Kaanon MacFarlane has a stellar career as a software engineer at Pinterest, but his entrance into the tech world comes through something super relatable — video games. The Los-Angeles native who now resides in the Bay originally wanted to be a video game creator. He went to college to pursue that dream and learned to code before transitioning into web technologies. But familiar video games like NBA2K were an accessible entry point for his future career.
If you’ve ever thought about a career in tech (or especially if you haven’t), MacFarlane has some valuable advice on how and why more of us should pursue a variety of careers in tech. He shared some insight on how anyone can break into the field of engineering, representation for the black and brown youth who might want a similar career one day, and being a pioneer. Check out what he has to say below:
Blavity: What’s your role at Pinterest? How long have you been with the team?
Kaanon MacFarlane: I’m a software engineer on the Partners team. My work focuses on the front-end, another word for the pages that people actually see and use. I’ve been at the company for about nine months, after moving to the Bay Area from the Los Angeles area with my family.
B: Can you tell me a bit about your day-to-day in your role?
KM: Most of my day is spent writing code. I have different requirements of how we want to build something new for users or modify the product because something isn’t working how we want it to. A large part of my job is about understanding how the system works together and connecting pieces of it. Sometimes, the system doesn’t yet do what we need it to do, so I build new parts to accomplish the new functionality.
B: How did you break into the field of engineering?
KM: During High School, I played a LOT of video games and realized someone must be making them. Maybe that could be me! I was convinced I would be a video game creator once I went to college and learned how to program, properly. In college, I moved into web technologies but NBA 2k and Madden started me on the path. I see young people now learning from the internet or books, but I needed college to do that.
B: What do you think needs to happen to increase diversity in engineering roles?
KM: I think we need better representation and knowledge that careers like mine even exist. Lots of kids know what Mark Zuckerberg looks like. He got a movie! Sometimes people don’t even know that my job exists. I know a guy whose mother and father are doctors. His brother is a doctor. Becoming a doctor is just what you do in his family, and you know how to do it because you know people who have done it. If you are Black or Latinx or a woman, you might not know anyone who has gone into software engineering. You must be a pioneer. It’s hard to be a pioneer. It’s a lot easier to follow a well-trodden path and ask guides for which routes to take.
B: What advice do you have for anyone looking to pursue a similar role to yours?
KM: Get trained up, then build something. Coding is like any other skill. It grows best when you deliberately practice on getting better.
B: Do you have any specific recommendations on where to find places to learn skills such as coding or other outlets?
KM: I went to school for it. It’s the sort of thing you can learn on your own, but it’s better when you have a teacher who can lead you through the journey. https://egghead.io/ has many good courses if you want to give it a try.
One way I keep up my skills is by following respected engineers on social media like Twitter or Medium and reading the articles they recommend.
B: What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned in your career journey so far?
KM: My advice would be to keep building stuff on your own. Most of the skills I’ve used to “graduate” into new jobs were learned on my own time, off the job. Building your own thing, even if it’s not a full blown company, is where you can explore new technology without restraint. You can try things you’ve heard about. You get to start from an empty lot and build the house as you see fit. Every time I’ve done it, my skills have grown tremendously.
B: What do you think are the most essential steps when trying to pursue a career in the field of tech?
KM: If you can, go to school for it. Take a computer science class and try it out. If you love it, it’s a wonderful career. If you don’t, you can try something else. School isn’t as essential as it used to be, but it’s wonderful to have a good base of knowledge to grow your skills on. In fact, that’s the tip. Make sure you have a good base of knowledge to grow on. Make sure you have a niche that you can use to set you apart. At my last company, I was the only engineer on my team with any system administration experience and it set me apart. I was able to take on particularly complicated projects because of that special skill.
Another thing to remember is that all of these companies have roles outside of software engineering. I work with designers, project managers, accountants, lawyers, product managers and all sorts of things that many companies need. Pinterest is hiring!
B: Who or what influenced you to pursue this career? Did you have any role models or examples that you looked to for inspiration?
KM: I just thought it was cool. I’m that lucky person who the chose a career they loved that also happened to be lucrative. Lots of careers require extra years of schooling and advanced degrees to even have access to higher pay brackets. As a software engineer, I have that access with only my Bachelor’s degree.
My wife’s grandfather worked for Hughes Aircraft for years. He has his Bachelor’s in Math, because computer science didn’t exist yet (his Master’s degree is in Computer Science). When I met him while in college, I saw that it was possible to make a career in computer science, that it was possible to be a part of that world. It was the same as someone seeing Steph Curry or Michael B Jordan or Barack Obama, and knowing that someday, they could walk in those shoes.
I often wonder what might have happened if I had never met him. Perhaps, I would have quit my major to do something easier. I’ll never know. Perhaps everything else would have stayed the same. But I do know that I’d like to be that for someone. I’d like to be someone they can see and say “oh yeah, I know a black guy who writes code for a living.” Sometimes, we just need to exist and succeed and be visible enough so that the next generation can say “I can do that, too.”
B: How do you feel about the state of diversity in tech currently? What else do you think needs to happen to continue the progress that’s been made?
KM: On a day to day basis, the work can be done with no conscious thought about diversity. On a day to day basis, it doesn’t matter that I’m a black engineer. But, sometimes, it matters. I was once in a meeting where there were three or four white males, one black male (me) and one Asian male. There were no women in the meeting. There was no one under 25 or over 45. The discussion was about ways to change different parts of the product for different groups of people. I was the only one in the room who knew that it could actually be illegal to discriminate against protected classes. We were able to move forward in an ethical way, but I don’t know what decision might have been made had I not been there.
The cliche is that we in Silicon Valley are trying to “change the world.” At Pinterest, we are working to build the world’s catalog of ideas, to help people discover and do what they love. We couldn’t do that if we weren’t committed to making sure the company looks like the world! Part of the reason I joined was because of this commitment. Some companies are either too large to actually make any meaningful changes, or too small to invest the time it takes to find the talented engineers out there, but Pinterest lands right in the middle and can make an impact.
Companies have a role to play, by taking the time it takes to find candidates outside the normal circles, such as looking in the U.S. South for candidates. And I also think that people in tech can do a better job of evangelizing it to those who are unaware of the massive opportunities.
This post is brought to you in collaboration with Pinterest.