“Oh I forgot to mention that I also windsurf. I love it and have been doing it for sixteen years.” Toptal developer Antoine Hedgecock messaged this the day after our interview, and at this point, we are not entirely convinced he’s human. At just 23 years of age, he is already one of the youngest freelancers to ever be admitted to Toptal, the CTO at Interactive Solutions, a fluent English, Swedish, and French speaker, and one of five trainers who guided the Västerås GF/Gefle GF team to its first place finish in the Swedish National TeamGym Championships on July 5th. In essence, Antoine works three jobs (granted the gymnastics training is part-time), yet he still finds time to windsurf. How does he do it?
He answers: “I only have one rule, and that’s no alarm clocks. If I used an alarm clock, I’d probably be burnt out in three weeks. I wake up when I wake up, and then I get to it.” When we spoke with Antoine, he was alert and well rested. Whatever he’s doing to keep up his drive, it’s working, and he’s now preparing to begin training for his biggest competition yet: the Nordic TeamGym Championships, a biennial event that will occur this November in Reykjavik, Iceland and “one of the most competitive TeamGym events in the world,” Antoine tells us during our Skype interview. We don’t know all that much about gymnastics, but surely an event like the Olympics is more competitive than that.
“TeamGym isn’t like the gymnastics you see in the Olympics,” Antoine replies, correcting us. As it turns out, what we had mistakenly been interpreting as “team gym” is actually its own sport (and only one word), “TeamGym,” and is something entirely different from what we envisioned.
“Whereas traditional gymnastics is based on individual performances, which are then aggregated into an overall team’s score [what I thought of as “team gym”], TeamGym is actually a choreographed routine, where the team performs together in three events: floor, tumbling, and trampette, which is a term for mini-trampoline.” Not only are skill and acrobatic elements necessary to success, but so too is teamwork. “The competition will be tough. The Nordics are the top five countries in the world for TeamGym. Plus, the small size of the competition means that each spot is highly coveted.” To put things in perspective, Antoine’s team is an amalgamation of gymnasts from the top three Swedish gyms and will be one of just two Swedish teams in his division entering the Championships this year. Of the seventeen gymnasts on Antoine’s team, only twelve will be able to compete. As you can imagine, training at this level leads to a grueling schedule. Antoine tells us “I train with my gymnasts five nights a week and once on the weekends. We only practice in the evenings because the gymnasts work or study as well as train. You know, gymnastics is a very small sport, compared to football or soccer. There’s very little money involved. We do it because we love it.” Turns out, Antoine has found the perfect solution to the financial constraints of gymnastics too. He is a world-class PHP expert, active contributor in the open source Zend Framework community, and has even helped publish a leading article on Toptal about AngularJS best practices and tips. Now, few gymnasts or trainers have ever written so much as a single line of code, but if you haven’t figured out by now, Antoine isn’t just your average athlete. When he was just 21, Antoine revolutionized TeamGym gymnast training by developing a complex video feedback system all by himself, just for fun. “Everyone loves it, from small kids seeing themselves to trainers communicating with the elite teams and explaining what the gymnasts are doing right or wrong as they look at their technique together frame by frame.” Antoine sponsored his gym with the equipment, and three other gyms have already approached him, interested in acquiring it themselves, despite the fact that this equipment hasn’t been officially released. How does someone only 23 years old get to the top of two completely different fields? The answer, as it turns out, is simple: he started young.
At the age of 7, his mother put him in a gymnastics program because, in his own words, he was “a pain in the ass, running around everywhere with too much vanity.” Antoine excelled in the program, until his coach’s decision to leave the gym left him with no remaining options to train and in desperate need of a new outlet for his energy. Thus began his passion for software development.
“Programming was something I always wanted to do. I dabbled around in basic code, but I didn’t really invest any time in it until I started playing this online multiplayer game called Tibia a year or two later. The game was buggy with constantly changing rules, and as a result many players wrote their own servers to escape the changes. I decided to do it too, and that’s when I started working with PHP and web development in general.” In the following years, Antoine started to work as a freelancer developer while still in high school. One summer, Antoine commuted every day to a lab in Stockholm to develop a platform for them that simulated structures of complex molecules. He was able to successfully migrate a legacy version written in Apache Beehive (a discontinued framework) to .NET. To put this feat in perspective: accurate simulations of protein folding and structure are very important and a common research topic for many PhD-level students. Antoine was 14. But apart from that early success, Antoine had a hard time as a young upstart in the industry. “It was a classic case of a young guy getting screwed over,” Antoine recalls. “I did a lot of work for employers promising me payment, but I never got paid.”
His first workplace relationships breakthrough came at the age of 16 when he joined PMG Media Group AB, Sweden’s largest community of aspiring entrepreneurs, as a full stack developer, continuing to work there over the next 5 years.With the influx of newfound skills and confidence from his years at PMG, Antoine, along with a few friends, tried to build a series of businesses in 2013, the most promising of which involved creating a service to connect local carpenters with clients.
“The main idea was to build a website for these carpenters so that they could post galleries of their work. Clients could then look through the photos and book them. It’s a good idea, but we were inexperienced with start-ups, and eventually the company fell through.” Frustrated, but enamored by the freelance developer lifestyle, Antoine searched for other options, and in 2014, found Toptal, a network for elite freelance developers. At just 22 years old, Antoine became one of the youngest developers in history to pass Toptal’s rigorous admission tests, a screening process that has recently been discussed in Fox Business’s Toptal review for its extreme difficulty. Joining the roughly 3 percent of Toptal applicants who succeed, Antoine found himself surrounded by industry veterans with decades of experience, a feature that might be analogous to someone graduating high school 3 years early. And then jumping straight to grad school.
Like many people living an extreme lifestyle with little pay, having a job that enables enormous freedom is key for healthy workplace relationships. That’s where Toptal comes in. “I like the work Toptal provides and the Toptal clients I’ve had have been some of the most enjoyable to work with,” says Antoine. “Toptal gives me the freedom I need to do what I want.” Antoine certainly doesn’t waste that freedom or workplace relationships health. On top of training gymnasts, this past January, Antoine became the CTO of Interactive Solutions, a company designed to help clients improve their e-commerce, brand, and digital marketing. In recent weeks, Antoine is enjoying a rare moment of relative respite. His team is taking the month of July off to rest and recover after winning the Swedish Championship, and his nights are not scheduled.
“Honestly, I’m going nuts,” he tells us, laughing. “I don’t know what to do with this free time. I’ve got a lot on my plate, and I like it that way. If you gave me a day off, I’d probably go to work anyway. I need to be productive. You know,” he continues, “programming is a job, a hobby and a passion. The same is true for gymnastics. There’s nothing else I want to do.”