Self-taught front-end developer and UI designer Ire Aderinokun discusses building sites for the next billion users
Self-taught front-end developer and UI designer Ire Aderinokun on building sites for the next billion users, enabling Nigerians to trade cryptocurrency instantly and going from tinkering with a fan site for online game Neopets to speaking at events all ov
Unlike many of us, Ire Aderinokun has experienced first-hand what it’s like to develop websites for the much-talked about next billion users – people who are coming online for the first time in countries such as India, Indonesia, Brazil and Nigeria, where Aderinokun lives.
“One of the most annoying things about Nigeria is the lack of consistent internet,” Aderinokun explains. “If it rains heavily, for example, the internet will not work very well and you just need to accept that. I have four or five different ISPs in my house. When one doesn’t work, I just use another one. It’s a lot of patchwork.”
People also tend to use very different devices (typically low-end mobiles) and browsers than those in developed nations, while two-thirds of users in Nigeria are on 2G. For Aderinokun, who went to school and university in England, where she got used to fast, reliable internet connections, that was the biggest shock on her return to Nigeria.
“I was working for a company here in Lagos and in Google Analytics I saw that maybe 20 per cent of the users were using Opera Mini,” she remembers. “I wasn’t even aware of that browser at the time! I downloaded it, opened up the business's site in Opera Mini and almost everything was broken!”
This prompted Aderinokun to think a lot more about the different experiences people have and test more on real devices and browsers. It also helped her understand how every aspect of writing and serving CSS impacts the user, including the selectors and properties you use, the order you write CSS and how the styles are eventually delivered. She found that progressive enhancement and performative CSS were the fundamental things to consider.
“It’s easy to view and test your sites in Chrome and Firefox but that’s not necessarily what our users are on,” Aderinokun explains. “I’ve learned to shift my mindset and not just go for the better developer experience and use the latest cool thing. For example, Flexbox has just been introduced to Opera Mini but CSS Grid isn’t there yet. There were times when I wanted to do something in Grid but I realised that the users were on Opera Mini and that I could achieve the same thing in Flexbox, which allowed me to make an informed decision.”
But Aderinokun points out that it’s not just about emerging markets. “There’s just a different user base on the internet today,” she explains. “Twenty years ago, maybe 99 per cent of your users were on desktop machines, in the US or Europe, male and very well versed in technology. It was a small subset of the actual population of the world but the demographic we’re targeting today is growing in both quantity and diversity. For example, you can’t guarantee that people in rural areas, even in the US, have a fast internet connection. You can’t guarantee much about anything anymore. We are now dealing with a huge spectrum of users that have so many varying needs, from people who use assistive technology to browse web pages to people who browse those same pages on $50 mobile phones. So the next billion users is a shift in the mindset of how you see your users. Nowadays, we’re actually targeting a population that’s more in line with the actual human population rather than just a subset of it.”
The best and most malleable sites, therefore, are built with as few assumptions about the end user as possible. This doesn’t mean your site needs to work for absolutely everyone. Aderinokun advises to start with knowing your actual user base. “If you’re building a site that’s supposed to be viewed by the average person in Nigeria, for example, that’s a completely different website than if you’re trying to build sites for the average person in the US. Knowing your user base helps a lot because it narrows down who you’re building for, even though anyone in the world can access it.”
Aderinokun has always been interested in technology. In primary school she made laptops out of paper and first got into building websites through online game Neopets when she was just 14. She was so obsessed with the game that she built her own fan site, using some basic HTML, to share graphics she created in GIMP for people to download. She was enthralled by the process of creating the site and spent hours improving it.
At the time, however, most people (including her parents) considered it to be just a hobby and not something to be pursued
professionally. As she explains in her SuperYesMore article An Unexpected Journey, when she applied for one school in England, the headmaster told her that she was “not the kind of person we are looking for”, because spending so much time on a computer made her seem like “someone who doesn’t have any friends”.
