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Real Life Planning Podcast Episode 21: Coding as Problem Solving with Youssouf Ouedraogo

Real Life

In Episode 21, I have a conversation with a software engineer, Youssouf Ouedraogo, about how coding can change the world, starting with solving everyday problems. Stick around for the second half of the episode to learn how his tenacity and resilience took him from a foreign student in an English language learning program to a successful software engineer in a major technology company.

“To be able to build something on your own, you need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.” - Youssouf Ouedraogo

This week on Real Life Planning Podcast, Cynthia will cover:


What inspired Youssouf to use coding as the medium to change the world? [00:06:26]


How does Youssouf identify problems he wants to solve with coding? [00:8:30]


How does Youssouf inspire young people to explore the field of coding? [00:12:24]


What key advice does Youssouf give to his younger siblings? [00:16:47]


What are the two applications Youssouf has published that help students? [00:20:56]

Takeaway Quotes:

“ The only thing that will keep you moving towards solving that problem is the internal motivation and satisfaction that you have by solving that problem.  ” - Youssouf Ouedraogo

“ We all like to win, but sometimes the role of the project or the endeavor is to learn instead.” - Cynthia Meyer

“ Every time that I fail, there is something new that I learned. ” - Youssouf Ouedraogo

Connect with Youssouf Ouedraogo:

Connect with Cynthia Meyer:

About the Real Life Planning Podcast

Host Cynthia Meyer welcomes fascinating guests to share real life stories of how they are realizing their financial potential. Each episode explores practical, realistic steps to create results.

Transcript - Real Life Planning Podcast - Episode 21

[00:00:06] Cynthia Meyer: The other day I was watching my friend Youssouf Ouedraogo have an Instagram Live conversation with several other people in tech, which is the industry in which he works, and they were talking about coding as problem solving. Coding is creative problem solving. And I thought this was such a meaningful conversation that I asked Youssouf to come on and to talk with me today in the Real Life Planning podcast, about that topic and to really dive into it and hopefully share some ideas about this paradigm and also how you can encourage the young people in your life to think about it this way, too. So, welcome to the Real Life Planning podcast, Youssouf.

[00:00:47] This is episode 22, Coding and Creative Problem Solving. 

[00:00:52] Nice to see you this morning. 

[00:00:54] Youssef Ouedraogo: Good morning, Cynthia. Thank you very much for having me on your podcast. Yeah, I am real excited to be here and I look forward to speaking about coding and creative problem solving and how we can get more young people to get interested in the field.

[00:01:12] I think it's a real exciting field and everyone should give it a try. It's really eye-opening. 

[00:01:20] Cynthia Meyer: So Youssouf, we've known each other for a while now, like four or five years, maybe five or six years. And ever since you came to the United States as a student, Youssouf actually spent a big chunk of Covid with us. He was a student at Rutgers, and he came and stayed with us when the school shut down. And we've been having him during school breaks, during his scholastic career and now, he's all launched and working for a big tech company.

[00:01:49] Tell us your story. What's important to know about you? 

[00:01:53] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yeah, so a few things that you should know about me is that I was born and raised in a small village in Burkina Faso. I came to the United States back in May 2016. That is after high school. So, when I got here, a lot of things were different.

[00:02:13] And yes, the language itself, I used to study and do things administratively in French, but in the United States, everything is done in English. So, for a certain amount of time, I was focusing on learning English and embracing the American culture and trying to navigate through the differences.

[00:02:36] So, that path was a transition period for me and after the English program I started taking some classes in a community college but what really lead me into computer science is when I took a class at Rutgers University as a visiting student over the summer. When I initially started, the goal was really to be able to learn how to use a computer on a daily basis because back home I did not have a computer, and now I have everything that I do now... 

[00:03:12] Cynthia Meyer: Everything's digital, right?

[00:03:13] Youssef Ouedraogo: ...it requires that I use a computer. So, I thought, Okay, let me take an introduction class so that I can get used to it and get my feet wet and be able to navigate through the digital work in which I am new in. So that's how it started. During that class, we started doing some programming and solving small problems with those programs.

[00:03:39] So it's got me really interested in more programming. So, I took more classes, read more books about programming afterwards, and that's how I actually transitioned to the tech world. That's how the path was for me to going into support engineering afterwards. 

[00:03:58] Cynthia Meyer: Now, did you eventually major in computer science? 

[00:04:02] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yes. After my summer class at Rutgers, I went back to my community college. As I was an official student there, I was following a path in like general studies, trying to hear things out. But after that one class, okay, I start feeling that this is where I want to go, and I will take more classes toward that path.

