Technology

How does a kid on an Alaskan homestead learn to code in the ’80s? Ask Slalom Build’s Ian Cook

Slalom Build’s Ian Cook hikes with his family in the woods behind their home in Issaquah, east of Seattle. Cook and his wife Amanda with their daughters, from left to right: Hailey, Shiloh and Maya. (Photo courtesy of Ian Cook)

Slalom Build‘s Ian Cook grew up in a house that his family built in Kenai, Alaska, population 7,800. There was no indoor plumbing until he reached fourth grade and no electric heat for many years. There was electricity and a bus came not too far from the homestead to take him to school.

Ian Cook and two of his daughters at Lake Sammamish State Park in Issaquah. (Photo courtesy of Ian Cook)

“I spent my formative years hauling wood in wagons and pumping water,” Cook said. “That certainly had a motivating factor for me in progressing my career.”

Another motivator was his dad’s unlikely passion for computers and coding, living in the wilds of Alaska in the early 1980s.

While the family was less than middle class income-wise, “one of the investments we always made was having computers in the house,” Cook said.

His dad had a business fabricating and building boats for the commercial fishing industry, while his mom was an accomplished seamstress. They built things and saw the utility of technology.

The family’s first computer was Commodore 64, then an Apple IIe. Cook loved playing video games on the machines, tooling away on Lode Runner’s puzzles on his Commodore and role playing in Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar on his Apple. He turned to coding by necessity: In his family’s cluttered house, the game discs were prone to damage by coffee spills and other mishaps, forcing Cook to engineer his way back into functioning software.

In high school, he used computers to draft designs for electrical panels that his aunts and uncles built in their nearby industrial services business, and he assisted his dad in building a computerized inventory system for his relatives.

“By the time I got into high school, it became clear to me that there was an economy starting to form” in the tech sector, Cook said. “Others thought it was the Bogeyman, and I thought it was awesome.”

Cook started teaching himself how to do Java coding, but hit what in retrospect is an almost laughable tech wall. He understood how the code was supposed to work, but used Word to write it. The text processing software obviously couldn’t execute his commands. It wasn’t until college that he was finally introduced to Visual Studio, a compiler that finally brought his engineering to life.

Cook earned degrees in computer science and business at Seattle Pacific University, worked a few engineering jobs, then landed at Accenture, where he worked for more than 11 years.

Now he’s a general manager at Seattle’s Slalom Build, a “Build as a Service” or BaaS company that shepherds other companies through the software engineering process. He’s been at Slalom Build for close to eight years, overseeing roughly 1,000 employees in Seattle. The team does about 1,000 engineering projects for 400 clients per year.

The company, which is division of the consulting company Slalom, helps businesses develop wide-ranging software tools that include point-of-sale software; a mobile app that lets a shipping company communicate and manage shifts with its truck drivers; and products for an exercise company that helps customers track workouts integrating information from fitness tracking devices.

“My day job does not include directly making software. It’s more about orchestrating and storytelling,” Cook said. But he likes to stay current in engineering and will get certifications in new programming languages. While he’s no longer at the top of his development game, he figures that if were to return to the scrum teams, “I think I could hang.”

We caught up with Cook for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: Seattle

Computer types: Unlike most of my team, I use a PC. A lot of them give me grief for not using a Mac given how much of our work is focused on product engineering, but the truth is that I began my career as a software engineer, and in those formative years I used the Microsoft Stack. As a result, one of the things that’s important to me from a career perspective is to stay as technical as I can, and the Microsoft Visual Studio Suite is my go-to for staying current.

Mobile devices: For my personal use, I’m pretty much an Apple fanboy: I have an iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods. I just love that combination. I also like CarPlay and how easily it connects to my wife’s car and mine. Plus, I deal with technology all day at work, so when I’m at home, I don’t want to have to learn anything, I just want it to work, and Apple fits the bill for me. That said, I don’t use Apple’s platforms for media; I like Amazon’s better for that.

