The Titan Behind Talos: Rodda John’s Journey From Student to Creator

A profile on alumus Rodda John (’17), the brain behind Talos. There’s more to John than meets the eye.

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Though most Stuyvesant students know Rodda John (’17) as the mastermind behind Talos, our school’s official platform for program changes and course selections, there is much more to John than what meets the eye.

Born in the suburbs of Chicago, John and his family moved to New York City just before he entered fifth grade. John was admitted into The School at Columbia University in Morningside Heights, where he was first introduced to debate. He was taught the fundamentals by an American Parliamentary Debate Association team at Columbia.

After graduating from Stuyvesant, John went on to study philosophy at Columbia University. Though he is known for his excellence in computer science, he feels most at home when discussing topics like metaphysics and ethical theories. “I’m a philosophy major, and I’m proud of it,” John said in an e-mail interview.

John’s openness toward exploring diverse interests is part of the reason why he chose to declare philosophy as his major. When asked about his decision, John responded, “I think [understanding philosophy] is what makes good citizens and insightful people. I care more about individual intellectual development than anything else.” Some of his inspiration comes from philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, for areas pertaining to philosophy, and William James, for how to view the world.

He also cites his family as a major influence. “My father taught me to think, my mother to be flexible in thought, and my sister to laugh and love,” John said.

As much as John was influenced by his family during his high school years, he also drew inspiration from his classmates. “There’s nothing I’ve been inspired more by than the work ethic of my classmates and the ethos of my school,” he said. Surrounded by intelligent peers and a wealth of extracurriculars, John experimented with various clubs around the school and became part of ARISTA’s Executive Council and an active member and conductor of the Stuyvesant Theater Community pit orchestra. He even founded a club of his own—the Parliamentary Debate Team at Stuyvesant. John reminisced, “I felt very connected to the school, especially during my junior and senior years.”

But debate, ARISTA, and orchestra weren’t John’s only passions in school—he has always been drawn to computer science. John first discovered programming at the end of fifth grade after purchasing a book on the computer language C++. “I continued to read whatever material I could get my hands on and still try to,” John said. Since then, he has received formal computer science training from courses at Stuyvesant and one from Columbia.

Only a year into college, Principal Eric Contreras and Program Chair Jonathan Cheng spoke to John about writing software to handle Advanced Placement course selections. Before long, Talos was born, pushing aside the now-defunct tool called “Daedalus” that Stuyvesant and many other NYC Public High Schools had been using. In dedication to Daedalus’s successor in Greek mythology, it seemed only fitting to name the new system “Talos.”

Having already coded many websites for Stuyvesant, including parts of the ARISTA site, John was a natural choice for them. To map out the starting point for Talos, John would just wander around the building and ask people who had used previous systems about areas of improvement. “I would pick people’s brains for hours until I understood every step of a process that I would then write a system to aid,” he explained. “In one case, this may look like me being invited to cabinet to be asked about the feasibility of a feature or me watching book check-in and check-outs and thinking that I could write a system to do it better.”

Having a vision for the system was only the first step; the actual execution proved to be a more difficult task. “I struggled terribly with deployment issues, balancing cost with a robust implementation that would handle thousands of concurrent users,” John admitted. It was difficult for him to try to implement his ideas while maintaining a user-friendly interface for the thousands of students and administrators who use it daily.

After facing criticism over technical errors such as website crashes during Talos’ first launch, John tried his best to resolve these issues. “I’d like to say I’ve developed a very tough skin, but it’s probably more accurate to say I’ve gotten better about turning criticism into actionable improvements,” John reflected. Getting the website to its current status has taken him approximately two years and dozens of different drafts.

The part of the website John is most proud of, however, is its customizability. Much of Talos’ efficacy comes from its unique widgets, its elements of interaction, like a button or a scroll bar. This allows the website to be dynamic and enables administrators to easily edit regulations and classes as they see fit. Because the system was built to allow the Program Chair and Data Specialist to customize its features, “I am not, and don’t need to be, a part of that process,” John said.

Yet even as Talos matures, it remains a work in progress. John works on it every day, and thanks to his efforts, Talos has developed into a marketable school information system that has become much more than just the Stuy-specific course programming tool it started off as.

Nevertheless, John still holds the intellectual property of Talos. “To maintain separation of intellectual property, no development or maintenance of Talos has been conducted on school time,” he explained. “You’ve actually caught me mid-transition from being directly employed by Stuyvesant to being employed by Talos itself and contracting as a vendor with all the schools that use it.”

Despite finding success in computer science, John’s interests extend beyond academia. When he isn’t juggling between running a debate tournament and perfecting his website, John enjoys playing the piano and aims to practice about an hour a day on average. Additionally, he enjoys sailing, though finding time to sail becomes harder as he gets older.

Though John graduated from Stuyvesant only a few years ago, he frequently reflects on his time there: “Stuy, though diverse in some respects, tends to be alike in terms of [students' mentality toward] education and ways of approaching problems: usually over-analytical and over-intellectual.” Taking that into account, John draws from his own experiences to offer advice to students struggling to find a clear path in their educational journey: “

Though I think we will likely end up where we began, we’ll be stronger from the journey.”