Learning from Doing

Blueprint developers reflect on some of their greatest lessons and experiences from working with Project Homeless Connect SF (Part 2).


A block away from Twitter headquarters sits San Francisco’s historic Bill Graham Auditorium. Here, Project Homeless Connect (PHC) hosts massive service events — where five times a year, the city’s homeless can receive services that range from housing assistance to vision care and foot washing.

On March 11, 2015, Blueprint launched its first large-scale test of its mobile application for the nonprofit, which would help PHC organize data and human resources more efficiently.

The year-long journey of ideating, developing, and testing has involved the hands and hearts of numerous individuals. Here’s a look at some of the developers’ main takeaways!


The Beginning

Howard Chen, Project Lead (Fall)

While researching the reach of the organization, I met with our client on a weekly basis. These meetings were very powerful because our client Kate always discussed the impact of what we were doing and how such technologies would affect many individuals.

At the first beta launch, our app was tested on a small scale (with only 6 tablets). But as the data flowed into the database from the app, it was gratifying to see how the work our team accomplished could come alive and make an impact.


Thoughts on Progress

Excited about what’s been done and what’s to come

Shimmy Li, Project Developer (Spring):

It was super exciting seeing the large number of volunteers at the event, and how many services were being offered. It’s a completely different experience discussing and working on an app versus seeing it applied in action, helping people.

Tony Wu, Project Developer (Spring):

In terms of the development process, we started off really quickly since it was an ongoing project that had good groundwork (thanks to the previous PHC team). Leading up to the launch, we polished the user interface (UI), along with testing our app with the auditorium’s much slower wifi.
From what I heard and saw, everyone thought the app was a better alternative to what they had before. To see our app being used by the volunteers was really fulfilling — and now, we’re going to build off what we learned from the event to have a better one ready for PHC’s event in June!

Warren Shen, Project Developer (Spring):

It’s so great to see the application that so many Blueprint members helped contribute to have major impact on the non-profit. I think it goes to show that we really can and do achieve our mission of doing social good.
But another thing to remember is that we still can do a lot more to make the application even better! After the event, our team took time to listen to PHC volunteers and hear their feedback. Looking forward, we plan to use this feedback to enhance the mobile app even further.

Overarching Lessons

Byron Zhang, Project Lead (Spring)

I. Professional

In school, the engineering process is distilled down to simple steps: You are handed a well-defined, isolated problem with explicit instructions and clear measures of how good your solution is. After making some light design considerations, you create code in the nice environment you’ve set up, debug, and submit.

But in the real world, the process requires much greater complexity. Building and adopting technologies is a messy effort that takes far more time and collaboration. And as developers, you must:

  1. Constantly communicate with the client to define and redefine features.
  2. Prioritize and compromise between expectations and feasibility.
  3. Define your own measures of how successful an application is.
  4. Scrap features that may have taken several weeks to create.
  5. Learn and accept that many failures come from problems that you may have not known existed.

II. Personal

When we hear about homelessness in the news, we often (unintentionally) turn to certain stereotypes. We think of a mentally hysteric person on the street, usually in dirty rags and poor condition — someone who has essentially lost the qualities of people we interact with in society.

But these were not the individuals I saw at events.

The homeless valued love, family, and personal sanitation. Young or old, most were well-dressed and clean. And above all else, they remained greatly respectful and grateful for the services being provided.

The difference? These people needed help.

They sought resources that would help them survive and provide on a day-to-day basis. As I participated in more one-on-one conversations with these “at-risk populations,” such pre-conceived notions that they were a group to be pitied or ignored slowly dissolved.

III. A Memory

Seeing the face of San Francisco’s homelessness

A 62 year-old sweet elderly Chinese woman was at our first service event, looking for a Mandarin speaker. She was well-spoken, clean, and very sweet — the last person I expected to see there.

She told me about her woes: currently living in the government projects, she had recently submitted an application to get an apartment of her own. However, she had never received a confirmation of this submission, and was concerned.

While I walked with her to the housing assistance station, she told me her backstory. At the age of 59, she had come over to United States. It was difficult for her to find a job, so she continued to barely get by with occasional babysitting jobs or manual labor. Simply due to language and technological barriers, she had been left behind.

Despite these difficult circumstances, she said she loved America.

She told me that she believes that the government here truly cares about helping its people, and that opportunity comes much more easily to its citizens.

After walking for a few blocks, we arrived at the location. The social worker told us that the application process usually took two to four years — and that she did not need to receive any kind of confirmation notice. He then wrote the address of another location she’d have to go during the following week, just to make sure her name was actually on the waiting list.

Even though I had done very little for her, the woman thanked me repeatedly and waved goodbye. Interacting with her — someone I could easily see as my mother or grandmother — cemented my realization of how wrong it is to label and judge these populations.


Thank you PHC and Kate for your amazing work in the community!

And kudos to the amazing Blueprint developers who made this application happen.

To learn more about Blueprint’s mission and team, visit our website and follow us on Twitter! As always, thanks for reading.

Like what you read? Give Blueprint a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.