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The Future of Humanity: Brain-Computer Interface

Follow me on Twitter @jerzzhang

The Four Futures

Many people have varying views on how the future will unfold, and according to the philosopher Nick Bostrom and the technology giant Peter Thiel these views fall into four distinct patterns.


If we use the past as our case study, it is easy to imagine a future of recurrent collapse. The Roman Empire, the Greek Empire, and the Mongolian Empire all rose to great heights before falling to irrelevancy and bringing with them long periods of deterioration. Maybe we are taking the world’s current economic stability for granted.


In the second scenario, conventional wisdom tells us that globalization will rule the future. As the newest technology is spread and adopted around the world, the whole world will converge on the quality of life of the richest country. Therefore the future will look very similar to the present.


In the third scenario, humanity comes to an end. With a single misstep in A.I. or even nuclear weapons, a collapse could be so devastating that we will not survive.


The last possibility is the hardest to envision and describe; where humanity takes off to a much brighter future.

It is difficult for me to see a future of recurrent collapse due to the fact that the knowledge of the world is too widespread for humanity to fall again into an era of Dark Ages. A future of mostly globalization is also very difficult to maintain because of the scarcity of earth’s resources. As poorer countries slowly catch up to their richer counterparts, the tension between each country will increase to a point of destructive warfare, which will realistically bring us in line with the third scenario. The future of humanity will likely take the form of total annihilation or advancements in technology that we cannot currently comprehend. So how do we make sure that we avoid the potential deadly potholes in our path that might lead us to annihilation?

Extinction of Humans

Spoiler alert: Our generation will witness the extinction of the human race if we do not take the necessary actions to prevent it.

Just look at the world right now. Humans are making computers stronger, faster, and more powerful every day. At this rate, singularity will occur in 20 years. In 10-50 years, a single nuclear weapon could wipe out the whole population on earth. We are also currently facing the 6th mass extinction in history, the extinction of large animals. Without the population of large predators, the number of diseased rodents will roam the earth and the number diseases will increase exponentially. Without large animals, the already scarce food supply on earth will decrease. No food = no humans. In 100 years, global warming will cause a decrease in landmass, while overpopulation will push humans to compete for scarce resources. We could even go extinct tomorrow with the accidental release of a lab disease into the population.

These are some very difficult scenarios for humanity to avoid. Many of these tough problems need to be solved with a deadline in mind. And the deadline is closer than anyone imagined.

Man-Computer Symbiosis

We humans pride ourselves with being the most intelligent organisms on earth. But do we really have enough intelligence to solve these problems in the future? If yes, then can we solve it before the deadline? I believe that intelligence is our most important asset but also the bottleneck preventing us from finding a solution to most of these problems in a timely manner. Thinking is the highest paid job in the world but we are not fully utilizing technology to augment our own ability to think. We need as much assistance to our brain as possible to solve the important problems in the future.

The man-computer symbiosis is an important theory proposed in 1960 by J.C.R. Licklider. We can see the direct application of this symbiosis with the use of computers in our daily lives. Computers are known for their advantage in direct information gathering, hardware processing power, hardware memory storage, information retrieval, information breadth. But humans have an advantage in experimental learning, decision making, information retrieval relevance, creation of correlations, and the consistent system of super goals. The combination of computer’s pure processing power and storage capabilities with human’s decision making and learning has proved to be more intelligent than each entity on their own. In fact, the strongest chess player in the world is not a computer or a human, but rather a human-computer duo. The computer processes millions of calculations a minute and provides options while the human makes the ultimate decision.

We are making headway into the beginning of man-computer symbiosis. This symbiosis between humans and computers is mediated through our fingers on a keyboard/mouse. The outputs from a computer are then displayed to our retina. This is an extremely inefficient process. Our thoughts operate at a much faster speed than our fingers; therefore this speed gap prevents us from aligning with computers at the highest possible magnitude. Closing this speed gap is important for human intelligence evolution, because the tighter the integration between humans and computers the more we are able to utilize the computer’s processing power and storage, thereby increasing our ability to solve problems. In a perfect man-computer symbiosis our brain signals are the direct inputs to a computer and the computer transfers the outputs through the direct simulation of neurons. Unfortunately our brains have not been fully reverse engineered for the simulation of neurons to be possible. But we are at the point where in the next 2-5 years brain signals can be fully decoded via machine learning to serve as reliable inputs.

I believe that consumer brain-computer interface (BCI) will be a huge industry in the near future and will exponentially increase our ability to tackle tough problems. With the technological advances in cloud storage, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence, computers will be able to accurately decode brain signals through a period of learning and then storing the information in an infinitely large database. Supercomputers will also become smaller and more consumer-friendly. Other technologies including contact lens displays will allow the consumer BCI to be extremely discreet and mobile. There are of course some moral disputes around the integration with computers that will not be discussed in this blog post.

Building Our Future

No matter what we believe about the future, it won’t happen on its own. Many people have differing beliefs on what the future holds and how technology will evolve humanity. But we ultimately face two stark choices between the most likely scenarios for the future: nothing or something. It is up to us to create the future because we cannot take for granted that the future will be better. Peter Thiel says in Zero to One:

Our task today is to find singular ways to create the new things that will make the future not just different, but better. The essential first step is to think for yourself. Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future.

This quote invigorates me because I believe that with brain-computer interfaces we can shape our own destiny.



In Conversation with Dave King & Matt Darling @ Madison Reed®

It has been 5 awesome, fun and enriching weeks at Madison Reed. Madison Reed is a startup like no other I have worked with/visited before and I love it all — the quirkiness, the casualness as well as the technically heavy tasks assigned to me.

When Christiaan first pitched the company to me, I immediately navigated to their website to find myself a little surprised and slightly disappointed, yet determined. The disappointment did not arise because the website was poorly designed (the design was great) or that I had ended up at the wrong webpage but due to the fact that this company was the opposite of what I was expecting – a hair-care/hair product startup. Much different from my expectation of being paired with a typical technical startup.

