Friday, February 27, 2015

The Capacity to Love

Today will be remembered as a day of mourning and reflection for nerds, geeks, and science fiction fans around the world; the day Leonard Nimoy passed away.

For me, personally, it'll be remembered as a day of revelation, inspired by this heartfelt, parting message from William Shatner to his dear friend:

"I loved him like a brother. We will all miss his humor, his talent, and his capacity to love."

I don't put much thought into legacy or how people will remember me after death, but if I'm remembered at all, even ephemerally, I want it to be for my "capacity to love." The message strikes a chord deep within my bones. One that reverberates with my sense of humanity. It's how I intend to define my living years and if I earn the right for it to be the culmination of my short time here, this will have been a life worth living.

Thank you Leonard Nimoy, for inspiring us. The love you showed the world carries on.

February 27th, 2015

Monday, February 2, 2015

Dear Mr. O'Brien, I found your hair, please advise

Dear Mr. Conan O'Brien,

When I awoke this morning, much to my horror, a strange beast was attacking my head.

Upon consultation with my friends, I later learned that you hair has come into my possession.

As some consider it to be a national treasure, it thought it of critical importance to notify you immediately and to attempt to return it with the utmost priority.

Awaiting your orders,
Hakon Verespej

Thursday, July 17, 2014

My Condolences to Laid-off Microsoftees

My heart goes out to all of you who were affected by the Microsoft layoffs.

I was an engineer at Microsoft during the 2009 layoffs and, even though we knew they were coming, it was a shock when whole teams were eliminated regardless of performance. The layoffs announced today are just as difficult and several close personal friends came back from lunch today with no manager, no team, and no job.

This will be, without a doubt, a difficult time. Not just for those laid off, but for their families, friends, and our entire Seattle tech community and beyond. At the same time, I'm certain it'll open the doors to many new opportunities.

To all my friends and everyone else affected, my condolences. On to better times.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why Failing in School Was One of the Best Mistakes I've Ever Made

"Fuck me... I'm gonna get kicked out of school."

As I looked over my grades, the pretense of a bright future crashed down around me. I had been skating by for the past 2 years doing just enough to get by and it had finally caught up with me. "Two F's," I thought, "...double fucked. My life is over."

Before college, I was a great student. Under the close supervision of my parents, I managed to stay focused enough to keep up excellent grades while taking all honors classes. It was a time when I truly believed in my grand dreams of being a scientist and a visionary leader. But once I was out of my parents' house, I quickly fell prey to the seductive charms of my new-found freedom. My nights were consumed by parties, which meant my days went to recovery.

By the time I'd reached my junior year, the bad choices I'd made dropped my GPA to a 2.3, marginally above the threshold that would trigger expulsion. The two F's also put me on academic probation, meaning another bad quarter would also get me kicked out of school.

I immediately fell into depression, accompanied by deep reflection. As I assessed my life and what I hoped to achieve with it, I realized that, as humans, we're capable of constantly redefining ourselves; that while we can't change the past, we always have the power to shape the future.

This failure was a pivotal moment in my life and the boot to the face I needed to make me get my shit together.

After that, I stopped drinking. I cut back on social activities and invested my new-found time into studying. I coincidentally "discovered" computer science around the same time. The quarter after my grand failure, I happened to take a fundamental course in computer science (data structures and algorithms, for those familiar), which was optional for my major. About half-way through the course, something amazing happened. Something clicked. It was one of those moments where you suddenly just get it and the universe becomes incredibly transparent.

From that point on, I dove into computer science with passionate fervor. I filled as many of my upper-division requirements as I could with computer science and I excelled. I was getting nearly all A's and found myself programming in my spare time. That summer, I somehow convinced a startup to take a risk on me and got an internship as a software engineer. I soon started taking graduate-level courses and getting the highest scores in the classes.

Over time, I decided that I wanted to go to grad school to study computer science in more depth. By the time the application period opened, my GPA had turned around, but I'd done so much damage earlier that it was just below the 3.0 required for graduate admissions. Undeterred, I poured myself into the application, applying for a GPA exception and rallying support from the professors I'd gotten to know through my graduate-level coursework.

On a sunny San Diego afternoon, I was sitting in the basement of the computer science building and an email from the graduate admissions officer popped into my mailbox. I felt sick to my stomach and started trembling as I nervously opened the email and started reading.

I'd gotten in.

I nearly cried as an overwhelming flood of emotion came over me. Two years after I'd obliterated my future, I sat back and reveled in the moment when I knew I'd finally earned it back.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Welcome to the Future of Interactive Websites: Leap Motion

I stared excitedly as the lid of the suave, white box glided gently open to reveal a sleek, black device; a minuscule piece of hardware that made the bold promise of changing the way we interact with computers.

That little device was a Leap Motion, which arrived at my house unexpectedly in July, 2013. I had pre-ordered it in Nov 2012 and by the time July rolled around, had long forgotten that I’d done so, making it a pleasant surprise.

