Corey McSparen is COO and a Partner at We Write Code, but continues to contribute as a Solutions Architect/Technical Lead on project work.
You have one of the longest histories in tech of anyone at We Write Code—how did you get started down this path?
I went to the University of Iowa and while I was still working on my undergrad—I started out doing network administration and help desk type stuff. I had an internship with the Judicial Branch in the State of Iowa and worked for the University of Iowa College of Public Health my senior year.
After graduating with a degree in Management Information Systems, my first job was at Rockwell Collins (now Collins Aerospace) in Cedar Rapids—I actually worked there for seven years and basically had three different positions over the course of my time there. It was an AWESOME place to start my career. I was the youngest person on the team I started with, so I had some great mentors early on, which was when I developed my interest in software. I was hired to be the support guy for a homegrown software application, but I found it sometimes took a while for our developers to get to lower priority bugs, so I just learned to fix them myself. That’s how I dipped my toe in the water doing software.
The Dotcom Bubble burst in the early 2000’s, and my mentors tried to encourage me NOT to pursue software development. They warned me the trend in software was to ship work overseas to India and China and kept saying things like, “You’ve demonstrated skills to start doing more leadership roles, don’t waste your time being a programmer.” That didn’t set well with me, though—my curiosity was set. So I always made it a priority, no matter what role I had early in my career, to try to make sure there was a software-related class or skill on the list when setting my goals to keep me in that realm. It was to help my employer, yeah, but just as much to help me along the way on the path I knew I ultimately wanted to go down.
After doing helpdesk and support, requirements analysis, and dabbling a little bit in software development I took another opportunity to do project management in my late 20’s. It felt like the next logical step in my career growth, so I followed a couple of my prior leaders to a different area of the company but got pretty frustrated with my PM role there; I felt helpless—I was competing for everyone’s time; being young and trying to motivate senior people, convincing others the work I needed them to complete was important was a struggle; I learned and grew a lot, but felt at the end of the day…as a strong, individual contributor, I personally got more from getting things done than tracking project progress and encouraging others to do things. That’s when I realized that tech is easy and people are hard…and I still hold that opinion today. I’m definitely more comfortable leading projects now, but back then it just didn’t bring me job satisfaction. A chance to do software development in a different business unit at Rockwell Collins came my way, so I changed jobs and I was finally a full time software developer!
How did you end up in Des Moines?
I graduated from high school in the Des Moines area and have lots of family ties here. At the time, we seemed to make the trip from eastern Iowa to the Des Moines metro twice a month for family events and we valued the idea of our kids living closer to their grandparents. We decided there were more opportunities for us in Des Moines to pursue the kinds of work we both wanted to be doing—for me, that was consulting. So my ex and I went in for interviews, and within a couple of days both of us had job offers. It all happened really fast. Within a month we interviewed for jobs, got jobs, sold a house, bought a house, and boom, we were in Ankeny. With an infant at home, I can’t say it wasn’t a lot in a short period of time. But it was definitely a good move.
How did We Write Code come into the mix?
That’s another story within itself.
I got a technical BA consulting gig at Wells Fargo—at the time it was one of the largest projects in Des Moines. Even today, if you ask someone in the industry about it, they’ve either heard of it or worked on it. But the plug was pulled on the project, and I came to a crossroad: my next job would define what I’d end up doing. Business analysis or software development? I interviewed for both kinds of jobs, but a software development gig at Pioneer (now Corteva) ended up being the winner. I rolled up my sleeves, cranked out code, and was surrounded by lots of talented folks and really fell into it.
This was about the time I met Levi, the founder of We Write Code—he was in the same building at Pioneer and he became a familiar face. Honestly, we probably crossed paths in Iowa City years ago because we were both there at the same time and hung out at some of the same places, but we don’t recall meeting each other. You wish you could be a fly on the wall all those years before and see if, “Oh my god! We were at the bar at the same time!”
I left Pioneer and went to Farmers Mutual Hail, but that’s where ALL of us partners of We Write Code (myself, Tyler, and Levi) ended up. When that project was shut down (there is a pattern emerging here…I swear it’s a coincidence and not me!) all the contractors were cut from the company…but that’s when Levi started having conversations about starting something. He asked if I was interested in getting on board, but back then We Write Code was in its infancy, even as a concept, and I was building a new house and it consumed my mental energy and pocketbook. At the time I wasn’t in a spot to take on any risk, so I told him now wasn’t the time for me but let’s keep talking…and we did.
By the end of 2015 I was settled in my house and ready to leave the corporate consulting world to become part of a new business. A decent sized project came along for We Write Code and I felt the timing was right for me to take the plunge. I was technically the third hire for the company and that was almost five years ago.
How did your experiences at large corporations shape the way you wanted to build a small business?
First, I want to say there are a lot of benefits to me starting my career at large corporations. I had great mentorship opportunities, the ability to work in several positions to explore different avenues of work, experience quality processes and controls, and learn how to navigate the politics of a large organization. But once my foundation was built, I found myself wanting to take the best of my team experiences and find a way to repeat those successes and deliver value without all the overhead I saw in large organizations.
When starting We Write Code, we wanted to create something to empower developers. It really comes down to the personalities and having people that you can count on; you get a group of people that are hungry and have complementary skill sets and the right chemistry is there, there’s nothing you couldn’t do.
Other than being a life-long tech guy, you’re a dad to two girls. Are either of them following in their dad’s footsteps?
That’s a funny question: my oldest daughter is in high school and beginning to explore what she may want to do for a career someday. But she’s spent her whole life watching me in my home office or at the kitchen counter in the evening, working through technical problems, pulling out my hair and swearing under my breath. So her glimpse into the technical world is frustration and problems that need solved before the next morning. I once asked her, “Hey, do you think you have any interest in doing this?” And she responded, “All I see you do is get mad at the computer—why would I want to do that?!”
That was eye opening for me. I forget they don’t see it in the same way I did at their age. They’ve grown up with tablets, on-demand entertainment, smartphones and the internet. My family got their first computer when I was in junior high, and tech and the internet started to unfold as I grew up. I saw this exciting new technology exploding around me and wanted to understand how it works. I think it’s safe to say that I’m doing just that.
You’re a partner of a successful tech company and the father of two busy girls—what do you do to unwind from all your responsibilities?
If we pretend COVID isn’t a thing and everything is normal, getting outside. Like many others during quarantine, I’ve dusted off my love of biking. It’s a good way to safely get out of the house, get some exercise and be social. The central Iowa trail system is awesome. Live music is another favorite—I used to get to quite a few shows, whether that be Wooly’s or other local venues around here or hitting the road to another midwestern city to see a favorite artist. Having a music venue right next to your office makes for easy access to some great shows. I wish I had gone to more when things were up and running. I’m also a big SNL fan and love standup and sketch comedy. I haven’t been to the new venue downtown (TeeHee’s) yet, but I’d be interested in checking it out in the future.