Ivan Kalev, Engineering Services and Guitarist

Hi, my name is Ivan Kalev, and I lead the Rapid Response Engineering Services team for Qualtrics in Dublin. I am Bulgarian born and bred, now citizen of the world. I have a history that many people will (and do) describe as “interesting”. Recruiters have a lot of trouble putting me in a box because one of my hobbies is breaking stereotypes.

My career is heavily influenced by my personality. I do identify with what Donald Knuth had in mind when he wrote: “a programmer who subconsciously views himself as an artist will enjoy what he does and will do it better”. Except, I rarely frame myself as a programmer. Programming languages are just the tools my creative brain uses to engineer clean, elegant and beautiful things. It is beautiful in a sci-fi and steampunk way, not as a fashion statement. I do not worship languages, frameworks or any other type of volatile approach; fundamental science is what I believe in.

A famous guitar teacher always says that the best and fastest shredders in the world (and possibly in the Universe) never lose sight of the fundamentals – and this applies at full extent to the field of Software Engineering. “Design Patterns” and “Clean Code” are my old and new Testament. I am not religious or superstitious, but sometimes I do worship Robert Martin a little (haha). And another dude with a guitar – but more about this later.

I hold a degree in Genetic Engineering. Biochemistry was my first love. Want to know how a living organism works on a molecular level? The beauty of this system is inspiring. Biochemistry taught me clean design. But Bioinformatics is where I wanted to be. I wanted to know, could my hobby (computers and engineering) be combined with the beauty of Biochemistry? Bioinformatics was an exciting new buzzword at the time I finished school.
After spending the first few years of my career learning to code and getting a degree in Biotech, I felt that I was ready to push my career to the next level. I was a thriving *developer*, but what separates the best *developers* from the outstanding *engineers*? The best players in the Universe never lose sight of the fundamentals. So I jumped all in to computer science. I moved to Germany and started working on my PhD in computational structural bioinformatics in the Max Planck Institute. This was an interesting experience that unleashed my hunger for algorithms, data structures, design patterns – and generally understanding how everything works on a fundamental level. This is the point where I realized that any topic and field can be interesting, as long as I have a deep knowledge to understand, explain, and model it well.

This type of curiosity is in my genes. And if what we do for a living can change people’s lives and make them happy or better people, that is the kind of push you need to keep you motivated. Fast forward to today, I now live in Dublin, where I am part of an amazing team in Qualtrics. Changing user experience, one survey at a time.

Outside of work, my main focus at the moment is to learn the fundamentals of music theory and up my guitar skills. I practice every day. There is no trying in anything I decide to do – it is always all or nothing. As Doug Marks says, “The number one trick to become an amazing guitarist is… [drum roll] man, you gotta practice!”

Music has always been number one on my list of priorities outside of school and work. I generally like all sorts of guitar-intensive, mostly technical music – classic rock and metal, as well as jazz and classical. My favourite styles are progressive rock and progressive metal. This genre, as you might already guess, is characterized by serious complexity and is often a mixture of rock and metal with jazz or classical music. I bought my first electric gear when I moved to Dublin 3 years ago and started playing my favourite songs. A year ago I decided that it is time to move to the next level and started learning theory, scales, and practicing daily.

Unlike many people, I really enjoy instrumental music. Music is not just feelings and melody for me; its complex structure does something to my mind. It is like watching a perfectly designed and efficient machine. It stimulates my pattern-matching brain and bias for elegant functional design. I think it is the same reason why I love engineering – there is both an artistic and a technical side to each of them.

A creative channel like this can be very helpful to one’s career. I would even go ahead and say that for many people it might be even essential in order to prevent burnout. Software engineering is a very creative discipline – if done right. Any other activity that keeps your creative brain active – especially in a diverse way – can be indirectly beneficial to your career. It is an incredibly good way to empty that bucket on your shoulders and recharge. And yes, it is a lot of fun.

For beginners, buy an instrument you really like to play. Something stunning that you have the urge to grab just when you look at it sitting in your living room. Then learn to play a few songs you really like – over backing tracks. Make recordings. Find friends to jam with. This will keep your motivation at 101%. Once you have had enough fun, forget everything you know, find a teacher and re-learn it properly!

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