Start Something

There is something uniquely valuable and satisfying about starting something while you’re still in school.  The iconography of Silicon Valley is certainly rich with companies founded by students, Google and Yahoo being prime examples.  Having started a company as an undergraduate myself, I am a firm believer that it’s one of the most valuable things you can do –not because you will create the next Google, but because you will learn a great deal of things worth learning.

Of course, starting something does not have to mean starting a company – the experience of leading a substantive effort from scratch is the irreplaceable piece here.  It is all about the creativity and execution required to breath something to life. The good news is that universities can be great places to do this.  If you know where to look, you will almost definitely find like-minded students and supportive faculty.  You don’t necessarily have to create all the infrastructure yourself, either – there are many competitions and programs designed specifically to promote student inventions, such as the DARPA Grand Challenge, a driverless vehicle competition.   Starting an organization can be a great way to attract like-minded people to your goals, and catalyze further invention and innovation through the network effect.  A great example is Cornell University Sustainable Design, founded by Sam Sinensky as an offshoot of Cornell’s annual Solar Decathlon team and has since given rise to many exciting initiatives.

I took a leave of absence from Cornell to start my company, and I will be the first to tell you it didn’t actually work.  It was, however, an awesome experience, and not only in the sense that failure is a great teacher.   I’ve always felt that the best way to learn things is by doing, and win or lose, starting a company involves plenty of doing if you are serious about it.  As Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, famously quipped, “we have a strategic plan – it’s called doing things.”

The beauty of founding or co-founding something is that you do literally everything.  Some aspects of this are highly educational – getting to a working prototype, romancing prospective customers, fine-tuning your business model, and seeking financing are all subjects worthy of great minds.  Other aspects, such as paperwork, taxes, and yes, taking out the trash, merely build character.  However, character is something you will need a lot of, and here’s why:  execution is substantially harder than people think. 

To begin with, executing on anything at all is a radical departure from the comfort zone of toying with ideas, during which success seems assured and all sacrifice is theoretical.  Furthermore, most people severely underestimate the difficulty of simply owning your own schedule – there is no magic checklist for what constitutes a productive day, and you have to be able to forge ahead without constantly worrying if you’re doing it all wrong.  Starting a business, in particular, requires you to make judgment calls with real implications – who to align yourself with, how much funding you’ll need, and perhaps most significantly, who else should join your team.  Finally, you will have to execute in conditions of great uncertainty, without worrying that your projections are disintegrating before your eyes.  There is never enough information or unit testing to be comfortable, yet you also know that at a certain point, any more time spent gathering data or polishing your prototype will cost you momentum you may never get back.  Sooner or later, you have to do it live.

Starting something in school will teach you a lot about how the world really works, but it will also teach you a lot about something you probably thought you knew pretty well: yourself.  It will test you in a way that academics fundamentally can’t, and people invariably underestimate the struggle involved.  This is not just a function of iffy externalities, but also your own strengths and weaknesses.  Even if you have a sophisticated understanding of these (and few undergraduates really do – I know I didn’t and am still refining it), there is a tendency to believe that being a founder will hone your strengths and bolster your weaknesses in equal measure.  This sounds perfect in theory, but it’s simply not realistic – nor is it a recipe for doing truly important things.  In the next installment, I’ll be exploring why you must do something you’re great at before you can do something great.

Head West

One of the main emphases of the Your Future series is putting yourself in the best place to succeed.   You know by now that for me, this means Silicon Valley, but some of the particulars might surprise you.  My path here has given me a profound attachment to this wonderland of innovation, yet it has also deepened my engagement with the world at large in ways I never could have imagined.  The Valley has taken me, as Bilbo Baggins might have put it, there and back again.

