Hi there 👋! I’m John, and I was a hackNY fellow last summer, working at BuzzFeed (if you couldn’t tell by the title!). I got to know some incredibly cool folks, learned quite a lot about writing good code, and helped run the meme-driven, cat-powered corner of the internet that is BuzzFeed. When I wasn’t working, I was helping hackNY Fellows with a project, as part of hackNY’s annual Summer of Good initiative, for a company called Cognitive Toybox. When I wasn’t coding at all, I was eating a lot of halal food and drinking quite unhealthy amounts of boba! It was an incredibly formative summer, having learned a lot of lessons about how the tech world works, and more surprisingly, how the human experience works.
The experiences I’ve been a part of this summer were big shifts from the kinds of engineering I’ve traditionally taken part in. My mission, along with writing code, was to understand people first, and to weave in their concerns and stories with the products I made. This parallel human aspect forced me to gain a new perspective, and challenged the way I interact with others! Here are some things that I’ve learned:
#1: Tech is an inherently human enterprise.
My time at BuzzFeed and hackNY changed how I view interpersonal interaction. Being rude to people who might not know the same things as you serves no purpose — in fact, it does nothing but discourage the person from learning what they’re missing out on! At a macroscale, this gatekeeping behavior is precisely what keeps minority groups out of tech, hurting the industry as a whole. There needs to be a fundamental element of compassion and goodwill in the way that people interact with each other!
One beautiful way I learned this was during my first week at BuzzFeed, when I learned that one of BuzzFeed’s core principles was to “assume best intent.” It sounds simple, but this principle embodies what it means to be a supportive member of the technology community. When someone is speaking, we should assume that they are speaking to lift everyone in the room, not tear anyone down. I lived this truth every day. When I brought up concerns, I was not looked down on, I was taken seriously. I learned that when everyone is brought to the table, everyone feels well-respected and valuable!
#2: User-centered technology is the most impactful kind of technology.
During my time at hackNY, I had the opportunity to hear from two speakers each week. I got to hear from all sorts of individuals, from the CEO of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti, to tech policymakers, like David Ryan Polgar and Katy Glen Bass. I noticed a common thread interwoven among many of the success stories. They had a laser-sharp focus on the user. In today’s burgeoning tech world, it can seem that there is more tech than there are problems that that tech should fix. Homing in on specific user stories, validating their problems with data, and making sure that there’s a dedicated audience for the product you’re about to create are ways to make impactful technology.
I vividly remember the CEO of justfix.nyc, Dan Kass, while he spoke to us about the application his team made to report poor living conditions in NY. Tenants could report their landlords for uninhabitable living conditions and file legal complaints, in an effort to fight for NYC’s growing housing justice movement. Dan spoke to us about how heuristic evaluations and feedback from people using his app — for example seniors, people who did not speak English, and non-college-educated tenants — drove many sessions to redesign and revisit the design of their application. This willingness to listen and build a product tailored to his users not only saved people’s lives, but also led to a product that was easier to maintain, and solved the problem it sought to address. Dan was one of my favorite speakers this summer, and he truly helped me see what it meant to gather requirements and be user-centric when it came to writing software.
#3: Privilege should be used for advocacy and empowerment.
As computer scientists, some of whom have been to college and can afford to live in nice cities, we have so much privilege and access to opportunity. It’s easy to forget how much power and impact we have, so even using just a fraction of this power could solve problems for a lot of people! This is truly what made me fall in love with hackNY in the first place. I felt like I had technical skills, but no actionable way to translate them into social good. When I was admitted, I was psyched to learn that as part of hackNY’s Summer of Good initiative, I could partner with Cognitive Toybox, a startup that focuses on educational tech! My team and I worked on an analytics dashboard, which was built as a fullstack React application. The experience helped me grow even further as a developer as I learned to better understand my users and delegate and assign work. At the end of the summer, I felt incredibly proud of the work I had done, knowing that it had helped spur positive change in the NYC tech ecosystem.
When I was admitted to hackNY and matched with BuzzFeed, I was also incredibly curious as to what social initiatives I could be working with in my day-to-day work on the site team at BuzzFeed. Luckily, my boss (objectively the best boss anyone could ask for), told me about BuzzFeed’s web accessibility initiatives, and proposed that I could work on some outstanding issues there! It was exactly what I was looking for. I made BuzzFeed’s website more accessible to impaired users while improving my frontend skills. It was incredibly rewarding, and showed me that finding people who are interested in the same social initiatives as you gives you support and a reason to pursue them further. Using my privilege to make BuzzFeed’s user experience better, and helping a startup like Cognitive Toybox made this summer incredibly impactful for me!
#4: Networks are great, but good friends are priceless.
Quite honestly, I’m not the networking type. I’m the kind of person that likes talking about food and cool memes I’ve come across on Twitter, not about entrepreneurship or business. I came into hackNY half expecting to find myself surrounded by really intense people who live and breathe the entrepreneurship life, of which I knew nothing. I could not have been happier that I was wrong. The amazing friends I made this summer were down-to-earth, wonderfully thoughtful, and an absolute joy to be around.
At the end of the day, all of us can learn different programming languages or hot new technologies given enough time. However, we are remembered for our human impact, and the impression we leave on someone. My summer as a hackNY Fellow taught me that it’s not only acceptable to be different and stand out from the crowd, but that it’s that difference that makes a community stronger. We have an obligation to use our talents to spur positive change, and my faith in that mission was reaffirmed by having good friends who shared this same mission.
I had the time of my life during my hackNY summer, and I can’t wait to see what adventures the fellowship has in store for future participants. If you’re interested in joining this community and using your technical skills to better the world, applications for hackNY class of 2020 will be opening in late September! Hope to see your application!