Erin Dahlgren

Bold Public Code

My hardworking midwestern family was naturally shocked when I told them I was leaving Chicago to try to make a life in Silicon Valley, a place 2,000 miles away where I knew literally no one. I had just spent the first few years of my adult life at a research university on scholarship, but that didn’t exactly give them any confidence that I would survive.

After 6 ½ years of living in Palo Alto, San Francisco, and San Jose, I was still standing. And I had learned some useful things. For example:

  • How to stay calm when you single-handedly bring down a software service used by over 100 million people around the globe.

  • How to ignore your rich neighbor’s threats to call the police for parking your junk car in front of their house.

  • How to “get your money’s worth” in free corporate snacks.

But I also learned about “innovation”. At some point in those 6 ½ years I found myself working as an engineer on a private research project for a big tech company. Five years and millions of dollars in, my coworkers and I had finally got permission to talk about what we were doing. We were thrilled.

Then, out of nowhere, another big tech company solved the same problem we’d been working on but in a simpler faster way. What was crazy was that they used our own company’s code to do so, code that my research group had pretty much ignored.

At the time, I was lucky enough to be working with some of the smartest people in the world. It was infuriating to know that their talents were squandered simply because we couldn’t be open about what we were doing, hear pushback early on, get new ideas from other people, and change our approach to make something that was both simple and really great.

That experience lit a fire in me to find a sustainable middle-ground somewhere between academia and industry where talented people had the freedom to talk about their work and the power to impact millions of people. But I had zero clue how to do that or what that even meant.

At this point in the story I did something totally out of character as I’m naturally very shy. I reached out to over 100 academics, I went back to Chicago, and I listened to what they had to say.

What I found out was something I already knew that Silicon Valley made me forget: I loved academics. They cared about innovation not to get rich but to be the first to solve hard problems. They published their work openly and as fast as they possibly could. They were open-minded, hardworking, and modestly paid. I wanted to help them have an even bigger impact. And with my 6 ½ years in Silicon Valley there was a lot that I could actually do to make that happen.

One month later and one more trip back to Chicago, Bold Public Code was born.

Bold Public Code is a non-profit that helps academics by turning their research into great open source projects so that the public can participate in the fruits of bold research.

What’s exciting is that Bold Public Code doesn’t involve reinventing the wheel, as enticing as reinvention may be. It works by celebrating great work all around the country from sustainable open research environments that already exist. It’s a practical way to do more with what we already have.

This project is maintained by edahlgren