Jackson is the CTO of Project Beacon, a social benefit organization that increases the availability and decreases the price of Covid-19 testing in Massachusetts. He has a long history as an engineer and executive working in tele-medicine including previous stints with US Digital Response, PathAI, Care.com, LinkedIn, and many more.
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Will Vincent 0:05
Hi, welcome to another episode of Django chat podcast on the Django web framework. I'm Will Vincent joined by Carlton Gibson. Hi, Carlton. And this week we have Jackson Wilkinson to join us who works with Project Beacon, which does COVID testing here in Massachusetts and has a long history in Django. Hi, Jackson.
Jackson Wilkinson 0:23
Hey, guys. Good to be with you,
Carlton Gibson 0:25
Jason, thanks for coming on.
Will Vincent 0:27
So I think we first met with Django, Boston, because path AI, which is a pathology, Django company, was hosting the meetups. And you were in charge of that space. So nice to see you virtually.
Jackson Wilkinson 0:42
Good to see you. Virtually. Yeah, it's one of those weird situations where we actually met in person first in software, as opposed to, you know, corresponding online first. And now here we write COVID times and it's mandatorily. Virtual. So yeah, funny how things get married up.
Will Vincent 0:58
But I, we live near one another in Boston area, and I saw you at a playground didn't get a chance to say hi. And it got me thinking, Oh, yeah, what I wonder what he's up to. And turns out you're deeply involved with Project beacon, which we'll talk about, among other things, but maybe we so maybe what's project weekend, right, that's the most timely thing. And then I'd love to get your backstory of getting into Django.
Jackson Wilkinson 1:21
Sure, yeah. So project began I've been with since since late June of 2020. And it's a it's a really interesting organization that was started in the spring, funded partially by gv, formerly known as Google Ventures, and f prime, which is sort of a similar venture arm for fidelity, as well as the Broad Institute, which is a major genetics and genomics lab, affiliated with Harvard and MIT, the three of them got together in the spring and said, We need to increase the capacity and availability of testing in Massachusetts, here, here in our home neck of the woods. And they started project began, which is not technically a nonprofit, we didn't file the paperwork, but we're chartered to not make a profit and basically do everything we can to drive down the cost of testing in this area. And so, you know, we basically at this point to a handful of different things. But early on my mandate coming in as as Chief Technology Officer, was to figure out how to duct tape together a bunch of vendors in the right way to start COVID testing programs. And we figured out that that was going to be a really bad experience for everybody. And we needed to become a software company, which is not what we expected to do. And interesting. Yeah, I
Will Vincent 2:39
thought that was, you know, because they, you know, you have a software background, I thought that was,
Jackson Wilkinson 2:43
it was it was really, you know, the the thought was, there's enough software out there that we should be able to sort of piece it all together. And we need, you know, one or two or three software people to make that happen. And it was it was just not going to be able to do it. And we think, again, about the thesis of driving down the cost of testing, we don't own the lab. So there's a lab price that we kind of can't control. There are all the vendors that are associated with swabs and tubes and all the other things that go into it. And we can't control those either. But there is the human cost of testing and the efficiency of having somebody who's there and staffing a site and puts a swab in your nose and collects it and brings it to the lab and so on. And we thought that technology could drive down the amount of time that it took people to test you. And that could drive down the cost. And so we now operate six large, high capacity regional testing sites here in Massachusetts, each of which do you know 1000s of tests a day, for free paid for by the state. But in the background, we are driving the cost down by making it the type of experience where you're, you get from checking the checkout in three to five minutes, you pre register online, nobody needs to do data entry and make errors at the site. You show up with your QR code, they scan the QR code, you get a swab in your nose, you head off and you get results in less than 24 hours. All, you know in an automated fashion. So there there's sort of no data error issues along the way. And as a result, the cost of testing in Massachusetts, the cost of an individual test is gone from over $100. To You know, generally speaking, you can pay 50 or $60. Now, but we we charge $26.50. And in some of our programs for for a PCR test with 24 hour results, and that drives everybody else to lower their prices as well. And we're now you know, pretty much the state with the most robust testing infrastructure in the US and we've been doing testing elsewhere. And we also do testing in other ways like antigen testing and this cool technology called pooled testing where
Will Vincent 4:53
Yeah, my school is starting that this week or next week.
Jackson Wilkinson 4:56
Exactly. I'm pretty sure your school system uses project beacon for
Will Vincent 5:00
For Oh, yeah, that test testing site is is right there. So I'm in Brookline, which is just outside of Boston. So they've been using it. I've gone to the with my family, the revere state testing the Framingham one, we probably don't need to get get into what a disaster testing has been. But it's been everywhere I've seen, you know, a solution. It's been project beacon.
Carlton Gibson 5:19
comic, guys, can I drag you back up a sec, Jackson, what's the pool testing? What is that? That sounds really cool.
