How I Learned to Code and Landed My First Research Job

During my senior year of college, I was searching for some electives to satisfy my Information Systems degree requirements. The goal: Just graduate and get a job designing websites. You'll make like 80K doing it! Little did I know, that whole plan was about to change.

I signed up for a course called Human-Computer Interaction Design. The professor teaching the class, Dr. Amy Hurst, kept talking to us about research and her cool lab where she's doing cool work with her cool students. I didn't pay much attention to that at first. I had zero interest in research. Research just means reading a bunch of things, right? And I definitely didn't want to go to graduate school. I'm headed out into the world to make money!

Haha! Silly kid!

Like all silly kids, easily distracted by shiny things, I got attracted to a shiny LED sign on a door in a building on campus. The sign read: the PAD lab. I peeked behind it and saw a bunch of people surrounded by a lot of cool-looking gadgets. Who are all these cool people behind this cool sign? What is this shiny wonderland?

Well, guess what. It was Amy's lab!

Following the initial excitement, imposter syndrome hit hard.

  • I was not cool enough to work there.

  • I had nothing to offer.

  • My lousy GPA certainly wouldn't get me into grad school.

  • Amy said her students are Ph.D.'s!

  • I am lucky enough to be graduating.

  • For god's sake, I started at community college!

Yeah! Imposter syndrome is real, kids.

A few days later, I was wandering the halls before one of my classes and I passed the PAD lab again. That cool LED sign kept drawing me in like a magnet. I had to see what was on the other side of that door. So I decided to go talk to Amy. My excuse? Help with homework? Nah. Tell me about your lab? She did that in class already.

"I'll show her Insterpreter!" No, I did not misspell interpreter. Insterpreter, the Instant Interpreter, was a web-based app I had written as a side project. I had started it for two reasons:

  1. I was feeling bored and unchallenged with my class assignments and wanted to learn how to write code by making something real. You know, not an imaginary vehicle classification program for an imaginary car dealership.

  2. I wanted to solve a real-life problem I had encountered in my day job.

In college I worked as an on-call medical interpreter at Johns Hopkins hospital. Sometimes I would get called to a patient's room only to end up doing just 5 minutes of work. The doctors would be doing rounds, and they wanted to ask their non-English-speaking patients the same routine questions. Do you have any pain? Where? And so on. I had to leave my school work, drive an average of 30 minutes, find and pay for parking only to to do 5 minutes of work. It was frustrating me, so I decided to do something about it. And, well, I was living in a post-Facebook post-iPhone world, AND this was all taking place the year "The Social Network" had hit theaters. You see where I'm going with this...I'm going to ZuckerJobs the s*!t outta this problem.

So I opened my laptop, hooked it up to my TWO external monitors, cracked open a can of Redbull, went on YouTube and started looking up web development tutorials. After building a couple of test pages and learning about javascript and buttons and event handling, I had the following inner monologue, which turned into a diagram, which ended up being...





"Well, who's gonna use this?

Patients who do not speak English, and people working at the hospital who do not speak Arabic.

Who are the people working at the hospital?

Doctors, nurses, check-in staff, lab technicians.

So we divide those into admin staff and caretakers.

What kind of interactions do I usually translate?

Simple questions, their answers.

So Questions and Statements.

What kinds of questions are there?

Where? When? How? Do you have/need/feel?

and so on..."

Here's a video demo of Insterpreter.

I ended up creating a fully-functioning app, Insterpreter! Complete with a logo and everything.

Insterpreter logo. The letter I made of two arrows going in opposite directions

This is the Insterpreter logo. <sarcasm> It's an 'i' with arrows going in both directions...GENIUS! </sarcasm>

Insterpreter is a successful project. Not by its number of downloads or daily active users, because both of those are zeros, but because it provided me with the drive to learn how to write software, and, when I decided to tell Amy about it, it helped me discover a new career.

At the time when I created Insterpreter, I had no clue what HCI, UX, or any of that meant or that it all even existed. As I was poorly explaining the app to Amy, I told her about my process and she was smart enough to recognize what I was doing and take a gamble on me. She told me to come to her lab during the open Monday meeting (Yes, she had an open-invite weekly meeting. *face palm*), and that she might have a job for me if I was willing to commit, show up, and do good work.

Despite the fact that no one ever used Insterpreter, this side project provided me with enough passion to learn a valuable skill I still use to this day, and the courage to beat my imposter syndrome and present an accomplishment I was proud of. It opened the door for me to work in a research lab where I learned about the field of Human-Computer Interaction, landed an NSF fellowship to get my Masters degree, got into one of the top Ph.D. programs in the country, and made life-long friends with the cool people of the PAD lab.

#Advice #All