Teen's App Helps Pay Family's Bills

May 5, 2014
Originally published on May 5, 2014 5:51 pm

Michael Sayman is a 17-year-old game developer from Miami, whose app — 4 Snaps — has been going strong in the iTunes App Store. Sayman was highlighted at Facebook's development conference last week by Mark Zuckerberg. He graduates from high school this month and starts an internship at Facebook headquarters later this summer. Sayman spoke with Tell Me More about his app, how he used the proceeds to help his family and how some schools and teachers are overlooking the importance of tech.

How did you get into tech?

I don't think I got "into tech." Instead, I think tech got into my life from the very start. My generation grew up with cellphones and the Internet already developed. I don't remember a time when I didn't have a cellphone or a computer downstairs to play on. But something different that I think happened with me was that I loved it. So many days even when I was a kid at the age of 6 or 7 years old, I would be on the family computer trying to print out things and create as much as possible. I guess that stemmed into what has become my hobby and job!

Tell us about your app 4 Snaps.

4 Snaps is a game that I started working on in the last semester of junior year. I initially thought of the idea when I saw my sister texting her friend a few pictures and asking her friend to guess what she was taking pictures of. This is when I realized that I had to make an app about this, and I immediately got to work on it. After about five months of nonstop [work], I released the app for the first time and managed to reach the No. 1 Word Game and No. 700 Overall app! Currently, about 20 games are being sent every minute on 4 Snaps and it keeps getting bigger.

How have your parents reacted?

My first app reached No. 7 in the top reference apps and I woke up my parents saying, "Look! Look! My app is No. 7 in the reference charts!" They didn't really see why that was so great and were just like, "That's nice Michael. Now go do your homework." They didn't really get it at first. Once the paychecks started coming in, they understood what was going on. Our economic situation wasn't the best around and we actually had to move out of our house and get a smaller townhouse. I managed to help them out by paying for the mortgage and any other bills they needed help paying. They are the best parents any kid could ask for. All my life they had given me everything I needed: a bed to sleep in, food to eat, and so much more. The least I could do when I now have the opportunity to help them out is do exactly that! They definitely deserve it.

Do you think schools are missing the point when it comes to tech?

My school canceled the whole computer science department last year. It was incredible and I was extremely furious about it. And the whole importance on coding is not as strong as I would love it to be. There's so much opportunity out there for kids to learn how to code and if schools were to take a bigger part in that it would be amazing. But I feel like there's a big part with teachers also. I feel like teachers don't want to be the ones to not know things. And I feel like since a lot of students know a lot about technology, and iPads, and how they work ... teachers don't want to embrace the technology because of the fear that, you know, one day the student might outsmart the teacher. I think teachers should try to learn the technology and try to just embrace ... the new stuff.

What advice do you have for teens out there thinking coding is too hard and tedious to learn?

For those that really want to learn how to code, it isn't that hard to get started. Yes, there is a never-ending "book of coding" that will just keep on growing as time goes by, but that's the fun part. If programming is what you love to do, there will always be more to learn and more to do. It's all about having the passion and excitement in everything I do that gets to me where I am ... and where I want to end up.

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, we've talked a lot about getting kids interested in STEM - that is to say, science, technology, engineering and math. We've talked about the lack of access to computer science classes and so forth. Right now, though, we are going to flip that script. And we are going to meet a self-taught game developer from Miami, Fla., whose app 4 Snaps is topping the charts on the App Store on iTunes.

He's been so successful, he's been able to help his family financially when they've had some rough patches. And he was highlighted at Facebook's development conference last week by none other than Mark Zuckerburg. And, oh, by the way, did I mention he's 17 years old? Michael Sayman joins us now from member station WLRN in Miami. Michael, welcome. Congratulations on everything.

MICHAEL SAYMAN: Thank you. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: How did you get started coding? I understand that you literally taught yourself from - what - from YouTube tutorials?

SAYMAN: Yeah, basically. That's how I got started. I actually - when I was around 12, 13 years old, I got interested in making apps. And basically what I wanted to do was just make them, right? I wanted to make a difference. Why not do something cool? So I just didn't really have any programming courses in my school or anything to go by. And I was like, well, the Internet exists, so I might as well just go on Google, YouTube and try to find out how to do it myself.

MARTIN: So what did you look up? Did you look up how to code? I mean, did you even know what that word was?

SAYMAN: I kind of had an idea about how to program and stuff because I knew some things on making websites and things like that. But I started getting into making apps, and it's a whole different world. It's, like, a lot more complicated, and I didn't know it at first. So I didn't understand how big of a world it is.

And I just started looking up little things, like how to program certain things and little by little, piecing it together. It's no way the most efficient form of learning how to program. It took me forever, but it worked.

MARTIN: It didn't take you forever. You're 17.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I just thought I'd mention that. Anyway, so tell me about 4 Snaps.

