Friday, December 21, 2007

The People Make the Substance Interesting, and Not the Other Way Around

Late fall and winter always bring out the more pensive and sometimes, more moody side of me. I play less John Mayer; Augustana and The Fray get more mileage. I start thinking more, and get restless.

Looking back, 2007 was a defining year, 23 was a defining age. I stopped work at the company I had my heart set on since college freshman year, started to take up more than I could chew (again), and started to fight for my sleep.

What's going on?

I've wanted to write about this for a long time, and no one ever really got a full answer. To be faithful, I'm putting it here.

The summer after Stanford freshman year, I worked alongside PhD student Dave Koller on the Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project, piecing together via digitization and algorithms an ancient marble map of Rome that was broken into 1000+ pieces. Stopping into Prof. Levoy's office sporadically, I saw on his wall a sheet of Google logos, each logo specialized as Google's now famous for. Knowing Dave better throughout the years, I hear about his stories with his colleague, Google co-founder, Larry: their late night talks about all the problems in the world, their annoyance with downtown Palo Alto's high restaurant prices (hence Larry's fav, Andale being installed on Google now), and little things like why peppermint patties taste so good. What I learned from that summer, particularly from working with brilliant Dave, was that the people make the substance interesting, and not the other way around.

I was hooked, and that summer was my formative motivation behind computer science, and behind the industry I'm ever more passionate about. It's about the people, the need, and solving the world's problems.

The high tech landscape now, compared to the years I was still in college, is vastly different. It was a semi-empty landscape a few years ago, with one promising upstart that paved the way for today's wonderful bubblies. Right now, I'm never more disappointed. As I roll through subscribed blogs, particularly the main tech blogs, and as I experience the flurry of action around apps, the question I ask myself that becomes ever more prevalent is What Problem Are You Trying To Solve?. More so than always, the question they're trying to answer is This Is How I Will Gain Users and Monetize. Ouch.

It was first the search problem. Then it's the social problem, which wasn't necessarily a problem but a void. The web needed to be more social (as does the Stanford CS Dept -- those two are actually related). Web-social saturation is high right now, and it's not going to look good for many startups out there. It's exciting for sure, but I'm also reminding myself of why I was so inspired by Dave and that summer project.

It's about the people and the problem. And that problem, whatever it may be, is going to be a lot harder than LAMP, going to require a lot more guts, a lot more dedication into making the company and bringing in the right people. The people make the substance interesting, and not the other way around.

I left Google because I was staying true to myself: I'm a passionate products person. I knew I rocked those products interviews with Google in October 2006, but due to terrible (and hurtful) experiences with recruiters and a series of path dependence, products didn't happen. Instead, I went with Google the company. A few months into it, I knew I had to do products work because if I weren't, I would be shortchanging my passion.

My professor, Michael Dearing, said something I remember well: "All companies are messy". Google -- the company, the products -- it's the messiest pile of spaghetti out there. And I love it, because with all that structured chaos is a grand vision that was started by a great team of people (note *team*) and thoroughly executed. Messiness is bound to happen and it's the dedicated people who are willing to delve into that spaghetti and make teamwork happen, make launches happen on time -- all the details. That's the magic behind the clouds.

I'm a Google believer and I remain so. I love their products and haven't to date encountered a company, from a products and engineering perspective, run as well and truth be told, as happily, as Google. But if someone as passionate and with as a long a history as mine is not doing what I want at Google, then it's also evident that Google has a problem: a saturation of talent. Which is why I left, because I was watching and not doing.

Right now, I'm working on a problem (mobility ^ location) and on the messiness of a company. It's not perfect, not everyone's easy to work with, there's a lot to be done with the product, and no, I'm not happy everyday. But I don't think I want it any other way. Along the way, I've learned that I'm an entrepreneur, in profession and in mindset.

Here are my goals for 2008:
- be more technical
- iterate on problems and ideas
- get more fresh air
- study, and read more

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Don't Submit.

Don't submit to the hype.
It's not worth it.

