Tom Sargent, the information technology administrator at the King David School outside of Melbourne, had seen students try to tweak the school’s technology systems before. But when 10th grader Dean Levinson approached him with an idea to enhance their recently installed wireless screen-mirroring and video streaming technology from Vivi, it may have been the first time a kid had actually asked before he hacked.
“Students will try nearly anything to get around the systems,” says Sargent. “I know because I was once one of those students. Now I know what trouble that can cause me, so I would prefer to work with them and try to channel their curiosity.”
That was in 2016. In the two-plus years since the school installed the game-changing wireless and device-agnostic application, it has greatly improved teachers’ lives by untethering them from their desks, eliminating the need for HDMI cords and dongles, and slashing the amount of time required to get a presentation going. For Sargent, it has vastly reduced tech management headaches. “It’s really kind of set it and forget it,” he says. “We don’t have to do much troubleshooting at all.”
Yet, in the beginning, as is the case in the early days of most rollouts, not every feature was working at full steam. Using the video direct feature, teachers could paste in URLs and stream videos from supported sites like YouTube. But trying to watch a DVD or a smart-phone video through the platform could be frustrating at times. “The audio would cut off and everything would buffer,” says Levinson. Teachers loved many aspects of the technology—but not this feature.
The 10th grader’s concept was to create a web app that would allow King David teachers to upload DVDs or video files and get a URL that could be pasted into the system. Then they could play the file as seamlessly as video from YouTube. Sargent liked the idea. “We just set him up with a server and off he went,” says Sargent. “He pretty much did it all on his own.”
Like Sargent before him, Levinson wasn’t a particularly engaged student. But he was good at math and logic and had a deep curiosity about how things worked, especially computers and networks. He had learned some coding and development on his own through freeCodeCamp.org, and he had polished some of those skills doing work for a small WordPress related company. Early in his 10th grade year he had taken an information technology class that had stoked his interest in programming. That same year, at the suggestion of the school principal, Levinson had started meeting regularly with Sargent to learn how the school’s technologies worked. “We wanted to try to get him engaged in school, but we also wanted to give him opportunities,” says Sargent. “We could see he had a lot of potential. We tried to find something that fit him, because obviously, everyone is a bit different in how they learn.”
With the school’s blessing, Levinson got to work trying to tweak the technology that his teachers were coming to rely on. Over the course of a month, he spent his free periods using the programming language PHP—the basics of which he learned from a friend—to realize his vision: a video repository that looked, on the screen, like a Netflix media gallery. Levinson says his hack was so simple it didn’t need much testing. “It could only do two things,” he says. “It would upload, and then you’d copy the link. Those parts worked. I never finished the most complex part, the login system, because I got distracted.”
One distraction—a job hunt—turned out to be both serendipitous and transformative. In search of work experience, Levinson sent an application to a product development studio that had helped launch Vivi in 2016. Staff there passed his application on to Vivi, whose technical director at the time called Sargent at King David to learn more about the talented high schooler. That’s when Vivi found out that Levinson was busy improving its system. “Because I happened to apply, they happened to ask, and that’s how they found out,” says Levinson. “That’s the best part of the story—this very funny coincidence.”
His idea and enterprising spirit earned Levinson more than an internship—he got a paying job. During his free blocks at school, he’d go to work at Vivi’s office—located a mere 15 minutes away—mostly performing testing tasks, for five hours a week. In his final two years of high school, his hours and responsibilities steadily increased. Not coincidentally, so did his happiness and performance at school. “As soon as I started getting good at programming, I started getting much better at math,” he says.
"The experience really bumped up what I thought about my skills in terms of programming. I thought, maybe I am capable of doing computer science.”
After graduating, Levinson was promoted to a full-fledged software engineer at the company, where he’ll continue to work while taking a gap year before studying computer science in college. At 18, Levinson is Vivi’s youngest employee by far. His bright mind, youthful enthusiasm, granular curiosity and fantastic memory are all appreciated, but at a company where customer feedback is vital to ongoing development, it’s his perspective as a student user of the product that is especially valued.
Vivi takes educator input seriously; the company actively solicits and integrates teacher feedback into its product development process. Student feedback is a bit trickier to come by, however. Because of privacy laws, the company can’t directly contact its biggest segment of end users. “It’s very hard for us to get any constructive feedback from students because we can’t ask questions,” says Chief Technology Officer Ian Shrimpton. “So having someone here who has seen Vivi in use in the classroom is very useful.”
For example, Levinson shared that Vivi’s screen capture and annotation tool was the feature that his fellow students used more than any other. It allowed students to take a screen capture, then write notes on it and save it. But he “pointed out that half the time students didn’t actually want to annotate; they wanted to make sure they had a copy of what was on the screen,” says Shrimpton. “And they wanted to be able to capture it quickly because the teacher may be flipping through slides.” So Levinson himself was asked to split the tool into two, with separate annotate and capture capabilities.
It’s been three years since the company launched, and Vivi’s response to user feedback continues to be exceptionally robust. “Quite a few times Vivi has said to us, ‘Can we come down and do some testing and see how these things work?’” says Sargent. “And we have given them suggestions that they’ve implemented. They seem very engaged in listening to what the schools want.”
What became of the not-quite-finished hack Levinson began while still a student? “We came up with a better idea and built it at the end of 2017,” he says. But he isn’t done improving the feature. In response to feedback from teachers, Levinson is working on a queueing system that allows educators to tee up ten URLs and play them in sequence with one press of a button.
Aside from landing a job and learning a lot about coding, Levinson says his favorite aspect of his hacking adventure was “feeling like I was actually making some sort of difference. Everything else I had been doing in terms of programming was just for fun, just for me. But to actually have new abilities benefit someone else was quite an interesting—and good—feeling.”
This article originally appeared on EdSurge.