I've read some amazing stories about people's coding journeys here, and I was interested to share my own as well. Before starting out with anything about my journey, let me introduce myself quickly here, and then we'll go into flashback mode.
My name is Mehul Mohan, and I was born and bred in New Delhi, India. Currently, I'm completing my CSE Bachelors' degree from BITS Pilani, Goa, but don't let that fact fool you: college has played little role in my journey, as we'll explore in this long long brag guide about myself 😂.
These days amid lockdown, I spend most of my time working on my YouTube channel, and on a very ambitious developer platform called codedamn. But more about that in chronological order below.
One of the reasons I'm writing this article is because it enabled me to go down memory lane and archive it on the internet forever.
2010 - The Beginning
I sincerely believe that I got into programming purely by accident. I was a happy kid and was just promoted to class 6th. In my school, our school buildings change after class 5, so we were in a completely new environment. New buildings, new teachers, new seniors, everything new, so it was kinda exciting and sad for me at the same time.
That was the same time I got my first computer with the internet back at home. My mom was very careful about me using the computer for a long time, as I was already wearing spectacles in class 6th. So, I used to get these 30-minute slots per day, with my sister, and we usually only played games.
But I was fascinated with software and how these little things worked – clicking something on-screen opens a popup, but why? Why does Windows XP take so much time to start? Can I change that Windows XP logo from the starting (boot) screen? Can I change the "Start" text written in the status bar below? What would happen if I deleted Recycle Bin?
These questions used to bug me all the time, and I had no answers.
The Rise with Blogger
2011 onwards was roughly the time when I started my first blog on blogger.com. I didn't even know what I was doing, I had just seen these sites distributing cracked software and tricks to download files without waiting from the regular file-hosting sites back in the day. And I was just curious how I could put out this information too.
I found that blogger.com was just the place! Slowly I started learning about analytics, visits, and AdSense to make money with ads. At the same time I would spend hours and hours searching for the best "Subscribe to us" widget code and sites to display the countries of my visitors and how many visitors I got on site.
I would guest post on various sites about certain tricks and tips I knew at that point, and I used to go by the alias Techno Tweaks. This is because my first blog's name was called technotweaker. I still use the email address associated with it (firstname.lastname@example.org)!
Later on, I bought a custom domain for myself. I learned how to configure it with a free blogger domain by asking for help here and there (and by asking, I mean asking a lot!).
Please ignore the cringey parts of the emails 😂, I still have no idea why I used to write like that.
Fast forward one year, and I was doing well on blogger. I learned a trick or two and was getting decent traffic on my shared stuff. I had started posting educational stuff too - like guides on how to speed up websites, tricks to download files faster, etc. Then came the day of horror, February 8, 2013
And boom! Just like that, blogger nuked by blog off their platform for spam. To be honest, by 2013, I had removed most of the warez content and was not posting it either on the blog too.
But here we were, and I tried everything I could in my power to restore my blog - contacted other successful bloggers, opened issues in google discussion forums, even contacted people working for Blogger.
But nothing could be done, so I realized something important at this point - the lack of freedom over my content when using a platform like Blogger. And blogger didn't even provide me with any significant advantage, apart from hosting the site for me.
So I decided to move on. I tried to research other options, and I decided to take it on a self-hosted WordPress site. This decision was a bold one - because now I had to purchase a hosting plan, set up a blog, configure it with WordPress, do all the stuff correctly. And mind you, I was 14 at that time and I had no way to make payments.
Part of my effort went into convincing my parents to pay for the hosting costs. Now, in India, it is very uncommon for kids to ask for such things, but my dad used to pay for my hosting anyway. And I made sure I went with the cheapest plans. (I still remember I used to use Hostgator and then moved to GoDaddy hosting for $100 for 2 years.)
The State of Enlightenment
Now I had real costs for running my things! And I always wanted to pay for things myself, hold myself accountable. With a new blog on the way, I had no way to make income from ads because all my traffic was gone. I was burning roughly $60-70 per year including all the hosting packaging and domain costs.
I needed to find some ways to make money, and I had spent enough time on the internet to learn that there were both good and bad ways to make money online. I chose to go down the good road, because, well, I didn't want to be punished by my parents.
Now again, I used to search for hours and hours for ways to make money online. Everything that came up I was pretty much familiar with: SEO, Affiliate marketing, guest posting, paid reviews, etc.
But it wasn't what I wanted. Bills were due and I wanted to make money fast! There was this one thing I discovered next - freelancing. This was another turning point in my life. I joined Fiverr - a freelancing platform, in 2013.