More soon.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Martin Eberhard Leaves Tesla Motors

A month after our iinnovate interview with Martin, big news comes out that Martin is leaving Tesla after big grumbles with senior management. See his response on the Tesla forum (3rd down). His frankness shows that 1) there's a lot of drama beneath the niceties of senior management, 2) a cutting edge auto business is very hard to run (my colleague, after our interview, remarked, "imagine the burn rate!"), and 3) founders are often shafted due to communication and management issues. This is probably a rift often seen between engineering and biz. A problem evident from works like C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures.

After Martin's talk at Stanford, I've become a champion. I totally admire his entrepreneurial and engineering mindset, and his drive for the big idea.. this is the real deal, esp. after watching gross hype like this.

I can only imagine a bright and promising start for Martin's next big idea. From his talks, I can tell he's an engineer at heart. You need executers for a business, sure, but engineering -- that's where it all starts. This is a big loss for Tesla.

Friday, October 26, 2007

iGoogle vs. Gmail (and I guess Facebook)

Reading an article about why Google didn't win the minor hand in Facebook sparked a thought. The columnist Evelyn states that Google has an interest in making iGoogle a similar platform to Facebook. That's a great idea, and I would love to know the user count for iGoogle and Gmail (haha, wouldn't we all) because I use Gmail to iGoogle on a 365:2 ratio. I use Gmail and Facebook synchronously albeit separately.. so why not make e-mail social networking? They are the same thing, communication. So annoying that I have to click onto "X sent you a message on Facebook" and follow links (that's kinda evil..). Cumulatively, do you know how many hours have collected which I could have been doing something more productive via click reduction? Forced stickiness induces inefficiency, but obviously efficiency isn't Facebook's goal.

I think I've discovered Facebook's new secret: better e-mail.

And btw, what's getting old? Social networks not hinged on behavior-changing technology. icandy is not going to do it, no duh.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Yelp is persistently on my radar

Ever since last year, my eyes have been on Yelp. There's a stickiness to it that's undeniable (community, common interest (mostly food), local search, positive feedback circles via votes, compliments). I really like writing on it. I like going back to read my entries. And I use it heavily once out of college (i.e. started doing things other than work!). With the growth spurt of location based services, if not at least the buzz, I'm expecting this one to be in the ball court, along with the Google Maps and Jaiku realm. Just checked out Yelp on Alexa and Compete. Site traffic has steadily increased, and there's a spike this month. Lookin' good, Yelp!

Three terms I have my eyes glued to:
Presence technology
Local Search
Location-Based Services.

And by default, "social mapping", which I am helping define and will be talking more about.

Be it fixed location or mobile, location certainly is the "in", in continuing to make the web, and also mobility, more useful, usable, and one thing even big companies are starting to get -- sociable.

I just remembered something. While interviewing with Google for a products position last year, the interviewers asked me to envision the next hot product. I was thinking about a globe and being able to see where your friends are in real time. Well, hello! :) Alanis Morissette's Ironic is playing in my head...

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

FriendFeed is in Private Beta

This is Bret Taylor and Jim Norris' product after months of healthy incubation at Benchmark Capital. It is Facebook Newsfeed but open to the world. The simplicity of a Google with the characteristics of a Facebook. Upon some initial usage, I think it'll be sticky. They made it drop dead simple to use, and I imagine this to only be the start. You can already see the characteristics of the distributor model. I am at

Bret Taylor and Jim Norris were the guys who paved out Google Maps (try it full screen!). Bret interviewed me for a position at Google a while back, and I remember our interview well. His blog post about Google resonated with me. I will write a post soon about this, as this issue strikes a chord.

And welcome, readers from Stanford's Blog Directory! source

My life has expedited since I joined Loopt. One of my newly found joys? Posting to the Loopt Blog :) Nice and fun release out today about Loopt's collaboration with Our City Forest. wo0t!

p.s. See NYT article about friendfeed (and yes, I am full of links today.. notice how jim norris' wearing a white shirt completely skewed the contrast of the photo.. oh no! :)

add, 4:21am: why is this product so important? from a sv perspective, this is a product released by renowned googlers who are no longer a part of google. you will see this trend continuing in the valley. precursor to my next post.. saturation.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Buyer's remorse

Steve Jobs' announcement to give $100 back for iPhone buyers since 6/29 leaves a less than pleasing impression in my mind of the unfolding of the new iPhone price.

