Life at Goodnotes

Learning by Doing and Becoming a Developer at GoodNotes: Bret’s Story

June 8, 2020

If he’s not jamming on the bass, piano, or drums in the office’s dedicated music corner, Bret is tapping away in front of his iMac, with lines of code filling his screen.

Two and a half years ago, Bret was one of the earliest members of the GoodNotes team, starting as a freelancer, and soon after accepting a full-time position.

Today, he’s the developer for all things iOS at GoodNotes.

When you jot down a note on your iPad with GoodNotes, it syncs straight to GoodNotes app onto your Mac — and that’s entirely Bret’s doing.

A career in programming, however, hadn’t always been the plan.

Bret is a self-taught developer, who doesn’t have the typical computer science background. Bret is a master of learning by doing, with a penchant for taking risks and a drive for trying new things. Bret took a unique journey to arrive at where he is today: here’s how he paved his career, from his start working in entertainment, to opening his own business, and chasing his goal of shipping meaningful work.

Taking Advantage of Every Opportunity from the Start

After high school, the first year or so Bret hit the ground running and accepted an assortment of jobs, from grocery stores to delivery jobs. If you know Bret at all, however, you’ll know that his true passion lies in music — and so a year or two after doing jobs here and there, he got a foot in the door in the entertainment industry.

“I joined an entertainment company where they arranged and organized events — specifically, we booked musicians for annual dinners,” said Bret, who plays five instruments himself. “In between, I also worked as a theatre technician at places like the Hong Kong Arts Centre, working with lighting designers from drama groups.”

At the start of his career, Bret wasn’t a developer. Through the variety of jobs he worked, Bret developed not apps, but a knack for picking up technical skills quickly, and the confidence to know that he was capable of doing so. This was the game-changer when one day, four years after, his brother proposed that they start a production company together to offer development services — a skillset that Bret didn’t yet have.

He said yes.

Learning by Doing: Becoming a Mobile Developer

“My brother had been working as a web developer for some time, and he wanted to start a development house. I had to pick something to learn and do,” said Bret. “So I picked mobile development.”

It was an easy choice for him. When the iPhone had come out around this time, Bret was one of the first people to get his hands on one. There was something about smartphone technology that impressed him, and he could see the opportunities this new era of mobile was welcoming.

When Bret got back from work in the evenings, he went into full student mode, poring over the programming books he’d purchased from Sham Shui Po, and immersing himself in hands-on projects.

“The first app I ever built was a calculator for Android. The second was the iOS version,” said Bret. “I made the same app so I could learn both languages.”

Just a few months after the two brothers decided to start the business, Foak House was born as a fully-fledged development house.

Delving into the World of Startups

Foak House specialized in web and mobile development, serving a variety of clients that ranged from educational gaming companies in Singapore to display equipment suppliers in Brazil. However, their true dream was really to create and grow their own product.

Luckily, Bret and his brother found the best place to connect with other people who shared in this passion: by participating in Hong Kong’s inaugural Startup Weekend.

A photo taken from the following Startup Weekend, when Bret went back to volunteer. Pictured are Bret, his brother Joseph, and Jonathan (who shared a desk in the same office!)

At Startup Weekend, developers, entrepreneurs, designers, and passionate people come together. It begins with pitching startup ideas; teams then form around these ideas, and the rest of the weekend is spent building it out, concluding in presentations. At the event, Bret met other makers and creators in Hong Kong’s burgeoning startup scene, people who would go on to build some of the city’s most iconic homegrown startups like GoGoVan and Aftership.

From left to right: Bret, Ryanne (Dragon Law/Zegal), Dante (formerly Aftership), Joseph, Ben Crox (Barcamp), and Louis (RedSo)

This event was also responsible for inspiring Foak House’s new positioning, where they took on more startup clients and geared more of their services to support entrepreneurs.

After around four years of running Foak House, though, the team collectively decided it was time to turn a new page. “Our true goal for the business was to build our own product. We thought, if we keep developing for other people, why not just do it on a freelance basis? That was the reason we decided to close the business and pursue our dreams.”

From Freelance to Full-time: Joining GoodNotes

Over the next few years, Bret worked on freelance projects, while spending time working on some of his own ideas. He took a full-time job as a product manager for one of his freelance clients, but again ultimately didn’t feel like this was really in line with what he wanted to do.

It was when Bret was freelancing again that he crossed paths with GoodNotes.

One of the first GoodNotes offices!

“My brother knew Marco from the research team at GoodNotes. They wanted to build an app to collect and analyze handwriting samples, which the team would then use towards machine-learning, to teach the GoodNotes app to decipher human script. That’s the first thing I worked on.”

Shortly after, GoodNotes offered him a full-time position. At the time, Bret was actually at a crossroads, deciding whether he wanted to pursue product management, a skillset he’d been developing in his previous full-time role, or software engineering. “It took me a few days to decide, and in the end I thought that I should do what I really enjoyed, which is programming.”

What it’s like Working at GoodNotes

“The GoodNotes team was quite small,” said Bret, remembering his first impression of the company. “But I remember recognizing Francis (Siu Ying), who is kind of a big deal in the iOS circles in Hong Kong, as well as Rodney, who’s a UX designer that I’d known for many years, from startup events. It gave me a lot of confidence in this startup.”

A snapshot of the early GoodNotes team chilling over video games (which is an enduring tradition).

Bret joined the team as employee number 5 as a software engineer, focussing on mobile development.

Today, Bret is in charge of the backend of the app, making sure all the touchpoints and inner workings of GoodNotes are firing smoothly.

He smooths out synchronization across various devices, so that whatever you see on your iPad app, you’ll see on your Mac, for example. Currently, he’s also developing robust collaboration functionality, so that soon you’ll be able to take notes together with other GoodNotes users

Having had most of his prior experiences doing B2B, the B2C nature of GoodNotes was rewarding in a way Bret hadn’t directly experienced before.

“Here at GoodNotes, we’re facing end-users and getting feedback directly. You get to experience how some of the simple fixes or improvements can really make a difference for our users. People are so sincere in their thanks, it’s almost like receiving love letters.”

In describing the team culture, Bret values the flexibility and freedom to speak their minds. “We feel safe to give feedback to each other and also directly with Steven. He frequently arranges breakfasts with us to ask us how we think the company is growing.”

(See here to read about a day in Bret’s life at GoodNotes!)

Take Your Future by the Reins

Careers are never a straight line, and Bret’s journey has demonstrated that. He started out trying many different jobs until he found one that he was passionate about. He dived right in, and made it happen.

For anyone that’s looking to pick up a new skill outside their prescribed path, Bret has this to share:

“You really have to first convince yourself that it’s possible, and then jump right in. Pick a really simple project and start doing it. You have to do it in order to tell, and it’s more important to find out whether you enjoy it,” explained Bret. “When I work on something I love it’s like playing games. When you solve a problem, you feel really good about yourself. It’s like learning an instrument — when you finally nail a song you feel great.”

And as for his entrepreneurial spirit, and the itch to start something himself — that definitely hasn’t fizzled out. In fact, it’s evolved with a realization that he’s come to after experiencing what it’s like to build features for GoodNotes’ enormous customer base.

“I still do have that passion to start something myself. But after joining GoodNotes, I’ve discovered how fulfilling it is to ship meaningful work that impacts millions of users. Every time we ship a new feature I feel like I’m improving people’s lives. And I think that might’ve been what I wanted to achieve with my own product all along.”

Want to work with Bret? We’re hiring! See our openings here.

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