Silicon Valley rocks…enough said?  Let’s start with the obvious:  Silicon Valley is the premier engineering area, and has been for longer than you might think.   If you want to change the world, you want to be among the best in the world, and no one even disputes that Silicon Valley is home to the top technical talent anywhere.  Likewise, as an aspiring difference-maker, the atmosphere of excellence should already excite you – whether your ultimate destination is Silicon Valley or elsewhere, it’s safe to assume you are not content with being a big fish in a small pond.  Living and working among the best poses numerous advantages and creates real opportunities – these are just a few that come to mind:

  • It improves your game.  I’ve always felt that Silicon Valley is unique in that your peer group extends far beyond your immediate colleagues, and the opportunity to interact with and learn from the best is unparalleled here.  Attend a SuperHappyDevHouse or Hacker Dojo event and you will see what I mean.
  • Silicon Valley is a place to get noticed.  The network effect is hard to overestimate, and Silicon Valley employers take a much more meritocratic and imaginative approach to recruitment than traditional industry.  More than anywhere else, ability trumps experience, and the operative question when considering young talent is usually not “why”, but “why not?”
  • Silicon Valley is a place to find the human catalysts for realizing your goals.  You can think of this not only in terms of employers and colleagues, but also co-founders, first hires, and mentors and advisors.
  • The access to capital is unmatched.  There are half a dozen cafes on University Avenue where you can’t order an espresso without rubbing shoulders with a top-tier venture capitalist or angel investor, and chances are they want to meet you as keenly as you want to meet them.


My Story: After family stints in Mumbai, Nigeria, and Orlando, I headed to Cornell.  I received a fantastic technical education, and this laid the groundwork – without a technical foundation, nothing that followed would have been possible.  Coming out of Cornell, New York and Washington, DC are the logical centers of mass.  I love the energy of New York, but the downside is that the top technical people gravitate to finance, not engineering – or if they remain engineers, they spend their time building robots for small groups within an investment bank.  DC does a great job of attracting talented people with an ethic of service, but it can be a very difficult place to do anything fundamentally disruptive.   Even worse, New York and DC don’t have a culture that treats engineers as first-class citizens, and if this is true in such vibrant cities, you can imagine how it is elsewhere.  Fortunately, this is starting to change – for example, I am watching Cornell’s new campus on Roosevelt Island with great excitement, and I’ve had a great time and met great people at Digital Capital Week.

As much as I enjoyed my time in Ithaca, there wasn’t much startup culture to speak of – at least not then.  For the top computer science students, Microsoft was a dream job, maybe Google if you were exceptionally adventurous.   There was no model for going to a startup after graduation, let alone going to school primarily as a means to immediately enter the entrepreneurial fray.  And this was exactly why I headed West, to Stanford, for graduate school.  It may sound crazy, but the degree actually was just a vehicle to become a part of the community. 

The plan worked.  After just a few months, I became employee #5 at a startup, and spent the next two and a half years traveling throughout Latin America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia building an online-to-offline payment processing network.  I may not have gotten rich, but I was given a ton of freedom (and responsibility), learned a great deal, and was exposed to a whole new universe of entrepreneurs, investors, and technology pioneers, forging relationships that will outlast any job.  When the time came to move on, I had a cornucopia of emerging companies to pick from, and enough insight into my own strengths, weaknesses, and passions to make an inspired choice. 

Beware the Bubble:  Silicon Valley unquestionably rocks, but as with any truly special environment, it can be too insular at times.  Of course, many entrepreneurs come here for exactly this reason – there are few distractions from the overarching goal of building something great.  That said, your awareness of what actually constitutes greatness can fossilize if it’s not challenged.  The spirit of innovation and improvement is not a sure immunization against group-think and self-congratulation, and even the most gifted people can fall prey to the sense that the rules of the road don’t apply to Silicon Valley.  However, it is still the epicenter of entrepreneurship and engineering culture, and the good easily dwarfs the bad.  The best antidote to insularity is an infusion of fresh talent and fresh perspectives, and this is where you come in.  Realistically, it is much easier to make your mark in Silicon Valley than to try to replicate it elsewhere.  Changing the world requires laser focus, and creating the infrastructure and pre-conditions for success from scratch will inevitably detract from that focus.

More importantly, the rest of the world needs Silicon Valley more than ever.   For too many companies and individuals, the model of success never requires them to step outside the Valley.   Yet, technology is an amazing lever for change, and in my experience the best way to fight insularity is to engage with broader scales of challenges.  My first job out of college took me to the world’s great cities and mud-walled villages alike, and I’ve been fortunate to continue venturing outward ever since.  I’m a firm believer that to change the world, you must first see the world, and Silicon Valley can be a tremendous catalyst for both.