Jackson Wilkinson 5:25
Cool. Testing. It is really cool. It's. So let's assume that a that a COVID test costs $25. You know, at its cheapest for one person. But what if we could put 10 people swabs into the same tube? If that tube comes back negative, then you know, all 10 of those people are negative. And suddenly, rather than costing $25 a person, it costs $2.50? A person Okay, so we do we do this for schools, you don't want to do it in a place where there's lots of COVID Yeah, but if you have, if you have high confidence that very few people in an organization, like an employer or a school or college have are likely to have COVID, then it's a great way to do sort of weekly surveillance testing. And so we do that in Massachusetts for hundreds of schools now. And it's $3 per as low as $3 per person per test.
Carlton Gibson 6:14
That's amazing. That's amazing. I mean, you've talked a lot about the price. But the thing that keeps coming into my mind is you're talking about bringing down the price is that of course you're increasing the capacity to do the testing as well. And that strikes me as you know, money, money is kind of fungible, right, it can, they can come up with that. But the ability to get the entire population through a testing program in reasonable time, that's, that's something we're still coming up with.
Jackson Wilkinson 6:38
And it's an interesting world that we're living in, you know, in these months, since, you know, we have something like 2025 30% of the population here in Massachusetts has gotten a vaccine. And so as we look toward May, and June, there's a situation where the vast majority of people adults, perhaps have have gotten a vaccine. kids won't have been vaccinated at that point. But if we have robust infrastructure at schools to be able to do pool testing, easily, inexpensively, and that exists that, you know, wealthy schools, less wealthy schools, etc, then we have a really good system in place where we can monitor and make sure that new variants aren't creeping up. And it's it's a pretty robust look at, at the state of health here in Massachusetts. So yeah, we're pretty psyched to have been a part of it.
Carlton Gibson 7:31
Yeah. And the point you just made as well about it being available in all schools, not just like the wealthy ones that can afford the testing. That's important.
Will Vincent 7:39
That's right. So Carlton, my schools are my kids go to the public schools here. And next week, they're opening it up to grades two through two and up. So that's partly why they're doing or that is why they're doing the pooled testing to coincide with Okay, with that opening up for full time. They've had a hybrid. I mean, every school is doing a little differently. But my my schools have had a hybrid. The last few months.
Jackson Wilkinson 8:03
Yeah, same on the next town out in in Newton. And we're, I think, April 5, that goes back full time. So you have a conflict
Carlton Gibson 8:11
shelf in the chair that you know, you can't wait for that.
Will Vincent 8:15
So Carlton, I mean, not to make it all about COVID. You want to talk about the tech but like you're in Spain, Spain was we were hit hard, more hard, heavy, heavy, heavy.
Carlton Gibson 8:24
And then we had a massive lockdown, because it was, you know, the initial phase, it was Italy, and then Spain was the next worst affected country. And they locked down very hard over the before the summer, last this time last year. And that worked really well until the summer. And then of course, they opened up over the summer and all the tourists came from all over Europe. And it was it was a particular genetic variant of COVID that of Coronavirus, which is detectable all over Europe because it came from Spain it came from the Costas it's like, you know, people bought it and then mixed and took it back home and some of this but they've managed to keep the vaccination situation in Europe not great. They've been a bit slower for the market in the UK in the US and Israel got off much quicker and us being slow off the mark. But I think that's hot part of it is about you know, the industrial pipeline ramping up to produce the vaccines in the quantities for you know, the population of the world so I you know, we just said a year ago that we were we I don't think you would complain, complained I just think you know, people in Europe are feeling are Why are they Why have they got it? And we haven't I think that's the thing, but we've had the schools open the whole time. That's the main thing. So my my I got four three of them are at school ones off because there was a case in her class. So she's off now until, you know, until after Easter because if a case comes into an hour, they shut down that whole classroom sorry they shut down that classroom. But the schools have been open and so each of my children have had a week off or two weeks off, so less than the one who's off now she's on a third time of being off but generally speaking, they've been there and that's been a you know, an absolute blessing. I don't think I could have taken another six months of them not at school that was just, you know, 2020 was pretty fast. So anyway, that was all cool. That was a cool project beacon. This is Django check, does it use Django?
