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Grinnellians you should know: Ian Atha ’09

Grinnell has lots of wonderful people. Faculty, staff, alumni (living and dead), current students, and more. I thought it would be a good practice to write about some of them. Partially, this gives me a chance to explore a slightly different kind of writing. Partially, this gives me a chance to point out people current students should know (or know about).

Ian Atha ’09 visited my Learning from CS Alumni class (via Skype) on Thursday, 15 September 2016. That visit motivated this essay [1].

I know and care about a wide variety of Grinnellians. But Ian Atha ’09 remains one of the most memorable. He is also committed to helping Grinnell students (or at least Grinnell CS students) succeed, so he’s someone particularly worth knowing.

Ian came to Grinnell from Greece. When he first arrived, he was Theocharis Athanasakis [2]. If I remember correctly, he had some significant experience with programming or math in high school (an Olympiad or something of the kind [3]). But he was happy to start again in CSC 151 at Grinnell.

I think I taught Ian in his second course at Grinnell, which was then CSC 152. He was a fun student to have in class. Engaged in the material. Talkative. But he wasn’t always in class. He’d say Sam, it’s okay; I’m following along on the eboard. And so I found that I was regularly writing things on the eboard like Ian, I hope you get this. Why is that important? You’ll see.

Anyway, I liked Ian, and Ian liked me (or at least liked to challenge me), so at some point he became my academic advisee. And then the real fun began. Let’s see …

  • Ian legally changed his name. I believe he chose Ian Wolfcat Domhan Theocharis Atha [4] as his name. Why did he change his name? I think it’s mostly because he was sick of Americans mispronouncing it.
  • Ian found some significant security flaws in our system. When he reported them, he was fired from his TC job and was threatened with expulsion [5,6].
  • Ian got an internship at Google. (That was back in 2007 or so, when Google was still pretty new.) At one of his Google interviews, the interviewer said It’s really cool that your professors know you so well that they know when you’re not there and include you in the class notes. [7]
  • Ian got married to one of my former advisees. (We were hanging out together, were bored, and noticed that we were near a justice of the peace, if I remember correctly.)
  • Ian got an internship at Yahoo. (That was back in 2008 or so, before Yahoo started on the downhill slope.)
  • Ian continued his internship at Yahoo while finishing his senior year.
  • Ian found more security flaws in our system, and made me report them.
  • Ian took over the technical side of Plans.

See why I call him memorable? When he graduated, I gave him an Alan Funt award because he always made me feel like I was somehow on candid camera.

Through all this, Ian clearly took a perverse joy in arguing with me (or at least challenging me). I didn’t really mind; he raised thoughtful points and he was fun to argue with, too. And there were some memorable lines. One I most recall was Yes, Sam, some people like direct access to pointers. Some people like ____ too. [8]

And then Ian went off to San Francisco. I’d see him once in a while. Sometimes he’d just show up back on campus. Sometimes I’d check in when I was out there. Sometimes he’d just call me to complain about how poorly I had prepared a student for an interview [9] or to suggest changes to the CS curriculum. But it also makes me happy to see or chat with him.

Okay, other than knowing that Ian is a character, why should you know Ian?

First, Ian is an awesome technologist. He programs well. He knows a lot of things. He’s good at making connections. Whatever you’re thinking about, he can help you think about it better.

Second, Ian is doing cool things (and has done a variety of cool things). Right now, he’s running a startup funded by Y Combinator [10]. He’s also really passionate about his work. You can ask him more.

Third, Ian cares about Grinnell (or at least CS at Grinnell) and is willing to help Grinnell students. (Or has been in the past.) I’ve had Ian do mock interviews, critique résumés [11], fund a few things, help people network, and more. He calls to tell me things I should make sure that our students learn.

Fourth, Ian is a truly wonderful and caring person. I saw that today as, instead of just talking to the students, he spent time not only asking each of them questions, but taking notes to himself so that he could ask followup questions. I saw it as he talked about his frustration that startups that can make a real difference in peoples’ lives have a much harder time getting funding than startups that cater to the not-so-idle Silicon Valley folks. I saw it in his concerns about making sure that his employees did well.

Finally, Ian loves to challenge authority. (I left this for last because I think Ian would leave it for last.)

Ian will be back on campus for reunion. Try to meet him!

[1] Yes, essays on my previous visitors are coming soon, too. I was just thinking about other things when they visited.

[2] Ian, I know that I never pronounced it correctly. I hope I got the spelling right.

[3] And no, I’m not just saying Olympiad because he’s from Greece.

[4] Okay, I didn’t really remember it correctly. John Stone keeps a record.

[5] Yes, that’s one of my many reasons for fighting with our information technology services office.

[6] Three ITS directors, two deans, and one president later, and we’re doing better. The last student I know who found a security flaw was thanked, rather than threatened. But we still should have found a better way to thank them.

[7] See, I told you it was important. And yes, that comment forever changed how I refer to students in class notes.

[8] Phrase removed for public viewing.

[9] I usually do a good job of preparing students for interviews. These were some exceptions.

[10] If you don’t know at least two definitions of Y Combinator, you’re not a fit technologist.

[11] One of my favorite Ian comments: You don’t indent your resume consistently. You clearly won’t follow company formatting standards for code. I would never work with you. [12]

[12] It’s one of my favorite Ian comments because I feel the same way.

[13] Somehow this essay did not feel complete without a 13th endnote.

Version 1.1 of 2016-09-16.