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A Letter to Hanna Wallach (From Hanna Wallach)

As part of Microsoft’s commitment to diversity and empowerment, we’re thrilled to celebrate Women’s History Month with our newest spotlight series. We’ve asked local women leaders to write a letter to their teenage and college-aged selves to recall a moment in time when they felt empowered by technology. Throughout the month of March, we’ll be spotlighting this series on our blog. We hope these stories uplift you and inspire you to #MakeWhatsNext.

Dear 14-year-old Hanna,

This is 37-year-old Hanna. I’m writing to tell you a little bit about your future – who you are and how you got there.

Right now, you think you’re not very smart; you think that studying is tedious, and you haven’t had much encouragement from others about your intelligence. You’re mostly focusing on quantitative subjects and think that you’re going to become an engineer – not because you particularly want to, but because others have told you to do so – but you’re really most interested in questions about people and society. Guess what: you’re actually really smart. Twenty-something years later, you have a PhD in machine learning, a subfield of computer science – from Cambridge, no less! – and you’re a Senior Researcher at Microsoft. Your research is in the interdisciplinary area of computational social science – i.e., the study of social processes using fancy math and fast computers.

You think that computers are only used for word processing and creating spreadsheets, and are therefore really boring. But computers are actually awesome. There’s this thing called the Internet that’s only been around for a couple of years. You don’t know this yet, but it will transform day-to-day life. It will enable people all over the world to communicate with each other. It will mean that computers and society are inextricably linked, and you will be able to use computers to study all kinds of social phenomena. This will change your life. You will end up working with computer scientists and social scientists to answer questions about how people interact – how they communicate, how they influence one another, and how this changes over time. In a few years, you’ll read an article by one of your now colleagues about the science of small-world networks. This article will blow your mind. For the first time, you’ll realize that you can combine your (soon-to-come) interest in computers with your interest in people and society.

At the moment, you’re surrounded by people who believe the following: “Either you’re initially good at something, in which case you should pursue it, or you’re not, in which case there’s no point in trying.” As a result, you are rebellious and you feel as if you don’t fit into the neat boxes set out for you by your teachers and parents. But, as a girl, the very act of studying computer science is a rebellion – and a far more exciting and constructive and fulfilling one than listening to Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins until 4am. In addition, over the next few decades, there will be a considerable amount of research indicating that adopting a “growth mindset” (believing that ability is something that can be cultivated via effort) rather than a “fixed mindset” (believing that ability is something that one is born with and cannot control) leads to increased perseverance and, eventually, success. Soon, you will learn about this research and you will adopt a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. It will make life much more fun 🙂

Because of your growth mindset, you will fail and fail repeatedly. But failing (and learning from these failures) is the one of the best ways to improve at anything you’re trying to learn; in order to succeed, you first need to learn how to fail. It turns out that “grit” (a combination of passion and perseverance) is the single personality trait that best predicts success. Although you don’t realize this yet, you have this trait. You’ll see this in practice when, at ages 16 and 17, you’ll fail many of your A-level exams. Ultimately, you’ll study to retake these exams, and this will become a pivotal moment for you – you’ll realize that if you’re passionate about something and you persevere, even when it’s really hard, you’ll eventually succeed. You’ll discover how you learn best, and that everyone learns differently.

It will take you a while to find your path, but when you do, you’ll totally crush it. Right now, you have yet to discover and embrace your intelligence and perseverance, but as this happens, everything will start to fall into place. You will end up becoming a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research New York City and an Adjunct Associate Professor in the College of Information and Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. And in your “spare” time you’ll even play competitive roller derby and do parkour (which, guess what, exists). Finally, one last thing: you don’t know it yet, but you’re a total badass. Seriously. Keep that in mind, and you’ll do just fine.

Love,

Hanna

Welcoming Ross Dakin to the Microsoft NY Team

ross-headshot-3Hello, New York! I’ve just joined the Microsoft Technology and Civic Innovation team, and I couldn’t be more excited. The last chapter of my career was incredible and I’m optimistic that this next one will be every bit as impactful. For the past year, as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, it’s been my tremendous honor to help our federal government reinvent the way it approaches service creation for the benefit of all citizens. I can’t think of a more natural transition than to now do the same within a global technology company that’s been reinventing its products, its culture, and its role in the world.