However, my initial viewpoint of this unconventional startup quickly changed as I spoke to Matt & Dave in an interview shortly after Christiaan’s introduction. They broke my misconceptions about the company being a pure hair-care startup and navigated me to the core of what the entire company relies heavily on – Engineering. The engineering team at Madison Reed is an impressive team comprised of engineers from all backgrounds – front-end development to back-end development as well as infrastructure engineering. At that point, I knew I wanted to challenge myself by stepping into an industry I had never even thought about working in and working with this extremely qualified team to make my Summer a challenging yet enjoyable one.

I got to spend a decent amount of time working directly with Dave & Matt at Madison Reed after starting work there on June 8th. They have been amazing mentors so far and I am truly impressed by their prowess as engineers as well as leaders of the Engineering Team at Madison Reed. This made me want to find out more about what their journey has been like and the different major decisions they have had to make along their career paths as engineers as well as founders. Before I dive into the details of the brief discussion I had with Matt & Dave, below is short introduction of Matt and Dave:

Matt Darling, VP Engineering, Madison Reed

Matt Darling is currently the VP of Engineering at Madison Reed and is an established veteran of startups. He, along with Dave, built Rhapsody together. They joined before it was acquired by Real Networks and had been involved with the company since its inception and were involved in it’s acquisition of other companies ( & to help build the Rhapsody music service. Matt moved to the Bay Area right after college at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and immersed himself in multiple tech startups after his exit from Real Networks, serving as Director of Engineering at Meez and then Principal Architect at Outspark and Lab Zero Innovations.

Dave King, CTO, Madison Reed

Dave King is currently the CTO at Madison Reed and grew up in Berkeley and Chicago before going to UC Santa Cruz for college and after a few years working for established network companies joined Matt at (before it was acquired by Real Networks) to build the Rhapsody digital music service. Dave then left the startup realm to work at GAP Inc. (Yup – that clothing store everyone knows about) as their Senior Director of Enterprise Infrastructure for ~8 years before returning to the startup hub when he joined Madison Reed in 2014.

Q: So I know that you are both established engineers in your respective areas of expertise. But tell me more about your story.
When and how did you get into technology, computer science and engineering?

Matt: Well, the first class I took fairly relevant to technology was a Pascal class in ’91 back in Junior year of high school in Wisconsin. I then moved on to college and did a few Computer Science electives there to expand my interest and depth of understanding in the subject and immediately fell in love with it. I knew from that point on that after college, I’m moving out of the Midwest and going to San Francisco to work for tech companies there. I spent some time working contracts with a few tech companies and then starting work at and building Rhapsody. I stayed there all the way till ’98 before I jumped into multiple startups.

Dave: I was an avid gamer back in high school and that was my first introduction to technology. I have always appreciated it and always wanted to contribute to it one day. I actually went to college at UC Santa Cruz as part of their Pre-Law program and hated it. After doing a few CS electives, I knew that Computer Science was what I wanted to do and transferred into the program as my major. I then quit college and consulted for multiple startups funded by KPCB (Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers).  During this time I worked for Marc Andreessen as his personal tech guru during his last few months at Netscape and his residency at KPCB. I was also introduced to Tsutomu Shimomura as he was launching his first startup, Geocast. Tsutomu asked me build a secure network for his new company to prevent hackers from retaliating after the recent publishing of his book on catching legendary hacker Kevin Mitnick. Being in the heart of the first dot-com boom was where i really started to love working in technology, and I built my career from there. I actually come from a more traditional infrastructure engineering background where I have built multiple infrastructures at companies before I joined at Madison Reed.

Q: Wow, looks like neither of you started with a strong ambition for computer science until much later in college. I know you [Matt] started off at startups and Dave, you moved from a startup out to GAP and then returned to Madison Reed. What was the move like? Why the shift back to a startup? I’m sure there was a risk involved in all of this.

Matt: I have a strong passion for building things and what I really appreciated at startups was the whole concept of product ownership. By being so close to the product and working on it from ground up forms an attachment to the product. I believe I truly enjoy that and that is why I always stuck with startups and small companies driving technology focused product. There was surely a risk but what really mattered during the move [to Madison Reed] was that I was joining the company with my trusted and long time partner and friend, Dave. This proved to be an effective factor in joining Madison Reed.

Dave: I spent many years at GAP, initially running Infrastructure for the rapidly growing eCommerce business, then eventually running Infrastructure for the entire company.  This meant taking on a huge amount of legacy technology from the mainframe to the store network. As I took on more responsibility for these older technologies, I quickly noticed the lack of innovation amongst those teams. But the real change happened when I started spending 90% of my time in meetings and and the rest of my time in email.  I hadn’t built a single piece of technology with my own hands in years.  I realized I needed to get back to building things, not just to stay relevant in my career, but to thoroughly enjoy my life in the office. There was definitely risk involved in moving back to a startup after working with such an established company, but like Matt said, I was joining Madison Reed with trusted friends.  In the end, that was the most decisive factor for me to move to Madison Reed.

Q: What was the biggest change when you moved to Madison Reed?

Dave: There was hardly any software development or dev-ops processes present (compared to today) at Madison Reed, and being from an infrastructure background I knew there was much to be done at the company. The engineering team was still rather small and not as technically strong as it is today. This task seemed daunting but at the same time seemed like something I really wanted to work on and fix.

Matt: Yeah, Dave’s right. There was no process of automation as you see today. There was no concept of deployment and production with local systems being able to test code individually before adding to the main codebase. Dave and I went on to implement this system of setting up the environments for engineers to test and deploy code locally which improved efficiency greatly. This meant that the engineering team could work on different tasks simultaneously. We set up the main databases in 2014, from which we developed a solid system of migrations.  Node.js was chosen before I joined, and I had some hesitation initially.  However, having worked in multiple languages over the years, I’ve really come to enjoy what Node.js has to offer – the academic/pattern driven nature of Java combined with the rapid development of Ruby on Rails.

Q: That sounds like a lot of work. Madison Reed Engineering has definitely come a long way. With all these new startups coming up in the world, what do you think would be the future of startups in say 20 or 30 years?

