This article is a deep dive into Codebase, a student org that aims to make the software industry more accessible by bridging the gap between classes and practical experience. Every semester, they build projects for non-profits and high growth tech companies, empowering students to work with real industry clients. They’ve partnered with a range of companies, from growing startups like Nuro and Ginger to clients as large as Atlassian, as well as local nonprofits like the Berkeley Food Pantry.
For this piece, we were joined by Isabel Li ‘24, a CS major and president of Codebase. In our conversation, we talked to Isabel about their experience coming from New Zealand to the Bay Area, their interest in using using technology to support activism, their journey into Codebase, and how Codebase changed their life.
Codebase at Berkeley
- What are the different pathways for joining Codebase? Isabel: So Codebase has two tracks for students of different levels of coding experience: the client track and the mentored track. For the client track, we’ll pair teams with tech companies and work on a software project for them throughout the semester. It’s for people who have some kind of industry experience already, or maybe advanced coding experience through classes and personal projects, and are interested in furthering their growth while finding their CS community at Cal. For the mentored track, we’re looking for students who haven’t had much coding experience—this might be freshmen who haven’t coded beyond 61A or honestly students of any year who are just beginning their CS journey. Every semester, our mentored project pairs with a (usually local) nonprofit. Students usually come in with no prerequisite knowledge and our PMs teach them everything they need to know for a full stack project. The goal is to make the experience of working on a complex project with a real client more accessible to beginners.
- What does Codebase look for when sourcing clients? What makes a successful project? Isabel: We don't have a lot of requirements for the skills of the developers coming in; they’ll often learn a lot of things on the fly. So we're mostly looking for interesting projects where we can learn the stack within a semester and successfully deliver a product that can be used by the company. We’ve done full-stack, distributed systems, data science, machine learning, various backend services… and we’re looking to branch out to newer tech like AR/VR for example, since that’s what we hear our developers are interested in! We look for clients who can communicate with us and facilitate a really meaningful learning experience for our developers. We’ve had a few bigger clients in the past like Atlassian, but we usually aim for mid-size or smaller companies because it gives the devs a more intimate experience. Usually, they’ll allocate an engineer who’s invested in our project to meet with us regularly for stand-ups, or even do code reviews. We're not focused on drawing clients that would grab the attention of people who want to apply; we want clients who can provide a valuable experience for our team. For the mentored track, we love working with local nonprofits and look for a project that allows our mentored developers to grow and grasp full-stack fundamentals—sometimes a project just isn’t quite right for the mentored track if it’s too much front-end and not enough back-end, or vice versa. We’re really prioritizing a rounded learning experience.
- Codebase’s values are Put People First, Actively Take Ownership, Seek Continuous Growth, Communicate Candidly, and Genuinely Give Back. Which of those resonates most with you? How has it influenced how Codebase operates? Isabel: I think the value of “put people first” is what makes Codebase such a tight-knit community. The PMs are here to make sure that you're in a space where you can do your best and if you're not doing your best, we want to figure out how we can help you. We’re not going to yell at you if you don't finish your work on a project. Sometimes in professional clubs, the goal is to put the client first, but we emphasize putting people's well-being first and just genuinely care for each other as friends—and that special amount of care is what holds us together as a community. Beyond that, I love “genuinely give back”, both in the sense of giving forward and giving outward. Codebase is entirely student-run—and I think it’s amazing that we have all these students who are working to source clients, lead projects, teach others, and just continue creating and giving forward this highly complex and valuable experience. On external giving, we donate our leftover funds to nonprofits which matter to our teams, and have recently made a tradition of volunteering together each semester; we make an effort to be intentional about giving to the community.
- Codebase seems to place a pretty big emphasis on making tech more accessible to students. How does that translate to the way you recruit new members? Isabel: This is tough for tech clubs at Berkeley, because there can be some stigma around tech clubs being “exclusive” which discourages people from applying. On our end, we feel that everyone who applies is so awesome, but we just don’t have the resources to support the huge demand for student opportunities to work on software projects at Cal. We try to buffer this by redirecting people to resources if we can’t accept them—for example, our entire mentored project curriculum is basically live on our website, and there are so many amazing orgs and DeCals we love outside of our own which enable accessibility to tech at Cal. In terms of our personal outreach, we aim to emphasize that diversity is something we view as inherently essential to a community. It’s not “diversity recruiting” — having a new perspective is just as additive to a community as being a good communicator or knowing how to code if not more. In recent semesters, we’ve been trying to more accurately represent ourselves as a growth experience and fun community, rather than a place for “the best developers” at Berkeley.