Jackson Wilkinson 10:11
We do we do. We are a, we are a Python shop for sure. And so, you know, I think when we, when we started this up and decided that we needed to build our own software platform, it was we knew we would need to do custom stuff. This was not, you know, you couldn't grab off the shelf libraries for COVID testing. That's not not the type of thing that exists. So we needed a lot of flexibility. But at the same time, we needed to work quickly. The difference between shipping something two weeks earlier, might have been 1000s of people's tests, right? Like we're we're sort of racing against the clock in a in a public health situation. So. So in in July of 2020, we we started kicking this off, and as as well knows, I've spent a lot of time with Django over the course of my career. I'm very familiar with it. And in, in talking to, you know, obviously didn't have time to hire ft is full time, folks. And I'm not really sure who would want a full time role knowing that as soon as COVID is done, who the heck knows what's going on with your job? You know, I was willing, I was willing to do that. But yeah, well, you know, so I started talking to an agency that I'm friendly with, because I'm an alum, I was one of my first jobs after school, I worked at this agency called Vega, which is which is great. They're historically like a rails and react shop. But they've they've done some stuff with Django, and obviously, you know, those those two frameworks are, you know, cousins of each other in a lot of ways. And so I had a quick conversation with them said, Hey, do you guys think you'd be able to support me and this might be a, this might be a four week project, this might be a four month project, who the heck knows. And, and we, we got to work really quickly. And, you know, by the by the end of August, we were getting ourselves into gear and had some some early launches. And that test site in revere, Massachusetts, that that Will mentioned earlier, was our first one to open up in terms of high capacity test sites. And we did that in October. And pretty quickly, we were we were doing, you know, the plurality of public testing in Massachusetts before the end of the year. So it was, you know, pretty rapid pace. And Django was that was the key part of it, right? Like it was it we had to build quickly. And we needed to do it in a way that was where new members of the team could pick it up easily and get a handle on what we were doing then. And so it's react on the front end, a graph qL interface to Django on the back end. And and then we we hosted on App double, which is a hosting provider that's built on AWS is kind of like Heroku for healthcare, I guess it's like one of the easiest ways to describe it. So sort of a Git and Docker based deploy process. That, again, I've been using for years on on most projects, and, and so I'm really familiar with it. So it's really like, what's the hammer in my tool belt? And can I force other people to use those those same hammers along the way?
Carlton Gibson 13:23
Yeah, but I mean, you know, to have a reliable go to tool chain, where you're like, you know, it's this and when someone can't, what you talked about getting a new person on to use the same tools, when if you can import them say, look, it's just whenever this is whenever that it's, you know, if you need to learn this libraries, just read the readme in that, you know, it's it's not complicated. It's not, you know, I haven't done anything homebrew.
Jackson Wilkinson 13:44
Right. Right. Right. And, you know, we've gotten to the point where it's a, it's a pretty hefty and complicated product at this point. But, you know, early on we we wanted to, you know, just get things moving and, and be as flexible and, and fast as we could possibly be. And, you know, there, there are things that are not always perfect about Django, but I think it's a really good Swiss Army knife for a lot of these types of things. And and can go a long way in a hurry when you talked about people entering their own data and getting their QR code. So that's all like a probably a mobile friendly website with with react. Yeah, it's. So it's a responsive web app that. So we don't have a native app in any app stores or anything like that. That was sort of a constant question that we got early on. But I'm a pretty big believer in in the open web. And, you know, we were this way we can serve anybody who has a modern browser at their disposal, whether it's probably work on TV. Exactly, yeah. And we also were translated into seven languages. So that's, you know, something that you don't often have to do for, you know, an early stage product here, but we needed to manage that kind of stuff as well. So It's accessibility is pretty, pretty huge to us. We want to make sure screen readers have, you know, a, as close to a first class experience as they possibly can. So all those types of things you have to worry about early on and public health situations.
Carlton Gibson 15:15
I can't remember the code, the 503 code is it where it's kind of for for any, any government thing, it's legally mandated that it's exactly
Jackson Wilkinson 15:24
that that's true. In this case, this isn't technically like a government website. So we don't have those specific types of restrictions. But we would hold ourselves accountable to those types of bars anyway, it's
Carlton Gibson 15:38
just the right thing to do. We
Jackson Wilkinson 15:40
want equity to be a key component of what we offer here. so
Carlton Gibson 15:44
Will Vincent 15:45
You're both married to doctors, I think that's part of what informs knowledge on these things I'm really curious to ask. So we've had a number of consultants on from your side, what was the you know, so you already knew viget? But what is that process? Like? So presumably, you said, Okay, here's what round one looks like in terms of functionality? Can you talk about on your side of how you interact with them? And then it grows from there, like you said, you know, we need login, like, like, why graph qL? For example, like, how are those decisions made, I guess, is it all just us saying, hey, I want this or how much back and forth is there,
Jackson Wilkinson 16:22
there's a lot of back and forth. So I would say it's probably a little bit different from the normal client vendor relationship, and that every day, you know, at 10:30am, we have our stand up, and I'm in it, I lead it. And, you know, so So unlike probably most client relationships and contacts, it's very, very hands on, they're full teammates of mine. And we interact that way. But when it comes to decisions around architecture and tech, I think, in in the early days, it was often me making a proposal and seeing how that how that stuck with the team by graph. qL for instance, I'm probably more of a graph qL skeptic than I am like a graph. qL fanboy. And, you know, I think that there are really nice things about it, it's really flexible. But at the same time, if I'm This is how old I am, if I'm looking at like web logs to get a sense of how it's just a bunch of POST requests to graph qL like, I can't see anything, right, like, and so, you know, the the the ability to track and measure certain things, Carlton feels that
Will Vincent 17:38
this call, by the way.