Dave: I think now we are seeing the shift from software back to hardware and this enters the realm of the Internet of Things. Every device now has a connection to the internet, first phones and tablets, now to watches, thermostats, even custom Arduino devices. I can easily see how this can disrupt many traditional industries.

Q: That is a very interesting insight. I agree with you about things moving to the hardware realm and then entering the era of distributed systems – FitBit and Pebble are good examples of this phenomenon.

Matt: Yeah totally. It’s really funny to see how open-source software, for example, has gone from a hack to the bread and butter of how we deploy and get stuff done now.  I look back and wonder what type of competitive advantage the company, that moved me out to the Bay area,  would have had if they built their product on Linux and Tessels/Arduinos.


Are You Really Being Productive?

Yes, despite the common lack of understanding there is and should be a clear distinction between being busy and being productive. While productivity seems to be a measure of all the various tasks you are able to juggle at once, it isn’t.

Productivity by definition is: the quality, state, or fact of being able togeneratecreateenhance, or bring forth goods and services.

From what I have seen from my own life, family, friends, and other college students around me. We do not get it! Now of course this is a generalization so it is not everyone, but we need to be honest with ourselves. A lot, yes a lot, of us misinterpret the real meaning of productivity. We either do so unknowingly or just choose to ignore that the definition encompasses “being able to generate, create, enhance, or bring forth.” This leads us into tricking ourselves into believing that ideating, brainstorming, and thinking about what we are doing or will do suffice and pass as being productive.

This results in us creating many facets of various projects, work, and jobs in our lives. So much so that we are unable to deliver the best quality work or get it done in a timely manner. We start stretching ourselves thin and looking for excuses and reasonable causes to point to as the things that prevented us from accomplishing what we needed to do the way we wanted. This is where the line between being busy and being productive should start to become clear. It is that uneasy feeling you get with your work, you get defensive when people question what you do with your time, people start doubting the quality of your performance, and now you are unsure of what you are capable of actually doing anymore.

News flash… You can only do so much! It is time to get things together and get on track.

Stop getting involved with activities, jobs, work, projects, or whatever where you are going a mile wide and an inch deep. While this illusion of doing so much makes you seem productive because of the constant work flow it isn’t. The value of productivity really comes from being able to under promise and over deliver. Not we you are under promising and meeting that promise because it is all you can handle. There is no weakness in going an inch wide and mile deep on a couple of core focuses in your life.

Sometimes less really is more, especially when you look at productivity.

Now comes the time where we stop acting like we know what to change but do it. Here are the 5 core things everyone who wants to be productive should really be doing.

1) Stop planning, start doing.

I know you hear this all the time. Seriously, why do you think you hear it all the time? It is because people do not get it is really that simple. Stop making it seem like it needs to be more complicated. Don’t think about it, just do it. Really stop over thinking it.

2) Don’t always be a “YES” man.

We are all humans and can only handle so much. There comes a point in time where you need to respect your own time and say no. Not everything that you are asked to do will add value to you. Your time and energy are your biggest asset. Make sure you are making the most of them. It is hard to say no but that is exactly why you need to do it.

3) Stop being a perfectionist.

You aren’t perfect therefore you can’t create perfect work. Stop trying to make everything the most perfect piece that has ever left your hands. Sometimes it is more important to get it done than waste time on perfecting it. We all know the fine tuning never really ends. Save your own time and accept that perfection is a never ending chase.

4) Get it out of your head.

The phone rings, “ Hey you coming?” Once again our mind fails us in time of need. We have all been there. Stop relying on your mind to remember everything you have to do. It will fail you when you need it most. Write it down! It helps to write out tasks, list, or events. Make life easier for you and you brain, save the headaches.

5) Review, measure, and acknowledge.

At the end of the week, it is ok to treat yourself. Reflect on what you have accomplished over the week. Measure your productivity, did you get everything done that you set out for? Did anything get postponed? Why? Learn from the mistakes you made over the week. However, acknowledge if you did indeed crush it and reward yourself. Then start preparing for the upcoming week. It is time to get back to work.

Well enough talk, we all know what we need to do if we truly want to be productive. It starts with being aware but that is not enough. It is not enough to even acknowledge we are not being productive. We will really become productive we stop whining, complaining, and acting like we are just so busy. Our productivity will show when we start walking the walk. It honestly is such a simple concept.

When you find yourself overwhelmed by how busy you are stop for a moment. Ask yourself this question: Am I actually being productive? Yes, keep going. No, change it! We have the power to spend our time being busy for the sake of doing it, or really accomplishing work and getting done what needs to get done to our satisfaction.

The choice is yours…

Stop being busy and start being productive.


Challenging Diversity at NodeConf


At npm everyone cares a great deal about workplace diversity. It’s a privilege to work in such a positive environment and in truth, I haven’t been the best advocate for diversity. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “but Shivs, you’re a woman interning in the ‘Tech Mecca.'” I’m entirely an edge-case when it comes to most women pursuing careers in technology. My parents have PhD’s in CS and my community has been nothing but supportive; we could argue I was fated to be a developer from the womb. I simply haven’t been exposed to many of the difficulties minorities face in this industry. Now despite my lack of roadblocks, I’ve still managed to happen upon a single, self-important thorn in my career path—namely, the rise of the “brodom.”

Let’s take this back to last summer. I remember walking into the stunning office of my first real internship—tall glass windows, fully stocked kitchen, giant redbull vending machine, even a game room equipped with two ping-pong tables. It all seemed promising. Fourteen engineers greeted me and I hardly noticed I was the only woman in the room. That was until my co-worker found it timely to announce, “looks like we gotta stop with the dick jokes, huh?”.  I laughed off many of these insults throughout the summer. A further snub, I’m not trained as a designer but spent the summer completing what were mostly front-end tasks thrown at me. Moreover, while the specifics I’ll refrain from sharing, I can understand how it proves to be difficult keeping matters in professional scope because workplaces also lend themselves to social interactions. However, unwarranted remarks and general disrespect for personal decisions in the workplace undermines one’s agency and marginalizes community members. In all honesty, I found it easier to join the “brodom” than to fight it. I cast my dresses and skirts into the depths of my closet in exchange for hackathon t-shirts and jeans. The less attention I could bring to myself, the better. The tipping point of all this came when I was rushed to the hospital during the last week of the internship. All it took was a trip to the emergency room to leave my sense of self-worth even more dire. This was the beginning of my concerns with diversity in our community.

