September 29, 2013

VF Profiles: Abby Fichtner (aka Hacker Chick), Harvard Innovation Lab

Abby Fichtner is a hacker in Boston’s tech world. Hacker not in the sense of gaining unauthorized access to computers, but as Fichtner’s blog The Hacker Chick Blog puts it, “Someone who discards conventional wisdom and does something else instead.“

Abby is a tech programmer who, for much of her career, has been passionate around building communities.  She is actually one of Boston’s longest-running community builders, going five years strong. Back in 2010 the community manager role was called evangelist, and when she held this title at Microsoft she was also known in the community as a start-up guardian angel.

“Abby is color in itself. In as much as she is smart, generous - she’s also action oriented,” said Christina Chase Entrepreneur in Residence at MIT and co-founder with Abby. Hack Boston is a new community they started to bring techies, geeks, and hackers together at the intersection of technology and innovation. 

Chase added, “She is a huge value to the entire tech ecosystem.”

Many know Abby for her current work as the first official Hacker in Residence at the Harvard Innovation lab. They also know her as the quirky programmer with her dayglo outfits and a strip of fluorescent pink in her black hair who packs as much passion into her work as any tech entrepreneur puts in to their start-up.

On any day of the week, the tables are full of entrepreneurs tinkering along. Abby builds communities for the Harvard Innovation lab, where students across the university work over computers and draw their business strategies with colorful IdeaPaint on the walls.

Fichtner, in addition to advising Harvard’s bright start-ups, has built a small empire that includes presenting at conferences, writing one of the top agile blogs, teaching Coding Boot Camp to non-tech entrepreneurs, guest lecturing, and keeping up with her 8,000+ followers on Twitter.

One reason so many Boston entrepreneurs are drawn to her events is because they are drawn to her.

“The Boston tech scene can be a bit prickly…almost an insider type of scene,“ said Gus D. Weber, Senior Director at ESPN, who hired Abby for the start-up evangelist role at Microsoft in 2010.  “Abby was a valued and contributing part of that community in nearly record time. She was making connections, helping folks solve hard technical problems and most importantly — cheering everyone on.”

Fichtner, who grew up in Fairfax county in the Washington DC suburbs, graduated from the University of Maryland College in 2005 where she received a master’s degree in software engineering. After college, she started working for start-ups and attending hacker conferences. “I just loved how smart and creative everyone was in this community, said Fichtner,” explaining what drew her to hackers.

But then Oracle reached out to her and she was enamored by the draw of working for a big company that she decided to leave the start-up and hacker world behind. “That’s when things started going downhill,” said Fichtner.
“I felt like my priorities were with the cultural norm and not what I wanted to do.” She bounces up and enthusiastically retells how she was very uptight and rigid and these characteristics were amplified in this setting.  “I needed to get out of DC and consulting. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Fichtner, “but I was really passionate about developing new software.”

Fichtner decided it was time to move and choose New England since she knew a lot of people who lived there from the Hacker community. In 2007, she settled on Moultonborough, New Hampshire near Lake Winnipesaukee just below the White Mountains. She began blogging and made a name for herself as The Hacker Chick and shared her expertise about agile software development and began consulting - this attracted Microsoft’s attention.

Fichtner became an evangelist at Microsoft, advising a new generation of startups and a new wave of tech stars. “That’s when I realized I loved what I was doing as a software developer building a community, but at Microsoft it was for start-ups. All the planets aligned.”

In 2012 after two years, Fichtner decided it was time to leave Microsoft. “I wanted to continue helping start-ups, but on my own terms.”

This is what led to a new role created for Fitchner at Harvard’s Innovation lab where she has often had a front-row view of Boston’s famed technology leaders, but that’s not why she’s was in it. “I am totally a heads down developer, but around my people I get energy from them,” said Fichtner.

And among Harvard’s innovators, Fitchner is an advisor as much as she is a friend. Her career as a coach has led her to guest lecture at MIT around agile for start-ups and Harvard where she gives talks about building start-ups.

Melissa Pocek is a freelance journalist and contributor to VentureFizz.  You can follow Melissa on Twitter (@MelissaPocek) by clicking here.