Kicking off the first deep-dive from our Guide to the Berkeley Ecosystem, we’ll be covering Blueprint, a group that provides software pro-bono for nonprofits and promotes the use of tech for social good. Blueprint has worked on projects alongside 1951 Coffee, the San Francisco Art Institute, and Veterans 360, among others. This semester, they’re working with five non-profits from around the world including We Care Solar to build a low-bandwidth mobile app for the health workers and Mee Panyar to build a mobile app for local technicians to help maintain decentralized solar mini-grids! The organization has been consistent in helping cultivate software talent for several years now and serving as the outlet for people to use their technical know-how to make tangible impact.
We were joined by Nick Wong '22, a CS major and technical program lead at Blueprint. In our conversation, we asked him questions about his journey, how he found Blueprint, how Blueprint positions itself in the Berkeley ecosystem, and his vision for the future of the ecosystem.
Nick's Blueprint blueprints
As it turns out, Nick and I had been following each other on Twitter for a while. And having read multiple of his tweets before, I strongly related to his notions of using learnings from the Bay and applying them to his home in the islands of Hawaii. We asked him questions about this background that uniquely positions him in the multitudes of Berkeley's tech ecosystem and in turn, his passion for Blueprint.
You often tweet about "not forgetting your context" and remembering the reason you're at Cal. Can you talk to us about your journey here and how it is this unique set of experiences that keeps you grounded?
Nick: I grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was my 5th grade teacher that pointed me in the direction of solving problems. Fast forward to high school when I ended up playing too much Minecraft and that immediately led to a fondness for computers. I quickly recognized the strength of technology when mixed with the ambitions for innovation as I went through high school. I could have an impact on the world through blending my technological know-how and the values instilled within me by growing up on the Islands. In that sense, I definitely have not let go of the context that sent me here. Not only am I from Hawaii but I'm also indigenous to Hawaii. I'm proud of the culture, the trials and tribulations native Hawaiians have been through and it is this upbringing that has helped me develop my unique worldview. I want to continue to explore how to use technology to empower native Hawaiians and this gives me a very unique reason as to WHY I am here.
Following up on that, what do you think of the Berkeley tech culture in general?
Nick: The biggest thing that disillusioned me were the stereotypes that Berkeley's culture has cultivated and then imposed on me. People genuinely believe that during their junior-year summer a FAANG internship is the end-all. There’s a very set path that I have seen a lot of people take, and that’s great, but it should not be the end-all-be-all for everyone. Blueprint is very much the antithesis to the "Berkeley tech trash" stereotype. Everyone has their own path and they continue to forge it despite the barrage of LinkedIn posts you get to see on a daily. I believe you lose some crucial divergent thinking by being a part of the Berkeley CS community. In that sense, Berkeley tech culture could be considered a killer of entrepreneurship. As a freshman I wanted that Patagonia and I'm sure we all did, but now I understand the importance of divergence and forging your path. Contrarian thinking is what sets you apart.
What has your journey with Blueprint looked like?
Nick: Last semester, I was a project developer. I was the point of contact with the nonprofit we were working with, and I would scope out deliverables with them. We would talk through the features of the platform, how a specific feature set is going to work etc. Most of the time you're translating all this into SPRINT tasks, ensuring our engineers are feeling not only challenged by the project but also mentored. You're always doing a lot across the board and you end up learning a lot more than you would have thought.
Lastly, do you have any thoughts for anyone making their foray into the Berkeley ecosystem?
Nick: As I said earlier as well, I think the themes to try and prioritize are equity and empathy. I think Blueprint is doing a great job of being equitable in the recruitment process in general. We are recruiting folks of all backgrounds, skillsets etc. I think when it comes to Blueprint in particular, one of the biggest things we look for is, of course, being passionate about the issue you want to tackle but at the same time realizing that technology is just the tool.
Blueprint at Berkeley
What are Blueprint's core values?
Nick: Mission First, Perpetual Growth, Cherish Each Other, Always Innovate, and Cherish each other. In the end, we are all just 20-something-year-olds trying to figure this out, we're all learning all the time and understanding from each others' experiences at all times. The environment that has been cultivated at Blueprint has made me feel safe; this is definitely a safe space to fail and grow from those experiences. At its core, I think it comes down to empathy and how you weave that into the narrative of your organization.
What do you think differentiates you from the slew of clubs on campus?
Nick: I think Blueprint consciously tries to uplift voices in tech that aren’t always uplifted. We champion diversity in thought, background, and experiences.