In our industry, we’re all encouraged to be insufferable smart-asses.  Humans, and developers in particular, fail to decouple pride from their interactions. Moreover, we tell those afflicted to “toughen up” instead of confronting the problem directly. On the internet, with increased anonymity, it’s easy to be overbold. The consequence? It’s incredibly disheartening, in the open-source community for instance, for an enthusiastic new contributor to be shut down by a matter-of-fact thread of comments. Being well acquainted with many of these issues, I decided to attend a diversity forum at NodeConf ( last week with my co-workers from npm. The first of these sessions was very tense; we essentially threw a mob of passionately opinionated people into a room and awaited the impending chaos. The following discussions held much greater resolve and succeeded in creating a document (soon to be released to the public) acknowledging issues and actionable goals for the coming year. A few of my takeaways:


1. Realizing We All Have a Shared Vulnerability

The tech industry is a heated contest; everyone feels the pressure to one-up each other, but we must resist the need to be self-defensive at the cost of another. It is imperative we be welcoming and use actionable criticism. At times it can be difficult to keep our interactions in-scope of our contributions to the community. However, it is crucial to respect personal decisions and avoid undermining a person’s prerogative.

2. Collaboration > Competition

In truth, competition isn’t entirely detrimental to workplace culture. One could argue that “healthy” competition is more than acceptable. But, if said competition begins to pose a problem, for goodness sake, please dial it back.

3. Leading by Example

Community leaders have to be exemplars of inclusive practices, perhaps even held to a higher standard. At the first of the diversity discussions at NodeConf, some of my co-workers spoke openly about our company’s opt-in policy of “the guys jar”. Anyone who chooses to participate donates $1 to the jar every time they uses the term “guys” over a whole slew of other options—”folks,” “people,” “everyone”…etc. The policy was received with all sorts of opposition, even an offensive note sent to the company email.

4. Trust the “Ouch”

If a community-member reports an issue that defies your own world-view, don’t ignore it. For example, many npm users will submit complaints regarding difficulties using npm on a Windows machine. Problems using Windows is something of a cultural joke. So, it’s easy to dismiss these complaints because we—via only our own circumstances—have survived thus far unobstructed; this does not promote diversity nor an inclusive culture. At npm, we’ve identified this as being unproductive and have therefore put some effort into resolving Windows users’ concerns. As a general rule please listen first, hear second, respond third.


NodeConf was an overwhelming and powerful experience. I met so many of my idols—Node core maintainers, GitHub usernames I stalk on a daily basis, and the creators of projects that revolutionized uses of Javascript. The attendees were all from vastly different backgrounds; developers from Amsterdam, London, all over Latin America, and every corner of the States flew in to attend. It was incredible to witness the diversity and be able to translate the online community to a physical one.

I was floored by the immense support and willingness to mentor each other. Since all the attendees were dropped off in middle-of-nowhere N. California and forced to spend four days in close-quarters, it was also a great opportunity to get to know my co-workers. I’ll brag on their behalf since I still can’t believe I share an office with so much of Node-fame. I spent the weekend working on a personal project and had a whole body of JavaScript knowledge within arms-reach—forget Stack Overflow.  Mentors are truly game-changers for anyone young and ambitious. In fact, immaturity and naive oversight are likely the biggest offenders of diversity concerns. With a bit of guidance we realize that, overzealous and with a handful of successes, we’ve allowed ourselves to think we’re better than the whole lot. Let’s set Ego aside. It is incredibly important that new contributors to the open-source community have great role models and examples of inclusivity set for them. I’m dedicated to making sure this community prospers and I couldn’t have asked for a better lesson in what’s required of me. Thank you, npm and NodeConf.



Essential Apps for SF Interns

Now that I’ve been living in San Francisco for two weeks, I’ve settled into a routine. My iPhone is never more than a few feet away from me, and the following apps have increased my productivity, entertained me, and kept me informed.

Google Maps: for directions using public transportation or walking. During my first weekend in the city, I wandered around on foot for 10 miles and used Google Maps to figure out where pedestrian freeway overpasses. I mostly use it to figure out which bus to catch, though.

Foursquare: One of the TEC fellows *cough* Nitish *cough* makes fun of me for using it, but it’s my favorite way to find restaurants and places to visit, and I trust it more than Yelp. Their recommendation engine sets it apart from competitors.

Product Hunt: Stay updated on the latest product releases ranging from mobile apps to websites to developer tools. I love Product Hunt because of the comments (who ever thought someone would say that about a website?!). The people who contribute to development of the product are called “Makers” and participate in discussion with a select group of people. The discussion section is a wonderful way to learn about what motivated the makers, their ideas about the future of the product, and how they respond to constructive criticism.

Venmo: You will definitely owe someone money at some point.

Pocket: You probably won’t have time to read every interesting article you come across, so use Pocket to save things for later.

Lyft: Sometimes, public transportation is too inconvenient. Lyft Line is a relatively inexpensive way to get around the city.

Day One: The best journaling app. I’d certainly recommend jotting down thoughts throughout the day, taking a picture to save in the app, or taking a few minutes before going to sleep to write about the day.

Clear: A beautiful, minimal, gesture based list making app. I keep lists of things I need to buy for my apartment, recommended books, and various other things.

Circa News: This is one of my favorite News apps because it delivers comprehensive yet easy to digest coverage optimized for mobile devices. Perfect for reading on your way to work! As of today, 6/24/15, Circa News is on indefinite hiatus and I’m still in denial so I refuse to remove it from this list. Yahoo News Digest is a decent alternative, even though it offers less content.

I might add apps to this list throughout the summer.