- Once members join Codebase, what do you do to nurture people’s talents? Isabel: We try to help people grow by nurturing their passions in both technical and non technical ways. When you join, you get an older member as a prof dev mentor who helps you with recruiting or whatever your future career path is oriented towards. My prof dev mentor taught me a lot about finding work in the industry, reviewed my resume, helped me plan my Fall recruiting, did mock technical interviews with me. But beyond technical growth, you get a social “mentor”, your Big, who helps you integrate into the club and is usually (quite funnily) well-matched. I’m a pretty introverted person who likes art and literature, and my Big was a really similar person who introduced me to product design and HCI (my primary interests now), while I usually go on picnics or coffee dates with my Little where we talk about films and books we’ve read recently. We also have fun social initiatives like CodeTalks and CodeHosts. CodeTalks are lightning talks where people get to share their interests with the rest of the club—last semester, someone did a hilarious and personal talk on the rise and fall of Souplantation. CodeHosts are dedicated events where members get to share their hobbies with the club. In the past, members have shared floristry workshops, created charcuterie boards together, or hosted scary board game nights!
- What do you think differentiates you from the slew of clubs on campus? Isabel: In some ways, I don’t want to pose Codebase as a club that is super special and unique; that doesn’t honor how awesome all the other clubs at Berkeley are. Codebase shouldn’t be the only community you try to join; there are so many other cool communities here! Maybe objectively, Codebase is one of the only SWE-oriented, project-based clubs on campus, since a lot of tech orgs emphasize different niches like ML, crypto, etc. On top of that, I think there’s a close sense of family here that’s really sweet and hard to replicate.
Activism, Art, and Beyond
- What did your journey to Cal look like? Isabel: I’m an international student from New Zealand, so coming here has definitely been a culture shock for me in terms of the startup and tech world. New Zealand's startup culture is very small, and I didn’t do any coding in high school. Instead, I directed my energy towards activism and creative work, and after having a late senior-year epiphany that a lot of that work relies on technology (such as creativity support tools or organizational software) I knew I wanted to be creating that for other people. I eventually looked up “what are good schools for exploring computer science?” and that’s how I got here.
- It’s really interesting that you’re both a designer and a coder. How has design influenced your approach to technical projects? Isabel: I didn’t know very much about computer science coming into Berkeley. I was very much thinking, “I want to create tools that will support artists and activists, and I don't know how to code but I'll figure that out along the way.” Then, in the process of coming here and meeting a lot of people in tech who care about different causes, I was enlightened to the range of roles there are in tech and developed an interest in product design. Having an approach where I came in goal-oriented instead of having a technical basis and then trying to discover what field I wanted to do led me down a path that was more user- and concept-focused rather than caring most about the nitty-gritty of the tech stack.
- What problems are you interested in tackling for artists and activists? Isabel: Very broadly, I’m interested in thinking about human-computer interaction, but there are so many interesting and niche subjects in this area! Just as one example, in art, social media has changed the role of an artist. Before, you were involved only in creating your work—but now, you not only have to drop your work on Instagram, you also have to create an entire TikTok documenting your process, while fighting the algorithms to be seen. So, how has technology and the way we interact with it transformed our impressions of certain professions? How does it change the demands of that role? People now not only get to focus on their craft, but must also curate an online persona to gain success. Speaking a little on activism, we're often trying to solve problems with technology for low-income communities or people who don't have access to technology with a solution that’s heavily tech-focused. But in general, how are you going to solve something with an app by giving it to people who don't have access to phones? There's a huge gap where we’re trying to create fancy solutions but they don't reach the people that need them because those people don't have access to technology or the prerequisite digital literacy, and I’m really interested in exploring those solutions with a more critical eye.