[00:04:26] And that's how I started taking more and more computer science classes. So I ended up majoring in computer science and I actually transferred to Rutgers officially after visiting it for two summers and I graduated in May 2020. I have a computer science degree. 

[00:04:46] Cynthia Meyer: Yeah, and a great computer science program there. And hard to graduate in 2020 because I mean, all of the ceremonies that you expected to have to celebrate this huge accomplishment of moving halfway across the world and learning how to study in a new language. Obviously you knew some English before you got here. And then moving through this- the academic process. And there was no ceremony, right? 

[00:05:14] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yeah, I was really looking forward to celebrating with family and friends for my graduation. I had things planned but unfortunately, nature had a different plan. But yeah, at the end of the day, I think the most important thing was done, which was to graduate with my computer science degree and be able to look back and say, Okay, this is the journey that I have been through college and if I, if someone asks me, Are you willing to go through this process again? I would proudly say Yeah, because it's a process that I really enjoyed and I knew what I wanted.

[00:05:55] At the beginning, of course, we all tried to figure things out but at a given point of time, I knew what I wanted and I really went through what I want. So if I have to go through it again, I wouldn't see any inconvenience of doing it again.

[00:06:13] Cynthia Meyer: So when you originally came to the United States your intention was not to be in, in a STEM field; not to be in science or technology. If I remember correctly, weren't you more focused on humanities or education, political science, that sort of thing. What was the light bulb that went off for you where you realize that this is how you could make change in the world?

[00:06:40] Youssef Ouedraogo: That's a good question. Yes. Initially, my intention was to go with political science. The general studies classes that I took was leaning toward majoring in political science. 

[00:06:54] Cynthia Meyer: Oh, okay. Uhhuh.

[00:06:54] Youssef Ouedraogo: But the light bulb that really popped up that brought me to say, Okay, STEM is where I think that I can make a difference- after taking my first two classes, I started seeing problems that I can say, okay. Even as an individual without having a lot of people involved, as engineer, I can go and plan out a solution for this particular problem.

[00:07:23] That's actually when I started working on my first about Thomas Sankara to promote his legacy. That was the first point that I thought I realized, okay, as an engineer I can really solve problems using my coding skills without any involvement of a lot of people. And having learned throughout college and learning from my career, I will be more and more involved in different projects and building those skills can really help me master bigger problems that I can do.

[00:07:59] But that's started by solving small problems that I think I can solve. 

[00:08:03] Cynthia Meyer: So you built an app, right? For fun? 

[00:08:06] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yes. 

[00:08:07] Cynthia Meyer: So talk to us a little bit about that process, right? Because, you're still in school at the time and I know you've built some other apps for fun since then.

[00:08:17] Yes. Yeah. So obviously you're a pretty smart guy, how. Take somebody through the process of identifying a problem in their own life or their own community that's solvable, That's figureoutable. And how they might think about, Okay, I can use coding skills to solve this problem.

[00:08:34] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yeah. I think everything is started by identifying the problem and coming to realization that if a problem affects me, maybe it's affecting other people, or it might not affect you directly, but it might affect people around you, right? In that situation, you try to understand the problem.

[00:08:58] What is it that the people are calling a problem? And the next step would be, Am I willing to spend a considerable amount of time trying to solve a problem? Is it a problem that will motivate me enough to wake up every morning and say, Okay, I need to solve this problem? Unless you have that internal motivation to solving that problem; as opposed to classes or your professional work, no one will come around and say, Oh, did you do this? Or did you do that? 

[00:09:34] At that point, the only thing that will keep you moving towards solving that problem is the internal motivation and satisfaction that you have by solving that problem. That point, that part I think is is really important. And once you say, Okay, this is a problem that impact other people and myself, or it impacts other people that I care about, and it's a problem that will motivate me enough to wake up every morning and solving it. I think once you come to those two conclusions, I think half of the battle is already won;. the rest is the technical part. When it comes to the technical part, one thing that I would say is that your initial plan is likely not to work.

[00:10:25] Cynthia Meyer: So failure, or the iterations of failure is what moves you forward. Yes. 

[00:10:29] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yes. The first iteration is likely to be a failure. But regardless, you still need to plan it out. You need to gather what is it that- what are the resources that my audience currently have? What is it that they have that I can use to build up on top of that? Do they have good internet connection? Do they have smartphones? Will it be a problem for them to access it online? All those things are things that you need to take into consideration; the access of technology of your audience. Because the different techniques that you will use toward solving that problem at the end of the day will have to rely on the existing resources.

