Meet 16-Year-Old iPhone App Developer Jason Chitla [INTERVIEW]

April 26, 2013

11:00 am

We’re chatting at 4 pm – after 16-year-old Jason Chitla comes home from school – and he’s rambling about things that most high schoolers don’t ramble about. He throws around phrases like “indie” developer, “appreneur,” and app store optimization strategy. He recalls struggling with the decision of freemium vs. paid and learning cocos2d, something I’ve never even heard of. All in the voice of a teenager.

Chitla began developing apps four years ago, at age 12. It all started with an iPod, a Sega game, and a question from his father: “Why don’t you make a game?” With no one to teach him, Chitla pieced together his programming knowledge from a combination of YouTube videos, online sources, Apple documentation, and the iOS SDK. He’s since learned game engines and graphic design to make his games more sophisticated.

Those games have garnered around 16,000 downloads, he estimates. His latest is Gangnam Style or Harlem Shake?, a fast-paced game where you have to quickly identify which viral video a clip comes from. That’s still getting 200 downloads per day, he says. His other apps are Dummy vs. Zombies, the simpler Falling Rockz, and uCreate.

Below, Chitla talks about his life as a young, self-taught app developer and his plans for the future.

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

Jason Chitla: I’m easily inspired to do things. I always liked building things – I liked engineering and technology. When I was little, I used to like figuring out how things worked. Me and my brother used to open up computers and game consoles and look at the inside. We didn’t really know what it was inside – we just opened it up and looked at it and were confused on how everything worked – but it was pretty cool.

I wouldn’t have imagined back then that you could have put your own work into a market, so it was just really cool to me to think you could make an app. So I tried it and I’m still trying to do it.

Tech Cocktail: Where do you get your inspiration for new games? 

Chitla: I have a lot of ideas. But you have to consider the time – especially since I’m in school, with lacrosse and all the clubs I’m in (Key Club, Beta Club, Interact Club, FBLA). I usually come home at 7, so I don’t have a lot of time. That’s why my last app, I had to wait until spring break to do it. But this summer I’m going to make a lot of apps, so I can’t wait for this summer.

I just have a notebook and I write down ideas, and usually I just write down my favorite casual game. I can’t make big games yet.

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

Chitla: Not long ago, about a year ago, I thought you just make an app, and if it was good, it would do really well and it would be a good app and a lot of people would buy it. But that was not the case. Now, [there are] so many competitors and – if you’re an indie – you have to be really good at publishing to the app store and marketing. And marketing, you have to know how to use keywords, and search engine optimization, and app store optimization, and all the different forms of promotions there are. And you just have to be good in all aspects of mobile app development, so that was pretty hard to learn. I just looked it up on Google, and I found really good, informative blogs.

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

Chitla: I like doing all the business. It’s a really fun hobby to do, and it keeps me busy, and it’s like a puzzle, kind of. Especially the coding. There’s different algorithms you have to implement in different systems. For my second-to-last app, Dummy vs. Zombies . . . I had to make my own algorithm system where, when you swipe up, you would get rid of this one zombie.

Tech Cocktail: What’s been most surprising about the whole process? 

Chitla: It was just surprising how someone like me, just a kid, could make an app and put it on the app store for the whole world to see.

And especially looking at the analytics after your app went onto the app store and seeing the different countries and seeing the ranks you are. My last app, Gangnam Style or Harlem Shake?, I like looking at AppAnnie.com and going and seeing my rank of the app. It was #1 featured in United States in dice games and music games. It’s not really a dice games, but the dice and the music categories are probably – I’ve been doing testing – they’re probably the easiest categories to rank in. I get free advertising basically, because I can get on the New and Noteworthy charts of the app store easily, and that’s just free advertising and that just means more downloads.

Tech Cocktail: Do you tell your friends that you make apps? 

Chitla: Yeah, they think it’s really cool, also. One of my friends, he helps with the marketing and social networking. We just joke around and he pretends like he’s my business partner.

Tech Cocktail: Do you want to keep doing this after high school? 

Chitla: I really want to keep doing this because it’s a fun hobby, but I really want to do this as my job in the future. As a backup, I know that being a software engineer or just being computer savvy, you can have a good job out of that. But that’s just a backup if this appreneur business doesn’t work. I just can’t wait until this summer when I can keep making more apps. . . .

I want to just start working right after high school, but if it’s necessary then I would go to college. But I’d still be doing this. I just have to see how everything turns out.

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

Chitla: Not giving up would probably be the best one. You can spend a lot of time on one app just to see it fail, and if you don’t get back up after that failure, you’re not really going to do good. It’s a great lesson learned to know how the system works and know all of these aspects of mobile app development, and you just have to keep learning and don’t give up.

There’s a lot of times [when I’m frustrated], but now, even if I do get mad, it’s just part of the game. It’s really fun.

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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 [email protected]

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