24 September 2017

Hafiz Adewuyi

How I became a Software Developer in Nigeria

I feel like most developer stories I come across are about people who have had a passion for computers since from an early age and were fortunate to get into programming in their childhood or teenagehood. My story was not quite like that, so I thought I'd add my voice to the pool and maybe encourage someone out there to reconsider their ineligibility for this career path. I think my story is very far from typical. Here we go.

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It's funny that even though I also got the opportunity to be exposed to computers before 10, you can say I was not curious enough of a kid to want to figure out what made this thing work. Instead, my curiosity led me in a direction that saw me doing other things like:

  • Playing PC games installed off of pirated CDs from computer village, e.g. Total Games 2000 (which had a massive set of tacky but fun 2D games) and Age of Mythology
  • Chatting with random people on Yahoo messenger and other online social websites that pre-date Facebook
  • Trying to understand myself and feelings and address my social anxiety by drowning in a sea of self-help articles

What the heck is programming?

Bolu. He was my friend and coursemate in UNILAG and I don't think I even had a concept of what programming was until that very first discussion on it with him in my first-year room at Shodeinde Hall in UNILAG.

I think I might have asked him what the heck this programming thing he was always on about, was. I remember him trying to explain the concept to me by asking me to think about algorithms in terms of how one would go about instructing someone else to make a cup of tea. Anyway, despite his best efforts, Bolu was unable to get me to understand programming enough to think it was something I should try my hands on right away.

My first encounter with code

While most people say their education in Nigeria was a waste of time, I can't. My Electrical-Electronics Engineering major required me to complete two different introductory courses to programming with C++; one in the second year, the other in the third year.

Each time before second-year when I discussed programming with Bolu, it was always with a dread that was waived with the thought: "we'll cross the bridge when we get to it". The general belief amongst my classmates was that programming was so rocket-sciency that it took Bolu's level of genius to tackle, so I couldn't really be bothered.

Of course, when the second year came around, I was (like 90+ percent of my colleagues) not in the least prepared for the introductory C++ course. To make matters worse, halfway through the semester, even though I attended lectures, I found myself not understanding concepts even as simple as variables and operators. I don't think I was paying much attention, perhaps, because of my defeatist mindset.

A few weeks before the first programming test, I must have gotten into panic mode and beckoned to Bolu my friend to come rescue me. He agreed and he came around to my room in Jaja Hall to walk me through the concept of functions (methods) in C++. I think we chose that concept because despite my best studying efforts, I couldn't grasp the concept and why we even needed them at all. To me, they just existed to make my life harder in the name of sophistication. Of course, I think way differently now.

Luckily for me, Bolu successfully demystified the concept of functions that fateful afternoon and you can say that from that point onwards, my life never remained the same.

Finding my passion for programming

After the session with Bolu on functions, I took it upon myself to write my first function in a practical scenario. The first program I ever started and completed all on my own (if my memory serves me correctly) was a C++ console application to compute a student's semester GPA, given his grade in each course and the weight of each course. While making the program, I created my very own first set of C++ functions and suddenly, it all finally made sense to me.

A programmer in the zone
When you finally understand the language of the computer

The beauty of achieving this milestone was that it not only helped me finally see how functions work. No. It also completely shattered my previously strongly-held defeatist stance towards programming. I finally was able to conceptualize the possibilities ahead if I could get a computer to help me out by writing simple instructions. This realization fired up my curiosity and from that moment on, I spent most of my spare time studying the programming textbook and trying out what I was learning, on my laptop.

Needless to say, I aced my first test and eventually came out tops in the class at semester end, both in the second and third year. Writing those programming exams made me feel exactly like my maths exams in high school used to. And funny enough, the feeling is similar to that which I get when playing addictive games on the PC. I'd say what is common between those two exams was how confident I was in my being able to tackle any question thrown at me and how much I actually enjoy the process of getting thrown a totally new question, reading and digesting it, then going ahead to apply my skills to find a solution. The flame of passion was ignited.

Way before the end of my third year, I had personally completed the C++ programming textbook cover-to-cover. This was the only course in my five years at the university where I had enough motivation and interest in the material to pre-study, let alone, cover an entire textbook way before the exam period. The first and only time my lectures felt like revision sessions.

I was well-renowned by my colleagues as one of the programming dons of the class, perhaps only second to Bolu the one who was born programming. I like to think that this respect formed part of my drive to do so well at it. In fact, I remember one troublesome classmate of mine expressing his contempt for me for being so confident on the day of the third year programming exams as to be studying for another course. Meanwhile, he and most other guys were busy rehearsing code they had crammed, hoping they would have the chance to regurgitate at the exam hall. I really never understood the idea of cramming code but somehow, people were able to make relatively good grades by taking that approach.

During my third year, I also applied my new found skills to create a C++ console application that was pretty challenging for my level. Looking back now, I think doing it might have helped me develop some debugging skills early on. The idea of the program was simple. It could display any number from one (1) to a billion in words. So, if you enter 5467 into the console, it prints out "Five thousand, four hundred and sixty-seven". That was my proudest creation ever and I was always eager to show it off to anyone who cared to listen.

Losing it

This is the saddest part of this article, and it honestly makes me wish I could go back in time. But as there's no need to cry over spilt beans, let's just go ahead to see what happened after what was arguably the best year of my undergraduate life.

