Engineering

Undergrad programmer among Apple’s “20 Under 20”

When 12-year-old Nick Doherty decided that he wanted a Mac computer, he adopted the strategy of a born entrepreneur, by starting his own car-washing business. He made eye-catching fliers, roller-bladed through his neighborhood and posted them on every stationery surface; he sold himself door to door; he chatted up everybody walking dogs down his street.

Before long, he had his computer.

UC Davis undergraduate Nick Doherty's enormously popular "Study Cal" app has made him one of Apple's "20 Under 20" programming superstars.

UC Davis undergraduate Nick Doherty’s enormously popular “Study Cal” app has made him one of Apple’s “20 Under 20” programming superstars.

That savvy investment turned into an early career path. As part of the build-up to this year’s Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, which took place June 8-12, 2015 in San Francisco, Doherty was cited as one of the tech giant’s “20 Under 20” superstars. The program honors developers under the age of 20, who have placed popular items in the iTunes App Store.

Doherty just completed his freshman year at UC Davis, as — no surprise — a computer science major. It has been a good fit.

“I first visited UC Davis last year, on Decision Day, and fell in love with the culture and people,” he recalls. “Everybody is friendly and willing to jump in and help on a project, and every person you meet — no matter what their major — is incredibly motivated. Everybody is working toward a goal. It’s a great environment, especially for a student.”

That first Mac computer notwithstanding, Doherty’s interest in app development arrived a year later. “It started at Christmas, when I was 13, and I got an iPod Touch. I still remember taking it out of the box, and playing with all the apps. It was the coolest little device in the world.”

Six months later, looking for an activity to fill his final summer prior to high school, Doherty learned about a three-week “iPhone App Camp” taking place at Stanford University: an exciting prospect for a budding programmer living in Boulder, Colo. The experience was transformative, and young Nick returned home with eight newly designed apps on his iPhone … and a desire to do more. He spent the rest of the summer refining one of them — a game called Leap Score — and it became one of his first apps available to the world via the iTunes App Store.

That visit to California proved advantageous in another respect, because he learned about Stanford’s fully accredited, diploma-granting Online High School program. He applied, gained acceptance … and spent his entire four years of high school in his bedroom.

Doherty further honed his programming skills while designing two recipe apps for his mother Judy, a chef and nutrition publisher who founded her own company, Food & Health Communications. “One of those, Salad Secrets, is still one of my favorites,” he admits, “because I learned so much while developing it. I had no idea there were so many ways to make healthy salads!”

The turning point came in the summer of 2013, when he was one of roughly 200 students at that year’s Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. He spent the week with 1,000 Apple engineers and 5,000 other developers, and returned home determined to concentrate exclusively on one project that would fill what he believed was an under-exploited niche: a truly useful student planning app.

“After some initial design mock-ups and templates,” he recalls, “I spent six weeks focused wholly on programming. I’d wake at noon, and program until 4 a.m. the next day. I stopped only to eat, walk my dogs, and go to the gym.”

The result, dubbed Omni Study, entered the App Store as a free download in early August 2013. By the end of that month, it had been downloaded 5,000 times. That number had jumped to 25,000 by October, at which point he was a guest on Denver’s Channel 9 morning news show.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Doherty re-built the app from the ground up — writing 16,000 fresh lines of code — and Omni Study 2 debuted in the App Store on Jan. 2, 2014. It was featured as a highlighted item on the front page of the U.S. App Store, and received similar promotion in Canada, Western Europe and elsewhere in the world.

“I kept changing the location in my iTunes profile,” he grins, “so it would load the story from yet another country.”

During that month, Omni Study 2 was download almost 30,000 times. And, now costing 99 cents, it was generating revenue.

A few months later, Doherty once again re-wrote his app, giving it a spiffy new name: Study Cal. It debuted in August 2014, intentionally timed to coincide with the release of Apple’s IOS8. Now priced at $1.99, it has since been purchased by more than 100,000 users … which is how Doherty became one of the company’s “20 Under 20.”

It also brought him to UC Davis. His freshman year behind him, Doherty is spending the summer at Apple, as an intern on the company’s Springboard Team. He’ll be back in September, surely with plans for new apps.

The secret to his success? Hard work and persistence.

“It’s all about trial and error. I remember being up all night, trying to figure out why a game engine wasn’t working, or why a SAVE function failed. I learned that you simply don’t quit, because — eventually — you’ll figure it out.

“If you really love something, if you really want to do something, you never give up!”