Most people who hear about kids who make apps think that these kids must be geniuses. Many will say that those kids had something “magical” no one else had and that their lives are full of success.
From the outside, I’m one of those. I’m a 19-year-old product manager at Facebook. At the age of 13, I started making iOS apps, and I was hired by Facebook at the age of 18. This sounds excellent. But it wasn’t all pretty from the start.
I’m a first generation in the U.S. My parents immigrated from Peru to find opportunity in the United States, despite not having college degrees. They started a small Peruvian chicken restaurant, and, through long hours of work, it maintained our family of four — my mom, dad, sister, and myself — here in the U.S.
I went through elementary school knowing that my parents built their business on their own, but I would always see my mom working late at night and not getting much sleep. By the time my sister and I were in first and second grade, we started to ask questions a lot. For example, why did we need to do our homework?
My mom would then tell me, in Spanish, “You need to study because you need to go to college and you need to get a good career. Look at me and your dad — you didn’t have that opportunity and we are now working really hard to make up for that. You want to have a happy life? Make sure you get a career.”
I didn’t need to hear anything else. I knew that when my sister and I would wake up at 2 a.m. wondering where our mom was, we both knew she would still be working at our small restaurant. I grew up to learn that I wasn’t going to get anything in life unless I made it for myself.
My First App
Being a kid in the 21st century, I loved being on the Internet. I soon found a free computer game online called Club Penguin. I got obsessed with it so much that I ended up making a blog about the game.
I decided I wanted to build a mobile app version of my blog because I wanted more views on my blog. I didn’t want to build a killer app or any of that stuff, I just wanted more views on my blog. I spent months searching on the Internet how to build apps. And by the time I turned 12, I had a prototype of my “Club Penguin Cheats App” built.
You see, even at the age of 12, I never doubted that the Internet had all the answers. I grew up knowing that I could search for something and I would find it. Meanwhile, my parents didn’t believe me. A couple of years back, they had given me a 2006 Encarta Encyclopedia CD because they wanted me to learn on the computer. I didn’t use the CD because it felt old and slow. Encarta didn’t give me answers to the questions I had in my mind at that moment. And I was determined to get those answers.
I was a stubborn kid. I always did everything I could do to get what I was after, even if it was crazy or irrational. Whenever I needed help, the person I would always look to for helping me get what I wanted wasn’t my mom or my dad, it wasn’t even a person: It was the Internet.
After I launched the app, it took off like wildfire. Adding up the numbers, I realized I had sold 42 copies of my app on day 1. I sold 100 copies the next day, then 150 the day after, and so on.
That week, I saw my app hit the top 10 reference apps on the App Store. I completely freaked out and rushed over to my parents’ bed. I woke up my dad, saying in Spanish, “¡Papi, mira, mira! ¡Mi aplicación! ¡Está en el puesto número 7!”
He rolled over in the bed and wasn’t impressed. He just said, “That’s nice. Now let me sleep and go to your room and play over there.”
I wasn’t surprised or sad. My parents didn’t really understand what was going on. They didn’t know what apps really were and didn’t understand because there was really no way of explaining it to them. It was easy to assume that all of this was just me playing games.
After the first month, things got real. Apple had sent me my first check containing about $5,000. My mom could not believe her eyes. She was so proud and shocked at the same time. I couldn’t describe the emotion in her at that moment.
Of course, she still didn’t understand what exactly had happened, but I tried explaining that I submitted the “mini-website I made to the App Store and it was an app about Club Penguin and many kids wanted it so now it’s making money.” I explained to her that Apple split the revenue 70/30 and all of that.
Oh, the Irony
Once my app was getting popular, many TV stations picked up the story that a 13-year-old kid had made a top charting app. I started to get interviews all over the place. They came from all over.
The biggest TV shows from Peru would fly out to Miami to film me at school and follow me around to see what my life was like. My Facebook profile exploded with messages from kids all over the world telling me how inspired they were! I couldn’t respond fast enough. This felt like a dream come true.
At the same time, the economic situation in my family couldn’t have been further from the success that I was having with my apps. My parents took my sister out of public school and I started paying for her tuition. I started helping my parents by paying for the house electricity and Internet bills and by doing the payroll for the restaurant employees.
All of my money was going to providing for my family. I didn’t think anything of it, because what was I going to do with $12,000 a month? I was 14! I didn’t need it for anything. I had already bought myself the highest-end Mac I could and the best iPhone I could. That was it for me. I didn’t want anything else.
But the pressure of paying the bills started to increase and my grades in middle school started to go down fast. I used to have A’s and B’s, and at that point started to get C’s and D’s.
Meanwhile, on the “successful” side of my life, I spoke at my first conference in Miami and was working with an agency to do a press tour in South America through Peru and Bolivia, and was holding my own conference in Ecuador.
