Interview with 16-Year-Old App Developer Canzhi Ye

May 21, 2013

9:00 am

At age 12, Canzhi Ye went to Camp CAEN at the University of Michigan to learn Java and C# programming. A year later, when his mom got an iPod Touch, some new possibilities opened up for him.

After some Googling, Ye figured out that anyone could develop for iOS. “Hey, look, I can make apps,” he remembers telling his mother.

And so began his app development career. It started off simple, with a flashcards app called A+ Flashcards and the EasyTyping app that makes your keyboard bigger. One morning in 2011, when Ye got up early to preorder the newly released iPad 2, he was met with the devastating news of the Japanese earthquake. He had moved from Japan to the United States at age 3, and he wanted to do something to help. So he donated two weeks’ worth of app proceeds totalling $480.

When small business owner Jim Drought was searching online for a developer, he stumbled across the news of Ye’s donation. That was last fall. Since then, Ye has built an app called Rectangle and listed it on the app store for users who want to order prints of their Facebook or Instagram photos. They can order posters up to 24” by 32” or “pictoblocks” (see below), which are printed and shipped from Drought’s sign shop in San Antonio.

print Instagram photos

Below, 16-year-old Ye talks about being a young programmer and juggling the life of an entrepreneur and a junior in high school.

Tech Cocktail: How did you learn programming? 

Canzhi Ye: I was able to convince my mom to get me a Mac to do developing. So I just went on Amazon and I found a cool book to get started with. Mostly I used that book and I just used online forums. iPhone Dev SDK and Stack Overflow were just awesome resources for me to use whenever I had problems. So I pretty much just taught myself how to do the programming. I started in the fall of 2009 – I was still 13.

Tech Cocktail: What motivated you to learn to build apps? 

Ye: The fact that I learned a little bit about programming before just gave me a little bit of confidence in the beginning that this would be something I would be able to learn. I just kind of dove into it – I was still in middle school at the time; I wasn’t terribly bogged down with schoolwork. Once I got started with it, I just thought it was something really fun to do, and I was pretty passionate about it, so I didn’t give up at it and I’ve learned a lot since then.

Tech Cocktail: What’s the hardest part about it? 

Ye: In the beginning, I made some apps as an indie developer first before I got started with my most recent project. I’d say the hardest part is encountering some annoying bug that takes forever to fix or sometimes you just can’t find what’s wrong with your program. Situations like that are pretty hard. After you release your app and seeing that you don’t get many downloads is also pretty hard. So the post-release stuff – marketing, talking to people, profiling your app, or getting it out to other people – is pretty hard also.

Tech Cocktail: What’s your favorite part about it? 

Ye: I like the initial burst of an idea and then diving into it and getting a basic framework of what you’re going to build out. It’s pretty exciting to see that you can put your idea into practice.

Tech Cocktail: What do your family and friends think? 

Ye: My family is very supportive of it. They think it’s something really cool for a teenager or high schooler to get into. My friends at school, they talk about it a lot. Sometimes they’ll have an app idea and they’ll be like, “Make this into an app!” Everyone’s all-around supportive about it and when I tell them about my new developments, they’re pretty interested.

Tech Cocktail: Will you keep doing this after high school? 

Ye: I definitely want to keep this as a hobby or even when I go to college. It’s interesting and the mobile market is growing constantly, so I think it’s definitely worth staying in this app development business.

Tech Cocktail: How do you balance school and programming? 

Ye: I’ve got to manage my time really well. I’m a swimmer and I play piano and I do some other school activities, too, so I’m pretty busy. I mostly find time on the weekends to program. When I was working on Rectangle, entire weekends would be devoted to coding.

Tech Cocktail: Do you have any advice for young app developers? 

Ye: One main thing is just stay passionate about what you’re doing. You have to love what you’re doing and you have to let that motivate you.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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