From Computer Science 101 to Tech Start-Up: Joy Johnson ’07 Embraces Problem Solving

In an increasingly interconnected world, we look to the innovative thinkers and technology developers to solve some of our most pervasive problems. Joy Johnson ’07 is one of these technological innovators. From her years as an undergraduate at NC State to her current research at MIT, she has been using her skill set to take inventive projects to the next level.

But like many undergraduate students, Johnson initially struggled with where and how to begin.

“I had no idea what my major was going to be. None at all,” Johnson said.

Before attending NC State, she had never taken courses in computer science or engineering. She excelled in math and science, however, and with the encouragement of her advisors, Johnson soon transitioned from an undeclared major to the broad fields of electrical and computer engineering.

This was not without its challenges, either.

“When I took my first programming class, I thought it was the most mind-bending, difficult class I had ever taken,” Johnson recollected.

During those early months of her college career, Johnson struggled to master seemingly elusive computer code. Fortunately, she sought tutoring help from fellow Park Scholar engineering students who had the advantage of studying programming and robotics in high school, and soon came into her own as a programmer.

Throughout her years at NC State, Johnson continued to expand her knowledge base in the classroom, where she and her peers brainstormed methods for building elevator microcontrollers and other simple electronic systems. Summer internships at Cornell University and Intel exposed her to the diversity of electrical engineering fields, such as semiconductor processing and nanotechnology.

“I was like, ‘I like this,’” Johnson said of her real-world skills acquisition. “I hate learning about something I cannot directly apply to a tangible product or service. It was really exciting – that intriguing factor that I could learn how to make a device behave the way I wanted it to.”

This penchant for practical application has influenced Johnson’s more recent pursuits as well. As a doctoral degree candidate in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, Johnson was one of the first team members hired to assist in the formation of a new startup: AudioCommon. The web-based platform, developed by MIT students and alumni, enables music artists to bypass the constraints of time, money, and geography to create, organize, and share music in new ways.

The AudioCommon team gained recognition at South by Southwest (SXSW), an annual Austin, Texas-based set of festivals and conferences focused on film, music, and interactive media. In 2013, AudioCommon was among eight start-ups to compete in the SXSW Music Accelerator. There, they were named the Best-Bootstrapped Company – for doing the most with the fewest resources. In 2014, AudioCommon hosted an exclusive launch party at SXSW, featuring music-tech discussions, major label artist performances, and product demos.

Johnson’s role with AudioCommon is to lead the building of its mobile-specific platform, enabling cloud collaboration between artists and their fans.

For Johnson, finding technical solutions to new – and sometimes age-old – problems is what drives her.

“It keeps you excited,” said Johnson. “It keeps you wanting to go to work every day, wanting to put your all into it.”

Recently, Johnson took a brief break from her doctoral research and work with AudioCommon to reconnect with her Wolfpack alma mater. She was one of five Park Scholarships alumni to accompany the Class of 2015 on their Senior Retreat in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The retreat inspired Johnson to reflect on her own time as a Park Scholar, and how the program allowed her to “fail fast” with its network of mentors and resources readily available to support her.

“I think it’s awesome that [the seniors] are given this opportunity where they don’t have to rely on just gut instinct,” Johnson said of the inclusion of Park alumni in the retreat. “They can talk to people and hear about others’ experiences.”

She equated the seniors’ impending foray into the world beyond college with her current entrepreneurial endeavor.

“I’m in the same position that they are – in a new start-up. We’re trying to figure out what’s the right thing? What’s the next step? What’s the next year going to hold for us?”

Johnson urged the senior class to embrace interdisciplinarity. “Push yourself to learn new things and figure out how a solution or a skill set in one domain can be applied to another domain in an innovative way. That’s what entrepreneurship is.”

Story by Lauren Vanderveen