How I Taught Myself to Code: Litha Soyizwapi at TEDxSoweto (Transcript)

Following is the full transcript of graphic designer and a self-taught app developer Litha Soyizwapi’s TEDx Talk: How I Taught Myself to Code at TEDxSoweto conference. This event occurred on November 22, 2014. To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.


Litha Soyizwapi – Creative Director and Founder of the GauRider

I’m a graphic designer by profession. But whenever I’m introduced as an app developer, this is what most people have in mind. Debug, app, pressure pressure… sorry to disappoint you; I’m not there yet.

My Story

My story is a story of failure. It is a story of gaining confidence and a story of achieving relative success.

I was born in a small town in the Eastern Cape called Butterworth. It was an industrial town. My mother was a geography teacher.

Growing up, there are a lot of maps at home. I learned how to read maps at an early age. There were topographic maps, were the maps of solar system charts and diagrams. I learned about different time zones. I learned about different hemispheres and more. But I was really interested in Settlement Geography.

To me, geography was a living subject. It taught me how human beings were influenced by nature and how they adapted based on their socio-economic needs. I learned about different human settlements: urban settlements and rural settlements. I learned about how they were different, how they were similar, and how they were organized.

Actually, this was my first introduction to graphic communication, using symbols and iconography to communicate concepts and items on a map. It was also my first introduction to information graphics, presenting data into a visual form. Actually, this understanding made the world a really small place to me and a more accessible place.

It sparked my imagination to visualize faraway places that I’ve never been to, even though I was in a small town. It also helped me to see similarities between different places. Actually this influences me every day to create practical things that can be used in the real world.

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I never studied art in high school. So when I went to study graphic design, I struggled with drawing in my first year. There are about 110 students in my first year, and about 90 of them wanted to study graphic design for their second year. The graphic design department only took about 20 students a year.

In order for me to be a graphic designer, I needed to be one of the 20 students, and drawing was the recommended subject. During the first quarter of my first year, I was the only student who failed drawing. I received 44%.

I went to my drawing lecturer. I asked him to give me a crit to critique my work. I asked him: Why was I failing and how could I be better? He gave me pointers. He told me what I was doing right. He told me what I was doing wrong. He also gave me an advice. He advised me to keep a sketchbook to draw everyday objects.

I took this advice to heart. During the holidays, I drew a lot. I drew even when I went back to Technicon. I drew till I finished the sketchbook. I finished the sketchbook and I bought a new one. I read books on drawing techniques. And then my drawing improved.

By the end of the second quarter, I jumped from 44% to 75%. This experience taught me three lessons. It taught me to learn the basics. It taught me to learn by doing. It also taught me to apply knowledge. These three lessons are the same lessons I used when I was teaching myself programming.

I’ve always loved programming. There’s something amazing about creating something that is intelligent, something that other people can use. I decided to learn this craft despite my fears and discouragements. There were many challenges along the road. The first challenge was access to tools.

The SDK which is the software development kit file size was huge. SDK is just a fancy word for toolbox, which is just tools to develop applications. There was a company that developed iPhone apps in Parktown North where I stayed at the time. I went in; I introduced myself; and I requested the copy of the SDK since they had already downloaded it.

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Well, they agreed at first but they later gave me a runaround. And in short, they never gave me the SDK. This experience made my desire and determination to want to learn how to do this even stronger. I asked a friend of mine, Ramos, sitting there just… he downloaded the SDK for me. I downloaded a lot of Apple documentation and I read through it all.

I read the human interface guidelines to understand how to create interfaces properly. I bought myself a book on iPhone programming and Objective C. Objective C is a programming language of choice for Apple devices. I tinkered around with the Apple source code and I tweaked it to my requirements.

I realized that the graphic design creative process was similar to the programming creative process. Both, they teach you how to think. They teach you to ask the question why. It is no secret that most of the influential tech entrepreneurs are University dropouts. I wanted to do the opposite and be a drop in, just for a year or two.

I wanted to learn the basics properly. I downloaded free online courses from MIT, Stanford University, and Carnegie Mellon University. The course contents included machine learning, iPhone programming, and introduction to computer science. With this newfound knowledge, I wanted to create a product that would be used in the real world.

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