10 Startup Facts Panel at the University of Washington

If you’re in Seattle and want to learn more about what it’s like to work at a startup, you should attend a panel I’m in on May 2nd at 3:30 in the UW CSE building.  Glenn Kelman (Redfin CEO), Christophe Bisciglia (WibiData CEO), Oren Etzioni (UW CSE professor and entrepreneur/investor), and Dan Weld (UW CSE professor and entrepreneur/investor) will be on the panel with me.  More details about location/time here.  Below I’ll tell the story about why I’m organizing the panel.

I’ve been writing this blog for almost 5 years now, and BY FAR the most popular post I’ve ever had was 10 Facts About Working at a Startup vs. a Big Company.  About 30k people have read the post, and I’ve received a huge amount of interaction in comments, Twitter, etc.  The whole process has been a wild experience for me.  But most importantly, I’ve learned that there needs to be a lot more education about startups.  People don’t really know how amazing working at a startup can be.

Startup education and evangelism is especially lacking at the University of Washington’s CSE program.  The CS program at UW is world-class.  The quality of graduating students is incredibly high.  Yet the HUGE majority of them take jobs at mega-large companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.  I get so sad envisioning these awesome engineers working in a cubicle at some gigantic company, where they may make some small impact if they get lucky with a good team.

I originally wrote the “10 facts” blog post to try and show my friends why they should work at a startup, in particular at a startup I’m doing right now :).  My original blog post inspired me to put together the panel I mentioned in the intro to this blog post.  My hope is that Glenn, Christophe, Dan, Oren, and myself can inspire the UW CSE community to consider working at a startup.

I hope to see you on May 2nd!  Bring your friends, invite others that may be interested.  Even if we don’t convince you to work at a startup, at least you’ll understand what they’re all about.  See here for more details about the panel — location, time, etc.

How I Overcame My Fear of Public Speaking

The earliest presentation I can recall giving was during my junior year of high school. I was in front of my U.S. History class, accompanied by two of my classmates. The three of us had prepared for our talk, and it was my turn to present. I recall the stagnant classroom with two doors in the back, begging me to run through them and escape the horror that was in front of me. I started talking and was immediately broadsided by an anxiety panic attack. I froze and didn’t know what to say, so I turned around to one of my classmates and quietly asked them to fill in for me. I was utterly embarrassed and confident that I would never give another presentation again.

At the end of my freshman year at the University of Washington, having just finished the second introductory programming class, CSE 143, Stuart Reges contacted me and asked me if I would like to be a teaching assistant (TA) starting fall of my sophomore year. The thought of presenting to 20-25 students twice a week for an entire quarter was horrifying, but I knew I had to take the opportunity — I knew that having a presentation phobia would limit me in my career. You might be thinking that my logic doesn’t make sense; why would I want to put myself in an uncomfortable situation? I did this because the only way to become comfortable with something is to challenge yourself, to put yourself in the uncomfortable situation over and over again until you’re finally comfortable with it.

If you fear public speaking, then the only way to overcome your fear is to practice public speaking. The way I overcame my fear was by becoming a TA and presenting to 20-25 students twice a week for two years. The first few sections I taught were horrifying; I lost my train of thought often and probably did a poor job of explaining the course material. With time my sections became better and my confidence stronger. But how did I cope with the first few sections? I learned about cognitive therapy from a wonderful book my mom recommended.

Cognitive therapy will help you pinpoint your discomfort and teach you how to cope with it. The trick to coping with discomfort is to learn exactly what makes you uncomfortable.  Are you scared of making a mistake?  Are you worried that you don’t look good?  Are you scared that you’ll lock up and look like an idiot?  You should ask yourself questions like these and try to pinpoint exactly what bothers you most about public speaking.  It’s not enough to say, “I just don’t like it.”  No.  You have to pinpoint your discomfort.  My discomfort was the fear of vomiting in front of people.  For whatever reason I had a primal fear that my audience would see me vomit or would be weirded out if I had to suddenly leave the room never to return.  I know it sounds stupid, but this is what genuinely worried me.  “What if I have to throw up?  I’ll just politely say that I’m not feeling well and that I have to end class.  What if I don’t have enough time to pack my stuff up and end up puking all over the classroom?  I can’t do this presentation.”  This is the thought process I used to go through, and once I realized what my fear was, it was just a matter of learning how to calm myself down and combat my fears.

