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RealLIST Engineers 2021: Meet 10 influential technologists building a better Pittsburgh

These software engineers are part of the driving force behind Pittsburgh's recent tech success while also giving back to the community.

(Image by via Canva) just launched full-time coverage of Pittsburgh in June, and it’s quickly become clear that the city is overflowing with talented engineers, developers, programmers and others in technical roles.

Thus, we’re excited to launch our first RealLIST in Pittsburgh with the inaugural RealLIST Engineers — a collection of 10 local technologists who are going above and beyond their job descriptions to bring new innovation to the city. Some of these names have already come up in our previous reporting, while others are new ones from companies we’ve heard about in interviews or at events. All of them are pros who use their skills to build local tech from the ground up.

Especially as we continue to navigate a pandemic work environment that’s oscillating between virtual and in-person interactions, we think its valuable to spotlight the technologists who helped us get through those early times, and showed perseverance in supporting the tech community, both in professional and service-oriented ways.

The search for the below list makers began with a public call for nominations. Then, we consulted technologists and looked back through our own coverage. We considered how the person in mind was influential within their organization and community, how they overcame a specific technical challenge, and how they contributed to educating others on technical issues.

In this list, you’ll find people in leadership roles at some of the region’s biggest companies as well as founders of fast-growing startups. There are names from civic tech and academia, too. Though we hope to expand the number of names on this list for years to come, these 10 people are proof that Pittsburgh tech has a strong foundation and a bright future.

Here are Pittsburgh’s RealLIST Engineers for 2021, in alphabetical order:

Alison Alvarez, CEO and cofounder, BlastPoint

Alison Alvarez. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Alvarez is perhaps best known for her leadership and founding role at BlastPoint, a local data analytics firm founded out of a pitch idea in a Carnegie Mellon University seminar series. But she’s long been involved with tech — first as a software engineer for Rhiza Labs and then as a product manager for Innovative Systems. She also had a stint in Silicon Valley for Y Combinator startup Valor Water Analytics.

Alvarez is also involved with the Pittsburgh tech company at large. Earlier this summer, she gave a talk at the Pittsburgh TechFest on how to learn from failures in engineering to improve your tech or business idea.

Alvarez prides herself on the fact that she is a Hispanic, female founder, as she refers to herself — “there aren’t many of us in deep tech,” she said in an August interview — and a mother of a 10-year-old. “Representation is important,” she added.

Allen Bancroft, director of hardware engineering, RE2 Robotics

Allen Bancroft. (Courtesy photo)

Though Bancroft’s initial education was in electrical engineering, he’s spent much of his career in executive roles, including being the CEO of J & A Innovations, as well as the CEO and founder of two other companies. He also worked as the operations manager at robotics manufacturing Flexicell for several years.

Now, in his position at RE2 — one of Pittsburgh’s more prominent true robotics companies — Bancroft oversees teams of mechanical and electrical engineers and of designers and machinists, according to his nominator. He also “”helps to define the company’s engineering policy and procedures,” they said.

Beyond his work for the RE2, though, Bancroft volunteers for organizations like FIRST Robotics, which give young students a chance to build robots for competition. He also chairs RE2’s STEM Outreach Committee, “which provides mentoring and support for local students, schools, and robotics clubs,” his peer said.

Connor Brem, machine learning engineer, Duolingo

Connor Brem. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Brem joined Duolingo in 2015, after completing his undergraduate degree in computer science at CMU as well as internships at tech companies such as Google and Mozilla. After working as a software engineer at the language learning company for five years, Brem took on the role of machine learning engineer at the start of 2020. Part of his work at Duolingo so far has included technical development of the Duolingo English Test, an English proficiency certification that the company has widely promoted for institutional adoption.

Outside of his software work at Duolingo, a peer familiar with Brem said that he’s heavily involved in the Thrive Internship — a new program the company launched this summer meant to give rising college juniors exposure to the tech industry.

Colin Dean, lead AI engineer, Target, and managing director, Code & Supply

Colin Dean. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Dean’s is a name that almost everyone knows in Pittsburgh tech. That’s thanks to his role as a leader for the Code & Supply software community organization as well as his hand in helping bring up younger firms like digital access nonprofit Meta Mesh. Prior to his role at Target, Dean worked as a director of software engineering at and as an advisory software engineer for IBM.

He is known for his ability to quickly tackle demanding technical challenges, including the time he “implemented a packaging system for an open source project’s component ecosystem in just a few weeks,” a peer said. And of his work in supporting engineers, entrepreneurs and others in the tech industry, that same peer described Dean as an eager supporter: “Colin jumps in where he can to offer help with technical questions and career questions alike.”

