8th Light: The Way of the Master

Susan Oh

June 18, 2012 · 7 minutes read

Uncategorized

Hearing Paul Pagel talk, it’s easy to be momentarily transplanted from the loft-style chic of 8th Light’s River North offices to a remote, mountaintop dojo. In the gentle, measured cadence of a teacher, he speaks about humility, time-honed craftsmanship, and beauty; ideals not characteristically uttered by a coder.

But the software development company Pagel, 28, co-founded five years ago with his mentor, Micah Martin, is as much a sought-after educational resource as it is a hot tech company. 8th Light is leading the way for innovation in the art, education, and commerce of its industry. “Overall, the thing is to strike a balance between practice and performance,” says Pagel, adding, “In our industry, that balance doesn’t exist.” Unless now, that is, under 8th Light and a handful of collaborative competitors.

Practice Makes Perfect

Much like the subtle yet powerful techniques of the Hakkoryu Jujutsu school of martial arts from which it takes its name, 8th Light believes in the power of practice to master the craft of coding.  Think top-notch educational programs for coding talent built in consultation with the Code Academy, such as one-on-one mentoring, weekly show-and-tell classes, and even swapping top coders with direct competitors down the street- literally. That, matched with a business model whereby clients pay for quality features (and not billable hours), has led to the creation of a profitable business that is elevating both its talent and its industry.

Pagel, who once practiced the Korean martial arts “Hap Ki Do”, says: “How people practice with martial arts – doing it over and over until it’s built into intuition- is what we do for coding.” Suddenly, Pagel jumps from his seat in mid-sentence, breaking out a rapid scribble on a whiteboard as he draws out a theory of skill acquisition, underlining the spot at which the plateau breaks into an upward spike. The spike represents the critical point at which a skill becomes second nature – the tipping point of the learning curve, if you will. “ I just love that curve,” he says. Pagel knows, for instance, that a business model can take months to work. But then, when skill acquisition is looped in, everything magically clicks into place.

Friday afternoons are classes at 8th Light University featuring topics and Code Katas (patterns) where paid residents, apprentices, and unpaid novices, who do anywhere from three to nine months of unbilled work while learning, practice by performing their work live in front of each other. Most of the company’s original employees since founding have stayed; they are now mentoring others, creating what Pagel calls a lineage of mentors.

The Coding Life

Pagel, who himself apprenticed for five years at Object Mentor at the age of 15, says, “At heart, I’m not an entrepreneur.  I have no wake in my path of entrepreneurial experiences. I was always a coder.”

Born and raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as well as in the Chicago suburbs (mostly Naperville and Libertyville), Pagel grew up in a tight-knit family. He still counts his older sister, a poet and publisher who holds an MFA at the Art Institute and at the Writers Workshop in Iowa, and his younger brother who is an environmental scientist, as his best friends.  His dad, who passed away eight years ago, had been an agricultural engineer at tractor company Case for 25 years and always had computers around the house. His mother, who works in sales, took the better part of the five and a half years of 8th Light’s existence to convince her it was a big enough deal for her to ply her skills there, where she works today.

A self-taught prodigy, Pagel began his life-long passion for writing programs at the age of 12. He never finished high school. Frequently bored, Pagel, unlike the model of discipline he is today, was a self-professed teenaged troublemaker.

“When I left school, maybe I was asked to leave,” he says, adding he never liked school, though he liked reading and was obsessed with coding. “ I spent more days just skipping class and reading or hacking rather than learning about American history, which sometimes I regret because American history is actually pretty cool.”

In lieu of completing high school, Pagel got his GED and came of age in the company of coders at Object Mentor. “ They took me from some kid who knew how to write some shell scripts and play with operating systems to someone who could write professional programs, “ he says. “That was me, growing up.”

The Journey to Craftsman

Pagel and his team have always chosen the term “software craftsman” over engineering.  He cites a mid-1990s text called Software Craftsmanship by Pete McBreen that posited how software is not an engineering principle; that it’s more craft versus engineering.