The third-year course was the final programming course in my curriculum as an elect-elect student. So, even though I had a passion, I really didn't have anyone push me hard enough to keep developing my skills outside of coursework. Perhaps, I even felt like I had arrived and I wasn't looking for anything that would displace me from my programming throne. Hence, that marked the end of programming in my life as well. The figures-to-words conversion program was the last complete program I wrote as a student of UNILAG.

In my final year, I got a chance to reignite my passion as a participant in the MIT AITI programme. Unfortunately, I could not cope with combining the expectations of my AITI team with my final year coursework. To complete my final year project, I had the huge task of learning to program with C++ QT and I wasn't making good progress with that. I was stuck and was not learned in the science of getting unstuck. This is meant to be easy. I was the programming guru in the third year, why is this so hard for me? Maybe this programming thing is not my thing after all.

This made for a bad state of mind to try and learn yet another language (Java for Android, I think) to deliver on my responsibilities as a member of an AITI startup. After a few weeks into the program, I told my AITI teammates (two of whom went on to found now stellar Prepclass), tail between my legs, that I couldn't do this anymore. After all, in my mind, I was in school first to excel at my coursework before anything else.

I managed to get my final year project to a barely working state before it was time to submit it. But then, after that ordeal, I lost all of my premature love for programming. I hated anything that made me feel incompetent, oblivious of the concept of a learning curve and that it's normal to go through a steep phase to master any skill, even if the basics made you feel like a genius.

A second chance

Before the final semester wound up, Appzone came to UNILAG for a graduate-intern recruitment drive for engineering students. They conducted an aptitude test in which I performed well enough to make it to the interview stage.

The interviews didn't really go well, because as you can probably tell, I really wasn't that much use as a programmer, in terms of productivity. I told them about my brief romance with programming in the second and third years of my studies and how I was the don. However, I was not able to justify why I did not keep programming after those introductory courses ended. I knew that only a miracle would get me into Appzone at this point, considering the number of more experienced programmers (including Bolu) who were also interviewed.

Getting my first job

Towards the end of the final exam period at UNILAG, the first set of successful candidates were made an offer by Appzone. Unsurprisingly, I did not make the list. However, I think there was some speculation that there would be a subsequent list. I was hopeful that if there was any validity to that, my name would fall on the second list.

A few weeks after final exams, I finally got the best call of my life (at the time) from Maryam, a member of the Appzone HR team. She was calling to let me know I was successful; that I had made the second list! A few of my more experienced classmates (including Bolu) who were on the first list had declined the offer. Hence, some room was created which allowed Appzone to accept me and two additional classmates into the paid internship program. What luck!

I resumed at Appzone just one month after finishing my final exams in UNILAG. All intern programmers were required undergo a rigorous and dare I say,  effective training process. First, we were taken through a series of lectures by our experienced colleagues to get us up to speed on the Nigerian banking industry and how Appzone's business fits in there.

Sitting through lectures was the easy part. After the lecture season, each of us (interns) was tasked with single-handedly building two different software projects from the ground up. Each of the projects is a less-sophisticated version of some of the company's existing products. Upon completing both projects, the intern is reasonably expected to have gained enough programming skills and banking domain knowledge to go live (start real work).

During the project period, each intern is attached to an experienced colleague who will be their mentor and first point of call whenever they get stuck. I was attached to Emeka, an elect-elect graduate of UNILAG two years ahead of me. And he made sure I would report my project progress to him, once a day in the least. Without a doubt, this kept me on my toes.

Final thoughts

I don't think I would have been able to overcome the steep learning curve to becoming a market-ready programmer without all the controls and aid put in place at Appzone to help me get there. Big-ups to Appzone for helping me through that delicate stage of my career and giving me a chance to mess up on the job. Heck, for even helping me to 'choose' a career.

Who knows what I'd be doing today if I didn't get that offer by a slim chance. I didn't have any skills and I lacked the drive to develop one on my own. So, I, like most other Nigerian graduates, was ready to settle for the first taker, irrespective of how interested I was in the work. Oh, someone thinks I can be useful at something? Great! Take me whole.

Also, I've changed a lot in the five years since graduating from school. My exposure to the 'real world' has immensely shaped my view of life and I now have a beyond superficial drive to give the best work that I can and be the best me that I can. Every living moment, I'm thinking about how best I can spend my time and resources to improve my chances at being an unarguable success at what I do.

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Anonymous
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25 September 2017 at 18:23 delete

This definitely resonates with me. I also topped both c++ classes then, lost touch by final year but I missed the appzone interview altogether... Though honestly I wasn't very keen on it in the first place. Here I am, attached to the "first (or second) taker" with a lingering nostalgia for that programming thrill. Thanks for sharing.

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25 September 2017 at 21:45 delete

Thanks for sharing too. Just one word; it's not too late and you're not doomed to accept a boring job as your fate :)

Programming also gets boring by the way; just in case I make it sound like it's all fun and games.

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27 September 2017 at 12:38 delete

Bro! Just want to say nice one!, got to know about your blog while searching for "us visit visa blogs" and I've got stuck ever since. Your posts are very details and inspiring. Nice job !

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27 September 2017 at 20:57 delete

Your comment is heartwarming, Adewale. Thanks for taking out the time to let me know how you feel about my blog.

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