Isabel’s Journey Through Codebase
- What compelled you to apply to Codebase? Isabel: I joined during a zoom semester, so I was doing courses online from my place in New Zealand. I had gone to a virtual tabling session on Discord and was able to meet people in Codebase. In general, I had been more intimidated by my first sessions with other clubs since I didn’t have any cultural (or technical, really) awareness of tech—what did it mean when they talked about PyTorch or React? But the people I met from Codebase were really welcoming, and I had a lot of fun playing games on Discord with them after the tabling was over—as you can probably imagine, for someone struggling with starting their freshman Fall online, that was a really impactful connection for me and motivated me to apply. By some sort of luck, I got into this community, and they’re the foundation of my computer science and software engineering skills now.
- What was your first semester in Codebase like? Isabel: I joined the mentored track my freshmen year Fall and our team built a web portal for CoFED, a QTBIPOC-led nonprofit championing food sovereignty, to connect food cooperatives across the country. Honestly, everything I know right now about React and Node are from my PMs in my first semester—it’s so mind-blowing that I’m where I can be right now because two juniors volunteered their time (and extreme patience) to teach me and a group of five other people how to build a long-term project for a real user from scratch. I still find myself using these skills in my internship right now, and I’m just so so grateful.
- What did your journey after that first semester look like? Isabel: After going through mentored track, there’s no return condition; you can just move on to a client project if you would like to be a developer again (although my co-PM and I jokingly misled our devs last semester that they would have to re-apply, which was kind of funny.) So, the next semester I worked on a client project for a company called Relativity, who 3D-print rocket parts, and we worked on a custom web app for them. That semester I met one of my closest friends from Berkeley (who was actually my PM!) and learnt Typescript and unit testing, which actually rounds out everything I’m using in my internship right now. In my third semester (last Fall), I decided to step up and be one of the external vice presidents, which was sweet because beyond managing outreach and events, I was able to introduce different diversity and inclusivity initiatives. And last semester, I was one of the PMs for the mentored track, which is really special: I absolutely adored my mentored PMs when I first joined, and being the first exposure to full-stack, to a client-based project, to a lot of new industry things for a team of people who don't really have that exposure yet is a special experience that I’m glad I was able to give forward. Of course, for this upcoming semester, I’ll be the president.
- How has your organization made a difference in your life? Isabel: The selflessness that I was greeted with when I entered the club made a huge impact on my life; everyone is so willing to help. My first semester, there were a few TAs for 61A in the club. All the freshmen were really stressed out before the first midterm, and without being asked, the TAs took the time out to do an informal review session for us. Those kinds of things really made me fall in love with Codebase. I was also very stressed as a freshman about recruiting — in New Zealand, it's very uncommon for students in high school to have a resume or to have any type of internship before their third year of college, so I was very much feeling like everyone else from the Bay Area had a head start. But people I didn’t even know in Codebase who had had a lot of recruiting experience were so open to doing resume reviews, mock interviews, and offering to help me bridge that gap even when I was too shy to ask. At Codebase, you don't have to personally know the person for them to want to help you. Everyone is giving forward.
Coding @ Cal
- What do you think about startup culture at Berkeley? Isabel: Coming from New Zealand, the startup culture here is amazing. The fact that students are taking initiative to start clubs and make tech education accessible shouldn’t be taken for granted. My personal perception of the culture here has been driven by clubs since I love being involved with them; I see it as really community-oriented with everyone being so excited to pursue personal growth. There are also people here who are focused more on academics or research, which is also really cool—it creates a diversity in the college experiences you can curate for yourself. There are so many opportunities here and you never have to choose just one.
- What’s one thing you wish your organization was doing right now in the Berkeley ecosystem? Isabel: I wish that we could do more to actively make tech education more accessible—maybe by adding another mentored project. It’s been at the forefront of our minds, this cognizance about the tech industry and who it's accessible to and who it's not. I think there are not a lot of clubs that are specifically software engineering oriented, but there are so many people who end up going into software engineering through Berkeley. The number of students interested in SWE is so much more than we can fit. I would definitely encourage people who are interested in having similar clubs to start their own and help us fill the gap.
- Do you have any advice for someone making their foray into the Berkeley ecosystem? Isabel: It’ll be really hard, but you have to remember that you have your own journey to be on that can’t be compared to anyone else’s. And it's almost inevitable that you'll be comparing yourself to someone else at Berkeley, but catch yourself when you're do that and realize that you're at your own stage of your journey, you’ve come from your own unique background, and sometimes you need to be your own number one fan! Don't stress too much about what everyone else is doing, because what's most important for you is what you're doing.