Karl Castillo provides mentorship to Lighthouse Labs students as well as a technical mentor at Canada Learning Code. ( Photo provided)

Breaking sterotypes and championing accessibility in the digital sphere

By Carlo Javier

“It just made sense to me,” says Karl Castillo. “It felt natural, it clicks.”

We’re in the lobby floor of the Microsoft Vancouver Campus on Beatty Street, mere steps away from BC Place, inside a Starbucks where I assumed developers tend to congregate. Karl tells me no, this isn’t the usual spot, but it is convenient. 

The first thing you might notice about the 28-year-old is his voluminous, enviable, lion’s mane-like hair. Sometimes, he’ll rest a hat seemingly precariously on top of his abundant hair, almost like a crown. Today, he’s just letting it flow.

Karl’s hair might be an easy identifier to pick out, but for the talented web developer, his stance on identity is a little bit more complex.

The first few lines of Karl’s LinkedIn profile will tell you about about his thoughts on the modern Filipino identity: “As a Filipino, it’s usually expected of me to become a mailman or even (gasp) a nurse, but I decided to switch things up a bit for the laughs,” his bio reads. “I became a developer instead, and a pretty damn good one at that, according to my mother.”

She’s right, because I first met Karl while I was studying Web Development at Lighthouse Labs – where he spends a couple of hours a week as a mentor to students learning code. Occasionally, he’ll also lead workshops on HTML, CSS, or Javascript.

Karl’s fascination with code and web development took shape early in his life. He first started coding in Grade 4, while attending the Don Bosco Technical College in the Philippines. Back then, he first worked with HTML1. 

At 14, Karl’s family would move to Canada where his dad works as part of a mining company, by his teenage years he already knew how he would like his education and eventual career path to unfold. “When I got here it was either interior design or development,” he says. 

After spending his high school years in Killarney Secondary, Karl quickly transitioned to post-secondary studies at BCIT. Soon, he landed his first actual coding job at Autobox Media – a West Vancouver-based digital marketing agency. While the experience was invaluable, Karl looks back on his first coding job with a tepid perspective, citing the lack of mentorship as a significant shortcoming. Eventually, Karl landed positions at Machobear Studios, and most recently, he joined Microsoft’s The Coalition.

One of the things that stands out about Karl is the unique space he occupies as 1.5 Generation Filipino, and his cognizant understanding of how the existing stereotypes about immigrant Filipinos can be demoralizing – and how breaking these stereotypes is not as easy as it sounds. 

“There’s a catch,” he says. “Lawyers and doctors need to do an equivalency and transferring experiences and knowledge is not as seamless.” 

Further, he adds, “If you come here, as a teenager, or something young and if you don’t do anything about it then you’re just propagating the stereotype.”

He’s also critical of how Filipino parents can be enamoured with the glamour of prestige. “There’s too many of the same ideals among Filipino parents,” he says. “Specifically being able to get into a bigger university like UBC or something like that. I went to BCIT, I didn’t even apply to UBC or SFU, I’m pretty sure I could get in, but there’s no point. BCIT, you go in, you get out, the purpose is to get a job, get a career.”

Like many from the development community, Karl’s passion to “code it forward” is apparent. On top of providing mentorship to Lighthouse Labs students, Karl also volunteers as a technical mentor at Canada Learning Code. “Teaching feels natural,” he says, comparing the process of mentorship to his days coaching in dragon boating. 

Outside of the digital sphere, Karl enjoys powerlifting, having switched his regular work outs three years ago. For the most part, he prefers the measurable goals that powerlifting can present as opposed to traditional bodybuilding. 

Karlworks Media is an upstart digital media company Karl launched to help him address some of the issues that exist in development and design. “I want to get it as a starting point of possibly a bigger thing,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to start my own digital media company that focuses on accessibility more than anything.” For Karl, his passion for building more accessible websites and programs stems from a personal level. “I know a lot of people who are either visually impaired or needs some sort of extra support accessibility-wise,” he says. “… And with tech being a lot easier to acquire, people aren’t taking into account the other market.”

The launch of Karlworks Media was also motivated by his aspiration to get into The Coalition. “I needed a business,” he said. “I was going to do it anyway, I just didn’t have an actual reason to do it.”

Much is to be expected from a talent like Karl, to keep up with his work, follow his accounts on the following platforms:

Medium: @karlcastillo

Twitter: @koralarts