Jackson Wilkinson 17:40
But you know, I'm like looking at nginx logs, and I'm like, WTF What the heck is all this stuff, and, you know, where restful stuff, you're like, Oh, these are the features that are most used, right? I guess, as a product person. And as a as a sort of exact, you know, graph qL doesn't doesn't make my life easy. But on the other hand, you know, it really came down to speed and yeah, run is faster. Right? Right. And, and since speed was was gonna win here, it was, hey, we can really iterate on this and expand our scope in this API a lot faster with graph qL, than we'd be able to do with a restful framework. And I was like, Alright, that's a convincing argument, let's do it. And I still complain about the the measurement and, you know, logging abilities there. But, but on the whole, it has been, I think, the right decision from from sort of a speed and effectiveness front there. So a lot of that was given take, you know, there, there were, we sort of had, again, I'm, I'm an old man, and so, you know, single page, front end frameworks are occasionally tough for me to swallow when it comes to, you know, the challenges of how those get debugged. And, you know, not necessarily having a full request associated with each thing that you want to do and so on, there's a double edged sword to all those things. And so, you know, we have those conversations. And ultimately, I want the team to be able to do something that they're comfortable and confident in. And sometimes that means I'm going to bend but other times I need to push the team to, to take on some things that might be a little uncomfortable for them. Because either, you know, we need good audit logs of what's going on, because this is health care, and, you know, those types of concerns might ultimately just need to win out. And so, it's, it's been a really great collaborative relationship that that we've had over these past, you know, eight months or so that we've been working together. And, but but it's different from from your normal client vendor relationship. And I think at least from my experience, so it's a it's been really great.
Will Vincent 19:50
How do you test that? I mean, not just the software testing, but you know, because it's healthcare, like, you know, when I'm in line and revere, you want it to work is there any way to To test to do a dry run, like with the physical, the online and the offline, how does that work?
Jackson Wilkinson 20:05
I mean, certainly early on, we were doing lots of dry runs, we, we have a great relationship with our lab, which is, which is the Broad Institute. And so, you know, we have a, we have a staging environment with them as well. So we can, you know, and, and throw stuff through this. But, you know, I'm folks are presumably not seeing video most of this, but I have like barcode scanners sitting on my desk, and, you know, label printers for all sorts of stuff. So a lot of the folks on our team, similarly, are sort of equipped with everything that you're going to have at at a testing site, which, you know, iPads and MacBook Airs are sort of the the hardware that we use there, we have these consumer grade dymo label printers, we have these, you know, Amazon's bought $60, barcode scanners, nothing is like special or, you know, super hard to come by. And so we can, we can put them in the hands of even in this sort of COVID, everybody is remote world, we can, you know, have folks on our team who have access to the same type of equipment that we would use in revere the testing site. But then, you know, when a testing site is going up, then we spend, you know, a day in advance, running some folks through it and making sure that everything's everything's working. But in the end, it's just like, keep it as simple as possible, so that we have as few things that can that can go wrong as possible in the end, and most healthcare systems are overcomplicated. And in our case, we only need to do COVID testing, we don't need to do other genetic testing, we don't need to do flu vaccines or anything like that. If you show up, we know what you're getting. You just get into one line, and we need to do exactly one thing, right? So that gives us a lot of flexibility and a lot of freedom and helps us do a good job of it.
Carlton Gibson 21:54
Can I just follow up? There must have been in production errors. So how are you tracking those? And?
Jackson Wilkinson 22:01
Sure, so we use we use century to log any exceptions? You know, the familiar tools, right?
Carlton Gibson 22:11
It's the best thing out there.
Jackson Wilkinson 22:13
Carlton Gibson 24:01
US in Boston.
Jackson Wilkinson 24:02
Right, totally. And so we started getting these complaints like, do we have restrictions that mean people from the Netherlands are not allowed to book appointments? I'm like, No, we definitely don't have those restrictions. And we're like, it all seems to work for us. And then I changed my timezone and suddenly blows up. So time zones are always the thing that bites you, right? Yeah.
Carlton Gibson 24:21
Like I've got to remember does leave money. I've got a picture of money in my mind now for rushing, rushing, rushing, rushing time zones.
Jackson Wilkinson 24:29
Will Vincent 24:31
I want to ask about path AI. Do you have more questions?
Carlton Gibson 24:34
No, I mean, that's just amazing. I think we should swing all the way back to the beginning though. And do you know and ask, you know, okay, so that's what you're doing right now. But how did you get going Jackson? Like what was your How did you get into programming and Django and all those things? What's your origin story? Yeah. And then we can work all the way up to path
Jackson Wilkinson 24:48
a. Sure. So I was a nerdy kid and a lot of ways and I think they're pictures of me programming and ti basic when I was like, I don't know Three, like a sort of ridiculously young age, I think part of me learning to read was reading these Texas Instruments ti 99 for a ti Basic Books and like, copying them in onto the computer and trying to see if they would run and then making changes to them to
Carlton Gibson 25:17
be like, Daddy, what does syntax error mean?
