So, why don’t we start from the beginning? Tell me a little bit about your early years and where you come from.
Early years, I grew up in Africa. Nigeria, to be specific. I mainly grew up in the city, but it’s not like any traditional American cities as you see here. It’s definitely a lot more chaotic and not organized at all. Early years, maybe early memories, I guess, I remember every holiday, especially Christmas. We would go back to the village. Everyone would go back to the village. You would convene, spend time with your immediate and your extended family. And the village is exactly that. It is communities in the middle of the forest [laughter]. And that was fun. What else did you ask? [laughter]
What was your family like? What did your family expect of you? What did you think you were going to be as a little kid? All of that.
My family’s super religious. God first. Whenever my dad or mom gives me advice it’s: “Did you pray?” I grew up in a very religion-oriented family. Sometime between the age of 8 and 12, I kind of drifted away from them. Where I am now, I cannot easily drift in back in to it. I’m in some kind of weird state.
But expectations were you always have to go to college. That’s expected of all Nigerian kids who have the opportunity to come to the States. My dad wanted me to be an engineer of some kind, or a doctor—you know, all these stereotypical things African parents expect of their kids. For the most part, throughout middle school, I was going to community college, taking engineering classes, robotics classes. I took a bunch of AP courses. I was preparing myself to be an engineer. And then 2009 happens. I’m taking AP Gov, I have an A plus. Obama’s big. I’m like, “Yo, he’s half black—kinda black. I can do something.” [laughs] And I was like, “You know, Dad, I know you want me to be an engineer, but I’m just going to do political science.” He was like, “You’re going to regret that decision. Why are you doing this? Just do mechanical engineering.”
But Obama. I got to UCSB, did poli-sci there for a fun four years. And you know, poli-sci for the most part, it’s absolutely useless. I don’t recommend that anyone learn it unless you’re doing political philosophy, then it’s pretty exciting. But anything else is just your own opinion, that’s basically it. You read other people’s opinion, then you read another person’s opinion, then you synthesize it and you create your own opinion. And that’s literally all poli-sci was.
I left to go study abroad for junior year and went to Lyon, France, and it was an amazing year. I learned so much about myself—about my emotional range, just about the kind of life I wanted to live, and the kind of people I want to have around me. I learned, speaking of emotional range, I learned to love, like truly love, and that was great. [laughter] I came back, kind of had a reverse cultural shock, kind of hated everything around me because it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to live. I was living in Isla Vista.
It’s basically a one mile by one-mile cesspool of kids between the age of 18 and 24—and there’s like 30,000 kids there and they’re just packed on top of each other and it’s just mayhem. It is just complete mayhem. It’s fun, it’s great [laughter]. It could be overwhelming and people spin out of control sometimes, but I definitely recommend it if you’re between the age of 18 and 22 [laughter]. However, It wasn’t the world that I wanted to live in. I ended up after college staying an extra year in Santa Barbara, the city. I grew complacent. It was fun. There was beautiful people everywhere. I was young and I was in a city full of young people. Rent in Santa Barbara’s pretty expensive, but my rent was not. I was paying $475 a month. The job I was working allowed me to party and what not, but I became complacent. I felt like I was a knife slowly eroding away. I wasn’t as effective as I could have been, so I decided to leave.
I came up here. I got a job at Yelp—actually EAT24, as they were transitioning to be acquired by Yelp—as a salesman. I was doing sales for them. Hated it. Absolutely hated it. I couldn’t come to work. I skipped many days of work because just the thought of going to work set my stress levels skyrocketing, spiking. I would come into work and have just knots. Knots, like on my back. I was looking for a window to jump out of as soon as possible. As soon as a window presented itself, I was looking to jump out of it. Not an actual physical window — a figurative window [laughter].
A figurative window.
A good friend of mine, Beso, who also went to UCSB with me, presented me with that window. He said, “Yo, I’m working Squaretrade. Come through. We just had a member switch teams so we have an opening.” I applied. Got it.
SquareTrade was where I decided to take control of my life—mainly because it was scary how perfect it was. I was doing sales, earning good money to live. But half of the time I wasn’t actually working because it was inbound sales. I would wait for someone—a call—I’d close them, and then that was it. I had an option to watch YouTube videos, as my coworkers liked doing.
