S4E19: From Learning to Code on a Phone to Working for an MIT Startup With Elvis Chidera

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Elvis Chidera is a software developer who grew up in a rural part of Nigeria and taught himself how to code on a Nokia phone.

When he was only 11 years old, Elvis became curious about how websites were built and wanted to download games on his Nokia phone. That curiosity led him to coding tutorials, and he began using a simple notepad app to code.

Eventually he was able to save up enough for a laptop and begin freelancing, but before that, he managed to develop microedition apps using only his phone and Java.

Today, at the age of 19, Elvis is an Android developer at dot Learn, an MIT startup that builds educational apps for students in emerging markets like Africa. He has also worked on over 50 apps which collectively have millions of downloads from the Google Play store.

In this episode, listen to Elvis’s story, his experiences programming on a phone, what he’s been doing career-wise, and what the future holds.

This episode was transcribed with the help of an AI transcription tool. Please forgive any typos.

Laurence Bradford 0:06
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Laurence Bradford 1:17
In today's episode, I talk with Elvis Chidera, Android developer at dot Learn. We talked about how he taught himself to code using a Nokia phone, how he got his first freelancing clients and his favorite free tools for learning to code. Just a heads up we had a few connection issues during our interview to the audio quality isn't the best, but always has such an inspiring story. It's definitely worth giving this one a listen, enjoy. Elvis Chidera is a software developer who grew up in a rural part of Nigeria and taught himself how to code on Nokia phone today at the age of 19. He is an Android developer at dot Learn, an MIT startup that builds educational apps for students in emerging markets like Africa. He has also worked on over 50 apps, which collectively have millions of downloads from the Google Play Store.

Laurence Bradford 2:11
Hi, Elvis, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Elvis Chidera 2:14
Yeah, thank you for having me.

Laurence Bradford 2:15
There's so many things I want to get into. But first, you're 19 years old, as I've just said. And I think you're one of the youngest guests that I've had on the show to date. So I'm really excited about that. And with like, your young age in mind, I wanted to know how old were you when you first got introduced to computers or coding and things like that?

Elvis Chidera 2:36
Okay. I started programming when I was 11. That was when I was just curious about how websites are built. So I spent a lot of time online trying to download games and things like that. So one day, I was just like, hmm, how did it How are these magical 10s buttes Are you typing www google.com and just comes up. So I, I started doing some research on Google. And that was basically how I started when I was 11. still in school.

Laurence Bradford 3:09
Awesome. So was that on a computer? Or was that on this Nokia phone that you first learned on?

Elvis Chidera 3:16
Yeah, that was on the Nokia phone. So it's a small feature phone mceachin 690.

Laurence Bradford 3:24
Yeah. Wow. That's like, really, really impressive that with just, you know, a Nokia phone you began googling and learning how to code and how to build websites and things like that. I'm sort of jumping ahead a little bit, because I'm just assuming you learned how to build websites right away. But was that what you learned right away? Like, do you remember what one of the first things you learned was?

Elvis Chidera 3:45
Yeah, I do. So I did start developing websites. So like I said, I was curious about how websites are built. So I did the how the normal thing which is to like Google search, how to be the website. So that brought brought up some tutorials. And the basic thing was that I need to learn an HTML, CSS, then JavaScript. Luckily, those This, this, okay, they study sites called victory schools, which I used to learn HTML, CSS and JavaScript that was still on the phone. So I lent that I was able to get some apps, some some websites using same phone and by moved over to mobile app development.

Laurence Bradford 4:33
Oh, so you were building websites initially on your phone?

Elvis Chidera 4:37
Yes. So I, I built I tried to. So during that time, I watched this social network movie and then I tried to recreate a social network. I thought Bogdan was going to be the Facebook killer. That was one of the big I that was a big project. I worked on bogged into a lot of time trying to build a social network that has this feature that has like back then you couldn't see your friends that were online on Facebook so I did that. And a few other random stuff is added to these sites.

Laurence Bradford 5:19
So I guess without going into like tons of detail if it's possible Could you explain how someone can build a website on their phone? Like I honestly have no idea how to even go about that I'm just really interested because I have spoken to a few people in the past who have done a lot like from their mobile phone as far as like learning how to code and building things but yeah, like I'm sure there's other listeners like myself who wouldn't even know like where to begin if they were trying to build a website using their phone.

