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Prioritizing Mental Health and Getting Help with Rahat Chowdhury

Mandy Moore
Single Mom 👩‍👧 🐶😺😺😺😺 Owner/producer: Greater Than Code 💕 #DevRel 🥑 WiT/D&I 👩🏻‍💻 Podcast Production 🎙 #BlackLivesMatter #python 🐍 she/her
・19 min read

Relicans host Pachi Carlson interviews Rahat Chowdhury, Full Stack Serverless Developer and Co-Founder of Whimser, a cognitive behavioral therapy app, about being cool with asking for help– especially in the beginning, how taking care of his own mental health led to him co-found Whimser, balancing a full-time job with cofounding a startup, and how being active on Twitter has led to some really cool opportunities.

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Jonan Scheffler: Hello and welcome to Launchies, proudly brought to you by New Relic's developer relations team, The Relicans. The Launchies podcast is about supporting new developers and telling their stories, and helping you make the next step in what we certainly hope is a very long and healthy career in software. You can find the show notes for this episode along with all of The Relicans podcasts on developer.newrelic.com/podcasts. We're so glad you're here. Enjoy the show.

Pachi Carlson: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to Launchies. I’m Pachi, and I’m going to be your host today. And today, I have here with me Rahat Chowdhury to chat with us. He is a bootcamp grad, a full stack web developer, and co-founder of Whimser that is a cognitive behavioral therapy app that I'm very excited to talk about. And I have to mention that he's also a rapper and a Pokémon master. I cannot ignore that. So thank you so much for coming and chatting with me today. I’m very excited. How are you doing?

Rahat Chowdhury: I'm super happy to be on this.

Pachi: I have to start with Pokémon master. Why do you feel like you deserve that title?

Rahat: [chuckles] Well, I've been playing since I was what? Ten years old? So I'm in my 20s, I like to say, but I'm 30. [laughs] So it's been 20 years of playing Pokémon. The first game I owned was Pokémon Gold. I played red, blue, and yellow. My cousins had it, but Gold was the first one I actually owned. And since then, I've just been in love with it.

Pachi: How did you feel when Pokémon Go came out, and all these posers started playing?

Rahat: [laughs]

Pachi: I was like, people, you don’t even know Pikachu. What are you talking about? [chuckles]

Rahat: [laughs] In the beginning, it was great. I loved the whole concept of it. But yeah, I think it lost its appeal after maybe the first couple of months or so. But yeah, I think it's still a cool thing to do once in a while. You open the app and see if there's any Pokémon around. I don't know how it really works now in the pandemic.

Pachi: My mother-in-law plays that. She got– What can I say? [chuckles] So, I mean, Pokémon, technically, they are monsters. It makes sense. So first and foremost, tell me a little bit -- So you are a bootcamp grad. You didn't graduate that long ago. So, can you tell me how you got into tech? What were you doing before, and how did you get where you are today?

Rahat: So, before I got into tech, I had made a career for myself out of customer service. I started off as a call center agent in a logistics company and then eventually started working at a couple of different tech startups in their customer support department. And eventually, I was moving up in my career a little bit. And I did a lot of training of different customer support representatives managing different teams and stuff. And I was eventually working at this company called Newsela. They're like an educational tech company. And a lot of the times when -- So our customers were basically teachers, and whenever the teachers would come in and report different bugs, I would facilitate entering that into Jira and seeing everything go from being a bug to being fixed and sending that out to teachers and giving them that good news. And I looked at it, and I thought I'd really like to be on the other side of that of actually fixing the issue rather than just letting them like, “Hey, we fixed it,” even though I didn't really do anything. That got me really interested and was the reason, along with my wife, supported me through it, of going and finally doing that bootcamp to fully switch careers.

Pachi: That's nice. So before that, you had never considered working in tech.

Rahat: I did sort of here and there. Originally, I had gone to school for actuarial science, which was very, very boring. [laughter]

Pachi: I imagine.

Rahat: And yeah, I'm very happy to have come here now and found coding definitely not as boring.

Pachi: [chuckles] Yeah, it’s a bit different, but I’m glad you found it. So, how long have you been working as a programmer?