By the way, one of the reasons I came up here was to join tech. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do in tech. I just knew I wanted to work in a tech company. I’d seen engineers. And I thought, “Maybe I should return to that engineering mindset that I know that I’m capable of doing.” I remember a couple of the robotics classes. We actually programmed the machines. We didn’t write the actual code, but we used an abstraction of the code to program.
But anyways, so half the time I was working, the other half of the time I didn’t have anything to do, so I’m like, “Okay, let me learn some Ruby.” I learned some ruby because it was supposed to be the easiest thing to learn. And then I learned some Python. Then I told myself that every single week I would at least go once or twice to a meet up. These meet ups always had food and alcohol, so it kind of reinforced me to keep coming. There’s always going to be food and alcohol— save like 30 bucks a week on that.
I went to this ping pong tournament at MakerSquare and they say, “Just come through and see it.” And I just—I loved the people. They were super nice. And they were like me. They were just nerds, and I was like, “Oh, you guys get it.”
The highlight of the night was—I forgot her name—but this girl, she was going around just asking questions. Asking brain teasers to people. The scene was judging people’s responses to the brain teasers, getting questions and getting answers and comparing to others. I just felt at home there, so I applied. Didn’t get in the first time. I applied again. Didn’t get in the second time. Then I was like, “I guess this is not for me.”
The program finished mid-October, and then I went through the six weeks process of applying. I applied with Uber, Apple, etc. But Earnest was the company where I felt most at home. I walked in and my first reaction was “Yo, this is sick. You guys are amazing people. You guys actually care about the person.” Then they were like, “Okay this is a person that we want in the company. Yeah, he might not be as technically savvy as this other person. But that other person just doesn’t know—he’s not a cultural fit, you know.” And I felt like it was a cultural fit and they felt it was as well.
We met in the middle and agreed for my company, which is myself. to join their company. Ever since then, it’s been groovy. I think I could consider myself now no longer a beginner engineer but somewhere in between beginner and intermediate. In two months I’ve learned just that much more. I’m just a lot more confident in my skills. I can actually troubleshoot something, get it done, and not feel like what I produce wasn’t sufficient. For one, I don’t release anything until I am sure it’s good. And two, I’m confident anyone else who looks at my code would assess it and give me recommendations on how to make it better. So each iteration is that much better than the last. I feel like the answer went beyond the scope of the question. [chuckles]
You’re doing perfect. What is it about your work that super exciting and activating to you? What little bits and pieces of it are your favorite?
What’s most exciting is that it’s all about little tiny puzzles. Puzzles are everything. I love puzzles. I do them on a daily basis. These are little tiny puzzles that you need to solve and once you do that, you unlock the path to the bigger puzzle. You cannot proceed until you have figured out all these little tiny parts. Given that I’m a very detail-oriented person, and generally lack the overall skill to see the big picture, I have this sense of, “Okay, I’m going through this and inspect every single line.” It’s super fun to know that one, I’m going to find it eventually, and two, when I do find it, I know that my other teammates would appreciate that I found the solution. It builds their confidence in me as an engineer. That motivates me to keep going.
Not only that, but given that I’m in a position where I do not believe that I am the best engineer in my team, it is absolutely amazing to have people who are much better than I, and have me try to catch up to them. I’m like, “So, yeah, you’re much better than I am. But given that I’m starting at a lower level, any advancement I make, for me, seems a lot bigger than it is for you. You just taught me this little thing you’ve known for months. With me, that’s like a difference between saving a whole day’s work or getting this done right now. Growth. I’m in an environment where I’m literally paid to learn and sometimes also to produce work, but mainly to learn. That’s what’s most exciting, because I’ve not ever been in this position before. In college, I was paying to learn very weak skills and now I’m being paid to learn very technical skills, which is great.
That’s amazing. Yeah. You can appreciate real learning so much once you find it.
Yeah. I feel the same way about college. It’s was pretty useless to me. [laughter] It makes you appreciate real learning. Let’s go deeper into some of the struggles and the roadblocks that you faced, getting to this point.
I was my biggest road block, mainly because first, I should have listened to my father, who was trying to give me very good advice. I don’t regret my decision, because it allowed my life to turn out in a way that was for the best. Just not truly investing in myself is another struggle. I set out goals, and I strive to achieve them, but I don’t do it in the way that it’s like, “Okay, you have to really, truly commit to this. If you would really, truly commit to this, you have a much better result.” I half-assed things sometimes, so in that sense, I am my own biggest road block.
