Welcome to our Hacks: Decoded Interview series!
Once a month, Mozilla Foundation’s Xavier Harding speaks with people in the tech industry about where they’re from, the work they do and what drives them to keep going forward. Make sure you follow Mozilla’s Hacks blog to find more articles in this series and make sure to visit the Mozilla Foundation site to see more of our org’s work.
Meet Thomas Park
Thomas Park is a software developer based in the U.S. (Philadelphia, specifically). Previously, he was a teacher and researcher at Drexel University and even worked at Mozilla Foundation for a stint. Now, he’s the founder of Codepip, a platform that offers games that teach players how to code. Park has made a couple games himself: Flexbox Froggy and Grid Garden.
We spoke with Thomas over email about coding, his favourite apps and his past life at Mozilla. Check it out below and welcome to Hacks: Decoded.
Where’d you get your start, Thomas? How did you end up working in tech, what was the first piece of code you wrote, what’s the Thomas Park origin story?
The very first piece of code I wrote was in elementary school. We were introduced to Logo, an educational programming language that was used to draw graphics with a turtle (a little cursor that was shaped like the animal). I drew a rudimentary weapon that shot an animated laser beam, with the word “LAZER” misspelled under it.
Afterwards, I took an extremely long hiatus from coding. Dabbled with HyperCard and HTML here and there, but didn’t pick it up in earnest until college.
Post-college, I worked in the distance education department at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University, designing and teaching online courses. It was there I realized how much the technology we used mediated the experience of our students. I also realized how much better the design of this tech should be. That motivated me to go to grad school to study human-computer interaction, with a focus on educational technology. I wrote a decent amount of code to build prototypes and analyze data during my time there.
What is Codepip? What made you want to create it?
Codepip actually has its roots in Mozilla. During grad school, I did an internship with the Mozilla Foundation. At the time, they had a code editor geared toward teachers and students called Thimble. For my internship, I worked with Mozilla employees to integrate a tutorial feature into Thimble.
Anyway, through this internship I got to attend Mozilla Festival. And there I met many people who did brilliant work inside and outside of Mozilla. One was an extremely talented designer named Luke Pacholski. By that time, he had created CSS Diner, a game about CSS selectors. And we got to chatting about other game ideas.
After I returned from MozFest, I worked weekends for about a month to create Flexbox Froggy. I was blown away by the reception, from both beginners who wanted to learn CSS, to more experienced devs curious about this powerful new CSS module called flexbox. To me, this affirmed that coding games could make a good complement to more traditional ways of learning. Since then, I’ve made other games that touch on CSS grid, JS math, HTML shortcuts with Emmet, and more.
Gamified online learning has become quite popular in the past couple of years, what are some old school methods that you still recommend and use?
Consulting the docs, if you can call that old school. I often visit the MDN Web Docs to learn some aspect of CSS or JS. The articles are detailed, with plenty of examples.
On occasion I find myself doing a deep dive into the W3C standards, though navigating the site can be tricky.
Same goes for any third-party library or framework you’re working with — read the docs!
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you first started to code?
I wish I knew git when I first started to code. Actually, I wish I knew git now.
It’s never too early to start version controlling your projects. Sign up for a free GitHub account, install GitHub’s client or learn a handful of basic git commands, and backup your code. You can opt for your code to be public if you’re comfortable with it, private if not. There’s no excuse.
Plus, years down the line when you’ve mastered your craft, you can get some entertainment value from looking back at your old code.
Whose work do you admire right now? Who should more people be paying attention to?
I’m curious how other people answer this. I feel like I’m out of the loop on this one.
But since you asked, I will say that when it comes to web design with high stakes, the teams at Stripe and Apple have been the gold standard for years. I’ll browse their sites and get inspired by the many small, almost imperceptible details that add up to something magical. Or something in your face that blows my mind.
On a more personal front, there’s the art of Diana Smith and Ben Evans, which pushes the boundaries of what’s possible with pure CSS. I love how Lynn Fisher commits to weird side projects. And I admire the approachability of Josh Comeau’s writings on technical subjects.
What’s a part of your journey that many may not realize when they look at your resume or LinkedIn page?
My resume tells a cohesive story that connects the dots of my education and employment. As if there was a master plan that guided me to where I am.
The truth is I never had it all figured out. I tried some things I enjoyed, tried other things which I learned I did not, and discovered whole new industries that I didn’t even realize existed. On the whole, the journey has been rewarding, and I feel fortunate to be doing work right now that I love and feel passionate about. But that took time and is subject to change.
Some beginners may feel discouraged that they don’t have their career mapped out from A to Z, like everyone else seemingly does. But all of us are on our own journeys of self-discovery, even if the picture we paint for prospective employers, or family and friends, is one of a singular path.
What’s something you’ve realized since we’ve been in this pandemic? Tech-related or otherwise?
Outside of tech, I’ve realized how grateful I am for all the healthcare workers, teachers, caretakers, sanitation workers, and food service workers who put themselves at risk to keep things going. At times I got a glimpse of what happens without them and it wasn’t pretty.
Tech-related, the pandemic has accelerated a lot of tech trends by years or even decades. Not everything is as stark as, say, Blockbuster getting replaced by Netflix, but industries are irreversibly changing and new technology is making that happen. It really underscores how in order to survive and flourish, we as tech workers have to always be ready to learn and adapt in a fast-changing world.
Okay a random one — you’re stranded on a desert island with nothing but a smartphone. Which three apps could you not live without?
Assuming I’ll be stuck there for a while, I’d definitely need my podcasts. My podcast app of choice has long been Overcast. I’d load it up with some 99% Invisible and Planet Money. Although I’d probably only need a single episode of Hardcore History to last me before I got rescued.
I’d also have Simplenote for all my note-taking needs. When it comes to notes, I prefer the minimalist, low-friction approach of Simplenote to manage my to-dos and projects. Or count days and nights in this case.
Assuming I have bars, my last app is Reddit. The larger subs get most of the attention, but there are plenty of smaller ones with strong communities and thoughtful discussion. Just avoid the financial investing advice from there.
Last question — what’s next for you?
map, sparking joy in the homeowner.
And planning for a sequel. Maybe a game about databases…
Thomas Park is a software developer living in Philly. You can keep up with his work right here and keep up with Mozilla on Twitter and Instagram. Tune into future articles in the Hacks: Decoded series on this very blog.
About Xavier Harding
Xavier Harding is a writer on the content team here at Mozilla. Formerly, Xavier was a journalist where he covered consumer tech and the tech industry. In the past, Xavier’s written for Popular Science, BuzzFeed, Lifehacker, Mic, Newsweek, Fortune and Vox. Most recently Xavier worked at The Markup, but not before earning a Webby Award in 2019 for his story on how one cinematographer properly lights the HBO show Insecure for black faces — a story watched by millions. Now, at Mozilla, Xavier assists on advocacy projects like the Newsbeat, Breaking Bias, and the Dialogues and Debates interview series, which focuses on tech topics like misinformation, contact-tracing and the role technology plays in addressing racial injustices.