Written by Rory James
Photography by Ousman Diallo

Ousman Diallo

“People think of engineers as people who write code. But it’s so much more than that, it’s important not only to see yourself as an engineer, but as a steward of the product”


The seeds of a software engineer’s mindset were planted at a young age in Ousman, by none other than himself. As a nine year old boy from Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York, he struggled to keep up in class. His mind teemed with questions far beyond the parameters of the uniform approach school system. To others he may have appeared aloof or disinterested, but inside he was overflowing with ideas.

“I had such a hard time in school. I really was super quiet and so my intelligence was always brought into question.”

It’s an image hard to conjure. As now, Ousman couldn’t be more forthcoming with his thoughts, giving the immediate impression of a self-effacing confidence in himself, while speaking eloquently about his past struggles and present successes.

“I wasn't a troublesome kid, I was just mentally… in my own world. I was always so curious, but I just couldn't be satisfied in class because information didn't come the way I needed it to.”

This failure to connect in school led Ousman to look for answers to burning questions independently. And it was this response to a childhood challenge where he began developing the autonomy that would later define his character and serve him well as a coder. 

“I struggled when I was young, and so I had to take my education into my own hands. I had to learn how to learn.”

However, the clash of curiosity about the world and fear of financial insecurity in Ousman created an internal dichotomy between his desire to explore his interests and the need to ensure a stable future for himself.

Although born in the US, Ousman’s upbringing would have been radically different were it not for an impending civil war in his parent’s home nation of Liberia in the 90s. Left with the decision to risk life in a war torn nation or to uproot the family, they chose the latter. 

But the comfortable life they had worked for in Liberia could not be replicated in the USA.

“So many of the issues I faced as that struggling kid stemmed from growing up in a very financially insecure household and being in a constant fight or flight mode.

“I don’t know about anyone else, but I would have loved to have grown up rich!” He laughs amiably, brushing off any signs of self-pity and embracing his story.

“But, as it was, I grew up in one of the rougher parts of New York City as a child of immigrants from West Africa. Whether you realize it or not, you are always chasing financial security.”

This chase led him to study a more practical subject at university, where he achieved a bachelor’s degree in Computer and Information Science from Syracuse University. 

Although, following this he relented to his curious, more artistic side to follow his passion for photography and “ended up studying a mix of photojournalism with studio and fine art work.”

Photography was his priority after graduation and he achieved great success in commercial photography. 

“I don’t wanna sound obnoxious,” which it would be hard to accuse him of, “but if you throw out a name, I probably worked with them.” 

Not one to name drop himself, a quick search of his impressive portfolio of work throws up some of his collaborations, which include productions with Bacardi, Reebok, LeBron James, Travis Scott, and even a big project with Microsoft.

However, Ousman never comes across as someone satisfied with their success. Always learning, looking and searching for that next stage of his personal development, he could sense the winds of change. 

Between 2016 to 2017, while devouring books on the future of artificial intelligence, he realized the incoming technological tsunami could see him and other artists unseated by innovations in computer sciences.

It was his return to this discipline, learning how to teach himself programming languages and about systems, that helped him achieve the security he had pursued in life since growing up from that boy daydreaming in school. And it was coding for AppOmni where he cut his teeth professionally.

People think of engineers as people who write code. But it’s so much more than that, it’s important not only to see yourself as an engineer, but as a steward of the product

I felt a cognitive dissonance in that I was becoming successful in a craft I suspected may not stand the test of time 

AppOmni is a cybersecurity monitoring tool where Ousman now works as a UI engineer specializing in Javascript, Typescript, and Vue.js and the front end ecosystem.

According to the company, who have spearheaded SaaS ecosystem security since being founded in 2018, over 20% of Fortune 100 companies have given AppOmni their seal of approval.

“It's such a great, not to mention modern problem that we’re solving. Back in the 2000s we had things like McAfee antivirus software, but of course we don’t use it anymore because we’re not cavemen. 

“McAfee would trawl your local computer searching for malicious things and alert you to them. AppOmni does the same thing. Except instead of traversing your machine, we’re scraping your entire SaaS ecosystem.”