I knew absolutely nothing about programming (HTML/CSS/JS) - I just knew I wanted to learn it. Why? Because that was the one thing I could sell on Fiverr, and it would be useful to me too for customizing my little projects.
Let's see if I can dig up a conversation for the first order I picked on Fiverr.
You see the part where I said "A fatal error occurred.." - that's my first production screw up. I screwed up the person's WordPress installation by messing around somewhere in the functions.php WordPress file. And now I couldn't fix anything from WordPress itself, we needed cPanel access.
A day later, he did not respond to me, the site was up, and I was unregistered from WordPress. The order was canceled.
A bunch of orders was successful after this, till my next order cancellation:
Well, these things happen. But guess what, I knew that I was doing something way over my capacity and it was okay to make mistakes. I took it all in, and never considered anything to be personal, especially from these unknown internet folks.
As more and more orders rolled in, I started to learn concepts very quickly from a ton of sites and YouTube channels (shoutout to my guy Bucky Roberts from thenewbston, the real OG) and worked on the projects. Slowly but steadily, I started making sense of what I was doing - I was programming!
I was super active on Fiverr for a couple of years, which indirectly helped me to lay down the foundation for what I would be in the future.
By the end of 2 years, I was deploying PHP projects on shared hosting, had learned a little bash scripting, was coding in HTML/CSS/JS like it was my job and was enjoying every bit of it!
So much power, so much control over the finest of things on any website - once I had seen it, there was no coming back. You simply cannot go back when you realize you can program something which could be used by millions, if not billions of people - and would be super useful.
With programming, I was always also interested in "breaking" things. I used to follow popular hacker blogs of the time, all the time. I used to read about vulnerabilities, and bug bounty programs offered by various companies and used to wonder how difficult it would be to get a correct bug bounty report.
Remember how I used to run a warez and cracked software blog? That's where I got it from.
I started a blogger template selling websites with a bunch of my friends - we used to create and sell blogger templates for $10 and split the revenue.
One fine morning while creating a blogger template, I discovered that Blogger - a company owned by Google – had a critical flaw known as Cross-Site Scripting (XSS). I discovered it through a very sophisticated payload I came up with when creating a custom feature inside the XML of the blogger template.
OH BOY did I dance for an hour that day! That was huge for me. I immediately reported it under Google's responsible disclosure program, and BANG:
A reward of 3,000+ USD plus my name in Google's hall of fame as a 16-year-old? Phew! That was one hell of blast news to me, and especially to my family - for whom I used to just work with computers for fun.
That suddenly spiked my interest in web security 10x. I learned more and more about vulnerabilities of the web, and the associated technology, which helps me to date design software which is at least unbreakable by me.
Later down the road, I was listed as a security researcher for various companies like Microsoft, Sony, eSet, Invision, etc.
It was March 2015, my class 10th exams were just over, and I was about to enter a 2-year window all Indians with a Physics-Chemistry-Maths field will experience - the race to IITs, the "elite" colleges of India.
My parents, although supportive of my interests with computers, were still Indian anyway, and just like other Indian parents, they too wanted to see their son getting in a prestigious college, possibly IIT, by cracking JEE mains and JEE advanced - two of the most difficult exams in India for 12th-grade graduate students.
To be fair, I didn't want to run in that rat race. I wanted to work with computers, create a business around it, probably get a job or something. But at the same time, I realized that the society I live in isn't all fun and games. You have to fight your way to the top.
Now I don't know who said this, and it doesn't matter anyway. I cannot relate more with this quote - "if you don't like the rule, just follow the rule, reach to the top, and change it". This is the absolute truth in current society, especially with the education system in India.
When I was in class 11th, I had two choices:
- I could either give up studies/take them lightly and double down on my skills of working with computers and programming in general (this is what I wanted), or
- I could work hard on my studies - physics, chemistry, maths - totally unrelated to programming (at least that's what I thought at that time), and leave computers for two years.
Now when I look back at the time, I realize that often, in life, decisions are not so black and white at all. There's always that grey part, that part where you can do both. But it comes with a compromise, a cost.
I knew I could not freelance anymore, and that was my only source of learning new things - through new projects. I needed to be challenged, at the same time I needed to learn on my own terms and time - because the next 2 years were uncertain.
And so, codedamn was born. May 17, 2015 - a YouTube channel, heavily inspired by Bucky, was created. Initially, I started creating videos about whatever I knew and had learned in the past 2 years about web development, and started dumping my content there.