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Personally, I really like the experience around the Apple Watch and the fitness rings. I’m a Type-A personality, and the motivation to close the rings keeps me going. I’m always looking at my status with the rings — right now I’m on a 240-day streak.

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? I like to have clean surfaces, so if you walk into my office, you’re going to notice that it’s very minimalist; there are no papers lying around and everything is organized. The truth is, I grew up in a small, kind of cluttered house in a homestead in Alaska that we built ourselves. So now, for me to work and do my best work, I need to have large open spaces. Before I go home, I tend to erase my whiteboards so that they’re all fresh and ready for the next day.

Even when I work at home, if there are dishes in the sink, if there are beds that aren’t made, I’ll find myself doing about an hour’s worth of housework before I’ll be ready to set the table, grab my coffee and work. My home office is very similar to my office at work.

Ian Cook’s office at Slalom Build features family photos and an image of Bill Murray from the film “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” a nod to his passion for boating. (Slalom Build Photo)

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? The most important thing to me is having a firm handle on your core values and knowing that those are being lived out. It sounds kind of corny, I get it. But personally, at home and at work, there are so many competing demands for time, that the most important anchor I have is what I stand for. I use that to navigate where I spend my time. It was only later in my career that I started to practice and get better at this. If I could have talked to a younger Ian, I would’ve told him that I hope he gets a jump start on that process.

What is your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work?This is probably a little bit of my dark secret, but I am not a huge consumer or user of social media. I’ve never really been a Facebook user. The closest thing to a social network that I use would be LinkedIn. I put myself out there on LinkedIn because what I’ve noticed is that when people are interested in finding a new job — either in my organization or just in general — they want some help or coaching, and I want to be there for them when they seek out that discussion. I also use it to get some background information on new clients or prospective employees before I meet them for the first time, since their profile essentially operates as their resume.

But otherwise, I try to stay away from social networks. At work I am immersed head-to-toe in technical concerns — it’s all I do — and I’m very, very wired in fluid communication devices, Slack channels and team sites. So I intentionally do not pick up social media.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? It’s 4:06 p.m. now and the number is 40; I hope to have that close to zero before I leave. I treat my inbox as a my to do list: if I leave something unread in my inbox, it’s a reminder that I have something to work on.

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? About 10 meetings a day, so 40-to-50 meetings a week. A few of those are meetings I schedule with myself, so that I have time blocked to get work done. For example, every Friday at 3 p.m., I have a standing calendar invite with myself for an hour so that I can manage my calendar for the next week. But most of the meetings I have are with other people, either business we need to handle here in Slalom Build or meeting with clients.

Ian Cook and wife Amanda with their daughters. Another child is on the way. (Photo courtesy of Ian Cook)

How do you run meetings? A successful meeting is when everyone knows ahead of time what we were trying to accomplish, we handle it quickly and efficiently, and hopefully we had some fun while we were doing it. A good meeting is one where any of us could make a concrete summary of what we decided or handled.

When I’m organizing meetings, there are a few things that are important to me. On top of that list is clear communication. One of my pet peeves is when people send me calendar invites with a vague title or subject and no description of what the meeting is going to be about. I especially dislike it when a meeting is blocked over another meeting I already have on my calendar.

So when I run meetings, I try to extend the courtesy of communicating with folks ahead of time about why we’re having the meeting, and I schedule the meeting with a summary in the invite. If I’m unable to avoid blocking time over another appointment, I explicitly acknowledge that I knew that I did that and ask if the invitee can make an accommodation.

When we get into the meeting room, whether it’s a phone call or in person, I thank everybody and, depending on the meeting, quickly ask everyone how they’re doing and what ideas they’re bringing to the room so that they can connect a little bit. If I’m on my A-game and it’s an hour-long meeting (and I don’t always get this right), I try to end 15 minutes early so folks have time to get to the next meeting. Depending on the topic, whiteboards tend to be an important part of my meetings.

