University of Virginia, B.S., Computer Science, Systems and Information Engineering
Vanessa Hurst entered the University of Virginia intending to major in biomedical engineering. Then, like all engineering students at her university, Vanessa was required to take a computer science class. That class ended up fascinating her and changing how she saw the world, and Vanessa quickly changed her major to computer science.
“When I looked at biomedical engineering and medical I was like, ‘I’m going to be in school forever. I want to make a difference faster,’” she says. And faster was a promise she kept: finishing her undergraduate degree and working on the side as a database engineer.
Now, Vanessa serves as CEO of CodeMontage, a community she founded that empowers coders to increase their impact on the world. She’s also the co-founder of Girl Develop It, a nonprofit judgment-free environment for adult women (and men!) to learn about software development. Previously, Vanessa founded and ran Developers for Good, a NYC-based network of tech types who met monthly to tackle social impact opportunities and make the world a better place. For Vanessa, “making it” won’t be fame or fortune; it will be successfully getting people to think about technology and code in terms of humanity and the people who are going to be affected by it.
I grew up thinking you could be a teacher or a doctor if you wanted to help people. I had a big awakening when I realized the power of computing to help people.
Where did you start growing your real-world tech experience?
I did it at a company called Capital IQ. They were really great in terms of flexibility and giving people opportunities to work at their own level. I was able to get a lot of different experiences. Within a year-and-a-half, I was supporting the production environment — one of the earliest people to do that. Capital IQ giving me that chance was an opportunity that accelerated how much I was able to learn and how much ownership I felt. When I was in that environment everyone was much older than me, and almost all my coworkers were men. I remember thinking, “Wow. I am so not qualified to be here. But, if someone is going to let me try, then I’ll try.”
The experience there was really great, and I still keep in touch with a lot of people from that company, but ultimately, I realized I was getting really good at something cool, but not for a reason I was psyched about. I was making the lives of investment bankers easier and more efficient, but that wasn’t really how I wanted to apply my knowledge. While working at Capital IQ, I had the chance to volunteer with the Op-Ed Project, a nonprofit that raises the participation of women and minorities in thought leadership. I was so inspired, and they needed some database help, and I thought, “This is why these skills are so cool.” It aligned a passion with a purpose.
What came next after you had that realization?
A short while later, I started Developers for Good. It was really the first thing that I started, and it was just really that I had a lot of coworkers who had heard I was volunteering and were interested in doing something similar. Developers for Good started with a meetup. It was low commitment and members showed up about once a month. This experience was enriching, and it led me to switch to business intelligence. Instead of working on product development with a database I was figuring out how I could work with data that was about people. I really wanted to connect the stories with the data I was working on.
At this time I moved into business intelligence at The Ladders for a few months. It was when I was there that I met the founders of Paperless Post. They needed someone who was analytical and had technical skills, but they didn’t have a job description (which is typical with startups). I was at Paperless Post for a few years, and at the same time I was growing Girl Develop It.
It was while I was working at a startup full-time and running Girl Develop It on the side that I hit another crossroads in my career where I realized I was doing a lot of team leadership and strategic thinking. I realized I wanted to be doing that for something that had a higher social impact and more of what I felt was my unique contribution to the world. So, while working at Paperless Post was my dream job at the time, I couldn’t stop thinking about what else I should be doing. It was during my transition from Paperless Post to getting Girl Develop It to a point where other people could run operations that I started CodeMontage, and that’s where I’m at today.
What is CodeMontage for those unfamiliar with it?
Our mission is to empower coders to improve their impact on the world, so we look at that in terms of social impact, like helping causes they care about using their technical skills, and also in terms of impact on their careers, like their empowerment as people who can change technology. We run a lot of events, and one of the things CodeMontage is involved in – and I am a co-organizer of – is the Write/Speak/Code Conference, a three-day gathering focused on helping women developers level-up their thought leadership.
One day is devoted to writing opinion-based pieces. Another day is focused on public speaking. The third day is devoted to coding, which CodeMontage runs, and is created to help women get to that next level in publishing technical work and contributing to open source projects – or even publishing their own projects. I grew up thinking you could be a teacher or a doctor if you wanted to help people. I had a big awakening when I realized the power of computing to help people.
