Section Engineer Interview Series - Ivan Hamilton

September 24, 2020

In this interview, Ivan talks about running 40 head of cattle at his family farm, firefighting with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, racing his two Jackawawas Scuby & Sandy, and the challenges and rewards of working at the bleeding edge of technology.

Ivan Hamilton, Software Engineer

Can you describe what you do at Section?

What I do at Section? Mmm… I do anything and everything. I’m one of the engineers and that means I either build, design or fix our core systems, the systems that are delivering the delivery. A tautology there! It’s essentially delivering the platform features. It’s a pretty varied role. I’ve had a broad career across networking, software development, systems engineering and business intelligence, so I often get called into things that cross boundaries… “This is crossing a few areas, get Ivan!”

Of those areas, are there certain ones you especially gravitate towards?

I gravitate towards the ones that other people can’t solve. It’s a blessing. I don’t really work very hard. I enjoy this stuff. It’s not a torment to come to work every day. It never has been. The neighbor’s kid, when he was 17 or 18, asked me what I did… For a lot of people that can be a difficult question, especially in the age of specialization that we are in now. I told him, imagine doing math exams for eight hours every day, that’s kind of what I do. I’m solving puzzles and problems, and trying to come up with answers to things. For me, that’s fun. For him, he looked at me as if he couldn’t imagine anything worse.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

Currently, it’s that we use such a broad range of technologies, although we’re starting to move away from this a little. In the past, we used existing technologies and assembled them together. We’re now starting to build more of our own ground up componentry. That’s because we’re beginning to do things that are outside what anyone’s ever done. We push systems in directions that no one else seems to really do.

No one else goes, yes, that’s a nice thing, I’ll have a million of them. Two years ago at KubeCon, I’d hear people talking about the size of the clusters they run and I’d think that’s tiny compared to the number of workloads we run at Section. They might run more machines, but we run more different workloads.

We push things in directions that are unusual and because we’ve adopted existing technologies, we have so many different components from different areas in different languages, so you’re switching a lot. It’s probably similar to someone who’s multilingual. If they’re constantly changing languages, they might forget what they were just talking about.

It’s like hey, I’m composing music, now I’m painting, now I’m developing dance. You eventually find yourself sitting at the piano with a paintbrush in a leotard.

What keeps you motivated?

I’m not sure there’s a single answer here. It’s probably a few main motivators.

  • Curiosity - I’m like a small child constantly asking “Why?". I love understanding something new.
  • Satisfaction in growth of others - I get a real buzz out of helping others learn and develop.
  • Be the change - It’s fruitless waiting for “someone” to change a situation. Become part of the new order you desire.
  • Testing myself - Sometimes, I just like to see what I’m capable of. We’re all pretty amazing with some determination behind us.
  • … Having said that, recognize limits - know when to walk away.

What single piece of advice would you give fellow engineers?

It’s funny because the IT thing sometimes attracts people who like dealing with machines more than people. Sometimes people think I’m just here to write the code and make the machine do it. On anything beyond a trivial effort, your code will get read and changed more times than you wrote it. You’re not actually working with the computer; you’re working with the people who will have to fix and understand your code going forward. So my advice is to work for the people who will have to work with your things next.

Essentially, be a collaborator.

At the end of the day, after those changes and fixes and people reading your code, the most value you give is how well you work with others, not how well the computer accepted what you wrote. You’ll often learn to code in an individual setting, only to find out later, you need to actually write the code for another human to read.

There’s something in the joke - write code as if the person who has to maintain it is a violent psychopath who knows where you live. That’s how you should be writing it. Write it for the next person.

Can you describe where you live/work. It’s fairly remote, right?

Everyone has a different version of what remote is for them. Home for me is about 200 acres around 50 miles from Sydney. The land has been in the family about 200 years now. My mother was born in this house and I grew up not far away. We used to come down here as kids when it was my grandfather’s place to help him with whatever he was up to.

When my grandfather passed away, my parents wanted to move back. They felt civilization was encroaching a little too much where they were. About ten years ago, my brother decided to build a house on the property too.

