Getting Here

I’m currently sitting on a super comfy gray chair, listening to folks argue about who is or isn’t a spy… That’s because it’s Thursday night–which means it’s weekly game night here at the Khan Academy’s Mountain View HQ. I’m sitting out for this round of Resistance, a fancier version of Mafia. A lot of other games are happening, too, along with some great conversations, amongst the 20 or so Khan Academy employees and interns and a few of their guests.

I’m a Software Engineering Intern at Khan Academy for the summer, a job I had wanted for over two years. It still hasn’t quite sunk in that I’m here. When Salman Khan gave a talk at Berkeley two and half years ago during my freshman year of college, I fell in love with Khan Academy. I wasn’t the only one, of course. Khan Academy has gotten tons of media attention in the past few years, much to the delight of the thousands of people eager to read and hear more about the incredible story of the organization.

I, myself, was most mesmerized right after hearing Sal share his story that night at Cal, about how a simple tutoring gig with his younger cousin Nadia turned into a “free, world-class education for everyone”. The genuineness of Sal’s narrative, the purity (and audacity) of the organization’s mission, and the demonstrable impact it was having on students all over world, made for an entrepreneurial tale that was beautifully refreshing and totally inspiring.

That’s why, when they said they were hiring Software Engineers for the summer…I was almost in shock. You mean, they were hiring people like me? At that point, I had no clue about the interactive exercise framework being built and how core engineering was to the organization’s efforts. Yes, folks, Khan Academy does more than make videos. Much more. But anyway, I was ecstatic.

Too bad I was a freshman who had only been programming for less than 8 months…and that the only programming languages I knew were BYOB (Berkeley’s visual programming platform) and Scheme (an awesome language, but unfortunately rarely used in practice). But, I decided to apply anyway. But at that point, it was May…way after companies usually finish their hiring. Combining that with my lack of experience, let’s just say the odds weren’t totally on my side.

To make up for it, I put the most amount of time I’ve ever put into a job application. I made my own Khan-style video with “three reasons why Khan Academy should hire Aatash Parikh”, and put it on a page that resembled an official Khan Academy video page, replacing the comments section with ideas I had for the organization and some of my qualifications. I spent 20-30 hours on that app, when I should have been studying for finals. But it worked: Ben Kamens emailed me the next day, requesting a phone interview. A couple of interviews later, I would find out I didn’t get the job. Looking back, I’m not that surprised, seeing the caliber of the interns that did end up working there that summer.

But that was just the first time I applied. It would take me two more to finally get the job, and here I am, summer after my junior year. Now, I am not only a much more experienced programmer, but I have also spent two years immersed in the online education space. I have worked on projects, gone to events, organized events, and am involved in creating a MOOC-version of a popular Berkeley course. When I come to Khan Academy now, it’s not as a fanboy. This summer, I plan to use my skills and my experience in this space to really help take Khan Academy to the next level and further fulfill its potential to change what education means in today’s society.

Of course, there’s still a bit of fanboy in me. I get to work with a modern day celebrity in Sal, which means things like visits from Elon Musk and a collab with Lebron James. Yeah. And the rest of the team members are some of the smartest people in the world, celebrities in their own right. In my first two weeks, my mentors Stephanie Chang and Desmond Brand have been nothing short of awesome–the right combination of instructing and empowering, along with being great role models.

Plus, I’m working at the organization that sparked almost all of the innovation happening in education technology in the last couple years. And don’t worry, there’s a lot more to come.