$100 Apple credit to buy something else. Sure, I can buy something small or partial with that. It's not the whole $200 back, and it's not a cash return. eh. whatev.

eh? whatev? If I were Steve Jobs, that's exactly the kind of mentality I don't want to hear from my most passionate consumers and early adopters. I'd rather hear someone say, "I don't like your stuff at all" or "I LOVE your stuff" than apathy.

What did Steve Jobs (and Apple) do wrong? They shortchanged their early adopters. The people who camped out and stood in line, checked Apple's site compulsively to see which stores were sold out, and blogged about the experience. When my colleague, Sam, popped into my office yesterday and told me the news, I was like, what?. Why? And then, the most catastrophic thought: I shouldn't have bought it.

I was too compulsive. I got caught up in the hype. I thought it was too cool.

To judge the iPhone by the price is the wrong way to judge. But that is what Apple has done in too short a time from product introduction. They put in consumers' minds that the iPhone should be valued by price ($200 less!!), and not by experience. If you were the CEO of Apple, would you rather have someone buy the iPhone based on price, or based on wanting it as a revolutionary gadget? And wouldn't you want someone to save up for it, as Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had done for his chocolate bar, than buy it because it was cheaper?

Cheaper, money back, mass market product. Doesn't sound like the Apple I know and have come to admire. Apple products are clean, simple, expensive. They're items you would save up your money for. And to benchmark the iPhone against a 70-something percent market share iPod is not the right way to do it. You don't rush mass-market reach by price. You reach it by desire and product excellence.

And equally important, you don't want to unpleasantly surprise your aficionados and early adopters, because it reduces passion.

Last week, I hiked Half Dome and took my iPhone along. It was a strenuous 13-hour hike. Reaching the top, having full reception after being in Yosemite "no reception" Valley, being able to snap a few pictures and send them off to my best friends, all via my iPhone,... now that's an experience I won't forget. The kind of things technology can do to make you go wow, and change your behavior (the first thing I do when I wake up is check my e-mail on my iPhone, I drive listening to my iPhone podcasts, the iPhone has replaced my point-and-shoot camera)... those are the things you want your customers to think about. You don't want to talk about price, at least not so early, because that's just a number versus an experience. Something quantifiable vs. something qualifiable. Go for the latter, and go for long-term retention of passionate consumers.

For now, I have to forget that my iPhone experience is, with the refund, an additional $50 charge for July, and another $50 for August. I guess I'll forget about that in the long run. eh. whatev.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

these are a few of my favorite blogs

- danah boyd: the forefront thinker of social in social networking
- steve jurvetson's photos: young vc, rocket man, photographer, hmb luvr
- mr. biggs' photos of wilson and elliot: art teacher and animation father, watching his kids grow up through his lens. i discovered his photos on the flickr blog last summer, in my small brooklyn heights pad.
- niniane: she's funny.
- chenliw: he's funny, too. banker ^ cs nerd
- googtube: gotta have it.
- bret taylor: ex-googler, lead pm on google maps&local. please post more often.
- google alerts: not blogs, but so so useful
- techcrunch, engadget, core77, (, pls post more often, too)
- and all sorts of startup blogs

Friday, August 17, 2007

the distributor model works

a few months back, i was griping to a friend how the entities that make the most money are usually transactional based, the middlemen.

this morning (screwing the gym at 7...), a few things came together:

- google makes money on transactions. Adwords <> Adsense. When interviewers ask Eric S. whether Google is 1. a content company, or 2. a media company, he always has the same answer: "we are a distribution company." Google, at the core, is about transactions, and they are the purveyors of fine goods and ads transactions. But based on my observations of companies that make $, few of them start off as distributors. They start as content companies.

