If you know anybody who has gone through medical school, and who has survived the insanely rigorous ordeal of hospital residency training to become a medical doctor, you have some idea of the toll it takes on anyone who devotes himself to that pursuit. Now, imagine someone going through all of that, while at the same time teaching himself to code and becoming a successful software entrepreneur. Seem incomprehensible?
Perhaps, but that’s the fascinating story of Scott Zimmerman, a licensed physician who’s also the founder and CEO of Xola, a software startup that does booking and marketing for tour guides and recreational activity providers. Zimmerman bridged those two worlds during his residency in the Department of Neurology and Neurological Science at Stanford School of Medicine, in the heart of Silicon Valley.
In a recent interview, I asked Zimmerman how he managed to teach himself to code during a period when he was probably getting little sleep as it was, and more to the point, why. He said he was extremely aggressive with using his time productively:
You’re talking about a profession where you can commit over 100 hours a week, and you’re working seven days a week for years and years. I’ve never watched television—I don’t even own one. I carried my laptop with me at all times in the hospital. Anytime between patients, or if there was ever a downtime before surgery or whatever, I was coding. This was obviously during medical school, not as a practicing doctor—in medical school, I was opening up my laptop to code at every spare moment I had. I would leave the hospital, immediately go home, inhale dinner, and code till around 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., and then wake up at 7 a.m., and do it all again. And this was for years. I was living an extreme lifestyle—frankly, I didn’t really enjoy socializing with my peers, because many tended to occupy one mind space, and that was medicine. The social aspect of medical school was not fulfilling to me, so I basically did my own thing. I learned how to code.
Zimmerman mentioned some of the applications he created while he was in medical school:
I built several applications throughout my medical career, one of which was an e-commerce solution that had over 4,000 registered businesses using it, which eventually informed what we are building at Xola.com. Another was a Facebook application that mined thomas.gov for data on bills moving through Congress, how your elected representatives were voting, and how that might be of interest to you as a citizen. The application gave users greater transparency into bills that are geographically and topically relevant. This was back in the Bush Administration days, when such tools were sorely needed, yet non-existent, or scarce at best.
I asked Zimmerman to describe that moment when he decided he was going to start a software company rather than continue in medicine. He said that’s not the way it happened:
It wasn’t sequential, where I was a doctor, and one day I woke up and said I wanted to do something different, so I quit and started something new. That’s not my story. Within the first year of starting medical school, I started to learn how to program—I was developing my software development skills in parallel with developing my skills as a physician. So the depth of my experience in building software is almost as great as the depth of my experience in medicine. So this was a decision that matured over years. The practice of medicine, and taking care of patients, is deeply important. But the intellectual side of medicine is not fulfilling to me. It’s a lot of rote memorization; there’s not a whole lot of room for creative thought in the practice of medicine. I need to pursue a profession that allows me to create things. Over time, I realized that my calling was more entrepreneurial than it was service provision. That’s the reason I chose Stanford for residency—it’s in Silicon Valley, the heart of technology. A lot of the best software companies come out of this area, and Stanford is one of the most innovative centers in the world. I felt it would be a place where I could explore my parallel profession, which is software. At Stanford, my commitments to medicine and to software both matured. I was coding in Python for a genomics lab as well as a structural MRI analysis lab. So I had been considering bioinformatics, which is a nice intersection of software and medicine. But ultimately I was more drawn towards the company I had been building alongside medicine for quite some time.
Zimmerman went on to start Xola in the fall of 2011. I asked him what he knows now that he wishes he’d known then, and I found his response enlightening:
I know now that some of the scariest moves that you make in life, that mark a huge transition, are actually not nearly as threatening as they seem. It was a mental block that I had to overcome—all the uncertainty that comes with starting something new is very scary. But when you muster the courage and the internal fortitude to make that decision, and take that action, the reality of it is far less scary than the idea of it.
Zimmerman carved out a niche providing back office software for tour and recreational activity operators, and in doing so he blazed a trail that seems likely to be followed by other software developers. I asked him what the key will be to staying a step ahead of them, and he cited Xola’s vision and the passion it has for realizing it:
We’re like the Apple of booking and e-commerce solutions for these businesses—easy, intuitive, and delightful to use. There will likely be companies that follow in our wake. I think the reality they will face is that they are getting into a very complex piece of software that is not easy to replicate. Xola is a vision-driven company. We are driven by a passion for building software that helps small businesses thrive. "Me-too" companies just don’t have that vision—they end up copying competitors because they see a lucrative opportunity, or they lack innovative spark, or whatever. That’s not vision-driven. Our vision is what will always set us apart.
Finally, Zimmerman explained how his experience as a doctor influenced his approach to software development:
Being in the medical profession helped me develop a rigorous framework by which I investigate and observe, diagnose underlying problems, and create a course of action to address the problem. As a doctor, you have to examine and investigate pathology, and interview patients very carefully, in order to make the right diagnosis. If you have the wrong diagnosis, you’re going to have the wrong treatment plan. Oftentimes, software companies build solutions to the wrong problems. Or even worse, they build solutions to problems that don’t exist. This would be much like a doctor treating a disease that doesn’t actually exist in the patient—it’s ineffective, it’s a waste of time and money, and it’s potentially harmful.