Nick Rubin is one seriously impressive 17-year-old. We met up with Nick for coffee in Seattle and discussed the many amazing projects he’s working on, including the app Greenhouse (which he built himself), a youth-run organization connector called YouthCorp, and his college applications.
As a high school student, Nick has loads of homework and the typical stress that comes with being near the end of your high school career. But Nick is approaching his time in high school differently by making the most of his time outside of class. He partakes in extracurriculars, spends time pursuing hobbies such as graphic design and photography, and makes time for himself by going on hikes and bike rides.
Nick undoubtedly seizes his youth. Read on to learn about how Nick learned to code, the inspiration behind his projects, and the top tips he would give someone who is just about to enter high school.
Carpe Juvenis: How do you define “Seizing Your Youth”?
Nicholas Rubin: I define “Seizing Your Youth” as taking advantage of the many opportunities that being young offers. For example, free time. We tend to have more free time than adults, which gives us time to focus on our passions and interests. Many people say that kids can’t make change, but I think that the opposite is true. I think it’s easier for kids to make a change – not only are we able to focus on what we’re interested in, but there’s something about youth that’s special.
CJ: You are the creator of Greenhouse, a free browser extension for Chrome Firefox, and Safari that exposes the role money plays in Congress. What inspired you to create Greenhouse?
NR: Ever since giving a presentation in a 7th grade social studies class, I’ve been really interested in the issue of money-in-politics. It’s not usually something kids care about, but even though I’m 17 and can’t vote for another year, I wanted to change that. I thought that the information about sources of funding of members of Congress wasn’t being made accessible to people, to the average citizen. It’s being buried away. The Federal Elections Commission (FEC) is the agency that’s in charge of making this information accessible to the public, but they aren’t doing a good job. It’s tucked away, and since most people don’t know where or how to find it, I wanted to put it where it’s more useful – on the web pages where people read about the actions of members of Congress every day.
CJ: How did you go about actually building Greenhouse?
NR: When I first came up with the idea, I didn’t really know how to code. I taught myself using a series of online resources, and this year I’m taking a formal computer science class in school. There are so many great instructional websites these days – Kahn Academy, Codecademy, and my favorite, Treehouse – which are all geared toward youth, so it’s easy to understand for a beginner.
I spent about 10 months and 400 hours working on Greenhouse. For the data itself, I’m collecting it from an organization called the Center for Responsive Politics, which takes the FEC data and makes it available to developers.
CJ: What cause or issue do you care greatly about and why?
NR: I’ve been working on one other important project since this summer. In August, I went to the Yale Young Global Scholars Program, and met 200 other kids from all over the world who all shared a passion for change and global affairs. Four of us recognized this, and we started something called YouthCorp. It’s an organization that connects youth-run nonprofits, projects, initiatives, and companies and combines their resources to fight a common issue.
We’re still figuring out the details, but in the first two months we’ve had around 20 youth-run organizations join us from all over the world. It’s great, and is something that I’ll definitely continue working on.
CJ: You are also a photographer. What sparked your interest in photography and what camera do you use?
NR: I don’t really remember exactly when I started photography, but it’s been a long time. Back in middle school I went to a camp in the San Juans that had film photography as an activity. I learned how to use a manual camera, develop film, and more. Ever since then, I’ve loved it. I got my first point-and-shoot in 6th grade, eventually graduating to a film camera, and then a DSLR. Now I’m in my third year of photography at school, where I do both film and digital photography. My favorite type would probably be travel photography and portraits. They’re both fun to take.
CJ: You have done quite a bit of design work. Where do you draw inspiration and what tools do you use for your design work?
NR: I’ve been interested in design since a 7th grade art class, when we did some linoleum printing. I wasn’t much of an art student, but I really enjoyed carving out and printing shapes. I like simple, minimalist design, and use Photography and Illustrator to do most of my work.
CJ: You were a Top-10 finalist at MHacks IV for Quink, a free browser extension for Chrome and Safari that lets you read the news faster without leaving the page you’re on. What was that experience like and what advice do you have for pitching and making it all the way to the Top 10?
NR: It was an amazing experience. A 36-hour programming competition with almost no sleep may sound miserable, but it was actually tons of fun. Hard, but a great experience. The community tends to be more about learning, rather than competition, so it creates a great environment. Some hackathons have cash prizes, but many of these events are turning away from that and discouraging people from only going with the prizes in mind. Most people go for the experience, and that’s really what makes these events special.
My advice for kids interested in these events is that you don’t have to be an amazing coder, or even know how to code at all. Many attend as designers or simply attend workshops and learn as they go on.
CJ: How do you stay organized, and what are your time management tips?
NR: Truthfully, I’m not the best with organization and time management, but there’s an app called Things that has basically saved my life. It’s a to-do list, where you simply check things off when you’re done. I could probably work to be a bit more organized, and use things like calendars, but something simple like Things is enough for me. I don’t like being too structured.
CJ: Every day in your life must be different depending on school, work, and the time of year, but what does a Monday look like for you?
NR: On a typical Monday, I wake up at 7AM, drive my sisters to school, and go to my classes. After school, I continue to dedicate a quite a bit of time to Greenhouse, even though the attention surrounding it has died down a bit. I’ll spend an hour or two every day working on updates or responding to emails. Other than that, and my homework, I like to play tennis and go on hikes and bike rides.
CJ: What three tips would you give someone entering high school?
1. Try to make free time for yourself. School may be tough with homework, but it’s possible to have free time if you manage it properly. That’s what makes youth special, having time to do what you want. Making that time is important.
2. Don’t worry too much. That’s something I struggled with for the past few years. I’ve toned it down now, but don’t spend a lot of time stressing about school and your social life.
3. Do what you’re interested in, both in school and out. Pick classes and extracurriculars that interest you. For example, computer science is an elective course that I’m taking. Use your school’s resources to further your interests.
CJ: The college application process is ahead. What are you doing now to prepare for that?
NR: The process is just starting for me – I was actually assigned my college counselor yesterday. I’m probably planning on going on a school tour during spring break. I haven’t given the process much thought, but one thing that I’ve heard from people is to definitely start early. I may procrastinate with school assignments, but with something as big as college essays and applications, I’m going to be sure to start as early as possible.
CJ: What is one of your favorite books?
CJ: What is a book you read in school that positively shaped you?
CJ: What is an area, either personal or professional, that you are working to improve in and how?
NR: Communication and reaching out to people. There are definitely a lot of people who could be useful to me and the projects that I’m working on, and reaching out to some of them would be really beneficial. When I need help, I tend to refrain from asking others, but I definitely want to change this.
CJ: Having a loaded schedule can sometimes be overwhelming. What do you do when you’re having a bad day and need to unwind or reset?
NR: Whenever I’m having a bad day, I try and find something to get my mind off of it. I like to play with my dog, or go on a hike or bike ride. Leaving things behind and not letting them get to me is important. Being in nature and spending time away from society really helps, and it puts me in a good state of mind.
CJ: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
NR: My parents and grandparents always told me before tests, “Good skills” instead of “Good luck.”
CJ: What advice would you give your 14-year-old self?
NR: Don’t worry as much! I worried about everything, and it would take up a lot of my time. I would spend more time worrying about an experience than actually enjoying it. This definitely could have changed earlier on.
Image: Carpe Juvenis