It’s no surprise that Doug Valenta, a senior software engineer at Apex Clearing, can articulate how programming works so clearly. A storyteller by training, he ran a theater education nonprofit and went to film school at Northwestern before deciding to pursue a career in software. “A computer program is a set of painfully clear instructions like you’d give to a young child,” explains Doug plainly. Here’s what Doug had to say about solving complex problems, following his creative path, and “applying” technology to nonprofits.
I’ve been with Apex Clearing, a PEAK6 business, since February 2019. As a senior software engineer, I lead a team of engineers that build APIs (software intermediaries that allows two applications to talk to each other) enabling clients and their end customers to trade securities. As a clearing and custody firm, our clients run the gamut from registered investment advisors to fintech apps and startups. The APIs we build enable our clients to open brokerage accounts and trade on the markets, allowing their customers to access fractional trading—investing in a fraction of a share.
I’m a very creative person. I have always loved making things. I didn’t want to read books as a kid—I wanted to write the stories, make and bind the books. I first got exposed to computers playing games and using early desktop publishing software on my parents’ old Commodore 64. I loved tinkering with it. When I was 10, I decided to learn how to program that computer. My parents had no idea how, so I got some books from library. It’s been my primary hobby ever since.
I’d always known how to program, but hadn’t actually studied it formally. Formerly, I ran an arts nonprofit. started to consider putting my skills to work in technology after working on a project with a software engineer, who helped me put together a resume and understand the tech interview process. I was in my late 20s by the time I started my career in software at a software-as-a-service company in Portland.
I find it hard to look back on projects that way and see them as major feats—especially with software. Sometimes the problems seem so complex at the beginning, but turning them into actual code is a process of removing a lot of the mystery. By the time you’re done, they often seem really simple.
Impossible code made possible:
When we began offering our clients fractional trading, we had to solve the problem of what you do with the other portion of the share the customer buys. When we first confronted this, it seemed insurmountable: What were we going to do with this inventory of extra odds and ends we as a firm didn’t want? When I started here, it seemed like a boogie man looming on the horizon. Over time, we learned more and tamed it. We figured out how to turn it into something mechanical we could actually deliver. At the end of the day, software is mechanical. The computer can’t infer things. The complexity of the problem ends up getting broken down into something simple enough to tell a computer how to do it.
I’ve been on a streak with learning some new programming languages, including Rust. At Apex we use mostly Java, but it’s been evolving a lot so I’ve lately been learning new, leading-edge features of Java that aren’t released yet. I’ve picked up TypeScript and have been enjoying that in my free time. I like that programming languages are linguistic and philosophical artifacts of an approach to describe solutions to problems. Learning new ones is a useful way to talk about ideas, to bring them into your practice and to approach different kinds of problems.
When I’m not working:
I love to create art and write music. I also like to do some hobbyist game development and create interactive stories. It enables me to incorporate many of my different passions.
Tech for the greater good:
I worked with a lot of public-school art teachers in Portland when I ran the theater education nonprofit and learned that many organizations’ technological needs are surprisingly simple. It’s not that the technology they need hasn’t been invented; it just hasn’t been applied. In technology, we’re so trained to see the novel, hard problem. It can be challenging to realize that the problem is already solved and we just need to bring in the solution. PEAK6 founders Matt Hulsizer and Jenny Just continually recognize this in financial services; there are corners of the financial world, especially the middle and back office functions, where the problem is not that technological advancement is needed, it’s that it hasn’t been applied. And if it’s true for financial services, it is absolutely true for charitable organizations. I’d love to help fix that.
Best part of my job:
It’s 100% the people. The people I work with at Apex are a wonderful, kind, amazing team. We’ve been through a lot in a short period of time, ranging from reorganization to technical issues, but what holds it all together is that it’s a great group of people.