I closed my eyes and never looked at my YouTube numbers, never focused on SEO, never focused on thumbnails, video optimization, "beating" the algorithm for ranking, sponsorships, partnerships, nothing. I wanted nothing but to put out content.
Why? Because I had so much inside me that I was starting to forget things - I wanted to create a sort of "proof" to my future-self that I have learned this, and maybe this might help someone else, just like other YouTubers help other people.
I kept putting out content, more and more, and more and more. For two years, I did nothing but study for JEE and put out content. I gained very few subscribers and very few comments. I knew I was playing the long game - collecting slow nickels over fast dimes, and I was okay with that, I had lots of time on my hands.
I was able to get a 3700 rank in JEE Advanced and could've gone to IITs. But I chose not to go because I wasn't getting a Computer Science Engineering branch there. By the time these 2 years came to an end, I promised myself that I would only burn these 2 years of my life and then I would do whatever I wanted to, for the rest of my life. Sweet deal, huh?
My initial videos were crap, but I'm grateful to every single person who commented on those videos, even hateful comments - as they gave me enough motivation to prove them wrong, and to get people to subscribe to me and supporte my work.
Whenever I wanted to learn a new skill, I used to create a web series about it and learn it inside and out through online blog articles, videos, documentation, and creating sample working projects. Then I would show it to my subscribers with my video content - it was crazy how many people wanted to see it.
People see now that codedamn has over 100K subscribers and over 15 million views, but my growth with codedamn has mostly been linear over 5 years. Almost all YouTubers either hit an exponential curve to reach high numbers or quit long before that.
But I never quit. I've kept learning, and I still make videos today. You know why? Because I'm not playing for numbers, and I'm not afraid of other players in the market.
I'm a big-time GaryVee follower, and by the tone of this article, you might have realized it already. But very few people know that the reason I resonate so much with GaryVee is that although he says a ton of things about work ethic and passion, I was already following and believed in a lot of those things long before I discovered him.
These quotes seem so obvious yet so beautiful. With codedamn too, over the years my goals have changed. From being a medium for myself to learn new technologies, I have the attention of over 100K people and the responsibility to teach them something useful!
Last year, I started codedamn - the web platform to change the way people learn programming. I did it the hard way - taking up actual projects and then getting beaten by real people when I couldn't work according to their expectations.
It's good to have a thick skin, but it's usually better to move into the industry when you're a bit more prepared. The codedamn platform allows you to not only learn through video content and articles but simultaneously practice for these languages too. It's like freeCodeCamp, and has the benefits of supporting many more languages (thanks to the cloud evaluation architecture) and a promise for continued support and feature addition.
What I've Learned
I would like to quickly summarize my learnings in a bunch of lines here:
You're going to fail, a lot, and that's okay.
You might have gotten a wrong impression from the article above that I'm always kickin' ass. I failed my first Fiverr order, I failed Apple's WWDC'18 submission, I failed to get into IITs, I failed to clear an on-campus Google interview for internships, I've failed GSoC, I've failed a billion times in secret while coding, and I've failed so many times in personal life.
But guess what? You fail too, and everybody fails. There's nothing to be ashamed about it. Embrace it, and move on.
You're going to succeed, GUARANTEED, just don't give up
The way Math and probability works, it's just insane. You just cannot fail too many times consecutively. Failed at some task? Get up, do it again. Failed again? Keep doing it. And again, and again.
The hardest part is getting up after you fail - and you only truly fail when you don't try again.
Stop playing for numbers
Just starting? Please, please, please stop worshipping numbers. It does not matter how many views you have, how many subscribers, followers, fans you get. Nobody cares, and you shouldn't either.
The fastest way to not get a lot of followers is to always think about getting a lot of followers.
Do what you love
This is a programming related blog, but I do not recommend that everyone code. I have shared my story because I happen to like programming. You may not. Stop pushing for that "Google" technical lead, stop going after that "AWS" engineering role, stop this "FAANG" craze. STOP.
All of that doesn't matter if you end up hating your life 5 years down the road, and ultimately wished you'd done something else.
Find out what you resonate with. Monetize that, and do that, please. Because at the end of your life, you don't want the regret of living a life which wasn't yours.
I have done many other crazy things over the years. I've written 2 books on programming, and I was selected as one of the 14 Indian students to win Apple's WWDC'19 scholarship. I've gotten dumped, and dumped again. I hacked my school's website, lived the hostel life, and had crazy times with friends. I'm just getting started, and so are you, and so is everybody.
Note: If you want to connect with me, here's my Instagram and Twitter handle. Would love to hear a word or two about what you think. Hopefully, I was able to inspire you with my story. Let's connect on social!