Harrison Farhart Smith

AGE: 23
INTERESTS: I really love robotics, hardware, lacrosse, and pool.

Where are you from?

I grew up in Portland, Oregon. When I was a kid I used to break things a lot. I think the reason why was because I was trying to figure out how things work and see what was inside. When I was growing up I was picked on in middle school and I wanted to learn how to be more social. So I started reading and learning things on my own. That threw me into a whole new world of self-learning and that is when I started realizing that I didn’t only have to learn what was in school.  I could also learn what I wanted to learn.

What did you do before 42?

Right after high school, I went to the Dominican Republic. I stayed there for 3 months and tried to figure things out. I did an internship where we tried to take a hotel off the grid. We wanted to help them produce their own electricity and grow their own food so they could feed their own customers. Then I went back to Portland and started a business with a friend. It was custom tile design, but I quickly realized that wasn’t really what I was passionate about. After that, I moved to France and lived there for a year. I worked as an au pair and took care of these kids for a few hours then studied French. I had to rebuild a whole network from nothing, which was fun.

Did you have any programming experience before 42?

Just a little bit with arduino and a tiny bit of Java. I took a class in high school but didn’t learn much.

Did you have any robotics experience before 42?

Just what I was building on my own. I built an automated plant growing system, automated light switches. I like to solve problems and automate things. And my dad has a lot of experience with mechanical engineering. He can fix almost anything and taught me a lot of things.

How did you hear about 42?

I was planning to attend a university in France. But I would have had to wait a pretty long time, and I didn’t have the funds to live there. Charlie Summers (a 42 alum who works at LinkedIn now) and I went to high school together and he told me I had to come to 42. I did the online tests and got in, and did the bootcamp trial and loved it.

What did your family think about your decision to attend 42?

They loved it, they think it is exactly what I should be doing. I was always building things and learning my own code. I never thought I could do it as a job, I always thought it was something I would do on the side.

What was the piscine like?

It was awesome, it was so much information at one time. I thought I was horrible until I looked at how I was doing at the end. You are constantly self-doubting yourself. But when you look back you are like wow, I learned so much in such a short amount of time. During the time it was very stressful, but afterward, you realize how amazing it was.

What was it like when you received your post-piscine decision email?

I was so happy. I hugged all the people in the group of friends I met through the piscine because we all got in.

How does the 42 Cadet Program differ from the piscine?

The cadet program is a lot more self-motivated. You actually have to enjoy coding to keep coding. Otherwise, you don’t ever have to show up to the lab, although you have to get certain levels to stay in the dorm. I saw who was actually curious about learning and who wants to be here. The code that you are coding is not accomplishing anything. It is more for yourself and learning everything from a deeper level.

How did you get involved with the Robotics Lab?

I was really interested in the self-driving car project. So once in awhile, I would go talk to Dan. I talked about some of the projects I was working on like a self-balancing robot and I was also working on a drone project. After I got further into the 42 program I started making more progress and Dan asked me to come work on Sigfox. So I joined the earthquake detection team. My job there was to write the firmware for their device.

What is your favorite aspect of being part of the Robotics Lab Team?

I just love the projects I am working on. It is stuff I would want to do on my own, but working on a team you get a lot more done because you have different people with different talents.

Tell us more about the Robotics Lab projects you are involved with:

Right now we are working on subvocalization using EMG data, basically trying to build a Siri but without words. And only NASA and MIT have worked on this and got some results so hopefully, it can get into that category of the same accuracy as they got. It is my data that they are using. I am saying the words while they are recorded and now measuring them while I am only thinking of the words. We measured the data when I was speaking and we got 100% accuracy. Hopefully, we will get results with the EMG data. We are doing the tensorflow piscine, I just got results on speech.  I am happy because we can move onto subvocalization. The Mycotronics project we did with Rolando Perez (a Ph.D. student at Stanford) was a cool project to be involved with. We went to the Maker’s Faire and won nationals for the HackInSpace Marathon.

How do you find help with your projects?

So mainly I search Google and then we talk with all the other people in the Robotics Lab team to see if they encountered similar problems. I see if they have any advice and if they don’t we try to figure it out. If I have a big problem I talk to outside friends if I know they have experience with it.

What do you like best about 42?

You get to focus on learning the fundamentals for the entire beginning period. I put all my projects on the back burner because I wanted to learn as much as I could. Now I am working with Python mostly, and it is so much easier. But if I didn’t have the fundamentals it would still be hard.

What is the most challenging aspect?

I would say the most challenging is probably the self-motivation because I think I could have gone a lot faster. But you want to stay at the same pace as your friends and work on the same projects. My last roommate went through the program really quickly, and I wish I had done that.

What do you like to do in the Bay Area?

I would say I don’t even know honestly, I haven’t had much time to go out and explore yet. I like going to San Francisco once in awhile.

What is your dream job?

My dream job would be to work for Google or Intellectual Ventures. My dream career would be starting my own lab that solves problems for companies, with a research branch that works on big problems like trying to build molecular machines. So working on structural nanotechnology. I want to push technology more into a direction where you explore the complex and reduce the amount of wasted material.

What is your favorite quote?

“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” -Albert Einstein

Because I always saw people who were motivated by money but that doesn’t motivate you enough.

Connect with Harrison on LinkedIn

Photos by our in-house photographer, Priscilla Vongdara

Interview by: Stacey Faucett