I want to share a story about one of the most rewarding things I’ve done over the last few years. I always had the idea in the back of my head, but it only went ahead when I really decided to go fiscal-nomad. Since the beginning, I decided that the money that would vanish in taxes otherwise, would be redirected to something more useful than paying for politicians holidays, their luxury cars and respective drivers. So, as soon as I went tax free, I decided immediately to create a fund for something I always wanted to do: Investing in talent that I keep spotting, people genuinely interested in creative and technological subjects, but without the resources or the best conditions to pursue that. Sponsoring and supporting these geek/artist prospects to attend workshops, conferences, get books, and maybe an occasional laptop if there’s enough effort and motivation, might be much more rewarding that feeding government crooks, right? And it doesn’t feel as lazy as just transferring money to some bank account for donating to this or that cause (as noble as that can be, sometimes ends up diverted somewhere else or poorly managed, anyway).
Long story short, someone I was glad to bet in and invest some time during the last few months teaching and mentoring, only 17 years old, just launched Squatrix, his first mobile game: concept, ideas, design and programming all by himself… without any prior knowledge of coding before all this started (7 months ago). And I have to say I am outrageously proud of himself!
In October last year, I decided to run a pro-bono workshop for students in my hometown, actually at my high-school (a “few” years since last time I was there). Apart from high-school students, there were some designers, university students and teachers, as my workshop targets people with no experience in programming, but curious and interested to learn the basics from scratch, in one day. In this case there were two extra days with further materials, after everyone learned the basics by building a game from scratch on that first day. There were a lot of 10th grade students, but it was quite clear that most of them spent that Friday there to have a day-off from school. Only a few of these seemed genuinely interested, but one really caught my attention quite quickly. His name: Frederico Felicidade (you’ll probably hear about him soon, anyway). Apart from finishing the challenges faster than everyone else, he was already helping a few colleagues fixing their mistakes and “bugs”, but most important for me, he was already playing and messing around with changing the code to see what happened. I paid attention to all this and by middle of the day I actually asked one of his teachers if they already have programming in their IT classes. To my surprise (and I found later), this was actually his first contact with coding (and he was not really sure what the workshop was going to be about), so I was even more alert. Being shy by nature, he didn’t express a lot what was going on, but I kept my eye on everything. To my surprise, Saturday and Sunday, which was mostly taken by teachers, university students, professionals and only a bunch of students, and where I was not expecting a lot of high-school students spending the full weekend from 9am to almost 8pm, he actually joined in and followed up for the advanced workshop days. Finally I was able to chat a little bit and confirmed how interested he was getting into this whole new coding thing. Right after the workshop, and for the few extra days I stayed at my hometown I had a chance to follow up occasionally and noticed his level of motivation. As I was starting to plan my nomad life, he immediately inherited my entire collection of (heavy) geek books, which are not very practical to travel with, anyway.
I was insanely busy at the time, packing to leave Geneva and all the mess involved with going “wherever”, but always kept in touch, and he continued enthusiastic, which made me start thinking in more ways to contribute to all this momentum. So, next opportunity was actually in early December, as I was going to be briefly in Portugal as one of the speakers at the Flash Camp conference in Lisbon. One thing I remember that changed my perspective completely was when I started to attend conferences and to get inspired with what others were doing, and that point was really important in my career. So, one day while I was teaching him something at one of my hometown cafes before going to Lisbon, I had the idea (one day before) of bringing him to the conference. Risking his family finding the idea a bit odd, I asked him to see with his aunt (who takes care of him) if it was OK and ask her to actually meet me to talk about this. Funny enough, she was not even aware of the hidden coding talent going on in there (again, he is quite humble, and a few months ago, he was 10 times more shy than he is now). Everything was OK and he took the bus to Lisbon and met me there, as I had to be there a day earlier. I was really glad, since I am sad to say that most people in my hometown is way too close-minded, and in a case like this, it would be more common for the family itself to not even believing that this would be worth or even useful for him, let alone believing in his possible talent. But as it has been until now, he had all their support in this subject, and I am really happy for that. Otherwise it could be a dead stop right there.
