The result of the summit was The People to People Student Ambassador Program. A kind of grassroots diplomatic initiative, Eisenhower hoped that by empowering groups of young people to travel and experience exotic cultures, they would organically develop a global empathy. The idea was that after having experiences on the other side of the world, People to People participants would grow into adults less inclined to drop megaton bombs on each other.
The students selected were gifted—anointed for public service, a corner office, or, in the case of Kevin Olson, a web developer for Paradowski Creative.
If I had spent summers during my formative years traipsing around Europe and wandering the corridors of world class museums, I’m not sure if I would ever shut up about it. Instead, Kevin casually mentions his time overseas as context regarding a diminutive question I’m asking about Harry Potter. We were discussing the finer points of the movie adaptations when he brings up how he owns the UK version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
“I guess this is interesting, but I spent a lot time overseas when I was younger.”
He then proceeds to detail how, during summers in fifth and sixth grades, he traveled to France and Australia for weeks at a time. He knew it was a privilege, but at the time, couldn’t quite comprehend how unique the experience was. Preparing for the trips entailed in depth meetings and history lectures. He remembers feeling awed by the responsibility of the program’s charter. These weren’t party tours. The tone of the trips was serious, or rather, as serious as a group of pre-teens under limited adult supervision can be.
Kevin Olson’s life is peppered with allusions and references to Harry Potter. It’d be too cute by half if he wasn’t so sincere. For example, during a mandatory seminar his freshman year at college, he bonded with a classmate over their shared effusive interest in the adventures of their favorite matriculating magicians. Whether it was her resemblance to the book’s description of Hermione or whether the two simply fell in love, four years later, Kevin married that classmate. They bought a house in the St. Louis suburbs and still watch The Prisoner of Azkaban if they catch it flipping channels on lazy weekend afternoons.
To clarify, Harry Potter is only the background to some of Kevin’s stories, not his entire identity. Going over my notes from our conversation, it becomes clear that Kevin is being gracious in not outright bristling at my questions into what I presume are his interests. “Uh, I don’t just play video games and read Harry Potter,” he finally says, exhausted at my limited scope of inquiry. It’s a theme that comes up when we discuss his role at Paradowski.
“When I tell people I’m a web developer, they’ve already constructed an image of what I do and who I am.” Kevin tells me instructively, but patiently. “If they know a little about building websites, they might wonder what I can do that they can’t using Squarespace or Wix.”
He pauses, genuinely reflecting on what is lost in automation.
"They don’t see the level of attention to detail required and they don’t see the community. They don’t see what it means to be a developer at Paradowski."
For Kevin, it means the ability to stretch his skillset and expand his experience. Collaboration, he says, is what makes working at Paradowski different. He’s heard horror stories of developers at bigger operations, crammed into a fluorescent lit room, dark splotches of sweat inking from beneath armpits as deadlines approach for tasteless and bland websites. In addition to avoiding that fate, Kevin is uniquely suited for Paradowski because of his design background. He appreciates that digital projects deserve to work as good as they look.
At 26 years old and despite the occasional scruffy blonde beard, Kevin still looks the part of a boyish techno wunderkind. He is recognizable from a distance by his gait—he enters any room on the balls of his feet, nimble and buoyant. He doesn’t make fun of me as I attempt to adopt tech parlance into my interview questions and there’s no ego in any of his answers.
The only time any of my questions fluster Kevin is when I ask him how long he’s worked at Paradowski. Planning to talk about his approach to web development or insights into agency culture from a developer’s perspective, Kevin so closely associates his vocation with Paradowski that a work anniversary doesn’t register as important. We pause our conversation as he checks his LinkedIn page and reports back. He started three years ago as an intern during his last semester at Maryville University where he was studying interactive design. He originally applied for the design internship, but when they found Kevin had dev experience, they hired him for that role.
Listening back on our conversation, I’m struck by Kevin’s self-awareness. He makes his wife laugh, but he’s not ready for a comedy club stage. Even with his background in interactive design, he knows his strengths are elsewhere. He never pretends to know what he doesn’t and he’s quick to credit mentors with his successes.
The People to People Student Ambassador program shut down a few years ago. Critics cited it’s swollen budget and the lack of demonstrable results. True, we still live in a world of megaton bombs. But we also live in a world with Kevin Olson.