Jackson Wilkinson 25:20
And my parents had no idea they had no clue My parents are totally non technical for for at least most most of my life. And, you know, then eventually, I had like a couple of neighbors who were mentors who would sort of show me the ropes. And eventually I had, you know, a four color CGA display where I could, you know, do more interesting things. And it was, it was, it was pretty, pretty amazing in the towns but and so I, yeah, I was sort of like, my life was baseball and computers for, you know, most of my childhood. And then I kind of put it away in college because it was sort of the.com bust immediately prior to me going to college. And the the impression of people who worked in technology at that point was sort of the guy who lives in his parents basement and spends his days and nights in his underwear and that kind of stuff. And I didn't see myself in that role at the time. This was pre cut pre COVID. This is this is pre COVID. Yeah. What goes around comes around right now we're
Will Vincent 26:27
all that. Yeah.
Jackson Wilkinson 26:31
But yeah, exactly, exactly. But so in college, I was I was a music and philosophy double major. So it's entirely entirely non technical. Carlton has
Will Vincent 26:43
a PhD in philosophy. So that's why he's nodding.
Jackson Wilkinson 26:45
Nice, nice. I was a fan of David lewis's modal realism at the time, of, you know, harebrained ideas. But you know, even even through college, I worked in the network operation center and was, you know, building websites for faculty and that kind of thing. So I sort of stay technical, but I never took a CS class. And then, and then, after school, I took a job at a public affairs firm as like an entry level web dev. They're like, you have no credentials. Do you know what you're doing? I was like, I think I know what I'm doing. We'll find out. And yeah, I was I was in DC for that. Washington, DC, and ended up working on some some pretty great sort of Public Affairs campaigns. After a couple years, I took a job at viget and started their user experience program. So I kind of got a little bit more into design at that point. And I think I might have just gotten a ding, let me put myself back on Do Not Disturb. So yeah, I took a after that I took a job at viget and started their user experience team. And that sort of took my life a little closer to, to design. There are a couple funny stories about how I sort of got into that relating to, you know, at one point are at this at this public affairs firm, our designer had had quit, and we got a request to do a site for, you know, I think, Hillary Clinton's senate campaign way back in the day, and we had to come up with some mock ups, and there was no designer around and so we were like, what are we going to do these are due on Monday, it's Friday or something like that, right?
Carlton Gibson 28:39
When miracles fire up Photoshop, I'm
Jackson Wilkinson 28:41
off. Exactly is I'm like, Hey, guys, you guys keep looking for a contractor. I'm gonna see what I can come up with if we like my stuff. And we ended up using it for the pitch and I think we won the contract. And, and so I sort of became like, the de facto star was born. Right?
Carlton Gibson 28:59
Like, who knew? Who knew?
Jackson Wilkinson 29:02
I mean, looking back at that stuff, I would totally cringe. But you know, it was it was it was nice to be able to sort of start to be a generalist at that point. And so yeah, they get I started the UX team and maybe wrote a total of seven lines of code. During the entire time I was there, I was definitely a designer. And then I went out west to say, I want to be at a startup and went to LinkedIn. And it by that time, I was maybe the 200 and 50th employee, so it was not a startup anymore. And I didn't I didn't know the difference at the time. And it was it was definitely in growth mode. I worked on a bunch of features that still live to this day, I was, you know, partially responsible for profiles on LinkedIn homepage. And a lot of, you know, people you may know and things like that, that still continue to live. So that was a that was a cool experience, but I really wanted to be at a smaller company. So the Cliff's notes are I went to posterous, which for those of you who've been around a while, was this rad platform that competed with Tumblr in the in the early days, but you could, you know, post your post to your blog by email or via the web. And
Will Vincent 30:17
I remember that.
Jackson Wilkinson 30:18
Yeah, it was, it was a pretty popular platform for a while. And we had a great team in the mission in San Francisco. So that was a lot of fun. And then I sort of married into healthcare and started a digital health product called kin sites, which is a community for parents of kids with rare and complex diseases, that, that I was the CEO. And then I devoted myself to CTO and worked on that for four years. And we sold that to care.com, which brought me to Boston care.com is a service best known as a place that you find nannies for for your kids. But you can also find housekeepers and senior care folks, and so I ran products and user experience there. And that was, is a publicly traded company. So a lot of different sorts of skills being on the on the management team at a company like that, then at a, at a small, you know, digital health startup. And then that led into path AI, where I spent three years helping build the product design and engineering teams as we tried to implement machine learning and computer vision to help detect diseases like cancer and, and other sorts of things like that in pathology imagery. So that was a super rewarding time. And I know that there have been folks on the podcast who, who've worked at patho as well. So probably heard a little bit about that in the past. So but that was a great experience. And and I took that right up to COVID times. Wow. So
Carlton Gibson 31:49
you've been literally You mean that you've been over the whole country? You've been West, you've been East?
Jackson Wilkinson 31:54
Yeah, I mean, haven't spent a lot of time in the south at this point. But coast Carlton's just
Carlton Gibson 32:01
you know this, what's in Boulder boulder?
