A familiar face was back on campus today: UW CSE bachelor’s alum Brandon Ballinger (’06), former Google engineer and co-founder of fraud detection software company Sift Science (alongside fellow UW CSE alum Jason Tan) – and most recently, one of a small team of developers recruited to help fix the federal government’s online health insurance marketplace, Healthcare.gov.
Brandon graciously agreed to talk about his experience with around 35 undergrads as part of our Leadership Seminar Series, in which CSE alumni and friends share with current students what it takes to be effective in a startup, small company, large company, or less common environment.
What Brandon found upon arrival in the other Washington was not so much a big, hairy technical problem, but a people problem. The government had engaged 55 companies as contractors to work on different parts of the site, many of whom didn’t communicate well with each other and, and things went downhill, sometimes focused less on solutions and more on avoiding blame. Enter Brandon and his colleagues. They brought not only technical expertise but also lessons they had learned working in high-functioning teams in the private sector. By helping the people behind Healthcare.gov to work better together – emphasizing solutions to problems rather than who caused them, prioritizing expertise over rank, and teaching them to triage – they were able to build Healthcare.gov into a more reliable, user-friendly site.
Brandon also talked to the students about his experience working on the Android operating system when it was still in its infancy (as opposed to the market leader it is now). He pointed out that his work on Android speech recognition spanned things he had learned across the UW CSE curriculum: “The latest framework will change; CS fundamentals will last your whole career.” (See the 3 slides linked from the image to the right.). Students also learned what it’s like to discover your startup co-founder has bailed on you – via email – the night before your big interview with Y Combinator, and what areas of computer engineering he wished he had known more about when choosing a career path. (Shout out to the site reliability engineers!)
Read a fascinating Wired article about how Brandon and his team helped turn around Healthcare.gov here.
Our thanks to Brandon for delivering a fascinating (and eye-opening) talk!