A story of how a man who grew up in a “small village in Africa” stepped out of his comfort zone, taught himself how to code, and is now building a product to connect people through Soundwave, a social audio mobile app
The first line of code Dan Ndombe ever wrote was on pen and paper, as he followed instructions from a manual teaching BASIC, a family of programming languages first used nearly 60 years ago. Since his childhood in Africa, Dan has travelled multiple continents, learned to speak 8 different languages (not including any programming languages), and has founded his own startup, called Soundwave, a voice-based social platform giving its users a place to speak freely and be heard.
In addition to being a startup founder, Dan is also an instructor for CodePath’s virtual iOS course. At the end of the course, students will have built their own functional iOS mobile app and more.
The other day, I had the opportunity to catch up with Dan and get his thoughts on tech, opportunity, and diversity. To say the least, I was inspired to step out of my comfort zone after our conversation.
You can read our conversation below. (Note: edits have been made for brevity and clarity.)
My questions are in bold, while Dan’s answers are italicized.
How’d you get started with your career?
Statistically, I’m not supposed to be where I am, and I never intended to become a software engineer per se. I was born in the Congo, Central Africa, to rural doctor parents, far away from computers, in a village of about 500 people.
Sometime in my childhood, I came across a book, I think it was called BASIC, which is an old programming language. I didn’t know anything about programming back then. I kind of felt like the book was talking to me, because I could understand what it was about, even though I didn’t speak a word of English. So I started learning programming with pencil and paper. And that’s how I wrote my first code.
As I grew up, I just knew I wanted to build things and build solutions. I eventually left my home country after college, where I received a degree in mathematics, became a travel photographer, and while doing photography, I also got another degree in computer science, and eventually ended up in the US. And that’s when my career started. I learned about computer science the first time I went to college, in Arkansas. For me as this African kid who [hadn’t had exposure to] computer science, it felt challenging.
But I also felt like there was a fun journey ahead, something that I was going to learn lifelong lessons from. I got my first internship out of college at a company called Acxiom and then after that I worked for a small startup, and then decided to try my luck and come to the Bay Area, with no offers and no job.
One night, I was googling around and came across something called CodePath. And they had just closed the application for their Mobile Development class. I had never done mobile, but I felt like the trend of technology is going towards mobile. I thought, “I’m going to try and apply. I’m probably not going to get in,” but I heard back from Tim [CodePath’s co-founder and Chief Learning Officer] that same night. He said something like, “Well, the deadline was today, but if you can send in the application and supporting materials tonight, then we’ll review it.”
I worked overnight to turn in the assignment, and that’s how I got into CodePath. From CodePath, I felt inspired from seeing other people like me, who wanted to learn and who had that hunger. And there were people like Tim and Nathan and Michael [CodePath’s co-founders] who were creating that opportunity for people like myself and others who are not the traditional Silicon Valley engineer.
To see that I have a place, and that there are people dedicating themselves to making me comfortable made me want to get involved as well. So that’s how I became an instructor at CodePath. After CodePath, I received my first role as an engineer in Silicon Valley. I worked at Netflix as a senior engineer, and before that I had several offers. Sometime later, I decided to do product management at Pinterest instead, and I worked there for about a year before I left to start my own company.
It’s been very, very rewarding to be a co-founder, while also working with CodePath students.
I was lucky that I came across people that helped me. I don’t think I would be in California starting a company today, if I hadn’t sent that email, and if Tim hadn’t answered that night because the only other alternative I found was a $15,000 boot camp in New York.
I was lucky that I came across people like them. I’m also proud to say that our team [in CodePath’s course] made the top three, and we presented our mobile app project to Facebook. That was the coolest thing I had ever done back then. I think if we just keep opening that pathway for people, for the students that otherwise would not end up in technology, you find that there’s so much potential that would be lost. Right now, we have the opportunity to encourage these students and give them the boost of confidence that they need.
As a founder, do you see any trends that are happening in the mobile development world, be it technical or social, and do you have any thoughts or opinions on those?
