Summly: Career Lessons from a 17 Year Old Millionaire

by Phil Stott | March 26, 2013

Nick D'Aloisio, a British teenager, has made headlines this week for selling the smartphone app he developed to Yahoo for a cool $30 million. As part of the deal, the app, Summly, will be shuttered (the technology will likely be folded into the overall Yahoo experience), while 17-year old D'Aloisio has signed on to work for the firm for—get this—just the next 18 months. If all of that isn't enough to make you rue your own miserable life, consider this final factoid—he actually began developing the app when he was just 15.

As random as it might appear, D'Aloisio's success hasn't come by accident. Indeed, there's something of a template to what he's done that—with a little bit of luck—anyone could follow. So if you feel like emulating him, here are the main takeaways:

Learn to code

There's no getting around it: if you want to make it big in the world of app development, a solid understanding of how to solve problems computationally is essential. The good news is that it doesn't require a college degree in computer science to do so (clearly, given D'Aloisi's tender age). For complete beginners, there are any number of free resources out there that can teach you the basics of how to structure code. From the Codecademy project to MIT's introduction to computer science (available through EdX), the barrier to entry has never been lower. And even if you don't end up using your newfound knowledge to develop a million-dollar app, gaining a degree of familiarity with the building blocks of the technological world can only be a good thing.

Act on your ideas

While it's obviously overly simplistic to advise anyone to just "have good ideas," D'Aloisio provides an object lesson in the difference between people who merely have ideas, and those who  act on them. The Daily Beast quotes him as saying “if you have a good idea, or you think there’s a gap in the market, just go out and launch it." Think of it as the tech world's version of a rationale or playing the lottery—"you've got to be in to win it" or "hey, you never know"—but with a better chance of finding success.

Be persistent—but not too persistent

There's an interesting—but not necessarily safe for work, or for those easily offended by bad language—post on Gizmodo about D'Aloisio's attempts to get favorable media coverage of a previous app, Trimit, which he created when he was 15. In the post, Gizmodo writer Casey Chen describes how, over the course of a few days, D'Aloisio "barraged me with over a hundred e-mails about Trimit." Chen's response was to penalize D'Aloisio and remove Trimit from their list of recommended apps (something that Chen now regrets, in rather florid language)—a course of action that apparently reduced D'Aloisio to tears.

While that example shows the inherent danger in being too pushy about your own product or abilities, the fact that D'Aloisio has moved past it to get to where he is today demonstrates that there are both good and bad types of persistence. (Hint: it's usually the examples that involve hard work and diligence that are are the positive ones).

Focus

Perhaps the main thing that sets D'Aloisio apart from his peers is his ability to focus on his passions, rather than getting distracted by side issues—a particularly impressive skill for someone who spends so long in front of a computer. In an excruciating segment of an interview with the UK's Sky News, D'Aloisio is asked "why weren't you like normal teenagers and just looking at dirty pages and all sorts of things that they do?" Once he gets his embarrassed laugh out of the way, D'Aloisio's answer demonstrates all of the steps above, in one succinct sentence: "I've always  enjoyed learning and curiosity for things. I think when the [Apple] App Store was announced in 2008, I was 12,  and I just tried to teach myself basic programming and realized that there was such an opportunity in the ecosystem."

One more time: D'Aloisio realized at the age of 12 where the opportunities were, and developed the skills necessary to follow up on them. While not all of us can be so breathtakingly precocious, and we're certainly not all going to hit a "sell-my-invention-to-Yahoo"-sized jackpot, there's really no mystery or magic to what D'Aloisio has done. Which is a positive idea anyone can take from his success, no matter how jealous we might be of it!

Read More:

The Daily Beast: Yahoo Buys Teen's Startup for $30 million

Sky News: Summly: Yahoo! Buys Nick D'Aloisio's App

Gizmodo: How I Made a 15-year old App Developer Cry (NSFW)

Filed Under: Job Search | Workplace Issues


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