Will Vincent 32:06
Wait, can I ask though, I want to ask about um, so Django Boston, you gave a talk on a history of Django, which I know you said you threw together. But I found really interesting going through each of the major versions in the features. When did you first see Django cuz you were like, really early on the Django train? As I recall.
Jackson Wilkinson 32:22
Yeah, I think my first Django projects was during that that very first job of mine, which which would have been in, you know, 2005 2006 sort of timeframe. So, it was pretty early on, it was pre one Dotto. You know, the magic removal branch was the big news in, in Django land. And, you know, I was, I had a little bit of Python under my belt and had been spent, it was spending most of my sort of professional day in, in PHP, and, you know, sort of wanted something that was a little more MVC ish, and I was looking around for what to do. And I was like, Alright, well, Rails is pretty popular. But you know, I'd have to sort of learning curve up on on Ruby, but there's this Django thing. Let me see. Let me play with that a little bit. And that, you know, it did what I needed to do for, for those early projects, and it just started becoming, becoming that hammer in my belt. And fortunately, I remember having discussions at the time about this, you know, fly by night, nobody's ever heard of it. framework, why would we ever use this on on client projects? And, you know, as time went on, that that decision sounded a little less crazy over time. So it was it ended up serving me well, so I'm pretty fortunate in that regard.
Carlton Gibson 33:45
That's lovely that because they 1515 years later, like Django, sort of everyone's too old. Now we can possibly use it now. It's too old. It's boring. It's like, you know, it's, it's exactly what you have to use it, but it's a different topic.
Jackson Wilkinson 33:59
Will Vincent 34:00
So I want to I want to ask about path AI a little bit, because we did have we had Robbie groden on, but I mean, that was that, uh, I try to remember, did you, you switch them over to Django? Right. They were on something else. When you joined. Could you join what you were doing wearing a lot of hats, right. You were product and head of engineering?
Jackson Wilkinson 34:17
Yeah. product design and engineering for most of my time there as we grew, that sort of shifted. But yeah, there were a lot of hats that that were worn. And early on when I wasn't.
Will Vincent 34:27
It wasn't Django. Yeah, right. That's right.
Jackson Wilkinson 34:29
Yeah, it was it was Java. And we had it. We had a couple developers who were focused on the web, most of the developers on the team, as the engineers on the team were focused on machine learning, and they were all you know, very heavily Python based. And, you know, we had the folks who were working on the on the website of the platform. Were not they were experienced engineers, but they weren't Super experienced web developers. And so they weren't super tied into to the Java frameworks that they were using and weren't super familiar with it. And there were a few sort of infrastructure choices that made it that made most of our use cases a little bit more edge case. And so the documentation was a little more challenging. And, you know, whether we were because we were in Java mode, rather than Scala mode. And so most of the documentation sort of assumed that you were that you were operating in Scala, and we weren't, so the documentation was a little sparser. And we would run into these edge and corner cases seemingly all the time. So as the as the team grew, and as we were making decisions about where we were going to be going, and what we wanted the future to look like, it felt attractive to me to be able to have all the engineers at the company have lingua franca, and be able to, you know, use Python more broadly, and be able to sort of borrow from the work that everybody was doing. And, you know, that meant that that Django became a, you know, a potential option there. So we had a lot of conversations with the engineering team about directions that we could go, I piloted out Django on a couple of small micro projects to help folks get accustomed to what that would look like, and what that infrastructure felt like without having to sort of overhaul the system. But we had, we had a couple of, you know, smaller services, some some internal, some external, that, that were, that I just rolled up my sleeves and implemented in Django, and folks were like, Oh, you can do that pretty easily. And that was pretty fast. And, you know, oh, that seems pretty nice. And after, you know, a few weeks of that, or perhaps a few months of that, we decided that it was worth it to sort of deprecate the Java side and start to start to spin up the the Python and Django side, so a lot of Django rest framework. And, and in that case, it was more of a RESTful API initially, then then graph QL. But yeah, as, as Robbie talked about, you know, we it became a pretty robust and pretty large part of what we did there. And we definitely did get some some mileage out of allowing people to sort of flex between working on the, on the customer facing product and working on the machine learning platform, which was also in Python. So it was it was nice to have that sort of commonality across the Oregon the ability to share some work and some libraries here and there. So
Will Vincent 37:48
and I recall you, were you, you all were very current with Django editions, because our Django versions, because this is, we talked about this a lot in the show, you know, in part, because you had started early, but I think also just for you, like, as I recall, you're, it's pretty important to you to stay up to date with the latest versions on your projects
Jackson Wilkinson 38:06
is I you know, I was afraid you were gonna ask me about that, because I'm worse about it right now, Patrick beacon than I think I've ever been in my career. Where we're definitely, you know, at project began, I think we're, you know, maybe like, I think we're 3.0 somewhere it I'd have to even look like if I'm like that disconnected from it right now. Mostly because we, you know, don't always have the time to do all the hygiene things that we would totally loves to do. Sure. But I think a well run and well executed product that does have good hygiene does keep up to date on those types of things. They're, they're the obvious reasons like security, patches and bug fixes. But also just that, you know, the, the features that come along the way are good and useful, and there'll be useful improvements. And I'd rather have small projects to get us up to speed and up to date, on a regular basis, then have the enormous project when you find out that, you know, suddenly you're two years behind and it's gonna take, you know, three months of engineering time, all hands on deck at high risk to to get up to a more recent version. So, you know, I'm a pretty big believer in that. And we did a pretty good job with at path AI, and I think we're, we're still okay, it's only a it's only an eight month old platform. So it can't be that terrible, but we're a little further behind than I would like I think.