Everyday work uniform? Around the office I’m a jeans and button-up kind of guy. When I’m working in a more formal setting (like a client meeting) I’ll put on slacks and a button-up. I typically don’t wear a blazer — that’s not my jam. I met the governor of Idaho one time, and out of respect for public office I put on a jacket. But around the office and with clients, typically I won’t, even at the executive level. There are one or two clients we work with where a suit and tie are absolutely a cultural requirement, so when I go to their offices, I make an exception to my rule and put on a suit and tie.

How do you make time for family? There are a few tactics I use, but the foundation is knowing that family is one of my core values. When time is tight, I try to calibrate by asking myself whether I am spending enough time with my family, and I make adjustments if I am not. Tactically, the most important time and attention management trick I’ve used is keeping my calendar continually groomed. This gives me a good idea of what I’ll be handling next and allows me to plan accordingly. I use a Gmail calendar for my family business and an Outlook calendar for work. I can view them both at the same time, which is a great tool.

While at home, one of the rules I follow is putting my phone down and basically considering it the property of the family; that helps me stay present. Typically, if I need to use my phone or dedicate my attention to non-family related things, I’ll clear it with my wife. I try to talk proactively and intentionally about when I can come back mentally and fully be there, as opposed to looking up and realizing I haven’t been present.

Ian Cook, general manager for Slalom Build. (Slalom Build Photo)

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Boating has always been a big deal for my family. We lived in a small townhouse in Capitol Hill until December of last year. When I started my job at Slalom it was just my wife and I. Now we have three kids with one on the way, so we started to outgrow it. Remember what I said earlier about a clean and uncluttered work environment? Well, trying to stuff a bunch of kids and toys into a Capitol Hill townhouse is the polar opposite of uncluttered. We needed an outlet, and the boat got to be a kind of escape. It’s a 40-foot boat and learning to drive it was super fun — our family really took to it.

I also like to target practice with archery, and when I can get the time in the winter, I like to snowboard. I’ve been snowboarding since I was 5 or 6 years old. When you’ve snowboarded as long as I have, you have to really work hard to learn new tricks, so I’ve been trying to pick up skiing too.

Ian Cook, his wife Amanda, and their three daughters on Matia Island in Washington’s San Juan Islands. (Photo courtesy of Ian Cook)

What are you listening to? I drive a truck, so right now, as cliché as it is, I do find myself listening to country music. I also listen to audiobooks — most recently I’ve been going through Tom Clancy books.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? Wall Street Journal, GeekWire, Bloomberg among others

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? I read everything on Kindle, but I read it through the app on my iPhone. I don’t use the actual tablet. I typically read fiction novels. The one I’m reading right now is a new one by John Sandford called “Neon Prey.”

Night owl or early riser? I think I’m now an early riser — that has probably changed with work and family. I don’t need too much sleep, 5-to-6 hours works. That’s especially true because I’m gone a lot and we have little kids, so one of the things I do for my wife when I’m home, especially on the weekends, is to get up early to look after the kids.

Where do you get your best ideas? I don’t know that it’s in any one place, but it always comes out after I’m reflecting on a prior period. When I think about what I’ve learned or what I’m learning now, not in the moment but over the last six months, that’s where the good stuff happens. It’s mostly in the rearview mirror where I’ll notice some “ahas.” I also journal quite a bit, not necessarily to get ideas, but to help me ask and answer the question: “Am I walking the talk when it comes to where I put my time and values?” I don’t journal every single day, but I do it weekly, and I’ll notice that after I journal a little bit, some ideas come out of that.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? It’s hard for me to pick one name. I think that there is a category of senior leaders out there who have more of a hands-off leadership style and tend to only intervene as a last resort. A few that spring to mind are Depression-era President Herbert Hoover, Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, Apple founder Steve Jobs, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. That’s not my leadership style — I tend to be more directly engaged — but I admire this leadership style and would like to learn more about it.

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