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Ode to Code: Meet Mount Fellow and Honors Student Collins Nji

Collin feature

Photo by Kiyan Sheraz, C'19

Every year Collin Nji, a freshman honors student and fellow at Mount St. Mary's University, reads 12 books on a theme. This year his theme is grief and loss. In addition to the fantasies and emotions of years past, grief and loss are teaching him about the depths of the human experience—and his desire to partake in the fullness of life.

collin-google.jpgNji Collins Gbah, whose friends call him Collin, isn’t interested in labels. If you categorized him as a programmer, coder or hacker, you might get a laugh. Try affixing the label gifted or honors and you’ll get raised eyebrows or a smirk. He doesn’t let the labels stick—because he’s indifferent to your assessment.

That’s a lesson he learned from his favorite essay by Joan Didion originally titled “Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power.” Her words pierced the page as she wrote, “In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract sometimes lose ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues.” Character, she wrote, is “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” and “is the source from which self-respect springs.”

Collin's story began in Bamenda, Cameroon. His hometown is the place where he and a friend, Nji Wisdom, worked toward launching his first company: Nerd, Inc. Since 2016, Cameroon has seen increasingly violent uprisings in the bilingual country’s minority Anglophone regions where English speakers believe the French-speaking majority has marginalized them for decades. Speaking passionately about his country on the brink of a civil war he said, “I wish more people were talking about it because that’s where I’m from and to watch your hometown being reduced to ashes—it’s not a good sight and it bothers me a lot.” He admitted the protesting in Cameroon was a huge turning point in his life and his perception of people and government in general. “Every government has a sense of entropy to it. You have to work around that and fix the smaller problems to fix the bigger ones,” he argued. “No system is perfect.”

His need to understand and perfect systems is rooted in his desire to solve real problems, build community and help others. He feels a responsibility. For years Collin wanted to become a doctor. After discovering his hemophobia would prohibit that ambition, he decided to use technology to achieve his goals. During the protests, Collin decided to take the skills and knowledge he learned from books and online sources, and participate in Google Code-In, a prestigious competition to introduce young students to open source software development. He worked from November until January to complete 20 complex tasks. One task could take a week to finish, but he completed all five categories set by Google. The day after his final submission, the Internet in his hometown was cut off—an alleged government action taken to punish and quiet dissent. But good news came and in 2015 he was a finalist—ranked amongst the top five of 1,340 students from 62 countries. He didn’t give up. In 2016, the 17-year-old won international acclaim as a Google Code-In grand prize winner and the first African winner. He spent four days at Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. In 2017, he shared what he knew and gladly mentored more than 100 students at the competition.

Aside from specific coding challenges and other competitive events, Collin also enjoys participating in hackathons. “Often hackathons are misconstrued as breaking into systems to steal passwords,” he explained. The word is a combination of hack and marathon, with most lasting 24 to 36 hours. “Sometimes they’re shorter, but that’s not ideal. You can only build so much in 12 hours.” He says the goal is to build software products that help people and are useful in real life. Most of the hackathons he attends take place on university campuses and are sponsored by companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook or Microsoft.

“Sometimes I do it for the cool t-shirts and the stickers,” he said laughing. He gives them as special gifts. A few are stuck to his computer. They prove he was there; he participated. One of the things he loves most, aside from the challenge and meeting people who think like he does, is that he can share common interests, expand his knowledge base and work in a team to solve complex problems. That collaborative hive mind and sharing of thoughts, ideas and resources is what he craves. “We all get better when we share,” he said, switching gears and changing the conversation to what problem he would tackle to change the world. He would work toward producing less waste and speaks from first-hand experience how waste from first-world countries ends up in third-world countries and causes deadly diseases. As a child, he would get malaria every year because of all the dirt and pollution in Cameroon.

In January 2019, a polar vortex in Chicago killed more than a dozen people after temperatures reached a record-breaking negative 21 degrees. This event was the inspiration for his team’s creation at the most recent hackathon he attended at Georgetown University. Hoya Hacks awarded them overall winner for the spring 2019 season. Their software solved the problem of how to donate directly  after natural disasters strike. The team knew their prototype could work on a much bigger scale.

“My team’s goal was to have fun and build something great,” he said, admitting they were the only ones to take advantage of watching “Avengers: Infinity War” that weekend. They argued about Thanos and the Titan warlord’s quest for balance and less suffering. One snap of his fingers rendered half the population to dust. They came back to their project and won.

Collin’s team also won another hackathon at the University of Michigan where they built an application run on Google Cloud that used natural language processing. “The goal was to be able to free write,” he explained. “As you’re writing, it’s building this thought process for you so when you come back to it, you can see what you were thinking.” By grouping together similar thoughts, you can see a mind map of your own brain. “Programmers make things easy,” he added with a matter-of-fact confidence. “That’s my job.”

Over the past two years he’s worked as a software engineer at FunNode, LLC, where he implemented machine learning agents for various games. Last year he worked as a software engineer intern at Enforme Interactive in Frederick, Maryland, where he built natural language processing models for feature extraction from data collections for their search engine. He admired his co-workers and appreciated the challenges in the work they provided.

In his free time in Cameroon he would play soccer with friends or go to the library and read. By the time he’d left he’d read almost every book in the library, devouring shelf after shelf. In his free time in the U.S., he built a software that uses speech and tone analysis to detect depression, citing his interest to help a friend who was struggling. He named it Dally.

After transferring to the Mount from Frederick Community College, he was invited to join the honors program and the Mount Fellowships program.

“When the Mount Fellows reached out to me and told me about the program, I was excited to meet people like me who share thoughts on a deep level. I look forward to the things I will learn and the conversations we will share,” he said. Within a month, he was invited to hear a special government security expert speak and have dinner with President Trainor. Of the special speaker, Collin said: “I enjoyed meeting him and hearing his diverse perspective on different aspects of life, technology and ethics. I thought that was truly amazing.” Collin is especially interested in ethics.  

While others think he is a huge success, he thinks failure has been one of his best teachers. “You can’t dwell on it. Failure will always come,” he said, referencing Nerd, Inc. “But I don’t give up.”

And he’s got the scars to prove it. This summer he biked 146 miles and the previous summer he cycled, with friends, a brutal 34 miles from Great Falls to Washington, D.C. and back. “I remember that day,” he said, pursing his lips. “I fell about two miles before we reached our goal. I still have the scars on my body. They’re a great reminder of the challenges I put myself through because I love challenging myself to do the things that are completely out of my comfort zone.”

Today the computer science major says if he’s learned anything from the tech world, it’s that technology is definitely changing people’s lives. “To think of technology as something that’s going to be the doom of humanity does not serve technology any justice. It’s only going to make people’s lives better, from my view,” he smiled. “Every good thing always has a flipside to it.”

Collin has just finished reading Joan Didion’s book A Year of Magical Thinking. As he makes his way through 12 books on grief and loss, he secretly hopes to understand what it is that enlarges us and engages the heart—and how grief, that most humane emotion, ultimately gives way to a tenuous, transparent resilience.