Software Development
Arts / Design / Gaming / Social justice / Software

How I Got Here: From video games to digital news, Dain Saint wields tech for good

The poet and musician uses his design skills to raise awareness for causes and tell powerful stories. His professional path is a curvy one.

Dain Saint. (Courtesy photo)

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Technologist, poet and musician Dain Saint has lived a few different professional lives.

Now an interactive stories developer at The Philadelphia Inquirer, he says he uses his tech skills for community good. The path to get there hasn’t quite been a straight line.

“If you consider my career to be in development, this is a good position,” he told “But as a creator and artist, this is one piece of the puzzle.”

Growing up as part of a Jamaican family in New Jersey, Saint and his family spent parts of his childhood living in both places before attending college at Northeastern University, where he majored in mechanical engineering. He later worked at a New Jersey company doing web work and interactive design, but after the company restructured, Saint was let go. He decided at the time that he didn’t want to work for someone else again.

He met fellow developer Will Stallwood around then, and after Stallwood quit his own job, they started their own software business in 2008: Cipher Prime.

“We started to get a reputation for doing firefighting,” he said. “A company hired someone to do something, they’d fall through and the company would call us to do it. We would do four months of work in a week. Our bread and butter was doing firefighter jobs. They were high stress and high reward. Because the two of us never worked together before, we decided we had to create a calling card.”

That calling card came in the form of Auditorium, Cipher Prime’s first video game. Saint said the game happened to do really well, and their company pivoted from being an interactive design studio making games, to vice versa. They also cofounded Philly Game Forge, a community-driven coworking space for Philly’s indie game developers, which was open from 2013 through June 2016.

Dain Saint, pictured here in the now-defunct Philly Game Forge.

Dain Saint, pictured in the now-defunct Philly Game Forge in 2015. ( file photo)

Over the next decade, Cipher Prime would release a new video game almost every year. Saint said he learned a lot in the process about game development as he and Stallwood became more adept at using games as a way to tell stories on dynamic platforms like the PlayStation 3, PCs and mobile phones.

As Cipher Prime began to flourish, Saint also felt drawn to social activism. His work in the video game industry began to feel stagnant, and he began looking for next steps.

“After a decade doing something, you can get burned out,” he said. “I wanted to use my interactive skills in a different way to help community.”

In January 2020, Saint joined the The Philadelphia Inquirer as an interactive news developer. There, he has led projects like July’s Black and Blue, which chronicled Philly’s 190-year history of police brutality. With its release during the protests following the killing of George Floyd by police, the project provided a factual, and visually compelling, look at a social issue belaboring society.

Saint considers his work at the Inquirer as an extension of his art. As a poet who also releases music, he doesn’t see himself as a technologist primarily, but an artist first.

“The thing that I’m constantly trying to do is, finding ways to explain difficult or non-obvious things to anyone,” he said. “The Black and Blue project came up because one of my well-meaning white friends asked why we were protesting in Philly. I asked, ‘How do I explain this to you in a way you could grapple with a complicated process?’ My job at the Inquirer is an extension of that in general.”

Continuously learning new skills is essential to success in tech, Saint said. He laughed when reflecting on how he honed his Flash skills for years — and then Apple’s introduction of the iPhone all but vanquished the web content software. Once Flash went by the wayside, Saint learned Unity and then JavaScript before pivoting to Node and finally React, which he now uses in his work at the Inquirer. (Flash officially died at the end of 2020.)

Being able to learn programming languages quickly and apply logic is key when talking to computers, he said. And good communication skills come in handy when trying to make things that appear natural for humans also appear natural for computers, like picking out an apple in an image of a fruit basket.

Saint’s current role is his first corporate position in more than 15 years and his first in a newsroom. Adjusting to a newsroom has presented its own challenges that require him to step out of his tech background and reevaluate how a corporate structure works.

“Starting my first job in a newsroom in 2020, I was not used to the rhythm of a newsroom and how a story is created,” he said. “I wish I had known a bit of that. I am not used to bureaucracy, departments and memos and chain of command. I think of that as an asset because I can see a lot of places where I think the paper could be streamlined, but I think working in tech gives you a certain level of arrogance about certain things. You maybe don’t have respect for why things are that way for a reason.”

Saint added that as he’s adapted to the Inquirer’s system, he’s developed an appreciation for the way things are done at the institution.

For Saint, a college graduate, showing you have the skills to succeed as a technologist is more important than having that degree. Thinking back on his time hiring people for Cipher Prime — which is still active now, with its “Lineweight” game dropping this past fall — he said he prioritized candidates’ portfolios as opposed to where they attended college.

“My degree is in mechanical engineering and I haven’t used it in years,” he said. “It’s hard because it’s not like I didn’t learn useful things. But your degree only matters for your first job. Usually, all a degree is signifying to a person hiring, aside from socioeconomic status and legacy, is that you were able to stick to something for four years. For me, when I was hiring for Prime I didn’t care about degrees at all. I cared about portfolio.”

In other words, the work you do should speak to your professional value on its own — as well as your personal values. It’s indicative of a through-line of Saint’s tech path: You design your own career according to how you design your life.

Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: The Philadelphia Inquirer / Cipher Prime
Series: How I Got Here / Tech Career Paths Month 2021

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