As the first female African American set to graduate with a PhD in computer science from University of Illinois- Chicago, Rachel Harsley wants her career to mean something for future female and minority engineers and computer scientists that can follow in her wake. “I love being a trailblazer,” she said.
However, her most recent endeavor, Clean Slate, doesn’t leave a trace. It’s a messaging app that shows messages being typed in real time, and allows users to delete any messages they don’t want saved with a single swipe. Harsley believes in age of ephemeral messaging such as Snapchat, there’s a need for a way of text communication that doesn’t leave a digital trail.
It’s a project she’s focused on while in school, and before she starts her post-graduate job as a software engineer at Google Chicago. But that’s not all she’s up to. Harsley has also worked on a algorithm-inspired tutoring method, a tech consultant for small businesses and nonprofits, and is an advocate for getting more women and minorities in STEM.
An app that doesn’t leave a digital trail
Those three little dots that appear when someone is typing a message–and the agonizing moment when they stop typing without sending any message– was the first pain point that inspired Harsley to start thinking about a new form of messaging.
“There’s this lag that is sort of unnatural to me, where you’re typing to someone and you can see the indicator that they’ve read your message and that they’re even typing back, but then they just go MIA for a little while,” she said. “I know you wanted to say something, what was that?”
She started to think about a messaging app that allows for instantaneous communication as well as full control over what the recipient sees and doesn’t see. “I think in general as people become more cognizant of how messages are stored forever on other devices, even after relationships change or after a phone is lost or stolen, people are more invested in that idea,” she said.
Clean Slate messages come through letter-by-letter. If you type it, the other person immediately sees it. Messages are deleted by “swiping the slate clean” or literally swiping your finger across the message you want deleted. It’s entirely gone, both from the message history as well as from a developer’s standpoint, Harsley said. If someone takes a screenshot of the message, the same photo is sent to the other messenger, alerting them a screenshot was taken.
She added it particularly resonates with younger people, from middle school through college, who want to take control of their digital presence.
“Younger audiences, middle school and high school they’re super excited about being able to control their message history, because it’s not something they can currently do now,” she said.
Another messaging app may seem superfluous on the surface, but Harsley said she doesn’t see messaging as a “winner take all” industry. “We have a messaging app that we talk to Mom and Dad on, that we communicate to our school friends on,” she said. “I think it will fit another niche market where people are interested in having these conversations, that are genuine, are super quick, and don’t have history.”
Currently it’s a freemium iOS app, and she has plans to develop an Android version this year. It launched in November has organically grown to over 500 users in 10 countries she said. Next up, she wants to add more premium features such as multi-user chats and a drawing board.
Using technology to blaze trails
In addition to her work on Clean Slate, Harsley is passionate about using her digital skills to help grow businesses and promote women and minorities in tech.
While at UIC, she launched Maychild Technologies, a business that creates websites and offers branding advice to small business and nonprofits at affordable rates. She works with organizations such as churches, and mom-and-pop shops to develop a digital strategy, which is something many small businesses and organizations may not have set resources.
In addition, at UIC one of her main research focuses is an intelligent computer tutoring system called ChiQat, which has exceeded learning gains as compared to human tutors.
“The system provides adaptive, user-centered support for students learning three primary topics; linked lists, binary search trees, and recursion,” she explained. “My contribution has been the exploration of pair programmer support from the system as students learn about linked lists. Students work to code solutions to programming problems and receive feedback on their domain work and collaboration.”
“I can go back to my community of other underrepresented people and say ‘You can do this, it is possible whatever you have in your mind.'”
Harsley has already accepted a job as a software engineer at Google’s Chicago offices (she interned for Google for two summers already) once she wraps up her PhD. By showcasing her work in tech through her own app, her community-oriented tech consulting business, and, soon, her job at Google, she hopes that other young black computer scientists and engineers will be encouraged to follow in her footsteps.
“That’s part of my inspiration making these apps too,” she said. “I can go back to my community of other underrepresented people and say ‘You can do this, it is possible whatever you have in your mind,’ whether it’s something small like a messaging app or something big like a cure for a disease. That’s definitely important to me.”