Our thinking

Interview with Grant Kinney

21 October 2016

Recently, Jesse James, a Designer and Front End Developer at Exygy, interviewed Grant Kinney, a Software Engineer at Exygy, as part of the Exygy team member interview series.

Grant (left) with Jesse (right)

Grant (left) with Jesse (right)

Let’s talks about your early years and background.

Starting all the way back? Hehe. I guess you could say I grew up in a small town. Always aspired to escape it. Cadillac, Michigan area has about 12k people. I remember by the time I was a senior in high school I wanted out of there, so badly.

Did you have any dreams about where you wanted to go or was it just out of there?

Just anywhere, I felt the things most people were concerned with seemed so small. And I wanted to get out there in the wider world, and experience new things. Of course I didn’t end up going that far away for college. It a was like an hour and a half away from my home. Haha. So the first step was… “Mmm, I’ll try this.” And then when I did graduate college it was like, “I’m going to one coast or the other, the west coast is further so let’s go there.”

With music is there any connection to engineering? Because I have a lot of friends in tech who also like making music, Is there something about the structure and the format of it, like “this can be programmed, there’s software you can run through this single device and I can compute some music?”

Yeah, it’s like a structure from within which you can be creative. And I think also I like playing in an ensemble, where you are one part of this whole and the dynamic of that. Like being more than the sum of the parts, there’s something extra that gets added to the whole experience, something mystical that I love. I stuck with music through college, and I also used it as a platform for exploration, too. I had a band director who was very encouraging of me exploring electronic music and composing. In addition to recording (like with Garageband) I would compose with notation software. As part of an independent study class in high school I wrote a brass quintet, and recruited some of my peers to play it with me.

On a weekly basis, what are some highlights? What makes you the happiest and brings you joy consistently outside of the work stuff?

Finding balance, sounds kind of generic. The more I live my life the less I find concern with the surface particulars: what the job is, what the technology is, who the client is. I’m more concerned with the underlying integrity of things. And then balancing all the good parts of my life: spending a good amount of time with my family, software engineering work that is technically interesting, collaborating with my coworkers. Plus finding ways to nurture myself, as well. When it’s all balanced, it feels very satisfying. Also, I would add that being a parent can be really stressful, but there are little moments that put all of it into perspective. Pulling E out of the bath, wrapping him in a towel, and having a moment of calm apart from his usually continuous toddler energy.

Want to talk about heroes? In the field of what you do now, or generally?

Sure, there are some formative people. Definitely my parents, my mother in particular who encouraged me to try anything I wanted to try. Gave me the sense of boundaryless possibilities, with a healthy dose of realism. Some of the mentors I’ve had have been very influential: when I did Clinical Pastoral Education training, my supervisor through that program. I still hear his voice in my head, because of the experience that I had there. A sort of encouragement to try and to be fearless, that’s really the biggest thing I learned from him. To not go around it, but push through that fear and trust if i bring intention and skillfulness, even if it’s painful and if something doesn’t go well, some good can come out of that.

Mentors are really important. I have a couple of people in my life that I really value regular check-ins with. We talked about some of this, but what person have you dreamed of becoming.

In my younger years, I had those grand plans. When I was on the track to ministry, it was leadership in the church. Looking for higher levels and more regard in those positions. In my 30’s now I’m so unambitious when it comes to social position. Please don’t give me a more advanced job title. Just let me work as an engineer. (laughs) I just want to be who I am.

Does that go back to the orchestra? Being one of many?

Yes, that’s a good connection. I don’t want the external pressure to limit the internal expression that’s trying to get out.

I read an article recently about Shakespeare. He switched between the roles of directing his own work, directing a play that someone else wrote, writing, and just being an actor. He had an ability to switch roles, and not try to be the writer or director when being an actor. He then he had an empathy when he was in another role, because he understood them all.

That’s why I have to be at a small company, and being at a large healthcare organization did not work for me [when I worked as a chaplain]. I need to be able to have the opportunity to step out in front when it’s needed, and to step back when it’s not. And not carry that the air of “this is my job so I have to pretend to be the manager.”

Did you know you would end up in tech? When did you first get intrigued by it?

No I didn’t know. But it’s also not a surprise. For context, both of my parents inadvertently came to do technology work. My father was a hospital pharmacist by the end of his career he worked a fair amount on the technical side. That’s how the job has evolved, computers can dispense medication more accurately than humans. So the nature of his job was changing, and he liked doing that work. It was a new challenge for him after a long career. My mother was trained as a social worker and worked in that role until I was born. And then when we [my brother and I] were old enough to go to school, she had been teaching herself technology and she applied that to become a technology director for the school district. No certifications or degrees, just knowledge she picked up on her own.

