Coding A Way Forward
When Ananta Pandey ’14 first arrived at Barnard, computer science was already on her mind. She hadn’t intended to become a software engineer, specifically. But her exposure to different opportunities at college—including working as a teaching assistant in an Introduction to Computer Science course, serving as a research assistant in the Spoken Language Processing lab at Columbia, and taking part in internships at companies such as Huffington Post—helped cement her interest in the field. Then, for ten weeks in the summer before her senior year, Pandey got to learn alongside other students about the ins and outs of working at startups through hackNY’s coveted fellowship program. The organization aims to educate and empower computer-science students across the city by pairing them with host companies that can help prepare them for jobs in the tech industry. During the program, she was hosted by online beauty-supplies retailer Birchbox and worked there as a software engineering intern. As a fellow, she gained the kind of hands-on experience one can’t find in the classroom. “I learned that I loved working at a startup, and didn’t love academia,” Pandey recalls. “Having the chance to test and rule out several career outcomes was invaluable to my journey.”
Pandey honed her software development skills as an engineer at Birchbox for three years after graduation and then began to look for opportunities outside of online retail. “I ultimately was more interested in civic tech”—technology that improves the relationships between people and the governments meant to serve them—“than e-commerce,” Pandey explains. So these days, you can find her on the urban prototyping team in the New York City office of Sidewalk Labs, a division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. Sidewalk Labs is currently working on building a new, sustainable district on the Toronto waterfront “from the internet up,” Pandey says. And to help with that, she tests tech solutions to design problems that can be found in urban environments, such as how to best utilize public spaces, make housing affordable, and help people move throughout a city. Using an arsenal of digital skills, Pandey recently built a program that visualizes 3-D traffic simulations. It allows her to experiment with pre-existing road networks and observe how changes in transportation structures—like changing a vehicle lane to a bike lane—might affect pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers.
The software programs Pandey builds help planners assess different models as they endeavor to create safer, more accessible, more efficient streets. With new programs and tools in the works and a drive to change cities for the better, Pandey has found her place—in front of a computer screen. •