Ousman emphasizes these last three words, giving the concept the magnitude it deserves. Work like his at AppOmni is what keeps businesses and people safe from the ravages of the internet and the modern bandits always looking for ways to exploit it. 

Everyone has a SaaS ecosystem. Zoom, Google Meet, Dropbox, and Teams are all SaaS platforms. They are connection points from users to the internet which technologically savvy people can manipulate security weaknesses in to gain access to your personal information at these SaaS vector points. 

“Essentially, the work I’m doing is to help create a thick layer of security around all of your SaaS applications to protect you from any bad actors that wanna steal your info, and take advantage of you, your business, you name it.”

Ousman’s approach to working on the product is predominantly to understand how he personally can contribute to it, as an engineer but also an artist, relying on his long term vision for the final product.

“To be a great software engineer, you have to see yourself from the perspective of the product’s end user. And to be a competitive business, we need to make sure our customers are as happy with the product as they can be.

“People think of engineers as people who write code for a company. But it’s so much more than that, it’s important not only to see yourself as an engineer, as a programmer, a coder, but as a steward of the product.

“I’m not just writing code, I’m really trying to think about my end user’s pain points. Their desires for the product, and then I’m allowing that to feed into how I develop its features.”

Ousman works on feature development as part of a wider team consisting of a back-end engineer working on the infrastructure of the feature, a designer who explains to the team how the feature is going to look, and himself, who implements that design. While their product director orchestrates the overall vision and direction that his team engineers towards.

“I like to think of our team as a small battalion in an army that can build whatever feature is necessary. We have our lieutenant, the generals and the soldiers. We are a small pod but, if you give us an ambiguous problem to solve, we will solve it.”

Recently, his team built a new feature called Insights. Insights alerts AppOmni’s users to security issues that they may not be aware of yet, as well as other information that can help them achieve greater security.

“As our product is a security product, typically the people using it are security experts. However, so are we, and we know a little more than our customers. 

In addition, Ousman played a key role in helping to rebuild AppOmni's onboarding flow and dashboard, a significant milestone, as it is an integral part of every user's integration within the AppOmni ecosystem. 

The redesigned flow has successfully reduced customer complexity as they embark on their journey with AppOmni. With a clean and simple interface, the user is seamlessly guided through connecting their first SaaS applications, enhancing their overall experience and making the onboarding process smoother."

“The largest challenge here for me wasn’t building the code, but structuring out what the end result should be, and then rolling that out in a way that makes sense to the user. The questions I ask myself are things like - am I building the right product? Are we getting the necessary feedback from the user? And are we building in the right direction?”

He explains that a big concern for software engineers is not having a clear end destination for what is being built, and that often coders find they have spent months working on something in the wrong direction, wasting resources and forcing them to start again.

AppOmni’s clients are a mixture of companies, all with different security concerns and needs, and include Dropbox, RightMove and the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Building a feature like Insights that works for the range of customers AppOmni serves is a major challenge.

“For this we leverage the experience of our internal experts who synthesize all these different data ecosystems and then we spit out one unified view to our end user. 

“I don't have to be an expert on so many different arenas of the SaaS ecosystem, but I do need to be an expert in making sure the end product comes together and makes sense as a consolidated outlook.”

To accomplish this, he relies on his inclination to begin with the end in mind, a trait that may have been influenced by his background in the arts.

I felt a cognitive dissonance in that I was becoming successful in a craft I suspected may not stand the test of time

The Transition From Artist to Engineer

Even as he was achieving success as an artist, curiosity about the world still pushed Ousman to ask questions with his personal artwork. The sophisticated, almost academically inquisitive nature of his art could even see it classed as Epistemological Art. Art as a philosophical inquiry.

“I always had this investigative mind and so on the side I would publish my own projects, my investigations as I saw them, and I won some pretty prestigious awards.”

Fuelled by his reading on AI, it was these visual investigations, asking questions about the future of humanity and society, that drew him to the then still nascent topic of artificial intelligence.

“In around 2017, I started reading a lot of books about AI, which is huge now, but back then it wasn't something most people talked about, let alone even considered an issue. It was pretty obvious to me that there was going to be an acceleration in the technological field. And that AI would change the world as we know it.”