Elvis Chidera 5:51
So what did back then was to use the site used those this when, when working with HTML CSS, unlike compiled languages, I just need this in notes in Notepad up. So I did look for a notepad up on the phone, tolerate it have any have syntax highlighting those other fancy features, but just has it had line numbers. So I will type in the HTML code there. So after writing everything I was able to I was able to test test the files locally soon after I'm done, I just save it to my phone and then you try to use a browser to load them up. But for the PHP part, I just end up after writing. So it's impossible for me to run it on your phone back then. So all you have to do is to upload to your server and then test if anything doesn't work. You just have to go back on revert. So it was it was very very variable but I like there are certain times when is since there is not this digital ID you type in you sometimes you mix mix things like semicolons, some other random stuff, and you end up pushing the server several times before you actually get something that's working. So it's a really, really terrible and very difficult for me, but I was, I think one of the reasons that didn't matter to me, because I really enjoyed programming.

Laurence Bradford 7:27
Wow, that's, that's amazing. So it sounds like at least with the HTML and the CSS, and the JavaScript, you were able to save those files locally, using like a notepad app on your phone, and then just open them in the browser. But then there are more steps involved when you're trying to do like PHP on your phone. You had to upload that then to a server.

Elvis Chidera 7:49
Yes. So you have to, there's no localhost or there's no so like, I don't think there's any app to do that. So you have to go upload to your back end or use all of this online id on.com. So that was basically for when I just saw like lights PHP script, I could just easily go there to check if it's compiled before pushing it to the server. Yeah.

Laurence Bradford 8:16
Wow. Well, that is I mean, that's amazing that that's how you began learning you were only 11 years old, and you're able to like figure this out on your own.

Elvis Chidera 8:23
Yes. So I, I grew up. I was, I was curious about have, I spent a lot of time I spend a lot of time trying to lend us. So it was a, it takes around one to two for me to get to a comfortable state and say, Okay, I can do these things. And so it was very difficult, but I just had to spend several months learning how to do something like that. Yeah.

Laurence Bradford 8:57
Awesome. Well, kudos to you because I can't Can't imagine at least myself as an 11 year old being able to stick being able to stay focused on like that for so long. I feel like I was kind of all over the place when I when I was younger. But yeah, it's really great. So, okay, so you were 11 years old, you began learning how to build websites. You were doing this on your phone. And then of course, today, what you're primarily doing is Android development. So what was like the bridge between building these websites on your phone and then getting into Android app development, like kind of what led you from like one to the to the next thing?

Elvis Chidera 9:35
Okay, so after working on websites, I also went on to develop Java, that j to me ups does up. Normally, the Java Standard Edition is called Java micro edition does for these smaller phones. So I was able to do that also with my phone. So luckily, those developer that's developed. Let me set as the For four to build Java apps using your phone, so it was just it was free for I can remember hi good. I was able to get to the software but I was able to download it on my phone and then I started learning Java. So I was I was also I was able to build some apps using my phone. I worked on an app called SMS means messenger. So it allowed people to send group messages to at a very, very reduced rate compared to the normal ticket you get from the telcos. So I worked on that after I was able to finally get a laptop by this switch to Andre because it was obviously the next thing j to me. It was it's kind of a dead end. That's still some people using it but it's not under those the next 10 or so. is plenty Android 200 and j to me a boots on use the Java language So it was very easy for me to switch from JSON me to Andre bass on API. Francis. I know that book is just Java. So I just quickly moved on right after getting my first laptop. Yeah.

Laurence Bradford 11:12
Awesome. So during this time, okay, so you started when you were 11. I'm imagining, you know, you're getting older. Were you in middle school or high school, or I don't know, like how the education system works in Nigeria, but I'm imagining you were in school this entire time.

Laurence Bradford 11:29
Yes, I was. So it's not good. Middle School. I'll say okay, is this Junior secondary and Senior Secondary, I think is if up to Willits seniors are going to be like, I think High High School nine to 12 or something. But I was in junior, we should be like, I don't really know. Pete voice this quite different times. used to watch that. Called by, I think.

Laurence Bradford 12:02
Yeah, yeah. So when you were in school and you were doing all this did other kids like, does your classmates know what you were doing? Like outside of school? Did your teachers know? Did your parents know? Or was this kind of something you were doing? Like very isolated? Or were you doing it with other people or in school? Or I don't know with your friends or parents or what have you?

Elvis Chidera 12:24
Yes, I started with two friends. Unfortunately, they could with the struggle of programming on their phones. So they left me alone. I my parents, Yahweh might turn here to Charles via web but it was basically just a solo journey because I don't think there's anybody that could keep up with that much. Say it's like programming this difficult I just have this Allah difficulties you still have to do because you don't have you love to. Yeah.

