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Kaya Thomas: Reading, writing, and coding for a better tomorrow

Nov 12, 2020

Photo courtesy of Scott Schiller

Kaya Thomas, an award-winning app developer and senior software engineer at Calm, has been blowing people away since she was a pre-teen with not just her math and science skills, but also her role as a powerful mentor to other young girls.

Still only a few years out of college, she’s been honored by Michelle Obama at the Black Girls Rock! award show, was one of Glamour magazine's 2016 College Women of the Year, and has been a CODE2040 Fellow and a role model for Google's Made with Code initiative.

Kaya Thomas poses with Michelle Obama. Photo courtesy of Kaya Thomas

In fact, while she was still a student at Dartmouth College, Thomas developed We Read Too, a mobile directory of hundreds of books written by and for people of color—an app born out of her own struggle to find diverse authors and characters in the books she devoured as a kid.

We talked to Thomas about how the challenges of 2020 are changing both her work and her approach to it.

Kaya Thomas wears a cap and gown at her 2017 graduation from Dartmouth College. Photo courtesy of Kaya Thomas

You’ve got such an inspiring career arc at just age 25. What are the building blocks that led you to such early success?

I've always really been an avid reader. My parents instilled that in me. And so I really cultivated a love of learning very early on. My mom always jokes that she felt bad because on the first day of school all the other kids are crying and I'm running to get in the door.

When I got into middle school, I did get into STEM and I did really enjoy math. I remember when I had my first cell phone that I really loved. I thought, “I wonder how these work.” Then in high school I ended up getting really big into environmentalism, and decided to pursue engineering, but when I got to Dartmouth my advisor was really discouraging about whether I could do engineering because my first semester I was taking humanities courses and not physics. He instilled a lot of fear in me.

Then over winter break I came across this TED Talk by Kimberly Bryant who started Black Girls Code, and I thought, “What is this?!” So I signed up for a Codecademy Python class and I fell in love with it. I was like, “OK, I’m majoring in computer science.”

Kaya Thomas delivers an address. Photo courtesy of dotSwift Paris

How has the pandemic changed the way you work and think about your work?

I wasn't necessarily sold on remote work before all of this. But one of the things the office presents is an immense amount of distraction. And so I think it ties into remote work, where I seem to be able to get in a kind of deep focus.

One of the things that was tough in the beginning was figuring out how to collaborate virtually. As an engineer, I can do a lot of my work remotely. It’s fine. But some of the collaboration … you want to do a brainstorm, sketching stuff on post-it notes. It's harder to do that over video.

Another thing that’s been tough is conferences. They’re an opportunity not only for me to present but also to meet people and collaborate. And it just didn’t feel the same virtually. It just kind of sucks the life out of you.

One of the things about mmhmm is you can engage people, because they're not just staring at a blank screen. You have yourself there, you can present something, you can interact with those things on the screen. And it creates this flow that is much more interesting to watch. I think it can help people stay more engaged and collaborate better. It’s important to bring that kind of joyfulness and engagement back into how we communicate.

It’s important to bring that kind of joyfulness and engagement back into how we communicate.

Kaya Thomas mentors her hackathon team at the Black Girls Code NOLA hackathon. Photo courtesy of Black Girls Code

To kids who are really struggling at home during this pandemic—whether it’s lack of at-home support or enrichment, major family stresses, social isolation, difficulties learning online—what’s your advice on how to get through this?

I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform, do well, get the grades. I’m kind of a perfectionist, very ambitious and high achieving. There are a lot of kids out there like that, but especially when you're a kid, you don't often control your environment.

So if you feel like you're falling behind, or you feel like you're not able to get to where you want to be, just be gracious to yourself, because you'd be surprised at where you can still go. If you don't have this thing or you don't get this grade or you feel socially isolated, it can feel like that's the end and everything's ruined. But it's not.

This time will pass, and this is a time where everyone should be giving themselves grace. If you have something that brings you joy, try to do a little bit of that every day.

What’s the best thing that’s come out of the pandemic for you?

Opportunity for reflection and introspection. I'm a person who's just very-on-the-go—I'm always on to the next thing. I like to plan and be in control, and so this whole year has thrown everyone's plans or thoughts out the window. Nothing is really guaranteed. And I think that for me, it resolidified that if I want to make an impact on the world, I need to do it. I don't need to wait for the perfect time. It’s always the right time to make things happen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.