MEETING THE GEEK COMMUNITY
In Lisbon, he arrived the night before the conference and after I picked him at the coach station I took him to meet the other speakers and the usual artist/geek gang. Even with his shy nature, after a while he was feeling comfortable enough with the group. After I tell him who they were and what they do, he was even more impressed, specially how accessible and “normal” everyone was. That’s one of the things I really love in the developer community: there’s not that much of the “rock-star” patronizing attitude and it’s more about sharing knowledge and inspiring others. After dinner and some time in the pub, and I made it important for him to mingle with everyone all the time, I showed him some of Joshua Davis‘ work, which impressed him a lot (generative art was the topic on my workshop’s second day and I remember he was quite curious). Next day during the conference sessions he got even more impressed with all the stuff going on. That was exactly what I expected. That shift in perspective that shows what’s actually going on, and even where we can get. Tom Krcha‘s session about the future of gaming with the Flash platform, with all the demos, also got him tuned in. Funny enough, more or less the same subjects that grab my attention (I am switching to game development during the last couple of years). After we are back from Lisbon to my countryside hometown, I was really glad when I heard from his aunt next day on the phone that he told her in a very solid tone: “This is what I want to do from now on!”.
After this first change of perspective, it was quite clear for me that I had to show him some international conferences and more people and their work. From here on, I started getting more active on this “investment in talent” thing, and teaching him as much as I could. I reserved some time to teach him some more Flash/Flex/AS3 coding stuff before leaving my hometown to be back in Switzerland, as I was moving to the middle of the Alps. I was already thinking that a good opportunity would be gotoAndSki, the conference I organize in the Swiss Alps every year. After I was already living in the alps, I contacted him and his family and again, they were OK with it. I should remind he was 16 years old. A few months (and several hours of weekly Skype remote lessons) later, Fred was in the alps for his first international conference. This was actually even better for his communication skills and also practicing his English, since his school had the brilliant idea of removing a bunch of students from English classes and placing them in French classes… in a IT/Multimedia course!… (that will feed a possible future post, as I am not very keen on schools doing career-sabotage to students). This was his first international networking with professionals with solid careers on this field, not only the speakers, but the attendees too. And he got to learn snowboarding with my fellow Jens Brynildsen. His peak interest was during Eugene Zatepyakin‘s session about computer vision and image feature detection, again, the kind of things that also get me tuned in. Everything went well again, and his “geek spark” got even more active after this event. Al this started feeling very rewarding for me. Again, every spare time we had, I was teaching him as much as I could.
FIRST REAL-WORLD WORK
When I moved to the Netherlands, I already had in mind bringing him to FITC Amsterdam, my favorite big conference in Europe. I started talking with him and his aunt about this right after the alps. It even went better than planned as I had a chance to get him a paid internship in one of the client projects I was working on, as well as his first solo gig, building his first simple website for another client (HTML/CSS stuff). Apart from that, he was going to help in the CoderGang project: he was the official cameraman for FITC for all the interviews. Actually, Fred is now part of the crew, as he is in charge of the video post-production too (apart from coding, he also has a lot of related side-skills “classes” like Adobe Premiere, Photoshop and Illustrator). He stayed in Amsterdam for 2 weeks for this internship/apprenticeship. Apart from the conference 2 days and his (17th) birthday, which were basically the only days off, everyday was filled with learning (at a fast pace) as well as working hard on the parts of the project we was assigned, with some occasional time for exploring Amsterdam by the end of the day (he should be missing the bike). Of course he was introduced to my “world office”: working from Starbucks and similar places, which he seemed to like too. I am quite happy that he also was able to experience (outrageously) better (and realistic) pay rates than he would get in Portugal for the same work. Sad enough, when he was back, the school didn’t find all this was a benefit to his career, knowledge and experience at all, and didn’t even bother listening about what he learned (but I don’t even want to get there… yet). Unfortunately I can’t take him with me to my next “essential” European conference, Beyond Tellerand Play in Köln/Germany, next week, where he would get even more inspired with all the excellent content in every year’s sessions.
