Dan Vanderkam: CS in the City

“I’m primarily a software developer,” said CS alumnus Dan Vanderkam. He is also intently focused on the improvement of cities. Currently a software engineer at Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet Inc.’s urban innovation organization, Vanderkam helps hire new engineers and set up engineer infrastructures, then he assists the new teams as they spin up prototypes.

Vanderkam launched his career at Google, staying in San Francisco for four years and then transferring to their offices in New York for almost four more years before moving over to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai. He said, “Google treats its employees well and it isn’t an easy place to leave, but I wanted to work in a smaller environment where I could get things done more quickly. Mt. Sinai offered a good opportunity to do both those things. The research aspect was a bonus.”

Because he’d grown up in an academic family (his father is a professor at Notre Dame), he said he’d always enjoyed learning for the sake of learning. He said, “At Mt. Sinai, I had a great time doing the equivalent of a first year course in molecular biology…in the years since I’d [last] taken a biology class, it had become a lot more like computer science. DNA is digital–this was stuff I could understand!”

His experience there made him realize that software is crucial for almost every field. He still feels working at a classic technology company like Google or Facebook is a good way to learn how to develop software at scale, but he now understands how transferable those skills are. “If there’s a field you’re interested in, your software skills will be useful there, too,” said Vanderkam.

Interestingly, it was a manager from a classic technology company who pulled him away from Mt. Sinai. “My manager from Google, Craig Nevill-Manning, left Google after 15 years to become CTO of Sidewalk. When he pitched it to me, I thought, ‘if Sidewalk can pull Craig away from Google after so long, then it is worth checking out!”

Sidewalk Labs uses technology and data to solve urban problems. Vanderkam said, “Our most visible project to date is LinkNYC, which is being rolled out by Intersection, a company in our portfolio. They’re replacing public payphones with kiosks that are more useful today, providing free public wifi, chargers, and tablets with maps and free phone calls.

“There there is Flow, a startup looking at issues around mobility in cities. They’ve started by looking at parking and it turns out that a pretty shocking amount of traffic in cities is caused by cars circling for parking. If supply and demand could be better matched, this issue could largely be solved. This would save energy, save time and make traffic move more smoothly.”

San Francisco provided Vanderkam with his first experience living in a large city and the appeal of city life surprised him. He said, “As a child I’d thought of cities as smelly, scary places. As an adult, I was charmed by the ability to walk and bike to explore new neighborhoods. I think everyone in San Francisco is at least a little curious about living in New York City. If you like living in cities and you’re in the US, why not New York? I’ve been living here for six years now. It’s hard to live in a city and not care about urban planning or public transit.”

Vanderkam feels a great deal of job satisfaction because his work produces immediate effects on the quality of life for city dwellers and workers. “In an age when a larger and larger fraction of the world’s population is moving to cities, computers and the internet have the potential to completely transform they way that cities work, but progress has been slow. We aim to move the process along,” he said.

Seeing that work come to fruition is important to him. Vanderkam said, “A happy person is a person with a project. If you have a project you really want to exist and you feel you are making concrete progress towards that, then at the end of each day it looks more like the thing you have in your mind. I love the sense of momentum that you get from seeing a product transform in meaningful ways.”

–Julian Bi, Assistant Publicist