In part two of our Computer Programming Series, Megan talks with Brynn Claypoole, a senior in computational biology at Penn and former executive director of Penn Apps, the hackathon we covered earlier this year. To check out the first article in this series, check out Heidi’s piece here.
I spoke with Brynn Claypoole two weeks ago, as she was finishing her senior spring of finals. She was toting some study materials for her Japanese language class (she is a Japanese minor) and met up with me at Hubbub, one of my favorite interview spots.
Brynn is soft-spoken, intelligent, and offers a wealth of information about the computer science world—something Brynn never would have imagined in high school. “I didn’t know what programming was for a long time. It just wasn’t even a concept. It wasn’t a school subject.” After being introduced to the concept through friends, she petitioned her school to let her take AP Computer Science online. But, even at this point, she wasn’t completely sold. Brynn applied to most colleges as a biology major, and on a whim, applied to Penn’s Computational Biology program, within the Department of Computer Science.
Within three years, Brynn went from knowing next to nothing about computer science, to being the executive director of Penn Apps. When asked about how she became involved in hackathons, she told me, “It’s a little weird. So in January of my sophomore year, I didn’t know what a hackathon was. At least here, it seemed like only really intense programmers did it.” But a few friends from a computer science class asked her to join their team and Brynn said, “Sure.”
Although the project with her first team did not pan out, she met some students from Yale who taught her some of the basics. “They introduced me to HTML and I spent a lot of time working on that.” And then, “When my team didn’t come back, I just started helping out the guys who were organizing it [Penn Apps]. Because they looked like they needed help. Cleaning up the trash, taking out the pizza boxes. Little things like that. They were running around all weekend—it was kind of a mess! It was the first time they had that many people [at Penn Apps]. They just weren’t ready for that many [people].”
After helping out all weekend, the director of Penn Apps asked Brynn to attend one of their post-mortem meetings. Within a month, she became the next director. “The funny thing was that at the meetings I didn’t say anything. I was mostly just listening. I maybe interjected once or twice.” She suggested that two people run the next Penn Apps—it seemed like too much for one director to handle. After that meeting, the director emailed her and asked her to direct Penn Apps for next year. She replied, “Me and somebody else?” He replied, “Nope, just you.”
Brynn treaded lightly at first. She wasn’t completely sure what she had gotten herself into. “I spent the first few months just really listening. I was put in charge of a team of A) all guys and B) guys who had been doing this for the past year.”
“I ran the first Penn Apps without having any idea what I was doing. But after that, I started going to hackathons every other week. I’d always do the same thing. I would help out, working with the other volunteers.” The next January, Penn Apps was much more streamlined—she had learned a lot.
Luckily, Brynn found that she really enjoyed working on the hackathon. And implementing changes that today makes Penn Apps accessible to a wide range of students, whether you are a seasoned programmer or not.
“I think it really stemmed out of seeing the problem I had at my first Penn Apps. It was way too intense. The way I got into it and the only way I could actually start learning was that those random guys I met from Yale pointed me to the right place. It just takes that initial step: someone telling you what a web app is.” During her junior year, she decided that she wanted to create a formal system for teaching the very basics to people interested in getting involved in hackathons.
“What I loved about Penn Apps the first time was that I could just go and people would teach me something and I could then build something on my own.” Some things can be Googled, but not without falling into a deep, deep hole of information. “There were people [at Penn Apps] from all over the country who were really good programmers. But they weren’t making it appealing to people who had never been to a hackathon before.”
In the spring of 2014, Brynn and a friend decided to develop a program for people who are new to hackathons. They tried out their teaching methods by presenting to students in the lowest level programming class at Penn: Intro to Java. “We told them if they came to the hackathon, we would sit with them all weekend and teach them how to code, so we could figure out what people needed to learn. We took ten people that weekend and figured it out.” Now, they host the class over a weekend at the beginning of each semester. (Right before Penn Apps, which is held twice every year: early in the fall and spring semesters.)
In addition to spending time teaching and developing these programs, Brynn has a new interest in using her programming skills to assist non-profits with important social change initiatives. “I really like non-profits. Programmers are really expensive. It would be so useful to non-profits to have someone to build a website for them. Simple things that I do at hackathons every weekend. I would like to get involved with that. Either education non-profits or helping these companies that are doing great things but don’t really have the money to hire a developer.”
She had a taste of this when Lincoln Financial hired her as a hackathon consultant last year to assist with a hackathon focused on building things for education-based non-profits. “I really liked that. It’s kind of hard though, because when you build something at a hackathon, it’s not very sound most of the time. It’s unlikely that it actually will work well.” (Anything you work on for only 48 hours will have its kinks!)
“It’s really hard to strike that balance, between what you can actually give to a non-profit and feeling like you are helping them. The actual hackathon team consults with them [the non-profit] beforehand and make sure they understand what is realistic. Help them pick a realistic goal.”
One education company, that delivers school supplies to classrooms that needs them most, needed a simple database built to keep track of inventory. They were currently using an excel spreadsheet. “It wasn’t a hard thing to do, at all, but [the company] was run by two people who didn’t have the time or knowledge to do it. It would be easy for a person like me to just spend a month working with them and building it. And then just being on call in case they need to make changes at some point in the future.”
While at Penn, Brynn also participated in computational biology research. “I feel very strongly that it is the most useful application of computer science. There are so many problems that can be solved using genetics and healthcare data. And a lot of those systems are really outdated. There is a lot that can be done to make it better. And so much important research is happening there.”
I really like non-profits. Programmers are really expensive. It would be so useful to non-profits to have someone to build a website for them. Simple things that I do at hackathons every weekend. I would like to get involved with that."
Right now, she is working for a start-up that focuses on data privacy. They have a specific data privacy algorithm that can de-identify databases of people, which is particularly important for making medical data publicly available. “If you have a database, that has health information about them, due to HIPPA standards, you have to remove a lot of information. But, there have been studies that you can still identify those people. So, this start-up creates a synthetic database that is very, very similar [to the original dataset]. You could still perform statistics on it and get the same results. It would be really nice, because then people who collect all this information could share it with the general public.” Currently, Brynn is helping the company apply their algorithm to genetic data.
With all these interesting and impactful directions to go in, I ask Brynn what she is going to do next week when classes are over and graduation is upon her. “I’ve jumped around so much. Even when I was applying for jobs, because I’m graduating in a couple of weeks, it was really difficult to figure out where I wanted to go or what I wanted to apply for.”
She elected to take a full-time position at Udacity, teaching Android development online, and will move to California right after graduation. “That seemed like a really good fit after I heard about it because I really love teaching. I actually don’t know Android that well; I did it a couple of years ago. But I’ll be able to learn on my own and teach other people. So, I’m excited about that!”
“What makes them a little different is that they have lots of full-time teachers employed. I think that’s really helpful because that’s why school works. I have tried the online courses, such as Code Academy, and I’m really into it for like 2 hours, and then I get bored of it. [At Udacity], you have somewhere you can ask questions if you’re confused.”
And this brings us back to the beginning of this article. The broadening of the computer science field and expansion of options for graduates. With a background in programming, it seems as though the options are endless—whether you are interested in developing new technology, teaching others, helping non-profit companies, or pushing the bounds of research. I’m excited to see how Brynn enjoys her work at Udacity and what paths she decides to pursue next.