Revolutionizing Education With Mobile Apps: A Toptal Developer’s Mission

Toptal freelance developer Attila Bicskó wants to change the world.

But Attila is more than a dreamer or a generous heart. He is bent on a cause suited to his unique skill set and experience: revolutionizing education through mobile apps.

Education has long utilized technology, with computers now a staple at nearly every educational facility. In the past few years, the media has speculated how mobile apps will affect education, and it finally appears that apps are on the eve of making a large impact, as evidenced by the recent increase in tablets at US schools in 2014.

Although Attila lives in Nagykozár, Hungary, he is at the center of this emerging movement in the US thanks to his work with Toptal, a remote company that connects elite freelance developers with primarily US-based clients. Since passing Toptal’s rigorous screening process, Attila has been able to explore his passion as a software developer at SchoolInfoApp, a Toptal client. Although he’s only been working with the client for just over a year, the newfound financial freedom has also enabled him to buy his first home, where he now lives with his fiancee.

SchoolInfoApp aims to change the way schools approach community by creating individualized apps for schools. Through the app, school administrators and teachers are able to post to the app in real-time with updates on schedules, assignments, or news. Students can keep track of their work, while parents can keep track of their progress and easily contact their kid’s teachers. The app can even work as an electronic hall pass. The benefits of this increased transparency have been widespread, and the app is currently used by thousands of students in more than 600 schools.

“At first, they brought me onto the team on an hourly basis and had me fixing bugs in the system. I really liked the client and I believed in the business, so I approached my employer and told him honestly that he should consider taking me on full-time through Toptal and allow me to rewrite the entire system for Android and iPhone.”

Much to Attila’s surprise, his employer agreed, and for the past year and a half, Attila has been singlehandedly rewriting SchoolInfoApp’s entire system. Not only is he rewriting the front-end Android and iPhone interfaces, he’s also rebuilding the entire back-end system, including implementing a new database and ID manager that radically improves content setup. To complete the task, he’s writing code in an impressive array of languages, including extensive use of .NET, C#, Java, Objective-C, and JavaScript.

Apart from a colleague handling the administrative end of the work, Attila has written all of the code by himself. He calls the project “a big undertaking,” which is still a sizable understatement. Normally, this kind of multi-year project would be handled by a team of developers with specialists in back-end, Android, and iOS.

As is a trend amongst many elite programmers, Attila first encountered his passion at a very young age, when he got a Commodore 64 computer at the age of 7 and played games like Street Rod and Rocket Ranger. By today’s standards, these games seem simplistic, but for the time, they were impressive.

“I played four floppy disk games, and the graphics were fascinating. I wanted to know how those games were created. I started reading books and wrote my first basic program when I was 8 or 9.”

Although Attila continued to pursue software programming in high school, he was only able to take very basic software classes. After all, it was the early 2000’s, and the Internet boom had just taken off. Technology was changing so quickly that education couldn’t keep up. It wasn’t until college that Attila experienced his real enlightenment with programming, when he first encountered C# and Java.

“Of course, the classes I took wouldn't be worth anything if I didn't pursue it myself. I tried to look outside what we learned in class and see code in different ways. I wasn't programming as a job, you understand, but I was programming for myself, trying new things.”

Attila graduated from Pécsi Tudományegyetem with a degree in operating systems. In his senior year, he wrote Linux system monitoring software for his thesis using PHP and C++.

“I graduated, but I didn’t really attend classes after my first year. I decided to start work instead. I worked at a brewery as the system administrator, which is how I got my experience in Windows servers. The brewery was close to the college, so it was very convenient. The beer was bad, unfortunately,” Attila remembers, laughing, “but it was cheap.”

After graduating in 2010, Attila found his passion when he entered the world of educational mobile apps with a Hungarian company called Dexter and joined their development team.

“When I was a kid, I believed that computers were the future. I knew I wanted to work with computers, but I can’t say that I was always sure I wanted to be a developer. I was certainly interested, but I was also interested in other things, like Linux and Windows administration. After a while though, I didn’t find those exciting because I was learning a system designed by someone else. It wasn’t creative enough. It felt more like following patterns that have already been traced. When I started at Dexter and saw what the development team was doing, I thought hey, I could do this and have an opportunity to be creative.”

While Dexter gave him the opportunity to be hands on with development and technology, Attila felt increasingly frustrated at the company because they weren’t releasing the projects he developed. In 2014, as Attila decided to begin looking for new opportunities.

“Developing software that is used by no one doesn’t make sense to me. I wanted to develop software that people would actually use. I wanted to create something useful.”

At this point, Toptal reached out to Attila with a prospective project that he calls “the most fortunate thing.” Attila had been part of Toptal’s network for a few years, but hadn’t yet had the time to take on Toptal projects due to his employment at Dexter.

“Toptal connected me to a client [SchoolInfoApp] who actually develops educational software too. Not only did I have four years of experience developing educational software, but the client was using the same technology that I had been working with as well.”

Attila remembers the transition being difficult. After working in a physical office for 8 years, the first month of working from home was lonely. Over time, he adjusted, and with the help of Bátor, his new dog, he learned to love working from home.

“This whole Toptal freelance thing really changed everything around me. I have my own schedule now. I am trying to work 8 or 10 hours a day, but I don’t necessarily have standard work hours. I work when it suits me, when I am most productive.”

On the side, Attila plays bass, a passion he’s pursued for twelve years, and plays in a band named Deindolls with two of his friends. They play a few shows a month and have toured around Hungary.

“It’s cool because now I have a bunch of time for music. I can practice when I need to. If we have a show midweek, I can accommodate that. I was able to play in the band with a regular full time job too, but the freelance lifestyle makes it much easier.

“I’m very happy. I love my fiancée and our new home. I like working remotely, and I’m rewarded by my work. I’m working with Toptal and SchoolInfoApp full-time because I like the companies as people. But what really settled it for me is the fact that the apps I’m creating are used by thousands of kids in the US. I’m not developing software for a desk drawer. I’m doing something useful that benefits hundreds of communities. That’s why I’ve stayed with SchoolInfoApp and Toptal. They’ve given me a chance to change the world.”