Also, the fact that we live in America, and America is all about competition. Given my current skill sets, I psych myself out all the time. “These guys are way better than me. I can’t compete with them.” I guess, in that sense, again, I was my own biggest road block. Other than that, I don’t think I’ve faced the kind of road blocks that certain people in this society have faced, especially other minorities — minorities that are born and raised here, and have generations of family here. I come from an African mindset. How my people view the world is: you have yourself, and you cannot blame anything on anyone else. You are the one that’s controlling your path, to a certain extent, other than God. God has created you and has given me these skills. Now use them, to make something of yourself. It’s not going to be easy.
What do you think are your biggest motivators? What do you think drives you?
Truthfully speaking, there’s two main motivators that come to mind right now, not in any particular order. One is that, I have a little brother. I grew up with only sisters for 13 years. I only had sisters. I was actually pretty mad when my youngest sister was a girl. I was like, “Where’s my brother, mommy? You told me it was going to be a boy.” But I love her. She’s my favorite sister.
But then when my little brother was born, it was amazing. He is a lot more intelligent than I am at his age. He is motivated. He internally motivates himself and he just seeks out knowledge. I know his potential and I want to be in a position in the next two years to help him achieve that potential. My youngest sister—she’s going to be in college by then, and my parents are pretty old. So I want to take that burden off their shoulders and then he’ll be under my stewardship or my house or whatever. I don’t know what the term is. But that’s one of my biggest motivators.
Another one is: I love tech, and I love being an engineer. But me as an engineer—I see that as a stepping stone to something else. When I was studying abroad in Lyon, I was at a lycée professionnel. It’s a system that you have never seen before. These kids go in at age of 12 and come out at the age of 24 learning just one skill. They learn to be very technical, like carpenters, welders—all these different professional skills that our society needs to be industrial.
So I was working in their CIEL. It was like the language accelerator program and I was helping the kids who weren’t so well-versed in English, trying to speak to them in English, trying to get their levels up. I love being in education, but I’m not very good at it. My English level is poor. There are people who have good control over this language, and you’re like, “Wow. How did you just construct that sentence?” But I love education, and when I came back, I started working for UCSB mentoring and tutoring kids, underprivileged kids, in Santa Barbara. After that, I was working at EF International, because I was like “Oh, I’m set on education. I want to do this.”
It ended up being that education doesn’t really pay much, and it was kind of hard to try to live, pay off student loans, save. It was not possible. But what I want to do is return to education. Not only that, but return back to my home country of Nigeria, because right now, the tech boom is happening, but it’s still pretty slow. It’s not as fast as is happening in Austin or in San Francisco. But I want to start a school. Not a school, an academy. A coding academy for kids there, because I believe that you can solve so many problems with technology. That’s why technology is there. It’s to help make things more efficient to help solve problems. There are bright minds there who have enough aptitude to learn how to program. I want to provide a platform that actually helps them with that. Those are my two biggest motivators: help my brothers, and education in the future.
How do your friends and family from home feel about how far you’ve come?
I definitely think that my parents are very proud of me. There were those two years out of college they were calling me every day worrying, “What are you doing? Do you have enough food? Are you okay?”. But now they call me less because they think I’m okay, and they know I’m okay. They believe I’m okay, which is good. My older sister has been my champion; I wouldn’t be here if she wasn’t that motivating voice that bailed me out of a lot of situations emotionally, financially. She is extremely proud of me. I love that.
But for the most part—outside of my immediate family—no one in my extended family know that I’m an engineer. They knew that I was going to school for it, but they don’t know if I have a job and am working. I kind of want it to do be that way for now. But my friends, they’re like, “Cool, you’re an engineer, but in San Francisco, everyone is in tech doing engineering or something.” They’re like, “It’s cool.” They’re not ecstatic.
Overall, I think I’m most proud of myself because I set out a goal, which for a really long time I didn’t think it could have been meant to be conceived. Then I set out the steps I needed to achieve those goals. Those were the things I could have controlled, and I made sure that I did them. But then there were just other things that I couldn’t control. By luck, they found a place. There’s nothing else I can attribute it to. I could not have done anything to influence those things. It just happened to work out, and now I’m here and I’m happy because I can only move forward from here. I’ve already only hit rock bottom and this is me building this ladder to get out of rock bottom.
Do you have any family in the states right now?
Yeah. All of my immediate family is in the states.
My three sisters, my brothers and my parents.
Nice. When did that move happen?
In ’99. I came here with my two sisters my dad, my mom, my parents. My younger sister and brother were both born here. They’re “American.”
