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Oliver Iyer
Oliver Iyer

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How moving to Freetown, Sierra Leone took me from novice to Senior Engineer at a Berlin startup

The year is 2018, and I'm sitting in a small room I've rented in Stockholm. The Swedish winter looms dark and gloomy outside my window. I had just voluntarily left a Digital Strategist job at a tech-consultancy in London, and a year prior I had graduated from one of the top education institutions in the world, with a Masters in Chemical Engineering. Now, my current "employment" is a zero-hour contract as a food delivery rider for one of those Uber-Eats competitors...

I went from this...

To this...

Why did I do this you may ask?

Because I wanted to become a developer. From scratch.

I had given up my life in London and moved back to my home-country of Sweden to become a developer. Since I already knew how to plot a graph in Excel, and whack a linear trend-line on it (#pro), I thought that Data Science would be a good entry to the field.

Hence, in between delivering food to help pay for rent, I started off with MIT's "Introduction to Computer Science with Python" on edx. Python turned out to be a great language to start off with, and despite being a JavaScript dev nowadays, I have zero regrets about my initial choice. I'm pretty sure that if had I started with JavaScript, I would have drowned in trying to understand what prototype methods were, and how to run a single JS file without installing half of npm first.

At the time, my partner had moved to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to work for a public health NGO. I still had some money saved up from my job in London, and the thought of replacing freezing temperatures in Stockholm with sunny West Africa (and living with my partner of course) was a very appealing one. So, in January 2019 I made the big choice of moving to Freetown. I had just finalized my second edx course "Introduction to Computational Thinking and Data Science", and had started learning the basics of Flask (my first dabble in web development).

This surely beats the Swedish winter...

After applying for a variety of non-tech related job, I got in touch with the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, an organization which embeds foreign experts inside government agencies to help officials deliver positive change in their country. It turned out that the Freetown City Council wanted to digitally transform, and needed someone who knew about tech, and could implement some basic solutions. After quickly mocking up some prototype ideas in Figma, I landed the job.

What followed were a hectic 6 months where I not only was expected to come up with, and design digital solutions, but implement them myself. Resources were scarce, so turns out I was the best (and only) developer they had!

I quickly had to let go of the Data Science push, realizing that what was really needed in Freetown were tangible solutions, not abstract Machine Learning algos. So I learned to use a combination of Dash, Flask and Google Sheets (aka poor mans SQL) to build data dashboards for the Mayor, and simultaneously started learning Django, after the recommendation of a brilliant Sierra Leonean Engineer Foday (who I am now proud to call a dear friend). You can read more about my projects at the City Council on my website

A complaints management system that I built for the City Council

My impact was getting noticed by higher-ups, and spiked the interest of the Sierra Leonean government's digital agency, DSTI. This unit is headed up by Dr. David Sengeh, a charismatic digital native, who previously worked at IBM and the MIT Media Lab and is a Senior TED Fellow. Recognizing my efforts at the City Council, DSTI brought me on board in April 2020 for a Django project with the Ministry of Finance, where I got to work side-by-side with a group of young and talented Sierra Leonean technologists.

This project turned out to be very successful, and served as a strong case-study for locally developed tech, as opposed to the government purchasing expensive and hard-to-maintain software from abroad.

Presenting our progress to the Sierra Leone Cabinet and Vice President, together with David Sengeh

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Having struggled with the limitations of HTML, CSS and jQuery, I decided to learn React in the summer of 2020. As a starting point I used Robin Wieruch's Road to React with Firebase, and once I got the hang of it, I started applying what I had learned by building a job-site for a Sierra Leonean friend with React and Django REST Framework.

Meanwhile, at DSTI the request came in to convert the web-app we had built for the Ministry of Finance to a mobile app. Having recently read about Ionic React on hackernews, I recognized that it was a great tool to quickly port the web functionalities over to a cross-platform mobile app using React.

The next 6 months, from October 2019 to March 2020 were spent building the mobile app, as well building another React web and mobile app for the Tony Blair Institute, which was to be used in the NGO's teams across Africa. In addition to learning by doing ( the best way to learn imo ), I consumed a bunch of content during these months - regularly watching videos from Ben Awad and FunFunFunction, and listening on podcasts like React Podcast, SyntaxFM and Fullstack Radio. I also gave a workshop on web development to a group of young developers, which was very rewarding!

The message: you don't have to be Steve Jobs to become a successful, problem-solving developer

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In March 2020 my partner and I decided to leave Sierra Leone ( probably not for good! ) and move to Berlin. During the months leading up to the decision, I had felt like I needed more exposure in things like DevOps and working in agile teams - both to further my career, but also to offer my colleagues in Sierra Leone the support they deserve.

I was very worried that landing job in corporate Europe would be a tough feat, as most of them required several years of experience (I only had 1, maybe 2). Additionally, I didn't have a traditional CS degree, and was even considering going back and doing another Bachelor's degree.... However it turned out that the unique hands-on experience I was granted in Sierra Leone had put me in a great position.

After receiving 2 offers from the few job applications I sent out, I landed a Senior Frontend Developer job at LivingPackets. I started in April 2020, just 1.5 years after I started my first course on Computer Science on edx.

The moral of the story - you don't always have to chose the "standard" path to become a developer. Sometimes, going on an adventure, throwing yourself out there, and learning tools and frameworks while solving problems can be the best way to land you that sought-after Senior Dev role.

If you liked this and want to talk more about working as a developer in the developing world ( has a ring to it, don't it... ), please hit me up on oliveriyer(at)!


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