I plugged it in and started playing with it right away. The creators of the Leap did a fantastic job designing an Apple-esque end-to-end experience. The packaging felt great, the device itself had visual and aesthetic appeal, setup was simple, the APIs were well thought-out and documented, and the app store had some cool initial apps to play around with. Unfortunately, the apps were trivial or offered disappointing experiences, leading many friends to dial up eBay to unload unwanted devices. I have to admit that I was underwhelmed too, after having had my expectations set by the revolutionary vision promoted in videos released during the pre-order campaign.

But I’m a sucker for hardware, so I kept my Leap. After a few weeks, I found some free time and wanted to see what it would take to build an app. To my delight, I quickly discovered that they had cleverly architected the system such that it’s fairly easy to use with almost any programming language, and their APIs reflected this. I held my breath, hoping I’d find a JavaScript API and sure enough, there it was. “Wow!”, I thought. Suddenly I had the ability to take advantage of the most powerful software distribution channel in the world along with the ability to hack (via Chrome extensions) a unique interactive experience into the virtually unlimited software that was already available on the Web.

I began experimenting and found working with the Leap and its JavaScript APIs surprisingly easy and fast. One of the first things I built was a Chrome extension that allows me to control Reveal.js presentations with my hands. I then started playing around with WebGL. In no time, I was touting how much fun the Leap is to all my developer friends, which quickly led to a conversation with Will Little, co-founder and CEO of CodeFellows (an awesome program, if you haven’t already checked it out), and we started planning a workshop for the local community to learn how to program the Leap for the Web.

On February 20th, about 40 developers of all skill ranges shuffled into the basement of 511 Boren Ave North in Seattle, a venue otherwise lovingly known as “The Easy”. Leap Motion had generously sent us about 20 loaner devices in advance of the event, so as everyone settled in they went through the same magical experience I did when I first opened the box and lit up the device.

We went through a few basic examples, with participants making simple modifications to the sample code along the way (workshop presentation here). Then they were off to the races as we kicked off a brainstorming-and-open-project session. They came up with some cool ideas like a Theremin, an interface for exploring gene sequences, and a bunch of other ideas I don’t remember. While none of the more ambitious projects made sense for the short time we had, people built some fun stuff. The project I was most impressed with, which happened to be built by a pair of CodeFellows students, was a rock, paper, scissors app that accurately detected the count and final hand shape using the leap.

In summary, the Leap is a very cool tool that creates opportunities for unique interactive experiences on the web. People jumped way too quickly to concluding that it under-delivers on its promise. It’s easy to develop for and everyone who came to the CodeFellows workshop had a blast, regardless of skill level. I can’t wait to see more creative uses of this technology.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

1 Year After Microsoft

I still remember the funny feeling I had in my stomach as I drove home from work on November 30, 2012. It was my last day at Microsoft after working there for nearly 5 years.

Today is my 1-year anniversary of life after Microsoft. I left the company with the intent of becoming an entrepreneur, but had the fortune of landing at Madrona two weeks later. Both of these transitions weren't without concern at the time, though I remain exceptionally pleased with both decisions.

It's been an incredible year. Some experiences have been pretty much as-expected and others have come as a surprise. These are some of my observations and experiences one year after Microsoft.

(UPDATE: Be sure to check out links to other people's experiences at the end)

Life Outside the "Mothership"
  • While at Microsoft, I tried to actively engage in the broader Seattle community and thought that I was doing a good job building a diverse network. This made it all the more shocking when I realized shortly after leaving how heavily weighted my network was with Microsoft contacts. I love my friends and colleagues from Microsoft, but having a network that's concentrated on a single company and one that creates generic solutions rather than vertical-specific ones is a huge weakness when it comes to entrepreneurship. I suspect that it's also a weakness in business and career growth in general, but don't have as much evidence of this.
  • Concern about no longer having access to resources was unfounded. Microsoft provides vast resources to employees for both work and personal purposes, but living without those has been inconsequential.
  • I do miss the compensation. I took a massive pay cut when I left, but I believe more than ever that "compensation is the price a company pays for making you put up with bull$". I continue to live very comfortably. More importantly, I've found that I'm much happier than before, providing some validation to the non-linear relationship between financial compensation and happiness.
  • I tend to thrive in uncertainty, but I have to admit that there are occasions when the certainty of the Microsoft environment sounds nice.
  • External perceptions of Microsoftees are different from internal ones. Inside Microsoft, there's a sense of being among the smartest people in the world (which isn't unfounded - many brilliant people work there) and that the skills developed working there are a thing of pride. Outside Microsoft, perception increasingly looks like the kind of respect you have for dinosaurs. Many skills and accomplishments are irrelevant or limited in scope when looking outside Microsoft's bubble. In terms of false perceptions, I continue to hear disparaging remarks about how people at Microsoft work 9-5. I can't think of a single Microsoftee I've met, past or present, who works 9-5. 10-12 hour days, 6 days per week is more typical from my experience.
  • All companies have their issues. Sit around the cafeterias at Microsoft and you're bound to hear a good percentage of conversations complaining about something or other related to the company. However, over the past year I've had lunch with people from at least 50 different tech companies and every company, big or small, has its issues. What's really important for individuals is to take a holistic view and identify what's tolerable and what's a deal-breaker.