A Summer of Exploration


When many people think of startups, they think of Mark Zuckerberg hacking away at Facebook in his dorm room, taking the first step into a rocketship to fortune. Or they think of Uber with its cars seemingly omnipresent in every major city, or Snapchat  and the near billion photos and videos it processes every day (let’s face it, no one uses Discover). Some may even think of TaskRabbit and Palantir, huge successes in their own right. What is often lost among the dreams of billion dollar valuations is the incredible amount of hustle and hard work that it takes to have a slim chance of success. As a 2015 TEC Fellow, I’m here in San Francisco this summer to work behind-the-scenes at a startup and see what it takes to call oneself an entrepreneur.  

We’re two weeks into the program, and so far the experience has been incredible. “Instant friends” is the closest I can come to describing our class of 14 fellows. Hailing from across the nation (and the world!), I’ve been thoroughly impressed with everyone’s background, vivacity, and dedication to their work. While we’ve only been here a short while, I look forward to spending as much time as I can with them.

I’ve been working at Kissmetrics, a company that provides a marketing analytics platform for businesses. In short, our platform allows businesses to see how individual users are interacting with their websites and gain insight into how they can improve their conversions. We like to say ‘Google Analytics tells you what’s happening. Kissmetrics tells you who’s doing it.’ During my internship, I’ll be assisting with day-to-day operations such as managing our daily blog newsletter and webinar series as well as more interesting tasks like analyzing and improving our social media strategy and sales funnel.

As someone who can’t claim to have any major technical skills (read: non-coder), I’m sometimes doubtful of where I fit within the tech world. Can you really make it in the valley without being well-versed in at least one programming language? While I’ve worked hard to acquire a working knowledge of code, the short answer is yes. Save for a select few, young, growing companies will always need marketing, sales, and even biz dev teams to scale up. My hope is that before the summer ends, I’ll have a firm grasp of what I have to offer the world as an entrepreneur in the future.

Check back in next week for more!

Tech Needs the Liberal Arts

Tech Needs the Liberal Arts

We’re sitting at the epicenter of startup culture. A place where the industry means tech and words like product assume a highly specific definition not necessarily congruent with the way the OED defines them. In this culture of pervasive homogeneity I find myself frequently being asked “why English?” What is the point of a liberal arts education when the endgame is to land a career in technology? I can count the number of programming languages I know on one finger, and the number of ones I know proficiently enough to create something functional on zero.

What am I doing in Silicon Valley?

It doesn’t feel like enough to simply say that I am smitten with the possibilities of technology and the idea of creating my own career. I give better answers: “I am going into [insert writing driven career here].” At worst I attempt to prove that I can understand code. Sometimes I explain I can’t make a career off of writing alone. It’s been fifty years since Hemingway wandered through Paris making a living off of selling prose and if you read A Moveable Feast you’ll remember, he was barely living. Being a writer, in the most beautiful sense, is to barely be living.

Here is what concentrating in poetry has taught me:

  • I take in large quantities of information (think War and Peace & Crime and Punishment in the same weekend), and crystallize their content into a persuasive argument.
  • I am used to harsh criticism of what I most love, and have made a student career of improving on critique.
  • I have opinions. I can take a project from start to finish and claim full of ownership of it, in success and in failure.
  • I regularly spend hours parsing details in order to better understand the bigger picture. Poetry demands that the reader understands the effects of the smallest units of language. I do the same in companies. I look at specific people and figure out how they contribute to the mission of the company.

If this seems nebulous, that’s because it is. And the necessity of qualifying such skills does a disservice to the many of students who want to go into predominantly technical fields and have chosen the liberal arts over STEM, not because STEM was “too difficult” but because they refused to sacrifice what they love. I deeply believe in college not only as a pre-professional vessel of “skill learning” but also a place that teaches how to go about learning. Regardless of your choice of humanities or sciences, your major should make you hungry. The area of knowledge doesn’t matter so much as the desire to learn more.

Employment is a very convincing counterargument to this suggestion. LinkedIn does a great job of illustrating the difficulties with marketing a liberal arts education versus that of STEM. STEM skills can more easily be described in concretions. There is a plethora of endorsement buttons for SQL but nothing that says highly capable at crystallizing information. My most applicable skills are abstractions; strategy and operations but what do those words even mean? Hell, I’m endorsed for Facebook.

Having spaces to explain verbatim doesn’t offer much help. You can’t detail your winning qualities without sounding pompous or at least what Holden Caulfield would call a phony. The best case you can make for yourself is in the experience section. That being said, the best way to prove your accomplishments is by acquiring a job, but the only way to acquire a good job is by making a show of accomplishments. This is a known paradox, and it thrusts an apparent wedge between a STEM versus a liberal arts major’s ability in being hired post grad.

Companies demand a level of specificity certain majors just can’t offer. Without these specific skills, entering any large company is aggravating. Spotify wants an agile coach and a product analyst. Reading the actual job description offers respite — “these are certainly things I could pick up quickly” — but students wilt when looking at the necessary qualifications. We don’t have them. And we almost certainly won’t be hired and given the chance to learn.

Ultimately, entrepreneurship is attractive because I am able to plow forward with the skills I do have. Rather than feeling belittled by specific qualifications I elected not to learn, I let specialization fill in the blanks. I may not understand databases and algorithms, but there exists someone who does, and I can pick up skills from working closely with them. This active sharing of knowledge closely mirrors the Socratic method found in a liberal arts education. In short — entrepreneurship is making a career of learning. It is a field in which we have the advantage. It is a field in which we are given the opportunity to pick up the skills that would otherwise be impossible to acquire after leaving our respective institutions.

I wrote my first HTML tag around the same time I read my first poem. Both gave me the sense that I could create something completely on my own. This means a lot to a 2nd grader who is just beginning to get caught in a system where uniformity is valued over creativity. Neopets and Jack Prelutsky are comparatively small wins to True Ventures and Yale University, where I currently find myself. But what remains true is that I began creating in order to express myself and to help others. Technology is about solving problems. Technology is about building something. Writing is just the same. I went to college to learn, and I ended up prioritizing one academic passion over the other, but I chose the less limiting path.

