At age seven, most kids are still playing pretend or with fiddling toys. Jane Wong was downloading software trials--from Download.com--and exploring the internet.
Wong, now 23 and an undergrad at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, is a software engineer. Her app reverse-engineering hobby has landed her as a news source for dozens of tech publications and earned her the title of the web's best "tipster" for app news.
Wong spends her free time combing through an app's code to discover changes developers are planning. Once she finds an unreleased feature, she usually takes a screengrab and posts it to her Twitter account, which has more than 11,000 followers now.
When I interviewed Wong it was 11 p.m. in Hong Kong, where she lives. I was worried it was too late to chat, but she said she usually stays up late to catch new app updates to pick apart.
Wong has uncovered updates about the world's popular apps including Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, and others. While there are other reverse engineers hard at work, Wong continues to work independently and considers finding unreleased features a hobby. She's even turned down a few job offers.
"I'm not sure if that is sustainable for me for the long run. Because, the app company, the tech company, they will continue to do something to the apps to prevent people like me from breaking in," she said.
In the future, Wong has plans to build her own app with friends, but she said it's under wraps for now.
"That's definitely a possibility for the future," Wong said. "I'm sure I have some ideas, and I want to collaborate with my friends to be an entrepreneur."
For now, Wong said she's satisfied with knowing how apps work and being able to uncover some of the app's secrets.
It would seem most of Wong's future trajectory was set from a young age. As she continued poking around the internet, her parents, looking out for her safety, started implementing passwords and parental controls.
"I was so frustrated because I couldn't just browse the internet. So, I had to come up with some ways to get around that," she said.
After Wong cracked the passwords, she started downloading software trials from Download.com. As she explored and learned, she developed a theory.
"Nothing is perfect--including humans. Therefore, the creation is also not perfect," Wong said. "So, I started to think, 'hmm, maybe there are some bugs that I can get around.' So, I started looking into programming. I started with the C programming language back then."
But, uncovering what goes on behind the scenes of apps people use every day really intrigues Wong.
"To me, that's very interesting to see how some apps work," she said. "Sometimes, I might come across some of the messages or some of the texts developers might've left behind in the apps. I would be able to tell the culture of the web space."
When Wong dives into an app's code she's looking for changes that will affect how users engage with it on a daily basis. She's less interested in small cosmetic changes.
"If the entire [user interface] is changed in a way you can tell the way they're going, then I would talk about it. Maybe if it is a feature that might lead to social impact. Maybe it might help everybody's day to day life," she said.
Wong referenced Facebook's recent "unsend" feature in Messenger that she found earlier this month.
"In case people are regretful and they want to save their relationships? That's a feature I might talk about," Wong said.
Wong is also taking notes on how large companies structured their popular apps.
"From that, I can learn more about how I can do my apps in the future," she said.
Her two favorite apps are Facebook and Twitter, but not for the reasons other users might list.
"Twitter, probably because it's so fast. The app is so smooth," she said. "But in terms of the scale and the technology behind the apps, I think Facebook would be the best app I have ever seen because behind the scenes it is so large-scale. There's just so many lines of code behind it. The fact that they managed to package it, deliver it, and serve it to millions and billions of users around the globe is fascinating."
Being in Hong Kong has its advantages and disadvantages for Wong. The city has realized its potential in technology in recent years, she said. She compared Hong Kong to the beginnings of Silicon Valley in the US, but the tech scene hasn't been fully embraced yet.
"There's a lot of crazy technology out there. And, there's a lot of people who just adopt the technology from China. So, there's definitely a space to grow in Hong Kong," she said.
Wong continues to post leaks on her Twitter daily--sometimes one or two, sometimes more. She said she hasn't gotten any negative comments from the companies she posts about. She's encountered some trolls, but mostly the experience has been positive.
Even her parents approve now.
FOLLOW Download.com on Twitter for all the latest app news.
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