[00:11:15] I think identifying those resources, it would be the first technical part that you need solve. And once you have identified that, I think you can now start planning out the app or the website that you want to create and be able to design, like have a prototype. And once you have that done, I think you can start coding and testing out.

[00:11:41] And like I said, the first iteration will fail. So it's a good idea for you to be able to iterate first, send it out and see what are the reactions. What is it that people like? What is it that people don't like? Then be able to iterate based on their likes and dislikes. That's how I would say is the big picture of how I would solve a problem.

[00:12:04] Cynthia Meyer: Thinking about how you teach this to young people. I know that's something that you're really passionate about is trying to pay it forward so you can teach other people how to think about it this way, so they can go out and solve problems in their own communities, in their own society. And particularly in Burkina Faso, right? How would you talk to my 15 year old about this? 

[00:12:28] Youssef Ouedraogo: That's a great question. I think the first thing that I would like to introduce to him would be first try to understand what is happening with him on a daily basis. What is it that you like on a daily basis? And what are the technological involvement of what they use on a daily basis?

[00:12:52] Because at the end of the day, you want them to be relatable. What is it that we are already doing? And that becomes much easier to build up on top of something that we're already familiar with and be able to start building up things from there. The first thing that I would do is really start getting involved in the technological aspect of what is it that they do and start getting the curiosity.

[00:13:21] If you understand the technical aspect you would start saying, Okay, do you know why you are able to do such and such thing on your computer? Or get them curious. If you are able to do this, it's because someone wrote a code, a line of code or a couple of line of code to say to your computer, Oh, when he or she is here, make sure that if he pressed that button, it goes this direction; it goes that direction.

[00:13:48] So it involved them to the point where they can see, Oh, it's made by someone and one day if I want to, I can also use the same technical skills to do the same thing with my friends or just for myself to play with. So, that would be the first point that I would try to make. And once I get them more and more a curious, I would start trying to build up more visual things with them like a small website or a small app. One thing I really found interesting was when I was able to build my first app and I can see on my phone, Oh, I build this app, I take pride in it. So I think if they can see, okay I built this small website for myself or I built this small app for myself, it will get them more and more interested in learning more about the field and learning more about the technology. So yeah, the first thing would be find the technology they use on a daily basis and try to get them interested in that aspect of the technology behind what is it that they use.

[00:15:03] And after that, try to build up a like visual component with them using technology and get them more and more interested. Get that curiosity. 

[00:15:14] Cynthia Meyer: So you work now as a software engineer for a large tech company. Without sharing, obviously, the details of your work, what's the most fun about working in your career every day?

[00:15:28] Youssef Ouedraogo: I would say the most fun thing would be the problems that I get to solve. I'm part of a team of 12 and actually the technology that we are building receive like 10 million requests on a daily basis. To me, I take pride in such a small team that is making such a big difference.

[00:15:49] For us to be able to build such a large scalable technology, it involve internal problems that we need to solve. And being able to wake up every day and say, okay, today I'm going to solve this particular problem and this is how it's going to improve our technology. This is how it's going to improve our customized experience is something that I would say I'm really happy about and I really like about doing what is it that I do.

[00:16:20] Cynthia Meyer: That's so cool. So, because, loving what you do is a big component of being successful at it, right? So your journey is not a common journey. I know you know that. Tell me a little bit more about what do you say to your younger brothers and sisters about how to create possibility in their lives to do the kinds of things they love every day.

[00:16:41] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yeah, I have a lot of them by the way. So... 

[00:16:45] Cynthia Meyer: How many brothers and sisters? 

[00:16:47] Youssef Ouedraogo: I have 10. 

[00:16:48] Cynthia Meyer: Ten? Yeah. Yeah. And you're the oldest, right? 

[00:16:51] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yeah. So we have good conversations on a daily basis. Being able to create a possibility comes to, like you mentioned, doing what you love. What I really talk to them about is being curious; not being afraid of trying something new and coming to understanding that when you are making a transition to something different than your current position, it'll be uncomfortable because that's how we are and once we settle, we feel comfortable at a certain extent. But when you need to switch out of that, you start feeling uncomfortable; you will experience challenges and difficulties. To be able to build something on your own, you need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. 

[00:17:44] Cynthia Meyer: Yes. 

[00:17:45] Youssef Ouedraogo: And be able to do what you like even though it might not feel like, Okay, I'm building something big for that amount of people. The thing that I'm building is not big enough to make an impact, but you have to start somewhere.

