Iddris Sandu was only 16 years of age and still juggling high school classes with other extra-curricular activities when he developed an app that made it possible for fellow students at his school to find their classrooms with ease.
That invention gave him his first encounter with the spotlight as it put him in the same room as then-U. S. President, Barack Obama. And always on the lookout for the next challenge, it was only a matter of time before the young Ghanaian tech whiz was writing codes for what has become some of our favourite social media platforms.
Iddris Sandu was born in Accra, Ghana, to Ghanaian parents some 21 years ago. At only three years of age, his family relocated to California, in the United States, probably in search of the much-talked-about ‘greener pastures.’ This meant that Iddris went through most of his early life in a foreign land.
But you’d be mistaken to think it was entirely a rosy affair throughout his early life. Things took an awkward turn right about when he turned eight. His father had brought up the idea of visiting Ghana briefly and young Sandu was very delighted at the prospect. Relishing new adventures, he accompanied his father on that trip to his country but things didn’t quite pan out as he would have hoped.
In a conversation with Oxford University’s Music and Style Magazine, Sandu revealed that the trip was supposed to be full of fun and discoveries but it soon proved a sour deal when his father had to rush back to the States, abandoning Sandu in the village without doing as much as leaving the passport of the poor child behind.
In what was a harrowing experience that left him shaken, Sandu was consigned to life in a remote village for almost a year. Now, that shouldn’t be much of a problem considering he was, in fact, pitching his tent in his ancestral home. But for an eight-year-old child whose best memories of his homeland were rooted in those four days before his father left, it was quite challenging.
Being that there wasn’t much he could do about the situation, he made hope, perseverance, and resilience his best friends. He was stuck in the village without his parents for the better parts of nine months, and that was before he got in touch with an NGO that helped him return to the United States. In any case, Sandu can be forgiven for not having very fond memories of those times he felt abandoned in the village.
By sheer providence, Sandu’s return to the United States happened about the same time Apple unveiled the first-ever iPhone and the young techie refers to those times as the period during which his initial interest in tech was really piqued. That spelt the beginning of what has so far been a relatively short, yet stellar career in coding.
Iddris Sandu was just a ten-year-old kid when Apple’s first iPhone hit the stores. But unlike most of his peers, he had already identified his purpose and was carving out a path to reach that purpose at that tender age.
“I just got super inspired. I thought – this device is going to change the world. The reason why the iPhone was so important was because it was the first time when regular consumers could develop for other regular consumers. Before, you really had to work at a tech company for multiple years to be able to offer any sort of input or to create an app. But Apple made it so mainstream. I knew it was the future,” he said.
In the next two years that followed his return to the States, he had channelled all the fear and frustration that formed his lot during those eight months of abandonment into something that he couldn’t have imagined would afford him global recognition and widespread acclaim so early in his lifetime.
Buoyed by the fascination of his new-found interest and inspired by a Steve Jobs podcast which highlighted the intersections of technology and genius, Sandu got busy by immersing himself in the rudiments of programming. For two years, he paid regular visits to the local Torrance Public Library where he devoured texts on the German industrial designer Dieter Rams, Nikola Tesla and the theory of relativity. Soon, he was learning basic coding while also doing some programming on his own.
Showing flashes of brilliance and remarkable promise, it didn’t take long before one of his many visits to the library got the attention of a designer from Google who was impressed by his efforts.
Having seen remarkable potential in the young lad, the ‘scout’ may have thought it worthwhile to give Sandu a shot at proving that he was more than just another ‘Little Mister Smartypants‘ and could cut in the big leagues when it came down to the business end of things. And boy, how he did so with aplomb!
Sandu was approached with an internship offer at Google’s headquarters eight months after the tech giant set up shop in Frank Gehry’s “Binoculars Building” in Venice, California, and he didn’t need a second invitation.
He had resolved to absorb every bit of knowledge that would be afforded him by the opportunity and soon he was working on a number of the company’s initial projects, including Google Plus, Google Blogger, and a number of others. Such was the genius of the prodigy that he was doing all these aged only 13. This can be thought to have built the foundation for the meteoric rise of the Ghanaian software engineer in the tech sphere.
