What do you ask an 11-year-old tech prodigy? What kinds of things do you talk about? He probably knows more about technology and software than you do. (In this case, he definitely does.) How do you begin the conversation? These were the questions I had to answer before speaking with Joshua Agboola (and his dad) for this interview.
But in thinking about these things and eventually conversing with his bright mind, I began to see more clearly what the future could look like. What if more children were like Joshua? What if Nigeria’s educational system was better designed to accommodate the inevitable future that Joshua continuously talks about; a future dominated by artificial intelligence and robots? What if more parents were like Joshua’s – dedicated to helping their children build careers that are ever relevant, but at their own pace?
These are some of the things I discussed with Joshua and his dad. I hope you enjoy the conversation and learn from it as much as I did.
David Adeleke (DA): Hello Joshua, hello Mr Agboola. Joshua, please introduce yourself briefly.
Joshua Agboola (JA): My name is Joshua Agboola. I am a programmer, a speaker, and a future skills activist. I am also into the advocacy of the teaching of tech skills to young people at an early age.
DA: Awesome. So you started learning to code at the age of six, correct?
DA: What got you on this path? Why did you decide to start coding at the age of six?
JA: One of the things that got me into learning to code is music. At an early age, I loved to mimic songs. My dad recognized these skills and gave me a piano. Playing the piano helped me learn two things. First, it made me develop my finger skills. It also gave me the confidence to speak on a stage.
Another thing that got me into the tech space was my dad encouraging me to learn new things. At the age of six, my sister was already attending a technology school. My dad suggested that I follow her there since there would be no one at home to take care of me. My dad asked them to create a curriculum for me. But the teachers were hesitant. They asked my dad why he’d bring a child my age to a computer school. But my dad told them not to underestimate me. By the time I was done with the programme, they were surprised by what I could do.
DA: Were you coding before then?
JA: That was my first time I learnt how to code, at the age of six. I joined the program before I turned six and celebrated my 6th birthday in that school.
VA: Nice. Tell me about the challenges you’ve faced, particularly for someone as young as you are?
JA: Apart from teaching me tech skills, coding has also taught me patience in a way. Sometimes I try to develop an app and I get stuck. I see the code fail over and over again before it works. At times like these, I ask myself, “Why can’t codes just work normally? Why can’t I just type the code once and it will run properly instead of having to spend two hours on stack overflow or having to find out what the error is. So one of the challenges I face is the amount of work that it takes to fix all those bugs when the program doesn’t work well.
DA: You are a future skills activist and I assume this has come with a lot of opportunities. Can you tell me about some of those opportunities? The biggest one or your favourite?
JA: Apart from increasing my knowledge, being a future skills activist has brought me opportunities like Techpoint 2019. When my dad brought me in, people were like, “How would a nine-year-old be able to speak in front of people in their 20s and 50s?” They felt it was a waste of time. By the time I got in there, they were surprised at what I could do. This also paved the way for other speaking engagements.
Another opportunity I got was a scholarship of N1.8 Million from technology school, Semicolon Africa, and I’m grateful for that.
DA: Your recent projects include an image classifier, a voice assistant and a swear-word remover to protect the morality of children online. How do these work, and where can people find them?
JA: These are projects I work on by the side when I am bored. I keep trying to test my programming skills by coming up with new products sporadically. A few days ago, I created a program that allows you to scroll through pictures with your eyes. You can check out my projects on my Github. I am also currently uploading new products like the one I created a few days ago.
DA: Interesting. In a recent TED talk you gave, you mentioned being discriminated against. Do you experience this often, and how do you deal with it?
JA: Well, what I was trying to say is that the adult world, in trying to protect us kids, ends up putting restrictions that tend to hold down our potential. For instance, Google will not allow me to create a normal email address until I am 13. The email I get for my age only permits me to watch Youtube kids. Imagine going online trying to learn adobe or agile, and being presented with nursery rhymes (Mary had a little Lamb). It is inconvenient because on Youtube Kids, it’s hard to find what I want to learn.
I understand the idea of it since there are age-restricted content on Youtube. But apart from Youtube, there are other places where I have gotten these restrictions. I was trying to sign up for a top cyber-security course and I couldn’t get in because I was too young. I was only able to overcome this by getting permission from my parents to use their emails and signing up for these courses so I can learn.
DA: I get you. I think that explains why you had to get on this call with your mum’s login details.
DA: It’s a valid concern. So what is your advice to kids who are interested in technology like you?
JA: I’ll advise kids to keep pushing on. Artificial intelligence and robotics are going to wipe out thousands of jobs. Most of the jobs we are seeing today will not exist in the future. Some of your jobs as journalists are even at risk. There are now AI robots that can compile and write articles on any topic of interest and make them available to news organisations. In the next 15 years, so many jobs will get eradicated. AI will wipe out 40 percent of the world’s jobs and create new ones.