Rahat: So professionally, it will be two years in a couple of months. Before that, I was doing a little bit of freelance work, working for free for some pre-seed startups.

Pachi: Well, I’ve been there [laughter]. Can you tell me a little bit about some of the challenges that you faced in the first year in that first job?

Rahat: So, when I started my job, the very first thing was trying to get myself to be not scared of this gigantic codebase and going from creating a React app up to this wild and huge React application with so many different moving parts was very intimidating. But what helped me a lot -- and I had actually gotten this advice from a talk that I had seen from someone who was working at the company that I went to, which was American Express. And they had given some advice on how to give feedback on code reviews to senior engineers as a junior developer. And a lot of it was just like saying, at first, just go through and read pull requests, see what people are doing, see how people solve problems, how they approach different tickets to different issues that they've been assigned. And as I started looking at that and looking at how the other people on the team code and what patterns they follow, I was able to pick up small things here and there and learn from that. And as I started to get ready to do my own first pull requests, along with the help I got from my team members, that helped quite a bit in understanding a little bit of how the whole entire team worked. And that's something I like to tell a lot of people who are even looking for their first job. You can do the same thing using open-source projects. You don't even have to contribute. Just pull up some popular open-source projects and look at PRs that have been approved, that have been merged in, and check out how people solve problems, solve issues, and learn from that.

Pachi: Another great tip, open source is full of things for you to explore. So, how long did it take you to get that first job after you finished the bootcamp?

Rahat: It was about three months, so it was relatively quick. I think what helped me a lot was at the time; I did a lot of networking. Back then, in-person conferences were a thing. And so I was able to go to a lot of those. And I remember one of the first conferences I went to at first I wasn't going to go because it cost like $1000 something per ticket. And then they tweeted saying that they were looking for volunteers, and you can help them out and be in the conference for free. And I was like, “Hey, yeah, I can volunteer. What do you need me to do?” So I went, and I was basically in one of the rooms helping the speakers get set up, keeping track of time, running around with a microphone, letting people ask questions, things like that. So doing that, I was able to get access to a lot of the speakers. I didn't have to approach them because they were just like, “Talk to me,” which made everything so much easier.

Pachi: That is awesome.

Rahat: And one of the people that I met there actually connected me to the hiring manager at American Express.

Pachi: Wow.

Rahat: It was like the most unorthodox way, I think, of getting a job. We were just texting, and then one day, he texted me; he said, “Hey, can you come in tomorrow for a job interview?” And I was like, “Sure, yeah, I can do that.”

Pachi: Yeah, why not? [chuckles] That’s great. So when the world is safe again, go volunteer at conferences, people. You can maybe get a job. But not now; now is not a good time. But who knows how far in the future? I don’t even remember conferences and people, so weird. So right now, how comfortable would you say you are with that codebase with the job?

Rahat: I'm much more comfortable than I was when I first started. There are still levels of discomfort in some areas. It's huge. So I don't work with every part of it all the time. I think that one of the better things about joining a larger company is you can just focus on small pieces of the codebase, and you'll be fine for a while. At the same time, though, sometimes you just want to dive into the rest of it and really understand. So it can be both a positive and a negative, I guess. So I've been lucky to be able to do some diving in, in some of the other parts of the codebase too. So that's been definitely helpful. There are parts of it that still make zero sense to me, even after two years. So I think yeah, it all takes time. Some things take longer than others.

Pachi: Yeah, that is a lot. But did you have good mentoring in the beginning?

Rahat: Yeah, absolutely. That was one of the things that I felt really helped me a lot was people on the team that I had joined were very willing to help. I had one person specifically who I went through who helped me do my onboarding and everything. And he was very helpful in getting to understand the codebase a little bit. I’m pretty sure I bothered him a lot at the beginning, [chuckles], but he was cool. And he helped me through a lot of this stuff that was confusing.

Pachi: Well, that's important because we feel bad asking for help at the beginning, but if you don’t ask for help, you don’t get things done.

Rahat: Exactly.

