Dec 11, 2012

Language is for communication - or the guy who started coding at 5

Should you learn to code?  Why?

If you're not already a developer, should you bother to learn some programming?  I am an MBA-guy learning to code, because it's fun.  Still, I sometimes wonder "why am I doing this?"  And I found many non-developers share this question.  I initially thought about this in terms of career advancement.  Then, I got wiser.

In a prior entry, I observed a trend: coding is coming to the masses.  At least the demand for learning to programming appears to be accelerating.  (Have you noticed this trend?)

Just an old geezer talking

First, a brief history.  When I applied to business school, there were no channels or organizations like or App Academy.  Second, I am learning to code to expand my prototyping tool-set.  Third (this is an important motivation for me), I want to better appreciate technical co-founder and his talents.

And I have no illusions about become a serious developer overnight.

On that last point - illusions - I have often heard some say: "I don't code, but I know enough to be dangerous."

Really?  Dangerous, how and to whom?  The more I learn, the more I find how hopelessly harmless I am, and will continue to be for a long time.  Then again, they may be right.  I can see how bad code can harm the world.

Conventional wisdom focuses on career

When I google something like 'why everyone should learn to code,' I come across an article like this one from VentureBeat (9/17/12 article by Jolie O'Dell).  The outline of this and many similar articles might run something like:
  • Programming literacy is important. (It's the same reason people around the world learn English - because it's the lingua franca of commerce.  It makes you a world-smart citizen.)
  • It's a good way to improve problem solving skills, etc. (It will make you smarter, which is inherently good.)
  • It's going to be good for your career, because [insert some bull-shit reasons].  (You'll make more money $$$.  Maybe.)
I was more intrigued by the well-known article by Marc Andreesen on Why Software Is Eating the World.  It is a good article, and you should read it.  Andreesen built Netscape.  I was in high school then, and I still remember the weird monochromatic browser-thing I saw on huge Unix stations at school, and nerdy kids at school staring at it into the night (I attended a public boarding school).

"I was coding since I was 5"

Incidentally, some of those nerdy kids I saw late night have been coding since they were young.  Really young.  And they didn't just code into late night.  They coded on weekends.  They coded during football games.  They "skipped" prom.  (Incidentally, I never went to the prom either.)

I recently talked to a developer who claimed he was coding since he was 5.  And I'm pretty sure, soon, I will meet someone who started coding while during the third trimester in his mama's womb.

What programming really is

The point is that if you're just catching onto the coding trend, and want to learn "just enough to be dangerous," good luck!  I'm not stopping you.  And I am not writing this to dissuade you from making yourself better.  It's not going to stop me from learning.  But, consider this.

Language is a tool for communication; it is a tool for expression.  At some level, programming language are used by those who know it best to express their individuality.  They express themselves:

  • To explore personal interests
  • To build tools for personal use
  • If they so choose, to express or share those interests or tools with the rest of the world
  • And if they are lucky, to make the world a better place and make lot of money doing it
  • And it's okay if they don't make a hit ... they will keep coding and keep doing things for themselves anyway.
This is a fundamental insight that is seldom found among those advocating coding literacy.  This insight is also often missing from professionals picking up coding so that they can be "dangerous."  

By all means keep learning.  Literacy is a good thing whether or not you are the next Charles Dickens.  However, understand that a language is a medium of expression.  Just remember that your best means to express yourself to the world may be a musical instrument, or through sports, or just plain 'ole English.

Further reading

Incidentally, you may want to attend a hackathon to see first-hand what all of this coding and startup buzz is about.  Or if you are wondering about attending a full-time programming course, check out this guide I co-wrote: Guide to Full-Time Programming Course.

Sep 17, 2012

A rant. Do you, or don't you? Founder Institute. How to approach resources.

Okay, so this entry is a bit of a rant.  Topic: "Do you, or don't you?"  Or how do you know or decide what's next for you?  Or reflections on using resources.  Basically, you got in.  Now what?

Here's something I often don't hear ... "Congratulations!"  An acceptance letter from Founder Institute inviting me to join its Fall 2012 SV semester class.  And they are asking me to make up my mind by tomorrow - 9/18/12 [1].

Usually, it's the "I'm sorry" letter.  Like the one after our Y Combinator interview Summer '12.  'You're good, but no dice!'  (So it goes - learning to take rejections gracefully is part of the journey - enjoy it!)

This feels a lot like B-school apps a few years ago. Got into the Darden School, rejected by others.  Now what?  And I imagine this is a common dilemma shared by other (inexperienced) entrepreneurs.  You got something (a resource), but how do you know if it's worth your investment?  And we generally suck at answering these kinds of questions about how something will pan out based on today's decision.