[00:18:01] Start being curious and be able to take that curiosity to building something that you like. It might not be big at the beginning, but nothing starts big. It always starts small. That is a real conversation that I try to have with them. Be curious. Try things that you like, even if you feel like it's not big enough, it will help you.

[00:18:24] I work on a lot of projects and no one ever heard of them but the good thing about that is that every time that I fail, there is something new that I learned. Programming wise, I learn a lot by the things that I tried out and failed and never get to actually publish them.

[00:18:42] The next project, I will succeed. I need be technological and a be psychological involvement of what I did previously that didn't work to be able to build something successful. So being able to factor those things, I really talk to them; try to understand in making those transitions.

[00:19:01] Cynthia Meyer: We either we win or we learn, right? Of course we all like to win, but sometimes the role of the project or the endeavor is to learn instead. My guess is that's what has made you so successful so far, right?

[00:19:15] You're really resilient and perseverant. 

[00:19:17] So I'm curious, I'm always noodling on a new language, right? I was trying to improve my foreign language skills. You're a multilingual person. Do you think that speaking multiple languages fluently has helped you write code?

[00:19:32] Youssef Ouedraogo: That's a really good question, and I would say yes. Yes, in a sense that I'm able to switch gears. People mostly speak English. Let's say I call someone home, I will be speaking friend for some time and quickly I switch gear to speaking a different language. I think I developed an aptitude of being able to switch between things without any problems. I know we cannot compare programming languages to human language because it's a different spectrum, but as part of a programmer, you will need to adapt to different programming languages as well.

[00:20:12] If you are able to learn different human languages and see your ability to change between those human languages, it can be transitional. When you are in a real world problem that you need to solve using multiple programming languages. You will need to be able to switch between those programming languages, just like you are able to switch between the languages that you speak to other people. 

[00:20:38] Cynthia Meyer: So what are some of the problems outside of your nine to five?

[00:20:42] Are there any problems that you've been thinking about that you're interested in trying to solve with coding; with technology? 

[00:20:54] Youssef Ouedraogo: The world is full of so many problems. 

[00:20:57] Cynthia Meyer: Yeah.

[00:20:57] Youssef Ouedraogo: Unfortunately, there are so many of them. More recently, I actually published an app with a group of friends that I was working on to be able to help students back in Burkina Faso. To be able to access thousands of practice problems without the need to access the internet. 

[00:21:18] Cynthia Meyer: Oh, that's great.

[00:21:20] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yeah. Yeah. 

[00:21:21] Cynthia Meyer: So they can prepare for exams on their phone without having to be online? 

[00:21:27] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yes. Yes. Yeah. And because we have a low access to the internet, so it'll be uncomfortable if all the time they need to access the internet to be able to access those problems. 

[00:21:40] I'm trying to build up couple of features to help them better prepare; to become more and more involved in how they learn English or how they learn German. That's one thing that I'm working on. Another problem that I'm trying to solve is that back in 2020, for my last semester at Rutgers, I started building a parking app to help the students with a parking issues on a daily basis.

[00:22:06] Due to the whole covid situation, I had to close the project and now that everything is open again, I'm trying to finish up that app and hopefully, my goal really is actually to finish that this weekend. 

[00:22:20] Cynthia Meyer: Okay. That's it. 

[00:22:22] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yeah. I will see, I will see how many bugs I can fix, but if I can fix all of them, I should be able to finish that this weekend.

[00:22:30] Those are the two problems that I'm mostly focusing on. As I build more apps and get more knowledge, some of the problems that I want to solve, I genuinely know that I don't have the technical knowledge to solve them yet. So I try to like, build up other things that will lead me toward solving those problems.

[00:22:49] Cynthia Meyer: So build your toolbox, personal toolbox, if you will, of problem solving practices. 

[00:22:56] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yeah. Yes. 

[00:22:57] Cynthia Meyer: Okay. Listening to you, it sounds like you work all the time. What do you do for fun? 

[00:23:04] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yeah. I work a little bit, but I also try to make room for fun things.

[00:23:11] One of the things that I really like doing is long distance running. Not only physically, it helps me, but even mentally it's really factor in being able to release the stress that I have when I sit in front of the computer. 

[00:23:26] Cynthia Meyer: Kind of sedentary, right? Like it's all like brain energy now,

[00:23:31] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yes. It's one of the times where I can actually get out my mind and don't worry about anything; any problem that I'm trying to solve and it's helped me to charge and come back stronger. I also play soccer. But it's hard to manage because the weekends we usually don't play. It's usually Friday and I worked till eight, so that is tricky. So I tried to do more of the...

