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Diverse Career Paths: Jonah Kagan Discusses Meaningful Impact Through CS

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A member of the Brown CS class of 2013, Jonah Kagan is a software engineer at VotingWorks, a small nonprofit organization dedicated to building reliable, open-source election technology like voting machines, ballot scanners, and election-auditing software. When asked about the skills he uses for his career, Kagan explained that the knowledge learned in his very first computer science class, CSCI 0190 Accelerated Introduction to Computer Science, has helped him in his day-to-day life.

“Thinking about how to model data, how to write tests, and the basics of just designing a program ended up being the bread and butter of what I use,” Jonah says. “And I combine that with one of the other things I use a lot – the ability to learn new programming languages, which is something I practiced a lot at Brown CS.”

Jonah recalls his junior year of college, when his peers were interested in the “big tech” companies, but he naturally gravitated towards startups for their unique missions. After spending some time volunteering and teaching computer science at middle schools during his time at Brown, Jonah became curious about startups in education technology and eventually applied to a three-person Y Combinator startup called Clever.

“This startup really stood out to me because it was a very small team doing something I believed in, so I took the leap and moved to San Francisco,” Jonah says, stating that the team eventually grew to 100+ members in his next four years of working there. He then left the company and began doing contract freelance work for the next three years, and he comments on the significance of “your own rate, your own schedule, and the flexibility to travel and explore other things without the confines of a 9-5 job”.

Eventually, an old manager from Clever contacted Jonah on his idea to build an open source voting system for election security, which led to his current job at VotingWorks, which he started in early 2020. This was before the election of November, 2020, when the reliability of voting machines was suddenly being questioned. 

Jonah notes that the health of our democracy from a political perspective is not the best because of the number of citizens distrusting elections, which he considers instead quite reliable from an actual logistical standpoint. “The people who run elections, regardless of their personal or political beliefs, are extremely reliable and trustworthy,” Jonah explains. “There is no corruption happening at the election administration level, but above these career bureaucrats is a layer of politicians, and most of the fear and distrust surrounding elections is coming from the way these events get politicized.”

At the same time, Jonah hopes that by making voting technology more transparent with VotingWorks, he can help election officials demonstrate to the public that the process is quite reliable and trust can be revived.

“The thing that has given me the most satisfaction is probably making products that are actually helping real people out in the world – the times that I’ve gotten to meet users, get their feedback, and see how the things I’m building impact them,” Jonah explains. “The second most satisfying part is the fun of getting to dig into a brand new project, so the times I’ve gotten to work closely with people from other teams to envision something completely new and build new prototypes have been very rewarding.”

When asked about his take on socially responsible computing, Jonah states that his time at Brown did not see an abundant emphasis on SRC education, and he finds it great that it’s becoming a more discussed concept. He was first exposed to it in high school when he took a course on the ethics of technology and saw historical examples of how the impacts of inventions are sometimes not what’s expected.

“It gave me a lot of pause because should I really be building technology if I’m not going to have control over what happens?” Jonah asks. “I actually wrote one of my Brown application essays about that dilemma, so I feel as if I have been grappling with this question my entire career, and I don’t know if I have an answer.”

He explains that his work has tended to be with traditional startups that raise money from investors, so they naturally have a for-profit, investor-based structure where the company must grow quickly in order to return those investments.

“A big part of the startup culture is growth, growth being the way you show success,” he states. “So we had to ask ourselves, how does the motivation for growth either line up with or not line up with the motivation for fulfilling whatever the original stated mission was to help people?”

Jonah explains that he found this tension between motivations troubling because his intention was to make an impact with the tools he was making, and he was not concerned with his salary, noting that this dilemma eventually led to him pursuing different avenues where there aren’t motivations to “grow at all costs,” such as currently working for a nonprofit.

When asked to provide advice for current computer science students, Jonah explains that it’s important to utilize freedom and Brown’s open curriculum to focus on whatever you’re interested in.

“I decided I wanted to focus on learning as much as I could and not necessarily try to optimize getting a good grade, so I started taking all of my classes S/NC for the last two years,” he says. “My resume when I was applying for jobs had some of these projects I built in my independent studies focused on education technology, so I had the chance to go deep into my own interests and this ultimately helped me succeed.”

Jonah also advises that it’s easy to become wrapped up in negotiations regarding salary for job offers, but implores students to consider going into negotiations with an idea of what's important to them, which could be money but also could be other factors such as a flexible work schedule, or the opportunities to work on projects and teams that are especially interesting to them. 

“I’ve been on the hiring side as well now for many years, so I think seeing someone who is a very passionate learner and can learn things fast can often overcome any other perceived deficiencies that you see in the application,” Jonah explains. “I can imagine with so many people in the major, it might feel a lot more competitive, so my advice would be to focus solely on learning the things you’re interested in, and that will be very rewarding.”

Brown CS regularly publishes news articles about our pioneering and innovative alums. We have no financial involvement in any of the companies mentioned above and have not been compensated in any way for this story. 

For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communications Manager Jesse C. Polhemus.