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Life TODO List: Teaching a Class

2012/08/03 1 comment

This week, I got to check off an item on my life to-do list. That feels pretty good.

I’ve always wanted to teach a class. A few weeks ago, following conversations with people in the Awesome Inc community, I decided to create a class called “Programming For Absolute Beginners”. This class offers an introduction to software development based on an excellent (and free) resource called Learn Python The Hard Way. We only announced the class internally (to our Tenants, Team Alpha, and the Experience teams at Awesome Inc) but still had 12 people sign up within 3 days. I was pretty surprised with the response; I thought it would be a struggle to find half that many people. And, following the first and second sessions of the 5.5 week course, both the students (and I) seem to be enjoying the process.

There are two reasons that I’m so excited that this course is able to take place:

I get joy in empowering other people.  Education is one great way to empower people. “The more you know,” right? I’ve actually approached the class as more of a facilitator than a teacher. With the varying skill levels of the “students” in the class, and the ability for anyone to move through the material at their own pace, everyone in the group has the ability to serve as a teacher. So, at a meta level, I’m not only teaching a group of people how to be programmers, but also teaching them how to programming teachers. In fact, based on how quickly several of the students took on the role of peer-teacher, I didn’t really have to “teach” them how to do this. I just gave them the opportunity to use their skills. And while this might be bad for my job security as a teacher, it’s great for expanding our ability to help more people. And if that means that more people like Therese, who wrote her first program ever last night, will feel this empowerment, then our time invested is totally worth it.

The world needs more makers. For a generation or so, the title of “skilled workers” has gotten a bad rap. It has become viewed as a subpar status, denoting people who have chosen non-university educational paths, or pursued non-white collar careers. The thing about most white collar jobs, however, is that they operate at a level of abstraction beyond actual productive work. If white collar workers stopped working, we’d lose the ability to account, litigate, and manage. If blue collar workers stopped working, no new stuff would come into existence. There would be no food, no clothes, no cars, and no music on the radio. Herein lies the magic of programming: it’s a white collar job (read: prestigious, well-paid), yet it’s also a blue collar job (programmers actually make things). At this particular point in history, our ability to solve many of the world’s problems is only inhibited by our ability to understand those problems, and our ability to turn the solution into working software. Hunger, energy, peace, communication, drugs, poverty. In solving any of these problems, the lowest-hanging fruit can be addressed through appropriate computer software. So, by helping a few more people become developers, we’re doing a small part to make the world a better place.

A final note on this is how easy it was to go from discussing the idea for a class, to deciding to do it, to starting it. This all happened within 2 weeks. The two major factors that made this so easy:

  1. Availability of course material. Thanks, Zed! (also, thanks in advance to iTunes U, Udacity, Coursera, and even Wikipedia)
  2. The power of the Awesome Inc community. I didn’t have to search for a physical space to host the class, or struggle to market to a critical mass of potential attendees.

Based on our initial results, we’ll be offering more of these courses in the future. If there’s anything you’d like to learn (or teach), leave me a note in the comments!

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User-friendly cities

2012/05/13 1 comment

What is a user-friendly city? We say that the iPhone is user-friendly, but what about Washington, D.C. or Madrid? The concept of designing from a user-centric perspective is common in the creation of web and mobile applications. There is a whole field of User Experience (UX) designers who take a holistic approach to optimizing the “system of systems” that make a product. A major focus of my company is helping people navigate unfamiliar indoor spaces, so I look at the world through this lens all the time. But who does user experience design for our cities? For whom are we designing? And even if an amazing design is created, how does it get implemented amidst the dynamic cultural, political, and economic flows of a city?