Combating your fears takes preparation and practice. I would take notes of my thoughts immediately after a worry streak and reflect on them later.  It’s natural to forget your thought process during a worry streak, so writing your thoughts down is very important.  The next step is to examine your thought process and realize ways to combat your worries.  In my vomiting example, I would think about the amount of times I have thrown up in my life, which made me realize that throwing up is not a common thing.  After drinking slightly too much one night, I also realized that the urge to vomit doesn’t come out of nowhere.  If I really had to throw up, then I would feel nauseous, dizzy, etc, and these feelings would come gradually and with warning.  These two facts allowed me to fight my worries in a very rational way, but often my worries would exceed all attempts of being rational.  In cases like these, I would try my hardest to think rationally and explain to myself that my worries were unwarranted given the facts.  Eventually I was able to not let my emotional worries take control of me by immediately considering the logical implications of my worries.  It took time and practice, but eventually logic outweighed emotion.  It’s also important to realize that you can’t try to say to yourself that your worries are just worries and are therefor irrelevant.  This will dig you into a deeper hole, because you’ll realize that if your worries are irrelevant, then something must be wrong with you.  Nothing is wrong with you; lots of people worry.  Think of combating your worries as a personal challenge, one that once overcome will be gratifying to say the least.  Before a presentation, try to mentally put yourself into an uncomfortable situation and practice the ways that you will combat it.  You’ll start being able to combat your worries, and then, after lots of practice, you won’t get many worries at all.

I used to be horrified of public speaking, and now I love it.  Since my public speaking phobea discovery in high school, I’ve given lots of lectures to 20-25 students, 5 lectures to 50+ students, 3 lectures to 100+ students, and 1 lecture to 200+ students.  I was nervous for many of those lectures, but I knew how to combat my nervousness and give the talk regardless.  I put myself in a position where I had to practice my public speaking, and I armed myself with skills to combat worry and overwhelm my emotions with rationale (cognitive therapy isn’t the only solution!).  Becoming a TA might not be in the cards for everyone, but there are plenty of other ways to practice your public speaking.  You can sign up for a public speaking class at a community college, or you can join a local public speaking club.  Try to practice public speaking with subjects that you enjoy; it’s much easier to present something that you’re passionate about.  Plus, chances are good that you’ll be presenting something that you’re very familiar with whenever you’re required to speak publicly.  There is light at the end of the tunnel, but it’ll take some determination and hard work to get there.  You can do it!

Seattle: The City With One Season and Intermittent Change

I remember my first Seattle autumn.  Having come from Los Angeles, the city with one season, the sight of brown leaves flowing in the wind reminded me of “the most beautiful thing in the world” according to Ricky Fitts in American Beauty.  I was so happy to see an autumn and be in a city that actually had seasons.  I’ve since revised my perception of Seattle’s seasons.

Having lived in Seattle for four years now I’m confident that I’ve seen what the city is capable of.  I’ve backpacked on the Olympic Peninsula, biked around San Juan Island, hiked up Mt. Rainier and snowboarded down, surfed at Westport, and lived in Seattle while attending the University of Washington.  After four years I’ve made a conclusion about Seattle: it is a city with one season and intermittent change.  Here’s the breakdown:

  • June – August: warm rain with occasional gloom and sunshine
  • September – November: rain and gloom with occasional falling leaves and potentially freezing temperatures, occasional sunshine
  • December – April: cold rain, freezing temperatures, snow, very, very occasional sunshine
  • May: rain with lots of gloom and occasional sunshine

Keep in mind that I’m exaggerating pretty heavily here.  I’m bitter that I gave my rear fender to Glenn forgot to bring my rear fender on my commute this morning, leaving me with a wet ass, back, and feet.  Perhaps this is my own fault and not Seattle’s, but I thought I would try and make a funny post out of it.  For the record I’ve had an awesome time in Seattle, and I don’t regret coming here.

Photo credit here.

Seattle Weather

The sun has broken through the never-ending cloud cover here in Seattle, and it’s about time. We’ve been without a spring this year — I can count between two and four days of sunshine since February. Fortunately for me I’ve been attending class and coding Ruby most of the day, only spending time outside on my cycle commute. Foreigners think of Seattle as some strange rain ecosystem, where no one goes outside September through June. At least this is what my family and I thought when I was deciding where to go to school. When I travel to other parts of the world and mention that I go to school in Seattle, the typical response is, “Oh yeah, it rains up there a lot, huh?” From foreigner to foreigner, I thought I would describe Seattle’s weather for the four years I’ve been here.

Freshman Year: 2004-2005
This was a super mild winter. There was a huge drought in the northwest, making for dry, clear, insanely cold days. I would say that we got only a handful of rain days that year, with an average temperature in the low 40s. It wasn’t so bad; I skateboarded a lot. However, the snowboarding was awful. I recall that fall and spring were both pretty typical. Typical meaning mostly overcast and misty with spots of sun and warmth.