MORE IMPRESSIVE RESULTS… AND A GAME
After Amsterdam, to compensate for the school days he missed, and that were not covered by weekends or holidays, the school “offered” him with a lot of stuff to do during Easter holidays, otherwise he would fail the full 3-year IT course, since the internship was not recognized. This was not a big deal for him (apart from stealing him the holidays), considering he was doing quite more advanced stuff a few days before. I saw the task list, which I confess it was quite unfair, and taught him a few more things during our usual Skype lessons, usually twice a week, or more, including stuff I don’t use for about 10 years but he needed for that test/punishment. I also saw the results in the end and he managed to do an excellent job, which again, was not a surprise for me. Now rewinding a few weeks before, while he was still in Amsterdam, I challenged him to think about and come up with a simple game concept and ideas, which would be a good project for him to start from scratch by himself. One night in a bar, he said he already had an idea. Took me a while to get him to talk (less shy but still shy by then), and when he did, this was another one of those rewarding moments: apart from technical skills, I saw there was also creativity in there. He started building this game right after he was back to Portugal, slowly, with stuff he learned in the other projects, as well as from Skype lessons taught later, as he decides what he is more interested at. I am a pain and I never make things too easy, forcing him to try and research for himself, and always throwing new challenges. The first results, I saw them yesterday, as his first game was finally ready. Squatrix
is now waiting for approval was just approved and it’s now available for the PlayBook tablet at BlackBerry app world (iOS and Android and Facebook versions coming next), and I am sure it will get trough. Simple arcade/puzzle concept, but I got addicted while trying and could only stop on level 41 (because I lost) after, well… several rounds.
WARNING: INCOMING TALENT!
I am really proud of him for all this and I am really happy for finding this talent by accident, actually in my hometown, and for what I was able to help pushing forward so far. As I said, this has been a very rewarding experience, and will carry on for sure, as I want to take this further. Apart from Fred having a lot to learn from here, there’s plenty of talent out there, but sadly enough, not that many people investing in talent, unless they can squeeze it and profit from that. So, I recommend and challenge everyone with a solid career to spot some talent in need of a small push, which I am sure everyone already happened to bump into, and take the small extra step to help them moving a little bit forward. Even the shortest amount of effort, I can grant it will be outrageously satisfying after seeing the first results. As John Dalziel said during the conference in Amsterdam, in a pub night while we were talking about Fred’s case, “it must feel like gardening”. As I don’t really lean towards such activities, and would probably be useless taking care of a garden, I completely agree that’s really a good way to describe it. I will be in Amsterdam for another month but will stay for 2 months in my hometown before leaving for a 12+ city European workshop tour, and then Asia. During my time in the south of Portugal to see my parents and a few good friends, I am really looking forward to spend some more time teaching Fred a lot more. And already have part of another project to share with him as part of his apprenticeship, so, part of his holidays will be busy but he seems happy with that. Our hometown only has the small (big) problem of being small enough for people without a life of their own to try to drag everyone else, specially when they see someone getting unstuck from the status quo and starting to move forward (let alone shine, as Fred will). That said, I am glad that Fred also realized already that his career path will be completely different if he stays there, or even in Portugal (there comes perspective again, and how it changes the way we see everything). So, I guess everyone will see him “wherever” too, soon enough.
I confess I am really impressed with the amount complex stuff he learned in a very short time-span, and I am quite curious to see where all this is heading.
Congratulations for where you got so far, Fred. Well done, my friend, and thanks for all your efforts. I have no doubt you will be shining soon on the creative/technical field!
During Fred’s ongoing apprenticeship, he will be also accepting some projects under my supervision. He is finishing his website now, and there will be more details (and link) about that soon, but I should warn the usual cheapskates that apart from technical subjects I am also teaching him how to build a career as a freelancer, including that important “how to spot and run away from the usual rip-off clients” chapter.
UPDATE: I am glad to announce that Fred will be working with me during my European workshop tour, this summer.