There are increasingly-many similarities between web and mobile applications and cities. Both often start as small endeavors, experiments cobbled together out of necessity or a dream of a better way. Sometimes they stick, attracting citizens and snowballing. Sometimes they die, fading into just another line in a history book (or Wikipedia entry). Sometimes, they turn into something entirely unintended by their founders:

  • SF: Spanish mission to gold rush boom town to silicon valley.
  • Shenzhen: fishing village to financial center.
  • Burbn: HTML5 location-based service becomes top photo-sharing app.
  • MS Excel: intended for financial calculations, actually (ab)used for: lightweight databases, recording OSHA notes, list of b-day party invites

So, why do we have cities? What are they intended to do? Most cities are concentrations of economic and social activity collected under some form of governance, and many provide “systems for sanitation, utilities, land usage, housing, and transportation“. From this, we can derive that the intended users for cities are people (Note: while this may seem obvious to us, Douglas Adams asserts that an outside observer may be mistaken). But even if we can agree that cities are designed for use by people, who are these particular people? Are they permanent residents or temporary visitors? Are they old or young? What languages do they speak? What type of education do they have? Do they like Bluegrass music?

A major challenge for both cities and software is making changes amidst a large-scale deployment. Like a large enterprise application, cities have a lot of legacy features that must be supported, and a very broad user-base. It’s not easy to rebuild from scratch, without incurring a major service interruption, or alienating a significant group of users. While the existence of software is relatively new, cities have been around for much of human history. For most places, it’s likely that the original city founders are now dead. Even if they were alive, society has changed so much that the founders wouldn’t understand today’s version of their city even if they found a way to exist in it. Even for current residents, making drastic changes is painful. Consider how young Facebook is, but how much its users complain when the service gets a new feature (or kills an old one). What if we re-routed a major highway around a city? What if taxes disappeared…or doubled? What if food trucks show up? What if we un-bury a river through downtown?

My hope for improving the user experience of cities lies on making small changes, rather than big ones. The pilot projects that Janette Sadik-Khan and Mayor Blumberg run in NYC seem very similar to the iteration and experiments advocated by Eric Ries’ Lean Startup movement. I’m also curious to observe a few technologists try their hands at designing cities, as the new Apple campus comes to fruition, designed in part by the late Steve Jobs. Online shoe mogul Tony Hsieh is knee-deep in recreating downtown Las Vegas, taking a gamble that he can transform a part of Sin City into a self-contained oasis for Zappos and its creative class friends.

I’m excited to be part of OpenLexington, a group of volunteers who work on open-data projects in Lexington, KY. Right now, I wouldn’t rate our city as very user-friendly. The roads are organized in an uncommon way, to get things done you often have to “know someone“, and our tight-knit social circles make it difficult for outsiders (eg UK graduate students) to integrate. With OpenLexington, we have the opportunity to greatly improve the UX of the relatively new digital infrastructure that co-exists with our city’s much older physical infrastructure. We’re starting with some small projects, like making it easier to find bicycle parking around town, and creating a web-accessible version of local restaurant health ratings. But someday, as our small actions accumulate, perhaps we can have a big impact, like making it easier for relocating families to feel at home in Lexington, or breaking down the artificial borders among our diverse population. Groups like us around the world are always looking for help, so if you grok this stuff, join in!

What matters to you most, and why?

2011/08/16 16 comments

The title of this post is also the first question posed to students applying to the Stanford Graduate School of Business. This question almost seems almost too personal for an MBA program, but then again, the GSB isn’t any ordinary MBA program. I was one of the lucky students who made it through that rigorous application process, and even survived 96% of my 2-year deferral period. But last week, I decided to decline Stanford’s offer of admission for the MBA class of 2013 in order to keep leading my startup company, AwesomeTouch. For those of you who I haven’t already talked with in person, I’d like to explain why.

If you’re looking for the short version, here it is:

  1. I discovered that I don’t need an MBA to run a company.
  2. I love what I’m doing right now, and who I’m working with.

OK, now for the longer version. If you don’t know the full story of why I was going to Stanford in the first place, I’ll start with a recap. I spent most of my life wanting to be an engineer, which led me to engineering school. While I was there, I lead a student team where we designed and raced solar-powered cars. While doing that, I realized that I just liked being around engineers, not necessarily being one. I had heard that combining an engineering degree with an MBA was a good way to do this, and my dad has an MBA, so I applied to the program at my university.