Personal Development
  • When I was at Microsoft, I didn't get much time to learn non-proprietary technologies. During nights and weekends any work I did was for a company project or learning internal technologies to support work I was doing. Since leaving, I've been able to invest in learning open source technologies, applicable across the dev stack (my prior focus had always been backend). I've also been learning about UX design and expanding my knowledge on the business side. All this comes with the day-to-day work I do as well as from flexibility that allows me to explore outside of work as well.
  • While at Microsoft, I also got caught up in some of the group-think that garnered overconfidence in my skills. I've since gained a clearer picture of both my strengths and weaknesses, including areas both technical and non-technical. There are fewer unknown unknowns and I'm hopeful that I'll have the opportunity to work with some of the amazing people I've met in the past year who have complimentary skill sets.
  • My network has exploded in the past year. This has been partly due to my work and partly due to intentional effort made after realizing how limited my network was. This has led to many benefits, not the least of which is new friends.
  • Over the last year, I've been in a good situation to evaluate what's important to me in a more objective manner than I have in the past. This has resulted in increasing confidence in what I want to do with my life.

I still think Microsoft is a great company, though it has its share of challenges. I can't say with confidence that I'd want to work there again, though I don't regret the time I spent there and I'm also not sure I'd want to work at any large company. Joining Seattle's startup ecosystem was absolutely the right decision for me and every morning I wake up excited about work.

I intentionally cut out some topics I'd like to share, such as what working at Madrona has been like, because I quickly found that I was writing about them at length and that they merit their own posts, so more on that later.

To my many fellow ex-Microsoftees who left around the same time last year (many of whom I've had the pleasure of meeting), happy anniversary!

UPDATE: Stories from others

Here's a great 1-year post from an ex-Amazonian. I had similar plans when leaving Microsoft and have had similar experiences since leaving! Evan Jacobs of ReadWriteHack: My Most Productive Year

Here's a post from a friend who left Microsoft this year to become an entrepreneur. It includes some good reflection on the inner thoughts one has right before making a move like this. Avilay Parikh: Why I left Microsoft

Here's a post from an entrepreneur I recently met who, like my friend above, left Microsoft this year. Othmane Rahmouni: Goodbye Microsoft, Hello Startup World.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Most Powerful Tool You'll Ever Use

The most powerful tool you'll ever use is storytelling. That's it. Done. You don't need to read on.

If you're still reading, you probably agree and appreciate validation or you disagree and want to find flaws in my reasoning. I'm sure you'll get plenty of both.

Wikipedia defines storytelling as "the conveying of events in words, and images, often by improvisation or embellishment." Although it seems intuitive when pointed out, it's insightful to observe that storytelling happens across cultures. In fact, "humans [inherently] think in narrative structures and most often remember facts in story form." Have you ever noticed how often and how naturally we use story-like analogies to explain complex situaitons? Or how people binge-watch their favorite TV shows?

The problem with Wikipedia's definition of storytelling is that it only states what it is and misses what it does. Stories are used for a variety of purposes. They entertain. They inform. They create bonds. They can be applied for the purposes of good or evil, but they always have a purpose and are most effective when carefully crafted to achieve that purpose.

Stories are incredibly powerful. Every startup that has ever been funded, has received its funding because of a story. Sometimes it's the story the entrepreneur tells and sometimes it's the story the investors tell themselves. Either way, an investor who's willing to commit a significant amount of money to an extremely risky endeavor believes that a series of events that hasn't happened yet is going to happen, and result in a happy ending.

Stories even have remarkable effects on the course of world-history. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected as president of the United States based on a powerful story that millions of Americans believed in; the idea that the American dream still exists and that no matter who we are, we can achieve it. This story wasn't accidental and neither was the success of the campaign.

Any time we interact with others, all the complexities of these interactions emerge. Every day, we repeatedly face the need to influence others. We have to convince people to join our team, we have to convince people to use (and pay for) our products/services, we have to convince people at other companies to partner with us.

And the best way to convince people? By telling great stories, of course!

So, how do great stories come into existence? The short answer is that great stories are intentional and carefully crafted. Think of storytelling as an art that can be enhanced by science. Art, or instinct, places constraints on a world of infinite dimension, making it conceptually manageable. Art "solves" the blank canvas. Then, once we have some idea as to what we want to paint, we can leverage science to optimize the layout and colors for maximum effect.

When we take control of our story and design it to deliver information in a convincing and compelling way, we win the hearts and minds of others. And we take a big step toward achieving our grand vision.

All of this is not to say that telling a great story is easy or that success is guaranteed. It actually takes a lot of effort. However, the most incredible thing about storytelling is that it's a learned skill. Think of it as a super-power you can gain without being bitten by a radioactive spider.

If you want to accomplish great things, start by learning how to tell a great story.