The Software Engineer Hacking for Social Justice
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the power of tech should power the wheels of justice.
Ask 27-year-old Natalia Margolis to describe her ideal job and she would say developing technology that empowers people to effect social change. And, in the year she has been working as a software engineer, she has already developed two apps that give people the power to bring about change in their communities.
First, Margolis created a prototype for an app that allows tenants to rate their landlords as part of an anti-eviction mapping project in the San Francisco Bay Area. More recently, she worked with Adrian Reyna, director of membership and technology strategies for United We Dream, a youth-led immigrant advocacy organization, to develop an app called Notifica that allows users to preload up to 15 text messages that will be sent to friends, family members, attorneys and other contacts in less than two seconds when the app is activated, even if recipients don’t have Notifica on their smartphone.
“Technology is rapidly changing the way we do everything in our lives,” Margolis says. “A lot of times, people in the tech industry think about what we can do but don’t consider what we should do.”
Margolis and Reyna met last year at a postelection gathering, where he spoke about the need for an emergency notification system for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States facing possible deportation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids. Margolis brought this concern to an internal hackathon held at Huge, the Bay Area–based digital agency where she works as a software engineer building apps and websites for clients that include Google. After she and three team members built a prototype of Notifica and won the hackathon, Huge offered to support their work by allocating a larger team to develop the app for United We Dream.
It’s really important to think about who are the ones making that technology … and how inclusive it is of the population as a whole.
The team worked directly with potential users of the final product to determine what features would be most beneficial, Reyna says. “Natalia played the biggest role in ensuring that the needs of activists and communities impacted were talked about in the conversations with technology folks,” he says.
Margolis’ interest in undocumented immigrants is sincere. As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, she was part of a student labor solidarity group, where she met a number of fellow undergrads who were either undocumented or had family members who were undocumented. “I know a lot of people who are undocumented and I care about them,” she says. “I believe that all people should be treated with dignity and allowed to be here.”
That early interest in social justice has been picked up by her colleagues at Huge. While the agency has always made it a priority to give back to the local community, it’s clear that Margolis’ focus on using technology to empower others has energized her co-workers, says Greg Whitescarver, group technology director. She leverages the company’s resources and draws on its talent to “produce good things in this world,” he adds, noting that her work on Notifica “excited the whole company to a level that I hadn’t seen before.” Most recently, Margolis convinced Huge to host a workshop by Techtonica, a six-month coding boot camp for low-income women and nonbinary femme adults in the Bay Area. “She volunteers for them often and has recruited other folks at Huge to volunteer,” Whitescarver says.
Volunteer efforts are needed and admirable, but in the larger scheme, how much can tech-savvy coders do? Even Margolis questions whether technological advances are inclusive enough. “It’s really important to think about who are the ones making that technology, what are their backgrounds and how inclusive is it of the population as a whole,” she says. “At the moment, it’s not very diverse. That is a real problem because technology is changing the way we do things without considering its impact on everyday people.”
After graduating from Georgetown in 2013 with a degree in science, technology and international affairs, Margolis began working at nonprofits. But she quickly learned that tech services are expensive, most nonprofits don’t have budgets for developing apps, and typically, no one on staff knows how to build them. So, while managing information services for the Bank Information Center, a nonprofit aimed at holding international financial institutions accountable, she enrolled in a class in app building in order to create the tools herself.
“I wanted to learn concrete skills so that I could contribute to the organizations doing important work that I care about,” Margolis says. Another bonus? Software engineering fed her interest in solving puzzles and capacity to think logically and creatively. “It’s satisfying to write a few lines of code and immediately see what you built right there,” she says.
Eventually, she quit her job to delve completely into software engineering. She moved to Oakland, California, where she grew up, and enrolled in a program at Hackbright Academy, an all-women engineering school in San Francisco designed to bring women into the tech industry from nontraditional backgrounds such as nonprofits, theater and design.
The program was challenging and intense — “It was like sprinting a marathon,” she says — but attending an engineering program specifically for women made all the difference, especially since Margolis didn’t discover she liked computer science until her junior year in college. Women who pursue careers in the field often get discouraged, she says, because they’re surrounded by men who have been working with code their whole lives.
Margolis will continue to use her technical skills to empower people and plans to volunteer with programs like Code for America, which uses digital technology to improve how government serves the public — and how the public can improve government. Sounds like she’s found — or rather, designed — her ideal job.