Sophomore Year: 2005-2006
This one was a doozy. We had a record-tying 33 days of rain in a row, and most of those days were filled with moderate to heavy rainfall. It was miserable, but awesome at the same time. I had the best snowboarding winter of my life this year. Again, I don’t really recall that fall and spring, but I think they were both typical.

Shi Shi Beach backpack trip.

Another Shi Shi shot.

Junior Year: 2006-2007
This one was a doozy as well. We had a record-breaking seven (I think?) inches of rain in a single day, and it almost happened twice. We also had a ridiculous fall, which consisted of rain, cold, and early snowfall. I think we had a total of six or seven snow days this year. Spring, however, was really nice. The sunshine came early and stayed for a while. I remember having two full weeks of warm sun. Insane!

Three Fingers hike.

Snow in Seattle.

Hike up Rainer, snowboard down.

Senior Year: 2007-2008
First let me talk about the summer of 2008. I spent this summer in Seattle working at Redfin, and I’ve never been more disappointed with the weather. Everyone agrees that the weather sucks in Seattle during the winter, but summers are apparently beautiful, warm, and clear. Let me just tell you that the summer of 2008 was a complete let down. I think there was a total of 2 weeks of sun and warmth, and the rest was filled with drizzles, clouds, mist, fog, and general misery.

The bad summer blended right in to a bad fall and an even worse winter. We had probably around seven or eight snow days and plenty of freezing weather and precipitation. I remember getting on my cycle at 8:00am en route for work and thinking I was going to freeze to death. The snow-covered mountains were insane, and I got a ton of awesome snowboard days in. So what about the spring? We didn’t have a spring. With snow in late April, sub 50 degree temperatures, and plenty of rain and wind, winter spilled right over all of spring. I’m hoping that today’s patch of sun will be the start of a trend, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t

Alpaca farm on San Juan Island.

Is the weather in Seattle bad? Absolutely. Is the weather in Seattle bad even during the summer? In my experience, yes, but everyone says summer is great. I generally don’t mind bad weather, because it means better snowboarding. However, commuting to work and school either by foot or cycle sucks in the rain, and each consecutive day of miserable commutes adds to more and more frustration. The bad weather has definitely limited me by keeping me inside more often than I’d like to be. I wasn’t able to surf or skateboard that much this summer, and my winter commutes were sometimes canceled because of snow and ice. However, being inside more often has its perks. I’ve cranked out a ton of personal projects, and I’ve achieved a good academic status. The weather is not one of the things I will miss about Seattle, but there is plenty else to miss.

Bill Gates: Software Isn’t Going Anywhere

I attended Bill Gate’s talk entitled “Software, Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Giving Back” last week at the University of Washington, and I must admit that this talk was not nearly as interesting or enlightening as the Dalai Lama’s talk a few weeks ago.

The talk began with the showing of a video depicting his last day at Microsoft.  Take a look:

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After the video Bill went on to discuss his view of the future of software.  He foresees technology surfacing in our day-to-day life even more.  He believes that one day all of television will be interactive and targeted.  You will be recommended different TV shows to watch, and you’ll have the opportunity to see what your friends are watching, rate shows and movies, etc.  He also said that television advertisements will one day be targeted just as Google’s text ads are targeted.  He also claimed that one day we’ll no longer have normal mirrors, whiteboards, or desks.  Instead we’ll have computer screens in place of these things that are interactive and customized.  He said the rise of these items will also make us think differently about user experience and interaction in a similar way that the iPhone has.

This portion of his talk was rather interesting.  He commented on Bubble 1.0 and 2.0 and wasn’t worried at all about Burst 2.0.  He claimed that new technology will always create bubbles and that new bubbles will be created shortly after the burst of another.  He said, and I quote, “Software is the most interesting thing in the world.”  This made me really happy, though I suppose it wasn’t too surprising.  I definitely agree that software is an incredibly creative and exciting intellectual practice, and it makes me happy to hear others who are also as passionate about the field as I am.

The remainder of his talk focussed on his foundation and social issues.  He said that large foundations must partner with foreign goverments of the developing world to ensure progress is made in healthcare, environmental sustainability, education, and vaccination.  He claimed that having a healthier society decreases the birth rate.  His reasoning for this was that parents will have less children if they know their children have a high chance of survival.  He claimed that foundations need to think critically about incentives, because the incentive system of a particular project will determine its success.

I’m again grateful to have been given to opportunity to listen to such an influential person.  This talk convinced me that worrying about computer science jobs in the short term isn’t worth it and that the software industry has plenty of growing to do.  It’s rather exciting, actually :).