How I got my developer job at Khan Academy (as someone who was severely underqualified)

I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages and have told this story in enough 1:1s that I feel the need to share it in a more scalable way. I want to share it more widely because I hope it can help other people (if I’m lucky, maybe you!) believe and see how they can reach a goal they thought was out-of-reach.

My second objective is to share some practical strategic advice on and tactical examples relevant to trying to get a job for which you’re severely underqualified. When celebrating on Facebook or Twitter, many people omit the nitty gritty details of their path to success. When we read other people’s success snippets, we might think, “Oh, that person is just better than me at X. I could never be as successful.” The former might be true. But the latter doesn’t have to be.

This post isn’t brief. Instead, it provides a comprehensive walkthrough of all the shenanigans I went through to get my job offer. While luck played a nontrivial role in the happy outcome, a great deal of hard work, hope, and good ole-fashioned attention to detail helped me maximize and grow my share of luck. You can do this and more. The first and most important step is to believe that you can.

I’m going to start my story from the point after I decided to apply for a software developer job at Khan Academy. Maybe in a future post I’ll share my decision-making process before then, if folks would find it useful.

An invisible burden

For much of my life, my family has had problems. And by extension, me. By some measures, the problems have been quite extreme. By others, not so bad. However, when the problems started to diverge more widely from what my peers reported experiencing, I began to feel pretty disadvantaged. I felt so alone, so tired. I felt I had to grow up too quickly, that I didn’t have the luxury of relaxing and enjoying life.

Part of this was true – yes, objectively speaking, not many people of my demographic, who’ve sought to achieve what I want to achieve, have had this particular mix of life experiences. But part of it was reinforced by a negative story I was telling myself about being a victim of my circumstances, of having an invisible extra weight to bear that nobody knew about, or could know about [1].

Some of this self-talk made me stronger (feeling more resilient than the average person), but a lot of it was counter-productive and made me feel distant from the people around me.

I’m in a good place right now, one where I don’t feel so weighed down by my family’s problems, where I can focus on fixing my own. Everyone’s journey is different, but I want to reflect on a few things that helped me get to this good place right now. It’s not a comprehensive list because I don’t want this post to get too unwieldy, but it includes a few of the primary things that come to mind.

How to tell your Asian parents you’re quitting your cushy job

About a year and a half ago, I emailed my parents (who are first-generation Korean Americans) announcing that I’d decided to leave my PM job at Microsoft. Without very concrete skills, and without another job lined up.

I had tried my best to think rationally about my situation, and I concluded that opportunity costs of staying at a job where I didn’t feel I was learning the right things were too high. Of course, if I were being purely rational, I could have waited until securing another job or getting funding for my own company/project, but I felt the urgent need to test myself and create an identity around taking calculated risks, to convince myself that I was not afraid.

Takeaways from my latest project

I recently shipped a new exercise on Khan Academy called Visualizing Derivatives. The exercise seeks to test students’ ability to intuit and visualize how a derivative relates to a function.

To users, the exercise appears fairly straightforward, but I found it to be an interesting and nicely-scoped engineering challenge. I was fortunate enough to get some things at least somewhat right from the beginning, which I’ll share here. Plenty of things didn’t go so nicely. I write about one big lesson I learned in the next post.

7 tips for developing your first Khan Academy exercise

Disclaimer: This is intended mainly for beginners to web development. Also, these tips assume you’ve already read through the Getting Involved page and gotten set up with the basics of git, etc.

Several months ago, I learned about the Khan Academy’s open source Exercises framework. I had never before contributed to an open source project and was pretty new to web development. KA’s Getting Involved section was packed with helpful starting points. It seemed like a great opportunity to learn while helping real users in a very tangible way. So, without further ado, I dove in.

Ants and mindfulness

Lately, we’ve had a major ant infestation in our main bathroom. There are some sizeable cracks in the wall near the bathtub, and the ants have transformed our humble bathroom into a veritable ant city. They bump heads in a little ant-street formed at the base of the bathtub, and have made inroads around the sink basin and inside the bathtub. Each day, a few adventurous souls make it to the toilet and take to scaling the walls.

My housemates got ant baits that don’t seem to be working terribly well, and I haven’t really done much besides wash out the ants from the tub before I shower. I fill up a large plastic bowl with water from the sink and swoosh the ants down the drain.

Maybe I should be more proactive about “taking care” of the ant problem, but I have found the ants’ presence to be surprisingly grounding and a useful reminder to be mindful. How?

Why stories are so important

When we talk about achieving a personal goal, such as losing weight or getting a job, we tend to focus on the mechanics of the process: how often to exercise and what to eat, which companies to apply to and when, etc.

But so often, we end up falling behind, getting discouraged, and ultimately not meeting our goals. In these cases, it’s not enough to just talk mechanics. Something more fundamental is needed, something to keep us moving forward even when we are painfully aware we’re off-track.

That something is a story.

2011 Duke Pratt School of Engineering graduation speech

Note: As the 2011 senior class president of the Duke Engineering Student Government, I had the distinct honor of delivering the Pratt School of Engineering student graduation speech. It sounds kind of awkward when read, because it was written to be spoken. =/

Dear Pratt Class of 2011, we’ve made it. After four years of hazing by Epsilon Gamma Rho, taming the beast that is MATLAB, and eventually succumbing to senioritis, we are here. To family and friends attending today, thank you for your support. We couldn’t have done it without you or your money. Just kidding; checking to see that you’re awake!

I figured a lot of exclusive awards are going to be handed out today, so I’d like to share a personal story that reminded me of a substantial achievement that every one of us can claim as our own.

The wonders of molecular cloning

Note: This post, which I wrote the summer after my freshman year at Duke, was originally published on the Howard Hughes Research Fellows Program blog. I ported it over here as an homage to my past life in biology research. Also, from a conceptual standpoint molecular cloning remains pretty interesting.

My goal this summer has been to generate an animal cell line that can give off a measurable signal when a certain cancer-related gene is expressed, or made into protein. Specifically, I am trying to place the regulatory sequence, or “promoter”, of the ARF gene before the DNA sequence which codes for the fluorescent protein mCherry. When a certain wavelength of light is shined on cells expressing mCherry, the protein emits another wavelength of light which appears red in the visible spectrum. Cells which contain this new DNA and have ARF activated will respond to excitatory radiation by shining red. Those without ARF will return a weak signal or no color at all.