Alumni app developers convert new concepts into code.
Swipe right, swipe left. Users of an app created by Shanglun “Sean” Wang ’13 aren’t looking for a romantic encounter, but for folks in their area with whom to practice their foreign language skills.
Her name isn’t the only thing that’s musical about Minseon Song ’14. An accomplished flautist, she’s hitting the high notes as a software developer while designing an Android version of an app that translates Mahler symphonies from German into English.
Geekwire chairman and angel investor Jonathan Sposato ’89 was the first person in history to sell two startups to Google, but he never felt like he had a “real” job until his mom saw his picture in the paper. His new app, launched this summer, promotes peer-to-peer donations to Seattle’s homeless population—a sort of Uber for philanthropy.
All three are targeting markets near and far in today’s booming mobile tech industry and beyond, with products ranging from the very niche to the next big thing. And whether at the height of their career or just starting out, each has used coding as a conduit for creative problem solving. As the saying goes, if you want something that doesn’t exist, build it yourself.
“The internet is the most efficient marketplace that’s ever been created by people,” said Sposato, who is the CEO of PicMonkey, a cloud-based photo-editing site with millions of monthly users.
“I think it’s incredibly vital that people are prepared for a broad range of challenges as they enter or consider a career in technology, and I can’t think of a single career where technology isn’t a part of it. If you’re able to apply skills from different disciplines, which you can if you come from a liberal arts background, you’re also able to synthesize and come up with new things.”
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For Wang, that new thing was a way to locate Japanese-speaking conversation partners in Portland, where he moved after graduating from Whitman. The result is KotoBuddy (derived from the Japanese word kotoba, meaning language), an app that functions not unlike the popular dating platform Tinder, “which was all the rage when I started writing the app.” Though still a work in progress, KotoBuddy allows users to sign up via Facebook and suggests 12 languages that users can register to practice or teach, with the option to select their degree of fluency, from beginner to native speaker.
“Language is one of those use-it-or-lose-it things, and I knew that I had to practice to keep up on my Japanese,” Wang said.
Born in Qingdao, China, Wang moved to Japan when he was eight years old, then to Seattle when he was 12. He majored in economics but took several computer science classes and started programming after college; his first position was with Digital Vision, Inc., a Portland-based software company helmed by Overseer Emeritus Gordon Keane ’68.
“Liberal arts education can be an incredible asset to a software developer,” Wang said. “While learning how to analyze Plato and write about political structures of Crusader kingdoms isn't a substitute for technical skills, it’s certainly a great multiplier in the profession. The ability to identify problems, specify the solution fully and communicate effectively with all parties involved is a highly valued skill.”
Wang currently works for a data company in New York that specializes in startups and emerging technologies. As a full-stack (back- and front-end) software engineer, he’s more concerned with languages like Java and Python than Chinese, Japanese or English, but he hopes to continue fine-tuning KotoBuddy in his spare time, honing its location capabilities and making the user experience more intuitive.
“Part of the beauty of writing apps is that you’re never done, there’s always something you can make better,” he said.
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I had to perform better because I was the only woman engineer.
Minseon Song spent three months learning to code at New York’s Fullstack Academy after graduating from Whitman, before signing on as a front-end developer at Skyward IO, a commercial drone operations management company in Portland. The first web app she designed, DictateMe, was inspired by her experience as a musician.
“I had to take aural skills classes at Whitman as part of my requirements, and it was about training your ears so that you can recognize various intervals and qualities, as well as being able to dictate melodies and rhythms,” said Song, who majored in mathematics and music and has played flute for 15 years. “I thought it would be fun to reverse the concept and have computers do melodic dictations for humans, instead of humans being trained by a computer.”
The endeavor was more difficult than she’d anticipated: “Human performances are rarely consistent, especially with untrained people,” she said. “And I wanted to make it accessible to a general population, as well as highly trained musicians.”
Like Wang, Song came to the Pacific Northwest when she was in middle school, her family moving from Seoul, South Korea to Portland. This fall, she plans to return to school to learn band instrument repair while applying for master’s programs in flute performance.
“In order to have a career in technology, you have to constantly keep up with emerging technologies, a lot of times on your own time and at your own expense, and writing software becomes more of a lifestyle than a career,” Song said.
Although coding is now more of a hobby than a full-time pursuit, that hasn’t stopped her from working on her latest app, the premise for which (fittingly) struck her as she was participating in a music festival.
“We played Mahler’s second symphony, and I discovered that there is an iOS app and a webpage that has translations for all the German terms,” she said.
Dissatisfied with the lack of Android options, Song decided to create an equivalent app for that operating system.
“I like that I can bring ideas alive through coding,” she said. “Seeing a vague idea shape up to a real thing on my machine is such a satisfying experience.”
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It was not only the all-consuming nature of startups and tech jobs that nudged Song toward a more analog profession. There were cultural issues at play, too.
“At the company I worked for, I was the only woman on the engineering team,” she said. “The company is majority heterosexual, middle-aged white males…[so] not only my gender, but also the fact that I’m Asian, in my twenties, and not married nor in a relationship made me stand apart.”
Some colleagues appreciated Song’s status as a new addition; others, not so much.
“Some people flat-out disregarded me because I was different,” she said. “I also had to conform to the existing culture. I learned to be more aggressive and assertive in my speaking, neither of which are things that come to me naturally.”
