Tanner Nelson: Seizing the Day in a Digital Age

By Libby Cathey

Tucked away in the corner of his father’s corporate office, an outdated computer running on Windows 95 was set aside for 12-year-old Tanner Nelson’s personal entertainment. But after The Sims computer game refused to install and the WiFi failed to connect, Nelson’s father was forced to improvise and handed him a book titled “How to Design a Webpage.” Eight years later, Nelson has launched three applications in the iTunes App Store, coded over fifty webpages for clients and friends, and is developing a tool for Google Glass, which he is proud to sport on a regular basis. It was Nelson’s initial fascination with the language of coding, sparked by the how-to book, that ignited his passion for informational technologies.

“The idea of having something on the internet that people could go see from wherever seemed so awesome. I got to liking it so much, that when I wasn’t at work with him, I would seek out tutorials online about it and learn more that way,” Nelson said.

With an iPhone in one hand, a wireless Mac mouse in the other, and Lady Gaga blasting through his earbuds, Nelson prefers to spend his Saturday nights fully immersed in technology, updating and perfecting his latest projects. His face is illuminated by a seventeen-inch Mac Book Pro, an iPad, and two iPhones, as his thumbs seamlessly scroll from one screen to the next and adds iPad capabilities to all three of his apps. What began as a hobby for the Idaho-Colorado native transformed into his priority.

“Once I started coding, I was hooked,” Nelson said. “Now I’m looking to improve my designs and create apps and web pages that can help all types of people.”

Nelson is a sophomore at N.Y.U.’s College of Arts and Sciences, double majoring in Biology and Computer Science. His interest in computer programming was piqued in the sixth grade when his father’s outdated PC failed to occupy Nelson’s interests. With a how-to book at hand, Nelson began coding “silly web pages.”

At age 12, Nelson launched, “Tanner’s Superdeeduperdee Website!” Though its layout is basic, it marks Nelson’s first published creation. The page hosts images Nelson created on Paint and links to his favorite online games, which were an early source of inspiration.

“Video games have the unique ability to take you into a different universe with real-time simulation, so I was hooked as a kid. My love for computer games definitely influenced my path to programming. I’m really just a computer geek at heart. I told you I’m obsessed with World of Warcraft?”

Over time, both his video game and coding skills grew stronger. In a high school computer class, one professor took an immediate interest in Nelson’s advanced skillset. Already knowing most of the curriculum from his dad’s “how to” books and online tutorials, Nelson became the classroom’s unofficial teaching assistant by the end of the year. He found himself answering student questions when the professor was stumped.

Impressed by Nelson’s talent, the professor put him in contact with New Media One, a Colorado company which “provides Internet solutions for your business needs.” A senior in high school, Nelson began working part time at the NMO, designing countless web pages for small, local businesses, including his school’s webpage.

When it came time for graduation, Nelson assumed he’d attend the University of Colorado at Boulder like most of the students in his town. But when his dad invited him to explore others options, he set his sights on New York.

“I chose N.Y.U. because, of course, New York City. Most everyone is Colorado stays in Colorado, and the [Silicon] Valley is tech-focused, but you can do anything in New York, so I ended up here.”

Fueled by his work at NMO and the creativity around Manhattan’s Village, Nelson began brainstorming app ideas with his roommates freshman year. Now in his sophomore spring, Nelson has released three applications. All are available for free on the iTunes app store.

On February 1st, Nelson released his first iPhone app called “Cardie.” Designed for sustainable learning, Cardie is a flash-card based app which teaches vocabulary through daily reminders, games, and rewards. Users can access a “Word of the Day” set written by Nelson or choose from the millions of word packs housed on Quizlet, another card-based learning application.

“The idea is that if fits on a flash card, you can learn it on Cardie,” said Nelson. “Because everyone has something they want to learn, right?”

Providing some inspiration for Cardie, the app Quizlet gives access to over 35 million user-generated flashcard sets. Created by a high school sophomore in California in 2005, Quizlet has over 11 million registered users. Nelson is motivated by the success that one student’s sequence can generate.

But Cardie is fundamentally different from Quizlet. Linked to Apple’s Game Center, users both complete new tasks and grade the tasks of others, creating a competitive points system and a crowdsourced product. The app’s daily notifications ensures users keep up their learning habits, and different study modes, from drawing the word to using it in a haiku, target all types of learners.

With decks ranging from SAT vocabulary and famous impressionist painters to the periodic table and New York icons, Cardie’s mission is to teach people things they need to learn for professions or just want to learn for fun.

“The name has two meanings, so Cardie because it is flashcards, but also carpe diem put together, seize the day, so the root of what the app is supposed to help you do. Seize the day and learn something new.”