At Microsoft, I’m eager to use data and technology for social good. Initially, I’m planning to focus on taking the Civic Graph to new heights, using Microsoft Translator for real human impact, and ensuring that every student developer has the cloud services they need to learn, no matter how much or how little they may have in their wallet. But I’m also excited to meet the people and organizations that are already doing great work in the city. I’m sure the city is teeming with all kinds of high-potential projects that I simply don’t know about yet.

The early days.

Microsoft has a special place in my heart. In 2002, I was lucky enough to have a high school teacher show me how to go “behind the scenes” and write Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) macros in Microsoft Access. This became my first computer programming experience, and it would come at a pivotal time as I was deciding which college to attend and which major to declare.

Now—a decade and a half later—I find it fitting to join the company that created the tools which initially seeded my interest in technology and continues to inspire the next generation of technologists by actively encouraging kids of all genders and backgrounds to try their hands at software development (see the robots, animations, and websites created by the Microsoft Girls Who Code Class of 2016 last week!).

Those formative experiences led me to attend Santa Clara University, where I earned a degree in computer engineering while writing programs in Notepad on my Windows XP laptop. However, it was a Windows program called Cygwin that allowed for the compilation and execution of my code by emulating a POSIX-compliant operating system in which many common open source tools could be used—in other words, my learning environment was a Windows/open source hybrid.

This is a powerful combination of ubiquity and versatility, and it represents another memory to which I’m excited to pay homage by joining Microsoft at a time during which the company is accelerating its embrace of the open source tools that so many developers know and love (learn more about Microsoft’s support of open platforms like Linux, Docker, and Node.js).

Work on things that matter.

“I truly believe that each of us must find meaning in our work. The best work happens when you know that it’s not just work, but something that will improve other people’s lives.”

—Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO

I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of a number of exciting Silicon Valley companies, including: LiveOps, where I developed software for hosting distributed call centers while receiving incredible mentorship from engineers who literally created the first web browsers; BrightPoint Security (acquired by ServiceNow), which leveraged the power of virtualization to move traditional enterprise security appliances to the cloud; Upstart, where we employed big data to shatter the incumbent paradigm of credit-score-based lending risk models; and Deliv, which is utilizing crowd-sourced drivers to provide same day delivery services for the retail brands you find in every shopping mall across the country. Each of these companies have generated value by applying innovative technologies in novel ways. However, my barometer for value creation shifted last year during my tenure as a Presidential Innovation Fellow.

I can even give you a specific date. On March 9, 2016, seven of my colleagues and I traveled from Washington, DC to New York City. We met with people all over town who had written letters to the President (did you know that the White House really does keep them all?), in order to better understand the stressors that might be preventing them from thriving in their given situations.

From Brooklyn to Queens to Harlem and the Bronx, we learned about housing vouchers that the homeless didn’t know how to apply for; food stamps that the hungry stopped receiving because of a missed re-enrollment letter; rejection from cash assistance programs due to not having enough money for cross-town bus fare to submit the paperwork. Every person I met that day held my hand, looked me in the eye, and expressed their sincere gratitude to us for listening to their stories.

That was the most meaningful day of my career.

It’s all about people.

“We shouldn’t think of a technology as radical or transformative unless it benefits every single person.”

—DJ Patil, U.S. Chief Data Scientist

Since that day, it has remained clear to me how much tremendous potential for impact exists in the civic technology space if we are able to “continue to make strides in providing innovation in the realm of connected systems that bridge the unstructured world of human processes with the structured world of business applications,” which Satya Nadella has committed Microsoft to do. As he observed, “Many companies aspire to change the world. But very few have all the elements required: talent, resources and perseverance. Microsoft has proven that it has all three in abundance.”

I’m eager to help apply such abundance to the public good, starting right here in New York. 

Fellow Profile: Briana Vecchione

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Where are you from?

I’m from Orange County, CA but moved to NYC four years ago.

School/grad year/major: 

I just graduated with a degree in Computer Science & Mathematics from Pace University in downtown Manhattan.

