A cure for loneliness: an interview with Pamela Fox

One of my most memorable interviews of 2013 was the 40 minutes or so I shared with Pamela Fox, a very approachable, funny and experienced engineer who visited Guatemala as part of a tech summit at Universidad Galileo.

How do you perceive the state of Guatemala`s programming culture?

It seems to be in very early stages. I`ve seen a lot of developer cultures and, you can kind of look at how many developers are there, how many meet-ups are there, how many communities do people form to talk about it on the side, how many conferences are there. When you start to see more meet-ups and conferences, then it`s more of a culture, right? I`ve only been here a few days…

It seems that this is one of the big conferences and I haven`t heard of any computer science expert pamela foxother conferences in Guatemala. Certainly, if you ask me what developer conferences are there in Guatemala, I would not be able to say anything. It`s early, but it seems like there are seeds that are starting, there are some meet-ups (there`s the Google developer group), so people are starting this up. Hopefully, you`ll check back in a few years and you`ll see more. There also need to be more start-ups. In the developer culture there`s meet-ups, conferences, start-ups and the developers. All these things need to happen. I think they`re happening, they`re on their way.

What drives you as an entrepreneur and as an engineer? 

I really like to make things for people. That`s my main motivation and I also particularly like to teach people, and to help people learn things. At Google, my job was basically to help people learn Google technologies, help them learn the APIs. At Coursera I was working on the things that help Coursera students learn with the lectures and the discussions, and at Khan Academy I`m helping people learn programming. So, I like making things that help people learn.

From a tech perspective, how do you think that companies and universities can come together to help each other out, while keeping the best interests of students in mind?guest speaking at universidad galileo pamela fox

That`s a good question. There`s a lot of ways they can work together. The standard way is that when you`re a university student you should be going to companies for internships. Typically in America you would spent every summer interning somewhere, and that`s a really good learning experience. The companies love it too `cause interns are really productive, they`re very focused and they don`t have anything else to do in the summer, so they`re just gonna work really hard.

So companies like interns and interns get a lot out of that. And there`s some universities, like Waterloo University in Canada, I think they have 2 or 3 semesters that they spend in internships. Most of their degree is internships. That`s taking it to the extreme. There`s that, but there are also some universities which will have courses called capstone courses, where you work on a project for the whole course and maybe it`s 2 courses for the whole final year, and you work on that product with the company. You consult with the company, you`ll be making it for them. It`s a chance to incorporate a company into course work. Once the university students graduate, the companies hopefully are hiring them.

But it should all be part of a cycle. So, the company should be telling the university: “Hey, this is the kind of stuff we`re looking for.”   Universities should be seeing if they are  preparing their students for the kind of jobs that people want then. “Should we be sending them on internships to see how it`s working”.  It`s just a cycle like that.

Would you tell me a little bit about your current projects? What are you working on? 

Right now I`m working on the Kahn Academy programming curriculums, that means I`m trying to figure out how to teach programming online to people who have never ever programmed before, and they might be 7 years old and they might be 70 years old (they`re usually around 12). Yeah, just putting all my effort into coming up with the lessons and the challenges and the projects that are gonna help them go from knowing no programming, to actually understanding these programming concepts in their head, and to be able to turn those into real programs.

Could you point out a life-defining moment that you could share?

I worked for Google for 5 years, and then Google killed the project I was working on (Google Wave). That made me very sad and eventually I decided to quit Google because I couldn`t imagine working for a company anymore knowing that, at any point, they could kill something that I put my heart and soul into. Right? I decided that if anyone was going to kill something I worked on, I wanted it to be me. I completely left Google and I went to work by myself. I worked on an app for myself, that I was passionate about, and I spent a whole year working by myself: in cafes, in my home.

Then one day I just had the realization that I was so incredibly lonely because I had no one to talk to, I had nobody who was working on the same thing as me. I wasn`t surrounded by people passionate about the same thing as me… and I couldn`t stand it anymore. So, immediately that day I realized I had to find a group of people to join. Whether it was a company, a start-up, a non-profit, some sort of group, I needed to be working on something with people. I could not spend the rest of my life doing it alone.

That`s when I decided to re-enter the workforce and work for a company, `cause it makes a huge difference when you have colleagues that are passionate about the same thing as you (at Coursera, at Khan Academy, they`re all passionate about education). The fact that I`m surrounded by people that are working on the same thing, and working towards the same goal, it`s like this cure for loneliness, it`s amazing!

That`s a great quote.


Do you remember the last thing that you Googled?

(Laughs). I think I Googled 15 minutes ago. I Googled: “how to make a pipe symbol on any keyboard” because, I don`t know about your Guatemalan keyboards, but on some keyboards there`s no pipe symbol. You need it for programming because programming languages were built for U.S. keyboards. On some keyboards they don`t even exist, so there`s German and Spanish (latin) people can`t find things that they need in order for basic programming stuff. I`m trying to help somebody find the pipe on their keyboards. We just need to fix all the keyboards to be good for programmers (She also recalls googling the Universidad Galileo campus in search for photos of their forest areas).

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