Jim Gibbs, CEO and cofounder, Meter Feeder

Jim Gibbs. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Gibbs is a longtime software engineer in the Pittsburgh area, with several decades of experience working for companies like American Eagle Outfitters, USA Today and Slaymaker Systems. After building his skills, Gibbs decided to build his own company, Meter Feeder, which is now his primary focus. There, he writes software, develops the product, and focuses on selling the parking payment service to new customers.

But outside of his work for Meter Feeder, the tech community knows Gibbs as a friend and mentor.

“Despite being the cofounder of a fast growing tech company and the father of 5 (yes 5!) boys, Jim is an active mentor to other founders through involvement with Black Tech Nation and other local organizations,” said one of his peers in the venture capital community. He also acts as a leader for Startup Boost Pittsburgh.

Cara Jones, CEO and cofounder, Marinus Analytics

Cara Jones. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Jones’ long career in tech began with a degree in computer and systems engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. From there, she went on to work as an engineer for companies like Aetheon and FedEx Ground. She then moved on to a consulting role at Deloitte before joining CMU’s Robotics Institute as a research analyst, where she worked with Marinus Analytics cofounder Emily Kennedy, who interviewed in June.

Jones’ software engineering background helped the company improve and pitch its technology nationwide, most recently gaining recognition from the IBM Watson AI XPrize, in which Marinus finished third.

Jean Lange, senior technical program manager, LendingHome

Jean Lange. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Lange is well known in the tech community for her involvement with Academy Pittsburgh — a prominent local coding bootcamp cofounded in 2015 by her husband, John Lange. After working as a computer programmer for IBM for several years, she joined him as an instructor for the bootcamp, where she helped teach students the curriculum of Ruby, C#, JavaScript, HTML/CSS and more.

Lange recently moved on to her new role at LendingHome, where she focuses more on hiring, onboarding and training. A peer familiar with Lange’s career pathway said that she’s “done solid technical work but she’s shined when it comes to giving people a chance where others would not have spared the mind to give a chance.”

Tara Matthews, application specialist, Allegheny County Department of Human Services

Tara Matthews. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Matthews is well known in Pittsburgh civic data. She started her tech career out with a degree in economics and political science at the University of Pittsburgh, followed by a master’s of public administration there in policy research and analysis. From there, she moved into a role as an analytics and and strategy associate for the City of Pittsburgh, followed by becoming a digital services analyst for the city’s Innovation and Performance division. After a promotion there, Matthews moved on to her current role as an application specialist at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, where she manages alert notification systems and other software applications.

Beyond her work for the public sector, Matthews also prioritizes mentoring others, after she benefitted from having the support of mentors throughout her own career journey. She is also involved with groups like Code for Pittsburgh and Black Tech Nation that look to ensure everyone has access to the opportunities afforded by the local tech industry.

Matt Travers, systems scientist, Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute

Matt Travers. (Photo via LinkedIn)

As a systems scientist, Travers focuses on research in creating autonomous interactions between complex platforms and their environments. From path planning applications to snake robot movement, Travers’ research gives the students he works with a chance to understand how robotics in academia can translate to robotics in real-world situations.

Along that same line, Travers spends his time outside of research and teaching as one of the co-leads for CMU’s Team Explorer, the university’s team for the DARPA Subterranean Challenge for autonomous vehicles. This year, he helped the team reach fourth place in the final challenge after achieving first and second place in earlier challenges for the competition.

Karin Tsai, senior director of engineering, Duolingo

Karin Tsai. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Before joining Duolingo, Tsai cut her teeth in computer science at Princeton University, followed by a Ph.D. program at CMU, where she worked with Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn. She rose through the ranks at the language learning company, moving from senior engineering manager to director of engineering before her current role. She now manages a team of over 100 engineers at the company, including a focus on A/B testing of new features.

A peer familiar with Tsai’s work said that both in and out of the company, she is a prominent voice for promoting women in tech. Tsai has also often given media interviews on her work at the company, including at a TechCrunch event in June.

Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 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 Heinz Endowments.
Companies: RE2 Robotics / Code & Supply / Academy Pittsburgh / Meter Feeder / Marinus Analytics / Duolingo / BlastPoint / Carnegie Mellon University
Series: RealLIST Engineers / RealLIST
People: Tara Matthews / Colin Dean / Jim Gibbs / Alison Alvarez

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