“Given the success I was building in photography, I felt a cognitive dissonance in that I was becoming successful in something I suspected may not stand the test of time.”

However, rather than let this dishearten him, Ousman instead allowed it to influence the direction of both his career and himself as an individual.

Leaning on his childhood experience of autodidactism, when the day’s photography work came to an end, his programming self studies would begin. While traveling and working with different industries and brands, he would spend his nights reading and absorbing Python and Javascript. 

The people around him at the time questioned the use of his free time on learning an “obscure” thing like programming languages. However, well-used to people misunderstanding him and his interests from his early days at school, he was undeterred by other people’s bewilderment at his use of time.

“I used to say to them ‘I think code is going to be really important soon’, and I taught myself for about a year, going deeper and deeper into the technological rabbit hole. I was looking into data science, machine learning and programming in general. 

“But, I found that one of the best ways to immerse myself in this world was to either work for a company doing programming, or do a bootcamp. 

“After researching, Codesmith stood out as the most advantageous immersion course for the future I wanted, particularly with its work on Javascript. People were saying back then that Javascript was going to eat the world one day.”

He wanted to be ahead of the curve on Javascript and programming, and so began the move from full time photographer to immersive engineering student at Codesmith, who he credits with “instilling the essential engineering values deeply.”

However, rather than divert Ousman’s attentions, Codesmith and the career in coding they provided him with has empowered Ousman. By fusing the two sides of his character, the engineer and the artist, Ousman underwent a kind of renascence that has allowed him to express his true self, uninhibited by doubt.

His artist’s understanding of creating something with the end view in mind has aided him as a front-end engineer, while engineering has given him the deep mental models to understand how things work and to ask the right questions, alongside the financial stability to also pursue his art in a meaningful way.

“One of the best things about my career in engineering is that it has genuinely taken away that feeling of insecurity that followed me. I have become financially stable and, for immigrant parents, that's one of the true hallmarks of success.”

“I felt a cognitive dissonance in that I was becoming successful in a craft I suspected may not stand the test of time”

Side Projects

While Ousman successfully pivoted from artist to engineer, this only served to inspire his artistic investigations further and enhanced his ability to express himself personally.

These projects are a continuation of his exploration of the questions that drove him to learn as a child. But, they are now nourished by his engineer’s capacity of thinking and his ability to lift the hood on the world and our society to understand their systems.

“I’m thankful to Codesmith for helping me develop my engineering brain. Because when I look beneath the surface of the modern world now, I see programming everywhere, and I can say ‘okay, I speak that language’. It’s not about coding. It’s about engineering and thinking.”

“Effectively everything you use in life is just some people that slapped a bit of code around and sold it to you as a product.”

His current project, The Future of Humanity, is an expression of Ousman dualistic character and motivations, it investigates the intersection and dynamic between technology and art.

Rather than using more traditional artforms like photography to question technology’s, specifically AI’s, influence on society, Ousman uses AI to help him “produce visual representations of humanity's future. One of the images I’m creating is a question. What do we become as human beings in the age of AI?” 

Midjourney is the generative art model that Ousman is using on the project. It creates detailed images from textual descriptions and is considered one of the more powerful generative art AI models. 

In 2022, the software has come under intense criticism from various types of artists who believe it devalues their profession and threatens their work opportunities. 

But, where many artists and authors have complained about AI’s encroachment into their spaces, Ousman has already looked beyond and accepted that the rise of AI is inexorable.

“History shows us that when people are up in arms about technology, they don’t win very often.”

It’s a deft allusion to past attempts to stop machines replacing human labor, like the Luddite textiles workers who smashed machines threatening their wages over 200 years ago. Needless to say, technology and innovation won.

“I do understand why there’s a lot of backlash happening right now with AI, particularly from people seeing others profit from their work. We haven’t figured out how to properly pay people whose work might have been scraped by AI machines.”

Ousman doesn’t mind his work being used to create something new, instead he sees it through the lens of the wonder he had as a child. “As a nine year old, I just wanted to see the world evolving and turn into something cool. So now when I see generative art I’m really just seeing people creating something fascinating and novel.”