Six years ago, I was living in Sydney but visiting out here, loving being back on property and doing physical things, working with the animals, fixing fences and machines… It was strangely around the time that I got a call from Dan (Section Co-Founder & CTO), saying hey, we need someone to work at Section and you can work anywhere. I thought Ah… That’s how it panned out and here I am, still here, still liking it. Occasionally, people can hear cows in the background or my mother on a tractor… They’ll ask, what’s that noise? That’s my 70-year-old mother plowing the field.

You do a lot of the maintenance on the land?

Yeah, you have to. My mother was one of three girls and my great uncle, her uncle, would say he’d never seen men work as hard as my grandfather worked my mother and her sisters. The girls were worked like men. My mother is more of a man than I’ll ever be!

We run about 40 head of cattle, a few obligatory chickens, and my brother (who several years ago built another house on the property) has a few ostrich as well. If you took your own time into account, it’s by no means a lucrative venture - more of a lifestyle choice.

Did you tinker with stuff as a kid?

Yeah, I was always pulling apart things. Anyone with a bit of property and kids will end up with motorbikes, so I’d always be pulling those apart and fixing them with my father. Those were some of my favorite times. Like a lot of kids, I pulled a lot of things apart that never went back together.

How did you find your way into programming?

When I was growing up, the idea that “computer things” could be a career wasn’t a thing. They were just these strange machines and there weren’t that many of them around. My primary school had one. In high school, there were fifteen in the whole school. You touched them a couple of times a year at most.

This is pre-mainstream Internet. You were starved of information. I had an interest in computers since I was a little kid and liked it. I thought I was OK with it but I had nothing to judge it against. At high school, there were a handful of kids who’d write code. Of those, none were as interested as I was, so when we started going through some national competitions and they decided to invite some of us to take part in the International Olympiad in Informatics, it was the first real feedback I had that yeah, you’re actually not bad at this.

Where did that take you?

Bonne, Germany. Hell of a thing as a 15-16 year old to end up on the other side of the world where the vending machines had beer, with 170 odd, like-minded, computer-loving kids. I remember having a conversation there with the chaperone for the team from Zimbabwe. They took us to a grand hall to have an opening event and he said, look at all these socially awkward kids who can’t talk to anyone. It was just all noise and natter. He said, these kids finally have someone to talk to who can understand what they want to talk about. It let me know, I am OK at this sort of stuff.

Prior to that, did you have ideas about what you wanted to be when you grew up?

It wasn’t until late teens, looking to exit school, I thought, it’s possible this could be work. There was a local computer club I’d been involved with and I’d been turning up down there. I was struggling with finishing high school. I couldn’t see relevance in a lot of it, so I decided to drop out. One of the guys there said they knew someone who needed someone to work. He passed on my details and so I ended up going for an interview with this little company. It was basically a few technical questions, do you know what IRQs and DMA channels are, and I said, yep, yep, yep. Alright then, we’ll see you tomorrow. This is the address, you’ll be meeting up with one of our people there, and away you go.

How old were you?

I would have just hit 18. That was my introduction to business and the real world. It was a small consultancy that supported software and hardware for businesses. I found myself in a mining company helping deploy a new computer network. At that point, the consideration was purely that this kid understands how to plug things into computers and put things together. They weren’t aware I could write code. It didn’t take long until they found that out. They also developed custom software for some of their customers. I got involved in that and since then, it’s just been an all industry experience.

What’s your proudest accomplishment?

That’s a difficult one. I’m not sure I really have one. You think about what’s recent. Two weekends ago, I had three trainee firefighters pass their assessments who are now able to go out. I know it’s not about me, it’s about them, but it was great seeing them finally getting to attend and passing their assessments. One of them has already been on the truck and out to a callout.

How long have you been doing the firefighting thing?

About five years now. When I was living in Sydney, I turned on the TV one night and saw a helicopter dropping water on my mother’s mailbox. I called and asked my mother if there were fires and she said, yes, but that’s OK, there’s a couple of people out here from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service taking care of things. It’s our state volunteer service.