Pachi: I had this friend that her last feedback her manager said that she was taking too long to deliver things because she doesn't ask for anything because they don't have an opening for her to ask because she's a junior. I was like, “Hey, so what do they want?” When I started to code, my brother was my mentor, and he told me, “So if you ever don't understand something I'm teaching you, it’s my fault because I'm a mentor. I have to explain to you until you understand.” So it's never that you are dumb and you will never understand it. And that's something that still sticks with me. It's very important for me when I'm learning something to do it in the simplest way possible because learning to code can be scary. [chuckles]

Rahat: Oh yeah.

Pachi: So you are working full-time at American Express, and you are a co-founder of a startup.

Rahat: Yep.

Pachi: Can you tell us a little bit about the startup?

Rahat: Yeah. So the startup is called Whimser. The idea I initially had for it came up about a year ago. So it was around the time when I really started, I guess, taking care of my own mental health a little bit more. I started seeing a therapist and trying to make, I guess, some active changes in the way I was taking care of myself, things like that. And one of the things that I had learned about through that experience was cognitive behavioral therapy, and it was very new. It was a little bit different. One of the things that I had thought was not helpful in therapy was we have therapy maybe once a week or once or twice a month or something like that. And especially in the United States, where it's super expensive, you might have it only once a month because that might be all you can really afford. And I realized that a 45-minute session wasn't always enough time to go over everything I wanted to go and do, or I might forget to go over a specific thing that I really wanted to go over because it's just been such a wide gap in between the sessions. So combining that with cognitive behavioral therapy is what came out to be Whimser. I was actually looking around for other applications. I found a couple that aren't maintained anymore. There’s one I really liked called Quirk. Unfortunately, it's not maintained, so it's not usable anymore. That does a lot of the same stuff that we're aiming to do at Whimser. And there's definitely other journaling, cognitive behavioral therapy apps out there, but they all stopped either at being just a journaling app or somehow transitioned into being like a meditation app, which didn't really make much sense to me.

So I decided to create Whimser, and the whole concept behind Whimser is we go through cognitive behavioral therapy. You can start off by choosing what kind of mood you're in and what your thoughts are. And if it's more like a negative mood, it asks you to identify what are called cognitive distortions, which are just ways that your mind tricks you into thinking about things that aren't real. So, for example, it might ask you if the thought you're having are you jumping to conclusions? Are you catastrophizing? Are you making it out to be worse than it actually is? Stuff like that. And then, after you identify those distortions, you're then asked to challenge that thought in a way. Like, how do we flip it? How can we make it more positive? Or how can we work towards making it more positive, something like that? So it takes that process and puts it into the application. The thing that we're hoping separates us and makes us more helpful is we're hoping to introduce some level of machine learning to help you decipher which cognitive distortions you're facing because there are like 15 different ones. So sitting there and learning and reading through all of those can be pretty painful, too, so helping on that end as well as at the end, one thing that specifically for me was helpful in my journey is going back and remembering wins or positive things. So there's an aspect in Whimser where we're hoping if you have, let's say, a bad day at work, Whimser would then remind you of a good day you had at work.

Pachi: Well, that’s great.

Rahat: Like something positive, that's related to what you're going through at the moment. So things like that where it's not just journaling; it's trying to help you along in your journey and then provide you key data metrics of insights that you can share with your therapist. So you can actually hone in on those things that you're actually interested in getting through at the therapy session. It helps to focus on things that'll help you and to focus on things that you wish you can go through with the therapist.

Pachi: That's really great because really, I never remember everything that I have to say. [laughter] Every time at the end of the session, I’m like, oh, I should have talked about that, but I’m going to talk about it next month. And then it’s going to be a totally different thing.

Rahat: Yep, exactly.

Pachi: That’s very helpful. I’m actually excited about that. So how is the startup? Do you have somebody working with you? How is your team, and how is the process?

Rahat: So right now, three of us are the co-founders. I'm the technical co-founder. We have another person who's basically like our CEO, taking care of more of the business side, and another person who also helps me with development that is mainly on the product side of things. Underneath us, we have three developers, full-stack developers, and one person who's more on the data engineering side, as well as a designer and a content creator. So we've been trying to put out a lot of content on our blog in general about mental health. We're planning on working with a few professionals in the mental health industry to put out a few blog posts. So we're making sure that we put out accurate information, stuff that will be actually helpful and is vetted by an actual medical professional rather than just us saying, oh, this works for us. So hopefully, that helps people a lot. We’re hoping to release a beta really soon.

