In Conversation With Arshan Khanifar

In Conversation With Arshan Khanifar

Arshan Khanifar has always loved problem solving. It’s what first led him to pursue electrical engineering for his career. 

But while attending the University of Waterloo in Ontario for computer science, Arshan discovered that software engineering was much more interesting and engaging. This revelation led him to work with several different companies performing various types of front end and back end software development, until he found his current passion: cryptocurrency.

It may sound daunting to try as many different types of engineering and development that Arshan has. But it works for him because he has a passion for problem-solving and troubleshooting, which goes all the way back to his early childhood in Tehran. 

“Coming from a family of engineers and doctors, and a father [who] is a mechanical engineer, he planted the seed early,” said Arshan. “He may not [have] had the extensive knowledge to carry out a whole project by himself but he had a base knowledge on how a lot of machines worked. He would explain how things worked like cars, trains, planes, ships…anything that has moving parts.”

Like most kids, Arshan’s favorite pastime was playing video games. Unlike most kids, however, he also came to love math. He began to love it at the end of middle school, when he had a math teacher that challenged him. 

Arshan compares solving difficult math problems with playing video games. 

“With harder math problems, there is a deep satisfaction of being able to solve it which is similar to beating video game challenges. I was never the top student at school, but I was good at math and solving math problems also came with a lot of confidence. [I discovered a love for math] with solving hard problems and having fun doing it.”

These passions would pave the way for his affinity for coding, which his cousins from the United States introduced him to the summer before he was to attend the University of Waterloo. His cousins also served as a great example: though they did not major in either engineering or computer science, they were able to work in the tech industry by diligently studying on their own time. 

Arshan immediately became interested in software development. His cousins told him to get into it through web development and learning Javascript through CodeCademy. 

Thanks to the free JavaScript course Arshan took that summer, he qualified for co-op developer jobs once he reached university. These helped him hone his software development skills while he completed his degree.

“My first co-op was at a fin-tech startup in downtown Toronto,” Arshan said. “My title was senior frontend developer, which was pretty funny. The entire company was 7 people and I was by no means… a senior engineer. They were actually paying me less than a minimum wage job. I was making more money at Starbucks in the summer.”

Despite the meager pay, Arshan learned to become “a proper coder” at the startup. He taught himself how to do much of the coding by Googling the information he needed. 

From there, he was ready to get into electrical engineering, which was his primary focus at UW. But he quickly realized it wouldn’t be easy. 

In Arshan’s words, “It was hard to get into electrical jobs because you needed experience for it…with electrical you can’t just go on a website and learn to code, with electrical you need a physical kit like an Arduino.”

Arshan wisely came to the conclusion that the best way to get his toes wet in electrical engineering was to join a design team. During the day, he worked at the FreeBSD Foundation where he coded Python and C, while at night he went to the design bay at Midnight Sun solar car team where he played around with STM32 Microprocessors and wrote embedded C-code to interact with peripherals such as sensors, LED’s and switches. “It was a good mix of electrical and software engineering,” he said. 

Arshan’s skills at coding and software engineering stood out when he developed a driver that could connect the newly released Raspberry Pi 3V+’s network chip. This would mark his first contribution to the FreeBSD Foundation, an open source operating system that thousands of developers have worked on. Before Arshan developed it, this specific type of driver did not exist on FreeBSD.

From that co-op with FreeBSD Foundation and his time at the Midnight Sun team, Arshan made his way to Apple where he became part of a system engineering team that tested LTE on iPhones. But this didn’t interest him, as he felt most of the work could be automated. 

He enjoyed the second team he worked with at Apple far more. Here, he had “a great mentor” and learned how to develop microservices and containerized applications. 

After returning to UW from Apple, Arshan went back to Midnight Sun to be the lead for their firmware for a while. Then he joined a professor’s cyber security startup. Arshan helped develop the startup’s software: a proprietary algorithm that generates passwords for routers. 

These co-ops were the building blocks for Arshan’s coding and software development skills. They would also be the backdrop of his most recent obsession, which he discovered after joining his cousin’s company, Waveform

Waveform develops multiantenna solutions, which pick up cellular signals from outside and bring them inside buildings. But that wasn’t what grabbed Arshan’s attention. It was cryptocurrency, which his younger cousin introduced him to.

Arshan wasn’t very successful at trading at first. But once again, he used his self-teaching skills and insatiable hunger for problem-solving to become a crypto expert. Specifically, he relied on Austin Griffith’s blog to learn about blockchain, proof of work, hashing, how blocks are linked, ethereum, and more.

After a few small projects, including building bots that could check the drops and rises of certain types of crypto coin and joining the Olympus Protocol Hackathon, Arshan made a huge breakthrough.

“I created a mobile application that allowed users to send that specific currency of Olympus project to each other. I made a video about it and shared it on Youtube and Twitter which blew up over night.”

The application put him in the sights of the founders of the Olympus Protocol and other influential names in crypto. More importantly, it led to job offers, including an offer from Polychain where he currently works.

Polychain is an investment firm that focuses on cryptocurrency and blockchain. Arshan builds software tools that help his team trade better.

This is a far cry from where he started, doing electrical engineering for Midnight Sun and working with iPhones at Apple. But Arshan loves it. 

“It’s exciting work because it’s fast paced, real time concepts,” Arshan says. “It’s been very interesting what you can do with Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services. This whole computing as a service has been really a game changer for a lot of startups that are emerging right now. It’s been a joy working [at Polychain].”

For other upcoming computer science students, Arshan advises them not to wait around to do what they love or learn more about whatever they find interesting. 

“I personally took the route of trying many things and it may seem like I’m searching for the correct thing to do and eventually settle down and focus on that. But I don’t see myself doing anything like that. My career is going to be constantly trying out new stuff because I see a lot of power in diversity.”

If a computer science student is interested in blockchain, Arshan recommends they dive right into that, as well. “Learn how blockchain and networking works,” he says, citing the Ethereum Foundation as a hub of excellent resources. “Jump into and clone their repo…that gives you a really good understanding of what’s happening.”

Arshan would never have found his passion for crypto or developed his software engineering skills if he hadn’t tried multiple avenues first. And that’s how he will continue to pave his own unique career path: by learning and doing new things whenever the opportunity arises.

Writer: Elaine Tveit
Photos: Choi David
Stylist: Caitlin Power

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