Carlton Gibson 39:38
Okay, that's good. How do you find it from a, from a hiring perspective? Because I always think, you know, if you if you're on the latest version, it's much easier to sell to a new recruit than we were on one point.
Jackson Wilkinson 39:49
I think that's I think, yeah, exactly. I think that's part of the pitch. If If, if we were saying if Yeah, that were in the one dot x series, or Hey, we're still crapping along Get on one date that was at one point, an LTS version maybe, you know, that would be, that would be a tough situation. And, and I've seen at other companies that just be a slog and be really challenging. And so, you know, hiring it's, it's an important component. Security and Compliance, I think it's an important component. On one hand, you think of compliance as like pinning a version and having something reliable and few changes, but it just exposes you to, to every vulnerability that comes across and, you know, makes it makes it a much bigger decision process. So, but yeah, engineers are generally happy when they can go and hit latest in the docs and, you know, actually use them. So it's, it's, it's
Carlton Gibson 40:48
good to be in that position of your compliance point is a good one guy always, like I always struggle with how a company can justify saying, you know, we're using a version of software, which has been declared end of life by the people who maintain it. Like, for just from a liability perspective, you know, if there was some bug that happened, because you hadn't patched a version, and then you got sued for that, and you wouldn't have a leg to stand on, because there's no reason to be on that software,
Will Vincent 41:13
where you can hire Red Hat now. Your Python two for you
Jackson Wilkinson 41:16
done. All done.
Will Vincent 41:18
Yeah, that I that I, to your point, though, in versions, I think, for people who are interviewing at places, that's one of the best questions to ask no matter what they say, just say, what version of Django are you on? If you're hiring for Django that tells you what you need to know. They can talk all they want. If they're on one, five,
Jackson Wilkinson 41:36
it tells you, it definitely tells you something.
Will Vincent 41:40
Yeah, it doesn't tell you everything. But it's a it's a pretty good tell. I mean, and I again, be partly because you're hosting a path Hey, I was hosting the Django Boston, I was surprised that you, the company was so up to date, because it is unusual, because it is hard. And it requires a deep commitment at the top to stay on it. Right? It's a better experience to have as an engineer,
Jackson Wilkinson 42:00
it's hard to justify if you're sort of breaking it out, or like as an exact saying, like, yeah, we spend, yeah, whatever 5% of our, you know, time on, you know, upgrading libraries or something like that, that doesn't sound really great. But if you make it a seamless process, and you do it so that they're very, you know, few changes that need to happen along the way, because you're constantly up to date, then nobody notices, and you get all those, those positive advantages as well. So, you know, it's definitely, I think that you either need to stay very up to date, or you will inevitably fall very, very far behind because those that middle of the road, hey, this is going to be a mid size project for us to, to update is probably the toughest one to justify. So. So yeah, I tend to err on the former side. So
Will Vincent 42:49
I like that. So what what Haven't we covered? I mean, we've covered a lot of things, I guess, you know, you don't know, but at some point testing will be or what, what's a project beacon? So the code is there a potential for the code or the company to, you know, who knows, will happen with COVID. But variants may be around for a long time. So presumably, the code bases useful in some way.
Jackson Wilkinson 43:09
Yeah, hopefully, we certainly, it hasn't been part of our objective to build this for the long haul. Though, insofar as we do think it's important to build it to be robust and scalable. And so a lot of those things end up going hand in hand. So we have a really great test suite, end to end tests that are like Cypress and selenium, decent, decent unit and integration tests along the way, as well. And, you know, a good a good deployment pipeline, that and ci pipeline there. So those types of things we've we've spent the time to put into place. So that we can be confident that we'll when you show up at revere, and you've got a QR code to get tested, that it's actually going to work. The long term and the legacy of that is something that we you know, sort of continue to talk about, we sort of had to have our hands full with actual, you know, work. But, you know, every every month or two, we we kind of take stock of that, and it'll be interesting to see what the timeline looks like for this. I think that's partially dependent upon the effectiveness of vaccines against these other variants. We know that the tests that we run can detect these other variants. So it's, you know, certainly in the during 2021, it'll continue to be important and project began, we'll continue to, I'm sure do a lot of testing throughout the the rest of the year. But what things look like in 2022 is is tougher to forecast. And, you know, we'll we'll have to see what what the world looks like as we get closer to it. It would be we certainly all want this to have as lasting an impact as it possibly can. And, you know, we're we're now doing a lot more testing outside of Massachusetts, than we than we ever have before. And so Yeah, there's a there's a world in which this can, you know, be a component in whether it's regionally or nationally or beyond that in the in the public health infrastructure and you know, hopefully we can make a decent contribution to to that ecosystem.