- facebook was and still is a content company. as it matures, it will make $ by being a distributor, and they will do it by having others do the work for them. this is a brilliant and "lazy" idea, so typically brilliant. they will take a share in revenue of third party apps (just signed a deal with videoegg to make 3rd party monetization easier).

so why does 1) Zuck explain that FB is not just a social-networking site but a "utility"*, and 2) emphasize the "social graph"** so much, and correct columnists when they claim something else?

Because 1) utility is a distributor is a transactional model, and 2) "social graph" is the secret sauce. it is the equivalent of Google's eigenvector.

*Quoted from this newsweek article: Speaking with NEWSWEEK between bites of a tofu snack, he is much more interested in explaining why Facebook is (1) not a social-networking site but a "utility," a tool to facilitate the information flow between users and their compatriots, family members and professional connections; (2) not just for college students, and (3) a world-changing idea of unlimited potential. Every so often he drifts back to No. 2 again, just for good measure. But the nub of his vision revolves around a concept he calls the "social graph.

**From the Economist: The fancy mathematical name he has for this map is a “social graph”, a model of nodes and links in which nodes are people and connections are friendships. Once this social graph, or map, is in place, it becomes a potent mechanism for spreading information. For instance, he says, “we automatically know who should have a new photo album,” because as soon as one person uploads it to the site, all her friends see it, and the friends of friends might notice too.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Confidence is Refreshing

I've been thinking about the issue of confidence for a while, and am realizing that there is more than meets the eye.

Probably one of the most humbling aspects of any driven individual's life is the job search. I've rarely met anyone who hasn't had some sort of abrasive experience. While it certainly is one of the sh8tt8st feelings in the world to be pounded on during the interview or by recruiters (oh how recent it feels), I'm never one to not learn from experience.

A few weeks back, a good friend went through a bad job search. Seemingly promising prospects didn't turn out as expected, one after the other. Luckily, he made it through, and made it to quite a great place to work, too. His responsibilities seem ample, function itself quite exciting. I saw him today, and you could see the energy again, and the confidence as well. He seemed like himself again.

Confidence is invariably something everyone struggles with, and I credit the stretch of academic confidence in high school to speech competitions and the positive externalities that it created. College was a different story -- tested and stretched by my major, I think the most negative ripple was again, the issue of confidence. Since then, and since - a comment my good friend Diana made (expletive full and 100% refreshing), - a bad relationship, - being treated in an unequal manner by an equal, - seeing my kind of lack of confidence play out in a friend, - and also my own learned experiences with recruiting, I said, ENOUGH! and realized, through a series of experience tests that substantive confidence is the booster to developing a "true sense of self".

Arrogance is an Achilles' Heel, Lack of Confidence is step-on-me territory and debilitating towards growth, Surface Confidence is passable, but Substantive Confidence is enlightening and refreshing -- the stuff of influentials... That kind of deep-down happiness and belief in self, the allure that makes people intrigued by you, and the kind of stuff that drives you to do more things, to push yourself to be better.

A couple of you might know this already, but I have good news to share in a few days. :)

And definitely, props to this nice entry by Marquis, a GSB grad and current McK-er, who identified a write-in's problem. It took me by surprise how quickly and appropriately he identified it.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


i'm still here. i've been going through a transitional stage and this blog will be active again soon. i've got lots of thoughts cached.

Friday, January 26, 2007

why the works

I've wanted to write about this for quite a while.

During my last quarter at Stanford, I joined a class in the new Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka called "Clicks and Bricks: Creating Mass Market Experiences". The goal was to introduce students to design thinking and to expose us to various industries by working on ambitious and abstract organizational design projects. Over the span of the quarter, we worked on the non-native English speaking experience for Disneyland and on Wal-Mart's new sustainability initiative. This was my first experience with the and I think the class was exemplary of why the is so successful, and more importantly, so fun and innovative.

Big picture speak, the works because of their emphasis on students. On their website, they put in big bold letters under People:

Students first

We encourage students to develop a personal point of view and confidence in their own design methodology.

We want great things for our students

We want to help students become people who can listen, ask good questions, help others succeed, develop empathy for people with different life experiences and opportunities, and have the skills, judgment, and courage to do things in new ways.