From Nassim's Taleb's Black Swan, Part 2 - "You would expect our record of prediction to be horrible: the world is far, far more complicated than we think, which is not a problem, except when most of us don't know it."  So we suffer from the '(wo)man who knew too little' problem.  And I know this to be true of my life.  Now and then, I catch myself wondering if my life could be better optimized.  How come I can't seem to go in one direction - up and up?

Since no one knows the future, I'm going to frame this as using resources in life.  What is a resource?  In my case, it is that which will help (our company) grow, answer questions, get users, connect to mentors, etc.  So, the useful evaluation is to determine whether FI will be useful or not for (our company).  I'm going to think about it and discuss it with my co-founder.  As a starting point, I have a few hunches about major pluses and minuses.  But, the problem with hunches is that they are almost always wrong.  And what's really needed is a more empirical data to predict the outcome.  More to come.

Some concluding thoughts to a random rant:
  1. Find/create resources.  FI is a resource.  If you don't apply or don't know about it, you don't have it.  Having a resource is the first step.  This mentality is key to creating your own luck in life.
  2. Consider the goal.  Does the resource help you achieve your goal - whether it's power, knowledge, growth, peace, whatever.
  3. Learn to reason with data.  Heuristics are easy, but unreliable.  What you want is data.  For example, I will look to FI alums to see how successful they have been ... an imperfect data point, but better than a hunch.
  4. Action trumps reasoning.  Attend info events or talk to alums to get more data points.  And will FI help me be more active or simply be an academic exercise?  For startups, key is talk less, do more.
[1] By the way, if you don't know this yet, you can always change dates or rules like this one.  If you want things to work for you in life, you need to learn to change the rules to benefit you.  One useful insight to keep in mind is that whoever comes up with a rule is just another human being.  Just like you.  You can talk to them, reason with them, ask them.

Jul 15, 2012

4 Kinds of people (the hacker matrix)

To win in a game, in a tournament, in life, what kind of person must you be?

I saw four kinds of people this weekend at a hackathon, this one organized by the groovy AT&T Developer Program, and sponsored by the good folks at Stackmob, Tiggzi (cloud-based mobile app builder), and Amazon AWS.  I know, I just couldn't resist the free food and the vibrant energy of the crowd that gathers at these events.

And while most of us dug into our screens to play with APIs, slap together mock-ups, and code away, I saw many other kinds of people at the event.  Let me summarize in picture:

Four Kinds of People at a Hackathon
The two axes by which I categorize people are Skill and Drive.  Note that you could use other axes, but I choose these two.

  • Lo-skill, lo-effort - You are a bystander. You came to enjoy the scene and be inspired. This is okay.  But, you walk away with an empty handed
  • Lo-skill, hi-effort - You are a hustler.  It is an uphill battle.  Don't give up.  (I fall into this category.)  Dreamers have to recruit additional talent (recruit = beg for help from developers).
  • Hi-skill, lo-effort - You are qualified.  Yet, without blood & sweat, you will not be in a winning team.  Have you been part of a team of smart people that never quite achieved something of significance?
  • Hi-skill, hi-effort - Winners!  As in, these people won the day and made out like bandits with real prizes!  They had the talent; they put in the hours.
No mind-blowing insight here.  But, perhaps a sobering reminder to those not in the top-right quadrant, and want to be.  So, ask yourselves these questions today:
  1. Do I have the right skills?  Enough skills?  If not, what can I do to gain those skills? 
  2. Do I have sufficient drive or am I putting in enough effort?  If not, why not?  Am I in the wrong profession?  What can I do to figure out my passion?  
Note that I used the term "Hacker," rather than winner.  I read a great article about what is a hacker?  I aspire to be more like a hacker, in my case as an example to push myself and to gain new skills that I find exhilarating and fun.

We must all find our own paths to happiness and success.  In that walk, are you a bystander?  A dreamer?  Or will you take risks and put in the effort to realize your dreams? 

Whatever the case maybe, smile and enjoy the journey!

Smiling faces of friends remind me not to take myself too seriously

// ==========
News from the event - a team of two dashing fellows presented Voicegram, a service that allows users to send voice greetings to friends and family. It's a very nice idea to keep in touch with friends.  Check them out on Twitter to stay tuned.

If you enjoyed this post, follow me on twitter @findinbay.

Jul 8, 2012

How did Zuckerberg value Instagram?

I wondered how Facebook came up with $1B figure for Instagram.  For example, do you value Instagram based on its revenues? Or how do you get $1B from number of users Instagram had?

