South Africa’s computer whiz


Most parents believe their child is a prodigy, but in the case of Larry Berger’s son, Sam, he really is, writes Jane Steinacker-Keys.

Sam Berger is 12 years old. When you meet him, he seems an outgoing, well-balanced kid with a fantastic sense of humour. You would never think that he is one of South Africa’s most talented computer whizzes, who creates useful apps for industry – simply because he can.

In 2012, Sam was just 10 when he attended a three-day Python programming course. It was meant for high-school students, but a bit of begging by Dad got him a space. During the course he finished his two projects quickly, receiving first place for the one and second for the other. “The facilitator said I knocked her socks off. It was the first time I bunked school; I told my teacher I was invited to attend an IT course, but I don’t think she believed me.”

Quickly noting his talent, the facilitator requested the Python Software Foundation to invite Sam to their annual conference a week later. Everyone thought it was his dad Larry who was there for the course, but “Dad was just tagging along”, he said. People laughed when Larry said he was the baby-sitter.

Sam’s proficiency in, and passion for, IT was noted by the Python Conference co-ordinator, and once again Sam and dad found themselves attending an all-expenses-paid conference in Silicon Valley in March 2013. “There were 3 000 delegates, and Sam was mentioned in both the opening and closing ceremony,” says Larry. Sam was excited that he could take both himself and his dad on holiday.

“I was asked to teach high-school kids how to code, for the first two days of the conference, and then I attended the main conference for the last three days,” he says.

IT companies have shown their support for his talents, with Microsoft SA providing software, mentorships and projects, as well as an Xbox for the great work he did.

He is also currently being mentored by an IT company in Cape Town, where he can go in once a week to work on projects that meet his fancy.

Sam is also editing a book on cryptography for adults and teenagers, with an author in the United States. He has also been asked to work with a company as their chief technology officer (CTO). This, for now, has been placed on hold.

One of the most amazing of Sam’s myriad applications is his geyser app. Patented earlier this year, it is designed for home insurance companies in South Africa, using QR codes to confirm whether the geysers are in or out of guarantee.

“The client doesn’t have to climb up onto the roof to get the serial number and date code, and the insurer doesn’t have to pay a contractor to go out and investigate whether the geyser is in or out of guarantee. The app will save them lots of money and reduce carbon emissions,” he says.

The Bergers have worked out that this app could potentially save insurers between R25 million and R30 million a year.

Sam is also involved in tutoring other kids and is working with the Minister of Education to launch an IT education drive. It will involve teaching kids in underprivileged communities in South Africa how to code, and offering them a free hand-held computer, called the Raspberry Pi.

But if you think Sam is one of those kids who spend all day, every day, looking at a screen, you will be mistaken. He is a well-rounded young man with a healthy social circle; he loves music, plays the keyboard and DJs for extra pocket money.

He admits that school work gets in his way. At the moment Sam is studying for his exams and finds it “quite irritating”, when he would prefer to spend his time on his love for technology.

According to dad Larry, “it’s an uphill battle”; as Sam’s brand manager, he is dedicated to helping his son’s technology reach the marketplace. He says some of the companies he has approached “are not sure how to implement the new technology into their business model”, but believes his son’s innovative apps could be of great benefit to industry. Larry says perhaps a marketing or IT company should be introducing Sam’s apps to industry.

He also is considering home-schooling Sam. “I know there is a lot of negativity regarding the concept of schooling your child at home. I have read a lot of literature on it, but I want Sam to have more creative IT time, which the current schooling system doesn’t seem to allow for.”

At the age of seven, he was the only child selected from a group of 40 kids for private one-on-one tutoring. From then on, Sam has always been the youngest IT kid in the class. In Grade 4 he was placed in the Grade 8 computer class.

“I don’t have a problem with my age,” says Sam, who is usually the youngest kid in any IT environment. “I just want to do IT with others who share the same interest.”

The Sanlam / Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year® competition is keeping a keen eye on this talented young man, whom they believe will be a future entrant for their competition.