When Kaya Thomas began learning to code in college, she saw an opportunity to build technologies that could positively impact people’s everyday lives. Today, she is a full-time student at Dartmouth College who also happens to be the creator of the iOS application We Read Too, an app that encourages children to read books by and for people from underrepresented backgrounds. Between learning about programming in her classes, and using those skills to directly build an application with thousands of users, Kaya is a force to be reckoned with. This year, Kaya was featured as one of Glamour’s 2016 College women of the year. In 2015, she met Michelle Obama when she was honored at the “Black Girls Rock” Awards.
After learning about how Kaya uses code to bridge gaps between readers and authors, we reached out to hear to learn more about how code can impact people’s lives. Check out our conversation below, which has been edited for clarity
TERRI BURNS: Tell me about your background, what you're studying in school, and some of your interests.
In high school, I became interested in STEM. I took environmental studies classes in high school and was a part of clubs related to environmentalism, and I thought that’s what I would study in college. But when I got to Dartmouth in 2013, I realized I didn’t really want to do environmental engineering. I ended up stumbling into computer science, and fell in love with it.
Tell us about your app
The idea for We Read Too started back in high school because I was an avid reader but started to notice the lack of representation in the books I was reading. I would get my books from the library and mainly all the characters were white girls from the suburbs. It started to get to me because I was in a time in my life where I was struggling with my own self-image and I really wanted to be able to read stories about girls like myself. When I discovered computer science, I realized that I had the tools to create a resource that can increase the discoverability of books that I wanted to read. I wanted a way for these books to be readily accessible and that’s why I made We Read Too. It started out containing 300 books, now it has over 600.
What's been the most challenging part about working on We Read Too, from both a technical and non-technical standpoint?
When I first starting coding We Read Too, I was just learning iOS development. As any beginner it was hard to understand how an app works as a whole, and I think I overwhelmed myself with too many ideas which made it difficult to develop because I was trying to make too many features at once. What helped me is creating a bunch of smaller applications from online tutorials from start to finish. It allowed me to understand application architecture and kto now how features can interact with each other. From those small applications I was able to piece together what I needed for We Read Too.
From a non-technical standpoint, the hardest part was finding the books!
You mentioned that you considered studying environmental engineering before you switched to computer science. Do you see any parallels between environmental engineering and computer science? Is there anything you miss about environmental science?
They both involve wanting to impact the world and people’s lives in an important way. With environmental science, you’re physically trying to make the environment healthier, and in turn make people live better. With computer science, you are building technology for people that hopefully can make their lives easier or better in some way.
Why is coding important?
Coding is important because it’s a tool that can be used to solve problems. Technology can’t solve all problems, but there are some problems that technology can solve.
How do you push past the frustration of programming and motivate yourself to continue creating and building, without burning out?
If I didn’t love to code I wouldn’t be able to push past the frustration, but I think what always keeps me going is remembering the feeling of sheer joy when it finally works after hours and hours. It’s so worth it.
What kind of impact do you wish to have in the world, and how can technology help you get there?
I want to solve problems, especially problems within marginalized communities where often times they don’t have their problems being prioritized. As cliché as it may sound, I want to help people. Once you know what it’s like to feel helpless or to feel like no one cares about your problem, you never want anyone else to feel that same way. I hope through building resources or products with my technology skills, maybe I can help people realize that there is someone who cares about the issues they face and is doing the best they can to solve them.