2020 Best Invention

Meet our Engineers

Written by Upsolve Team.  
Updated September 17, 2021

Mark Hansen, Chief Technology Officer

How did you end up co-founding Upsolve?

There are many legs to the journey....Rohan and Jonathan were at Blue Ridge Labs, the social impact incubator run by the Robin Hood Foundation. Meanwhile, I had moved back to NYC because of both my interest in Blue Ridge Labs and the civic government tech ecosystem here. I was focused on building Hey Mayor at night while working at a call center during the day and running on my credit cards just trying to get by. 

Rohan posted a job for styling Upsolve’s prototype and I figured it was an easy thing for me to do in a few hours. Soon Rohan and Jonathan were going to a conference, but their website looked really terrible, so I remade that in a few hours too. Before I knew it, I kept knocking stuff out and I’ve kept doing that ever since. 

What made you fully commit to focusing on Upsolve? 

Rohan and Jonathan probably planned this – I was in the kitchen and they showed me mugs that some of Upsolve’s first users sent them as a gift. I was making good progress with Hey Mayor, but I was like there’s no way I’m gonna get a coffee mug with my initials on it with anyone I’m working with in local government. It was clear there was no bureaucracy with Upsolve. It was clear that putting all my energy in Upsolve would have more impact on people’s lives, so that’s what I did. 

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. 

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. For me, this resulted in Hey Mayor.

Next, figure out where you fit in – I realized my superpower was making stuff. I could make Hey Mayor, but I was less interested in the selling part. Upsolve was the perfect opportunity to focus on my superpower. 

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced building Upsolve? 

I was the only full-time engineer for 1.5 years. Now we’re in a very different spot and we have the ability to grow our engineering team and impact. Adding another engineer to the team has been critical. I love the idea of having a small group of really amazing people where we’re all just impressed by one another. 

You learn so much from being on a small team at a small company – we can be super cohesive and it forces us to be really, really thoughtful about how everything comes together across the organization. We prioritize simplicity because there are so many moving parts.

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. 

Upsolve is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that started in 2016. Our mission is to help low-income families who cannot afford lawyers file bankruptcy for free, using an online web app. Spun out of Harvard Law School, our team includes lawyers, engineers, and judges. We have world-class funders that include the U.S. government, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and leading foundations. It's one of the greatest civil rights injustices of our time that low-income families can’t access their basic rights when they can’t afford to pay for help. Combining direct services and advocacy, we’re fighting this injustice.

To learn more, read why we started Upsolve in 2016, our reviews from past users, and our press coverage from places like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.


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