Brokenness is potential energy

Paul Graham once tweeted, “Anything badly broken is a dam holding back a lake of unrealized desires. A startup that can bore a hole through such a dam can liberate all that energy.” I like to think of it more simply: sometimes the best way forward in life is through your own misery.

Some examples:

  • Oskar Barnack had asthma and couldn’t go outdoors for long periods of time, which is what partially drove him to invent a lightweight camera, the Leica.

  • Google Maps was started by 2 Danish brothers, Lars and Jens Rasmussen who were laid off from their startups during the dotcom burst. After moving back to live with their mother in Denmark, they realized they had a poor sense of direction and built a personal maps project.

  • Sophie Wilson, who invented the low-power chips we use today, failed out of the Math Department at Cambridge, so she switched to Computer Science, where she combined her mathematical and computing expertise to invent the chips.

  • Scandinavian nations pioneered wireless before many others out of sheer necessity — routing telephone wires through vast expanses of rocky, snowy terrain was difficult… The Nordic Mobile Telephony system, which was established in 1981, marked the re-conception of the phone as something that could — and should — transcend borders, and reshaped the way that people thought about mobile communications, from an implement useful in local markets, to a more general, universal tool. (Merchant, The One Device)

The trap of rushing

I asked my co-worker Blake recently about his feedback on an escalation path I had written for reporting issues with Tesla’s in-car entertainment system. He was very good at thinking in terms of frameworks (“Is this supposed to be an algorithm that customer service follows to a T or rather guiding principles?”), alternative solutions (“diagrams are more consumable than lists”), and edge cases. I told him he thinks surprisingly long-term for someone at Tesla, or in any fast-paced startup environment where the default is to rush urgently to solve a problem, and then sprint to the next fire. He said for him it’s important to take things slowly, because he can think through why it happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. I realized in this way, he develops a repository of repeatable approaches to solving any kind of problem. My boss does this too. People say she’s going to run the entire org very soon. I notice she thinks carefully about everything — whether she’s negotiating a business deal with Spotify, or phrasing the wording of an email with a random startup who wants to partner with us. This allows her learnings from each situation to compound, so that whenever she runs into a problem, for her it’s always: “just another one of those x issues.”

This reminds me of one my favorite quotes, “Even though your work seems very trivial and contemptible, make sure you regard it as great and precious, not on account of your worthiness, but because it has its place within that.

Sitting down with Li Hongyi, Singapore Prime Minister’s grandson

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Li Hongyi and discuss Singapore’s approach to government and technology. I’ve been fascinated by Singapore since reading From Third World to First by Lee Kuan Yew, the nation’s founding father, and how he took a poor and corrupt country and built it into one of the richest countries in the world — where the average per capita income is nearly twice that of America’s.

Some takeaways:

1. Singapore is nearly twice as efficient with government spending as America is.
Their government expenditures make up 17% of total GDP — and not only do they have universal healthcare, but also the government manages the retirement savings of all its citizens (and invests that money). The US’s government expenditures are 38% of total GDP. A Rube Goldberg machine is an example of how an arbitrarily simple task can be arbitrary complex. This is how most governments work.

2. What worries you about the culture in Silicon Valley?
He responded that despite all of the wealth and abundance in Silicon Valley, people tend to accept wealth disparity and move to higher levels of esoteric consumption (taking on more interesting hobbies, eating at nice restaurants, traveling to more exotic places). Buying experiences is not better than buying things. People here look at the homeless and accept that that’s the way things are going to be. This is not the case in Singapore — people in Singapore expect a lot out of their government and will complain about even the smallest things — and the government is quick to respond.See the response to a citizen’s complaint about a grocery store not carrying a yogurt drink for his children (1):

3. “One way to see countries is as companies — what are the main pillars of government strategy?

  1. Li Hongyi runs the Data Science and AI division of the government — he responded that AI itself isn’t the main source of value, rather, it is automating all the things leading up to that.For example, the police was having a hard time tracking down peoples’ addresses when they would call to track down crimes.  The police thought AI would solve their problems — in actuality, all they needed was a faster way to query. Hongyi used Amazon ElasticSearch to bring the query time from 2 minutes to a speedier 0.5 seconds, and their issues were resolved.
  2. AI as a national strategy resource does not exist. Their competitive strategy is to attract smart people. What do smart people care about? Having a good quality of life.
    1. Two competitive strategies:
      1. Develop an edge – e.g. China focuses on IoT, manufacturing, electric, and autonomous vehicles; Japan similarly cherry picks industries
      2. Just get the most successful people in our country – e.g. Singapore

View full set of notes at Google Docs link.


How to run a difficult meeting with executives

The other day I had a difficult meeting where I was under a tremendous amount of pressure from our engineering directors. My boss J was sitting in it for the first time — J didn’t say anything during the meeting, but after the meeting, he gave me a step-by-step rundown of how the meeting went, the things I said, and how if I had framed things a certain way, I would have been more effective. Two things I learned from our debrief:

(1) Use detail as a tool to build trust.