One month later, Nelson released a second app, Masq Message. Masq is an anonymous messaging system for friends and nearby strangers. On Masq, the sender knows who they’re talking to, yet the receiver is left in the dark. For example, if a friend is embarrassing you or you’re in love with a teaching assistant, Masq allows users to send an honest note without accountability. Though Masq was more difficult to create than Cardie, Nelson appreciates how the app can foster real relationships.

Content from both Cardie and Masq inspired his most recent creation, Ego Match, an app that uses a customized algorithm, written by Nelson, to spark successful, romantic connections. The app has received over 3,000 downloads since its launch in early March.

On a scale of “Gross” to “Perfect,” Ego has users privately rank each other based on an image and customized profile and matches people based on their sexual preferences reciprocated rankings. Nelson hopes to challenge apps like Tinder and OkCupid, which he believes don’t give enough options to users.

“The difference is that when you log onto Ego Match, you rate people on a scale and are rated by people,” Nelson said. “Then the ratings are analyzed by a script and sorted by location, gender, and sexual preferences to produce a set of possible matches.”

Though Nelson created three apps in the course of three months, their concepts were coded long before the launch. Nelson’s roommates in Gramercy Green Residence Hall have been an integral part of his creative process since his freshman year and are the first to test his programs.

“We came up with Ego about a year ago on our way back from having lunch at Hayden, and this semester we decided, why not make this idea come to life?” said Jillian Branchaud, N.Y.U. sophomore. “One thing I dislike about the app is the fact that until it really takes off, the rating system can be a bit skewed.”

Nelson and Branchaurd agree that the apps are in need of a serious update, but the process of getting an app on iTunes is not as simple as plugging in content. In order to gain access, you have to register for Apple’s Developer Program, which costs $99 a year. Only then can you access Apple’s extensive requirements and submit content for review, which can take weeks to months.

“It’s a rough deal…it can take months to get on the Apple store and that’s why everyone hates it, but that’s why the apps available are so well-functioning.”

Nelson was a quick learner to the process but expressed difficulty in gaining approval for Masq and Ego because of the strict guidelines concerning messaging systems. Though he achieved his goal, other hopeful programmers are not as well-informed.

Ray Wenderlich, software engineer and Apple iOS Tutorial Team Member, guides programmers like Nelson through the process of idea to iTunes app with public how-to blogs. His website, http://www.raywenderlich.com, features tutorials from building iOS apps and 3D games to recording podcasts and address books. Wenderlich has assembled a team of developers to keep his website updated and informative.

“Because we are online, people from around the world can contribute and access our ideas,” Wenderlich said. “We aim to make the most difficult tasks easy and fun to learn and that includes working with companies like Apple or Windows.”

Of the 450 tutorials available on-site, a handful outline the process of gaining Apple’s approval for an iTunes store feature. Nelson shares Wenderlich’s beliefl that technology should be used to inform others. “We recognize that not every developer can access where to even begin, and that’s where we come in,” Wenderlich said.

With his own apps ready to educate, Nelson’s next challenge is spreading awareness. “The hardest part is figuring out how to advertise it,” Nelson said.

Though all three of his apps have received random downloads from across the country, he plans to recruit his friends studying marketing to develop a business strategy for N.Y.U. then all colleges in New York.

His biggest efforts are appropriately rooted in online campaigns. Nelson is extremely active on social media and launched a Facebook page for Ego Match in early April. He’s at twenty-nine “likes” so far, but he hopes to expand to the hundreds by the summer. He’s encouraging word of mouth around campus for his apps to gain attention.

As a double major, he admits that it is difficult to devote a large portion of his time to coding. But Nelson plans to integrate his academic studies and real-life programming experience into a career in Bioinformatics, which uses technology to teach and research life sciences on an accessible platform.

“I like designing fun apps, but in the future I want it to be that I am writing software for tools that doctors and researchers will use, and the algorithms for processing genomic sequences. I like biology a lot, and I like the intersection of the two. There aren’t very many people at the intersection yet.”

But for now he’s focused on his summer workload. Major updates for Cardie, Masq, and Ego Match are scheduled for the fall and include iPad accessibility, fun rewards, and more “user-friendly” features. Nelson’s roommates are helping him advertise and revamp the programs, so when the update does come out it’ll be a visible success.

“We really like making things that people think are useful, unqiue apps. We’re not just in it for the money, obviously, but we really want to make things that help people or are fun to use. It differentiates ourselves from other up-and-coming developers. With the help of our apps, we’re inviting users to seize the day.”

-Libby Cathey

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