[00:24:01] Cynthia Meyer: More of the running. 

[00:24:02] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yes. I also went to bowling last weekend. I might be going more and more to that. It was really fun. . 

[00:24:10] Cynthia Meyer: Now I think I saw on social media a video that you posted of yourself going up a warped wall.

[00:24:16] Youssef Ouedraogo: Uhhuh.

[00:24:17] Cynthia Meyer: Are you doing Ninja Warrior? 

[00:24:18] Youssef Ouedraogo: I went for a couple of times, but I haven't gone back recently. 

[00:24:22] Cynthia Meyer: Oh, okay. 

[00:24:22] Youssef Ouedraogo: So, but that was also really fun as well.

[00:24:27] Cynthia Meyer: This has been a really fascinating conversation today and you know, I always find it fascinating to talk to you. What's the best piece of advice that you have ever received? 

[00:24:36] Youssef Ouedraogo: Oh, the best piece of advice that I... 

[00:24:39] Cynthia Meyer: Ever received.

[00:24:40] Youssef Ouedraogo: ...that I have ever received would to be, to not be afraid of failure. And I think it's oh, Steve once told me, Show me a man who never failed and I will show you a man who never tried.

[00:24:57] And that quote really stayed with me. And like I mentioned previously, part of transitioning to something new is that you have to agree that things might not work out. That doesn't make you less of a person, but it's just part of the process of being able to do something new and being able to do something different than you usually do.

[00:25:22] So being open to failure and accepting that, okay, this didn't work as I expected. That's okay. That's part of the process. Being able to take what they call a failure as a learning moment to be able to improve yourself is really important. Through my journey I encounter failures and tried different things, so I would say I would definitely say never be afraid to fail. 

[00:25:51] Cynthia Meyer: Oh, I think that's great guidance. I really agree with it. Reframing the idea of things of failure is just, Okay, I found out how not to do something. 

[00:25:59] What are you curious about right now? 

[00:26:02] Youssef Ouedraogo: Right now, some of the things that I'm curious and excited about would be artificial intelligence. I'm really curious to understand how is it that those self driving cars work. 

[00:26:20] Cynthia Meyer: Yeah. Oh, I think about self-driving cars. I generally think no. 

[00:26:24] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yeah. But I really like the idea. I don't know if it's because I don't drive much and I would like to go to places. That is a big, that is a high level. Overall, I am really curious with artificial intelligence, and I think it has already been making big impact.

[00:26:45] Sometimes we don't see it on a daily basis because we don't know that it's actually artificial intelligence. I think in the upcoming years, we will have to expect more and more involvement in artificial intelligence in our lives. I'm curious to how is it that we will be able to transition to a world where we will have more involvement with artificial intelligence without losing ourself as a community or as a country?

[00:27:19] And how is it that with the new technology, what will be our relationship with other countries and all those things? So I think those are things that I'm curious about and I try to learn more and more about the topics.

[00:27:35] Cynthia Meyer: For those people who are listening that are curious about coding as a career; curious about how to encourage their kids to think more in this direction- anything that you would recommend reading or listening to, watching or doing for those folks. 

[00:27:54] Youssef Ouedraogo: One of the books that actually inspired me into coding is, Software and Application: Understanding Computers. I don't remember the name of the author on top of my head. 

[00:28:06] Cynthia Meyer: I'll see if we can find it and we can put in the show notes. 

[00:28:08] Youssef Ouedraogo: I found it at the library at my school back then. I actually bought a hard copy on Amazon. It really breaks down how you can use computers to solve problems. So it be really interesting to read those and see how is it that programming is solving problems on a daily basis. I think that is really important to understand if you want to get more involved in STEM, particularly coding. 

[00:28:40] Cynthia Meyer: So if somebody wants to connect with you, where can they find you online? 

[00:28:44] Youssef Ouedraogo: Yeah, I have LinkedIn and it's just my name. I also have an Instagram and Facebook. Both are just my name. 

[00:28:54] Cynthia Meyer: Okay. Wonderful. Well, we'll put those in the show notes, too. Youssouf, thank you so much for getting up early and participating in this fascinating conversation today. It's always a pleasure to talk to you.

[00:29:07] For everyone who's listening, if you have a question or topic that you'd like us to tackle on the Real Life Planning Podcast, please email us at podcast@reallifeplanning.com or leave a message in the comments and let us know what you think. Thanks very much. Have a great day. 

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