Song felt pressured not only to meet expectations, but “somehow represent the entire women’s workforce in software engineering. I felt like I had to perform better and have better things to say in meetings because I was the only woman engineer.”
She said it wasn’t the work she minded, but the lack of regard for diversity in startup culture.
“Unless the company itself realizes the shortcomings and explicitly works on them to be more inclusive, it can harm not only women engineers, but also any other minorities in STEM fields.”
Someone who might empathize with her frustration is Jonathan Sposato. A serial entrepreneur and new Whitman trustee, he made waves last year when he announced he would no longer fund companies without at least one woman founder.
“I really feel that it’s important that those of us who are in a position to effect change do what we can to move the needle in the right direction,” Sposato said. “As an investor, I’m in a position to effect some positive change, and I said ‘why not? From here on out I will only invest in startups where there’s at least one female co-founder or female CEO.’ I didn’t mean for it to be this big statement, but it did end up trending on Twitter for a couple days and it kept going. We touched a nerve.”
As a young college graduate starting out at Microsoft in the 1990s, Sposato recalls having a number of female unit managers and vice presidents above him. At the time, it seemed workplace equality would only improve.
“But you fast forward 20-some-odd years, and I find myself looking at the world, seeing that actually it isn’t better, and in some ways, it seems like things have gone backwards,” he said. “I think the pay gap between genders is closing, but there’s still a pretty big gap.”
He cites the puzzling lack of women in tech startups, one of the most innovative segments of the economy. “Generally it’s regarded as a young industry—people are very progressively minded and things like that. So as someone who greenlights startups and gives startups the capital to do what they need, I felt that I could make a difference.”
Sposato’s app, WeCount—which facilitates direct donation of essential items to those in need—also stemmed from his sense of social responsibility. Parking his car in downtown Seattle before work every morning, Sposato would walk past a group of homeless people, often engaging them in conversation or offering to buy someone a cup of coffee.
“Hearing some of their stories, it really became clear that what is common amongst a lot of folks in a homeless environment is that you have a lot of individuals who fell on some hard times. A couple of bad things happened, or maybe three things happened all at once,” he said.
“Maybe they lost their job, they got divorced, or there was an illness in the family—then you have a situation where a person can’t afford to pay their bills, they lose their house and they don’t have a safety net.”
It's like oxygen, that connectedness with others through our devices.
Soon Sposato was distributing not just cups of coffee, but sleeping bags, tents and socks.
“So then it occurred to me that, what I’m doing right now, what if I had an app on my phone where I could figure out very quickly who around me was in need, who needed a sleeping bag or a backpack? That’s how the idea for WeCount was born.”
Sposato teamed up with Graham Pruss, a former homeless teen now getting his doctorate in social anthropology with a focus on homelessness. The app enables users to register anonymously for items they need, or drop off requested supplies at designated spots around the city, creating an easy-to-use, efficient network of donors and recipients. Pick-up locations include emergency shelters, housing units, community centers and churches, with on-site staff to monitor the process.
It’s a slick set-up, but one major question remains: do people living on the streets or in homeless shelters have access to the web?
According to Sposato, “the answer is an emphatic yes.”
Even if they can’t afford service plans, an overwhelming majority of today’s homeless still own or can borrow smartphones, tablets or laptops, which they then use at the library or other public spaces with free Wi-Fi.
“If you think about it, it makes sense, because it’s like oxygen—that connectedness with others through our devices,” Sposato said. “It’s the last thing we give up.”
He frames confronting Seattle’s homelessness crisis by borrowing a phrase from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg.
“It’s such a large problem that I think we can all lean in and help,” he said. “Those of us who are in private industry, who have the resources and the time to help should help. I think it’s our obligation. If I can bring my expertise—which is in creating interesting, innovative consumer software apps that operate at scale—to help address the problem, I will certainly try to see how we can make a dent.”
Sposato’s tenure in tech spans more than 25 years. Prior to the two Google purchases that cemented his startup celebrity, he was part of the team that developed the first Xbox, released in the United States in 2001. Yet he didn’t always feel secure in his career choices.
“Probably for the first 10 or 15 years I felt like, ‘okay, when am I going to stop this and go get a real job?’” he laughed. “I really felt I was potentially doing something wrong, that this was just one giant, extended summer and I needed to get back on the horse and go to grad school or something. I’m finally now seeing at the age of 49 that the path that I’ve had is an acceptable path, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that my mother finally understands what I do.”
After years of online media and blog coverage, Sposato said it was an article about him in the local newspaper that tipped the balance. Seeing her son’s name printed in black and white, “all of a sudden, it just clicked for her.”
Now Sposato is working to provide new generations of students with opportunities to learn coding as a member of the steering committee for Whitman’s computer science program. On the issue of whether liberal arts students should be learning to code as a matter of course, he doesn’t hesitate: “heck yes.”
“I think that’s like asking, should liberal arts students know how to write? Should liberal arts students know how to add and subtract? I think coding is an important life skill. Don’t be afraid to fail or screw up. Try it,” he said. “You might like it. You might be able to do some really cool things, and you might surprise yourself.”
Sposato describes the relationship between liberal arts and technology as alchemic:
“When you put someone who is classically trained in one area with someone who’s trained in a completely different discipline, sometimes magic can happen, and the end result is a product that may reach and benefit millions of people.”