Georgia Institute of Technology student Alex Perez knows how to solve a problem.
The College of Computing student, in his final semester pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, once created an air guitar application on his iPhone that allowed him to play the video game Rock Band when he left the accompanying instruments at home during his first semester in college.
It’s reasons like that which have inspired him to take on a number of big programming projects during his four years at the Institute.
When he needed a better method to track the movements of the campus transit system in his second year, he created from scratch the now-popular GT Buses app that shows routes and updates the status of each of the school’s transit vehicles.
It’s just the latest in a series of projects that has led him from a casual programming hobby in high school to a soon-to-be degree and a job at Uber in San Francisco, Calif., after graduation.
Perez was a freshman at Holy Spirit Preparatory School in Atlanta when he first got into programming. He had gotten his first Mac around that time primarily because he was interested in building applications for his iPhone. He had an iPod Touch previously and when the new one came out, featuring a number of improvements he didn’t have on his own older version, he began to explore the product’s operating system online to learn different tweaks, or “jailbreaks,” that were possible.
It led him down a path to a whole community of iOS jailbreakers, many of whom were actual developers for the operating system. He learned how to tweak the system and how to recreate components of existing apps that he found interesting.
“It was YouTube videos, Googling, watching video tutorials, reading books,” Perez explained. “It’s like, if I see a component in another app that’s interesting, I can be like, ‘Oh, I wonder if I could replicate that myself.’ Just exploring all the internals of the iOS operating system.”
Those skills came in handy early on in his college career when he built the air guitar app to use with Rock Band. That app incorporates a set of color-coded keys on the phone and a hand-held attachment used for strumming in the other hand.
Then came the buses app, another solution to a problem that was affecting him on a daily basis.
“A lot of these apps I build out of selfish reasons,” Perez said. “I needed to use the buses every day to get to classes, and I wanted an app to help me do that. If it’s something I can fix, then I’m going to do it.”
That was the case with his latest and greatest project, the official Georgia Tech app.
An app had already been in existence for a few years. As updated iterations of smart phones came and went, however, the application remained more or less the same.
“I just wanted to have a good campus app,” Perez said. “For Georgia Tech, of all places, with all of our technology, I thought it was extremely important.”
RNOC had reached out to him following his work on the GT Buses app. After joining the group, and craving a new exciting project to work on, Perez set out to convince them to allow him to take on the job.
“I had to convince them that it’d be a good thing for the school, a good thing for students,” Perez said.
After succeeding at that, he worked for about a year and a half on the application before finally releasing it to the public at the beginning of the Spring 2017 semester.
Nothing was taken from the old app. They decided instead to re-write it entirely from the ground up. They took inspiration from other campus apps, Perez said. Some were helpful. Others, not as much.
“But we looked at a lot of Apple apps that we thought were well-designed to see what a good user interface looks like, and we built our own from that,” Perez said. “I’m not a UI designer, so it takes me a lot of time to figure out what looks good.”
Eventually they settled on a honeycomb interface on the front page, which navigates to a host of other screens like “Events,” “Buses,” “Safety,” “News,” and “Social,” among others.
So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. As with any app, it has already required some improvements, and Perez is happy to continue working out the bugs over the course of his final months at the school.
After that, he’ll move on to work with Uber, a company he interned at last summer. He had two other internships over the course of his time in college, both at Apple.
Perez hopes other intrepid programmers will follow his lead to ensure the app remains up to date in his absence after he graduates. He encouraged anyone else who was interested to reach out, like he did, to offer their help to RNOC.
“It’s great to be able to put your name on a project like that,” he said. “It’s given me a lot of experience, and I don’t think I’d be where I am without it.
“I feel like I’m an incredibly lucky person to have had some of the success I’ve had. I got a winning lottery ticket, and I’m not questioning it.”