No idle hands

Christian Fernandez (B.S.’04 EECS) admits that he likes putting things in order more than he likes things being in order. Maybe that’s why he has taken well to the chaos inherent in creating start-ups. In late 2010, Fernandez was a catalyst in starting Ace Monster Toys in West Oakland, a workspace for tinkers and technologists of all stripes. Now Fernandez sits on the nonprofit board that manages the workings of the member-supported organization.

Christian Fernandez stands in front of “Smaug” (named for the dragon from Lord of the Rings), an 80-watt laser cutter that Ace Monster Toys imported from China. (Photo by Daniel McGlynn)Christian Fernandez stands in front of “Smaug” (named for the dragon from Lord of the Rings), an 80-watt laser cutter that Ace Monster Toys imported from China. (Photo by Daniel McGlynn)

Last year, Fernandez and a business partner started Hackbright Academy, a 10-week course taught in San Francisco, designed to teach women the basics of computer programming. Hackbright’s alumnae are finding high-paying jobs in name-brand Silicon Valley firms and diversifying the region’s male-dominated tech culture. After only three 10-week sessions, the young company is scrambling to keep up with the demand.

But the 29-year-old never set out to be an educator, an entrepreneur, a nonprofit organizer or a herder of fellow hackers and makers. He set out to make video games.

At age five, inspired by a Pac-Man knock-off called Pango, Fernandez thought that his life’s calling was to play video games. His parents are from the Philippines, but Fernandez was born in American Samoa, where his father took a job as a computer engineer. “We were the only kids on the island with a computer,” Fernandez says. “A $4,000 IBM PC with all of 64 kilobytes of RAM and an 8½-inch floppy disk drive.”

“When I hit nine I thought I could make video games, and so I taught myself how to program computers from books.” By high school, he was spending more time trying to hack computers than studying. “We had dial-up back then, and one time I tried to whistle the [modem] tones into the phone. It didn’t work very well, but that’s what you do when you are a nerdy high school kid.”

After graduation in 2004, Fernandez climbed the corporate ladder at a mapping software company, did a brief stint at and then went to work for an early mentor as the head of engineering at a startup called FuzeBox, building an online meeting software company.

After laying the foundation for the company, and with more time on his hands, Fernandez found himself in his backyard building a custom arcade joystick, among other stuff. The cramped confines of his backyard shop inspired a search for an alternative. He soon found one of the original tech work space collectives, Noisebridge, in San Francisco.

Fernandez (center) and Ace Monster Toys colleagues explain to young makers how to use a Makerbot 3D printer. (Photo courtesy Christian Fernandez)Fernandez (center) and Ace Monster Toys colleagues explain to young makers how to use a Makerbot 3D printer. (Photo by Christian Fernandez)It didn’t take long before Fernandez and some other Noisebridge members began talking about setting up a shop closer to home in the East Bay. They started holding meetings in a backroom in a café and discussing plans to make it happen. “Everyone had some crazy tool and they need a place to park it. Eventually we came to the consensus that we like each other well enough and that we wouldn’t mind if the others went in on this, and that was that.”

Shortly after forming, and in part to help justify the filing for their nonprofit status, Fernandez started teaching informal programming classes at Ace Monster Toys. About this time, he quit his day job at FuzeBox and worked on creating a start-up venture with a business partner, David Phillips. Eventually, Phillips decided he wanted to learn to program and attended Dev Boot Camp, an eight-week computer programming school.

Fernandez tagged along to see what it was like and wound up staying on as an instructor. After teaching the eight-week session, Fernandez and Phillips decided to start a similar training program for women only. Fernandez says that the decision to enroll only women was made to answer the noticeable shortage of women in programming jobs. “On many teams I’ve worked on there has been maybe one woman on a team of 50, and that’s pretty common.”

At first, potential industry partners and groups that support women in engineering were skeptical about two men starting a company to prepare women for tech jobs. But after the success of the first session, with nearly all of the Hackbright graduates recruited for good programming jobs, the skepticism faded.

“I never really thought about being an educator. I was a programmer and probably a pretty stereotypical one—I’d put on my headphones, and I don’t want people bothering me. But now I’m worried about these people and what they need to move forward. Hackbright is doubling in size; people applying from all over the world. I’m not used to this. I’m a programmer, I just want to put my headphones on, but people are looking to Hackbright to make career switches and improve their lives.”

Topics: EECS, Entrepreneurship