We want them to become wiser, more complete human-beings and leaders in design thinking.

Academic institutions acknowledge the importance of educating us, and while the importance of educating students fills many glossy viewbooks, the priority often gets blurred unintentionally under the pressures and various priorities of large academic institutions. But with's fresh start and focus on what's consistently vital to great organizations, they recognized the necessity of having the people -- the students -- be the core of the school and emphasized that on a daily basis.

In contrast to some aspects of my exposure in engineering, the emphasized the process of observation, design, and iteration, and the complement, teamwork. I was put in a team of four other individuals from different disciplines (Tom Maiorana (product design), Eric Hulin (b-school), Xiao Wang and Rebekah Black (management science and engineering)). We went to theme parks, almost got kicked out of the Mtn View Walmart store for our daring experiments, and worked late into the morning at Birch. I once made a remark to my mentor and good friend, Dave, that it's the people who make the substance interesting, and not the other way around. That stands true today, and the work that my team and I did oriented around the observations and ideas that we made, our steadfast commitment to our project, the teaching coaches, and the overall idea of designing for organizations. The class was taught by seven talented individuals: Perry Klebahn, Michael Dearing, Liz Gerber, Alex Ko, Debra Dunn, Julian Gorodsky, and Bob Sutton (see Bob's remarks about the teaching experience here, and the teaching team profiles here). Each of them brought personalities that I remember well and talents that I learned.

The class gave me the breadth to do hard out-of-the-academic element projects. For example, designing a sustainability project within a large organization can't solely rely on theoretical foundations of organizational behavior. My team and I interviewed the folks, talked to various individuals outside Target and Whole Foods who were passionate or apathetic about green, developed a point of view for our subjects, and came up with a cool solution based on our observations and prototypes. And like no other department I've experienced, we got access to the 24-7 and free food and drinks all the time.

The most important lesson from the class was how it changed my personal point of view. While I was taking this class, I was on the hunt for my first full-time job. Like any ambitious individual, I was not going to settle for any job. I wanted the dream job, the job that I will love, learn a lot from, and put me on the right path. With the dorms, departments, and the Stanford Daily filled with ads of the premier management consulting companies and investment banks and the best Stanford students going for such gigs, the pressure to find a perfect job often entailed joining the broadly-known best and brightests. Professor of Management Science and Engineering, Tom Byers, in a panel discussion at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, said something about students that I won't forget. He said that he liked to work with undergrads because they're inexperienced and willing to try new things. And he also noted the difference between two types of students: the entrepreneurs and the widely-recognized top students. He said that the widely recognized great students have bars set for them -- and they work hard to meet them, no matter how high they are set. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, set their own bars. They challenge convention because it's not good enough. They live life by their own standards and create new products, processes, or organizations that change the world. I pose one question that I think pretty much states what Tom Byers meant. What if Marissa Mayer went for McKinsey instead of Google? Sure, she would've done really well at a management consulting firm, but would she have pushed innovation as far as she did? And of course Larry and Sergey are the stars, but would Google have been as amazing or widely popular among the Stanford crowd had it not been for a standout like her? Many talented people in one place... hard to be recognized. One talented person in a burgeoning environment -- lots of room for growth and many opportunities for distinction recognition. This is why entrepreneurs get noticed. And of course, I don't dare mention "drinking the cool aid" to such rebels ;). Personally, my last quarter at Stanford was the best because I learned that the process of doing what I love (finally!) is so much better than living up to some abstract expectation even though it is, by convention, the best. Sure, the realization was a good part done by myself outside of the, but it was's welcoming, innovative, and incubative environment that helped me realize that the riskier and gutsy-er a path is, the better.

While at the, I heard stories from my professors about their experiences: cutting snowshoeing paths in Vail and marketing the hell out of his product, studying the evolution of the Ford Taurus vs. the Honda Accord as an example of "business as usual vs. business by design", developing new product lines for eBay, and promoting a book with the title, "The No Asshole Rule."

