Programmer Shae Smith makes DoSomething.org work better
Shae Smith was always the one in her family who fixed the computers. After an intro computer science class in high school, she fell in love with programming. After graduating from Smith with a computer science degree, she "hopped around" to several jobs before landing at DoSomething.org. Today, she works to make their platform better and is involved with several organizations supporting youth in New York City.
FAST FACTS ABOUT Shae
Where she’s from: New York City
Grew up with: mom and dad
Education: Bachelor’s degree in computer science from Smith College
Where she lives now: New York City
Growing up she wanted to be: no idea
Now she’s: Senior Software Engineer at DoSomething.org
What were you like growing up?
I was a mess. I was a regular kid with a lot of angst and problems. I went to public school to middle school. I was not trying very hard, and performing well, not because I was super smart but because the classes weren’t challenging. I was also a terrible test taker. I was a kid in New York, I was partying; I was doing everything I shouldn’t. And my family was like, you’re going to private school.
It was helpful to be in an environment where my education was really being nurtured. I had more opportunities. I played a lot of sports; I had to do a lot of activities.
How did you start programming?
We had to do elective classes, and one was basic programming. I’ve always been the person in my house who fixed all the computers and stuff. I always wanted to be that kid from the Bank Heist movies that was coding and doing all the heist programming and hacking, so I thought I was going to be able to do that. I took that class and I really liked it.
I wanted to try AP computer science. There were only three of us; two of them were boys. I loved it. I have always been a practical learner, a hands-on learner, and I like programming, the logical thinking and the way that it felt practical, because you would actually build a program or a piece of software. And it just felt really cool to me, and I really took to it.
With computer science, it was really about problem solving more than memorization and multiple choice.
Did you go into college wanting to major in computer science?
When I went to college, I decided I was going to be an engineer, and I had to go into this engineering program at Smith. We had to take physics, and I was just really, really terrible at physics. But we also had to take an intro computer science class, and I was like, “Oh my God, I remember this from high school. I love this, I’m good at this,” and I switched my major my sophomore year to computer science. Even the theory of computer science was interesting to me.
I loved the logical thinking; I loved how practical it was. With computer science, it was really about problem solving more than memorization and multiple choice. Here’s this interesting problem, and how many different ways can you solve it? Try to find the most efficient way of solving it. It felt like a puzzle, and I love puzzles.
What else did you like to do outside of school?
I was really into sports. In junior high, well, there weren’t that many sports available in public school, but I played basketball, and I was really into music, so I used to DJ in high school. I DJed in college, too. I played everything, I played basketball, field hockey, and then I got into lacrosse, and I ended up being really good at it. And that actually helped me get into Smith; I got recruited to play at Smith. I was a big-time lacrosse goalie, in Brooklyn and in college, and I spent a lot of my time doing that, and then DJing for money on the side.
I just love lacrosse. Playing lacrosse in D III is more like high school. It’s as competitive as you make it. We weren’t the best, but we had so much fun playing and practicing, and just the camaraderie that comes with being on a team was really important, and it builds a lot of character.
Back to you as a younger person, who were the adults who were important in your life when you were growing up?
My mother, my mother’s two best friends. They were three very strong black women who were also entrepreneurs, and freelancers, and hustlers, and they taught me how to have multiple streams of income, they taught me how to serve my community, they taught me friendship and sisterhood. My mom’s best friend got her law degree when she was 50. They just never felt like they had to settle down for nothing. My coaches are always great, my grandma.
I’d go to my grandma’s house in the summer, so I also got raised by old people. That’s why I cook now, is because I used to cook with my grandma. When I got into coding she was like, “I used to do punch cards.” I was like, “Oh, really? It runs in the family.” She worked for the military during the Korean War doing some of that stuff. I was like, “That’s so cool you did that.”
What did you do after college?
When you get into tech as an industry there’s a lot of different places you can go, and I didn’t know where I wanted to be. Do I want to be an engineer, do I want to be coding, do I want to be doing something more on the business side of things?
I’ve hopped around. I don’t think having one job out of college would have been right for me. Because of that I’ve learned a lot, I’ve learned about how different teams work. I’ve learned about a lot of different leadership styles, what works, what doesn’t work.
How do you spend your time as a senior software engineer?
10 percent of my job is coding, 60 percent is communicating, and 30 percent is Googling how to do what it is that I do. I swear to God, half of my life is Googling.
People tend to think that engineers or coders are just people who are like sitting down just coding all day, but there’s actually a huge, huge piece of it that’s collaborative with other developers. A lot of the work is communicating; a lot of that work is talking through problems.
we saw engagement on our product go up by 30 percent. Now we’re able to provide the competition experience to about 70 percent of our members.
What are some of the projects you’ve worked on?
We had a really successful project that I worked on. We run competitions on our campaigns, and we found that this really ups the engagement on our campaigns. It used to be run by one guy, and he was doing everything manually. Because it was all manual we could only offer competitions to a small, small subset of our members.
We had these things called hack weeks where we could work on any project that we want, and this came out of that. What would a platform to manage competitions look like at DoSomething? We built something very, very low-level. We built it in two weeks, and we saw engagement on our product go up by 30 percent or something crazy. We were like, “Oh my gosh, this works. Okay, let’s really build this for real.” Now we’re able to provide the competition experience to about 70 percent of our members. That’s upped our engagement and our overall impact that we have on our campaigns.
Who are the people you collaborate with to do your job now?