When I moved out here and now I’m working from home, I had the opportunity to avail myself and join up. Someone was here to take care of my mother and her mailbox, so I joined up to take care of other people’s mothers and their mailboxes.

Being fully supported in doing that with Section is great. Just drop a note in that I’m not here and go. It doesn’t happen that often, but as we’re a bit of a distance from anything else, the nearest fire station aside from our volunteer one is 45 minutes away, so if someone gets their chimney fire out of control, it can make a big difference.

Ivan Hamilton firefighting

What do you see as the most game changing technology on the horizon?

I think in terms of changing things it’s got to be AI and ML technologies. That’ll start to change our everyday software development and systems management stuff. You’ve got so much open code and data these days that the systems could tell you, other humans are making this change and I think you should too. We’re already starting to apply some of that to predicting traffic patterns.

It’s interesting because we teach them what to do, but we have no idea what they’ve really learned. You think, I’d taught it to distinguish between fruits but in fact, it’s just picking the color of a leaf. You can never be quite sure what it’s learned. It doesn’t get to reason with you and say, this is why I think this is an apple, it just says apple. As a human being, we can never comprehend what it is really looking at.

On the horizon, that’s one of the biggest changes coming. We’ll be getting these recommendations and systems telling us to do stuff and we won’t necessarily be sure why, but when we look at it and evaluate it, we’ll say, that’s a good idea.

Do you have any elements of fear when it comes to that stuff?

Not really. One of the things that gets pulled out often is self-driving cars. I wouldn’t trust that, etc. At the end of the day, if the final statistic shows they’re safer, does it really matter why or how? Insurance companies won’t care. You’ll reach a point where for you to drive as a human, it’ll be less safe. They don’t know but statistically the robots are driving better than the humans… We’re flawed creatures, us human beings, and as long as it’s better, I’m not sure how much else matters.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the DARPA challenges with bipedal robots having to do set tasks, like walking through a door, turning a valve, etc. Every year, the footage comes out and the robots are just falling over, tripping up… If you’re worried about the robot overlords, this is where they’re at. They’re a long way from mass control.

I appreciate the fear because general AI: something that is capable of reasoning and cognition… Electronics in silicon are thousands of times faster than our little neurons fire… When we finally make something that has those abilities, we will be toys to it. Our cognition and ability will be so inferior. We’ll have to make sure we get our hands on the power cord.

What’s something most people don’t know about you?

Most people who know me are aware of my two little Jackawawas (Jack Russell x Chihuahua) dogs - Scuba & Sandy.

Most don’t know: I used to race them in Flyball competitions.

It’s a relay sport, and a small dog on the team gives the whole team an advantage (the jump height is set by the smallest dog on the team).

flyball dogs
(Scuba and Sandy not pictured)

What’s your favorite… ?

  • Morning beverage
    Reasonable coffee. Not particularly good/bad coffee - but a crossing point of least effort & maximal result.

  • Beer
    Left Hand Brewing’s Nitro Milk Stout (homed in Colorado with Section) - It’s a truly horrible favorite to have since it’s not available in my home country (Australia). I’ve tried various local imitations, but nothing quite hits the spot. It’s a special treat, typically mixed with a visit to Section U.S. offices. Locally, a pint of imported Kilkenny Irish Ale is a staple.

  • Part of your day
    Afternoon until Dusk. Finish work for the day. Get up. Get moving about. Get outside. Leave the house. Attack the never-ending list of TODOs. (Bluetooth-enabled hearing protection is awesome - working next to a loud machine/tool & listening to a podcast at the same time!)

Ivan Hamilton welding

  • Vacation spot
    It’s not a spot exactly, but my favorite vacations are where I take a motorcycle and go somewhat off the beaten track. I’ve done some great trips with friends through Cambodia & Vietnam… I’m there playing tourist, but because of my size (6'5”), sometimes the locals find me interesting too.

Ivan Hamilton traveling