My First Six Weeks at Khan Academy

Some say the first six weeks of a new job are the hardest. Most don’t, but that is astoundingly convenient for the timing of this article, so let’s just roll with it. Here’s what I’ve been up to at Khan Academy, and here’s how I got here.

Day 1

The first day on the job involved me nervously asking strangers where I could find the Shoreline shuttle—Actually, let’s slow down a bit.

Day -252: Early November

About 24 hours after submitting my application, my inbox alerted me with a response to set up a Skype interview in mid-November. I was thrilled, anxious, happy, nervous, and every synonym in between. But it was just an interview, and I was still a naive college student: no celebration yet.

Okay maybe a little one.

Late November

It was interview time. I had just completed my 200th lap pacing around my room when I saw 1:54 on the clock. I threw on some headphones thinking I could calm my nerves, and scrolled down to play some Chopin. iTunes started playing Cher instead and then froze.

1:55.

Notebook in hand, pencils sharpened, and a few tabs open to make sure I remember to mention the silly python project I worked on two years ago. I took the next few minutes to fake my way through some breathing exercises and stare awkwardly at my empty Skype buddy list, then it rang…

“Hi Jordan this is Stephanie from KA”

The interview process was pretty straightforward, and super delightful. I had a really great conversation with my first interviewer, followed by a small project and a review of it with John, and finally an interview with Ben.

December

I flew out to Mountain View for “the lunch interview” and finally got to put faces to the names of people whose blogs I had been stalking for months. I sat with a group of crazy smart folks and began to introduce myself. “So what do you like to do in your spare time?” Then from a distance I heard the voice — Yep, that’s him. The Khan in Khan Academy. Oh boy, that’s really him. Welcome to the big league. — “Sorry, what was that?” I responded, distracted.

Our table chatted for a little while about my background and some of the stuff I’ve worked on. Everyone had something to add, different classes they took, careers they used to have, strange hobbies they were proud of. I’m a shy person and yet I felt tremendously comfortable talking to them — giving me a sense of the “sit around and B.S. with coworkers” time which I’ve always been such a huge proponent of. The discourse quickly evolved into a conversation about plutonium and biological warfare (like, really quickly) and I just knew I had to work there.

I also got to chat with Sal and Shantanu for a bit. I left there with a signed copy of The One World Schoolhouse and a big smile on my face. “Good interview?” my Uber driver asked.

I took a train back to San Francisco to meet up with a good friend over some ramen. “So how did it go?” she asked. I felt my phone vibrate, took it out of my pocket, and saw an email from Ben. “Congratulations Jordan!” Holy [redacted].

“Sorry, what was that?” I responded, distracted.

I headed back to my hotel room, read the email in full, dried my eyes, left a text for my mom, and didn’t sleep a wink that night.

I accepted the job the day after Christmas and waited seven long months before finally walking through the door. In the meantime I received quite a few emails from future team members expressing how excited they were to have me join them in the summer. My entire week was made each time I received one of these notes, and I felt like a key part of the team before I even got there.

Day 1

The first day on the job involved me nervously asking strangers where I could find the Shoreline shuttle. Seriously, they hide these things.

It’s strange how vividly I remember that commute. Sitting backwards on the Caltrain (it would take me a few days before realizing which cars had seats facing forwards and which did not), nervously refreshing my twitter feed without actually reading anything, and wondering if my shirt looked horrible or just really bad.

Still, I made it. I walked through the big wooden doors, was greeted by Kayla, and made my way over to my new desk. I unboxed and set up my machine in between meeting my new coworkers. Slowly going through the onboarding docs, I realized these people really had it together. Every question I had as a 2-hour veteran was answered, and anything else was just a HipChat message away.

I then finally met my mentor-manager Marcia. “Let’s go to Red Rock to get some coffee, sound good?” Career Turning Point #1. I don’t like coffee, but I couldn’t just say “no” and situate myself as “Oh, Jordan? Yeah he’s cool but he says no all the time,” so I said yes. We hopped on out to Red Rock, where I ordered an Americano and actually liked it. On the ride back we chatted about all the cool things I would be introduced to this week, some medium-long-term goals I had, and how I should be ready to share two truths and a lie at the company update. Marcia made it very clear that I could ping her about anything — asking questions is highly encouraged at Khan Academy.

For the record, I drink coffee pretty regularly now.

Back at the office I finished setting up my machine, shared my two truths and a lie, and began working on my first feature as a full-time engineer: adding myself to the “Team” page. I changed the Jinja template, got my code through review with the help of my teammate Leah, and actually deployed the site on my first day. How rad is that?

Some things I learned on my first day:

  • It’s a great feeling when your team goes out of their way to make you feel at home.
  • A junior engineer can deploy the website and everything will be fine.
  • Coffee’s actually pretty good.

I spent the rest of the week fixing a few UI bugs, swimming through the codebase, and rapidly integrating git-grep into my workflow.

Month 1

I slowly made my way deeper into the stack: learning more company vocabulary, making a few emails, and moving from simple front-end fixes to back-end work. I got to write a lot of Python, which was a nice change from JavaScript because Python is a real language. I fixed some bugs, got scared of others, and started taking ownership of more features.

I still had plenty of stupid questions, but Marcia answered them all with a truly inspiring level of enthusiasm.

At the end of my first month my team of four developers quickly shrank to just one — me. I had set a short-term goal to take ownership of more features on the site, and suddenly I owned a lot of features. I was still getting into the swing of things, and such a change of responsibility was admittedly pretty shocking at first, but I knew it was a great opportunity for me.

I had a strong support network, and my mentor assured me that there would always be someone there to help: someone to answer my questions, someone to review my code, and someone to guide me along whenever I got stuck. The summer work was coming to a close, and as fall approached I was pumped — I had everything I needed and then some.

Some things I learned during my first month:

  • There’s no reason to feel embarrassed about something you don’t know.
  • Every good and not-so-good thing can be used as an opportunity to learn and grow as a developer.
  • I’m really glad I didn’t pursue a basketball career.

Beyond

So what am I up to at Khan Academy? I’m working on Coach and Class building tools for teachers and parents. I’m in a unique position to interact with many different teams and work with lots of interesting people. Each week I’m excited to hear how folks are using Khan Academy in new and interesting ways, and every day I go to work knowing the impact I have on millions of eager learners. It’s a pretty great way to get out of bed in the morning.

I’m surrounded by opportunities to learn, and dozens of brilliant people who are always willing to teach. Because of this, I’ve gained a crazy amount of technical knowledge in my short time here, but equally importantly, I’ve had the chance to improve my not-so-technical skills: communication, public speaking, and prioritization, among others. These are things I hadn’t put much thought into before, but now I better understand their significance.

Each day is filled with an exciting challenge, and I always take it on with a smile. There’s a constant source of motivation knowing that my features will be used by a lot of people, and I’ve grown to treat every obstacle as a learning experience. You don’t have to justify the importance of your work at Khan Academy — you get that for free.

Interested in hearing more about Khan Academy? Drop me a line anytime at jordan@khanacademy.org.