Will Vincent 45:16
Carlton, anything else you want to know? No, I
Carlton Gibson 45:19
think that stonking I love it when we have, you know, a lot of all our guests, but I love it when we have a like, in here's how it goes hits the real world. That's, you know,
Will Vincent 45:27
yeah. And maybe it's, you know, Django Django seems somewhat common and health care. I don't know if that's a fair to say, Jackson. But you know, maybe partly because the maturity of the platform and the needs of health tech are different than, you know, social media startup,
Jackson Wilkinson 45:41
I think you do find it in healthcare. Not uncommonly, I would say, you know, common is a tall bar there. And it would be it would actually be like a really disparaging comment to say that Django is popular in healthcare, because bad software is really popular in healthcare, too. So I think not uncommon is the way that I would put it. And I think part of that is, because of all the all the great things that we've talked about. Part of it is also just because of the Python ecosystem, right, like, the Ruby and, and, and node, communities have tons of libraries for web development, and, you know, sort of the, the typical tools associated for that. But I just think back to when I was working on kin sites that that Kim community platform for parents of kids with rare and complex diseases, we needed to render out growth charts to help parents just chart their kids growth. And what do you know, there's a Python library for for that, right. Like in in no other ecosystem, do you find that kind of stuff, but because of the the scientific and medical research community using Python, you end up having a lot of these crossovers that make your life a little bit easier, a little bit simpler, a little bit more reliable, and you don't have to reinvent the wheel all the time in in healthcare. So I think that's a key component there to
Carlton Gibson 47:07
the XKCD. Import anti gravity.
Jackson Wilkinson 47:13
So not far off from that in a lot of cases, for sure. Well,
Will Vincent 47:16
thank you so much for taking the time. I know you're very busy these days. So appreciate coming on to share the story. Interesting. Awesome.
Jackson Wilkinson 47:23
Can I make a little public benefit pitch at the end? Oh, yes, please. Yeah, do it. So one thing that I didn't talk about, after I left path AI, just I think this week, last year, I joined the US digital response, USTR, which is a nonprofit organization that helps staff important technology projects, especially related to COVID. And you know, sort of the 2020 world that we're living in. And so I led a team with USTR for four or five months had the opportunity to contribute to some really amazing projects like the New York City that when they had the peepee crisis, and they didn't have enough people to go around during the first surge. My team worked with eight departments across the city to help them get a handle on where PP existed and where they were sourcing it from and help them get a get a handle on on what that supply and demand look like. We also worked on hospital capacity planning in Pennsylvania and outbreaks of COVID at homeless encampments in the Bay Area. In addition to many other projects that USTR worked on that that I didn't have a chance to contribute to. So I think that for folks who are looking for who are learning Django and learning Python and wanting to to get their feet wet, or folks who have perhaps a gap in their in their career or looking for something to do, in off hours to extend their skills, USTR is a great place to spend that time and make a contribution to efforts across the country that can help with all sorts of culturally, socially and politically important issues and time well spent for for anybody who, who is looking to develop those sorts of things. So strongly encouraged that us digital response, check it out.
Will Vincent 49:15
Yeah, we'll put a link to that in the show notes. But thank you for that. I should ask you maybe offline, we could probably get someone from there to, to come on the show and talk about that. But we can we can do that separately.
Jackson Wilkinson 49:28
Yeah, totally. Now I'm sure they would, I'm sure they'd love to.
Will Vincent 49:30
So if anyone wants to help project beacon, is there any immediate way to help project beacon or what can someone
Jackson Wilkinson 49:36
do? So project not front of project beacon is interesting, because we're not actually a nonprofit. We just have charter ourselves to not make a profit but nobody has put in the paperwork or paid the lawyers to make us a nonprofit. So you technically can't volunteer to to work with Project beacon for better or for worse. But certainly we we are hiring for a lot of roles, technical and non technical. So You're in the Massachusetts area, you know, we tend to or in the New England area, there are definitely roles that that we could use some help on. And we we pay actual cash money for that rather than just taking your time. So so if you're interested, definitely happy to talk to get motivated folks. And and our partners that are also frequently hiring for more technical roles there. And that applies to anybody, at least across the country, here in the United States, so they're, they're a great shop and do some great work and, you know, would be would be great to work with, with folks who, who join their team as well.
Will Vincent 50:36
Well, thank you so much. We are at Jango chat.com. Chat Jango on Twitter. Thank you again. We'll see everyone next time. Join
Carlton Gibson 50:43
us next Friday. Yes, I could talk to you. Bye bye.