Last thing you searched on Bing:

“What is the area of Greece?” Context: Jake Hofman, a mentor of mine from Microsoft Research, recently did some work to improve user comprehension of large numbers that recently shipped as a new feature in Bing. Now, instead of returning the numeric answer, 50,948 sq miles, Bing returns “About equal to the size of New York State”. It’s really fun – try it!

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program?

I was actually involved in some previous research through the Microsoft Research Data Science Summer School, where I analyzed the network flow of New York’s bike sharing program and implemented algorithms to decrease system congestion. If you’re interested, you can check out our paper or talk. Matt ended up attending our final presentation and did a write up of it on his personal blog. When I found out about the Civic Tech Fellowship on Twitter, I reached out to him and John to see how I could contribute to the team!

What’s your favorite technology that’s building New York’s civic spaces?

I’ve been following the Beta release of LinkNYC since it began during the end of last year. I love that New York supports the idea that connectivity is a citizen’s right and is making active pursuits to improve the city’s Internet infrastructure. It brings public tech into the 21st century by offering free phone calls, charging stations, and open Internet which includes an interface directing users to city services, directions, and maps. It’s also a brilliant usage of the already-existing fiber optic networks that run through the city and is self-financed by each station’s advertisements.

Who is your civic tech mentor/idol?

I work under John Paul Farmer & Matt Stempeck, both of whom are definitely my in-house idols. I also really admire work being done by researchers Danah Boyd, Hilary Mason, and Hanna Wallach.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft New York?

The bulk of my work has been on civicgraph.io, where I’ve built out an analytics dashboard, restructured the codebase to add some exciting new features, and am implementing a scalable check-in system so users can easily add themselves during events. This is super exciting for me, because I’m really interested in how we collect and translate information in the digital sphere. Because civic graph is open and crowdsourced, it displays a knowledge base not held by a single individual, thus creating its own identity. To be able to administer a digital space that offers simple transparency, helps define ‘civic tech’, and creates such meaningful impacts in the lives of people is a privilege, to say the least.

Separately, I’m working on testing Microsoft Translator in various city spaces so that New York can make the most of its applications for machine translation. We’re going to be using it within summer school classes for ESL or hard-of-hearing students as well as in ID NYC locations for citizens applying for resident benefits. We’ve been doing some internal testing on our end already, and it’s incredible to see how powerful the technology has become. The last time we tested, I thought to myself, ‘wow, this could really make such a difference in so many people’s lives’. It’s an awesome feeling to be able to work on projects like that.

What excites you about civic tech?

I’m passionate about the ‘by the people, for the people’ narrative that civic tech carries. The ability to utilize technical skills is valuable in this economy and comes with a lot of responsibility, and I want to make sure that the work I’m doing contributes as much as possible. I also really appreciate the emphasis on transparency through the open data and open government initiatives that are grown and fostered throughout the community. I’ve never been interested in tech fads and have encountered too many people who exert a lot of talent and energy on products that cater to a very privileged subset of society. When you engage in a space like civic tech, you can’t help but run into an overwhelming amount of brilliant, empathetic, passionate, and conscious thinkers and technologists.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities?

There’s still a lot to be done to improve transportation safety & efficiency in cities. Vision Zero and Transit Wireless has been doing some amazing work in NYC and I’m hopeful that once vehicle automation is fully deployed, it’ll only help to improve that. It’s been fascinating to watch and contribute to the ongoing ethical discussions that have emerged lately as a result of automated transit systems.

Fellow Profile: Hannah Cutler

HannahName: Hannah Cutler

Where are you from? Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

School/grad year/major: University of Pennsylvania, School of Engineering and Applied Science / 2017 / Computer Science

Last thing you searched on Bing:
“What is the area of Greece?”
I was testing a new feature courtesy of Microsoft Research, intended to improve users’ numerical literacy. Before, Bing’s answer to this query was “50,948 sq miles.” Now, it also reads “about equal to the size of New York State.”