For my other projects I’m focusing on this notion of why people are building technology and thinking about code in terms of humanity and of the people who are going to be affected by it. I think we would have a very different technology industry if we had people entering the industry with that motivation. That is my big dream. I don’t care very much about being my own boss, or having my own name on things, but if during my lifetime we saw a shift of why people worked with computers, all my work would be worth it. If that idea moves forward, it would feel like success.
With so much on your entrepreneurial plate, how do you organize your day?
Asana. It’s basically a souped-up checklist app that allows you to nest checklists. It’s a project management suite, but the basics of it allow you to create a task that can have a description, and you can check it off. It’s my happy place. I’ve actually had to become really aggressive about even my emails. My inbox is not a reliable place to be. If it goes through Asana, because it is like an immediate action point in there, then there it is. I have an add-in turned on in Asana, and I think it’s called Celebration, so when I cross something off a little sparkly unicorn will fly across the screen. It gives me immediate feedback, and I love checklists anyway!
So, this one app basically helps you organize your life?
Yes! I hit a point with CodeMontage where I realized that, as a sole-founder, you’re responsible for everything. I realized I was getting caught up in the potential of ideas, but I wasn’t free to fully execute them. So, I have an Asana project set up where I dump all of these ideas, and for me it’s the right medium to put these ideas in terms of actionable steps. Plus, it helps me better prioritize.
Another aspect that’s been huge is only allowing myself one to-do list. You can’t have your inbox as a to-do list, and your text message queue as a to-do list. You have to figure out one system that’s the authority. Very early on I used my calendar as my authority, and that works really well when you’re only managing yourself, but it doesn’t work as well when you’re managing and coordinating with others, especially when you need to shift priorities. It also will help you look back and see how you spend your time and if it lines up with how you want to spend your time.
A few years ago when I was at another startup I found I was spending my time doing things that I didn’t feel were ideal for my growth or how I wanted to spend my time. But, someone would ask me to do something, so I did. It’s nice to do that early on in your career. But as your career progresses, you learn you have to forcefully separate yourself from reactivity with your schedule, because reactions don’t change the world, proactive decisions do.
Who are some of your mentors?
One of my most active mentors is John Allspaw, the senior VP of technical operations at Etsy. I read one of his books on Web operations and remember being so inspired. He related Web operations and the complexities that happen to the human body and biological systems. I loved the way he looked at technology and said, “Hey, these are things we are figuring out in technology. There are interesting challenges, but the world has a whole lot to offer us in terms of knowledge. We can draw parallels from other fields.” I felt this instant connection to that thought. I had some friends who worked at Etsy, so I attended one of their team lunches and we sat near his table. I was able to meet him in person. I ended up reaching out on Twitter when I was starting CodeMontage and said, “Hey, I’m trying to lean into this idea and dig into it more. Would you be interested in talking about it?” and he agreed!
I love Twitter for that reason; it’s not just for breaking news, it’s for networking, too.
Exactly! It breaks down the barriers, and it puts people in a position where they can react and engage with you, without having to have a really long meeting. When I started CodeMontage I kept asking if anyone would help me on there. Now, I’ve experienced both sides, and I try to help other people who are reaching out to me. I’m a huge fan of Twitter and anything that can be handled on there.
On another note too, there are so many women who are interested in getting into tech. What advice do you have for them?
Go to girldevelopit.com. I really believe in it. What’s most powerful about it is that it’s not just an opportunity to learn software development, but it’s also a community of people who are interested in a judgment-free learning environment. If you join, you’ll meet other similarly motivated individuals. Having a community for a new goal – whatever your goal is – is one of the most powerful steps you can take.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I’m going through exercises right now trying to figure that out for myself! I hope to have continued to grow Girl Develop It to the point where we are empowering others on a larger scale. I see Girl Develop It headquarters as entirely focused on supporting and empowering the local chapter leaders. I think the less the organization needs me the more I am able to just help create other opportunities for people on a broad level — regardless of where they are living or what kind of institutional support they have.
I also hope at this point that I’m a lot better at sharing examples, stories and amplifying the awesome work people are doing. I also hope to have the strength to say, “OK, my strength as a doer can actually be repurposed as a much more effective visionary leader rather than just a power doer!”