That’s cool that you have them around. Do you have other support networks in San Francisco?
Yeah. I have a large group of friends. I wouldn’t necessarily say a large group of friends in San Francisco. I think I have a large enough group of friends and a good amount of people that I really like. Jason is one of the best human beings I know. He is just an amazing person, like a brother from another mother. I have a lot of college friends up here and also a good amount of my best friends from high school are actually in the Bay Area. There’s only one or two missing. Three out of the five are here. I am very close with my housemates. I have a large support group here and I’m always looking to expand it out. I’ve made some cool friends in city that I’ve met here as well, so it’s been good. It’s really been good.
Do you still go to meetups?
I don’t, because I don’t have time. [laughter] I don’t have time anymore. But I would love to. Only thing is literally I work—not necessarily odd hours. It’s not set. I come in when I want. I leave when I want. It all depends on how much work I get done. After that, I go to the gym. I started going to a gym because I want to treat my body as a temple, as a company. If you want to have an efficient company, it has to be working on all cylinders—so you need to be healthy physically, mentally, and obviously also financially, so that you don’t have that stress.
Yeah. It’s different priorities.
Yeah, different priorities right now, but that doesn’t mean that those will not change. I want to first build up a foundation and then start lifting. Lift as you climb, that is the only way you can do it. So many people have lifted me, who am I not do the same as I climb? I think I have done a fair amount of lifting as well. I’ve definitely helped people. People would’ve definitely helped me [chuckles].
How do you feel about the state of tech? Like Silicon Valley in 2016. What excites you? What frustrates you?
How do I feel about the state of tech in 2016? I’ll answer it in many different forms or as multiple forms. The state of tech currently is anxiety. We’re not completely out of this recession and global markets are not doing well at all. So overall market confidence is low and because of that, a lot of tech companies are tightening their belt.
You might have seen what happened to Tableau, Twitter, Indeed. Given that, I can definitely see how people can be anxious about their position right now. They’re wary of what is going to happen, if their jobs are still safe. Whether this company that I just bought into is actually going to succeed. You buy into their ideology. But you believe, “Okay, this ideology is going to elevate me from my current position in two to three years from now.”
The anxiety I think is misplaced. If you are in tech, you got there either through luck, which I don’t think anyone did, or either through a lot of trial and trepidation. You struggled and hustled to get where you are. Even if you do lose your job, you have a skill and you will bounce back. That kind of lowers my personal anxiety. I’ve already made it once. Even if I do lose this, I can always find it again.
On other fronts, I do see how this surge of young amazing talent is changing the dynamics of the city. It is displacing people who have lived here historically for generations. In essence, it sucks. It sucks for them. It sucks because the people who are in tech recognize this but they still come here. This is the price you will have to pay for me to achieve my goal. I’m going to run you over in order to get to where I need to go.
It’s a very American thing. You look out for your personal interests first, but it shouldn’t be that way. We should ideally live in a society that allows the people who are less fortunate to not be displaced while still inviting the best to the city. I guess there are a lot of rent controlled buildings. There’s “projects” that are sponsored by the government. But for the people that don’t qualify for projects—nor can they actually afford these rent control homes—they’re kind of shit out of luck in the sense that they have to move out of the city, move to north of Marin or Oakland or South City.
Truthfully speaking, I did not want to be one of those people to displace someone. I wanted to live in Oakland where everyone lives in homes and whatnot. It’s just overall nicer dynamics for me. But I love where I live. I live literally a 15 minute walk from work. And I didn’t think I’d displaced someone. It was an empty apartment, and I moved into it.
Macro, it’s good. Overall, I think it’s bringing an actual good to this city, and actual good to the world. When you have people together working towards a goal, whether or not they fail, they’re at least bound together to try to achieve something. And if you do succeed, you would have affected the world, hopefully. Because I believe tech wants to have a positive impact on the world, except for Uber. [chuckles] Hopefully you will have achieved that good that you want to do in the world.
Earnest wants to help students who are indebted by the system. It wants to help them save money—obviously, still pay it off, but at a much lower interest. I feel like tech wants to do that. Tech wants to make some good, but at the same time, make a profit because it is a business. As long as you have these people who have this certain mindset, it’s always going to result 51% in some good. Maybe 49% of the time it’s not. But I’d rather take that 2% difference in possible good than not, if that makes any sense.