No, there are no bars I have to meet anymore, and the process of exploration, of design, that I underwent taught me lessons that no other class in college taught:

*Don't waste your time: do something you love and are good at.
*The process of discovery and actively doing outweigh the thrill of meeting goals.
*People are an integral part of learning and idea generation.
*The solitary geniuses don't exist anymore.


*Wal-Mart Sustainability Initiative design project abstract here (pdf)

*Fortune Magazine on Wal-Mart's sustainability initiative: The Green Machine (pdf)

*Carter Cast ( CEO) and Bob Sutton ( prof) presentation introduction:

jumpcut presentation by Carter Cast and Bob Sutton

*Team 4 Wal-Mart Sustainability presentation (slides here (ppt)):

jumpcut presentation by Stanford students

*BusinessWeek article on the The Talent Hunt.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

the eve of a new renaissance

I'm realizing that Apple's introduction today of the iPhone and iTV is the start of another really amazing beginning. And I'm also reminded of the struggles and learnings along the way, for Steve Jobs and all the hardworking engineers and designers who believed in the big idea. In particular, Steve Jobs' commencement speech to a crowd of new graduates in 2005 is particularly resonant to me right now.

"you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards"

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A response to Blake Ross on Google Tips

Before understanding to a greater depth some of Google's products, I had been a champion of the no-advertising rule. The blank page ideology and the initial aversion to ads were so admirable back in the days of Las Vegas-like pages. Blake Ross, co-creator of Firefox and a Stanford undergrad (currently stopping out), brought to attention on Dec. 25th Google's release of "tips" (and more from Red Herring). His stance is with that original purist belief that great products will naturally arise to the top.

I agree with that statement. At the same time, I also sympathize with what generally worries Googlers: Google has so many great products that it has become hard to make the public notice and potentially use them. Would a lay person with some lack of ease in using technology dig deep enough to understand how to use AND, OR, and NOT for Google search? Probably not. Would that feature help him/her learn a bit more on how to be more at ease with searching? Probably. The big-picture issue is that Google is too much of a good thing. Sure, we would love to see every Google product grow organically. But because there's so much, it's difficult to (ironically) organize all those great products in a fashion that makes them easy to discover (the drill-down to find how to use certain search features is quite intimidating). After talking to Bret Taylor, the product manager for Google Maps, I learned that not many people know that Google Maps ranks a query for "pizza in NYC" by most popular first. (That was how I "discovered" Lombardi Pizza). Had it not been a Google NYC Open House where an engineer showed us this cool feature, I probably wouldn't have known. And that's the problem! It takes good leaps (and a certain amount of Google obsession) to discover the usefulness implicit in their products.

I think the idea of having Google Tips is good, but Tips is not targeted correctly (they pulled it out on Jan 3rd due to the outcry that arose from Ross' post). Targeting products for specific users is not about advertising but assisting. My last quarter at school, one of the teams for my class had the idea for Disneyland on "helping kids discover cool aspects of the theme park". Through various theme park visits and user studies, they discovered the "super kid" who commands his/her family, and hence, the day in the park, where money is spent, which rides to go to, etc, etc. As a result, this team devised numerous kid-friendly maps, signs, and various other ideas to make attractions more accessible for those who are less than four feet tall. Coming back to Google, I think a great way to go about is to help the person already familiar with basic Google search and products to discover other great products and features. A potential solution would be to better the accounts page. (Alphabetical listing and "try something new" below the fold?... come on now..). Based on how much Google knows about our usage patterns, it should be able to predict what kind of products we'd be more inclined to use. A person using Docs and Spreadsheets would probably be more inclined to use the Labs' new Notebook. And the obsessive would probably like Alerts. Mashups and convergence are great.. Marissa Mayer called them the "Los Diego" and "San Angeles" metaphor... put great products together. You make old products more useful, new products more accessible. I like that :) and I had a "wow, this is so cool!" moment when I saw this on my reader page yesterday.

I think it was a Businessweek article a while back that had the notion of how Google products go: you throw the idea on the wall and see if it sticks. This certainly goes to an extreme about how Google releases and tests products for success. But I've become a firm believer that you have to also be a bit more prudent with how to make that product more accessible for an audience with a need to use it.