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Geek of the Week: Zipwhip’s teen developer Avery Wagar gener…

Avery Wagar of Zipwhip with the Textspresso IV robotic coffee machine that he helped develop for the company’s Seattle office. (Zipwhip photo)

Avery Wagar isn’t just some kid around the office who will get you a coffee. He’s the teenage software developer who helped build a text-enabled coffee robot that will get you a coffee.

Wagar, a junior at Seattle’s Ballard High School, is the youngest full-time employee ever at Zipwhip, the business texting startup. He just accepted a position as an IT systems programmer, less than a year after joining the company as a robotics intern tasked with building the Textspresso IV.

Wagar, our latest Geek of the Week, is a teacher’s assistant for AP Computer Science and CS Projects. He studies digital filmmaking and also runs his school’s virtual reality club, which he founded in 2017.

“I take the rest of my classes through the Running Start Program at North Seattle College, which gives me the flexibility to work at Zipwhip,” Wagar said. “Of course, all my classes are online right now.”

Zipwhip’s Textspresso machine was first created eight years ago. Wagar was hired last summer to work on the fourth iteration in time for the startup’s move to new offices on Elliott Avenue. (He describes how it works below.)

Beyond coffee bots, Wagar traces his start in software development back to a 2017 VR hackathon and later work in which he built a VR astronomy simulator that won first place at his middle school and district science and engineering fairs. He also serves as a student representative on the Information Technology Advisory Committee for Seattle Public Schools.

“I’m super curious, and in software there is always something new to learn or try out,” Wagar said. “It’s also one of very few fields where you can start doing at 16 what you think you’ll want to be doing when you’re 22. I’m incredibly thankful that I’ve had the experiences and support that have made this possible.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Avery Wagar:

What do you do, and why do you do it? My first project at Zipwhip was to build the Textspresso IV, which is the fourth iteration of Zipwhip’s text-enabled espresso machine. The Textpresso IV is a combination of an industrial-grade robot arm, a commercial-grade espresso machine, and a Raspberry Pi 4. The robot is programmed in a waypoint paradigm. You can freely move the robot and save locations while programming. The Pi 4 acts as a bridge between the Zipwhip API and the robot. It queues orders, handles the responses, and exposes commands to control the robot. When someone texts the Textpresso, it’ll queue the order and expose it to the robot, the robot then grabs a cup, places it under the espresso machine, and makes the coffee. When it finishes an order, it places it on the counter and alerts the Pi 4, which alerts the user via text message that their order is complete.

In addition to making sure the Textspresso IV continues to churn out coffee and doesn’t hit anyone, or become sentient, I’m working on projects where I can contribute more individually since it’s difficult to be on an agile team while still in school. Most recently, I wrote a chatbot that translates incoming and outgoing text messages in 62 languages. It’s exciting to think about the impact this could have.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? In the context of my work at Zipwhip, I’d say that texting is one of just a few functions that work right out of the box on mobile handsets. So, the ability to reach customers (or have customers reach businesses) via texting is enormous and that reach continues to grow with handset penetration. Also, from a UX perspective, texting is a far better way than voice for customers and businesses to interact in many situations. It’s also a great way to order your coffee!

Where do you find your inspiration? Many places. But here are two:

  • My brother Hayden, who spins poi balls, which is a flow art. He’s three years younger than I am and he started going to “spin jams” and “flow festivals” (think mini-Burning Man) and spinning fire when he was only 9 years old. There was no one else there his age. By doing this he showed me that it would also be possible for me to fit into a community of mostly adults. This inspired me and gave me the confidence to start going to hackathons and doing that has created so many opportunities for me.
  • Also, Marcus Yallow (a.k.a. w1n5t0n), the high-school-aged hacker from the books “Little Brother” and “Homeland” by Cory Doctorow.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Mechanical keyboards and giant coffee-making robot arms, because I like clicks, clacks, and caffeine.

(Photo courtesy of Avery Wager)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? My space at Zipwhip has a big monitor, a nice keyboard, and is in a high-traffic area where I get to see lots of people. My WFH setup has three screens and an HD webcam that I found in a bin at RE-PC after they sold out everywhere else.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) In more normal times, having a robot make your coffee. Or, “Alexa, open OneBusAway.” Right now, making sure you’re intentional about what you’re doing at any given time since for so many of us, work or school happens in the same space as everything else.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Linux for work. Windows for gaming.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? I was born in 2003, so except for the new Picard, those shows were before my time. But I follow William Shatner on Twitter and Kirk is a fun character to play in the “Star Trek: Bridge Crew” game in VR. So, I’ll go with Kirk.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? If everything were open, a transporter, most definitely. Some days, between school and work, I would take seven buses. Right now a time machine sounds pretty good, though.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Tell them to ask me again in a few years and by then I’ll hopefully have a fundable commercial idea. Today, I’d start a non-profit to help teens attend (virtual) hackathons, by providing base-level training, equipment, mentorship, logistics, and financial support.

I once waited in line for … A photograph with Santa Claus.

Your role models: As I was just getting into programming, I had an instructor who taught me the fundamentals of game design. He introduced me to VR and has been a great mentor and role model. I’ve also been fortunate to meet a bunch of great people at all the hackathons I’ve been to, both mentors and teammates. There is a core group of people who were my teammates over the course of several hackathons. This group taught me a lot about working as a team under pressure, how to advocate for ideas, and then commit to a path and work like mad to ship it by code freeze. They really helped me realize what I wanted to do long term.

Greatest game in history: Hard to say. Personally, I like “Elite Dangerous” and “Destiny.”

Best gadget ever: Raspberry Pi Zero W.

First computer: Dell Inspiron 11 3157 laptop in sixth grade

Current phone: Zoom.

Favorite app: Reddit.

Favorite cause: Lately, I’ve been working to 3D print personal protective equipment which we’ve mostly given to family friends working in healthcare. We ended up working with Seattle Public Schools to help get its 3D printers going to produce PPE at a greater scale. Less acutely, I think it’s very important to support underrepresented people in technology, particularly teens. ChickTech, for example, is doing great work on this front with teen girls. More globally, Flash Drives for Freedom, which works to smuggle banned information into North Korea, is another worthy cause. Also, the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Most important technology of 2020: RISC-V, the Oculus Quest, and the Textspresso IV.

Most important technology of 2022: Augmented/virtual reality coupled with 5G. Also, more decentralized, self-hosted, and privacy-focused services.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Don’t assume that the kid at the office is there with a parent. … Just kidding. In all seriousness, for those interested in the technical side, if you’re an aspiring geek, go to a hackathon, even a virtual one. If you’re an established geek, tell an aspiring geek that you’ll participate in a hackathon with them. Who knows, when things open back up, there might be one at Zipwhip.

Websites: Zipwhip and Avery Wagar

Twitter: @ajmwagar

LinkedIn: Avery Wagar


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