Andrew Barba, CIS’16, vividly remembers the moment Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone to the world in 2007. A teenager at the time, he’d long been interested in “hacking around and building things” with electronics, a fascination he attributes in part to his father’s work in computer forensics. As a Northeastern student, he’s developed two apps and spent three co-ops working as a software engineer. We asked Barba, who is one of the winners of this year’s Cooperative Education Award winners, to discuss the impact of his experiential learning opportunities and what’s next after graduation.
Take me back to when you got your first iPhone and you developed your first app. How did that all come about?
I got my first Mac before starting at Northeastern in 2011, and shortly after the semester began I bought my first iPhone. Apple has a really tight-knit ecosystem for developing apps, but at the time the learning curve was still pretty severe. I would spend hours in my dorm room watching tutorials and building small apps that tested different parts of the development environment. Eventually it was time to see how the App Store worked so I put together a flashlight app in a couple hours and submitted it to Apple. After it was approved, I woke up the next morning to see it was downloaded a couple hundred times—largely in Germany. At this point I was hooked. Code I wrote could be distributed and used by hundreds of people overnight; I couldn’t wait to see what else I could build.
Today I kind of look at coding as a means to an end. I love to write code, but I love building things more and right now programming is the best way for me to build things.
You later built a music app. Tell me more about that experience.
The summer after my freshman year, before my first co-op, I was lucky enough to work at WhatsApp as an intern. That experience was really special to me, because it showed me how rewarding it can be to work at a startup. The people there were some of the smartest, most driven people I’ve ever met. In my free time I started working on a music app with another design intern at the company. We were just looking for something fun to build and it turned into long nights and a lot of learning over the course of the summer. Building that gave me the confidence to look for my first iOS specific co-op that fall.
I think the real takeaway from my experience at WhatsApp was that I learned what I wanted to learn during the rest of my time at Northeastern. I knew I wanted to work in a startup environment, to understand the inner workings of the business—things like product development, fundraising and hiring. And from there I knew I wanted my first co-op to be at another startup working with people who’d done it before.
You spent your first co-op at Happier and your next two co-ops at Tablelist, founded by Northeastern alumnus Julian Jung, DMSB’13. What did you take most from your co-op experiences?
WhatsApp taught me what I wanted to learn; Happier taught me how to build a product; and Tablelist is teaching me how to build a business. At Tablelist, I’m experiencing the full spectrum, everything from design to fundraising to hiring. It’s been the full startup rollercoaster and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We’ve accomplished some really awesome stuff and met incredible people along the way.
The beauty of co-op is that if you’re motivated to go out and get something, to take a risk, you can do it. For me, I knew what I wanted to do early on and co-op certainly validated that. But it also showed me so much more and really helped mold my personal and professional goals going forward.
You’ve been working at Tablelist for about two and a half years now, dating back to September 2013 when you began your first co-op there. Will you continue working there full time after graduation?
I’m not going anywhere. I was one of two engineers when we started and we’re taking this as far as we can. We’ve built a great team, a family so to speak.
What comes to mind when you look back on your Northeastern experience?
I would say just how much the university has supported me every step of the way. One example: Before my internship at WhatsApp, I wanted to go to Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference, one of the largest and most talked about tech conferences of the year. I emailed my undergraduate advisor Aileen Kent-Yates and Doreen Hodgkin, and they came through and found an alumnus who paid for me to attend. I attended that conference three years in a row, the second year with a scholarship from Apple.
They also supported my decision to work full time at Tablelist for the past three years. Managing classes and work certainly wasn’t easy, but my advisors saw how important it was to me and did everything they could to help.
What advice would you share with an incoming computer science major?
Spend as much time as possible with people outside of your major; everyone sees and solves problems differently. Engineers may solve a problem one way, and someone from a different background another way. Usually some combination of the two is a really great solution. You have to branch out and see what problems exist outside of what you know. Also, go beyond what you can learn in the classroom and meet with influential people in the industry, even if it’s just a meet-up for coffee. The tech community in particular is great about helping people learn and extending advice. The most important thing is to not be afraid of failure. Failure is just part of the success story.