Tech Spotlight: Alan Johnson

The Abernathy Tech Spotlight series highlights black professionals working in tech, from freelance developers to non-technical founders. Complete this form to submit your profile.

What is your current role and where do you work?
I am the Engineering Lead for Auctions at Artsy. My team builds and supports the products and systems that power Artsy Auctions. We conduct online auctions, allow art collectors to bid in live auctions conducted by our partners, and match people with art to sell with partners looking to consign works. I have a job that I find very intellectually stimulating, which provides an outlet for my creativity and endless avenues for growth, flexibility, and upward mobility.

How did you get into tech?
Video games are what initially intrigued me about computers. My dad would bring home games on diskette from his work buddies, and I navigated DOS from an early age in order to play them.

My earliest exposure to real programming was when I cajoled my parents to buy me a book on Java 1.1 at age 11, because I wanted to learn how to make games online. I was way out of my league with that book, but it came with a CD that had a full book on HTML; so I taught myself how to make websites.

My programming education really began when I got my first graphing calculator, a TI-83. I quickly mastered TI-BASIC and realized that all of the cool programs were written in assembly languages. At the age of 12 I taught myself Z80 assembly and learned the inner workings of the TI-83’s hardware. Some of my earliest work can still be found on!

In high school I learned more programming languages, and served as a Teaching Assistant in my AP Computer Programming class after it became clear that I knew C++ more thoroughly than the teacher. He was our networking teacher, but I guess the administration thought, “Networking? Programming? Close enough!”

In planning my move to Iowa State University, computer engineering seemed like the logical thing to major in, so I signed up, not really knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I enjoyed my classes, did research on-campus, and interned every summer. In the process, I realized I didn’t see myself doing that work for the next 30 years of my life. Nevertheless, I had won a grad school fellowship, which took me to Princeton. Despite learning a lot there, I decided to leave the field to participate in Teach For America.

I eventually returned to tech, and enrolled in another grad program at NYU’s Music Technology program, interested in learning how to apply my training to projects I was passionate about. I met a dude with a great startup idea (Breakrs: fantasy sports for music), and while we had some very early success, we were unable to secure investment and had to move on from the project. However, the process of building out the site effectively trained me as a full-stack developer, which has been my job for the past five years!

Suffice it to say, you don’t need to know your exact path from day one, if you follow your passion, you’ll eventually find your way.

What’s your favorite technology to work with and why?
I enjoy Scala a lot. It’s a very thoughtfully designed language, and its flexibility makes it a great platform for ambitious new technical ideas to be implemented. The influence of Scala can be seen in a whole host of new languages, like Rust, Swift, TypeScript, and Kotlin. In my experience, programs written in Scala can be done in many ways, but they tend to get tighter and tidier over time. The language tends to be very amenable to refactoring.

What project are you most proud to have worked on and why?
My team’s most recent major launch at Artsy was our Live Auction Integration system. We built it as a brand new team in barely half a year. It’s by far the most absurdly ambitious launch I’ve been a part of in my career, and it has been very successful. I wrote about it in detail for our company blog.

What do you see as the most interesting technology on the horizon?
One of the biggest ongoing debates in coding is whether or not to use type systems. People are vehemently for or against it. The basic argument for them is that you can rely on the compiler to prove certain aspects of code correctness, which would otherwise come down to unreliable human discipline. The basic argument against it is that they can be cumbersome to work with, because of the need to add annotations, distracting from it’s pure logic.

However, if we let go of the assumption that programs must be canonically represented with plain text, we can construct programs in an editor that simply won’t allow you to write incorrect programs. Eliminating the need to annotate at all.

Ultimately, all the tech that’s eating the world needs to be written and maintained by someone, and I think this is the sort of quantum leap in tooling that really changes the game.

If you weren’t working in tech, what would you be doing?
That’s a really tough one. I can’t think of another day job that would really make me happy in the same way. Maybe I’d be a composer. Or a policymaker. Or a writer. Or a professional student.

What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your tech career?
Show, don’t tell. I got my first opportunity to lead a project after fruitlessly trying to convince my coworkers of a grandiose architectural approach. They told me it sounded really complicated. Rather than giving up, I took a weekend to build a prototype. After the team saw it implemented, I garnered consensus. If you have an idea, put some skin in the game and build a proof of concept. I think that lesson generalizes beyond tech, a little extra effort can go a long way.

What can companies do to create more inclusive environments?
I’m fortunate to have spent this entire phase of my career working for companies that are very inclusive. I think the most important thing is to foster an environment of individual reflection regarding inclusion, and welcome constructive criticism. Inclusion requires commitment from the top, but it only really works if people buy in from the bottom-up. There are no silver bullets.

What keeps you busy when you’re not being a technologist?
My primary passions are reading, philosophizing, and writing, particularly about current events, science, tech, politics, startups, and econ. I’ve often done these things within my own social bubble, but a goal of mine this year is to put myself out there more.

The Abernathy Tech Spotlight series highlights black professionals working in tech, from freelance developers to non-technical founders. Complete this form to submit your profile.

By Alan Johnson

I've been building software since age 12, when I taught myself Z80 assembly language to program my TI-83 graphing calculator. I specialize in inventing elegant solutions for difficult problems, and I have an eye for product and business needs. Most of my work of the past two years has been full-stack web development, in Scala, Javascript, Ruby, and Python. I'm also a former teacher, entrepreneur, music and audio technology graduate student, and econ minor.