Pachi: That's great. And how are you balancing your full-time job with your startup?

Rahat: So it's been pretty helpful because -- so I've been on parental leave for the past five months.

Pachi: Yeah. I saw the baby in the picture, so cute. Congratulations.

Rahat: Thank you. She's our first, and so I've had a lot of extra time in between taking care of the baby and having some time to commit towards it.

Pachi: I can’t sleep anyway. So I might as well work.

Rahat: Exactly. [laughter] And yeah, that's been pretty helpful. I was working on it prior to parental leave as well, so trying to figure out how to go back into that now. [laughs] Parental leave ends in two weeks.

Pachi: I bet you're excited to get back to work, but at the same time, you’re not sure how to do that.

Rahat: Yeah. [laughs]

Pachi: But babies are fun. I was a nanny for eight years before I started to do tech things.

Rahat: Oh, wow.

Pachi: I kind of miss it, but being a developer pays a bit better. [chuckles] So you have not been in tech for that long, but you have done lots of things. You have a great job, you have a startup, and you have a podcast, and I always see you all over Twitter. So you're very active there. What are your best tips for people that are starting or that want to get into tech? Where do you start?

Rahat: I really like the whole concept of building or learning in public, documenting your journey as you go along. One of the things that's been really helpful for me was just being active on Twitter. I feel like I've definitely gotten a lot of cool opportunities on Twitter just by sharing stuff, asking questions, and just putting myself out there a little bit both in terms of jobs and in terms of stuff for my startup or just making connections and things like that. So I think whether it's Twitter, LinkedIn, wherever you feel like is more appropriate for your work, I think definitely sharing it as much as possible is definitely one of the biggest things that'll be pretty helpful. Because it lets you build up that social proof that you know what you're doing. It lets you reference your journey as you go through maybe reference struggles you've had with technologies that you've been able to overcome and the proof of it because you've written about it maybe in a blog post or maybe -- I used to do some live streaming. I know you do some live streaming too. So it’s stuff like that, learning stuff in public and just being vulnerable, allowing yourself to show that you're not perfect, but you're constantly improving. And I think that's more important than anything else, more important than being perfect. It's just like putting stuff out there and just improving on it, which is I think more useful to have on the job as a skill than just being able to put out seemingly perfect code.

Pachi: Like, who does that anyway? But yeah, that's something that helps me a lot. And it's funny because when you started talking to me and I saw your picture, not with the baby, the one before. I knew you from Twitter because I’m pretty active on Twitter. So I wasn’t sure where I knew you from, but I knew that I had seen your picture maybe a year or two ago when I started being active on Twitter. I was like, that's so funny because if you are really active but not in a forceful way but in an organic way because you really care, people notice you. Even if you don't make friends right away, eventually, you’re there doing the same thing and hanging out with the same people, and you have the same goals. So that’s really exciting.

Rahat: Yeah. It's been funny. I did a couple of interviews where the person interviewing actually said, “Oh, I know you from Twitter.” And it's a person that I've never interacted with before. I'm like, “Oh, that's cool.”

Pachi: [chuckles] Yeah, that’s funny. You have a podcast, too, right?

Rahat: Yeah. I've been working on a new podcast. I've done a few recordings. We haven't released any episodes just yet. I used to do one called Tech4Humans, where we were talking with people who are using tech to do positive things in the world. And it's out there. It's like one season we did. Maybe I'll revisit it one day, I’m not sure, but that's there. But this is one I've been wanting to do for a while, like just talking to people who are on different parts of their dev journey whether they're at the beginning or advanced or wherever they are and just learn from them and let other people learn from them as well in different discussions that we have. I've been considering seeing if maybe instead of a podcast to take it to Twitter Spaces or something because I do like the whole feeling of more of a casual conversation that Twitter Spaces has. So I'm still deciding what I want to do there.

Pachi: Yeah. That's exciting. I have been seeing some Twitter Spaces. And when Clubhouse first came out, it had all the hype. I wasn't really happy because of the accessibility issues, so I didn't want to get there. And people keep being excited about this. And now, with Twitter Spaces, it’s basically the same thing, but the accessibility is much better. So I’m like yeah, that’s a good thing for a DevRel person.

