Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated October 6, 2021
Mark Hansen, Chief Product/Technology Officer
How did you end up co-founding Upsolve?
There are many legs to the journey.... before Upsolve I had been exploring a lot of different angles to creating big and sustained social/political impact. In high school, I thought it'd be through a music label organizing pop culture icons instead of political leaders, later on I tried creating a rating system to expose insider-baseball government contracting, at another point I was a tech mentor to startups in the Gaza Strip so they could do work and grow the economy despite the blockades. It was after I came back from Gaza that I decided to move back to NYC from the bay area. I knew of a few incubators/co-working spaces that were a better cultural match for what I wanted to build and I wanted to be around progressive NYC service providers and communities. One of those was Blue Ridge Labs, which unknown to me at the time, Rohan and Jonathan were just finding each other at.
Before I met Rohan and Jonathan, I had been trying to build an automated social-services provider called Hey Mayor, that took automated 211/311 systems run by larger cities and gave smaller cities and towns that didn't have the resources a similar system for engaging constituents. It was NLP powered, multi-platform, and running in a few cities and towns, the largest at the time being Jersey City, NJ (250,000 residents). It was a broad provider, helping people with everything from recycling schedules, automating permit requests, to evaluating eligibility for county/national services. I was spending my days in call centers and nights extending the product, like building features that let users report landlords committing income-discrimination. But I faced two problems, distribution was incredibly difficult and largely relationship/sales driven (which I'm frankly bad at), and the people who needed support the most were not finding the service since its growth/advertising was reliant on the local governments resources. It made the pilots very painful, and I was frustrated that my business model of going through local government was slowing me down so much.
So, being a bit burnt out from working with these local governments, I came across a message from someone saying that some folks needed some styling for a prototype they had of a bankruptcy product. This is where Jonathan, Rohan, and I crossed paths. What I thought would be a few hours of CSS styling became the next few years of working together.
What made you fully commit to focusing on Upsolve?
Rohan and Jonathan probably planned this, but I was in the kitchen and they showed me mugs that some of Upsolve’s first users sent them and a letter from another user. Immediately I thought, "I could build the perfect NLP system and I will never get a coffee mug from someone in local government".
I knew from Hey Mayor, I could solo build tech products and services and I could tell Rohan and Jonathan understood the domain and had very different strengths than me. It seemed clear that we could really grow this nugget of a prototype that users loved into something big so and I was excited to step into other legal domains beyond bankruptcy later on, so I shut my pilots down that month with Hey Mayor and went all in on bankruptcy.
What makes engineering at a nonprofit unique?
Upsolve’s nonprofit status has a huge cultural benefit. The people here aren’t sticking around waiting for their equity to vest. Everyone is here to do good work and make an impact. Doing what’s best for our community is our business.
However, we’re just as stringent on quality and problem solving as a big for-profit company. Our bar for good engineering and design is very high and I consistently evaluate us against companies like Netflix and Airbnb. But I don't believe that quality should be at the cost of speed and development.
What advice would you give someone who wants to use technology for social good, but hasn’t made the leap in their career yet?
Go all in and find your Upsolve!
If you’re not sure what that is, I think the true first step is to start to establish relationships with people that are doing the work you’re interested in. Build connections and talk to those people. These conversations were really inspiring to me. The second step is to understand the problem, business model, and what’s happening right now. Before Upsolve, I had gone through 3 or 4 civic/gov tech products to explore different problem domains and business models.
Next, figure out where you fit in – I realized my superpower was making stuff. I knew I wasn't good at sales and partnership building, but I could solo design/develop pretty much anything. Working with Jonathan and Rohan was a clear compliment of skills.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced building Upsolve?
I was the only full-time engineer for 1.5~2 years, and I've learned best practices through trial and error, since I've never worked as an engineer in any other organization before. But as anyone on the team will tell you, if it's a bad decision, I will be the first person to rip it out and replace it. It's been exciting to develop a mature system at such a small size that surprises people who see our code base from top-tier engineering organizations in the tech industry.
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Harry Truong, Senior Software Engineer
You’ve worked at Facebook, Dropbox, and Airbnb. How did you decide on Upsolve vs. Big Tech?
For me, making the leap was really coming home to the nonprofit space, since I worked at the Red Cross for 10+ years. Working at a nonprofit, everyone is already aligned on the same mission. This built-in passion makes a big difference.
The nonprofit status can also allow teams to have a greater impact. For example, my team at Airbnb had a strong humanitarian focus, but we weren’t a nonprofit so we had limits on what we could set up as our mission. Our team actually pushed to solve this problem by becoming a nonprofit, now Airbnb.org. Now the mission of hosts offering up their homes in times of crisis through Airbnb can be further supported with donations and tax benefits because of the nonprofit status.
What advice would you give someone who wants to use technology for social good, but hasn’t made the leap in their career yet?
Building products that matter is what matters! Don’t let performance review cycles, bonuses, and incentives distract you. See if you can focus your vision on what products you actually want to build and the problems you want to solve.
Also, if you’re already at the door and ready to leave a company, why not take it as an opportunity to change the organization. Build things like what we build at Upsolve and treat your current role as a testing ground. Doing this exercise before leaving will help shift your mindset.