“Engineering is when you design something and it is on blueprints and then you hand it off to be mass produced and for a long time people thought that was how software was going to end up being,” he says.

“Software is closer to something like carpentry where each joint, even if it is the same exact joint, still has to be done by hand because there are so many moving parts.”  In software creation, he maintains, not designing the whole thing but handing off after modeling is a process that doesn’t work as well as a real quick feedback loop. In sum: the design, testing and tinkering must happen in quick iterations, and 8th Light does this well.

“I think that is the basis of art – remembering that craftsmanship is not a metaphor,” he says, adding, “It is how we actually work.  Pairs of coders at 8th Light work in really close feedback loops, caring about the physical objects of what they’re doing.  Designing is not a separate goal, which is then handed off to somebody else to be build. We move more towards craftsmanship because what we do is sometimes mixed up a little bit in art and mixed up a little bit in the aesthetics of making a great model,” he says.

Way of the Teacher-Turned-Entrepreneur

After Pagel finished his apprenticeship at Object Mentor, he was hired as a consultant and began teaching advanced design, testing, and development, often to those twice his age about things he knew in theory but had never done.  He weathered the learning curve, and then his mentor Micah asked him to co-found 8th Light, along with another partner who has since left.

“My first entrepreneurial experience is in this company,” Pagel says. “We just wanted to keep writing code rather than going on teaching.” Two weeks later, they landed their first contract to write software for Fidelity Life Insurance, building their life insurance products from scratch over the next five years.  That first year, four of them started building the company around the one client, not getting a second client until year two.  Now, five-and-a half years later, the company recently helped daily deals giant Groupon.

Now the company employs more than 20 prolific programmers, including award-winning author and iconic programmer, Robert C. Martin, or as he is known in the company, the Master Craftsman. “(Martin) talks a lot about how we at 8thLight are software professionals, both craftsmen and professionals,” says Pagel. “If we say this will be done by Tuesday, this will be done by Tuesday.  We have to make commitments that we adhere to because if we act like professionals then we become software professionals.

They used that inaugural year and Fidelity, their first client, to learn how to do the job right, using techniques and models to figure out how to best deliver what they use to this day, but with little regard to running the business. Pagel says 8th Light became a real company and business only in the second year as they grew as businessmen. A new billing model Pagel innovated took many trials and errors. He even lost money, but it made him grow as an entrepreneur. It was a model based on committing to a certain amount of work per week and paying only for the work that gets completed.  It would have solved many of the problems they were having in the company, but the project ended up losing money. After evolving and listening to input from staff, that billing model is the one they now use for half their clients.

“Clients don’t buy time- they pay for the features, “ says Pagel. “We get to chose how we spend our time so we can practice and solve problems as they come up.”

Most days are good days for Pagel, who has lived in Logan Square for the past eight years and wakes every morning at 6.30am, heading to a bar stoop at the Map Room to drink his morning coffee and to catch up on emails. “There’s a Starbucks across the street, but I feel more comfortable sitting at the bar. It seems more social,” he says. He bikes or takes transit over the seven miles to his airy, modern offices in River North. Characteristically understated in cords and a button-down, collar shirt, most of his friends, charter and magnum school teachers, don’t know what exactly he does- just that it has something to do with computers.

“I feel lucky, more than anything, “ says Pagel. “I think about how blessed I am to be working with such quality people.” He never dreads going to work, at the crux of which is solving problems to create beautiful, high-quality code.

“When writing code or learning a new discipline, I ask myself, ‘What code of ethics drives what I do?,” says Pagel. He quotes Thomas Jefferson: “In matters of art, flow like a river. In matters of principle, stand like a rock. And it’s profitable to take a stand. We took stand for quality years before the market and now it’s in demand.”

Spoken like a master who has hit his stride, Pagel is finding balance- between art and commerce, practice and performance- a quiet but powerful force just under the radar.

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