John Alston

Principal Software Engineer

I like to do it myself, make my own path, and see with my own eyes. I have no idols and I'm skeptical of advice, but I will listen and learn from others. Hard work and self-reliance are important to me, as are staying humble and respectful to others. I appreciate nuance and I'm slow to judge, which wins me few followers.

Why are you working in research?

I didn't so much choose research as a career path. I was 19 when I got a job as a telephone interviewer after moving to San Diego by myself. I was staying in a hostel when I first got there, and one day, one of the other guys there said to me, "Hey, I just got this easy job talking on the phone." So, it was just a random job to start to get on my feet in San Diego. It was kind of interesting. I didn't really enjoy it, but it did give me respect for people who do that job. It's definitely challenging in its own right. I did that for about a year before moving on to programming. I've always had an inclination for programming, so I was glad to see that the company had an online department. Thankfully, they gave me a shot in it, and things worked out really well from there. It's been an interesting ride through the supplier side of market research.

What's your favorite type of project to work on?

My favorite thing is finding a new technology and being able to learn it and incorporate it into these systems that I've already been building. There are so many new programming languages and cloud technologies and other resources you can gather and deploy as a lone developer. I just used a new one last week. It's really fun to find something new, recognize the value of it, read through the documentation and watch videos to learn it, program it, deploy it, and put it into use. That's all really fun to me.

What's one thing you love about working at Bovitz?

I've been really pleased with the way that my role has evolved over the years and the freedom I've had to shape that. The key thing that made that happen was management being both hands-off and supportive. I love that about the company and Greg and the culture. That's important to me because I had been in my role—programming surveys—for a while, and I was looking to expand my skills and have more control over what I was doing. So, being able to make that transition from survey programming to software development, and then using that skill along with my experience in research to build Forthright, has been really gratifying personally. I get to work on things that I really enjoy, and watch them grow and develop.

Why is being people-first important to you?

In my role, being people-first means being truly effective at my job in relation to two types of people: research participants and researchers. Being people-first in online panel management means providing a positive experience for research participants. Treating them like customers keeps their needs a priority. Without the satisfaction of respondents, we cannot maintain a quality panel. And when it comes to servicing research projects for our internal teams, being people-first means meeting the needs of the people, not the process. By getting to know my internal clients, anticipating their needs, and being responsive to their feedback, I can meet or exceed their expectations and achieve quality outcomes on their projects. Following a thoughtful process without understanding the individual people involved will only get you partway there.

If you weren't working in research, what else would you be doing?

If I had to choose a new career, I think it would be bioengineering. It's fascinating, and it has some similarities to software engineering. The future that might happen—or is happening in many ways already—and is interesting to me, is programming a living organism. Thinking about the technology and software revolutions, this is going to be the next one. A lot of people are really afraid of it, and there's good reason to be, but I embrace it. It's exciting, and it's inevitable.

Tell me about one of your favorite people in the world.

I listen to a podcast by Stewart Brand called Seminars on Long-Term Thinking. He's this nerdy, interesting 80-year-old guy. I really like his humble and modest personality, and he has a sense of humor, too. He's always really curious and into learning, while at the same time already being very accomplished. He used to be an editor for the Whole Earth Catalog, which is like a hippie-generation magazine about environmentalism and other things like that, and he's also known as a hacker and an early computer enthusiast. Now one of the things he's involved in is the Long Now Foundation—which, to most people, probably sounds extremely boring—but it's about the whole idea of long-term thinking. Like 10,000-year intervals. So, he has a range of speakers on his podcast, and they talk about a mix of things—science, biology, history, technology, etc.—with that really long-term perspective. I think that's lacking in this day and age. And I always find his perspective really interesting.

What's something that people are surprised to learn about you?

I enjoy following politics, government, public policy, current events—those kinds of things. How the government works, how policies are made and their effect on people, what role politicians play in all of that—that stuff really interests me. I wouldn't say I like politicians, but I think they have an important role to play. Politics are an art and a necessary part of a democracy. You can't always trust what a politician says, but that's the art that they're dealing in. So, it tends to surprise people that I admire some politicians.

What's one quality you admire in someone else and wish you had more of?

I wish I was a little more outgoing. Both personally and professionally, I'm not really a network-type of person. So, it's a desire, a willingness, and a skill to be able to cultivate meaningful, long-term relationships. Greg is really good at that. He's always the one saying, "Oh, I know someone who does this or that." And you can really see the value when someone is good at making those connections. People like him do it because they're genuinely interested in other people. It's not a fake thing. I've never really been good at that. I'm better at letting relationships die.

Tell me about some of your colleagues.

Rick has a real knack for customer service and client satisfaction. He really wants to please our internal clients, so he's great at being proactive and anticipating their needs. Jenny's experience is invaluable. She's always working with her team to find lessons learned and leverage those experiences in future work. And then Nikole has a real no-nonsense approach to project management, so she's able to cut through anyone else's nonsense and be really strong at managing her projects.

Tell me one thing on your bucket list.

I don't think I have a typical bucket list. I don't have a lot of little specific things that I want to make sure I do. But one thing I really want to do is build my own home. I want it to be a long and involved process, where I can get my hands dirty and have a part in actually building it and making it special. I want it to be something that me and my family can enjoy and then pass down to my children. Part of why I want to do this is just my desire to put all of my energy into something productive and fun that I can benefit from. And part of it is being outside and doing something physical and working with my hands. Building for the future is really motivating to me.

In the Industry: Since 2003

At Bovitz: Since 2011

Education: College wasn't for me

His best quality: Open-minded