Farmingdale Talk

Nov 02 2015

A few weeks ago I spoke at Farmingdale State College, a SUNY school in Long Island. It was my second year speaking there at the invitation of a friend that teaches design classes.

I mainly talked about what it's like to work as a professional developer at a small startup and a large company. The students are primarily design and art students, not developers, so hopefully I gave them a useful perspective of what it's like in this field.

The students have a final project that they'll be working on throughout the class and after my talk I met one-on-one with those that intended to create apps and needed technical help.

It was early in the semester so for the most part the students were still trying to figure out what their concept was. And like them, I bat around ideas for businesses and applications, usually discarding them as cool ideas to me but not something that anyone really needs. I didn't expect to hear a fully fleshed out business plan that will create the next "unicorn" startup, but their pitches were surprising.

One student, originally from Iran, wanted to create a smartphone app that allowed people in different countries to ask each other questions about their culture. Her example was that she was asked all of the time if it snowed in Iran (the answer is yes). She would love to learn about other countries and cultures without traveling there or reading about them on the internet. Such an app would be a large undertaking: it's essentially a chat app, but you'd have to think about timezones, translation, anti-spam measures and more. Should it be an anonymous chat app? There was so much to think about.

Another student, originally from the Dominican Republic, wanted to connect U.S. college students with volunteer opportunities in other countries. The students would be able to learn about another country while contributing to a worthy cause.

And another wanted to add 3-D models to physical space (essentially augmented reality) that you could view through your phone.

These were all admittedly huge projects that would take a whole team to build and would be awfully tough for one student for half of a school year, but that's ok. In my opinion it's good to think big and be audacious about what should exist.

Often I find that I'm the opposite. Because I know how most of these technologies work and can estimate the time and effort investment necessary to pull them off, I'm less likely to follow through on ideas that I believe to very "hard." Because they aren't technology people at heart, these students thought about a problem and opportunity first, then started thinking about they could solve it.

Hopefully they learned a few things from my talk and I think I was helpful in my suggestions to their projects, but I learned big lesson too: start with the problem, not the solution.

One last side note: this was at the entrance of the campus building I walked into:

It's silly, but very cool to experience in-person. The pastrami sandwich seemed to be infecting the minds of the college: I saw various printouts of such sandwiches pinned to walls. My professor friend said that she walked into her animation class one day to find all of her students animating roast beef sandwiches on their screens. And the AR idea mentioned above may have been inspired by this larger than life food sculpture too.

It was a neat example of how public art can change your perceptions about the world around you. I think this is one area where technology is usually lacking. Although we talk about the design of the interface for an application, it isn't very often that an app can inspire or change a person with its experience like art can. It's a worthy goal, though.

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Dave Walk is a software developer, basketball nerd and wannabe runner living in Philadelphia. He enjoys constantly learning and creating solutions with Go, JavaScript and Python. This is his website.