This is the point at which waxing poetic only seems to make a compelling argument for naiveté in a manner that undercuts this argument. To be clear, it isn’t easy and much of the time it won’t be successful. But failure is an opportunity to get better. Idealism can be unhealthy but passion shouldn’t be — especially in a world where investments are fundamentally made in people by other people. Daydreaming of being the next Facebook or Snapchat may not be productive, but we have been taught to be adaptable. There is nothing keeping us from starting something of our own.

But that is still the packaged answer. And, so, one more time — why English?

I study English because it makes me hungry. It keeps me awake at night with a flashlight under my blanket and writing until I have to ice my hand. Nothing is so essential to the practice of living as the written word. To love literature is to love the human experience at a most intimate level. Poetry is the act of wrangling someone through what it means to be so attentive. Poetry is essential.

William Wordsworth teaches us to appreciate the details. Frank O’Hara teaches us to look and listen. Thom Gunn and Anne Sexton teach us how to touch. Derek Walcott teaches us not to forget home. Paul Muldoon teaches us to play. Charles Bernstein teaches us to create our own logic. Sylvia Plath teaches us to be unabashed. Patricia Lockwood teaches us to cut through the crap.

The next time I tell someone at a tech conference that I study English, I’m waiting for a “me too”. The space between the liberal arts and the technological world is not so large — a love of one certainly shouldn’t bar you from competence in another. A blank space is just an opportunity. And LinkedIn, I don’t even do research. I start things.

A Growth Strategy for Startups

Follow me on Twitter! @jeremyziyuzhang


It is an exciting time to be an intern at ShowYou. I would like to spend this post to reflect through the past two days at True University and develop a rough draft of a plan for growth.

Traction Metric

The first step to create traction of the product is determining the core metric of the platform. Traction is the quantitative evidence of customer demand and the core metric should reflect that. “Traction is growth.  The pursuit of traction is what defines a startup.” The pursuit of traction should follow the 50% rule: spend 50% of time and resource on product and 50% on marketing. This will help build a better product because marketing data can be analyzed and incorporated.

Creation of Traction through Product

Before conducting any growth hacking, we have to show evidence that the platform has achieved product/market fit (PMF). PMF occurs when a large group wants/needs your product, therefore the product becomes a “must have”.  According to the speech given by Sean Ellis (@SeanEllis), the best way to test PMF is to send out a survey to all the users every 1-2 month asking the single question of “How would you feel if you could no longer use the product?” and giving them the three options of “Not disappointed, somewhat disappointed, and very disappointed”. When at least 40% of the response states “very disappointed”, then we can determine that the startup has a solid foundation of PMF.

The next step in the improvement of the product is through a scientific testing protocol better know as “growth hacking”. The success of the development of a growth culture relies on the four steps listed below.

  1. Weekly test launch goals
  2. Growth team/member/intern to execute test
  3. Weekly growth meetings to process data
  4. Scientific testing protocol

As a company, we should not dive head first into growth hacking. The correct way is set a small goal at first (i.e. 2 tests per week) before determining how much employee resources to dedicate to this task. It is also important that Mark and Andy must be 100% on board (recognize and praise early participants).

Growth hacking is the research into how small changes affect the core and secondary metrics (acquisition, activation, retention, referral, and revenue). It is a cycle of four steps that is iterated over and over. The first step is “unbridled ideation” and the whole company participates. A document named “Growth Hack Ideas” should be created and shared among all employees. Throughout the week everyone should start listing ideas/hypotheses (i.e. move email link from second row to first should increase email clicks by 200%) into the doc. At the time of the meeting, every member of the meeting pitches one of the ideas that has the highest impact for the least effort and a selected number is chosen to be tested that week. The next step is to “prioritize backlog”, thus all experimentation needs to be documented in an “Experiment Doc”. This is to prevent repeats in experimentation in the future. The third step is “high tempo testing” and the selected hypotheses are tested by the growth team during the week and the results documented into the Experiment Doc. The last step in this cycle is to “capture learning”. This step is conducted during the weekly growth meetings, where the results are presented. The results should again be documented in the Experiment Doc and be available for everyone in the company to view. Through these four step, it is easy to iterate the original product into a more effective variation.

Creation of Traction through Marketing

Product is important but marketing is just as important. Gabriel Weinberg states:

“A common story goes like this: founders build something people want by following a sound product development strategy. They spend their time building new features based on what early users say they want. Then, when they think they are ready, they launch, take stabs at getting more users, only to become frustrated when customers don’t flock to them. Having a product your early customers love but no clear way to get more traction is frustrating. To address this frustration, spend your time building product and testing traction channels – in parallel.”

Marketing is to discover and improve customer acquisition channels. According to the book Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares, there are a total of eighteen different channels and they are listed below.

  1. Viral Marketing (encouraging users to refer other users)
  2. Public Relations (traditional media outlets)
  3. Unconventional PR (publicity stunts)
  4. Search Engine Marketing
  5. Social and Display Ads
  6. Offline Ads
  7. SEO
  8. Content Marketing (blogs)
  9. Email Marketing
  10. Engineering as Marketing (widgets and free tools)
  11. Business Development (partnering with content producers)
  12. Sales
  13. Affiliate Programs
  14. Existing Platforms
  15. Trade Shows
  16. Offline Events
  17. Speaking Engagements
  18. Community Building

It might seem obvious that the business development channel is the most promising and effective source of traction but it is very easy for a founder or CEO to become biased into a single channel, therefore all channels should be explored before focusing on a single channel. As Peter Thiel puts it:

“[You] probably won’t have a bunch of equally good distribution strategies. Engineers frequently fall victim to this because they do not understand distribution. Since they don’t know what works, and haven’t thought about it, they try some sales, BD, advertising, and viral marketing—everything but the kitchen sink. That is a really bad idea. It is very likely that one channel is optimal. Most businesses actually get zero distribution channels to work. Poor distribution—not product—is the number one cause of failure. If you can get even a single distribution channel to work, you have great business. If you try for several but don’t nail one, you’re finished. So it’s worth thinking really hard about finding the single best distribution channel.”

