Building Products and Community in Chicago's Growing Tech Sector

When Alex Kahn joined Startup Institute Chicago's web development course in fall 2014, he'd already been a technologist at heart and was ready to take this passion to the main stage. With a degree in economics and prior experience in market research, growth-strategy, and IT for a Floridian dental practice, Alex came to Chicago ready to immerse himself in both tech skills and the tech community.  A quick study, it wasn't long after graduating before Alex was employed as a full-stack developer, and then began paying-it-forward to new and prospective Startup Institute students as a mentor and career sounding-board.

Alex's continued support, generosity, and humility encompasses what it means to be a part of our community, which is why we presented him with the first-ever Owl Award for an alum in Chicago. In the words of Program Director Lisa Schumacher,

It was so obvious and so easy to choose Alex Kahn as the first alum in Chicago to win the Owl Award. He is brilliant, scrappy, hard-working, and ambitious, but what really stands out is how much he cares about helping others. Alex has faithfully given his all to web dev and design students and he has helped countless prospective students figure out if they are ready to take the leap. He’s also fast with the clever and inscrutable commentary when we want our minds blown.

We caught up with Alex to hear about his experiences and growth since launching his career as a web developer, and to learn about his current role at Mac & Mia.

[bctt tweet=".@KahnTemplate is brilliant, scrappy, + cares so much about helping others, says @eatonbrook"]

1. Q: Tell us about Mac & Mia and your role there.

A: Mac & Mia is a children’s clothing service where we pair people with stylists that curate a selection of pieces that fit their needs (and wants). The clothing is shipped free, and inventory that is hand-selected from vendors whose practices meet our standards.

As a software engineer at Mac & Mia, my role is to deliver software and hardware solutions that help us to grow and scale (along with doing anything else that needs to be done).

2. Q: Can you talk a bit about your own development process?

A: I like to think that my approach is simple. I ask myself: what are we automating? Once we have a manual process that fits our business requirements, how can we make things faster with technology? Moreover, is there something that we need or want to do that wouldn’t be feasible to do by hand? The key to success in building products is defining the smallest useful unit of functionality that takes you a step closer to your ideal world.[bctt tweet="What is the smallest unit of functionality to get 1 step closer to the ideal product—@KahnTemplate"]

3. Q: You like to say that you're passionate about "getting your hands dirty in code." Can you elaborate on what this means to you?

A: In college, my C++ teacher (Dr. David Gaitros, FSU) always emphasized that writing programs involved “feeling the pain of the code.” Being able to write software means being able to think like a machine thinks and communicate an idea to the machine so it doesn’t get mad at you. Sometimes, this means digging deep into protocols, different ways of describing time (it’s really quite obscene), standards, floating point arithmetic: it can get frustrating and tedious. But ultimately it can get you to another level of understanding, so the statement is really self-serving. I’m willing to go through this to better myself and my craft.[bctt tweet="Writing software means thinking like a machine + communicating ideas in that way, says @KahnTemplate"]

4. Q: What is most challenging to you about your role?

A: The most challenging part of developing is wanting to do too much all at once for too many people and balancing that against what one might call a “personal life.”

5. Q: What is most exciting about being a software engineer?

A: A few things stand out. That moment when you run your test suite after changing something and it works. Also, I really love it when our users find something to be magical: there’s something delightful about spending an hour or two making something that puts a smile on someone’s face. And making big features is cool, but what I really love is shaving a few milliseconds off our response times and making the code cleaner.[bctt tweet="Spending an hr or 2 building something that will make someone smile is delightful—@KahnTemplate"]

6. Q: You were the Student Choice Award winning instructor in our web design track last spring. Tell us about what you teach. 

A: I generally teach JavaScript to the web design track, but have been known to sneak over to teach a web development course or two. I absolutely love JavaScript: it’s quirky and flexible (which don’t always mix well), it’s a great teaching language due to its syntactic compactness, and you can write in a variety of styles (oo, functional, procedural, etc).

Teaching JavaScript to others is such a delight, especially when you’re teaching designers. I love demystifying the subject and empowering people with the ability to conjure the spirits in the machine. Software runs the world. The more people that understand this and learn to write it, the better the world can be.[bctt tweet="I love demystifying #JavaScript + empowering ppl to conjure the spirits in the machine—@KahnTemplate"]

7. Q: What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? Do you have any advice for enrolling web development students?

A: I can think of two pieces of career advice that have helped me:

  1. Follow the path of greatest excitement.
  2. If you can speak business and technology, you’ll be worth your weight in gold.

Here’s some advice for the prospective web developers out there:

No matter who you are, what you look like, where you live, who you love—you can do this! Code always wins arguments. Done is better than perfect. Done means there are unit tests.[bctt tweet="If you can speak #business + #tech, you'll be worth your weight in gold, says @KahnTemplate"]

8. Q: What do you love most about the Chicago tech scene?

A: Chicago is a great place to find a little bit of everything. There are people doing great things with financial technology, hardware, health technology, apps, enterprise solutions, everything! We are getting more mature, attracting excellent talent, and funding big projects that reach all over the globe.[bctt tweet="As #ChicagoTech matures, we're attracting excellent talent + expanding our reach, says @KahnTemplate"]

9. Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A: Being a Startup Institute Chicago alumnus is one of my greatest accomplishments. Startup Institute helped give me the boost in skills I needed, the focus I desperately needed, and the networking opportunities to meet the people I work with now. I loved the program and enjoy being able to give back to the people who will help shape the future of technology and business the world over.[bctt tweet="Being a @StartupInst alumnus is one of my greatest accomplishments, says @KahnTemplate" via="no"]