Gap Year Learnings I
On Silicon Valley, Startups, and Software Engineering
- Operations, partnerships, distribution channels, and other “business” buzzwords are just as important to understand as the actual theory behind your “revolutionary” tech innovation. 6 months ago, I’d dismiss anyone using these words as a braindead MBA monkey, but it turns out most companies and products have been built before, it’s just that new ones have an edge when it comes to partnerships, distribution channels, talent, or something else of the like. Practical implementation and distribution of a cool product is the bottleneck for great ideas more often than the technical innovation, which is a sad reality.
- The most money isn’t necessarily made in consumer products, even though that’s all we college students have ever really been exposed to. Everyone I know, my age, is thinking about how they’d make the next SnapChat or TikTok. The really successful founders and Valley veterans are instead thinking about the niche, unsexy enterprise problems that generate the most value for businesses.
- Being able to integrate your product with existing infrastructure and not screw over important people in the supply chain, at any point, is crucial. It’s very important to have respect for why the problem hasn’t been solved so far. If you can’t conjure a compelling answer to that, you haven’t looked hard enough. For example, the invention of DVR by TiVo was revolutionary, but they didn’t own the content distribution channels (cable TV) that their product would be used on, Comcast did. And so they failed, despite their breakthrough technology.
- A lot of the work involved in software engineering sounds complicated and world-changing, but it’s pretty mindless. Much is simply rebuilding or refactoring pedestrian products that already exist in some flavor or capacity, but with a small new change or addition to address some novel market need. For example, companies will invest thousands of engineering hours into copying each others’ products from scratch because no open-source equivalent exists. The work can be technically challenging, absolutely, but much of it is not creating anything fundamentally new in the universe. Front-end engineers often spend time working to make a certain animation marginally more memory-efficient or rearranging how the edges of a certain box look — quite a far cry from studying circuit architecture and red-black trees at college.
- Most brilliant people in the valley are excellent at solving problems but spend almost no time thinking about what problem they are solving, why they’re solving, the impact it’s likely to have, and how profitable it’s really likely to be. They just get giddy about solving something difficult. In math speak, I believe that our species has come to be very good at optimizing narrow objective functions without having any meaningful understanding of how these narrow functions relate to comprise a wider, global solution to our problems.
- Technology is almost never the inherent solution to a problem. It is just the vector through which the solution can be implemented cheaply at scale and in a clean, simple-to-use way. Uber’s breakthrough was with its business model, implemented through some neat software. Building the app was not a breakthrough. Being a 10x engineer doesn’t really give you any meaningful advantage in coming up with clever solutions, merely with implementing them. Being a technical co-founder is only useful insofar as it lets you prototype and test ideas, as well as know the limitations of the technology you’re using to build solutions (which is still very useful, I might add).
- The importance of projects is often under-appreciated. Most companies, research ideas, and works of art and literature and music came from great people tinkering and playing with things in their free time. The ability and desire to build web apps on a whim, write pieces of short fiction because of a dream, or investigate a new research topic over the summer because of a book you read, are vastly important. Tinkering and building should become routine and ubiquitous for our world to embed innovation into our culture.
- I’ve come to appreciate the importance of legislation and individual behavior in enacting macroscopic change. As a techno-optimist who started the year believing that more money and talent would lead to endless innovation that would solve all of humanity’s problems. By talking to academics, entrepreneurs, and reading widely about various industries, I’m now pretty convinced that a lot of our biggest problems (climate, public education) are best solved by informed electorates who act the right way and elect responsible and intelligent leaders rather than brute force investment into technology.
- An ancillary point is that I’ve come to appreciate the complexity, beauty, and efficiency of the institutions of modernity, like democratic governments, international law, financial services, energy generation, waste management, and more world-changing machinery that would hum around under the hood of daily life, hitherto unnoticed. Everything from how VisaNet allows for instant electronic card payment between banks to how landfill pipes capture methane from trash, I’ve understood that there have been a lot of smart people who have experimented a lot of times and gone through a lot of pain and effort to come up with many of the tools and institutions we don’t even know exist.
- I’ve come to see the understated difference between how large, bureaucratic institutions (government/finance) are ideally supposed to work and the twisted, complicated, corrupt and underhanded way in which they often do. This might seem to contradict my previous point, but I think that it’s consistent to hold the beliefs that democracies are beautiful, contrived and deliberate structures that have done a lot of good, but that they also creak and crack in places due to the inherent weakness of individual humans.
- College is only useful because of the people you meet — both peers and professors. Even vocational majors like mechanical engineering have limited utility in the real world, even if you’re working as a full-time mechanical engineer. The rat race to join prestigious clubs and groups and be atop the social ladder is almost laughable when you look at it as an outsider and realize how useless those races really are (including chasing grades).
- Reading widely and often is not a foolproof way to become an intellectual, it makes little sense to read blindly for the sake of reading. I don’t know why so many people focus on chasing “number of books per year” rather than deeply internalizing new concepts through whichever medium can best teach them about those.
- Learning languages has little to no professional utility, but the way it deepens and enriches relationships between you and people who speak that language gives you uniquely rich insight into the way they live and think. This could be gratifying and enriching for you on a personal level and is the only good reason to learn a new language in my opinion. As a trilingual, I do not think this is generally a good investment in time.
- Conspiracy theories and stereotypes are often grounded in some truth. I heard that some teams on Google and Twitter had doctored some search results leading up to the election to sway voters one way, and immediately dismissed it as fiction. Then I met some people who had a background in the industry who revealed that elements of it were not too far off.
- There are no deadlines in the real world, and life after college can easily lack a sense of urgency. You don’t meet people unless you go out of your way to convert casual interactions into meaningful relationships, and this is disconcerting and deeply uncomfortable at the beginning. It is easy to fall into a routine where you’re losing awareness of where you’re going in life since there are no clear deadlines or people to hold you to them when you’re in the real world.
- Great art, film, literature, and music do have an important place in society. For all the money, ideas, and opportunity gushing into Silicon Valley, people, including techies themselves, hate living here. With collapsing civil infrastructure and almost nothing to do outside of work and good ethnic food, there’s a palpable difference between San Francisco and cities like NYC, London, Paris, Tokyo. Even if you don’t go to art exhibitions or attend rock concerts, the fact that they happen all around you affects the pulse of the city in a subtle but noticeable way, and the lack thereof makes life just a little less vibrant as if people go home to take a short break before going back to work again, instead of the other way around.
- I’ve become disillusioned with top universities. Coming into the year, I would instinctively associate anyone with a brand-name school on their resume as world-class. Very quickly, I saw how most students at top schools are a product of circumstance, and only about 5% of the population, even at Harvard, is “elite” by Silicon Valley standards (in terms of intelligence and output). Similarly, most of the Valley “elite” did not attend Harvard (or Stanford or MIT and so forth). I see these credentials now as signifying moderate intelligence and good fortune and look to gauge whether people are smart by actually talking to them about ideas and looking at projects they’ve worked on.
On Living in, and Understanding How “The Real World” Works