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program?
I am passionate about finding ways to use technology to solve problems that will have social impact.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to work at The Governance Lab, an organization that attempts to improve the ability of institutions and people – including but not limited to governments – to work more openly, effectively and legitimately to make better decisions and solve public problems. From the experience, I got a glimpse of how technology is changing the ways that governments, technologists, and policymakers are thinking about effective governance in the 21st century. I also observed some of the challenges governments today face as they try to inject innovation into their practices.

I first learned about the Microsoft Civic Tech team last July when I heard Matt Stempeck, co-director of the New York team, speak on a panel about the team’s work. It really piqued my interest! The fellowship seemed like a hands-on role that would challenge me to expand my skill set, work with super talented, passionate people, and see how Microsoft is building a presence in the civic technology space.

What’s your favorite technology that’s building New York’s civic spaces?
Aeroponic/hydroponic rooftop gardens/farms. I have always been interested in food — from production and distribution to preparation and consumption. Inspired by Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, CA, I built a raised-bed community garden at my high school, I have volunteered on a non-certified organic farm and I conducted an independent study of “The Business, Politics and Science of Sustainable Agriculture.”

Not only are rooftop gardens/farms an incredibly smart use of outdoor space, especially in a dense metro area such as New York City, but they also highlight the importance of community health, environmental sustainability, and add a new dimension to locally-sourced food.

Who is your civic tech mentor/idol?
Megan Smith, current Chief Technology Officer of the United States. I admire her transition from private to public sector and all she has accomplished during the current administration. And: Alice Waters for her activism and leadership of the local food movement. Among other things, Alice’s work has inspired a global network of registered farms, gardens and individuals working to create a more sustainable and equitable food system.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft New York?
I am continuing with the development of Microsoft Civic Graph, helping to build out new features and automate some of the data collection. I am also working on the Microsoft Translator project.

I’m excited to work on Civic Graph because I am eager to gain more experience with the technologies that the project is built with — namely, Flask, JavaScript/D3.js, and mySQL.

What’s your favorite project Microsoft New York has done?
Civic Graph.

What excites you about civic tech?
I’m excited about civic tech because it is a broad and burgeoning field. At Penn, in addition to developing projects myself, I am a project manager for Chris Murphy’s “Software Design & Engineering” course, serving as the liaison between clients and student teams building Android/iOS apps as a final project. Over the past year, I have managed four projects and clients included faculty at Penn’s Rehabilitation Robotics R&D Lab and The Perelman School of Medicine. From these experiences, I’ve developed an appreciation for how powerful technology can be, but also an awareness that software is never a standalone solution to a problem.

I think that technical skills are most valuable in the presence of cross-sector collaboration. The civic tech community is a diverse blend of backgrounds and skillsets — software developers, community organizers, product managers, civic hackers, government agencies, elected officials, technology companies large and small — and this warrants added opportunities to create long-term impact. I am excited to play a part in Microsoft’s work in the civic tech space!

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities?
Promoting healthy eating among children and reducing the prevalence of food deserts (i.e. neighborhoods with limited or lack of access to healthy, affordable food) in the United States and internationally.

Fellow Profile: Natasha Scantlebury

Natasha Scantlebury MSNY FellowWhere are you from? I am a born and raised Brooklyn girl and proud of it!

School/grad year/major: Trinity College/ May 2012/ B.A. in American Studies

Last thing you searched on Bing: The registration page for the SXSWedu New York PanelPicker Meet Up and Panel Discussion with Urban Arts Partnership and Civic Hall.

 Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? The opportunity to become a Civic Tech Fellow specifically working on the Tech Jobs Academy program came at a perfect time in my life when I decided to transition out of the nonprofit sector and set my sights on a new industry—technology and civic technology, to be exact.  My background is in community development and I’ve spent the last few years working to improve the quality of life for New Yorkers including the elderly age in place, helping college-bound students have access to the resources needed to get to and through college and provide supportive services to children of incarcerated individuals, to name a few.  This program afforded me the opportunity to try something different while still doing something that I enjoy, and that’s helping people help themselves.

What’s your favorite technology that’s building New York’s civic spaces? Art and technology has a way of working cohesively together to create feelings of unity and shared experiences in pre-existing spaces.  For instance, the many art installations that have been exhibited throughout the Brooklyn Promenade, and other parts of the city, help to encourage not only more traffic to these sites but unique and creative ways to use them to benefit others.