A few weeks before Facebook announced its acquisition of Instagram, I wrote a blog about what problem instagram solves, and concluded that there is huge value in delivering abstract stuff like beauty. Specifically, I wrote:

"Increasingly, products with the highest value offering will be those that allow people to experience beauty, meaning, transformation, values which are not forefront when more mundane problems persist. But, as people increasingly cover the 'basic needs', demand for such abstract items will rise."

This made me wonder about the valuation logic in Silicon Valley. How does a brilliant entrepreneur and hacker like Mark Zuckerberg (or Twitter's Jack Dorsey) think about valuing assets that they acquire?

I thought back to some common methods for valuing stuff in the business world.

1. Discounted cash flows (DCF) - discounts future cash streams
2. Comparables - uses similar deals as benchmark
3. Options - applies some fancy math to financial instruments ... and assumes normal distribution
4. Customer lifetime value (CLV) - tries to value the customers
5. Gut

1. DCF - From what I understand, the Wall Street-types love using something called discounted cash flows method to value an asset. Asset is anything that will make you money today or later. In short, discounted cash flows values an asset by all the money that asset might bring you today and in the future, and then "discounts" the value of all that money to adjust for inflation. (Inflation - you know, a 12 oz Coke used to be 50 cents, but is now a $1 at a vending machine.)

So, if you use discounted cash flows, Instagram value is $0. Why? Because they weren't really generating cash flows.

2. Comparables - this isn't a bad way to get a baseline. But, what other deal was like Instagram? Has Instagram been sold and traded before? Nope.

3. Options - this usually applies to trade of commodities and financial assets (remember the movie Trading Places?). No help here.

4. CLV - okay, this one is a bit more promising. (This model works well when subscription is involved - like Netflix or newspapers.) I tried to imagine Zuckerberg doing the math in his head. Let's say Instagram had about 40M users at the time of acquisition. $1,000M / 40M users = $25 / user. 
(For comparison, here's a Quora answer on the lifetime value of a Netflix customer.)

But, then think about the fact that once acquired, Instagram has access to Facebook's user base (let's round up and say it's 1 billion).  Let's do the math again. $1B / 1B users = $1 per user. A $1 per person! Do you think you could squeeze out $1 over the lifetime of a Facebook-Instagram user if you were Zuck? Do cats meow?  

Image from - 4/10/12 post

5. Gut - okay, there's not much science here.  Clearly, none of the above methods are going to give you a true answer.  I'm beginning to learn that there is a healthy amount of going by the gut in Silicon Valley.  Give it a try.  Next time you have to make a decision, try the back of the napkin, but also listen to your gut!

If you enjoyed this post, tag along for future posts on twitter @findinbay.

Jun 28, 2012

A Silicon Valley rite of passage

There is a rite of passage in Silicon Valley.  And it's called hackathon.  If you're new to town, you should experience it.  A few days ago, I wrote about why you should go to a hackathon.  It is a great way to learn by doing, possibly do something good, and maybe even win prizes.  And it's fun!

I wanted to share a quick entry about upcoming opportunities for you to dive in and see for yourself.  Registration is free!

July 11 - 14 Yahoo! Intern Open Hack,
July 13 - 15 AT&T Mobile App Hackathon: San Fran, @atthackathon
July 21 - 21 Code for Oakland 2012: Building our Civic Web
July 21 - 22 SF Gigabit Hack Days, what would you build if you had city-wide 1gbps networks?
July 28 - 29 Hack for Change 2012, San Fran - to bring designers and builders together

Notice that I found all of these listed in Eventbrite.  It's a local startup.  Learn to fish - check them out @eventbrite and look for events that you like.  You can also try  And have fun.  Life is a journey.  And think big.  You might surprise yourself.

Watch this wonderful talk about what hackers do by Pablos Holman at TED. Amazing stuff!  See?  It's a chance for you to do something cool, and further:

a) it is an opportunity for you to get noticed and possibly find yourself with a new job.
b) you can actually win prizes.  That is if you're good.  How good are you?

Further, in my prior entry about why you need to go to a hackathon, I listed a few more reasons:

1. You learn cool stuff from exposure to new ideas.
2. You grow by stretching yourself in new skills.
3. You connect with lot of bright and neat people.
4. There's something about the vibe that you have to feel.
5. Free food!

A beautiful (and happy!) breakfast plate from a recent hackathon
6. Free stuff!

Happy hacking!  Keep innovating!

* An update - more insights about life and winning from a recent event.

If you enjoyed this post, tag along for future posts on twitter @findinbay.

