A few weeks ago, Grenada became the butt of an international joke when tech blogger, Robin Wauters, teasingly tweeted, “Could Grenada be the next Silicon Valley?”.
The wider point Wauters was making was fair; in the hunt to find the next big thing, the media do often create odd analogies. Yet his use of Grenada as shorthand for a place without hope or promise is unjustified.
A generation of young tech entrepreneurs is growing on the island, despite admittedly inhospitable conditions. Rather than mocking the Spice Isle, what’s needed are offers of support and credible ways to champion youth trying to forge a path in tech, as the likes of Bevil Wooding have done.
We’re proud to feature mobile and web developer, Lovell Felix, on this year’s 40 under 40 list. Felix, who created the popular Grenadian Buzz app, not only illustrates what can be achieved if you commit your mind to something, his story also highlights how good employers can recognise talent in their young employees and encourage them to flourish.
You’ve created many apps. Why do you think Grenadian Buzz has been so successful, in terms of demand?
I think it’s because there are many Grenadian living abroad that want to keep up with what’s happening in Grenada without having to go through any hassle of doing it. The need has been there for years.
Grenadian Buzz serves as a tool for Grenadians to bridge the gap. Also, the quality of the Caribbean / Grenadian apps on the Google Play Store is not where it should be, in my opinion. Grenadian Buzz on the other hand, follows Google Android app design guidelines, and has a clean consistent look. I also frequently update the app.
There are also some key questions I asked myself before I release an update which I think is helping the popularity of Grenadian Buzz: Is the quality good enough or great? Is it easy to use? Did you address the needs of the users?
In addition, I decided to experiment with Twitter as a form marketing, and the outreach exceeded my expectation. Grenadian Buzz started with less than 100 users using the app daily during the first year. Now I’m seeing over 800 people using the app every day. In the past four months, the app has been downloaded a little over 1,700 times. That’s way more than I envisioned when I created the app.
When did you discover that you enjoyed tech/coding and how did you develop your skills?
It started a few years ago when I was employed with Grenada Co-operative Bank. The bank was a great place to work. I was given many opportunities to grow professionally, and I enhanced my skills as a banker.
The staff members were simply the best, and to this day, it’s one of the best places I’ve worked. I always learned something new, because of the bank’s policy for cross-training employees. Life was pretty much good back then, but I didn’t feel passionate about what I did at the bank.
Around that time, I was fascinated with websites, and curious about how they worked. It was something I pondered about for weeks. Then I decided to use my Saturdays to do research, and teach myself about web development instead of hanging out with friends in Grenville.
Back then, information was limited, dial-up internet was unreliable, and there was no Google or YouTube. Can you imagine the horror? But it didn’t stop, or deter, me from obtaining the knowledge I needed to build my first website.
That moment ignited the burning desire that I still have today; to learn new technology. Further to that, Karina Johnson, who I must mention, encouraged me from day one to pursue what I’m passionate about, regardless of the difficulties I face.
Most of the skills I’ve acquired over the years have been obtained through resources I found on the internet. I spent numerous hours looking at YouTube videos and reading StackOverflow questions and answers.
Additionally, I contributed to open source projects on Github, and followed top developers in the industry on social media networks (mainly, Twitter and Google+). Also, I’ve improved my skills by helping others. I’m a big Zig Ziglar fan, and recently I truly understood what he meant when he said, “You can have anything you want in life if you help enough people get what they want.”
My most popular application, Grenadian Buzz, became a reality through helping a friend. One of my close friends workouts a lot in the gym and needed a way to listen to WeeFM while doing workout routines.
I thought about it for a few days then I decided to create a mobile application with WeeFm and other popular Grenadian radio stations for them to use while working out. I later submitted it to the TEXPO mobile application competition.
Before that, I did graphic design as well, and I became really good at it by helping another friend with their student government presidential election campaign. I designed all his digital media (logo, flyers, brochures and t-shirts).
I’ve also assisted some developers with their projects on Github and found solutions to problems in my applications in the process. The list goes on and on. Helping others goes a long way.
What is the biggest challenge you have had to overcome in your journey so far?
Programming the right way! As silly as it may sound, I’m a self-taught developer and there are so many things I don’t know that a freshman computer science student/developer knows from their initial college courses. There are some basic principles which I have either not yet grasped or have struggled to find the time to learn.