How do you think your background—where you’re from, how you grew up, and the life experiences that you’ve had—impact the way that you approach your work?
I work on the data team, and the team is divided between the engineers, the scientists and the analysts. Engineers mold and move the data. Scientists interpret the data and build models off of it. Analysts visualize data. We are supposed to make sure that the data integrity is clean and matches what we actually expect. However, our attention has pivoted towards keeping the company alive, basically [chuckles]. I think it’s just certain reports that the company has to create that they didn’t know about four or five months ago. That is basically what my job is mainly focused on—writing code that makes sure that these reports are as close to true as possible. However, given that I’ve been doing this for two months, I’ve pretty much learned as much as I can and I know how to do the report sufficiently.
In terms of growth, if I’m no longer growing at expected rate and I’m in a situation where it is too easy, I’m complacent. I had to change that situation, and I saw to it that it happened. I’ve been taking on more responsibility. I’ve been trying to get better at the skills I already have, because you can always sharpen your knife further. I can actually also see the light at the end of the tunnel, given that soon we’ll no longer just focus on these reports. We’ll now be able to actually build out systems that help sanitize data and assure its integrity.
My background was I grew up poor. Absolutely poor. I had to scrap for food, for resources, in Africa. We got here because of my mom. Even though we were poor, she always went to school. We have pictures of her when my sister was born. She was in a graduation cap. When I was born, graduation cap. When my younger sister was born, also in a cap. And once she came here, she went back to a community college. That was soon after my brother was born. Now she’s back at Cal State Fullerton.
Given that, she was the reason why we were in the States, because my dad applied for a visa. He didn’t get it. Then she applied for it. She got it because of her merit. I see her hustling, always trying to better herself even though she didn’t come from much or have anything. Just having that mindset of thinking, “What would my mom do? She was in this situation.” I know, for sure, she wouldn’t be complacent. She wouldn’t just sit there and do a repetitive, monotonous thing over and over again. That’s how my background is influences in my current job.
My last question for you would be: what advice would you have for folks from similar backgrounds? Maybe they want to learn to code, but they got a degree that they regretted and they don’t know where to start. What advice would you have for those folks getting started in tech, or hoping to get into tech?
After I finished EF International, I started working at T-Mobile doing sales. The most fun I’ve ever had on a job. If I could do it now, I would, because it was just so much fun. There was this German guy trying to get a cell phone, and I asked, “What do you do?” He’s like, “I’m a software engineer.” I was like, “You know, I would love to be a software engineer, do you think it’s—well the thing is, I didn’t start when I was young or twelve.” He was like, “What are you talking about, you can start this at any age. It’s just literally sitting there and learning a new language.” That really really inspired me—“Okay, so it’s not too late.” I didn’t have to be a 12-year-old savant who naturally dreamed about coding as he was sleeping. I can still do this.
So first advice is, it’s never too late at any age. It’s never too late. I am currently working with a lady—she actually interviewed me, we don’t work on the same team—she used to be a dancer. A ballerina dancer. That’s what she thought she was going to do for the rest of her life. She thought she would do dance and then she would teach afterwards. Ended up, she got some kind of injury, and couldn’t really dance anymore. Just bounced from work to work. Then she somehow fell into engineering late in her life, like in her 40’s. She’s like 60-something right now, working at our company. She’s one of the lead engineers at our company. So, first thing’s first, again: it’s never too late.
Second thing is that—just plan it. What do you want to do? Actually write down this goal. Have it there so it’s not just a mental model, so it’s actually a physical representation of what you want to do. The steps that you have to absolutely do in order to achieve them, then, do those steps [laughter].
There’s a third factor to it, another side of that which is the things you don’t control. It’s called luck. You can be the hardest working person in the world, the smartest guy. If you don’t have the luck to put you where you need to be, then it’s not ever going to happen for you. But the thing is, you have these opportunities that happen all the time. You have to not only be prepared to receive that luck but to be able to recognize it when it’s happening. Prepare beforehand, so when it does happen you’re like, “Okay, let’s do it. Let’s jump through this window and let’s achieve this goal that we need to achieve.” Be prepared to receive luck.
You can engineer luck a bit by making sure you’re in the position to receive it.
Exactly. That was one of the things that a speaker during my graduation said. He said there’s a lot of luck involved. “I thank all my mentors and advisors, my parents and my wife for being there, but there are just things I couldn’t control. But I was ready for it. That’s why I’m standing here now speaking to you guys: because of that.”