Temporarily put off by this crushing experience, she ended up studying first experimental psychology at Bristol university and then law. But it was while at university that she become aware you could actually study computer science and programming. Aderinokun decided to give it a shot and started tinkering around with websites again, teaching herself with the help of online tutorials, courses like Codecademy and Udacity and by studying other people’s code. “One of the things that I love about being a front-end developer is that everything is public,” she enthuses. “If I see something on a website that I don’t know how to do, I can just inspect it and figure it out.”
Aderinokun also started contributing to open source and working on personal projects and set up her blog bitsofcode ( bitsofco.de) as a way to build up her skills and contribute to the community. “I challenged myself to learn something new and write an article about it every single week, which then could also be used to teach someone else. I told myself that if nobody ever reads my blog, it’s still useful because it’s an archive for all the things that I’ve learned.”
Fortunately Aderinokun’s notion that people might not read her blog turned out to be completely unfounded. Her articles – over 100 and counting – have gathered half a million page views each year and to date her newsletter has attracted 3,000 subscribers. It put her on the map and led to her first major speaking gig at Fronteers in Amsterdam two years ago. “At that point I hadn’t really spoken at conferences at all, only at one in Nigeria,” Aderinokun explains. “And that one was a very small meetup here in Lagos, so Fronteers was so scary! It was a completely different experience because I knew I was going to be speaking in front of people who were much more advanced than the audience in Nigeria.”
Another big step was being selected as a Google developer expert in 2006. Aderinokun had heard about the program at a Women
“20 years ago, maybe 99 per cent of users were in the US or Europe and male; the demographic we’re targeting today is growing in both quantity and diversity”
Techmakers event in Lagos, applied and became the second expert in Nigeria. Not only did this give her validation and result in more invites to conferences all over the world, it also enabled her to travel to events like the Chrome Dev Summit and Google Experts Summit and will see her present a talk on CSS for the next billion users at Pixel Pioneers Belfast in November (her first speaking engagement at a UK conference).
But her blog wasn’t just the first step on a physical journey: it also played a big part in Aderinokun overcoming imposter syndrome. Being self-taught and working alone for the most part made her unsure of whether what she was doing was correct and caused her to doubt her abilities. “The writing really helped,” she says. “The more I wrote and the more attention my blog got, the more people said they liked what I was writing and that it helped them. I still get imposter syndrome but I remind myself that it’s okay to not know everything. So, for example, I haven’t done much work with React, which people always talk about, but I know Angular. That’s the framework I usually work with and you don’t have to know every single framework.”
Last year Aderinokun decided to leave the media company in Lagos she had been working at as head of technology and began looking for a new challenge. However, her blind applications were rejected. It was only when she tweeted that she was looking for a job that companies began actively courting her. One of them was eyeo, a German company that produces open source software like Adblock Plus, which is arguably the most popular browser extension ever with over 500 million downloads. As a passionate opensource advocate, Aderinokun quickly jumped at the opportunity.
Aderinokun’s latest project is a cryptocurrency exchange for Africa called BuyCoins ( buycoins.africa); co-founded by her and a friend, the startup has just completed Y Combinator’s Summer 2018 program. “Buying any sort of cryptocurrency in Nigeria is incredibly difficult,” she explains. “There’s no product that works like Coinbase at the moment. A lot of trading actually happens through services like WhatsApp but it’s just such a convoluted and fault-prone process.”
When Aderinokun wanted to buy an iPhone last year, there was no easy way for her to transfer her Nigerian naira into dollars to enable her friend in the US to buy it for her. Deciding that there had to be a better way, they started with a peer-to-peer exchange called Bitcoin Afrika and have now created an app that people use to buy and sell cryptocurrency, including Bitcoin and Ethereum, directly with their local bank account or debit card. It’s a huge opportunity. There is already $4bn traded in cryptocurrency in Nigeria and the market is growing quickly. Once again Aderinokun’s inside knowledge of the local user base in Nigeria has helped her create a better service and fulfil a real need.