In 6th grade computer class, 11-year-old Jonathan Mendenhall is learning how to type and use Microsoft Office. At home, he’s building Android games.
Mendenhall started learning the Java programming language at age 10 by watching videos online and practicing by modifying Minecraft games. When his sister’s boyfriend Drake Johncock saw him programming a game, he encouraged Mendenhall to make it into an app.
“Even though he was taking a lot of things from tutorials, I thought it was still pretty amazing that somebody that young could program a game already,” says Johncock, 19.
Now, the pair has cofounded a company called Mende Games and released their first app, Speck, for Android last week. Johncock, who’s a senior in high school in North Carolina, developed their website and takes care of the marketing.
Below, Mendenhall answered my questions about learning to code, what his friends think, and his advice for young developers.
Tech Cocktail: How did you get started?
Jonathan Mendenhall: When I was younger, I would play with Legos and K’Nex. I would build the set originally and then I would take it down and rebuild it without using the directions to try to make it better. And then I got into computer games like Minecraft, and then after awhile got bored of it and wanted to add more things to it. So I learned how to make mods and that led into me wanting to learn how to make games for myself.
I learned from other people’s videos: I would follow along and use some ideas from them, and I would try to change those and make it fit my own needs.
Tech Cocktail: How did you learn how to code?
Mendenhall: I watched a lot of other people do it, and thought that it would be really cool if I could do it. So I just looked up a couple videos and read some books and learned how to use the language itself for making games.
Tech Cocktail: What do your friends and family think?
Mendenhall: When I tell them, they always think I’m really smart and that I benefit so much off of being able to do this. I also tell some of my teachers at school – one of them, my computer teacher, thinks that I’m going to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
Tech Cocktail: What’s your favorite part about coding?
Mendenhall: My favorite part about coding would be actually coding the games themselves because I like the puzzle aspect of it and having to figure out how to do the stuff that I want to do. Sometimes I get frustrated and I can’t figure out how to do something, and it’ll take probably two days to finally figure out how to do it.
Tech Cocktail: What’s the most surprising part about coding?
Mendenhall: Probably what surprised me was how easy it is for someone to do this, because there are so many resources out there that people can use today to do what they want with programming. And also that I was actually able to accomplish something big by putting an app on the Play store for other people to get.
Tech Cocktail: What advice do you have for other young developers?
Mendenhall: That they should have a lot of time, and that they should have a good business partner that can handle advertising and social networking for your apps or games. And so then you can just do what you want, which is making the game, and they can do what they like, which is actually advertising them.
Tech Cocktail: Do you plan to do this later in life?
Mendenhall: I want to bring this as far as I could bring it, and to do that I would take computer courses in college and try to learn more.