Jun 27, 2012

Why you need to go to a hackathon today!

Last weekend, I was hungry.  So, I went to a hackathon.  And I realized, you need to sign up for a hackathon today. What's a hackathon?  And, why should you go?

First, let me set the scene.  If you're like everyone and their grandma in the Silicon Valley, then either you're a co-founder or dreaming about building the next Facebook, Twitter, or that fancy-app-that-lets-you-share-kittie-pictures-and-get-discounts-at-your-local-cafe.  But, if you're not quite Mark Zuckerberg (yet), or don't have a comp. sci. degree from Stanford, perhaps you need to spend some time learning, building, and honing your skills.  What to do?  Go to a hackathon!

A hackathon is a gathering (a day, or a weekend, etc.) where folks come together to "hack" or "build" something together.  I recently attended one called  #News Hack Day SF  that brought hackers and journalists together.  The goal was to build tools that would enhance journalism.  This is what hackers do.  They take some existing tools at disposal to manipulate existing systems to make it better (or easier, or more profitable, or whatever you want the system to do).  In short, hackers leverage tools to innovate and improve.  Here's a picture from the event.

This is me at a recent hackathon
You'll find curious minds, great vibes, and get your own brain cells firing.  Here's what I got out of it (and more importantly, what you can get out of it.)

1. You learn cool stuff.  I learned about tools like scraper wiki and soundcloud.  Sure you might find these using google, but how would you have known what to search for?

2. You grow.  You join others who want to build.  And you might surprise yourself and build something cool.  Check out this front-end I mocked-up for Paul Osmon from

3. The people.  You encounter cool hackers and curious minds who can help you learn.  For example, I enjoyed a presentation by a designer named Sha, who talked about "visceralization."

4. The energy.  There's something about the buzz in the air, of curious minds coming together to build something.  It's inspiring and you should experience it!

5. Freeeeee food!  Check out my instagram pic of a bad-as$ breakfast.  Free!  Hungry for a hackathon?

6. And free stuff.  For example, check out this cool T-shirt from a recent  @testthewebfwd session.

Look at this beauty from a hack event.  Want one? 
If nothing else, you can chill at a cool space.  Our hackathon was in a cool shared space called Hub SOMA.  Check out the awesome yellow leaf hammock in action by my friend Joe.

Cool dudes hanging out at cool hackathon
So, how much does it cost?  How do you sign-up?  Stay tuned for another post where I share some great tips to get you going.

Jun 26, 2012

When all else fails, run! [insert your name here]! Run!

The other day, I was feeling stuck.  Stuck on trying to solve a CSS display issue.  Stuck on trying to come up with a new business idea with a friend.  Stuck on making a progress in my learning.  Feeling stuck about what to do next today.  Feeling stuck in life.

And I tried to take a deep breath.  It didn't work.  And I tried to get up and pace around a bit.  It didn't work.  And I brewed some coffee (Starbucks) for a caffeine injection.  It didn't work.  So, what do I do when all else fails?  Run!  Literally.

Picture of a friend running the Blue Ridge Relay
Running takes my body and my mind away from the problem at hand, and helps me get unstuck from the space and problem in which I'm immersed.  Sure, I am tempted to stick it out.  Sure, running can feel like running away.  But, sitting in front of the computer screen for another hour wasn't going to produce anything useful.  Instead, running for an hour had all sorts of benefits.  [For a more authoritative list, I dug up this article from a running magazine: Why running is good for your body.]

As for me, here's what I got:
1. Pulverized calories and felt great from sweating them off.
2. As the muscles burned, I got a jolt of awesome hormones, like endorphin and dopamine.
3. More importantly, running freed my mind from what was bugging me. I felt grateful that I could run.
4. I am grateful to feel the breeze on my face.  I am grateful to see birds and trees.  I am grateful to breathe!
5. I thought about life beyond the computer screen. While I get stuck from time to time, life is more than staring at a screen.  Life is more than making a buck.  Life is more than getting ahead.
6. I felt grateful to be alive.  Sometimes, I feel frustrated that I'm not this or that, that I don't make this or that, that I'm not more, more, more.  But, hey!  Life is still pretty damn sweet.

And when I came back home, I was happy.  And I couldn't remember what was bugging me so much.  Life goes on.  Life is good.

If you are looking for other ideas on how to get out of a rut, checkout my post about going to hackathons here.

May 13, 2012

Hitting bottom & why kiva?