Laurence Bradford 12:56
yeah. Okay. So you were doing this all by yourself, which is even you No more impressive, in my opinion that you were you know, at this young age and you're in, you're going at this alone, how did you, like stay motivated to keep continuing and to keep learning more? And, you know, when you were done learning how to build websites to then learn Android development, what was motivating you this whole time?

Elvis Chidera 13:19
Oh, okay. I don't, I would say, um, so I just have this. I don't know, I just have this thing that I want to do something and even if it's going to take me two years to do it, I'm going to do so I just, I just feel when I when I have son, when I say I'm going to the zone tonight, find a way to do it, no matter how long it takes me. So that was the same. I think that was the same belief I applied there. So despite all the challenges, I knew that I'm okay. I'm going to be able to beat the end of the day. I just had this hope and believe it Uh oh, I don't really know the source.

Laurence Bradford 14:03
All right, so you then got a laptop, which is awesome. And that was probably like what was it like getting moving from working on your phone to then building on your laptop?

Elvis Chidera 14:13
It is also a totally different experience. So I was programming on my phone for several years, I think for like 3-4 years until I was finally able to raise money to get a laptop. So it was just totally different. That's right, I had I had, I didn't have much experience of writing computers because I only have limited exposure to them. Those are cyber cops, any have any personnel or anyone around me. I didn't I didn't get to use but when I got it, so just a lot of the challenges or all the manual work or the difficult acts, I was just able to easily run I could on my laptop administers XAMPP or something to the running local server you see, into push to resolve everything to check if something's not working, something's working. something's not working. So I was able to simplify my, my programming process for me.

Laurence Bradford 15:18
Wow. Yeah, that's amazing. I can only imagine going from from one to the other. It must be like a night, night and day night. Yeah. So one of the stats that I mentioned the beginning is that you have 50 apps in the Google Play Store, which is a ton for especially for being 19 years old. So were these all apps you built on your own? Or were some of these kind of like a group project or you did them with other people?

Elvis Chidera 15:48
Yes. I worked on about I, I worked on about Betsy, that's something but what I say go just group projects. So I spent a lot of time freelancing that was for like two years or so. So I was literally like a gun for hire Android app available to help you just build it. So I worked with several people and help them to lunch get up and play. So that was I was able to get down on by So, yeah.

Laurence Bradford 16:24
oh, okay. I didn't even realize you were freelancing and building Android apps for for clients. That's really awesome. So what how old were you when you started doing that? Um, I was. I was 16. Wow. And were you using a website like Upwork or something like that to find clients?

Elvis Chidera 16:44
No, it was difficult for me to get. I think by being chosen code or blog. It was still Elance and oDesk, before image to form Upwork but it's just difficult to get clients on board gets any freelance job on this website because so there's the code stats problem. So if you come on this platform you need, you need ratings for people to actually give you a job both ways to get our ratings. You also need a job boards, no one. Most people almost like no given. People won't give you a job if you don't have read and it'll just kind of dissect. So I ended up just looking for clients are on the interior. So one thing I did was to just try to release a new app like every week and then showcase it to people around say, hey, got that builds. Over time. I started getting clients from Nigeria, and then when they work on their projects, their family to other people, and also, I got my hands filled up boots on projects. Yeah.

Laurence Bradford 17:51
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Laurence Bradford 19:49
Okay, that's awesome. So you pretty much got clients through word of mouth. So you made you said you're making like one app a week or something and you're like showcasing to other folks. And then they were hiring you for their projects. And then when you were done, they would maybe refer you to someone else. And then you ended up it was kind of like, um, yeah, you just, you just were able to like land more and more clients through this like machine that you had that was kind of like serving itself, and they would refer you and you get more and dented. So that's really cool. So how long were you freelancing for?

Elvis Chidera 20:24
Um, I was doing that to two years. I started to 15. And then I stopped to 17 when I got a full time job.

Laurence Bradford 20:40
Got it. So okay, you were doing that for two years. And I want to ask this question before, but I think it slipped my mind when you were learning. Specifically Android development. What were you learning it most of it like on your own? I'm going to just assume the answer is yes, because it doesn't sound like you were learning that academically like in school but when you were learning Android development was most of it through like trial and error or were you also doing like courses or books and learning from like materials like that?

Elvis Chidera 21:12
Oh, I was learning from tutorials and courses so so I used with SCT they had some free Android they have some free Android courses and then I also other tutorials online on there a few books that you just learned to practice try to do something using what's your wavelength and then go back limb or implement so that was basically it. I prefer to learn by doing rather than just reading one book. In one go, I prefer to read practice, we practice something like that. So that was how I learnt how to get Andre dubs. Yeah.

