How old is he? That question caused quite a stir on social media when a picture of Darren van Roodt (22) was posted the day he graduated cum laude with a B.Sc Honours in Computer Science degree from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) during this past week of graduation ceremonies.
He may have been one of 60 cum laude and 16 summa cum laude degrees conferred in the Natural Sciences that day, but this Garden Village, Maitland resident drew extra attention to himself, thanks to his youthful appearance – he looks not a day older than 13.
Many wondered how such a young lad was able to accomplish something this remarkable – obtaining a B.Sc Computer Science degree cum laude (obtaining a weighted average of 70% across all modules).
But Darren tells a serious story behind the origins of his youthful looks.
“I was about six years old when I began complaining about headaches – and that’s when the doctors found that I had a tumour on my brain,” he says. “It was removed, and it affected my growth.”
He’s come a long way since his days at Koeberg Primary and later Rhodes High School in Mowbray, where he completed matric in 2012. Darren was a great student at UWC, and for the last three years of his degree he has constantly been one of the top three achievers in UWC’s Computer Science Department.
“Currently I am working in the Quantitative Risk Analytics team as a Systems Analyst which means I take care of the technological systems that determines credit rating for any corporate that does banking with Rand Merchant Bank.”
While at university, he applied for the winter school at Rand Merchant Bank, which introduced him to Corporate Investment Banking. “Winter school was used to network with managers and based on my interaction with them, I was called for a final interview for the graduate programme.
Darren strikes one as somewhat of a withdrawn personality. Chances are, you’d do well getting him to speak when you talk to him about programming languages like Java or Python or maybe web development and HTML5 – the things that most definitely would spark his interest. His family and friends are used to this enthusiasm – and their support helped him succeed.
“I’m really grateful to my family and friends who were there for me through the tough and fun times while at university,” says Darren.
His parents, Stanley and Jill, couldn’t be more proud of their middle child (Darren has two other siblings, eldest Caren-Lee (25) and youngest Terri-Lee (20)).
And his varsity friends call him a problem solver and innovative thinker who works well with others, and they’d let you in on a few of Darren’s accomplishments.
Back in 2015 he and his friends competed in the Standard Bank IT Challenge and made it to the finals.
CODEJAM is a competition with a focus on developing a mobile application in a team of five that could solve issues pertaining to education and more. In 2013 Darren and four of his friends won CODEJAM by developing a mobile application in Android which helps students with mathematics problems, connect with tutors.
“This was my proudest moment at UWC,” Darren says. “As a team we created an Android application which would connect students with mathematics tutors. The application gave students the ability to get help from tutors directly in helping the learners to solve mathematics problems.
We also gave them access to mathematics material like past papers and textbooks. I was proud because it added to what UWC stands for: to help develop academic solutions to our country’s problems.”
When asked why he chose this field, he says, “I was very intrigued by computers and how they work and because I loved mathematics, but coding interested me most, because you have the ability to tell the computer what it must do for you in a set of instructions and that to me is fascinating.”
His love affair with computers was evident when he chose his research topic: to use computer vision and machine learning to create a program that controls a drone using hand gestures.
But it seems he isn’t only a computer boffin.
“I make time for my hobbies. I love watching series like Mr Robot and playing online games; I go hiking with friends, watch and play soccer. I also tutor maths at a school in my community. And of course, I’m very interested in using computer programming and modern technology for social change.”
He wants to create his own company one day – one which will develop mobile applications to solve educational issues.
“I want to experience the real world and the problems faced in the real world – I’ve found that technologically based academics do research that isn’t always aligned with real world problems because technology changes every day.”
His advice to current students: “Studying can be stressful at times, but at the end of the day you will be better off both financially and on an educational level. Education is the key to a successful life – whether you get it online or at a university, it will help you become the person you want to be.”