How long ago was that?

About 20 plus years ago, when she started into that. She became pretty well respected over a short period of time. To the point where some of the software vendors and companies that the school was working with tried to recruit her. So in a way I did basically the same thing, shouldn’t be too much of a surprise when you put it in context.

And so how did you find Exygy or how did Exygy find you?

Two ways. 1) Zach used to run the SF WordPress Meetups, so I was familiar with him and Exygy from those. 2) I also met Zach through the Non-profit Developer Summit that Aspiration Tech does every year. Circling those two communities we ran into each other. When I was looking to expand my work, because I was freelancing, I came across this position open at Exygy. Initially, it was more like “we are collecting resumes,” but then I had coffee with Zach and liked him a lot and the work that Exygy was doing. Then when Justin went on paternity leave I got a frantic call “can you work with us we need someone right now?!”

Since coming on, what are some of you proudest projects?

I am really proud of REDF Workshop. At the time, it was the biggest project Exygy had done. And we all touched it, everyone got to play a role. Nathalie got to do a piece, Mari got to do a piece, Pierre, Dave, Pellumb, me. It represented this huge collaborative effort and this huge technological leap. Where we started thinking less about this is CMS, this is custom apps, and these things are very far apart. We started thinking about all of them as different tools we could deploy at the same time to solve different problems. That was a neat milestone.

What’s the biggest team you’ve worked on here?

That would be REDF, about 9 or 10 people.

DAHLIA is similar, 8 people. Its big and expansive. We are trying to be better about bringing on other team members so it’s not the same team members. Right now the researcher role is being switched out, Wendy to Sheba. Because Wendy is working on “the biggest thing we’ve worked on so far” HSA. What’s the biggest way the work has changed at Exygy? From engineer to manager or orchestra to conductor.

I think there’s that piece, growing as an engineer and being able to match pace with the company. I think also the first year and a half, not having a technical background and a CS degree I felt like I was constantly trying to make up for that in some way, prove that I was technically adequate. Somewhere along the line between years one and two I realized that my other life experience is just as valuable, but in different ways.

Thank God we have Dave, and the deep technical experience he brings. We also need people like me who have a lot of other experience that informs how we relate to our clients, and how we approach solving problems outside of the technical requirements, and how we approach growing the team, and develop a shared set of values. That’s all stuff that I have training and experience in. I get to apply pieces of that skillset when there are opportunities here.

Anything else that other folks at Exygy don’t know about you that you want to reveal right now?

Not everyone knows this, I am a closet luddite.

For a tech company to house a luddite in its midst…

I do not want to use the most recent thing that’s on the market. I want to use less technology and less devices if I can. Do not give me a smartwatch or the latest iPhone. I intentionally turn off all the notifications on my phone, like Slack, keeping just get texts and phone calls. I don’t install many apps, no Facebook or anything like that. When I’m not working I use my phone, I don’t touch my computer because it has all my work stuff. If I can keep it simple on a small little screen that helps regulate.

I used to have two different computers, I tried the iPad thing sometimes But there is a shelf my computer goes on on Friday, It’s a challenge, but my partner helps me with the challenge: this doesn’t get opened.

Last controversial question: In 10 years are you going to be doing technical things?

(Laughs) I have no idea. I worry about my brain changing over time and my ability to learn new things slowing down, reduced neuroplasticity. Especially being drawn towards the front-end which changes so fast. When I’m 50, or even 40 or 45, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up.

There’s also an alternativeness to me that I’ve put aside right now, instead doing the full time job, raising a family, owning a house, doing the normal person thing. Working for Exygy was sort of where that all started. Before, I thought of myself as a part time employee on the fringes of the economy trying to keep my life simple enough so I could only work 2-3 days a week. I don’t know if returning to the alternative thing will be in tech and working at a place like this more part time. Or being a tech nomad, or something entirely different.

And that timeline started with the lightweight backpacking? There’s this process of shedding.

Yes, I think so. There was a point in my 20s where I wished I could afford cooler stuff. There was some point, after taking up minimalist backpacking, and I’m not sure what the event was, but I said I don’t want this stuff I’d rather have experiences. So now I’m oriented towards that.

Grant Kinney is a Web Engineer at Exygy, and Jesse James is a Designer and Front End Developer at Exygy. Be sure to check out more in the Exygy team member interview series here.