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Get to Know the Navajo Creating BuzzFeed’s Digital Tools

Joseph Bergen, Navajo, creates digital tools that streamline BuzzFeed’s media production. The company’s innovation-obsessed culture requires the Senior Software Engineer stay ahead of the latest Internet trends.

“The common trait that you find at BuzzFeed is the willingness and the ability to constantly learn, because the moment you stop learning is when the trends and technology leave you behind,” Bergen told Native Business Magazine™. “The business model at BuzzFeed is really reliant on being cutting-edge and understanding what people want and what people like—today and also tomorrow. We have to set those trends, but also adapt very quickly. That involves a lot of learning and high confidence but low ego.”

The media news company is known for building its own publishing tools, but until recently, BuzzFeed lacked an in-house software solution for creating videos. Among his latest projects, Bergen co-designed a new video editing tool called Vidder. Today nearly 50 BuzzFeed team members create some 200 videos each month through Vidder. Because not many BuzzFeed content generators have professional video editing experience, Bergen and his colleague focused on creating user-friendly software. The tool makes translating an online BuzzFeed post into a Facebook or Instagram meme quick and easy.

A demonstration of the video editing tool Vidder. (Courtesy Bergen)

“There is always an evaluation period,” Bergen explained. “We identify a problem. For instance, producers are not able to create video content easily, because they need training, and there are [technical] issues, like the files are very large, and [external] software requires licenses. We can pay other people to correct the problem, or we can do it ourselves.”

Essentially a digital architect, Bergen builds the infrastructure that allows BuzzFeed editors to “think less about the software they are using and focus on what they are best at, which is content creation,” he said.

Bergen actually landed at BuzzFeed through the company’s acquisition of an app he created.

After earning his master’s degree in Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Bergen and a couple of his grad school colleagues launched a company called Zeega. “We made digital art. We thought about media, about how people access information and how it changes their lives,” Bergen explained.

The Zeega founders relocated to Silicon Valley, gaining value through a business incubator in San Francisco. Their company received substantial press for an interactive visualization tool called “What Is Your Water Footprint?” winning top honors from visualizing.org and Circle of Blue. The visualization tool was also featured on Fast Co. Design and The Wall Street Journal Blog.

It was actually Zeega’s creation of the app GoPop that lead Bergen and his colleagues to positions at BuzzFeed. Bergen describes GoPop as the offspring of Instagram and SnapChat—like their “interactive baby.” The app allowed people to create their own interactive media. With GoPop, users would finger tap an image or video to reveal a second piece of media. “I enabled little short stories to unfold. People also used it for jokes, where there was a set-up and a punchline,” Bergen shared.

BuzzFeed purchased the “visual conversation” startup GoPop, formerly known as Zeega, in 2015. While the app didn’t survive, it garnered Bergen his current role as senior software engineer at BuzzFeed, which employs about 1,700 people. That was roughly 3 and a half years ago. “We’ve been working here ever since,” Bergen said.

 

Bergen’s career is a continuous path of self-education—knowledge he shares generously and often.

“Technology changes so quickly, and I’m working with a lot of very young, talented people. You can feel out-of-date very quickly, so I find that the best way to stay on top of things is to teach other people,” Bergen said. “I am presently mentoring or teaching different programming skills to four or five other people. Some already know how to program, and for others, this is their first foray into it. Teaching is a way to distill ideas that you’ve picked up along the way and help people understand them.”

Bergen, who was raised on the Navajo Reservation until age 8, encourages Native youth intrigued by tech or coding, regardless of limited resources, to stay focused and not get derailed by challenges. Learning to code and navigate technology wasn’t simple for Bergen.

“I kept failing and failing, but I kept trying,” Bergen said. “I think that the biggest piece of advice I can give is that persistence really pays off.”

Bergen shared some additional resources with Native Business Magazine readers interested in a career in programming:

 

  • Use the library. “Programming books are often expensive and go out of date relatively quickly, which is why it’s great to borrow one for free. You can pretty much always find at least basic books on web languages in your library and those can take you a long way as you begin to learn,” Bergen said.
  • Turn to YouTube. “You can learn to do almost anything in video form for free. The quality varies widely, but there is certainly a lot of knowledge to be gleaned here.”
  • Check out Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE).SEE offers great, free courses, and you can follow along at your own pace. Some are very advanced, but I find that even watching a lecture that you don’t fully understand can be inspirational.”
  • Get a Mentor and/or Learning Buddy. “Find someone with similar interests and learn from or with them. The combination of accountability and sharing can make the process fun and rewarding.”
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