[this entry was written as an application for Kiva Fellows program 2012 ... which I did not make]

Last summer, I hit bottom.  It was ironic, because I should have been on top of the world.  I was graduating with a MBA degree from a top-tier business school.  I was earning six-figures.   I was going to marry a beautiful doctor.  And I was climbing a 12,000-foot Mt. Adams in the western US state of Washington. 

a pit stop on the way up to Mt. Adams - a beautiful day!
I summited Mt. Adams on a beautiful, blue, July day.  I climbed down, exhausted, but high with excitement from the climb.  I returned home to my gal.  She sat me down.  She was stern-faced.  And she said that she no longer loved me and could not be with me.  I was shocked.  No explanations.  In the subsequent days, I had to move out, was overcome with confusion, and felt completely abandoned.  I had moved 3,000 miles from North Carolina to Portland, Oregon to be with this gal.  And now what?  I had hit the bottom.  I lay on the floor, stared at the empty ceiling in a stuffy room, and thought to myself, “Okay, universe.  You win, I give up.”

And that’s when I realized I was nothing.  Yes, I have helped others before.  Yes, I have shared 100 Kiva loans (my profile page), and have participated in other peer lending programs.  Yes, I have supported social causes, so on and so forth, but because it seemed the proper thing to do.  After my personal suffering, I keenly felt others’ pain.  I ached with the brokenhearted.  I hungered with the hungry.  I mourned with those grieving a loss.  And I didn’t want to go through the same motions.  I gave up my well-paying, but soul-sucking job and moved from Portland to the Bay Area.  I wanted to create something new, something useful, something beautiful.  I knew those kinds of creators lived in the Bay Area.  I am seeking, and I want to help others as I journey along my path.  That is why I am applying to be a Kiva Fellow.  I had wanted to do so for a long time, but until now, I lacked the courage, the motivation.

I am applying for an Anglophone opportunity.  As I am new to this area, I would prefer a local fellowship – but I am flexible!  I would be interested in contributing to entrepreneurial causes and innovation efforts at Kiva.  For example, is there a way to disrupt the rates of pay-day lending?  How could we disrupt the chain of events that lead to huge gaps in financial literacy between one population and another within our own community?  Could Kiva build on financial lending platform to add other services and products to enhance the value of the offering?

"For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, until then may I too abide to dispel the misery of the world." These are beautiful words from Bodhisattva that have stayed with me through the years.  Or shall I cite the Christian teaching “love your neighbor as you love yourself?”  I see a tangible way of following those teachings in working as a Kiva Fellow.

Mar 21, 2012

How do we access our social media content?

Increasingly, mobile users accumulate and sit on top of large amounts of social media content. The content consists of comments and photos that individual users post, and the content that the user's friends or celebrities on the user's subscription list generate. But, how does the user make use of this information?

Suppose that you want to find a favorite restaurant among a local circle of friends. How would you find out?

On the business side, companies are beginning to monetize social media assets by furnishing tools to interface with the data.

What appearance will interfaces and interactions take on the consumer side?

Mar 18, 2012

What problem does instagram solve?

Thumb poll of popular apps by Anthony Ha. Ha used the Thumb app to crowdsource an answer to what apps are popular with the masses.

Instagram is at the top of that list. Is that surprising? A startup friend recently asked me what problem does Instagram solve.

I think Instagram delivers beauty. Beauty is a fundamental problem for human beings, but few companies address such a problem.

Increasingly, products with the highest value offering will be those that allow people to experience beauty, meaning, transformation, values which are not forefront when more mundane problems persist. But, as people increasingly cover the 'basic needs', demand for such abstract items will rise.

I think this is true of many millions who have their basic needs met, but do not have an outlet to escape the office drudgery or express themselves more fully.  More beautifully.

[update] Or just more cutely!

Cats are the rockstars of instagram
If you enjoyed this post, tag along for future posts on twitter @findinbay.

On social assets - reviewing Karma

A few days ago, I downloaded a new app called Karma. On the surface, it is an app that makes gift giving easier. Karma does this by taking your facebook data, and parsing words that suggest appropriate actions. For example, certain words suggest that your friend is having a tough time in life (family death) or is due for celebration (birthday). And Karma links these to ready-for-made gifts that you can send to your friend.

Peal back a layer, and you see that Karma is about connecting friends more easily and substantively beyond the means available through Facebook. Where Facebook connects by informing, Karma allows friends to connect more deeply through filtered info. Is that wise? The thing that sticks out most is ... why gifts? I'm not sure that the founders share a compelling answer.

However, I can see they have a great eye for design. I love the opening quote "only good things will follow."

See more info about this app and its founders in this interview by Techcrunch writer Colleen Taylor.