How Facebook’s newest teen engineer supported his family with apps until cashing in

There’s nothing that highlights the fact that Silicon Valley is the new Wall Street, gold rush, colonial settlement — insert your American Dream rags-to-riches historical moniker here — quite like the story of 18-year-old Miami resident Michael Sayman.

This week, Facebook hired Sayman as one of its youngest full-time engineers in history. He wouldn’t tell me his salary, but admitted his friends are already pressuring him to “buy a Tesla,” which he won’t do because he’d “rather save the money.” Before you go throw up at the idea of a teenager buying himself a Tesla off tech riches, there’s few people who deserve that luxury quite as much as this kid.

I met Sayman four months ago, when the then 17-year-old developer caught Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Zuckerberg featured him at the company’s f8 conference, and offered him an internship in one of Facebook’s first class of high school interns. Sayman and I spoke on the evening before the conference and he had one thing on his mind: The ranking of his app 4 Snaps.

He had poured the last year of his life into building the game, which was a version of charades. Users received a word like “toothbrush” and had to take four pictures representing that word, so another friend playing the game could guess. 4 Snaps, with some marketing help, had rapidly risen through the app rankings and as Sayman and I spoke that night he counted the apps it continued to pass.

“I’m beating Starbucks, Luminosity, Fitbit, Lyft… oh my gosh, it’s number 123 in the overall app store ratings!” he said, showing off a mouth full of braces with his accompanying grin.

But getting to the top of the app store wasn’t just a fun goal for Sayman. It was a matter of keeping him and his family afloat financially.

Since the age of 13, Sayman had been supporting his parents and his sister with profits he made from prior apps. The recession hit the Saymans hard, and when their home was foreclosed upon Michael bought the family a smaller townhouse to live in. In Florida, the economy hasn’t rebounded quite as quickly as it has in Silicon Valley, and Sayman’s parents struggled to keep their local business — a chicken restaurant — profitable. When I spoke with Michael’s mother Cristina back in April, she told me, “Sometimes I’m embarrassed to say everything Michael did for us. It’s like he became the father of the family. It’s crazy.”

The financial struggles didn’t stop then. Even as Facebook was flying Sayman out to tour the campus and speak at conferences, he still owed tuition to his private high school, and the program wouldn’t give him his graduation certificate without it. I met with Sayman months after my story first ran — and got picked up by national outlets like USA Today, Bloomberg, and NPR — and all he could think about was the financial stress his family was under. The national media coverage hadn’t helped him find a buyer for 4 Snaps, and he was worried about how he could keep his family afloat.

That’s why the most recent news in Sayman’s life — that Facebook has offered him an engineering job as one of their youngest full-time members ever on staff — is huge. It’s not just the classic Silicon Valley case of a talented kid carving out a space for himself in tech — while still in braces, no less. It’s also a story of the American dream — and of redemption.

When Sayman told his mom about the full-time offer, she started crying. “We’re having tough times at home for sure,” Sayman told me. “I’ve had these shoes that were kinda ripped up in the corner. They were five years old. So the first thing I’m going to do is buy myself some new shoes.”