An easy way to discover the best channel of traction is through a process called the Bullseye Framework. The first step is to brainstorm reasonable ways to improve the number of video minutes watched through each traction channel. This is a way to systematically counteract the bias toward a single channel and it is important to not dismiss any channel at this step. A spreadsheet should be created with the columns “how probable does it seem that this idea could work”, “what is the expected cost to acquire a customer”, “How many customers can you expect to acquire at that cost before saturation”, “what is the time frame needed to run test?”. The next step is to select three of the most promising channels and conduct three cheap tests in parallel. The tests should provide enough data to confirm or deny the answers provided in the above columns. The most promising channels are then selected and focused.



  1. Test PMF through survey
  2. Create and follow growth hacking schedule
  3. Determine two customer acquisition channels and focus marketing efforts

The Two Ds of Design

The way I see it, all of design boils down to two things: intention and execution. In other words, to be creative, you have to both Dream it and Do it.

The classic perception of creativity is Dreaming without Doing. It is easy to conjure up the image of the whimsical designer who brainstorms all kinds of ideas but doesn’t make anything. Or that of the philosophical intellectual who is adept at building castles in the air. That is not creativity.

The other side of the coin, Doing without Dreaming, is no better. All the people stuck in dull jobs are clearly Doing things, but they are not allowed to Dream. Most people would agree that these jobs are not creative, but I believe that they are no farther away from creativity than those mentioned earlier.

People often look at abstract art by influential painters and disapprovingly claim that their child could paint that. What then is the difference between works that are hung on the walls of the world’s most revered galleries and those that are hung on refrigerators in kitchens around the world? The difference is intention. It is not that the paintings themselves are technically challenging or hard to Do. Instead, they are almost always void of the Dream; they are the product of applying color to paper without much premeditated intention.

To explain with an oversimplification, people view life as a process of getting better at Doing. They expect an influential painter to be able to Do things their children can’t. Indeed, the process of becoming an influential painter (or most anything else) does require proving that you are better at Doing. Before painters are able to get away with technically trivial artworks like blank canvases, they have to spend years proving that they are indeed capable of Doing anything they can Dream of.

Ironically however, the process of getting better at Doing usually makes people worse at Dreaming. As people become experts at their depth area, they usually also become really entrenched in the traditional way of thinking and lose their ability to see the bigger picture.

Most people, as they get older, become better at Doing and worse at Dreaming. True change is driven not by the Dreamers or the Doers, but by the people who are good enough at Doing without losing their ability to Dream.

The fascinating trend is that Doing gets easier over time. If you wanted to invent tools in prehistoric times, you still had to spend most of your time and energy hunting for your food. If you had a great idea for a video game in the 70s, you first had to build your own computer. It is no surprise that you had very little time to actually design and build the game. Today, game developers can almost exclusively focus on designing a great product and it has become a lot easier to deliver on your Dream.

Only a few years ago, building a website was extremely difficult. Today, if you can Dream it, you can build it in only a few hours, using magical tools like Squarespace, Weebly and Wix.

As we head rapidly toward the singularity, are we building a world where if you can Dream it, you can Do it? At the Roadmap conference last week, Philip Rosedale argued that we are. Rosedale, who is the founder of Second Life and True-backed High Fidelity, said that the amount of time between thinking of something making it a reality is shrinking and approaching zero. What happens when we live in a world like that?

As a society, I believe, we place such an irrationally high value on influential art because the canvas is a world of endless possibility. A painter who is adept at Doing can make anything she can Dream of. What is so mythical for us is what they choose to do when we can do anything.

The world is approaching that kind of a blank canvas. Across all kinds of fields Doing is becoming so easy that Dreaming becomes continually important. This has serious implications on what we learn in school, where the focus is on Doing and Dreaming is lost in the process. More importantly at the workplace, most people are brought in to Do and being able to Dream is a luxury only available to the top of the pyramid. It doesn’t have to be that way.

I wrote this post inspired by the conversations we had at Gigaom’s Roadmap conference on Invisible Design. Gigaom is a True Ventures-backed company and the founder of Gigaom, Om Malik, is a Partner at True Ventures.


Bridging the Gap Between Design School and Real-World Impact: A Q&A with Enrique Allen

Enrique Allen — the co-founder of Designer Fund and a teacher at Stanford’s — is on a mission to fill the world with better-designed products and services. Last month, I sat down with him at Designer Fund in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood. The space feels more like a home or a lounge than an office. Beautiful posters hang on the walls and books line the shelves next to a small kitchen in the back. Designer Fund invests in design entrepreneurs who are solving problems in markets that traditionally lack design innovation — from healthcare, to education, to energy. Allen and his team also run Bridge, a design education program that connects experienced designers with top tier companies. Through Bridge, designers get paid to work at a startup of their choice and participate in weekly workshops, dinners, and talks.

In Silicon Valley, there’s a very codified system for building engineering teams. Designers, however, still lack a lot of this infrastructure, and Enrique Allen wants to change that. His aim at Designer Fund is to elevate the careers of designers and rid the world of “shitty user experiences.” WithBridge application season underway, I talked to Enrique Allen about the inspiration behind Designer Fund, the importance of design, and the promise of design education.

Credit: Misha Miller

Aaron Z. Lewis: How did you first get interested in design?

Enrique Allen: I’ve been a designer within venture capital firms for the last few years. Prior to that, I was an undergrad at Stanford. I hacked on Facebook apps that went viral when the platform first opened. My classmates and I collectively got over ten million users in 10 weeks. That was my first eye-opening experience to the power of designing social experiences.

I got invited to help run Facebook Fund, which was a joint venture between Accel, Founders Fund, and Facebook. During that time, I ran a small in-house design team to do short sprints with the [portfolio] companies. We experimented with how to optimize user acquisition, retention and different revenue streams. That was the first time I started to take best practices from the Stanford and try to apply them in the context of early stage startups.