How does Blueprint work to uplift the Berkeley community? How do you prevent stagnation?
Nick: Akin to my personal beliefs we just spoke about, Blueprint is uplifting the community and hoping to bring on more inclusivity and diversity by people questioning people's basic assumptions of the tech industry and challenging the status quo. We just want to provide opportunity and don’t necessarily look for the person with the most technical experience as long as the person is genuinely interested in solving a problem with tech. We strongly believe that being aware of circumstance is very important when onboarding members for our organization. Anova, another club at Cal, also does a great job of championing this spirit!
How do you pick clients?
Nick: Every summer, project leaders start spreading the word about a new round of projects for non-profits for the coming Fall. We look at whether the non-profit is truly in alignment with the communities they serve, whether their problem can be solved with the use of tech and lastly, if the proposed solution is something we can execute to the best of our abilities. For instance, I championed a project this semester with my high school, Kamehameha Schools, because I understood the gravity of the issue they were facing. In that sense we also make our best effort to be representative of our members and often look to them to champion projects. It boils down to one simple question: Can we really help make tangible impact?
What is it that you do to nurture peoples talents?
Nick: We've tried to streamline this process as much as possible. There are specific individuals (VPs of Tech) and one of their larger responsibilities has been technical onboarding. They have been instrumental in teaching new members best practices on how, as an organization, we ship code, and providing mentorship.
"Tech for Social Good"
We ended with some heavier questions about the role of Blueprint and his personal journey. If there's anything you take from this article it should definitely be the importance of divergent thinking, that technology is just the tool, and the need for both equity and empathy.
Since Blueprint first started documenting its projects in 2014 when it focused on non-profits, it's come a long way but continues to focus on non-profits as potential clients. Why does Blueprint focus solely on non-profits? How does it make sure its members embody the overarching theme of “tech for social good?"
Nick: We tend to optimize for maximizing alignment for the most vulnerable communities. Our focal point is building tools that can help those organizations that are doing work for these communities and equipping them with the tools to scale, increase their impact, and maximize their value proposition. In terms of our members, we're a very unique organization in the Berkeley CS space. Everyone knows of the Berkeley tech trash stereotype, which is extremely superficial and is often compounded by the cutthroat nature that seeps into the culture. Blueprint is a breath of fresh air in that sense. We want to develop folks from all sorts of backgrounds. As I said earlier as well, we tend to focus more on the background and experiences of the individual as opposed to the technical ability they possess.
As an organization, you develop apps/platforms for non-profits but don’t you think ‘tech for social good” goes beyond these avenues?
Nick: I think web and mobile apps and platforms are really good in solving specific problems, but they are not the end-all solution to the complex issues that non-profits face. Blueprint turns away a lot of the applicants for whom we believe that simply “slapping on a web app would solve their problem. It’s much more nuanced and intentional than that. Organizing records of people who are going through the program, organizing data for the non-profits, etc now those are some of the internal problems that can be solved really well with the use of tech. For instance, the project that I’m contributing to this semester with Kamehameha Schools and North Shore Economic Vitality Partnership(NSEVP) involves building a web app for NSEVP that helps small family-owned farmers get food safety accredited and also creates an aggregator for their produce. We believe this will act as a catalyst for local agricultural distribution of crops.
In past interviews Blueprint did on its clients, it has usually asked them the question “how do you get people to care?” Now we want to ask you that. How do you get people to care?
Nick: Being passionate about what you're working on. By genuinely sharing your story and the context, people start to listen and people feel the energy. At the end of the day it's not just shipping lines of code or creating wireframes, we're helping farmers on a little island stay afloat during the pandemic. We're helping them maintain their livelihood, keep money in their pockets. These are small family farmers who are at risk and if we can help them by helping the organizations that are on the ground doing the work, we’ve done our job.
Blueprints for the Future
Where do you think the future of the Berkeley ecosystem is headed?
Nick: I hope we start narratives around ethics in engineering and being equitable in recruitment. I hope as a collective we are able to zoom out and realize bigger picture things and how we can create impact through our roles on campus.
What would you change about Berkeley club culture?
Nick: I’d definitely try to create a more inclusive and diverse culture. There’s a weird air of exclusivity that people pride themselves on. I think a more inclusive culture will help us unlock a lot more as a community.
What’s one thing you wish Blueprint was doing right now?
Nick: Working remotely is obviously hard and presents us with a whole new host of challenges, and a lot of the things we could do in person we can’t online. I really hope we can resume the in person work-sessions. That's where I feel like culture is built and the more in-person touchpoints we have, the more cohesive we become.