I do. I think social media is shifting. Social media is like a superpower. I could go out and meet friends or catch up with family by doing things like playing volleyball or going to a party and meeting some people. Or I could be anywhere and turn on my phone, and make new friends, but at a much different scale. I could still talk to my friends and catch up with my family, but be able to do more than I normally could.
But unfortunately, in the last 10 years, I think social media has lost its original intent. I still think social media has a place in society though. People are looking for new ways to connect right now. And ways that are less about your image, but more about just being yourself. I think that’s why we’re seeing the rise of technology around voice and audio like Clubhouse, for example. There’s no way to be sure, but I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a new era and a new type of content that is based around what you have to say rather than how you look. I’m hoping for more Soundwave, more people expressing their opinions and feeling safe about talking about things, rather than just posting content for the mere sake of getting a million views and likes.
The trend that I see is that people are looking for new ways to connect. That may have had to do with COVID and how we all were pushed into a corner and rediscovered how important those authentic connections were. I’m hoping it’s the start of something big, and with Soundwave, we’re hoping that we’re going to be up at the front leading this change.
How would you describe your current job to a five year old?
We allow people to talk to each other and to tell stories.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I have several things. I think I got super lucky with the team that I put together. My favorite part of the job is not the job. It’s the people, whether it’s the people I’m working with, or the people that are using the product. I’m not passionate about programming, I’m not passionate about engineering. Engineering is a tool, like a hammer or a screwdriver that allows you to build things for people. So I’m passionate about building solutions for people. So my favorite part is, you know, that feeling I get from seeing that my team loves working on this common goal.
And also the feedback that we get from people who use our product.
What’s your least favorite part of your job?
I think as a non-traditional founder, my least favorite thing has been realizing how much work there is to do to build diversity in tech. As much as I like the challenge of building a product,I get reminded, for example, that because we are a minority founded company, it’s going to take a lot more work, and that we’re going to waste a lot more time doing the stuff that other people won’t have to do to get to where we want to be.
And it’s a problem that I’m hoping Silicon Valley will deal with and change eventually. I think there’s a lot being done to change things. But I think as a non-traditional founder in Silicon Valley, it’s something that you cannot forget. It’s something that you are reminded of everyday. So that’s something that I think about.
If you don’t mind, could you tell me more about this experience?
I think we are all aware of the diversity issues in Silicon Valley–CodePath would not be relevant without it. And it’s the number one reason why I want to get involved with CodePath.
Typically, there are great teams within great companies with great culture, but the individuals are not always educated enough or willing to understand at a deeper level that it’s not just about technology. It’s also about accepting people and understanding that diversity of opinion, diversity of background, and diversity of experience actually leads to a much better product.
My experience is that most companies are doing a great job. The PR and communications departments do excellent work to highlight inclusion and diversity, but there are still issues at individual levels. It doesn’t matter if the company publishes a memorandum about their love for diversity, if the person you sit across from every single day doesn’t want you there because of their own experiences [and biases] from their own life.
And the only opportunity they have to get rid of that bias is one online training where they answer some questions once a year. That is not a very effective way of solving the problem. So it’s almost like a tug of war, you have this big movement and companies that are doing the right things, but at an individual level, there needs to be that same level of buy-in to change behaviors.
I’m very encouraged though. Right now, for example, we’re raising money and I’ve been surprised by the amount of information that’s out there about diversity and inclusion in the VC world. A couple of years ago, things looked a lot different, but right now I’ve been really encouraged by the amount of effort that’s gone into affecting change. I think things are going in the right direction, and I think CodePath plays a big role in that. Because if you can introduce more people who are more diverse and make diversity a reality, then inclusion will become automatic, instead of something that people have to go out of their way to experience.
I got myself out of that comfort zone. And I’ve never been disappointed.
What skills do you think have made you successful in your current position?
Getting myself out of my comfort zone. That, I think, is the number one thing that I hope more people will do. It’s easier sometimes than others.
