A Mid-Career Switch: From Massachusetts State Trooper to iOS Developer-To-The-Rescue

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After writing about Lovestagram, the app that Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger’s girlfriend made for him as a Valentine’s Day present, we didn’t think we could find a cuter story. But we totally did.

Smoopa, a mobile commerce app I wrote about yesterday, is also the by-product of a little love story. Derek Langton, who served as a Massachusetts state trooper for 18 years, picked up programming over the last year and a half to change his career and prove his ex-Googler husband and the company’s co-founder Mendel Chuang wrong.

“When you have an economy like the one we have now and when you’re trying to change career paths, it’s not easy,” Langton said. “But it comes down to motivation. It’s like losing weight. People try and fail. But when you see that it’s a lifestyle change and you make it part of who you are, you can be successful.”

Langton’s story is pretty interesting considering the way the local Silicon Valley economy seems to have divorced itself from the brutal employment market facing the rest of the country. In enclaves like Silicon Valley, it feels like the shortage of skilled workers is so intense that no number of H-1B visas could possibly fill it. And yet, in the rest of the country, there is an 8.2 percent unemployment rate. That’s nearly double the 4 to 5 percent range that the country hovered in before the 2008 financial crisis.

If the U.S. is going to fix its structural unemployment problems, it’s going to take mid-career people who are motivated enough to pick up technical skills and resources like Codecademy that will make it easier for them to do so.

So how and why did Langton do it?

After almost two decades of serving in the Massachusetts state police force, Langton felt like he wasn’t completely in love with police work anymore. He also saw how hard it was going to be for Chuang to do a startup from Boston, instead of Silicon Valley. Chuang was looking to co-found a mobile commerce company another MIT alum Charlie Sharp. The company is backed by SimplyHired’s co-founder and former chief technology officer Peter Weck, the original Google doodler Dennis Hwang and Nate Johnson, who leads consumer product marketing at LinkedIn.

But when Chuang, who used to work on AdSense while at Google, found himself short of developers, Langton stepped up. He’s been doing 80-hour weeks to pick up Cocoa and Objective C, his husband says. “He’s been mad-driven,” Chuang said of 42-year-old Langton. “The more I told him that iOS development was hard, the more he wanted to prove me wrong.”

Langton built the iOS version of Smoopa, a price check app that launched yesterday. It rewards shoppers when they share prices back from real-world stores. When they open the app, they can scan a barcode in the store. The app will pull up matching products from a database of 20 million items. The user picks one, and then they also find the store they’re in from a list of nearby places. If they share prices from the store, there’s a random chance they’ll get a reward of 50 cents or so that could go toward a gift card, rebate check or donation. The company earns affiliate revenue whenever a consumer makes a purchase through the app.

“Sometimes [Chuang] admits it’s even a little better than the Android version,” Langton joked.

Getting Langton’s skills up to snuff was a long process. He originally started out with watching computer science course videos from MIT and Stanford, but then he switched to watching YouTube tutorials from teenagers, like this one about how to use the camera integration in the iPhone.

“These kids are coding like mad scientists,” he said. “I found their videos to be some of the most user-friendly ones.”

He added, “I eat, drink and sleep iOS development. This is the kind of thing where either go or you don’t. You don’t go halfway.”

Here are the places he used most intensely during his year-long odyssey:

  1. Here’s a basic tutorial of how to use the camera integration with iOS.
  2. Another basic tutorial about showing alerts in iOS.
  3. One of O’Reilly Media’s many videos. This one is about building an iPhone app combining the tab bar, navigation and tab,
  4. He said this site by Ray Wenderlich had a lot of good advice.
  5. He also said this blog by Tyler Neylon had helpful tips.
  6. Langton said this site had decent articles about TableViews.
  7. This iPhone developer tips blog also has some decent tutorials.
  8. He added that this site from Matt Gallagher is good once you have the basics.
  9. Then there are university courses like this one from Stanford about developing iOS apps.
  10. Then here are similar classes from MIT.