Any time we start a new project, there’s usually a designer, a product manager, other developers, and sometimes there’s some other stakeholder within the organization. It’s cool. We’re a very flat organization, and we’re really about getting people the agency to do the work that they need to do.
What do you love about your work?
It’s super creative. I work with so really, really smart people. When we all try to come up with something, you come up with some slick stuff that’s really cool and solves interesting problems, and it’s all creative. Most of the job is the thinking, it’s the communicating, it’s the brainstorming, and then you get into the code. There’s a lot of creative stuff that’s being done there, and thinking from the development team and from the product team, from the design team.
The mission-based work is important to me. I like to feel like I’m doing something that means something in the world, and I also enjoy the problems that it puts in front of me. I want to learn how to solve them creatively, and I’m passionate about that. I’m proud of the work that I produce. I’m lucky to work at DoSomething where I work with 13 other developers, so I get to learn a lot where I work. At some point you want to become an expert, and you need mentors, and you need people to help you get through that.
I actually don’t do good work when I don’t ask questions,
How do you find people who can help you with that career development and skill development?
At this point it’s mostly the people that I work with right now. I find peer mentors are so useful to us, to any person in a job. It’s been hard to find a mentor, being a woman of color, being a queer woman of color. I don’t need someone who’s just like me necessarily, but you don’t want someone who’s insensitive to you. But I have plenty people in tech and not in tech that I look up to in their own careers, that I look to and I ask questions about, and help me navigate everything. It’s someone just being that angel on your shoulder like, “You could do this. Go ask them. Get out there.” That’s what I really look to those people for.
Luckily DoSomething’s pretty cool, and all the people I work with are pretty good with questions. I’ve also learned to get over it, because I actually don’t do good work when I don’t ask questions, and it ends up harming me in the end, so I might as well just ask the question. I promise myself I’ll only ask it once, and then I’ll move on.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I like to cook, I like to hang out with my friends, go to Happy Hour. I really, really love to cook. People at my job, they call me Chef Shae. I also like taking pictures of my food and placing them on Instagram. It’s such a good way to zone out. Video games also are a really good way to decompress from a day, and watching TV and stuff, music. I stopped DJing, but still love music, listening to music, going to shows and stuff.
What are the ways you give back to your communities?
I am on the board of the organization FIERCE New York City, an organization that serves queer and trans youth of color. Most of the people that I work with are activists and organizers, on the ground grassroots organizers. It trains the next generation of queer and trans youth of color on how to organize and how to be leaders in their communities.
My friend reached out to me who’s on the board and was like, “Hey, we need a new board member, would you be interested?” Sitting on the board has been an interesting way to learn about non-profit management. It’s using what I know about tech to help support the organization. There’s tons of money in technology, and so I’m ready to get those donations, that tech money into these smaller non-profits. I’m learning a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot about non-profit management. It’s been awesome.
I’ve volunteered with Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code teaching girls how to code, wanting to serve that role to other kids coming up. I believe that black, queer women are out there, we’re coding. We’re here. I’ve seen people seeing me do it, and kids will be like, “Oh my God, you’re so cool.” I’ll talk to them about Beyoncé, and they’re like, “What, you know about Beyoncé and you code?” and I think it really allows them to see themselves doing something.
I talk about the non-profit work, because I think young women become excited about programming when they start thinking about all the problems they can solve in the world and what they could do with it. When I talk about DoSomething and say, “Oh, you could do this cool stuff with it, you could change the world,” they get so excited. I’ve had issues finding mentors. I’m trying to solve that by just trying to be one.
How did you imagine your life as an adult when you were in high school?
I had no idea what I wanted to be. I mean, when you’re in junior high, it’s all high school. And then you get to high school and everything is about college. It wasn’t until I was in college I started thinking about what 30 could be, and I was like, “okay, when I’m 30 I want a one-bedroom apartment, I want to have a job that I like,” and I have those things, which I feel grateful for. But I don’t think when I was a kid I really knew. I just felt like everything was day by day.
What advice would you give to somebody who was a kid that was like you when you were a kid?
Try everything and have fun, and ask a lot of questions. I wish when I was younger I had just asked more questions. Don’t be scared to ask questions; it will help so much. It’ll help develop relationships, and it also helps you figure out what it is you do want to do and if you like it.
by becoming an expert in a language you start to get to that sweet spot where it does really start to feel creative.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a programmer?
You can do it. Go to codeacademy.com and start trying. At the same time I know that’s easier said than done, and there is a learning curve. It won’t make sense a lot of the times. It’s like reading a book that you don’t understand, and reading it again, and reading it again, and reading it until you get it. But if you stick through it and really try, you can learn it and you can build anything.
Learn the basics of programming and you can pretty much learn any language, because anything else is just syntax. But it is by becoming an expert in a language you start to get to that sweet spot where it does really start to feel creative. And once you learn all the ins and outs and tricks of a language you get to be able to write some really, really cool code and feel more creative with it, because you’re not just, “I’m just learning how to write this sentence.”
You will constantly be learning. And everybody in the profession is still learning, so don’t be scared to ask questions, and don’t be scared to not know, because that is a part of the job. That’s what’s really exciting. I’m always like, “new problem I’ve never done this before. How do I do it? I don’t know.” And people are like, “How did you fix that?” “I Googled it for about an hour and a half until I found the thing that I needed to fix this thing, you know.” So that’s what it is, it’s just that perseverance, it’s just trying, trying, trying again. It sounds so cliché, but that’s really what it is. It’s just like a language. When you speak it more you become better at it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Check out books Shae loves and find out more about her!