SAYMAN: I started working on it junior year during final exams. I know, very bad timing. But I actually got started on the app because I saw my sister texting her friend some of the pictures on her phone, and her friend was trying to guess what the pictures were. So, like, they were playing a little game through text messages.

And I was like, oh, wow, this would be a really cool idea for a game, right, where people can take pictures and then have their friends guess what it is that they're taken a picture of, kind of like a word game. I had no idea how to start, but I basically said, well, I got to start doing something. So I started looking things up, getting things ready, and in no time, I had an app ready.

MARTIN: At each stage you had to kind of figure out what you didn't know and learn that thing. What was the big hurdle to getting it done?

SAYMAN: I didn't exactly know what a server was or any of that type of thing. Like, I had no idea what a backend service was. I didn't know anything about how to run games on the Internet. So I had to figure out how to make a game where people would send it to each other. I don't have big farms filled with servers to be able to store data of people. So I think that was one of the tougher things - like, having to deal with storage and making sure that images wouldn't take too much space on the servers and cost me money that I didn't have.

So I basically tried to find a way to, like, grab the four pictures that people would take, combine them into one picture, upload them to the server, and then by the time they had to play the game, bring it back down from the server and split the picture back into four.

MARTIN: Did your folks know what you were doing? 'Cause one of the things that struck me about this is that a lot of times, when a kid's spending a lot of time in his room on the computer, parents get annoyed.

SAYMAN: Yeah. Yes.

MARTIN: You know what I mean? They're like, go outside...

SAYMAN: (Laughing) Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Or do you homework, or what are you doing? So what - how did you explain what you were spending all this time doing?

SAYMAN: They didn't really understand what it was. Like, my app had reached number seven in the top reference charts for the first time. And I had told my dad in the morning, like, waking him up, look, look, the app is number seven. And he was more like, oh, that's nice - you know, that's nice. Go do your homework. Like, I was like, well, OK.

They didn't really think it would make such an impact until I get the first paycheck of course. Once that happened, then constantly, hey, Michael, what rank is it? Or, hey, Michael, how's it going?

MARTIN: That was from your first app right? How much did you make on your first app, roughly?

SAYMAN: On the first day, I made, like, $40. The second day I made, like, $100. On the third day, like, $200. It just kept going like that. So it was, like, incredible for me to experience that because initially I was just hoping to make, like, $100 to buy myself, like, a concert ticket or something. But it turned out to be a lot more.

MARTIN: It turned out to be a little better than that.

SAYMAN: (Laughing) Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, I understand it - that one of the things that you've been able to do is, like, help out your tuition, for example...

SAYMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Your tuition and your sister's tuition and some things like that.

SAYMAN: Since my parents weren't lucky enough to, you know, have all these things here and everything, I, you know, I told them, well, we're having bad economic situations, right? Well, it's the least thing I can do is help you guys, right?

Like, they've been able to feed me every day, have a bed for me to sleep in, like, my entire life. So the least I can do is when they need the help, to help them out, right? So, like, I help pay the mortgage for the house and the rent for their small business and me and my sister's tuition - you know, anything I can do to help them.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations. And I understand that you've got an internship coming up with Facebook, correct?

SAYMAN: Yes. Yes, I - yes.

MARTIN: And - this summer. And you graduate from high school in a couple of weeks. Congratulations on that. If it is fair to say, though, that your grades have kind of suffered a little bit in high school...

SAYMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Because you've been spending a lot of time...

SAYMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...It's kind of like you have a really demanding afterschool job.

SAYMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Right. Have teachers been tolerant of that or...

SAYMAN: Well, actually...

MARTIN: ...Are they kind of annoyed that you're not, you know?

SAYMAN: Yeah, they're kind of annoyed for the most part. But I'm worried about that because I kind of want a lot of teachers to know that technology is a big part of the world now and coding especially. In my school last year, they had canceled the whole computer science department. It was incredible. I was extremely furious about it. And the whole importance on coding is not as strong as I would love it to be, you know. There's so much opportunity out there for kids to learn how to code, and if schools were to take a bigger part in that, it would be amazing.

But I feel like there's a big part with, like, teachers also. Like, I feel like teachers don't want to be the ones to not know things, right? And I feel like since a lot of students know a lot about technology and, like, iPads and how they work, I feel like teachers kind of don't want to embrace that technology 'cause of the fear that, you know, one day the student might outsmart the teacher. And I think teachers, you know, should try to learn, you know, the technology and try to just embrace, you know, the new stuff.

MARTIN: I've been speaking with 17-year-old developer, entrepreneur Michael Sayman. His app 4 Snaps is one of the most popular on the iTunes App Store. And he was kind of to join us from our member station WLRN in Miami. Thank you for joining us.

SAYMAN: No, thank you so much. And I hope you enjoy 4 Snaps with me.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.