Technology is for solving problems: a Conversation with Nii Apa Abbey

Get to know our team! This week: Nii Apa Abbey, Chief Technical Officer. After Lemuel Hawkson and Genevieve Simiyu, this interview is the third of a series featuring the outstanding team from Chalkboard Education.

Nii Apa is Chief Technical Officer at Chalkboard Education since 2017.

What do you do at Chalkboard Education?
My role at Chalkboard Education has been a myriad of things. When I first joined, it was to help transition software engineering from the team in France to the team in Accra. So, my role was to initially learn from them and to later hire a team to take over their processes. Currently, I manage the developers and help with the product management. In short, I ensure we are building a really good and sustainable service, that is robust and can outlive us all.

What attracted you to work at Chalkboard Education?
I left my previous job because I wasn’t too enthusiastic about what I was doing. I actually chanced on this job twice: fun fact, I met Adrien (CEO) at a party in Accra, and he told me he was looking for a software engineer. Then, two weeks later I met Miora (then COO) at another party! Party people.. I finally decided to apply, and after going through different stages and many interviews, I was offered the job as the CTO. Attraction was definitely in this promising role, but I must reckon the salary was a great added motivation.

What have you learned at Chalkboard Education?
I learned how difficult being a full-stack developer is, and I’ve learned how to juggle and multitask better. My experiences have shown me the need to delegate some things because there are way too many things to learn and execute. I learned to give up my “one-man machine” dreams: there was a time I had to learn Symphony, React and Vue and I realised it was simply too much to learn in a short amount of time. For stuff like class projects and assignments, it’s feasible; but building big things that are robust always requires teamwork.

What do you like about working with the team? What have been your highlights?
I enjoy the different viewpoints brought to the table, it’s also pretty nice knowing you can delegate a task and it will be completed. The team is really competent at their jobs. One of my greatest fears when hiring my first teammates was that, with too much of the codebase being known only by me, it would be hard to ever onboard anyone else to follow up on my work. But with time, training and a lot of documentation redaction, we are now well formalised and ready to scale the team over time. It is a nice feeling knowing that you can assign tasks to people, and they can do it with less oversight as before.

Nii Apa Abbey and Genevieve Simiyu presenting Chalkboard Education to President Emmanuel Macron during his visit in our offices of Accra, Ghana.

What do you like to do after work?
I like to go out for drinks with my friends. I like to party. I’m very, very much into partying. I think this is why the company is such a good fit because we like to have fun after work. That said, I also like to work after work. I want to be the very best, I challenge myself to continuously learn new things. This keeps me proactive and able to anticipate future challenges both at work and in life.

What is the most intriguing in-house project you have worked on with Chalkboard Education?
It was when we moved to Version 3.0 of the application. Our backend was in Symphony when we had initially transitioned from the French team, an outsourced company named Elao, and I was struggling to find Symphony developers to support especially with the backend. After discussing the matter with the team, we came to the decision to move the entire back end codebase to Laravel. This was intriguing because this was happening at the same time as we were accelerated at Google Launchpad, it was a very dense period for me. But ultimately, we redesigned a new frontend, and added new features and functionalities from this stage.

How do you ensure quality and excellence in your team’s work?
We make use of test-driven development: our codebase is actually entirely covered by automatic testing. This drastically reduces the risk of a bug being encountered by customers: tests uncover bugs way before new code is added to the live product. I also do research on how things are done and feed it back to the team: it’s all available online! This is how we can make sure we are using the best technologies and best practices available, and that all our systems and dependencies are kept up to date.

What is the most challenging task you have had to complete since joining the team?
Transitioning to Version 3.0 of the app, where we had to change a significant amount of our codebase in a somewhat short amount of time. We had very short nights, to say the least.

Nii Apa Abbey and Adrien Bouillot attending Google Launchpad Accelerator, in Lagos, Nigeria.

Considering you lead the technology team at Chalkboard, what have you learned managing such fast-evolving product development?
Test, test, test, and test again. I also learned to fail fast: eg, fail early so you can move on quickly. Or, on the contrary, build up an idea really quickly, and expand on your building blocks, spending time to make them more robust, only once you know this idea works and is useful to the customer.

What are your objectives with Chalkboard moving forward regarding technology?
Since we have decided to pivot our business model into a remote-first SaaS service, product development is in the centre of our company strategy like never before. We are working on a lot of new, groundbreaking features that will make our customers’ lives easier, and my focus is to make sure this technology remains durable and scalable; able to handle our growth on the long term.

What advice would you give to people starting their careers in technology in Ghana (full-stack development)?
There are so many opportunities in Ghana and in Africa. Our continent faces its own problems and challenges: it may seem that because they were solved somewhere else, you could lift a product from Europe or America and apply it here — but that’s not always the case, it often works but sometimes it does not. There is an infinity of niche, intertwined problems that are specific for each country and that need solving. The world keeps changing too, and technology evolves with it: new problems emerge every day, and so are new solutions. I think so, even at a small scale, trying to develop a new solution to a set problem is the best way to start in technology — and problems to solve aren’t lacking in Ghana!

There is nothing unique about writing code, but there is something unique about problem-solving: a problem that still exist is a solution that hasn’t yet been found. Your solution could one of a kind.

Thank you, Nii Apa !

Educational technology in Africa and emerging markets