Updated: Aug 2
As a high school freshman in the Bronx, N.Y., Luis (Lou) Alejo aspired to produce music and become a famous singer/songwriter. But before he could realize that dream, he would have to become a software engineer — of sorts.
He was able to download software from the internet to produce said music, he recalls, but the software came with no instructions. So, like a good musician (and software engineer) he “fiddled around with the pieces” until he could make sense of it, ultimately teaching himself how to produce “something that resembled music.”
In the years that followed, Alejo would come to appreciate that the skills that served him well in music — the ability to weave small, building block riffs into commercially viable songs — also allowed him to combine small bits of code into algorithms that could help drive the successful integration of shared e-scooters in cities around the world.
Today, as a software engineer for micromobility startup Superpedestrian, Alejo designs and pieces together software modules that help deliver safe, responsible user experiences for riders of the company's LINK scooters. The software also helps ensure harmonious relationships between Superpedestrian and the cities where its scooters are deployed.
“What sets Superpedestrian apart is that we’re really honing in on safety,” explains Alejo. “For us, safety is more than just a buzzword. It informs the spirit of every project we work on.”
Alejo’s childhood was not easy — and somewhat unorthodox. Born in the Bronx of naturalized Dominican parents, he lived in New York City until age nine when an immigration issue with his father forced the family to relocate to the Dominican Republic (DR).
In a show of resilience, however, the parents opened a neighborhood grocery store in the town of Salcedo, DR where they taught their children — Alejo is the fourth of seven children — the value of working hard to reach a goal. He credits the work ethic he learned working in the grocery with his successes first in music, and today as a software engineer.
Ultimately, however, Alejo’s parents wanted their kids to be educated in the U.S. — so at age 14, Alejo moved back to the Bronx to live with an uncle and go to school in New York. His transition was punctuated, tragically, by the 9/11attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which occurred exactly two weeks after the day, August 29, 2001, that Alejo arrived in the Bronx.
Throughout high school, Alejo was laser focused on becoming a professional musician, spending a majority of his time recording music instead of hitting the books.
“I was always one of those kids who didn’t have to study to do well in school, and I took full advantage of it,” he claims.
Using his music production software, Alejo figured out how to record his voice on dozens of songs, and burn those songs to CDs. He would then sell the CDs to classmates and anyone else he could think of to raise his profile in the music industry.
Paying the Bills
Music remained central to Alejo’s life after high school, even as he took classes at the City University of New York, Baruch College for two semesters.
“I really wanted to get a job that could help me pay for studio time or buy some better recording equipment,” he remembers.
Serendipitously, Alejo’s pursuit of extra income led him, indirectly, to the world of network engineering. Hired as a “cable puller” (Cat V cable installer) by the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, Brooklyn, N.Y., he soon figured out that he could earn a lot more money working in the hospital’s IT department.
After earning a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) entry-level IT certification and convincing his boss to give him a chance to move up, Alejo was promoted to the title of junior network engineer.
But just when he thought he’d found a new, well-paying career, Alejo’s world was turned upside again, when, just a month later, he was offered that long sought-after record deal.
“Suddenly I had to choose between continuing to study Cisco and stay in tech, or go with my dream of being a musician. Long story short, I quit my job and accepted a five-year record deal with Reloveunion, an independent record label,” he explains.
Unfortunately, Alejo admits, the contract turned out to be a real grind, and didn’t deliver the fame or notoriety he’d been hoping for. He ended up renewing the contract for five more years. Three years into that second deal, however, and feeling disillusioned with the record company, he terminated the contract early, forfeiting all rights to his music.
Facing the Music
The experience provided Alejo with valuable perspective on the music industry, but he had to face the grim reality that now, at age 29, he had no college education, limited technical training and essentially nothing to show for the last 15 years of pursuing a career in music. It was time for some serious soul searching.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to look far. Three of his siblings, all software developers, had attended coding bootcamps at Flatiron School, an NYC-based organization that provides intense, four-month long market-driven courses in subjects such as software engineering, cybersecurity and data science.
“Flatiron gave me a kind of social proof that you do not have to have a degree in computer science from a traditional university to work in tech data science,” says Alejo. “You can go to boot camp, apply yourself and gain skills such as coding and web development that are increasingly important and valued in today’s society.”
Finding the Path
Inspired by his siblings, and now far removed from his Cisco training, Alejo enrolled in the Flatiron bootcamp on software engineering in Jan. 2020. After completing the course in May and a related Data Science Fellowship with The Knowledge House in Nov., Alejo joined Superpedestrian in December 2020.
Today, he plays a key role on the Superpedestrian team charged with updating and modernizing the company’s geofencing application.
Geofencing allows the company to
know the exact location of all of its LINK scooters at all times, and to moderate the behavior of each scooter in real time if a rider is not obeying local traffic ordinances.
Automating the Rules
One of Alejo’s key contributions is a concept called scheduled geofencing, which he introduced and is now integrating throughout the LINK scooter fleets.
“Our original geofencing application designated certain areas for scooter riding and certain areas for no riding,” he explains. “Each zone was ‘on’ at all times or “off” at all times. We could change the status of each zone manually, but it wasn’t automated, which made the system somewhat inflexible to changing conditions.”
With scheduled geofencing, he continues, a zone around say, a ballpark can be designated for scooter riding during the offseason, but limited to certain times of the day during the regular season or on game day. Similarly, scooter speeds can be limited near a school during school hours, but then allowed to rise to normal speeds after school hours or on weekends.
“We’re now able to schedule scooter riding around events happening in each of our host cities,” Alejo notes. “It provides an extra layer of safety for riders and pedestrians alike, and helps cities feel like they have control over the flow of traffic (within their boundaries).”
Keeping the Promise
As Alejo sees it, geofencing technology and other safety-driven systems such as the Superpedestrian’s recently launched Pedestrian Defense are all part of the pact that the company makes with cities that invest in micromobility.
“As a company, we’re invested in making our scooters and our riders’ user experiences the safest they can be,” he suggests. “In turn, we hope that cities will invest in the safe micromobility infrastructure such as separated bike lanes that will enable scooter riding to become an accepted, even preferred way of handling those critical first mile/last mile trips that all commuters and visitors experience.”
Workdays begin early in the small apartment that Alejo shares in the Seattle neighborhood of Westlake — a ten-minute walk from the famed Space Needle — with a rescue dog named Apollo and his high school sweetheart.
His morning routine is pretty simple – start early, grab a coffee, walk the dog, make breakfast, get online, then keep going until mid to late afternoon when his East Coast colleagues are winding down.
Since arriving in Seattle — he moved here in October 2021 when his girlfriend took a job as a medical researcher — weekends have become opportunities to explore the greater Seattle area, including ferry trips to nearby Bainbridge Island.
Through it all, Alejo tries to keep in mind a credo he learned while pursuing software engineering and his first job after Flatiron: be kind to yourself.
“The most important thing these days is to design and deliver the best software I can to optimize the safety experience of Superpedestrian’s customers and shared-scooter riders,” he observes. “If I’m hard on myself, however, I can’t deliver my best work. When you’re trying to get into a new field — and software engineering is very challenging — it’s easy to get caught up in studying, working and learning new concepts. But you also have to take time for yourself.”
“It’s a simple piece of advice, but I think it really goes a long way.”
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If you enjoyed reading this profile on smart scooters, you might also enjoy a profile I wrote on David Ly’s work developing smart cities. If you have suggestions for other people or topics you’d like to see write about in this blog, please send your ideas to me at email@example.com. Many thanks for your continued support.