• How a Second-Generation Latino Immigrant Became Known as the Boy Genius of Apple

    Michael Sayman on Navigating a Successful Coding Career While Being Pulled Between Identities

    I was 16, in Bolivia to give a talk to 1,500 cheering students. Event organizers were attempting to clear a path to the stage. Hands pulled at my clothes and people stood up and began applauding my entrance as I muscled my way to the stage, wishing I were back in my hotel room, coding. In my peripheral vision, I could see reporters from local and international stations, filming. I tried to block out the thoughts that were crowding my head, one most of all: that I was not made for this. These people were looking for someone who could give them insight and guidance, and I wasn’t sure if I was that person.

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    When I was 13, I’d launched my first app for the iPhone and quickly started earning $10,000 a month from downloads—enough to support my family when our middle-class house of cards (plastic ones provided by Mastercard and Visa) was flattened by the Great Recession. And for that, the Latin American press had dubbed me the Boy Genius of Apple. I was regularly featured in the news and had a huge social media following there. But I was afraid the news was celebrating me prematurely. My once moderately successful app was already declining in sales, and my next step wasn’t clear to me. But that wasn’t what all these kids had come to hear. They’d come to find out how I’d made something out of nothing, with only a computer. I owed it to them to try to explain: I wasn’t a genius; it wasn’t magic. As long as they could get their hands on a computer with Internet access, they could make something from nothing, too.

    On the stage, I launched into a rambling talk about growing up in Miami as the son of Bolivian and Peruvian immigrants. About how I got into coding. I told them how I’d taught myself using YouTube videos and how, since the recession, my apps had been helping my family pay the bills. I assured them that I wasn’t on that stage because I’d changed the world with my products. I was standing up there because, despite all my insecurities and shortcomings, I’d never let my failures stop me from building things that changed my world. Whenever my lack of knowledge or ability brought me to a standstill, I explained, I wouldn’t let myself stay stuck for long. I’d take a breath, then Google my way out of whatever hole I’d dug myself into. “If you want to be a coder,” I told the room, “the Internet will be your best friend, your guide, and your inspiration.”

    As soon as I finished my spiel, the students started peppering me with questions about how to code. “Google Xcode or Eclipse and watch instructional YouTube videos about Java or Objective-C,” I repeated, over and over. And this is just as true today. Coding changes so fast, there are no static resources that can keep up. If you want to learn to code, let the Internet be your guide.

    Eventually, someone from the school called an end to the Q&A, and I was led out of the auditorium. Every few feet, I had to stop to take a selfie. Someone was yelling, “Make a line!” but no one was listening. People pushed and pulled and grabbed at me, and I glanced at my mom, who had accompanied me, helplessly. Back in our hired car, we crawled through traffic as some students followed in cars, rolling down their windows and snapping photos. At the hotel, my mom and I collapsed onto our beds.

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    The next day, I returned to the reality of my life in the United States. No one gave me a second glance at Miami International Airport. I was unsure whether all of it had been a dream. When I thought about my lineage, where my parents came from, and their parents before them, the last few days in Bolivia seemed even more improbable, if not impossible.

    I owed it to them to try to explain: I wasn’t a genius; it wasn’t magic.

    It wasn’t until a number of years after I was born that my parents received their American citizenship. Although this book, including the stories of my family life, is written in English, my parents have only ever spoken to me in Spanish. When my parents immigrated to America, they learned just enough English to hold a basic conversation; to this day, they sometimes struggle to communicate effectively. I still don’t know half the sayings that are common to people who grew up speaking English, because I never heard them at home. There are certain words, like “sequester,” that I only knew how to say in Spanish until recently. And when I stub my toe, the curses come out in Spanish.

    My mother, Maria Cristina Gálvez, was meant to be born in Arequipa, a region of Peru that is mostly dry and mountainous, but my grandmother wanted to have the support of her mother and family when she gave birth, so she flew to Lima, the capital, to be with family. My mother’s father was a general in the Peruvian army, and during that time, a war was raging. As a little girl, my mom and her four brothers would often hear bombs from their bedroom windows, and sometimes my mom had to hide under tables and study by candlelight because the electrical towers had been hit. In spite of the war, my mother remembers her childhood as loving, sheltered, and secure.

    My father grew up in a different world. He was born in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, to a Jewish family. His parents moved the family to Lima when he was three years old; later they separated. His older brother died when he was 21, a tragedy that rocked the family and set the tone for his future life. Having fled Europe during World War II, my dad’s grandparents, both Jewish, had big dreams for their grandson, sending him to Israel to study systems and applied mathematics. But my father rebelled against the discipline demanded by the program. His grandparents threatened to stop supporting him financially if he dropped out, but he did anyway, moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in video editing. He lived in an apartment with several roommates and studied at a trade school. A few years later, he moved to Miami and landed a  job at Telemundo’s headquarters doing production work. My father’s father had rarely been a presence in his life, and his mother, still living in Peru, suffered from depression, so my father—cut off financially by his grandparents—was on his own, living paycheck to paycheck on a temporary work visa.

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    Miami was a hub for Latinos visiting the United States, and my mother traveled there when she was 20 with a group of girlfriends. At a party, my father spotted her from across the room. And that was the beginning of our family.

    My mom returned to Peru and dated my father long-distance for the next three years. She dreamed of being a professional psychologist, but her mother suggested that she get a career or degree in something less demanding. My mom was in love with my dad, so she listened to my grandmother’s advice and got herself a secretarial certificate. But my grandmother did not simply allow my 23-year-old mother to move in with my father. She let my mother know that in order to do so and leave her parents’ home in Peru, she had to get married. So my mom and dad got married. They certainly would have preferred to live together a few years first, but they didn’t have a choice. My parents had a wedding ceremony and settled in Miami. Three years later, on August 24, 1996, I was born. My sister, Mariana, arrived a year after that.

