Where Are They Now? - Q&A's With Notable Jenks Grads
Philip McAllister - Instagram Engineer
Did you use your Android device to post a picture of your Halloween costume on Instagram? Did you know a Jenks grad made it possible? Meet Philip McAllister. He’s one of the first employees of Instagram, a member of the Jenks High School Class of 2000, and the subject of “Where Are They Now?” Wednesday. From a simple computer class at Jenks Middle School to leading engineering and programming teams at the world’s top photo-sharing app, McAllister has enjoyed a rapid rise through ranks of the tech universe. Learn more about how the academic opportunities at Jenks helped pave the way for McAllister to play a role in forever changing the way we connect and communicate.
What are your fondest memories of attending Jenks High School?
McAllister: I really appreciated the diversity of activities along with academic rigor at Jenks. I participated in many of the fine art programs (musicals, talent shows, Trojanaire performances), but I also felt like I got a head start in college through the challenging AP classes that were offered.
Was there one particular teacher or principal who inspired you or made a lasting impact in your life?
McAllister: That’s a tough one! So many teachers had a positive impact in my life. I never really considered myself that strong at math, but Mrs. Ward convinced me that I was actually good at Calculus, and I enjoyed having Mr. Fisher for Computer Science.
What kinds of computer science classes or programming opportunities were available to you at Jenks High School?
McAllister: I started taking basic computer classes with Mr. Vance at Jenks Middle school and then took a couple of years of programming classes at JHS with Mr. Fisher. We programmed in BASIC & Pascal. I oddly did not go on to take the AP Computer Science courses.
When did you begin gaining interest in technology, apps, and programming?
McAllister: My father bought a Commodore VIC-20 from a garage sale when I was in elementary school. Though it was very primitive by today’s standards (20k of RAM!), I was about to learn BASIC programming and see my ideas translated to a screen. Those early experiences had a lasting effect on my life.
What were some of your earliest projects or attempts at creating new technology?
McAllister: My first paid programmer job was at Sutherland’s Lumber Company in Tulsa – I helped build their “dot com” era e-commerce site. I didn’t know much about modern programming practices or commercial technology at the time, so I ended up writing ancient C code to parse plain text comma-separated files and generate static webpages. I think I was paid near the minimum wage, but the experience was invaluable.
How did you get started at Instagram?
McAllister: I took some time off from working in 2010 to travel to abroad. While I was traveling in Asia, I realized that despite all the popularity of the iPhone in the US, Android was going to be a big deal. When I returned back to the US, I focused all my energy on becoming an Android expert, helping to launch a popular location sharing application. That experience & exposure connected me to the founders of Instagram, where I joined to become their first Android engineer.
As one of Instagram’s first employees, did you think it had the potential to achieve this kind of world-wide success?
McAllister: Yes! I saw the incredible growth of Instagram over its first year on iPhone and believed there was an opportunity for the service to explode with the launch of an Android app.
What are your primary roles and responsibilities with Instagram?
McAllister: I’ve had a few different roles over the years in both engineering and management capacities. Currently I support the team that is responsible for the app’s quality and performance.
Apps, fads, and tech crazes can come and go very quickly. How is Instagram able to adapt and constantly improve to keep up with changing demands and platforms?
McAllister: That’s a good question! We have a lot of values at Instagram that help inform how we are going to build products, but one that we often cite is “Community First”. I think this value helps prioritize the work needed to understand and develop products for our changing and growing community.
Is it true you worked at Facebook headquarters? If so, what was it like to work in a place many would consider the center of the tech universe?
McAllister: Yes! Instagram’s primary headquarters is located in Menlo Park at the Facebook campus. It’s an amazing feeling to be surrounded by brilliant and driven people focused on a common goal. However, I just moved to New York City after almost a decade of living in San Francisco. I’m looking forward to spending the next few years exploring one of the world’s most unique cities.
What are your thoughts on recent efforts by Jenks High School to incorporate more STEM Learning (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) into the curriculum and what do today’s students need to focus on if interested in following your career path?
McAllister: I can’t speak about STEM directly, but I think finding your unique strengths and passions is often the key to long-term professional success. I wasn’t necessarily the strongest computer programmer or math student, but I stuck with it because I really loved it. It took a few years of challenging myself and trying different things, but eventually things started to fall into place.