Laurence Bradford 21:58
Okay, nice. So okay, so So you were freelancing for two years you were getting these clients through word of mouth and recommendations and you built, you ended up building like 50 apps or over 50 apps for the Google Play Store. And you stopped freelancing when you got your full time job, right? Yes. Okay. And that is where you work today dot Learn?

Elvis Chidera 22:23
No, that was a different. I had this client I worked with and he was impressed what I did. So I will stand in a different in a different part of Nigeria and he will stay in Legos. Legos is like this. Let me say it's the San Francisco of Nigeria. So is where all the tech stuff happens. All the big tech companies are here under the conga, Andrew s. So he invited just we have this kind of see you, you from what you've done. You're a good face. Come on. It was it was only Saturday. I can't remember. Like, we need you by Monday and I just had to book flights. And it was it was just it was. It was unexpected. So we just finished this project and he just didn't move off with that.

Laurence Bradford 23:19
So you ended up doing work for this client, and then he wanted to hire you full time. So did you so you move. Did you Sorry, you cut out a bit during but did you move to Legos? Or was that were you already living?

Elvis Chidera 23:32
No, I was staying in Puerto Rico. Let's say I had to move over to Legos. And yeah, so what we're working on at the previous place was so I we're creating educational content is code was it off? So create educational content for children. I was helping them to build apps for that before I moved over to Dr.

Laurence Bradford 24:00
Got it. So, okay, so you relocated you began working at this company. And now you don't work there any longer you work at DOT learn which is an MIT startup Could you explain a bit about dot learn and what they do and also could you explain how you ended up getting introduced to dot learn and started working there?

Elvis Chidera 24:23
Okay so I was going through my newsfeed I saw a job advert, so I decided to apply a while debating whether I was qualified or not. I applied and eventually eventually got in and so basically dot land we what we're trying to do is to make online education accessible and affordable to people in the metro market. So unlike developed word, internet is still not as fast or as cheap. So tastes like candy. akademie, Buda city all these online resources that people could learn and develop self, they don't have access to that because either they are too slow or the internet is expensive. So what we are trying to do is to make the size of these videos smaller so people can easily just do those videos for the cost of sending a single text message.

Laurence Bradford 25:26
Okay, cool. And how did you first get, like introduced that come? Oh, I'm sorry. You said you saw something and Facebook Like a job advertisement? Yes. Okay. So you saw it on like your Facebook newsfeed and you applied and you got the job right away or how did that happen?

Elvis Chidera 25:43
Oh, I didn't so it was so it was in a Facebook group. So is a tech group for people in Nigeria. So, so the post plied that it took a few weeks, we will Went through the coding interview to be working on it, to give me a text to do a project to work on. And then we went over to the Skype interview. And after that, I just checked my mail and I saw the the new success email. So I think it took about three to from the mistake and it's been almost last year so.

Laurence Bradford 26:27
Yeah, awesome. And you've been there now for over a year or about a year.

Elvis Chidera 26:33
Yay, two months.

Laurence Bradford 26:34
Awesome. Well, that's great. So what does your typical day look like now?

Elvis Chidera 26:39
I just feel so good to walk, walk on stuff at the office and then come back. I actually say I have a very boring very boring, so I just thought so after okay. Also, just the I'd write tutorials or program or learn about one new thing or something like that. So you just basically just the usual beat codes, though.

Laurence Bradford 27:11
Yeah, yeah. But that's really, I mean, it's amazing that you started when you were, you know, 11 years old. And now you're 19. So you've been doing programming for eight years? And how about how long have you been doing Android development specifically?

Elvis Chidera 27:26
Um, I will say, I've been doing Android for four years, but professionally, I will say, that was I started when I started, it wasn't just a hobby or something. So I wasn't. I stay at school to do it and all that so I did start the professional league. I was I have close to 15. Austria.

Laurence Bradford 27:52
So you're, you know, you're It's, um, still blows me away that you're, you know, 19 years old. You have like the world in front of you and Tons of, you know, your entire 20s 30s 40s 50s right in front of you. What are you? What are your plans for the future? Like, do you see yourself continuing with Android development? Or is there maybe another like area you'd like to explore?

