Teen software whiz Harshita Arora, standing outside in her hometown of Saharanpur, India

Photography: Harshita Arora. (Photo by Shutterink Photography)

Pursuits| From Pivot Magazine

Bit Player

What did a teenage software whiz learn when she launched a Bitcoin app? Some sobering truths about crypto culture that everyone should know before they wade in. Harshita Arora tells her story.

“Last summer, I was a 15-year-old high school dropout travelling from my home in Saharanpur, India, to Silicon Valley for a two-month internship at a venture capital firm. At that time, Bitcoin prices had just started going up, so I began reading subreddits to see what the talk was about. One problem people had was how to track prices and see historical data—a very basic thing. Some apps were doing this, but I thought they could be a lot better. I realized that a Bitcoin app would be like selling shovels to gold miners.

So, in November, I started developing Crypto Price Tracker. I worked on it for two months, about 15 hours a day and often in the middle of the night. I launched the app in January and, unexpectedly, it got a lot of attention from Reddit. I had about 1,000 downloads in the first week.

During the second week, someone accused me of plagiarizing the code. A post on Reddit said that other people had written the code. So I wrote a rebuttal explaining that I did get three people to help me: one friend did some back-end work and I paid him for it; another answered some questions once a week; and a third friend, who just wanted to help, created code snippets. Maybe 80 per cent was done by me, and the app was designed and written from scratch, so the whole idea was absurd.

The original post was taken down after it was reported, but it was too late. People found my email and I began getting nasty messages. One user said I should go kill myself. I was scared. Thousands of people started hating me and I worried about what kind of permanent damage that could have on my career. I tried deleting the messages, but I took screenshots of everything first and reported two people to their employers. One lost her job and the other issued a public apology.

In Saharanpur, a town of 700,000 people about five hours north of New Delhi, tech wasn’t in our family. And if there were programmers in our town, I didn’t know them. I didn’t have a computer until I was 10, and we didn’t get an Internet connection until about a year after that. The only thing I knew about Silicon Valley was from the TV show of that name.

I learned how intolerant the crypto world can be. I faced sexist, racist and ageist remarks. But I won’t let haters discourage me.

In my pre-Internet days, I read a lot of books about science—molecular and cellular biology—and I wanted to invent a vaccine. Growing up, I mostly read, wrote for my school’s magazine and participated in math Olympiads; I won my first medal in Grade 2 and about nine more in older grades.

When I finally did get a laptop, I didn’t have an aha moment. I couldn’t do much with it without the Internet. And when we did get the Internet, I found it frustrating. It was so slow. I actually started to make notes about how I would design a better operating system or faster Internet.

I started getting into tech, and coding and software design, when I was in the seventh grade. I had a computer science teacher, Midhun Manikkath, who would ask us to create websites, blog posts and imaginary apps. I became obsessed—coding and design are so intellectually stimulating—and started skipping school.

And then I came across Bitcoin and blockchain. I wanted to work in this world full-time, so I dropped out of school a few months later.

When the Reddit drama intensified, I ended up going off-line for two days—I was feeling anxious and I couldn’t keep deleting everything—and I read a few books. I came back a little more optimistic that things would get sorted out. Then I saw a message from the Daily Beast, who wanted to write a story about what had happened to me. I was initially hesitant to do an interview, but it gave me a place to comment. After that story was published, I started getting positive messages and it felt like not everyone hated me. I realized a lot of people weren’t programmers and didn’t understand any of this. They just heard words like “fake” and “liar” and “plagiarist” and sent messages based on two minutes of reading things they didn’t understand.

What did I learn? For one, how intolerant the crypto world can be. I faced sexist, racist and ageist remarks. And I’d seen it before. I’d read sexist comments on videos created by female blockchain and crypto educators. I saw people supporting [ex-Google engineer] James Damore, who said women are not biologically capable of being good engineers. There’s also a strong bias against young people and Indians. Many people think an Indian program must be a scam.

I also learned never again to call myself the sole creator (I’m going to give credit everywhere, which last time I did on only some of my posts) and I won’t ever post on Reddit again, obviously. And I’ve learned strategies on how to report people to the authorities. I did think, at one point, that I’d never launch another start-up, and that I don’t want to be part of all this, but I didn’t change my path. I won’t let haters discourage me.

I’m now working on artificial intelligence and machine learning projects, and I’m working on an app related to food and health. The big news, though, is that I’m going to move to Silicon Valley in June if my visa goes through. It will be a big deal for me to get out of my small town and be where I want to be, working on something that improves the lives of many or solves a bigger problem.

The other big news is that I just sold my app. Sean Walsh, from Redwood City Ventures, mentioned online that he was interested in acquiring or investing in a mobile app in the crypto space, so I contacted him and we started talking. Two days later, we signed a letter of intent and he wired me the first payment.”