Peace, Love, and Understanding: Expanding your way of thinking is essential, yet there is also something to be said for being around people who not only share your interests and passions, but also understand you on a fundamental level.  As motivating as it is to be told you’re crazy, it’s even better to find kindred spirits to join in the effort.  Silicon Valley is above all a community of passion, and it is difficult to convey the motivational power of such a community without experiencing it firsthand. 

We’ve all heard some variation on this maxim: “Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”  I appreciate the sentiment, but I don’t completely agree.  As much as I’ve enjoyed my time in Silicon Valley, I’ve never felt like I wasn’t working – for myself, for my teammates, and for a common goal.  And because I’ve always been working for something, I tend to think that work/life balance is a false dichotomy, and so I’ve made it a practice to seek out individuals who felt the same way.  Whether there’s a business opportunity or not, good things happen when people who share defining values find each other. 

In February of 2010, I had coffee with a computer scientist-turned-entrepreneur who had created a compelling prototype for a new educational technology, and was looking for office space and strategic advice.  Although our respective markets were worlds apart at first glance, I was captivated by how similarly we approached our work and how much we defined ourselves by our passions.  A few months later, we were engaged, and exactly one year from our second date, we got married, surrounded by many of the close friends we had made on each of our entrepreneurial journeys.  After a two-day honeymoon, she was off to a conference and I was off to visit my biggest international customer.  Since then, it’s been an incredible ride.  It hasn’t always been easy, but Pooja and I both came to Silicon Valley knowing we’d have to make an extra effort to live our dreams – all of them.

How to Get a Job

From Bloomberg Businessweek

At Palantir
By Alex Karp

 Illustration by Neal FoxCompanies typically look for well-rounded people. They want an A-plus in every category. We tend to think it’s better to have an A-triple-plus in one area, which presupposes an F in other areas. So maybe we end up with someone who solves problems very creatively but can’t interact with people. We look for people within uneven IQs, then we build a role around their strengths. I like to meet candidates with no data about them: no résumé, no preliminary discussions or job description, just the candidate and me in a room. I ask a fairly random question, one that is orthogonal to anything they would be doing at Palantir. I then watch how they disaggregate the question, if they appreciate how many different ways there are to see the same thing. I like to keep interviews short, about 10 minutes. Otherwise, people move into their learned responses and you don’t get a sense of who they really are.
Karp is CEO of Palantir Technologies, which mines data for intelligence and law enforcement communities.
— As told to Ashlee Vance 

Do Important Things

Do important things.  Work on big problems.  Change the world for the better.  You’ve probably heard countless variations on these themes, but how often have you considered that they might actually be possible, and what it would take to get there?  Even more radically, what if you could start working towards such lofty goals right now?  It’s certainly easy to get fired up about such possibilities in the abstract.  It’s equally easy to get discouraged when asking yourself the hard but vital question of how best to make it happen.  There are no step-by-step guides for how to make a massive impact, and that isn’t my goal here either.  Instead, what I want to give you is a framework for doing things that matter. 

As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned the hard way that plans are fragile – as the saying goes, no plan survives first contact.  However, frameworks can be extremely useful – especially when you have outsized goals.   Changing the world is a fine guiding principle, but without any further parameters, this can be pretty confusing.  The best engineers I know have adopted a fluid, but essential framework: Don’t be constrained by what your product can do now; do be constrained to dealing with current problems and current realities.  I would suggest a similar framework for making your biggest impact: Don’t be constrained by what you know now; do optimize on your chances for success in the real world.

1. Be in the right place.  To pre-empt the inevitable cries of protest, yes, there are people doing amazing things all over the world.  However, if you are realistic about making a transformative contribution in any field, you will find that field’s center of gravity.  Of course, certain cities transcend mere industries – New York and Washington, DC are very important cities if you want to do very important things, period.  Silicon Valley is widely acknowledged as the center of the computing world and a cradle of entrepreneurship in general, but not everyone realizes the full extent of what technology has to offer government, finance, and the international community.  Ideally, you want to be interacting with New York, DC, and Silicon Valley at once.  Counterintuitive as it may seem, if you want to accomplish this, Silicon Valley is still your best bet as home base.  The culture is conducive to disruption in a way that New York and DC fundamentally aren’t, and technology is actually the most leveraged way to effect change on a grand scale, even in the rarified realms of policy.  More on that in a future post. 

