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


Madalina said...

Wow Min I love your post. You couldn't have said it better. Thanks for sharing, your posts really inspire me!

Min Liu said...

thanks, mada. you inspire me, also!

Anonymous said...

very good post...i can relate to this

ian said...

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corsidimemoria said...

Beautiful and important to set goals as you did.
I wonder if you by chance managed to achieve and what are your strategy