As I was wrapping up grad school at Stanford, Dave McClure, one of the lead investors from Facebook Fund invited me to help start 500 Startups. At that time it was just an idea. We had no website, no nothing. Going from zero to our first fund was a really great experience. I went from working with 22 companies at Facebook Fund to dozens of companies a year at 500 Startups. I had to think about how it’s possible to scale a design team to serve that many startups. We experimented with all sorts of things — workshops, talks, office hours, pattern libraries, design sprints.

One day while meditating, I had this question: am I having long-term impact with these companies? If I follow up three, six years down the road, how many of these companies will still be practicing these design behaviors? Humans are fundamentally lazy, and so they’ll just revert back to what they were previously good at — the law of least effort. If they’re already good at engineering or business, they’re just going to keep playing to those strengths. They’re not going to continue prototyping and being human-centered unless there is somebody in-house who’s actually focusing on it.

I’d been spending the last few years trying to make startups more design oriented. What if I did the opposite and helped designers become more startup oriented? What if we create an organization to help support more designers? That question naturally led into Designer Fund.

What I’ve realized is that if you have great designers involved early on with great engineers and business people, you can increase the probability of great products and services. I think there’s still a lot of shitty user experiences everywhere. A lot of broken experiences, a lot of users still suffering — not only here in the United States, but globally. And there’s a lot of areas that haven’t traditionally seen a lot of design: healthcare, education, the environment. I just keep coming back to this recurring theme of how we might help more designers take the path of entrepreneurship.

You’ve been a Teacher’s Assistant for a few classes at Stanford’s What are the challenges of teaching design in a classroom setting versus in industry or in a startup?

The industry, particularly software and tech, by definition continue to innovate using the latest technology. Schools are just already outdated because they don’t know what it takes to build and scale a tech company.

What the industry needs from a product designer now might be different than when Occulus Rift is out and sensors are more ubiquitous and whole other affordances emerge. There’s also this disconnect between an industry articulating what they really need of this next generation of designers and sharing that back with the educational institutions: the professors, the instructors, et cetera.

In school, you have a little bit more creative freedom. You may have some constrains the professor gives, or you may have a sponsored project that an outside group proposes. At the end of the day, you’re not really held accountable. You’re going to get a grade, but your grade isn’t necessarily tied to the success of your project. So there’s a disconnect in terms of accountability, and for good reason, because I think the primary purpose of being in school is to learn. In industry, the primary purpose is to succeed by whatever metrics you care about: profitability, growth, et cetera.

How do you approach design education given the challenges you’ve just described?

We have to take the long view and look at all of the ecosystem and think about how we might further the impact of designers. It’s really about this life cycle of designers across their whole career, and how we can support that trajectory over time.

The way we’re approaching that is through our professional developmen program, Bridge. We think it’s really important that top designers from other companies — Airbnb, Dropbox, etc. — share best practices with one another, so that they can learn the latest tools and best practices from other peers who are leading the industry. And so, that’s one core way that we’re focusing on accelerating the learning of designers with this exceptional community.

We’re thinking that the majority of learning you’re going to have as a designer is going to be on the job. Ben Blumenfeld [the co-founder of Designer Fund] jokes that the five years he was at Facebook was like his Ph.D. in design.

We flip the classroom. You work full time at your company, and then one evening per week you come together for workshops and talks. You get all this applied learning on the job at your company. And then over the course of our curriculum, hopefully you can accelerate your exposure to these best practices. What would otherwise take you a couple years to be exposed to, we can accelerate that in a few months to save you from repeating mistakes that are unnecessary to make. We think about, “How do we prepare designers to actually be leaders, to be part of the table, to be part of the discussion of building these companies?” That’s the big challenge: How do we elevate the importance of design and the ability for designers to actually deliver?

In our industry, we’ve had engineering culture in Silicon Valley for decades. There’s a very clear codified system for building engineering teams, for having a CTO, a VP of engineering, product managers. We don’t really have that history or know-how for design. We’re still kind of inventing it. We want to elevate the career of designers, figure out how to build and educate great design teams.

What’s surprised you so far about the process of building out Designer Fund?

What we laid out early on is not that different than where we’re at right now. Obviously, there’s been some surprises. When I first started Designer Fund, I didn’t predict I would start Bridge.

Another surprise is that not every designer should start a company. To be a design founder, you not only have to be a good designer. You have to be a good founder. That’s asking a lot. And the failure rate is so high. Arguably, more designers should join startups to create more impact. There’s a misallocation of human resources. We need to join forces together and not be spread out working on shitty projects that are incrementally improving things. We need to align our intentions back to these fundamental human needs and wants that we’re always going to have. We’re always going to need to be healthy, we’re always going to need to educate ourselves, we’re going to need access to clean energy and a good environment. These problems aren’t going away.

You’ve designed products for the developing world in classes at the What do you think of the criticism that Silicon Valley is filled with too many startups working on trivial problems?

The way I think about it is, How do you have a mission-driven business? How do you create a business model that inherently produces good and positive externalities? It’s about more than some add-on of social responsibility. We don’t want to make compromises in terms of market-based returns. Companies that we invest in should be just as profitable or scalable as other companies. But in addition, part of their secret sauce is that there’s this mission of improving some aspects of society.

We invested in Omada Health, for example. They’re a diabetes prevention platform. They’re helping millions of people in the U.S. alone who are at risk of getting diabetes. If they get diabetes, they’re going to cost thousands and thousands of dollars to insurance provers and hospitals. If you can prevent them from getting diabetes, there’s economic saving, there’s reduced suffering, all sorts of potential positive effects. How many designers and engineers have focused on preventing diabetes? Not many. And the business model is aligned with the user.

What motivates you to continue innovating at Designer Fund?

We’re very inspired by the idea of creating a long-standing institution that can really help prepare the next generation of design leaders within tech. I think we’ll continue focusing on making great designers even better and creating a clearer path for designers to work on the right problem opportunities, where they can have the most personal growth as well as the most impactful products and organizations.

The reason we care about helping designers is because ultimately we want better designed products and services in the world. That’s our why.

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