Movers and Shakers: Harlo Holmes, Research Fellow and Head of Metadata, The Guardian Project

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Harlo Holmes, a Research Fellow at the Guardian Project, says she is just getting started in her career. But as a lead developer on two of the Guardian Project’s biggest endeavors – ObscuraCam and InformaCam, the latter of which just received a sizeable grant from the Knight Foundation – she is certainly a rising star in the open source technology space.

She believes there are some challenges for women and people of color in the tech world, but it depends on the norms of each particular area of the industry. “It’s really difficult in any field for anyone who doesn’t fit the status quo to thrive. But I’m incredibly optimistic about it,” she said.

In the Silicon Valley atmosphere – of which, Holmes emphasized, she is not a part – those challenges may be more pronounced. “I think it’s difficult for anyone who’s not in the status quo, but I think it’s less a problem of overt sexism or racism, but rather more of nepotism or a level of comfort with people who look like them, who fit a model they have seen in college or their grad program. It’s harder to get attention if you don’t fit the mold.”

The open source space is different, she continued. “Why I’m incredibly optimistic about my field is that it feels more like a meritocracy. You can contribute for years and no one knows your identity. The ethos is that we all work together where we can be useful so our project thrives.”

“In the circles we run in, there are more minorities – you’re not the only one in the room. You’re not a unicorn,” she continued with a laugh. “There need to be more and I believe there will be more. You can see the result of increasing diversity – we’re getting better and better.”

Expressing Herself in Technology

“I’ve always been a hands-on person, and I always loved arts and crafts even as a little kid,” Holmes began. “Learning to code was a way of expressing myself.”

When her elementary high school in East Harlem received a grant to have a computer program for a few years, Holmes and her friends began creating their own games they could play on the school’s new collection of Commodore 64s. “The best games are the ones you learn to write yourself and share with friends,” she remarked. “This has always been a part of my life – even as a hobby, I knew I could just make something sitting at a computer.”

She went on to attend Oberlin College, the first US college to admit both Black and female students. “I grew up in a culture that prioritizes the values Oberlin exudes. For me, it had to be Oberlin.”

“I started with an undergraduate degree in comparative literature, but meanwhile I had always enjoyed programming,” she continued. “Participating in electronic music opened up new programming languages to me, and in the early days, learning how to make web stuff also created that interest. Back then it was a little more simple and it was easier to hack.”

Even so, she never really saw herself working in technology as a career. “I thought of code as a tool in my tool box to express myself.”

After graduating, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, so she began taking freelancing jobs to pay the bills. “I began thinking more deeply about the nature of code and the things I had learned through comparative literature, like syntax, philosophy, and how languages can effect change.”

That philosophical bent brought her to NYU’s Media, Culture, and Communication graduate program, where she studied under Alex Galloway, a professor who became her mentor. “While I was doing my master’s work, I did my thesis on the politics of digital images, on a socio-political level, a cultural level, and finally a technical level,” Holmes explained.

As a result of her work, she was invited to join the Guardian Project, a group of researchers and coders focused on the intersection of politics and technology, particularly dealing with privacy and security issues. “We’re figuring out how we can write code to make the changes we want to see.”

Holmes’ day-to-day involves writing lots of code, acting as lead developer for a few projects, managing people on her team, and meeting with various partners who want to use the Guardian Project’s tools or learn how these tools can perform interoperably with theirs.

“I also speak at a lot of conferences – I feel like I’m always preparing for one. But that’s a good thing because it’s keeping me close to the theoretical writing and critical thinking behind what we do.”

Currently, she is enthusiastic about InformaCam, an app the Guardian Project is working on in conjunction with WITNESS, an activist organization that focuses on the ability to bring about political and social change through video.

InformaCam and ObscuraCam represent two sides of the mobile phone information privacy issue. ObscuraCam is an app that enables the user to delete metadata from images that could potentially endanger them – Holmes gives the example of an activist during the Arab Spring who might not want his or her personal information associated with an image they took of a protest and broadcast via social media.

On the other side is InformaCam, which does just the opposite – it loads up images with very detailed encrypted metadata, which can be used in a court of law, to give proof of someone’s whereabouts at a specific time for example.

Advice for Women in Technology

Looking back, Holmes says part of her wishes she had double majored in college, and gotten a computer science degree. “It never occurred to me that having a specific degree would be in heavy demand. I didn’t know people were looking for certain credentials. I thought I would just show up and people would hire me,” she explained.

“I do recommend that people try starting a career in open source,” she continued. “It’s a great way to get experience. You may not necessarily be getting fame and accolades, but you’re getting to know the terrain and the specific issues people are dealing with, and that makes you a stronger programmer.”

She also encouraged people to reflect on good fortune. “I’ve definitely had a lot of privileges that I’m just beginning to realize. For example, grad school is a great place to hide out when you don’t have a job,” she said with a laugh. “And that meant I was able to take internships and meet people, and make trade-offs where I could do smaller gigs that had access to better resources.”

She also emphasized the importance of making connections. “In New York, if you can get a ticket, a great place is the New York Tech Meet-Up – just to mix and mingle, but you can also speak on a very equal terms with people who have had a lot of success. I’ve seen a very diverse group of young kids have access to heavy hitters in this industry.”

And the importance of building and maintaining those relationships continues as women grow more experienced in their field, she added. “We can all benefit by putting ourselves out there more. It’s always good to find your kin in the space you are in, and finding a support group always helps as you navigate your career.”