There are little things, that when phrased differently, can have a big impact. In the meeting, I was under a lot of pressure to reach alignment with an Autopilot manager to decide whether his features were shipping with this release, but I was having trouble getting in contact with him all morning. You could explain the situation to the executive team in two ways:

Less useful: “I couldn’t get a hold of them.” (your bias for action is abstract)

More useful: “I tried calling them, but they didn’t pick up.” (your bias for action is concrete)

It’s a small difference in word choice but a big difference in how people perceive you as someone who is capable of driving results.

(2) Being decisive about the world enables you to make progress faster.

Most people who ask someone to make a decision, ask for a decision in an open-ended way. e.g. “what are you going to do about X?” Even the directors fell into this trap when they asked Autopilot manager, “What are we doing about these new features?” It’s much more useful to instead, define the world for them, and ask them to answer the question in the context of the world you have defined.

Less useful: “What are you doing about this new feature?” (the conversation goes on for 30m+ as we navigated through all the assumptions that needed to be made in order to answer this question)

More useful: “We are shipping this firmware in 5 days. Are you going to be on the train or not?” (by indicating when you are going to ship the firmware, you define the world for them)

You can always change the context later, but defining the world makes it easier for them to make a call, because you are scoping down the unknowns.

It was refreshing to get this level of feedback — most feedback at work is about overall performance than at a day to day level. I remember when I first started playing rugby at Brown, which went undefeated in the Ivy league for several years, I was amazed at how quickly I picked it up. At first, I arrogantly attributed it to my athletic dexterity — then I realized it was the nature of the training program — the immediate feedback from our coach on all the micro-drills created the perfect feedback loop. I was being given targeted guidance on exactly what I was doing wrong and why. And wasn’t just rugby — the same dynamic also helped me in coding. And it’s not just me — as people, we are beholden to making progress in environments with tight loops.

Owning the full stack unlocks opportunities

When you’re building a company or a product, how do you decide whether to own the entire stack or whether to outsource parts of the product? Owning the entire stack could allow you to create a better user experience (vis-a-vis WeChat and how you can text message, order a taxi, or make a doctor’s appointment all in one app), but sometimes this power is wielded in ways that stifle innovation.

To close the loop entirely, AT&T set about designing its own radio sets. AT&T’s new radios were engineered to receive only AT&T broadcast frequencies — and, not surprisingly, only AT&T programming. (via the Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires)

When does vertical integration enable you to succeed in an industry and when does it not?

I used to think it was better to outsource things you are not good at, and instead focus on your key strengths — then why is Tesla trying to bring manufacturing in house when they could move much faster following Apple’s footsteps and outsourcing their manufacturing to China? After all, the Chinese manufacturers have decades more experience producing electronics and cars and could much more easy troubleshoot problems than we could.

Bringing things in house is what has enabled Tesla to get so far and be the leading electric vehicle company in the world — having no credible competition in the electric car market for 5+ years. Cutting out the middle man enables three things:

  1. Reduces client implementation complexity -> we can build more things!
  2. Lowers costs – we’re not paying someone who is incentivized to charge more
  3. To innovate – we can quickly iterate in-house
I’ve been reading the Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, and it’s fascinating to learn about companies who started with one core competency, and expanded moved things in house to gain a competitive edge. Radio Corporation of America (RCA) for example, originally started as a radio broadcasting company, but decided to start producing and selling radio sets so that they could control the frequencies that the radios could receive.
Are there industries then, that lend themselves more to vertical integration than those that don’t?
The answer is usually mixed. In the computer industry, for example, Microsoft is not vertically integrated but won most of the market share — Apple, on the other hand, is vertically integrated and won the lion’s share of not the market, but the profits.

Similarly, in the mobile phone industry, Google Android is not vertically integrated and has won the market (87%  market share), while the Apple iPhone (12% market share) [1] has contributed to making Apple the most profitable company in the world [2].


How traveling changes my relationships

On my plane ride recently to Portugal, the server asked me if I wanted anything to drink. I replied no. He said in a Portuguese accent, “Just one cup! The air is really dry here,” and thrusted a cup of water in my hand. I’ve never had this experience on an American airline. I was touched by his rare sense of ownership to people around him.

Once I got to Portugal, I was there for an overnight layover, but I ended up having one of the best nights of my life. I met up with a mutual friend, and even though it was my first time meeting her, I felt like I was meeting up with a long lost friend in a new country. She was disappointed that she couldn’t meet me for dinner because she had work, but gave me an itinerary of all the things I should do that evening — which restaurant I should go to, what I should order, and the order of the sights I should see around the city. She told me she’d meet at 11pm, so after I enjoyed the steak at Carvoaria, the restaurant she recommended, I ordered an espresso. Drinking coffee sometimes feels like pushing a button where you suddenly have twice as much life to live.