I did a Management Information System (MIS) bachelor degree at Midwestern State University, and as the name suggest it’s a management degree for businesses that have a concentration in information technology. I had little exposure to formal programming. Because of that, I took longer period of time to write trivial codes than a seasoned developer.
I was tempted to pursue a bachelor degree in Computer Science, but I later decided to drop in on courses that will help me overcome some of the difficulties. One of the classes I dropped in on was an Online Introductory Computer Science course at Stanford University. It helped me more than I expected. Now, I’m fluent in writing codes regardless of the language. It’s easy for me to pick new programming language.
Another challenge I faced, that I’m yet to overcome is being able to publish applications faster than other tech startups. There are applications that I worked on for months, and then later discovered someone or another tech giant created the same application while I’m working on it. Nonetheless, the good news is the ideas are still flowing
What advice would you give to young people in Grenada who are passionate about technology but who maybe feel disillusioned at the lack of opportunity?
I would encourage them to find their niche in the tech industry, maintain a positive outlook, and persist until they succeed in whatever they do. For instance, if they enjoy reading tech news or reviewing tech products then starting a blog or a YouTube Channel can be a great way to express their interest. They shouldn’t allow anyone to discourage them.
There are numerous success stories from people who found their niche in tech industry. A perfect example is Pete Cashmore. He’s the founder of Mashable and had his humble beginning with his tech blog. Similarly, Marques Brownlee started his YouTube Channel when he was 15. They both had two things in common; they enjoyed what they did and they kept at it. Now, Marques Brownlee has over two million subscribers to his YouTube channel and Pete Cashmore has over 40 million monthly visitors to his blog (Mashable).
This may sound like a cliché, but failure is a stepping stone to success. I’ve been there. About two years ago I started a project called “G-VIDZ” a Grenadian video sharing web application. It was designed to help young Grenadians to showcase their talent. It failed miserably. It couldn’t compete with YouTube or the other video sharing websites.
It was very difficult to obtain new content to get users to return to the website. Even though I failed at that project I learned a lot about API’s which I use in all of my current projects. It’s all about perspective. See the good in the bad, and “keep on keepin on” – Napoleon Hill.
In 2011, India provided the nation with an ICT Centre of Excellence and Grenada’s Prime Minister holds lead responsibility for ICT within the CARICOM cabinet, yet other Caribbean islands seem to be making faster strides in terms of establishing ICT innovation labs, hubs and incubators. Why do you think Grenada is falling behind and what can be done to address this?
Never heard about it until now and probably that’s the main reason Grenada is falling behind. In the light of that, there is a need for awareness, so that others can get involved in the program.
Also, I went through the courses offered at the ICT Center of Excellence, and the prerequisites seem to be tailored for students with five CXC (including Math, English and IT), college graduates with previous experience in IT, and people currently working in the industry.
I’m not sure what the statistics are for college grads with IT experience or secondary school students that meet the basic requirements, and IT professionals in Grenada, but I’m certain it’s not large number.
So I’m here wondering how exactly they are trying to promote and increase IT knowledge awareness to create direct employment, and facilitate penetration of ICT usage in rural areas??? Maybe there is something I’m missing.
I think the government and other stakeholders should encourage groups like MISIT Students Association of SGU to host IT workshops and meet-ups to get to know each other, and talk about the current trends in the industry.
I’ve been following their group for about four years now, and every year they impress me with their activities. We (as a country) need host events to solve real world (Grenadian) problems that are targeted to secondary schools and college students.
One example could be providing farmers with real-time statistics about crops that are currently being cultivated. I’m certain it would help with quantity of produce in the market. It definitely will keep the farmers, marketing board, and consumers happy. No more shortage of tomatoes and no more excess carrots? Sound perfect right? Also, tracking bus routes and so on.
Do you have any plans to return to Grenada? What do you ultimately wish to achieve?
Yes. I do plan to return home. I’ve been working on an application for over three years. There is some technology I need that is not available as yet, so I have to wait for it. Some may think I’m too optimistic about something that may never happen, but Steve Jobs faced the same dilemma with the iPad. He had specs for a book like computer with touch screen since 1983, but he had to wait for flat screen touch panel and other technology to become available.
I’m somewhat in the same boat. I can’t get into too much detail about it, but after it’s completed and published for the rest of the world to use, I will be able to focus on helping other achieving their goals, specifically Grenadians. One day I hope to host hackathons, motivational seminars and open a venture capitalist firm to encourage young Grenadians to innovate.