Rahat: Definitely, yeah.

Pachi: So I think it is a great idea. And you can do that live with people, and you can just post that. You can make both, maybe, and just shoot the podcast later.

Rahat: Yeah. That's something I was thinking about too.

Pachi: The possibilities are endless.

Rahat: [laughs] Yeah. If they can make an option to record Twitter Spaces, then that would be perfect.

Pachi: I don’t know who was telling me. I don't know if they have that in beta or if they are working on that. But I'm pretty sure somebody I was talking to earlier about that said that should be available pretty soon. So that’s exciting.

Rahat: Okay, that’s awesome.

Pachi: So you can find people on Twitter and just hang out. And that's fun because you could just show up and you don’t have to say anything. You just listen to people. I remember the first time I saw that, and I joined because I was curious. Then I heard people talking, and I didn’t know who it was. I just ran away [laughter] Like, what’s happening? But now I understand. So even if you work in tech, some techs are so scary. [laughter] So talking about tech, like you said, COVID has made conferences not in-person anymore. And I guess that even after everybody is vaccinated and happy, we are still probably going to have some online things because it opens a lot of doors. So is there any conference, in particular, you’re looking forward to if things go back to normal?

Rahat: Yeah, I think for the past two years, I've been wanting to go to CodeLand. But for one reason or another, something else has come up that I couldn't attend. So that's definitely one I'm very much looking forward to. I have been wanting to go to since I heard about conferences in general. So I’m trying to hopefully make that happen this year, whether it's online or in-person or whatever. And yeah, I think that's probably the one that I'm constantly thinking about because that's the one I feel like I've always missed out on.

Pachi: And that was the first conference that I went to in 2019. And then when they got a partnership with Dev, I got so excited because I love both things, so yay, 2020 is going to be the best conference. I thought 2020 was going to be the one, oh dear. [laughter] Maybe this year or next year, we shall see. Maybe if you listen to this in the future, you’re going to wonder what are you talking about? Because you can go to conferences, talk to people.

Rahat: [laughs]

Pachi: Just pretend that this is a Sci-Fi podcast.

Rahat: [laughs]

Pachi: So I guess that's what I had for you today. Do you have anything else you'd want to talk about?

Rahat: If anyone is interested in Whimser, you can definitely check it at whimser.io. We're hoping to launch a beta soon. You can sign up for our newsletter there and check out our blog posts on different stuff on mental health.

Pachi: Definitely. Mental health is important, people. If you don't think you need a therapist, you are probably wrong. Everybody needs a therapist, trust me. People think they don’t need one. [chuckles] And I know that you're pretty active on Twitter. So, where can people find you?

Rahat: Yeah. On Twitter, I'm @Rahatcodes or at whimser.io if you're specifically interested in that.

Pachi: And hopefully, we are going to have somebody doing the magic of linking everything down here. I don’t know this thing. I just come here and talk, and then some magic fairy of podcasters does the magic there. So thank you so much for talking to me today. That was so exciting. There’s just something there I'm very passionate about. I was going to ask you to rap, but that’s like asking a comedian to make a joke, and that is not fun. I know because Danny, my friend, he is always like, “Make a joke.” So I won’t do that today. [laughs]

Rahat: [laughs] Okay, cool.

Pachi: Thank you so much for taking time. I know that the baby takes lots of time.

Rahat: Yeah, definitely.

Pachi: You’re very busy, and they’re very demanding. It was a pleasure talking to you, and it was very exciting.

Rahat: Same here. Thank you so much for having me on. I really appreciate it.

Pachi: You're welcome. So thank you, everybody, for listening. This was Launchies. And I want to remind everybody that we’re going to have FutureStack happening next month, and New Relic is going to have some fun stuff for you. So please sign up. It’s going to be in May. The link is going to be on the description, and I hope you can hang out with us there. So thanks again. Have a great day and bye, everyone.

Jonan: Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it. You can find the show notes for this episode along with all of the rest of The Relicans podcasts on therelicans.com. In fact, most anything The Relicans get up to online will be on that site. You'll also find news there of FutureStack, our upcoming conference here at New Relic. We would love to have you join us. We'll see you next week. Take care.

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