    Spanish wasn’t the predominant language just in my household. It was what most everyone spoke in  Miami, where 70 percent of the population is Latin American. There is no native-born dominant majority in Miami. Restaurant menus and some road signs are written in Spanish; if someone approaches to ask for directions, they’ll immediately start speaking in Spanish; and in many parts of Miami, a visit to the doctor will automatically begin with questions in Spanish.

    In Miami, 70 percent Latin American means class and ethnic divides exist among the Latino population. Anyone can tell where you’re from—Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Cuba—by the kind of Spanish accent you have. The majority of Latinos in Miami are Cuban-American. They began migrating to Miami and building businesses in the 60s, after Fidel Castro came to power in their country. Cubans in Miami tend to have more connections than most non-Cuban families, who tend to be more recent immigrants. If you’re not Cuban in Miami, you’re going to have a tougher time fitting in.

    My entire life, I’ve felt pulled between identities.

    At the small Catholic school I attended from third to fifth grade, all the Cuban parents already knew each other. My parents felt like outsiders around that group. Based on her appearance, my mom could have passed for Cuban, but the moment the other moms heard her speak, they knew the truth. So my parents naturally gravitated toward couples from Colombia, Venezuela, and other South American countries. My sister and I both started speaking fluent English in kindergarten, but we still faced some of the same social barriers as our parents because of our South American background.

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    My entire life, I’ve felt pulled between identities. Am I Jewish or Catholic? My father is a Jew, my mother Catholic, but she converted to Judaism to marry my dad. My mom told me that for years, they debated over which religion we should observe, finally settling on both: my dad got to decide on a Jewish preschool for us, and my mom got to pick our Catholic elementary school.

    Am I Peruvian or Bolivian? When I started to become well known, both countries tried to claim me as their own, though I never felt like I fully identified with just one or the other.

    Am I a real American? My parents aren’t from here, my teachers were Latin American, and my city predominantly spoke Spanish; we were nothing like the typical Americans I grew up watching on TV. Am I a kid or a grown-up? My childhood mostly disappeared when I started supporting my parents as a 13-year-old. But now that I’m in my twenties, I can’t exactly say I’m all that good at what they call “adulting,” either. I blame those famous Silicon Valley perks. In 2014, at the age of 17, I traded my mother’s cooking and laundry services for those offered at Facebook, 3,000 miles away from home. I’d landed an internship, which turned into a six-figure full-time job. After that, instead of going off to college with my peers, I took a full-time job as the company’s youngest-ever engineer.

    Today, at 23, I don’t have to worry about overdraft fees or credit card debt or whether I’ll be able to support my parents if things fall apart for them again. I’m living every tech geek’s fantasy: at Facebook and Google, I’ve led projects for apps used by billions of people, and I’m financially successful beyond my wildest dreams. But that doesn’t stop me from questioning myself, every day.

    Will I one day feel like I made it here on my own merit, or am I just an imposter, getting by in Silicon Valley because I’m good at working the system? At times, the question of who I am and where I fit in is still so overwhelming, I just wish I could disappear. But I’ve come too far to allow that to happen. I didn’t get here on hard work and determination alone, of course. For the first decade of my life, my family lived well—if well beyond our means. I had the security and time and space to play and fantasize about the future. I had family members with the means to help me buy my first iPhone, which became my door to that future.

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    A lot of kids around the world never have that kind of room to dream, let alone access to the technology that will help them build on those dreams. In Bolivia today, only four out of every 100 people have a home Internet subscription, and only about 40 percent of the population accesses the Internet at all. Grown-ups love to ask kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But if those kids aren’t getting their immediate needs met—if they’re hungry or stressed about where they’ll sleep at night—that’s a preposterous question. Who has time to think about what they want to be when they grow up when they’re just trying to survive?

    So that’s why I didn’t tell those Bolivian kids to “dream big” or “reach for the stars.” I told them that if they wanted to code, there was a free education waiting for them on the Internet. Coding is an in-demand skill right now, with some of the most competitive salaries you’ll find. But these aren’t good enough reasons to become a programmer. You have to love this work to be good at it. They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a calling. Since middle school, I’ve probably spent 40 hours a week building websites and making apps—roughly 30,000 hours—and I still don’t consider myself an expert, let alone a master. I’ll always be learning, and that’s what I love about my job. I code because I lose track of time when I’m doing it—I’m never bored. If I were, a lifetime of hours could never make me great.

    How do you start? No joke, just as I told those kids, you start by Googling what you want to know; everything you need to know about building an app or coding is available 100 percent for free on the Internet. While that may sound overly simplistic, I’ve found that it truly is the best way to learn. Any coding book you buy will be outdated by the time you finish it. And while coding boot camps and classes are absolutely great ways to jump-start your skills, they, too, can only teach you the most current coding languages in this ever-changing universe. I’m not exaggerating when I say that as fast as a programmer can learn to code, the coding language is being reinvented. As any engineer will tell you, it’s gotten to the point where we have to leave a Google tab open at all times in order to keep up.

    Which is why I think it’s best to learn how to use Google to teach yourself from the very beginning.

    Coding isn’t a quick way to get rich, but it can be a way to get your start outside of the college-to-workplace pipeline—an alternative path to success beyond your wildest dreams.


    App Kid

    Excerpted from APP KID by Michael Sayman. Copyright © 2021 by Michael Sayman. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

    Michael Sayman
    Michael Sayman
    Teen entrepreneur, programmer, and student MICHAEL SAYMAN created an iOS app development company at thirteen, after teaching himself to code. Since then, he has gone on to create dozens of apps, which have been downloaded more than 3 million times worldwide.

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