2. Don't join a company to be a minion.  Few people would admit to aspiring to be a minion, but this is exactly what you’re signing up for with many companies, however selective and prestigious they may appear.  Some of the trappings of a minion workforce are obvious – when interviewing, you will quickly develop radar for which companies prize conformity and prefer young employees to be seen and not heard.  This can be a purely cultural phenomenon, but the root cause usually lies with the nature of the work itself.  Sadly, some businesses are entirely predicated on doing things the way they’ve always been done, even if there is an outstanding opportunity to create more value.  If potentially transformative ideas from junior employees are not merely ignored, but viewed as a threat to business as usual, chances are that company is looking for minions.  

It’s often tempting to view a minion position as a necessary evil, simply the price you pay for the rewards and opportunities to come.  Don’t be fooled.  If you have to be a good minion to get in at the bottom, you will almost certainly have to remain a good minion to rise to the top.

Perhaps the most demoralizing part of being a minion is the sense that you’re fungible.  Many blue-chip companies, especially in management consulting and banking, successfully obscure this ugly realization by famously recruiting the most polished people from the most prestigious schools.  However, just because you possess elite qualifications doesn’t mean you’re not easily replaced.  Think of the Stormtroopers: they are recruited and trained as the best of the best of Imperial forces, and yes, their helmets are awesome, but as anyone who’s seen more than five minutes of “Star Wars” knows, they are ultimately disposable.

3.  Join – or start - a company that supports your ability to innovate and solve problems.  This can take many forms, but regardless of the details, a company that doesn’t care about innovation as a business probably won’t care about innovation as a junior employee.   Banks may find innovative ways to move and securitize assets, but are not in the business of creating value from scratch.  Consultants are too concerned with incremental improvements to do anything truly new.  Large government contractors are in the business of renting labor, not innovating.  A commitment to innovation is hardly sufficient, but it is certainly necessary.  Once you’ve determined a company’s level of commitment, the next key consideration here is how your abilities are supported:

- Do they give you meaningful work?  Granted, you won’t be handed the lead on negotiations for your company’s biggest contract to date, but will you be invited into the boardroom at any point in the process?  You might not have ownership of a major software release, but it would be nice to have ownership over a key section of the code if you’ve shown you’re up to the task.

- Is the company positioned to harness your most innovative work?  I know a talented but extremely frustrated systems engineer.  He’s worked for a major government contractor since college, and had half a dozen patents in his name at the age of 25.  Unfortunately, those patents are just sitting around collecting dust, because his company is 100% focused on operating costs and top line, and has no mechanism for monetizing or productizing new IP.  

- Do they hold you accountable for execution?  Many well-meaning managers think that they’re encouraging innovation, but don’t demand concrete deliverables or a viable action plan before lending their support to a project, leading it to inevitably die a quiet death.  As Ramit Sethi says, think in weeks, not years.  New ideas should be welcome, but only if the originator is allowed to take appropriate ownership right away.

- Are they open to criticism and self-improvement? If a company expects employees to be humble and driven to learn, it should certainly expect the same of itself and its leadership.  I’ll never forget my interview with Dave, one of my first business development hires.  Dave literally laughed in my face when I admitted I was unfamiliar with Getting Things Done!  Fortunately, I forgave his recklessness, Dave is now running one of our largest teams, and Getting Things Done is an essential part of our onboarding process and general approach to efficiency.

Of course, no one company has optimized on all of these facets equally.  There is no such thing as the perfect company - what matters is whether a company is open to being perfected.

4. Don’t join a company because you think you’ll learn a lot...  People will often tell you that you should spend a few years out of college working for a huge, highly hierarchical corporation – particularly in industries notorious for grinding down talented young people - because it’s a “great place to learn”.  This is just silly for many reasons:

- The best way to learn is still by doing things.  For this reason alone, you should go someplace where you can have an immediate and tangible impact. If you can find a workplace where your actions matter, I guarantee that you will learn a ton about your world, your profession, and yourself.