Having already achieved what is largely an astonishing feat for a kid barely into his teens, Sandu was far from done. Inspired by a burning desire to effect change in his immediate surroundings, he went on to build an app that helped students navigate through classrooms at his high school. And he was still only 15 at the time.
Before long, word had spread far and wide of his creation as his school became known as the only school in California that was actively using an app made by an enrolled student at the time. This achievement added gloss to Sandu’s already glittering profile as his brilliance won him many accolades and recognition – amongst which was a trip to the White House where he received the Presidential Scholar Award from former U.S.-President, Barack Obama.
Sandu didn’t rest on his laurels after the presidential recognition. He rolled up his sleeves and got back to work soon after, and before the global tech ecosystem had finished taking in what could be thought of as ‘over-achievements,’ he had served up even more.
Sandu wrote an algorithm that was eventually purchased by Instagram and by the time he turned 18, he was already a consultant for Snapchat. And that was before he greeted ride-hailing company, Uber, with his genius by developing software called Autonomous Collision Detection Interface for the company’s driverless cars. Astounding! Utterly astounding! – especially for someone who didn’t exactly have a stint at college.
Despite the early success he had so far enjoyed, the coding genius soon called time on his career with major tech companies and this may be linked to the fact that he is somewhat driven by a passion to bridge the gap between the informed and uninformed, and intends to now channel his efforts towards bringing about that change.
Since taking a break from tech companies, Sandu is known to have busied himself advocating for the study of STEM in schools and at higher levels. However, a chance encounter with American rapper, Nipsey Hussle, at a local Starbucks in 2017, somehow turned into a collaboration that saw the duo transform an abandoned storefront in Los Angeles into what became known as The Marathon Store – selling clothes, accessories, and music.
As the story goes, the pair hit it off when the rapper sort of crept up on the software savant and spied on the contents of his screen while he was tweaking some algorithms modified on his laptop. A couple of weeks later, they were in business.
Speaking to CNN, Sandu enthused that the store was thronged by a number of superstars including the likes of Jay-Z, Diddy, and Swizz Beats within a few weeks of its opening. As he likes to call it, the ‘smart store’ also lets customers download exclusive music and other digital content by means of an app.
While Iddris’ background in tech and design was instrumental to setting up the store, Nipsey’s cultural influences drew interests from many notable journalists and hip-hop icons – a healthy mix of brains and brawns, if you ask me.
Iddris Sandu told CNBC that the store has helped him bridge the gap between culture and technology, and would love others to do same. “We are living in the digital revolution,” he said. Although “we are all constantly exposing ourselves to content in real-time,” he said. “We need to address the largest issues affecting communities and build infrastructure on that.”
Having already created algorithms for Instagram and Snapchat, as well as consulting for Twitter, Sandu is currently working on a project with Kanye West and Jaden Smith; a project that is designed for next year’s ComplexCon tech festival in Chicago and is targeted at the creation of AR-driven experiences around music and politics.
In spite of the significant strides Sandu has made in a relatively short time in a foreign land, the tech whiz remains very conscious of his ties with his country of birth. As he told The New York Times, he is determined to level the playing field between Silicon Valley and communities of color.
He also attributes his intense work ethic to a number of African icons who he considers role models including Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, late former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and Nigerian ‘afrobeat god’, Fela Kuti.
Sandu is also convinced that Africa will showcase the next generation of tech leaders as many of the continent’s enlightened inhabitants are becoming aware of problems whose solutions exist within. That said, he sees the timeliness of his success and that of others of his kind as good for black entrepreneurs.
In the coming year, the ‘cultural architect,’ as he likes to call himself, aims to shift his attention to Africa with the continent’s most populous city – Lagos, Nigeria – billed as his first port of call. Once there, he is hoping to host student workshops and teach kids important coding skills that will enable them to build useful platforms that they also own.
Iddris Sandu appears to be driven by a passion to leverage his network and capacity with a view to inspiring young people from various parts of the world into creating positive change in their immediate communities. Having utilized his uncommon genius to telling effect thus far, the young Ghanaian is well on his way to becoming a pacesetter for tech’s next generation.
Feature Image Courtesy: face2faceafrica.com