Although it is fair to say Ousman’s own leveraging of generative art AI is not simply to create something cool, but does what all great artists do, using all the techniques at their disposal to express themselves through their work, and to ask questions of an audience.

The Future of Humanity will go to generative art festivals when it’s complete, with the intention of sparking further debate about the role of technology in society. Far from the young boy who found it difficult to speak up, Ousman is now motivated by a desire to begin border discussions and answer those questions that captivated his mind as a child.

“What really drives me today is creating conversation about how the world is changing, because it is changing so quickly now. To give just one example, if you go back to this time one year ago ChatGPT is not on the scene. Now life is completely different with it, there’s no way we could have seen this a year ago. What will next year look like, and how will this affect every aspect of life we experience?

“I remember as a nine year old feeling like I couldn't answer any questions in class because I was completely lost. I imagined a machine one day that's going to help, so that when I feel lost it would create the perfect curriculum just for me, and I would never feel lost again.”

While much of the social conversation about technology and AI’s advance casts a shadow over the future, Ousman is positively optimistic about the opportunities for humanity. 

“AI can help us potentially solve cancer, it can read the entire biological patterns of diseases and help us come up with solutions. It could get everyone in the world an Ivy League level education, because it could assess where you are academically and understand what concepts you understand and what ones you don't, and then create a curriculum that's hyper designed just for you.”

This isn’t the result of blind hope, but the result of thinking like a programmer who sees the least desirable scenario that may unfold, plans for it, and in doing so helps engineer better outcomes.

“I use my programmer’s brain to envisage the worst cases, and then program for the worst cases, because that's what good programmers do.”

These side projects have accelerated if anything as Ousman moved from full time photography to coding. In 2022/3, he has already won three international awards, including the Lucie Foundation’s Portrait Project, and second place in the LensCulture International Art Award for his photo essay of life in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York entitled Sunset at The Supermarket.

Other achievements this year include the International Collaborator of the Year and Portrait Photographer of the Year awards.

Work Set Up:

Ousman’s workstation setup differs slightly from other coders, given that he has designed it to serve both his engineering needs and his art. He uses three monitors at all times. One for the design, one for the application and one for the code.

“The laptop monitor is where I keep an eye on the design, the second monitor - a huge, super wide screen and the centerpiece of my station - is just for looking at my user interface, and the third smaller monitor is where I look at what I’m building, my code.”

Then he also has another computer that he built himself, specifically for his art. That one is highly calibrated, “super geeky” as he affectionately describes it, and “built specifically for photography, picture and video editing, pinpoint color accuracy” with a particular graphics card and RAM.

He built this computer by reverse engineering the machine that he needed for his own specific uses. 

“I looked up Apple’s machines to work out the kind of hardware I needed, such as 32 gigabytes of RAM for example, the level of the graphics card, etc. I calculated how much all of it would cost from scratch and it was way lower than what I’d pay for a similar machine from Apple. 

“The most expensive part was the NVidia GeForce graphics card, the rest of the hardware I bought online. It took about three weeks in total. I jammed all the pieces together and somehow it turned on.

“When it comes to software I rely on a few particular pieces for most things. For code, it’s VS Code, like most software engineers. I’ll be building on VS Code on my small screen every day. Then switching across to the larger monitor to inspect the design periodically.”

For his photography work he uses Adobe Photoshop, like the majority of professional photographers do. And of course, for all his workflow management and productivity, he uses Notion.

“I tell everyone about it, I should probably be a brand ambassador for them. It’s my favorite software in the world right now.”

Although clearly settled, both personally and professionally, he is now preparing to do some traveling and packing a workstation that he can carry around with him. He is moving house afterwards, out of Brooklyn, and so ending a chapter that began with a childhood defined by adversity. 

The opportunities of a remote working world and those provided by a stable career of software engineering now allow Ousman to move around and find new inspirations, stories and questions to answer.

Get inspired by the resilience, creativity, and passion of Codesmith alumni who are shaping the future of technology.

Latest Profiles

These profiles showcase some of the impact software engineers are having on our world, delving into their mindsets, inspirations and approach to their work.

Keep the inspiration