When I sit down with coding-entrepreneurial team Noah Shpak (E ’17) and Luke Carlson (E '17), they warn me about “Luke–isms": Luke’s tendency to throw people for a spin with nonsensical verbiage.
Luke assures me that his close friends have assimilated and can now follow his terminology. If your exposure to the world of coding, web design, and startups is fairly limited, it can be hard to tell the difference between tech jargon and Luke–isms. But we'll do our best to decode this dynamic duo.
Noah and Luke will graduate this year with a Bachelor of Applied Science and a Bachelor of Science in Engineering in Computer Science, respectively. The BAS degree is oriented towards students who want to apply technical computer science degrees to humanities–related interests, while the BSE is heavily rooted in the mastery of technical skills, typically prepping candidates for careers in research and academia.
Noah is a member of Hexagon, the engineering senior society, and Bell, a senior society centered on entrepreneurship. Luke is also in Bell, and serves as Head Project Manager for Software Engineering (CIS 573), keeping students on track with their projects and meetings with clients.
Luke started coding at a young age. Luke jokes, “Yeah, I came out of the womb like ‘Hey Mom, check out this batch file!’”
Despite computer science being ingrained in his DNA, Luke reassures beginners that anyone can learn to code. “You don’t need to take computer science. A lot of people can get disheartened going through the courses for a major or minor because it is really intense and technical. You can do so much on your own.”
“Yeah, that’s how I felt when I first started with CIS,” said Noah, who started coding when he came to Penn. “The classes are designed to be really difficult and help you understand the foundations of functional programming. I’m glad I stuck with it, but it has been a long road.”
Noah and Luke met through their fraternity, Fiji, and began working on their own projects together shortly thereafter. For their senior design project, they will look at analytics in a gallery space. They're still hashing out details, but one idea is to design a heat map of where people go in an art gallery to see which pieces get the most attention.
The project could be an effective means of determining pricing for student artwork based on viewing interest. It could also produce data to inform better design of a space.
This project is another one of many collaborative efforts between Noah and Luke, who also work on freelance and web development projects.
Noah says, “The group we worked for over the summer was called Ruse Labs. They were unique in that they weren’t interested in doing projects for profit. They were really into the idea of code as art. Say you go on a trip, but you were pretty messed up on the trip and don’t quite remember everything that happened. With the data visualization project, you can make a graph and program a web that keeps track of what everyone has done. It’s a cool way to record your memories.”
Luke chimes in, “It’s an abstract project. Ruse Labs did an exhibit at the Cooper–Hewitt a few years back. It had big tech artifacts like original source codes. They turned OKCupid’s algorithm for matching into an art piece. Someone who found his wife on OKCupid paid for it. Who would have thought that code could have sentimental value?”
Noah says, “Working on the code–as–art type of projects got us into this amorphous realm that is not a Penn mindset for anything. It has influenced us to work on zanier projects.”
Noah and Luke have done web development for Congressional candidates, as well as working with student groups like “33 to 40”— a take on the “Take Ivy” project done in the 60s, wen a Japanese photographer visited Ivy League schools and captured student style.
In the tech world, you meet all kinds of people, from sunset–gazers to hermit programmers. Noah and Luke’s projects have taken them from LA to Argentina. You wouldn’t expect Ojai to be a tech epicenter, but the rural town in southern California became a hub for eccentric characters when Ruse Labs rented out the home of Aldous Huxley.
“It was wild,” said Noah. “I met a trapeze artist, someone who had been to jail for hacking, and someone whose new server architecture is blowing up right now. AWS Lambda is something he could easily monetize but is choosing not to. A lot of coders just don’t want to deal with human interaction. I like people though.”
Luke spent time in Argentina working with small galleries doing projects for Ruse Labs. Luke says, “We have both had more conventional internships and jobs, but whether you’re working at Tesla or Microsoft, or anywhere else, big corporations generally have the same mindset. It can feel limiting when you’re getting started.”
Noah adds, “You don’t need a big tech job to be successful. When I was working as a software developer at Tesla, I realized I wasn’t really about the structured workplace. During the first couple of weeks, I realized that time started going by really fast. I could see that if I was working for Tesla after graduation, I could very easily go from being 21 to 24 years old without experiencing much. Plus,” he added, “I would probably have to miss happy hour.”
Luke interjects, “He could control Tesla cars from his code though, that was pretty cool.”
Noah adds, “Yeah, they are remote control cars to a certain extent. Especially moving forward—oops, non–disclosure agreement—I can’t say much more about what’s coming. But yeah, I could open the doors and windows with a few clicks, which was pretty sick.”
Noah spent his time working on diagnostics for battery packs and machine vision in the factory, amongst other tasks. “I didn’t feel like the work I had was challenging, although the amount of work definitely was. My boss moved on actually, to a startup founded by Larry Page called Kitty Hawk, where they are making flying cars. I guess he realized it was time to take a risk too.”
As a program manager at Microsoft, Luke worked in the developer division on design features, making them into a document that would be handed off to a developer. “I was doing a lot of data analysis on what users were doing with the product, with the aim of identifying ways to increase retention and improve the product. I realized that it was more of a business development role than a technical one. If you’re more into the engineering side, it doesn’t necessarily fit what you envisioned yourself doing,” Luke says.
Having both experienced the steady yet monotonous corporate route, Noah and Luke are seeking opportunities that will allow them to maximize their creativity. The innovative masterminds refuse to be tied down.
Noah says, “While taking a job at a big company is definitely less stressful than figuring out your own path, that is just not what I am looking for at this point. Also, some of the stuff we were doing felt kind of big brother–y.”
Luke adds “You can get a good job at a great company, but it is easy to get complacent in that role. You can say I went through Penn to get here, which is arguably the hardest part, so I might as well stick it out. But sometimes you get placed in something that is not technologically challenging, and a couple years down the line you are going to wonder why you didn’t do something crazier.”
Post–grad plans for Luke and Noah are indeterminate, just the way they like it. “We are looking to start a web–design consulting agency. We want to chart our own path."
Noah says, “We would probably be working out of New York, but we want to travel around for a bit. The nice thing about programming, as we have seen in past summers, is that it is entirely possible to work from remote places like Portugal and Argentina. We could go into Romania, Lithuania, deep into Eastern Europe. For the price of rent in New York. you could travel a large part of the globe.’”
Regardless of where their travels take them, Noah and Luke are sure to break new ground in tech—assuming they don’t go blind first. Noah says, “I read a study recently that said your eyes will deteriorate by the time you are 25 if you spend more than 5 hours a day at a computer. I am going to go blind.”
Luke adds, “Yeah, sometimes people will be like, ‘Let’s go do homework on College Green! And I’m like, yeah, sick...Anyone have a very, very long extension cord? I don’t have any books for my classes.”
Noah and Luke say their lives can be encapsulated by the song “Friends” by Francis and the Lights. “There are times in our house when it’s bumping on these massive speakers and there are like eight people in the room just swaying. It’s usually like 5 p.m. Everyone hit happy hour.”