We ended up going to a discotheque until 5am.

I don’t like clubbing in America. It feels transactional; a game where people try to hook up. Two men in the corner of the club were trying to do the same thing as they approached two Portuguese women. The women looked very uncomfortable and kept moving away as the men tried to moved closer and twirled them around. They were not having it. Later that night, two of the Portuguese men from our group of friends were talking to the same two women. They talked for several hours on end. It wasn’t until several hours later into the night at 4am that they started dancing. I like how people take their time with each other. The question of “Are you coming home with me tonight?” felt absent.

It was as if I had been thrust into a more evolved version of America, a world where machines have automated all jobs and people are instead on Earth to enjoy life, value their friendships, and cultivate meaningful, non-transactional relationships. My best friend told me that you can think of life as traveling on a bus. Most people, as they travel through life, simply collect other people onto their bus. The passengers are either heading in their direction or they’re no longer on the bus. He doesn’t like to live life like that — he’d prefer to bring someone onto his bus and together, decide where to go. I like this kind of friendship much more — and I realize I don’t have to live in Portugal to adopt these values. When I travel, I learn about how things we consider normal are completely weird in a different context. I can choose what I like from all these different ways of living, and piece it back into my own life.

Working inside the system to kick butt

I meet many people who bash Snapchat or Facebook as products. They think of the products as a waste of time. That’s one way to approach making products. Another way is to do the opposite. Put Snapchat on a pedestal. Ask “What makes Snapchat addictive? How did they get to over a 100 million users? Can we take their strategies and leverage them to achieve our product x’s goals?”

You can adopt this strategy with your career choices too. Gary Gensler worked for Goldman Sachs and became a top manager (this is a career decision some would ordinarily pooh-pooh as selling out), but then he left and worked for the CFTC (Commodity Futures Trading Commission) to help fix the broken and corrupt derivatives market — and he was the only person fit for the job, because no one else in the government understood how derivatives worked. He eventually helped bring transparency to the $400 trillion previously opaque swaps market, transforming the sleepy CFTC into a powerful regulatory force.*

Gary Gensler defends record as he leaves CFTC

Did design make the iPhone successful?

While good design helped Apple’s iPhone gain traction — it was not the driving factor of success, as many people assert. The driving factor was Apple’s  innovation in touch screen technology. Nothing like it had come before — before the iPhone, you could only view sparse, text-only versions of sites like the New York Times.

Examining the evolution of technology allows us to recognize that technologies we see as normal today, such as the internet, were once simply imaginations in someone’s head.

Industry had attempted to create a responsive touch screen for years. The first was a resistive design, a soft touchscreen that flexed under touch to tell the device which part of the screen was being pressed. This flexible screen wasn’t very accurate because the device couldn’t precisely tell where the screen was being pressed. HP took the touchscreen a step further by using lasers. Touching the screen broke the lasers and allowed the device to move the cursor to where the screen was being pressed. This worked but didn’t allow for multitouch. In 2007, Apple released a capacitive touchscreen — the most innovative touchscreen technology ever seen.

While novel touchscreen innovation was the main factor for the iPhone’s success, design had a helping role. When a product is well designed, people are more likely to use it. Think about how flipping through news on Flipboard makes it addictive.

You can also think beyond a UI level about the product’s design more broadly — for example, compare Instagram to Facebook. People can post, like, and comment pictures on Facebook just as they can with Instagram. Many still prefer Instagram over Facebook, despite the features on Instagram simply being a subset of Facebook’s. The reason is Instagram is a product highly focused on one thing — seeing a snapshot of your friend’s life. On Instagram, there are less possible navigation states in which someone could get lost. The minimal interface makes it easy to figure out what to do next. It is this kind of design that plays a much larger role in paradigm shift. Consider the graph for example. Before graphs were designed, we were interacting with numbers either individually or in a list format. The invention of the graph enabled us to see the relationship between different variables in a way that we could not have before.*

* via Bret Victor’s Future of Programming

Good design vs. bad design

When I first started as a designer, I thought frequently about experiences that were well-designed compared to those that were not, and how the outcome differed. What was the value of design? For example, when I click a button and expect a drop down menu to appear, I feel cognitive dissonance when the menu suddenly appears. When the menu slides out however, I feel more at ease. When I use a UI with a lot of jump-cuts (a la things suddenly appearing) my brain has to pretend that all the in-between frames are there. When we use interfaces that actually animate all those in-between frames, however, we can take a shortcut through our visual cortex. The change in interface no longer disrupts the main task.

Think of the human brain like a computer. You have first, a main thread, and second, a GPU – a graphics processing unit in your visual cortex. You can feed people a lot of information through their visual cortex without interrupting what they’re thinking about. Animation allows the user to continue thinking. Imagine using your smartphone without animations. It would be like a tap and jump cut for everything you do. Would you have still bought it?*