Know This Nerd? Meet Kevan Ahlquist

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Kevan Ahlquist is a full stack Software Engineer currently working for Amazon in Minneapolis.

 

What initially sparked your interest in technology?

I was always interested in how electronic and mechanical systems worked. I disassembled a lot of old electronics as a kid. Sometimes I even managed to put them back together. My interest in software started in high school when a friend showed me a TI-84 calculator program that drew waves on the screen. It was just an loop of zigzagging lines on the screen, but it helped me realize that software was something that I could build, just like lego models or RC cars.

What was the first programming language you learned?

TI Basic (for graphing calculators) was the first programming language I used. I stumbled through the basic aspects of programming like storing data in variables and managing control flow. Most of my early programs automated repetitive formulas for chemistry and physics classes. The first “real” language I learned was Racket in a college class.

What do you do now?

I’m a full-stack developer, I like working on a pretty wide variety of projects. I’ve worked on everything from high-scale Java services to React/Redux/Mithril/Vue web frontends. I’ve also done a bit of iOS and Android development. I currently build backend systems and websites that support freight logistics for Amazon. I’d love to work on more distributed systems in the future.

I usually also have a side project. From 2014 to 2016 it was UI for Docker, a Docker management frontend that I grew to over 15 million downloads. Now it’s Natrium, a virtual personal life coach for people that have big goals but struggle to stay on track. I built it to automate my routine of frequent reflections on long-term goal progress. Now I’m sharing it with everyone!

How did you develop the skillsets to get to where you are today?

Three things come to mind. First, time and focus. Right after I graduated, my roommate started law school. Usually when he was studying I was working on career development. Having a study buddy helped me set aside time to develop my skills outside of my day job.

Second, volunteering for scary new things. This was how I got started with UI for Docker. I’d never used Golang, Docker or AngularJS before but by volunteering at work, I put myself in a position where I had to figure it out.

Finally, trying (and failing at) the hard stuff. It’s scary to be in unfamiliar situations where you don’t know how to succeed. But that’s ok. Failure isn’t the end of the world. If you put yourself in these situations you’ll start to see patterns emerge, both in the situations and in your reactions to them. Then you can apply these patterns in the future.

What tools do you use on a daily basis?

I generally use Java or Python, AWS services, IntelliJ, Git, and a linux dev server somewhere in the cloud. On the non-tech side I use HemingwayApp as a first-round proofreader. It helps me get rid of the fluff when I’m writing.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I take a lot of satisfaction in helping teams be more effective. I’m a big believer in the pit of success and guiding behavior by making the desired action the easiest one. Engineers often undervalue good UX in their tools and workflow. There are usually opportunities for big improvements there.

What is your biggest programming pet peeve?

A big pet peeve of mine is using Javascript type coercion. It’s always a bad idea. Make it a lint error and you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches.

Any advice for people considering a career in programming?

First, it’s a popular field. Make sure you’re doing it because you’re interested in it, not just because it’s a hot field. Second, there are tons of resources available online. Some good starting points are freeCodeCamp and CodeAcademy. Meetup.com is a great place to find meetups for aspiring programmers in your city.

Where do you think technology will be as it relates to you in five years?

I think major cloud companies will continue to commoditize foundational software building blocks . This will enable startups take on bigger and bigger problems with the same engineering effort.

What was the coolest, but most useless bit of programming you’ve seen lately?

Clapify.com, a website that makes it a 👏little 👏too 👏easy 👏 to add emojis to sentences for emphasis.

What are some things you’re into outside of tech?

Aside from techy side projects, I’m the organizer and trumpet player for a local brass band, The Whistle Blue. We play everything from the Temptations to Ariana Grande with plenty of improv solos and screaming trumpets.

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