Who is your civic tech mentor/idol? Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for Microsoft New York? When I came on board in March, I was hired specifically to assist with Tech Jobs Academy (TJA).  TJA is an intensive 16-week technical training pilot program that was created in partnership by Microsoft, City Tech at the City University of New York (CUNY) and the Mayor’s NYC Tech Talent Pipeline.  The goal of the program is to prepare underemployed and unemployed New Yorkers for in-demand tech jobs in cloud and server administration.  TJA is my main focus at the moment but I’m sure as the fellowship continues, there may be other opportunities to support other projects as needed.

What’s your favorite project Microsoft New York has done? The great thing about Microsoft and the New York team specifically is it is full of some of the best and brightest in this industry and they are always trying to think outside of the box and come up with useful tools that will serve the masses.  One of these projects that are continuing to make great strides is Civic Graph!  Who wouldn’t want to map the organizations, agencies and individuals in the civic tech community in an effort to understand the work they do while examining the many different ways they are all connected.

What excites you about civic tech? Coming from the nonprofit sector and more specifically the community development arm of it, I have always been passionate and committed to helping support and improve the lives of low-to-moderate income individuals all while trying to ensure that the support they receive allows them the agency to become self-sufficient. The opportunity to work in civic technology affords me the ability to blend two worlds: community development and social good, a world that I am quite familiar with, with a world that I am eager to explore in more detail, the technology sector. My hope is to be able to take the knowledge I’ll learn from my Civic Tech Fellow peers, members of the Microsoft team and the industry, in general, to be able to make long-lasting impactful change for in-need neighborhoods across New York City.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? My hope is that people (with varying levels of technical savviness) have ways to connect and engage multiple types of resources in their neighborhoods and communities surrounding theirs (like knowing where free, extracurricular programs are for children, where local food pantries are located, and where senior citizens can apply for benefits like SCRIE and SNAP, to name a few).

Staff Spotlight: Ally Wharton

AwhartonName: Ally Wharton

Hometown: Hermon, Maine

Job: Sr. Operations Specialist

Years at Microsoft: 2

Favorite Local Restaurant: How does one answer this if they live in NYC!? If I must, a favorite in my neighborhood is AG Kitchen

Last thing you searched on Bing: JetBlue flash sale

Something cool you’ve worked on recently: We’re in the midst of our recruiting season, I love learning about the diverse candidates and chatting with them about their unique experiences.

What inspires you about technology? I find it exciting and inspiring that one day technology will be within the reach of every human being, in every country. My hope is that this will provide equal opportunities for citizens around the globe.

What is one problem you’d like to see technology solve?  Grocery shopping! I would love for technology to be able to complete all aspects of grocery shopping for me – order based on my preferences, select items to make meals throughout the week and even pick out a new beer or wine I might like. Of course, this would also include delivery.

Staff Spotlight: Albert Dankwa

AlbertName: Albert Dankwa

Hometown: Bronx, New York

Job: Consumer Product Advisor

Years at Microsoft: 1

Favorite Local Restaurant: Johnny Rockets

Last thing you searched on Bing: Original Call of Duty Blacks Ops Xbox One backwards compatibility potential release date

Something cool you’ve worked on recently: Being a judge during Microsoft and Playcraft’s NYC Global Game Jam

What’s your favorite Microsoft product right now and why? My Lumia 950XL. Windows Hello and the best camera since the Lumia 1020? Plus perfect on the weight spectrum.

What’s your favorite part about working at the Microsoft Store? Working in my community, educating people, learning, and the game launches. The list goes on, I just love working for my favorite company.

What is one problem you’d like to see technology solve? Improving the lithium ion battery. Phones, controllers, tablets and all the like need to live longer. Consumers consume at such a rate that the strongest of batteries are rendered as not long lasting.

