The smallest decisions can have a ripple effect throughout our lives. In this case, it was elementary school–aged Chuck Kato’s choice to play a video game, which became the launch pad to a career.
Chuck Kato, Staff Software Engineer – Platform, Course Hero
Current City: Cupertino, California
Hometown: Tokyo, Japan
Education: MS and BA in Computer Science
- Software Engineer, PFU Limited
- Lead Project Manager/Senior Software Engineer, PFU Systems, Inc.
- Senior/Staff Software Engineer (Engineering Manager for a year), Course Hero
- Senior Software Engineer, GoFundMe
- Staff Software Engineer, Course Hero
Had he decided to play Monopoly that day, we could be profiling Course Hero’s star accountant. Instead, Chuck’s decision to turn on his dad’s computer was the first step to becoming a software engineer, which led him to Course Hero. Not once, but twice.
Here’s how Chuck described that transformative moment: “While playing a game on my dad’s Sharp MZ80, I accidentally halted the game and learned the way to see the source code. I had no idea what it was at that time, but flowing characters were attractive for me—you can imagine Matrix digital rain—and I started learning to understand and modify the source code. I still remember the moment I could change the BGM [background music] of the game.”
That moment was the catalyst to a career in engineering, landing Chuck at Course Hero, where he’s currently a software engineer on the content platform team. Chuck is passionate about his work and his team, and he’s excited to tackle their newest challenge, which focuses on breaking down the online tutoring functionality in the monolithic codebase into microservices. What he loves most about his current position, he says, is the “ambitious objective and huge responsibilities, with a high degree of autonomy. Handling [a big workload] with the small team sounds crazy, but it’s actually super fun. Since we are backed by experienced VPs and architects, we can move forward boldly without worrying about failures.”
We spoke with Chuck about what originally brought him to Course Hero, what drew him away, and why he returned.
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Career and life lessons from Course Hero’s Chuck Kato
On aligning with Course Hero’s ethos
I loved the fundamental idea behind Course Hero’s product: “Supporting users to help each other.” I like helping others through my day-to-day work, and so the idea of the product lined up perfectly. During my interview, Andrew [Grauer], CEO of Course Hero, passionately explained to me why he created Course Hero and how Course Hero can help students. I was very impressed by his user-centric vision for the product, and it intrigued me as well.
On choosing Course Hero (the first time) and trusting your gut
People and product were the reasons I decided to come to Course Hero. The people I interacted with through the interview process were impressively friendly and easygoing. After finishing all the interviews, I had a strong feeling that this was the company I should join. I accepted their offer even though I was in the later stage of other companies’ interview processes.
On choosing Course Hero (the second time) and the appeal of returning to the team
People, product, and engineering were key to my decision [to return to Course Hero].
Even after I left, I still met with Course Hero employees and kept up with how things were going. From time to time, I had lunch meetings with some of the top engineers at the company to share our challenges and learnings. I joined Course Hero’s “Alum Night,” where ex-Course Hero employees are invited back to socialize. Also, every few months, the EVP of Engineering emailed me exciting updates about the team. Since Course Hero people are very open and transparent, they shared some concerns and problems with me as well. However, even in the toughest situations, they maintained their positivity and enthusiastically tried to fix [problems] in the best way. Every time I met with them, I was reminded how great the team was.
The product mattered, as well as the people. Right before my departure, Course Hero set [our] North Star [company goal, which is] ‘Graduate,’ and began defining the vision and mission to reach the North Star. The vision and mission were clearly defined, and every product team acquired very consistent and sophisticated goals. It’s not easy to find this level of consistency in the fast-paced startup world, so Course Hero stood out. That attracted me a lot.
As for the engineering, Course Hero is making a huge investment to modernize its technology stack. Recently, the engineering team decided to switch Course Hero’s programing languages, system infrastructure, and software architecture. They are the foundation of Course Hero system, and it’s like rebuilding an entire house from the ground up, while people still live in the place. As an engineer, I was super excited by this major transition and wanted to contribute to the initiative.
On letting your inner lighthouse guide you
Don’t give up what you’re passionate about. I really love coding, but I gave it up from time to time to focus on other areas my managers and colleagues recommended I work on. While the diversified work experience definitely helped my career, I didn’t have to stop coding while I did other things. I believe that what I am most passionate about will guide my career path in the long term.
On changing perceptions of career strengths
At the beginning of my career, I thought technical skills were most important, but now I’m realizing that communication skills are equally important. Software development requires teamwork, and everyone needs to be on the same page; in order to do it effectively, solid communication skills (especially understanding others and sharing what you think) are crucial.
On the most important lesson from working at Course Hero
Don’t be afraid of conflict. I used to try to minimize the friction in communication, but I’ve since learned that if I believe something is wrong and needs to be fixed, I should bring it up without hesitation. Candid conversations with others are sometimes necessary, and they actually make relationships stronger in the long term.
Chuck Kato’s 3 tips on finding the right workplace for you
- Make sure you can talk to your future coworkers honestly and comfortably.
- Make sure you can think about the product passionately and tirelessly.
- Make sure you can agree with the vision of management executives, and you believe the future of the company.