I began to realize the power I had with my story. I started getting messages on Facebook every day from Hispanic parents in the U.S. telling me how they saw my story on TV and how they were trying to tell their kids about how this is a path they could follow.
My entire family back in Peru called me to congratulate me. Everyone had heard on the radio that “the Peruvian kid that makes apps” was arriving in the country. When I landed on my first stop in Peru, there were cameramen from three TV stations at the airport ready to ask me questions and follow me around. We quickly got into the van and went off to back-to-back interviews to promote the conferences I was holding at the various universities in the country.
My mom came with me on the trip because she thought I was too young to be going alone. (I had just turned 15.) My presentations were all about exposure in the app world. I spoke about how the Internet is the future of education. I spoke about the opportunities that the Internet gave me that my own school did not. This trip was incredible for me, but at the same time, I felt so false.
I appeared to be the pillar of success to thousands of kids all over, and meanwhile, in my family, our situation continued to get worse. One day, my mom told me, crying, that we had to leave our house — that we were being evicted.
And that is when my world flipped upside down.
We Lost It
I previously helped pay thousands of dollars for lawyers to help prevent this, and I knew this was a possibility, but I never really believed it could happen to me. My family came to this country hoping to live the American Dream, and here we were getting evicted from our home.
Through these times, I began to develop a very thick skin. I stopped being so emotional and I began to look at things more carefully. I made the decision to stop doing my homework and continue to build more apps.
I studied the app market more and continued to work all day and night on what apps I could make that could help my family stay afloat. My apps didn’t make as much money as they did before and I was barely able to pay for the minimum that we were living on.
My stress levels were way too high. I wasn’t being a kid — my childhood was over at that moment. My job was to provide for my family and I would do everything I could do accomplish that. There were days when we didn’t know if we would have enough money to put food on the table, and despite our best efforts of pouring more money into the restaurant, we ended up losing the small business as well.
Neither one of my parents had a job; I was the sole provider for my family. And at the same time, I was planning my next conference tour going to Bolivia and Peru — what the hell!
A Fake Smile
Meanwhile, in the public, I was the “successful kid who built apps and inspires others.” The responsibility I carried with being an example for other children was all I thought of whenever the cameras turned on. My brain would instantly turn off every frustration, every scream, every panic attack my parents had, every night seeing my parents crying in frustration — I would shut it off.
I would put a big smile on my face and speak about the opportunities that programming gave kids and how they, too, could become successful. In one interview, I was asked what kids should do when they see a perfect example of success like myself and then look at their family and see turmoil and no hope. I responded with my rehearsed answer: “Determination and curiosity is key, and as long as you keep moving forward, you will get it!”
I couldn’t stop thinking of what a terrible answer I gave. I was so frustrated. At that moment, I realized I needed to tell the story of how I wasn’t the perfect success. I needed to share my imperfect life. Kids needed to know that my “success story” was as far from ideal as imaginable.
I spoke about how I struggled to pay for our family’s bills, about how my parents lost their jobs, and about how I took on helping my parents get food for the table.
My story of imperfection and realism is one that tells every parent and child the life I was living wasn’t perfect happiness, or millions of dollars, or anything like that
This story is one of struggle, and for this very reason, the message held stronger than ever before. The lack of resources, the economic troubles, the fact that my parents don’t have jobs, the fact that my parents didn’t understand my goals of building apps, that they didn’t believe it would work — that’s what made it important and relatable.
Having been hired by Facebook at 17, and being 19 today, I have the opportunity to share the imperfect story. To share what it’s like to succeed in a world where everything is falling down around you.
I have the opportunity to tell kids like me, who grew up with families who live in other countries, with parents who didn’t go to college, with lack of money to put food on the table, that this is really possible and that computer science is a path to success.
Not everyone has to be a doctor or a lawyer, and if parents and kids can see how someone just like them got to succeed in ways I myself cannot believe to this day, we’ll get one step closer to our mission of connecting the world and educating people through the Internet.
I tell my story of failure in an effort to talk about what’s wrong with my success story. Am I afraid? Yes.
The other day, I met with someone who told me not to be afraid. And at times, in an effort to not be afraid, I would stop thinking about the failures. But I want to embrace the idea of being afraid. I want to say that it’s OK to be afraid as long as I push myself to be bold.
Am I afraid of talking about what I went through? Yes.
Am I afraid of talking about what mistakes we all made? Yes.
But I will push myself to be bold. Being bold doesn’t mean that I’m not afraid. Being bold means that I don’t let fear stop me from trying.
Throughout my childhood many things have gone wrong, and many times I’ve made decisions that felt scary and wrong. But I can’t be afraid to try.
I could be wrong about all of this. Maybe I’m just not thinking straight. I still have so much more to learn. But as teens in this generation of the Internet, we have to be OK with talking about our imperfect stories. We have to be OK with being afraid. And we have to push ourselves to be bold.
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