I’m not saying I’ve made it, or whatever, but I like where I am right now, and I feel like I would have never made it here, if I didn’t leave everything behind. I moved to a new country. I didn’t even speak English 8 years ago.
Going to computer science class, even though I didn’t have a computer, and I didn’t know English, and I had never done programming. Moving to California with some savings, basically the same way people move to LA to become actors, with no idea of what I was going to do, knowing it’s super expensive, and sending that email to Tim [CodePath’s co-founder and Chief Learning Officer], knowing that I was late. And you know, starting a company. I feel like there are so many things I could have shied away from because they either seem daunting, or because I was told I wasn’t going to make it, or because I was told not to because it’s not the right thing to do. or because it’s too hard.
I got myself out of that comfort zone. And I’ve never been disappointed. I don’t know if it’s a skill per se, or if it’s a policy that I have for myself: that discomfort should never be the reason why I don’t do something.
That’s something I always make sure to tell my students at the end of every cohort where we just chat about things and I give them advice. Get out of your comfort zone. It’s not going to kill you. You might feel small because you get rejected, but more often than not, you’ll learn something about yourself, but sometimes you’ll get what you want.
What outcomes are you looking for as a CodePath instructor?
The reason why I teach iOS specifically is because the world is becoming more mobile, there are more opportunities for people to build solutions and companies built around mobile. I did not know how to code for iOS or mobile before CodePath. CodePath is where I wrote my first line of iOS code, and the same code fundamentals that I learned in CodePath are what I use to build Soundwave.
The world is going mobile, and the outcome I’m looking for as an instructor is inspiration. I want to inspire at least one person, the way I was inspired. I want to show anyone–even if it’s just one person–who feels inadequate or feels like there’s no place for them, or feels like they aren’t smart enough, or that they weren’t born into the right background, that if I was born in a tiny village somewhere in Africa and I can make it to this level, then sure enough you can too! I just care about what they will unlock for themselves, and how eventually, it’s going to allow them to inspire even more people, and then pay it forward that way. That’s the outcome I want every time I teach a class.
What outcomes do you think the students are looking for?
What I’ve gotten from them is that they just want to feel welcome. The feedback that we’ve gotten is “Now I feel like I can do this. I didn’t feel like I could. But now I feel like I can do this.”
Because at the end of the class, they all have apps that they’ve built. And six or eight weeks before that, they had never written a single line of code for iOS. So the outcome that I’ve seen is also looking for that inspiration, but also looking for the proof or the assurance that they can do it. And I’m hoping that’s what we’re bringing to them. For every single cohort, I usually stay in touch with a few students who want to have these check-ins every couple of weeks on Zoom. And the conversation I had last week with one of the students was exactly that. They’re like, “I don’t necessarily feel smart enough to do this, but CodePath has given me the fire to explore and to keep pushing. And if I hadn’t done CodePath, I think I would have not even considered this.” So I think that’s what most students are looking for.
If you had a million dollar windfall, what would you do with it?
The same thing that I’m still hoping to do someday, regardless of if there’s a million dollars or not. I want to be in the business of inspiring people. Back in 2016, I went back to my country for the first time in eight years, and with $10,000 we were able to organize a hackathon for 150 people for three days. So that tells me it doesn’t take millions of dollars to inspire people, it just takes time, it just takes the willingness to do it, and it takes the understanding of how impactful small things can be. So of course, if I had a million dollars, I would create more of these opportunities.
There are a bunch of places in America, Africa, Asia, South America, and in Europe, where you’re going to find 15 or 30 or 40 kids who have no access to anything, and if you can give them computers and get them training for six months or something, you empower them to improve their own community and solve their own problem and inspire others. I’m only thinking about that because somebody thought that about me. So that’s what I would do with a million dollars if I had it today.
CodePath’s iOS course offers CS students a chance to flex their development skills in a rigorous project-based class. This is the same course that Dan took back in 2017 and is now teaching. Interested in learning more about CodePath’s courses? Visit https://codepath.org/classes to learn more!