How do technical opportunities at Upsolve compare to your previous jobs?
Upsolve is surprisingly very mature in terms of tooling: developments, testing, and data analytics are all very straightforward. However, there’s still a lot more to build here. For example, there’s no email infrastructure team and we’re in the process of building this out – including unsubscribing, making sure emails deliver, and template design of emails.
That’s what I find so exciting. We have very solid fundamentals, but we also have areas where if we had more engineers we could invest more time in polishing things up. I’m excited to continue to see our team grow and for there to be a larger product development cadence where we can work on multiple initiatives at the same time.
What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on at Upsolve so far?
The most exciting thing to me is the way we handle the core bankruptcy questionnaire. Our users are able to answer specific questions in a way that we can audit as a team. We can see the individual screen of the user, flows that the user goes through, and it’s written in a way that any engineer can recreate for debugging and developing.
We can also copy production data locally and work with this to develop new features. As Facebook there was no test data, so you usually used real production data, which could go very wrong. At Airbnb, there was only test data, which was very safe. At Upsolve, we’re somewhere in the middle, which is very exciting for creating new features.
What’s your favorite part about working with Mark?
My favorite part about working with Mark is his prioritization of getting products shipped and the way he keeps us accountable for shipping useful products for our users. Working with Mark, there are also no negative feelings. It’s about improving the product every time. The focus is on mission and the attitude is forward-looking, not blaming the code or wishing things had been done differently.
One week I shipped something that broke for all of our users – every single user at Upsolve. Once I realized something was broken, Mark just jumped into fixing the problem and we ended up staying on track with our goals for the week. On other teams, this would’ve been a multiple-day audit, but there’s less time to worry about this kind of thing and more focus on product vs. formalities here.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned during your time at Upsolve?
My fiancé, Christine, finished medical school and she’s now in residency. We always debrief our days and she’s taught me that I shouldn’t be afraid of anything I do. She’ll be in extremely scary situations on a day to day basis, like operating on someone. I don’t have to worry about those circumstances like she does or like other doctors or first responders do. We need to be more brave when doing software engineering!
Jeff Zhou, Senior Software Engineer
You just joined the Upsolve team, what are your first impressions?
I joined right as the team was barreling down to the launch of a new feature, Upsolve’s Community. This is when I really realized that things here are moving FAST. I certainly had to take a second to get up to speed with everyone – super quickly I was like I guess I’m running too! The speed of communication and delivery here is very exciting. My very first week on the job ended with a demo of Community.
Everyone is also super friendly and both Mark and Harry are an incredible trove of resources.
You’ve been a founder in the past (Grimante) and worked at a large company (Opendoor) – tell us a bit about your pre-Upsolve life?
It was my childhood dream to release a video game of my own. The idea was to create a minimalist chess-like board game. Right after college I realized it was the perfect time to actually knock this out. It was pretty niche, but I really did it for me and enjoyed the process.
After building Grimante, I thought it was time to figure out a career and make a living, which is what brought me to Opendoor. I joined when it was a midsize company and left right before they went public. I had a great time there. I was lucky to be surrounded by really smart, chill people working on an interesting product.
What motivated you to focus on social impact?
Moving in this direction was a long time coming. Since my first software engineering internship, I started to realize the privilege I was walking into. It really got me thinking about how unfair life can be in terms of the opportunities different people are afforded. Everything from the neighborhood I grew up in to the school I went to has brought compounding privilege.
Living in San Francisco, this inequality was very visceral. I would have my 1:1’s in a park that was above street level, and I still have an image in my head of the disparity between street level and walking up to the park. It was kind of a jarring feeling. We’re on the cutting edge of innovation, we have to do better than this.
In addition to volunteering at food banks and doing small scale things, I wanted to put the full weight of my work into doing something impactful. I felt I had a responsibility to step up with the skills I have.
What project are you most excited about working on at Upsolve?
I’m excited about building Upsolve Community, but more broadly I think it represents a really exciting next step for Upsolve. We have this effective core product, and now we’re focused on building out an ecosystem around helping people with financial distress.
I’m also excited about the opportunity to take risks in what we’re making. I think the right frame of mind when it comes to building something like Community, which is not easy, is that it requires lots of iteration – it’s never really “done.”
Joining Upsolve brings you to NYC after living in the Bay Area for over two years. What’s your favorite part about NYC so far?
I’ve only lived in NYC as a summer intern before this. I’m most excited about the density of good food – I’m a big sucker for trying to eat a different thing every night. Walking down any given street there are like 30 new restaurants to try. Also public transportation, I’m a big fan of that.
What qualities do you admire in co-workers, from both a technical and non-technical perspective?
I’m big on front end product development and clean code. Mark’s philosophy when it comes to clean code and design, since he’s also a designer, is something I’ve really appreciated. He thinks of clean code as a usability factor. It’s the same principle as making any dense piece of material readable. I can already see the effort taken here on engineering quality.
I think communication is also a very undervalued quality when it comes to software engineers, so this is something I always really appreciate in my teammates. Not having to take everything super seriously is also a good one. It’s important to be serious and laser focused about the mission, but having a lighthearted attitude in the day-to-day execution makes things more fun.