trust me. Get O’Reilly’s book on mastering PERL. Get it right now. Call me later.”
I got the PERL book. About eight hours later I called Chet.
“You were right,” I told him. “PERL was the way to do it.”
“Did you read the book?”
“I’m done with the whole project. The website is finished.”
Many years later Chet stopped talking to me. I wrote an article saying no war could be justified. He didn’t agree with me. He unfriended me and we never spoke again.
I remember one time he stayed with me in grad school. I gave him a novel to read. “Cockpit” by Jerzy Kosinski.
I’m remembering this because I’m rereading the book today. We were once close friends.
I took the PERL book and here’s what I did and here’s how I learn every programming language I’ve ever learned since 1984.
It’s sort of how I learn everything I’ve had to learn ever since then.
The key for any learning is: Make it easy as possible, then get more difficult.
- SET UP YOUR ENVIRONMENT. Download whatever you need to do to program, compile, and run a basic “Hello, world” program.
- DOWNLOAD SOME SIMPLE PROGRAMS YOU CAN MODIFY
- Make changes in the programs. Simple changes. See if it works. Then change back. Then play again, a little more aggressively. Use the book as reference.
That’s it. That’s the way I’ve learned every programming language before or since. And the same technique applies to learning everything.
PERL turned out to be perfect for what I needed to do.
I set up my environment. Started playing with some simple programs.
When I made mistakes I used the book as a reference. Eventually I modified the programs enough to make Shlomo’s website.
Years later I wrote software to make predictions in the stock market. It used a new language I had never used before.
I took a sample program that looked for certain patterns in stock prices.
Without knowing the language at all, I changed the patterns. Whenever I made an error I would look up the specifics of the language until I didn’t make errors.
The more I modified programs, the more I learned about the language.
These programs became the basis of my first hedge fund.
This is the key:
- Get a REFERENCE
- Set up your ENVIRONMENT so you can program. This is the key part. Now you can play, program, learn
- DOWNLOAD basic programs
- MODIFY them
- START MODIFYING to get closer to your final goal.
MAKE THE TARGET CLOSER
Tony Robbins once told me how he taught Marines how to shoot guns better.
“I was in my early 20s and they asked me to teach these elite Marines how to shoot better. I had never even shot a gun,” he said.
“But I watched them for awhile and then I had an idea. I put the target very close to each of the shooters. Maybe three feet away. They all shot bullseyes. Then I moved the targets another foot away. They all shot bullseyes. And so on. I kept moving the target further away until it was all the way on the other side of the room. They told me they had never seen a class of Marines learn how to shoot faster than in that class.”
He looked at me and pounded the table to emphasize.
“Always bring the target as close as possible. Start with that whenever you have to learn something. Then after you master it at that distance, move it slowly further away.”
I delivered the website.
Shlomo was very happy. “So fast?” He was almost suspicious. But everything worked.
He launched the website a few days later. It still exists (although has since been rewritten I think): diamondcutters.com.
He gave me the $17,500, in cash, in a paper bag.
I took it immediately to the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street and paid a year in advance to live there.
Shlomo was my first client. I started a business making websites. It changed my life.
It began a period that was the worst decade of my life. Life was stress-free and simple before I started being an entrepreneur.
Many years later, Shlomo died in a plane accident over Namibia. He was looking for uncut diamonds and crashed.
Shlomo had a secretary that I had a crush on.
She had a big, red, wine stain birthmark that stretched from the corner of her eye, across the landscape of her cheek, and touched the end of her smile.
I would stare at it when she spoke to me. I would try to make her laugh. To see that wine-stained smile.
I wanted to lick the mark right off of her face.
James Altucher is the author of the bestselling book Choose Yourself, editor at The Altucher Report and host of the popular podcast, The James Altucher Show, which takes you beyond business and entrepreneurship by exploring what it means to be human and achieve well-being in a world that is increasingly complicated. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Image courtesy of Fabiola Peñalba.