My advice for kids is for them to be more curious and more curious every single day. You start learning about newer stuff in coding, opening up their minds, and compelling their parents to sign them up for tech programs and all these things. I started programming when I was six and my younger brother started when he was four. He has increased his skills by believing in himself and putting more work into his coding. It is always interesting to see six-year-old creating websites. My advice is that if I can do it, you too can do it. That’s one of my watchwords.
Someone asked me what my philosophy of life is, and I said, “you can do it.” I never knew what the term philosophy of life meant, but what came out of my mouth was, “you can do it”. Even when I lose my focus, I have to get it back. If you want to excel in the tech space, focus and hard work are what you need. And ask your parents to enrol you in tech programs.
DA: You love Timi Dakolo’s great nation. What sort of country will Nigeria be if these skills are adopted?
JA: I love Timi Dakolo’s song because it is very prophetic and speaks to a greater Nigeria in the future. A Nigeria different from what we are seeing and experiencing now. I feel that if the technology skills I keep talking about and advocating for are embraced, we can transform Nigeria into a true giant of Africa and a leader in innovation.
New economic wealth will be created and many jobs created for our unemployed youth. One of the things that cause insecurity in Nigeria, is that the youths are jobless or have tried looking for jobs to no avail. Picking up technology skills is an easy career path that anyone can get into.
DA: Final question for you, Joshua. Who are your favourite Youtubers? Mention three or four of them?
JA: Andrei Jikh,Graham Stephan, Jlaservideo and Dude Perfect.
DA: Hello Mr. Agboola. What are some of the challenges that children face in the tech space? What steps have you taken to keep Joshua safe?
Mr Agboola: Well there are many challenges but in terms of safety, there is a lot of orientation that you need to give your children from the start, about what they will likely encounter on the net. I’m not sure, but I expect that the Nigerian curriculum for ICT has that, if it doesn’t that is certainly a minus.
Upfront education is the best, as it creates an orientation for them. You’re trying to define for them the difference between right and wrong, white and black, while the world is trying to blur the lines. Sometimes, you have shades of grey. For example, Joshua spends a lot of time on Youtube for research. There are times he comes to me to tell me he has observed something wrong. When he sees something that is inappropriate, he disengages, because of the orientation he has.
DA: Joshua attends school twice a week, attends IT classes for three days and still has speaking engagements. How do you balance all these? Does he have time to play like other kids?
Mr Agboola: Joshua gets a lot of time to play. We are very mindful of trying to strike a bit of that balance even though we say he needs to focus. When he is done with his coding, he has time to just browse Youtube and do some fun stuff. Sometimes we try to make entertainment educational. There are times when he runs around with his brother. There are times when we sit as a family and we play scrabble. As a family, we go on vacations, where he is off screens and the laptop. We are very mindful that he must not lose his childhood excitement while exploring the tech space. The tech space affords him a lot of opportunities to play as well. He plays a lot of games. He and his brother play games on their system and have a lot of fun. By and large, we are trying to strike a balance for him.
DA: The rejections he got from certain schools at the onset, despite his obvious talent. What would you say that tells us about the educational system in Nigeria? Is that an indictment?
Mr Agboola: Well, I will want to stand a little in the middle. The rejections are a kind of indictment. In “more advanced” economies, when they see talent, what they do is try to encourage talent. I have these family friends of mine. When I went on vacation in the US, their younger son, who seemed to be brilliant in class, was changed from a regular school to a school for gifted children. So they assess children based on their performance and separate the cream of the crop, putting them in a special school where they give them an advanced curriculum and try to nurture their talent. These are some of the things countries like America do that allow them to maintain their leadership in innovation.
Some years ago, the federal government tried to implement a gifted school system, but that program was not sustained. Now, our federal government colleges are a shadow of their former selves. In America, there is room for homeschooling. There is a homeschooling association. They have created a curriculum for that. I met a lady who homeschooled her seven children in texas. Homeschooling takes children up to the secondary school level. It’s just that there is no homeschooling at the university level. We don’t have that system strongly established here. I know some parents are trying to start a homeschooling association here in Nigeria. I don’t know if they have obtained government approval. If we had that system here, it would be easier for Joshua, so we have to find a way to navigate around that. When talent has been identified, it needs to be nurtured quickly, especially when the mind is still “tabula rasa.” If you read the story of Bill Gates, you will discover that at some time, he had to balance between his education and developing his skills.
The interviewer, David I. Adeleke is a writer, communications strategist, and media analyst with over seven years of experience. His work explores technology, media, culture, and the factors that influence how people think, live and do business. Currently, he is the Head of Communications at Eko Atlantic City and Author of Communique, a media and communications newsletter.