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RapidChat: Jonathan Pichot

Jonathan Pichot used to read Rapid Growth while at college in California. Now he’s a professional developer working for Collective Idea in Holland and with the community through his local organization, Friendly Code. This self-taught programmer loves the way West Michigan fosters connections within the community. When he's not drinking beer at Brewery Vivant, teaching at The Factory or visiting relatives in France, you’ll find him encouraging citizen engagement in local politics--through better use of technology, of course.
Jonathan Pichot

Third time's a charm for Rapid Growth's new Q&A series, RapidChat. This week, we chat with Jonathan Pichot, a self-taught programmer with a passion for software and cities. He talks about the social aspect of software development, muses on writing code and speaking French, and elaborates on how technology can be used to engage citizens in local government.
RG: You commute from Grand Rapids to Holland; how are you liking all this snow?

JP: I can work from home so I don’t really mind the snow. Collective Idea is really flexible with working from home. So I often spend the day working wherever I feel like I’ll be most productive.

Several of us live in Grand Rapids and we carpool when we need to get there. I don’t mind living in Grand Rapids and working in Holland.

RG: Do you have a place you go to work and be productive?

JP: Recently I’ve really enjoyed Lantern. I moved to Washington Street, which is in Heritage Hill but right on the border with Downtown. Now that I can walk to Lantern, it’s quickly becoming a second office. Several other Collective Idea employees set up shop there regularly.

RG: Speaking of Collective Idea, what exactly do you do?

JP: I write code. We write custom web applications. A recent project I worked on was for a company called Benefit Mobile. It’s an app that lets you get gift cards to help support a particular school. Previously, it was a very laborious process for parents so we developed an app to streamline it. I helped write the backend code that coordinates all the transactions that have to happen. The iPhone makes a request to the server, the server has to process the payment, order the gift card, track it. Ultimately, it’s now a simple process and an effective tool.

RG: In your experience, is developing and writing code social and teamwork-oriented, or insulated?

JP: We have a process where, as we’re working, we submit the change we want to make to the code and the rest of the team has a chance to look at it and comment on it. We use a piece of software called GitHub where we can comment on each line of code. People can discuss around the changes you made and then, once everything looks good, it’s pulled into the project. Everyone can see what everyone else is doing. We also do pair programming, so two programmers sit at one computer and work on a problem together. One is on the keyboard at a time and it creates much better quality code and we’re constantly learning together, so it’s great professional development.

We’re on the fourth floor with an open office space. We have big window, an open office space, and large standing desks. You set up wherever you want, similar to The Factory. No assigned seats. We can pair with whoever we’re working with. It’s a very fun atmosphere. It’s a good time, a lot of banter.

RG: Is Collective Idea a gem in the rough, or is this collaborative and fun experience normal?

JP: I think the industry is going in this direction. In my professional experience, it’s been fantastic. Very collaborative experiences. As the industry has grown more mainstream, you see people from all walks of life getting into development. It’s very diverse. Software is very social now. Think about the tools you use online. They’re social tools. They’re designed by software engineers. And they’re deeply human.

RG: So developers need to be empathetic and really understand people’s needs?

JP: Exactly. There is a computer scientist and artist named Jonathan Harris who has proposed a Hippocratic oath for software developers. Developers build social platforms. The decisions we make as engineers have major impacts on the way the majority of the world communicates. We need to realize the power we have and make sure we use it for good.

Along those lines, I organized a group in town called Friendly Code. Friendly Code was founded in summer 2012 as one of the first brigades, or local offshoots, of Code for America, a national organization that works to get government to use technology better and as a tool to increase citizen engagement.

We are planning an event at the end of February called Code Across Grand Rapids. It’s a free event and we’re getting together as many city employees and citizens as possible and opening up the city’s data sets and working on them to create applications to engage citizens.

For example, an app that would text you a day before your trash or recycling pick up. We can text people their precinct and polling place on election day. The planning commision could publish their agenda in a machine readable format and we could build something that could alert you if a building within a mile of where you live is under review. You might not care about a building across town, but you might have something to say if it’s across the street. In the end, it’s not about any one app, it’s about using technology to empower citizens.

Increasing citizen engagement is not just about opening data, it’s about bringing attention to information when it’s relevant. City decisions (like Airbnb regulation) and choices can get people so upset after the fact. They didn’t know that decision was being made. Technology can help us change that. It can help us build a more representative government by introducing new voices, not just the ones that attend every city commission meeting.

I’ve always had a passion for cities as well as software.

RG: Are you from West Michigan? Why have you chosen to launch your career here?

JP: I grew up in Southwest Michigan in Berrien Springs. It’s a two-stop-light town near Indiana and Lake Michigan. After high school, I went to California for college, and also did a stint at Aquinas College where I  fell in love with Grand Rapids. That was the first time I encountered a city’s strong sense of localism and that really resonated with me.

I kept reading Rapid Growth when I was a senior in college and it was great to see the exciting things that were going on in Grand Rapids. I think my software career has benefited from being in GR. I’m a self-taught programmer and the small nature of the town has allowed me to make connections. That’s how I ultimately found my job, through meetup groups. Direct social interaction is a deep part of software culture. There are a lot of conferences and meetups.

I studied European History and French at college. I had helped a small magazine with their website throughout college and they sent me to a conference in San Francisco before my senior year and I realized I knew more than I thought I did. I thought, this is something I can do. I moved back to GR with a contract with them and started going to meetup groups and built my career through social interactions.

RG: Since you’re fluent in French and English, and write code professionally, do you feel trilingual?

JP: I’ve never thought of it that way. I suppose there are elegant and non-elegant ways of saying things, both in code and in language. With code, the thing interpreting your language has rules, so code is much more rigid and strict. With spoken language, you’re communicating ideas and images. With computer code you are communicating a logical process of things. You can’t communicate emotion.  

RG: I suppose each language brings out a difference form of expression. Do you find that with French?

JP: I grew up going to France; I was there before I can remember. Some people go to Florida to see their grandparents and I go to France. I grew up doing that a lot, which kept my connection there strong. All but one of my cousins live there.

When you speak another language, there’s a way of being and an outlook that is different. It’s a part of me that can easily go dormant. When I went to France last summer, as I boarded the Air France flight out of Detroit and began to hear everyone speaking French I couldn’t stop smiling, it awakened that side of me. My identity is somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I’m French to my American friends and American to my French family.  

RG: But it sounds like Grand Rapids feels like home. Besides the opportunity for developers, what else do you like about the city?

JP: The breweries, definitely. I’ve gotten mugs at different breweries to represent different times in my life. A mug from Brewery Vivant when I got my first apartment in GR. I go to Vivant a lot. I have a Founders mug which coincides with my new apartment downtown. I frequent Founders a lot, too. I also have a New Holland mug which I got when I got my job at Collective Idea.

RG: Cheers to many more mugs! 
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