Elvis Chidera 28:15
Okay, I there are several areas I'd like to explore Sometimes I wish I wish I could just split myself into trade and walk on differently. So I, I am taking a course on AI machine learning and all this cool stuff that just happened to be the trending stuff around so I am I actually have some hardware experience to serve folks with Arduinos and all that. So I, I am so moved into the IoT team. So I, I have, I have several things I would love to do if I had much more time but currently I apart from Andre, actually learning Some back end stock developer. So I'm learning the main stock. And the thing is called main stock dust. We've done our wait for react. So I am learning, just trying to learn as much as I can. But there's just several things to keep up with. I also intend going back to school this year, and hopefully I get into hopefully I get into university this year because that's what my, I think my number one plan for this is to get into school and study computer science. I am fascinated about not just the the theoretical aspect of does computer science. So I think I believe going to college will be will be beneficial for me than just being just just a programmer. I also want to become So scientists, so yeah.

Laurence Bradford 30:01
Wow. So yeah, you didn't that I didn't even ask that but you haven't even gone to university. Obviously you're saying it's one of your big plans for the future. That's really awesome. So are you planning on staying in Nigeria?

Elvis Chidera 30:15
Um, we are going to be back. Well, I did. So I'll be sending I have some schools in mind out South right in a couple of exams this coming months have the third sat right on it. So the exam so I, I know studying abroad, and then coming back. Oh, what's the danger? Yeah.

Laurence Bradford 30:40
So sorry, the two tests you said did you say the the TOEFL that like for English, right? Yes. And then the essay t like, you mean essay. ts? Yes. Okay. Okay. Yes, that's very popular in the United States. Like all high school kids before going to college will take the LSAT. Anyhow, okay. That's the It's really it's really awesome. So how long have you not been in school for then? Like, how long have you not been? And I know you don't call it high school, Nigeria, but secondary school or whatever you call it.

Elvis Chidera 31:11
Yeah, I miss from. I graduated those 2015. Middle of 2015. June.

Laurence Bradford 31:17
Oh, wow. So you haven't been in school for a few years?

Elvis Chidera 31:21
I was with SCT.

Laurence Bradford 31:23
So wait, so you haven't been in school and for a few years, okay, so I didn't, I didn't connect all those dots. And you've just been working and now you're attempting to go back to college, like next year or something? Okay, that's really cool. So you just mentioned Udacity and treehouse, where are there any other recommendations for places to learn that that you use that you thought were really helpful?

Elvis Chidera 31:45
Okay, I think top top of the list to be with Udacity. There's lots of really good content on a few of them are a good number of them are free. And then if you're interested, which I'm using to learn JavaScript, Some, a script on some other web stuff. And then I think best good cut me that's also so they have several free free courses is very interactive using it so just practice what you what you've learnt immediately. So I think the tree on the top three on my list.

Laurence Bradford 32:26
Okay, awesome. So to repeat those were Udacity,

Elvis Chidera 32:29
Free Code Camp and Code Academy.

Laurence Bradford 32:32
Okay Udacity, Free Code Camp, Code Academy. Awesome. I think most of the listeners are already familiar with those but we'll definitely include links to the show notes. Well, thank you so much Elvis for for coming on the show and sharing how you got started and Android development and your plans for the future. It was really great talking with you. Lastly, where can people find you online?

Elvis Chidera 32:54
Okay, my sound is Elvisnchidera. So that's Elvis and n then Chidera. C-H-I-D-E-R-A. Also on Facebook. That's Elvis.chideraq. Elvis dot C-H-I-D-E-R-A. And on Medium same thing at Elvis Chidera. Yeah.

Laurence Bradford 33:18
Great. Well, thank you so much for coming on.

Elvis Chidera 33:21
Thank you for having me.

Laurence Bradford 33:27
Thanks for listening today. If you enjoyed this episode and are interested in learning how to code, there's no better way to start than by learning HTML. I put together an introductory cheat sheet that you may like to use if you're learning HTML, it covers HTML tags and how they're used. Proper html5 layout structure, aka the right way to set up your HTML files. A list of outdated HTML tags you don't need to use anymore and lots more. If it sounds like something that could be useful to you download your free copy at learntocodewith.me/HTML. It was great to have you with me on the Learn to Code With Me podcast today. I'll see you next time.

Key takeaways:

  • Anyone can learn to code, even if they feel like they don’t have the “right” technology or can’t afford it. It might take more hard work and creativity, but anything is possible if you’re determined–even if you’re learning to code on a phone.
  • Never feel like you’re too young to start pursuing your dreams or going after the job you want. Show people what you can do and why they should take you seriously.
  • You can start freelancing even if it’s early in your coding journey. Take small projects and let that motivate you to solve challenges they present. Use those gigs as learning experiences and sources of side income.
  • Once you’ve “made it,” try using your skills to help others in your situation avoid some of the frustrations you faced.

Links and mentions from the episode:

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