Meet the 21-year-old tech genius behind Uber, Instagram and Snapchat
Iddris Sandu is the 21-year-old unconventional tech genius responsible for algorithms that have made Uber, Instagram and Snapchat what they are today. Here he opens up about his more recent projects and what technology holds in store for music and fashion in the future.
I meet Iddris at the Chateau Marmont, Los Angeles. A trendy location to match the man himself. Sporting a white denim jacket and some killer kicks, this is no ordinary tech wizard. As it turns out, nothing about Iddris is conventional.
Born and raised by his West African mother in Torrance, California, for the majority of his life, Iddris faced a traumatic experience at the age of 8, when his father made a reappearance. “He wanted to take me on a trip to Ghana. I remember thinking, you know what, he’s making an effort, let’s just cherish the moments while we can have them. But on the fourth day of the trip he abandoned me in this village, took my passport and came back to the States.” Iddris was abandoned for around 9 months, eventually smuggled out by an NGO worker, who got in contact with the US embassy in Ghana and enabled him to travel back home. Around the time of his return to the States, the first ever iPhone was unveiled. This is what kickstarted Iddris’s tech journey. “I just got super inspired. I thought – this device is going to change the world. The reason why the iPhone was so important was because it was the first time when regular consumers could develop for other regular consumers. Before, you really had to work at a tech company for multiple years to be able to offer any sort of input or to create an app. But Apple made it so mainstream. I knew it was the future.”
Displaying an incredible sense of independence and ingenuity, 10-year-old Iddris took himself off to the public library, teaching himself “every single programme language” over the course of around 2 years. While he was there, someone who worked at Google happened to notice him, asking Iddris what piqued his interest in coding. Iddris told him, “I want to affect the world in a positive way, and make a positive change. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, I have no idea, but I just feel like the iPhone is going to be really monumental towards shaping the face of the next generation.” Being given a kind of mini-internship at the company at the age of 13 allowed Iddris to get his hands dirty in the world of programming for the first time. “I worked on a lot of stuff. The initial Google blogger, Google Plus, and a whole bunch of infrastructures and stuff. But the year after that I wanted to focus on really applying my skills. Up to that point, even when I was at Google, it was just retention. I wanted to start changing and affecting change.” So Iddris wrote an app for his high school at the age of 15, giving students turn by turn directions to navigate their classrooms. “We were the only school in California that had an app, and it was made by a student, so we got a lot of recognition and I would later meet the President through that.” Around the same time, Iddris wrote an algorithm that he would go on to sell to Instagram. By 18 he was consulting for Snapchat.
It’s really hard to get out of poverty or to change the structure of economic power if you’re always going to be a consumer rather than creating. Shifting that narrative is what I’ve been trying to do. And thus far, it’s worked, it’s successful.
19 marked another turning point in his career. Iddris became involved with Uber. “I created this algorithm, this piece of software, called ACDI (Autonomous Collision Detection Interface.” By monitoring the driver’s hand position in 3D space, the interface could adjust the control the driver had over the car. “But Uber was the last major tech company that I worked with.” Why? “After that I just had this ultimate epiphany of wanting to help impact kids that looked like me, and being able to provide information to the masses.”
Providing information to the masses is at the very core of what Iddris does. He likes to call himself an ‘architect’, focusing on bridging the divide between the informed and the uninformed. “I’m definitely trying to decentralise technology because right now it is centralised and it’s inherently biased. Steve Jobs, when he first thought of the Apple computer, he wasn’t thinking that only one type of colour or one type of person should be allowed to use this. But he was thinking about the middle class American family. And, by default, what he created was inherently biased, because it didn’t speak to the issues of the lower class.” Information needs to be levelled across all classes and races, says Iddris. “Information is one of the highest forms of class. And that is what keeps people divided. You should be able to think on a higher level, instead of being strictly consumers. And people of colour in particular are more likely to be consumers than creators. It’s really hard to get out of poverty or to change the structure of economic power if you’re always going to be a consumer rather than creating. Shifting that narrative is what I’ve been trying to do. And thus far, it’s worked, it’s successful.”
Also central to Iddris’s mission is to inform the younger generations, whom he somewhat feels have lost the drive for invention and creativity. “Especially within this generation, we are less prone to see kids creating infrastructure that isn’t dependent on other services.” This is why Iddris has been so vocal about encouraging the study of STEM subjects in schools and at higher level. “By allowing even the lowest income housing kids to be able to create, you can sort of help them establish not only economic power but influence in the right way. What’s really important for the next generation to understand is that yes, we are all consumers, but we can also create. What if Instagram shuts down tomorrow? We need to be equipped with the next generation of tech.”
Iddris’s more recent projects have been about combining the creative arts with technology. After a run in with hip hop artist Nipsey Hussle at Starbucks, the two collaborated on a ‘smart-store’. “When we actually launched the store, we were able to take exclusive music from Nipsey, that wasn’t on Spotify or SoundCloud, and we used technologies like Augmented Reality to enhance the product with it. If you buy a shirt, not only do you get an exclusive clothing item, but you get an exclusive song, accessible through an app on your phone.” Diddy, Jay-Z and Vegas Jones have all visited the store. “It signified a lot. But I think the most important thing it did was it helped shift mindsets.” Iddris recalls a message he received on Instagram following the store opening. “Someone wrote to that their initial instinct that day was to go and shoot someone. But seeing the work that Nipsey and I had done together inspired them and showed that there were other ways than violence.” For Iddris, this was proof that leaving the big tech companies like Uber to make a real change was the right path.
Iddris has recently created his own music, putting together the sonics and instrumentals in just 3 days to form a full album. “There are no vocals, but you can almost feel the vocals through the music without them needing to be there.” Having a condition called synaesthesia (he is able to hear colour and see sound), the languages of technology and music are constantly overlapping for Iddris. “Music in general is something I definitely want to focus on in the future, and contribute to in a way that has not been done before. I want to apply a different aesthetic with my design eye. Just like fashion. I can apply a different vision to how products should be designed, or how music should sound, or the motif behind how music is received.” Like technology, Iddris sees creativity as having a positive knock-on effect on decentralisation of information and influence. “I can see in the future more consumers being innately creators. Just by trying to consume, more people are going to create. Within the fashion industry – with things like 3D printing and laser scanning – we’re starting to move away from traditional manufacturing methods. And the people manufacturing these products aren’t going to be fashion designers necessarily – they’ll be ordinary people. Similar to what a lot of app developers are able to do with apps, consumers are going to be able to do with fashion. It’s going to be really interesting.”
In order to create, however, you need to be informed. And Iddris’s main message for people – whether wanting to go into tech, music, fashion or media – is to inform themselves. “Equip yourself with every form of information. All information is good. I always encourage people to learn as much as you can from whatever information you have.” More so, once you have that information, learn to apply it creatively. “I feel like the reason why what I did with Nipsey was so successful was because it wasn’t orthodox. Don’t be afraid to make unconventional the new cool.” This last statement embodies Iddris Sandu totally – he fights all labels and boxes, explores new areas and applies himself in the most unexpected of ways. This 21-year-old tech wizard has so much more up his sleeve than he lets on, and I can’t wait to see he has in store in the future.