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Making a Difference 2.0

Rio Akasaka ’09 and Kendell Byrd ’17 talk tech.

KENDELL BYRD ’17: Hey, Rio. How’d you first become interested in tech?

RIO AKASAKA ’09: Growing up, I had the liberty to play around with—and break—gadgets, which allowed me to think about how our ability to understand and interact with tech is equally as important as tech itself. How’d you start?

KB: My senior year of high school, I did a research project on using robotics and EEG (electroencephalogram) to aid in communication for people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). My research adviser was also in charge of my school’s entrepreneurship program, where students were allowed to go to this startup incubator called 1871 and work with companies. During the second semester of my senior year, I visited 1871 and completely fell in love with the environment. It was so cool seeing how all these worlds interacted, and made me determined to learn coding and go into computer science.

RA: Very cool. After I graduated from Swarthmore, I spent a year working in Boston as a user-interface engineer before I realized I wanted to define features rather than build them. I went to grad school for computer science, engineering, and linguistics, and then joined Google, where I worked on YouTube apps, Google Maps, and Google Drive. 

KB: I’m studying computer science and economics. I’ve done research with the engineering department and internships at Jawbone, JP Morgan, and Facebook. After graduation, I will be working at Buzzfeed doing software engineering on their video tools team, combining entertainment and technology.

RA: That’s great. I remember that feeling of being so eager and excited to build something and get involved myself. A really cool thing about being in the tech sector is that it’s easy to say, “I have an idea—let me try it!” and then to put it front of people. Swarthmore and its community really fostered that; I remember working on a website for the Global Health Forum that helped inspire a lot of people. 

KB: I like the ways tech can bring people together from different fields and experiences, and how we can use everything we’re interested in with our tech work. Even in my economics course, we’re talking about Google and Microsoft and market power and competition. It’s exciting that so much of tech is about collaboration and not being afraid to fail.

RA: I completely agree, and that reminds me of how, when I was with Google Maps, I got the chance to start thinking about accessibility—not on an official team, but as something I was interested in and wanted to learn more about. Even though I’ve moved to Google Drive here in Boulder, Colo., I’m still invested in the work I started at Maps, and I’m still working with a globally situated team of engineers, product managers, and user-experience designers to increase accessibility. 

KB: That’s a reason I’m going to Buzzfeed. I love theater and am in our sketch-comedy troupe Boy Meets Tractor, and right off the bat, Buzzfeed gave me the opportunity to do programming and work on videos, too. I am happy to be in a broad environment where people have a variety of interests. I’m learning as much as I can about it all—a lot like here at Swarthmore.

RA: Exactly! I’m working on a bunch of neat features for Google Drive. What excites me is devoting whatever extra time I have to improving the accessibility of Google Maps, whether that’s for users who are in wheelchairs or are visually impaired. I see an opportunity for us to design for better discovery and more reassurance for these individuals, and I want to continue doing this kind of work even further.

KB: I’m really inspired by how tech can improve the quality of the human condition, whether that’s virtual reality or self-driving cars, and it’s cool how, today, it’s easier than ever for anyone to access the tech itself to do it. Swatties I know are making apps for late-night food deliveries and shared scooter rentals, and that’s just on campus.

RA: Tech today feels a lot like Lego: You’ve got so much infrastructure, it can’t be used as an excuse that you can’t build something. What’s important for us to remember, though, is that tech can also be a source of education. Not everyone needs wheelchair accessibility from Google Maps, but if knowing that we’ve made it a feature sparks even one out of 1,000 users to think about the needs of others and how to make a positive difference for them, tech has done some of its job. 

KB: I agree. One of the biggest challenges in the industry that I see, though, is diversity—several times, I have been the only black or female engineer on a team. There’s a lot of important work to be done increasing diverse representation at companies and during the recruiting process. My tech hero is Laura Weidman Powers, CEO and co-founder of Code2040, for dedicating herself to this cause.

RA: Yes—tech can be problematic, especially when we restrict ourselves to designing only for the space we see. Plus, the most successful technologies we rely on have created individual silos—you’re staring at your own phone, pursuing your own reality—but more people are understanding how it’s really just creating division. It’s like you say, Kendell: We all need to break ourselves out of that bubble and keep a broad, diverse focus about who we’re designing for—and designing with—so that we’re as inclusive as possible.

KB: For sure. I’ve come to see that one of my main goals in tech, and in life, is what we learn at Swarthmore—it’s our responsibility to better not just ourselves, but the rest of the world.

RA: Part of the reason we come here in the first place is because we want to do good. It might sound clichéd, but when I wake up, I ask myself, “What is the most impactful thing I can do today?” Yes, technology makes it possible to have a huge impact, but I also want to remember that I can make a difference in other ways, too, big and small.

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