Michael Sayman, a Miami native and one of Silicon Valley’s youngest entrepreneurs, visited FIU this month to share career insights with new FIU students, who read his coming-of-age memoir "App Kid: How a Child of Immigrants Grabbed a Piece of the American Dream" this summer as part of the university’s Common Reading Program.
The program launched in Fall 2008 with a goal to create a shared experience among incoming, first-year students. Each year, the program selects a new book students may find relatable, which they read before the start of their first semester. The author is then invited to campus to discuss the book and answer students’ questions.
“The Common Reading Program helps to create a sense of community among newly admitted Panthers. It gives students something in common to talk about the moment they come on campus. Reading the book helps them develop their critical thinking skills as well as understand perspectives different from their own,” said Valerie Morgan, Ed.D., senior director of the Office of Academic Support Initiatives and Services.
Sayman’s memoir follows his swift rise to success after launching his first chart-topping smartphone app at the age of 13. Completely self-taught, Sayman earned an average of $10,000 per month from the repertoire of apps he programmed as a teenager and soon found himself supporting his family, whose small business suffered as a result of the Great Recession.
At 17, after traveling South America extensively during high school to share his experience on local and national news media, Sayman caught the attention of executives at Facebook. He was offered an internship and the opportunity to meet co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, which soon led to a full-time position during which he helped develop Instagram Stories and other popular features.
At FIU, Sayman told students that one of his biggest advantages throughout his career has been the perspective he offers tech companies as the child of immigrants from Peru and Bolivia and having grown up in Miami.
“The perspective that you have, being from Miami and not from Silicon Valley, gives you an advantage among Silicon Valley investors,” Sayman told students. “Fifty years from now, population-wise, the U.S. is going to look a lot more like Miami… and investors and developers are looking for products built with that population in mind.”
Sayman has since gone on to work for some of the biggest names in the industry, including Google, Roblox and a brief stint at Twitter; and he recently created Friendly Apps, a startup designed to help people connect in ways that are friendly to their mental health and physical well-being.
“The technology that we have in our pockets runs the world now… There’s a lot of good that [tech] does, but there’s a lot of bad stuff, too,” Sayman said of his inspiration to develop Friendly Apps.
"App Kid" also explores Sayman’s journey of self-discovery, divulging some of his most important life decisions, including his decision to pursue his career full-time rather than going to college (despite having been accepted to FIU after graduating from Belen Jesuit Preparatory School).
Although he chose not to pursue college, Sayman says he believes there is tremendous value in college education and advised students to consider this time an opportunity to “learn, make mistakes and grow” with the support of fellow classmates. It's an opportunity he says he missed out on by entering the workforce promptly after high school. Sayman’s younger sister Mariana – who inspired one of his first successful apps, 4 Snaps – currently attends FIU.
He also believes that those graduating college now, who have an interest in the tech industry, could be the key to a new era in which technology and apps are created with mental and physical well-being top of mind.
“For the first time, we’re getting college graduates who grew up using these [harmful] products and apps, but who have the knowledge and skills to effect change.”
Common reading programs are increasingly popular features of first-year programs at colleges and universities across the nation, and FIU is committed to bringing thought-provoking works to new Panthers each year.