- You may learn a lot, but what will you be learning? Most likely, how to adapt to the processes, politics, and bureaucratic idiosyncrasies of the organization.  Joining an environment that doesn’t appeal to you so you can learn to succeed in that environment is a tragic, but all too common, form of unwitting circular reasoning. 

You may be told that if you put in a couple of years at Firm X, you can write your own ticket anywhere.  However, the skills you learn doing substantive, innovative work generally have far more carry-over to other fields than formulaic and anonymous work for a big-name firm.  In Silicon Valley, it’s not uncommon to see a serial entrepreneur leap from Internet to energy.  This is partly because Silicon Valley attracts people with diverse interests and ambitions, but it only works because the principles of agility, execution, and continuous learning and adaptation apply to any industry.  By contrast, my friends who went into banking and consulting and made it past the entry level are almost all still in banking and consulting. 

5.  …But never forget how much you have to learn.  Given the swagger and iconoclasm associated with entrepreneurship in most people’s minds (especially in the Valley), it might be tempting to conclude that you don’t have a lot to learn after all.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  Actual innovation is an extremely humbling process of trial and error, all the more so if you aspire to any sort of lasting societal impact.  We all have a lot to learn, at any stage, and this is precisely what drew me and so many others to Silicon Valley in the first place.  Of course, the willingness to learn is only the beginning.  The willingness to do something is the true test.  More on that next time… 

Your Future

I've been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time this year with the bright minds graduating for universities this year (and many who still have several years to go).  As someone who travels a lot between Silicon Valley, DC, and New York, I've developed a stark appreciation of the cultural differences of each that ultimately manifest into the best and worst of each.  There is a similar parallel for students at University.  

A substantial amount of your education outside the classroom is influenced by the center of gravity of your school.  If you go to school in Virgina, the DC outlook and worldview greatly influences what you want to do and what you will be exposed to.  If you go to school at say, Cornell, my alma mater, then it is near impossible to escape the pull of New York.  One of the best things Stanford gives its computer scientists is a fluency of what it takes to start a company and an appeciation and basic literacy for those that are interested.  In fact, the entropy takes you there.  You have to be particularly disinterested in entrepreneurship to escape it.  

Now I'm hugely biased.  I headed to grad school at Stanford to create a vehicle to come to Silicon Valley. Within a few months of being in Palo Alto I was working fulltime at startup as the 5th employee and loving it. I knew I wanted to be the Valley, but what I didn't know is how my own journey would take my back to New York and DC in deeply substantive and fulfilling ways -- that's I'd be able to work with the best of all three cities.  

Now as I meet college students I find myself talking about the other two relevant perspectives they might not have ready access to.  And that inspires the series "Your Future" -- the posts that will follow.

Chile's Puyehue Volcano

From Foreign Policy Passport...

Lightning is seen amid a cloud of ash billowing from Puyehue volcano near Osorno in southern Chile, 870 km south of Santiago, on June 5, 2011. Puyehue volcano erupted for the first time in half a century on June 4, 2011, prompting evacuations for 3,500 people as it sent a cloud of ash that reached Argentina. The National Service of Geology and Mining said the explosion that sparked the eruption also produced a column of gas 10 kilometers (six miles) high, hours after warning of strong seismic activity in the area.

More info here.

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Chinese prisoners labor in World of Warcraft

interesting post from Foreign Policy Passport...

From the Guardian, yet more proof that world we live in is, in fact, a William Gibson novel:

Liu says he was one of scores of prisoners forced to play online games to build up credits that prison guards would then trade for real money. The 54-year-old, a former prison guard who was jailed for three years in 2004 for "illegally petitioning" the central government about corruption in his hometown, reckons the operation was even more lucrative than the physical labour that prisoners were also forced to do.

"Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour," Liu told the Guardian. "There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb [£470-570] a day. We didn't see any of the money. The computers were never turned off."[...]

It is known as "gold farming", the practice of building up credits and online value through the monotonous repetition of basic tasks in online games such as World of Warcraft. The trade in virtual assets is very real, and outside the control of the games' makers. Millions of gamers around the world are prepared to pay real money for such online credits, which they can use to progress in the online games.

So the same country that imprisons kids for "internet addiction" forces prisoners to plays hours of online games?

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