Staff Spotlight: Jessica Martinez

Jess MName: Jessica Martinez

Hometown: New York

Job: Inventory Control Expert at Microsoft’s Flagship Store in NYC

Years at Microsoft: 3 years and 1 year as a booster = 4 wonderful years

Favorite Local Restaurant: Catch New York

Last thing you searched on Bing: The lineup for Electric Forest

Something cool you’ve worked on recently: I’ve created meet up groups for open mic night to give people the support they need to go on stage and express themselves. Whether it’s through poetry, music or storytelling. I think that’s pretty cool.

What’s your favorite Microsoft product right now and why?
My Xbox One is my favorite product!  This allows me to stay connected with my family since they live all over the US. I can play video games or watch movies with my niece and nephews while Skyping them at the same time. I can also help them with their homework using Skype.

What’s your favorite part about working at the Microsoft Store?
My favorite part is meeting new people and creating friends. Microsoft allows you to visit other stores and not only bestow knowledge upon each other, but gain a friend. I’ve met some amazing people in different Microsoft Store locations throughout my years with this company and I’m thrilled to call them friends for life!

What is one problem you’d like to see technology solve?
I think technology can truly help bring awareness about suicide and stop bullying. Using technology can allow those in need to stay connected with those facing the same issues. Creating more websites, using Skype, chat rooms, application for mobile devices, and music. Knowing someone is always there for you no matter what time or day.

Fellow Profile: Danielle Hill

Danielle HillWhere are you from?: I’m from Brooklyn, New York. Fort Greene to be precise. Now I live in Crown Heights. It seems like everyone on our team is from the city!

Where do you study? When will you graduate?: I graduated from LaGuardia High School a year ago as a visual arts major (it’s a performing arts school). I studied painting, color theory, anatomy, and illustration. If it was art related, I was involved.

Were you always interested in tech?: I first became involved in technology through a program called CodeNow that I found out about during my Junior year. They’re an organization that has summer fellowships and workshops designed to get high school kids programming. And in my case, they very much succeeded. I fell in love. Back at school I even started a programming club! Once I had graduated and decided to take a gap year from NYU, I ended up taking a six month course at the Flatiron School to continue learning to code.

And that’s how you ended up with the Civic Tech team?: Exactly. Frankly though, I didn’t know about the team until they offered me an interview! I’d never heard about civic technology before then. So I did some research, which confused me. There’s no real definition of civic tech! Most of the definitions I’d read would say something like “it’s good.” Which now of course I realize is kind of the point. It’s any tech which is good for society at large, which, when you think about it, is almost everything! Once I realized that, I was hooked.

What projects are you working on with the team?: I started out working on the Civic Graph. I did a lot of the front end and styling work. I’ve recently finished working with Saron and Ashley on the team to build out the Tech Jobs Academy website. It’s really cool hearing from so many people that they love what you’ve built. Working on this almost feels like I’m going back to my roots as head of the programming club! It feels great to be a part of something that will get more people coding in NYC. As of right now, I am working on a tool aimed at helping professors and teachers to be able to incorporate civic tech within their curriculum.

What is your favorite Microsoft technology? What development excites you the most?: Definitely Skype and Skype Translator. I’ve been a Skype user for a long time so that has to be my favorite product. Great user experience. The translator though….that thing is science fiction! It’s been great getting to work with that and seeing what we can build with it. Just seeing a short conversation was enough to convince me that that is going to be truly transformational. I can’t wait to see what comes of it.

What issues are you most passionate about?: Getting more people involved in coding and technology more generally. Which is why working on Tech Jobs Academy has been so gratifying!

What’s a crazy invention you would like to see made?: Oh wow, how much time do you have? Flying cars, invisibility cloaks….On a serious note I have this side project I’ve been working on which would basically be an Uber for tour guides. Essentially, you go to a city, open the app, and hire a local nearby to show you around!

What do you plan to do after this fellowship?: I would like to work for a couple more years before I go back to school, as I would like to save up enough to avoid future student loan debt. I plan on continuing my learning and growing my skills by experimenting heavily with different languages.

What has been your funniest experience on the team so far?: Probably the Tree Count on the first day. I was so anxious about what we’d be working on, getting set up, getting into the swing of things. Nope, we spent the day outside hugging trees. It was a big and pleasant surprise!

And finally, how would you find yourself on Bing without using your name?: Psh, that’s easy. Artist. Programmer. Flatiron School.