This was when my friend Luke told me that an MBA wasn’t really about the classes, it was about meeting people, and that staying at my alma mater wouldn’t get me that many new connections. He suggested I try some top-tier schools, like Harvard or Stanford. Since I hadn’t heard of any others (yeah, I was that naive), I applied to both. I’m really good at standardized tests (which would be a useless skill if our educational system wasn’t so messed up), so I rocked the GMAT. With a few awesome letters of recommendation from peers, bosses, and professors, I got into both. I visited Harvard, but ruled it out. Ivy League seemed too stuffy for me. So, Stanford, here I come.

But not so fast. Wanting some business context before I started the MBA program, I checked the little box on the application that said “2-year deferral”. This meant I was accepted as of May 2009, but I wouldn’t start the program until September of 2011. During those 2 years, I was expected to “work full-time to gain relevant experience.” I had heard about a thing called “entrepreneurship”, but didn’t know what it was. So, I asked Lee Todd, the president of my university and an engineer-turned-entrepreneur, and he suggested I check out the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation. I spent my first 6 months as an intern doing due diligence for KSTC’s venture finance group. It was like candy for my brain. I got to meet a dozen new entrepreneurs every week, and spent my time researching the technology and market factors that they claimed would make their business successful. I was learning so much! But after a few months, I realized that I was sitting on the wrong side of the table. I didn’t want to watch entrepreneurs, I wanted to be one.

My same friend Luke who introduced me to Stanford’s MBA program also introduced me to his business incubator program, called Awesome Inc. Luke, my friend Brian, and a few others were entrepreneurs who liked helping other entrepreneurs get started. They recruited me to run this part of Awesome Inc they called Labs. It sounded really cool, but I didn’t really know what it was (and neither did they). Eventually, we found out that Labs could work as a conduit between the business world and the engineering school I had just graduated from. Lots of smart kids do amazing projects, but they get shoved in a drawer at the end of the semester. We started off by working with the senior design programs, and helping students to turn their projects into products. AwesomeTouch was our first success. It was actually born out of 3 projects, one of which was the mapping technology we use today. In the beginning, we had no idea whether it would survive or not. But for the past year, it has been a little flame that we just can’t snuff out. It keeps finding new fuel and growing larger.

Through this process, I realized that I didn’t need an MBA to start a company. It felt like it just kind of happened. Well, in reality, I had a lot of mentors. In the business world, mentors are like professors, except we don’t even pretend that we can repay them for all the value they provide to us. Some of my mentors were personal acquaintances, while others were just random startup veterans sharing their thoughts on their blogs. But all combined to deliver a very clear message: if you want to learn how to run a business, the best way to do so is to run a business.

Even with this well-supported conclusion, my heart was set on Stanford. If the picturesque campus hadn’t sold me at first glance, I would have been hooked by the location in the heart of Silicon Valley, the amazing peers I met during admit weekend, and the incredible allure for a competitive type-A like me to get to introduce myself as a graduate of the most selective MBA program in the world. However, after 2 years of planning my life around Stanford, I decided to walk away. But, most importantly, I wasn’t parting on some idle whim. I had found a more attractive direction, and this one had a shelf life.

In the spring, AwesomeTouch applied to a startup accelerator program called Betaspring. After a few rounds of interviews, and rejections from other programs, we got in. Huge honor, huge surprise. I had been reading for 2 years that these “startup bootcamps” were the new alternative to MBA programs for entrepreneurs. Here was my chance to have my cake and eat it too. I planned to attend Betaspring with our team, but use it to transition myself out and head for the MBA program at the end of the summer. The problem was, I fell in love. Our enterprise touchscreen software company became an indoor wayfinding company. This all of a sudden was Human Transportation, my passion (you can read about it here). After seeing that a startup accelerator program could deliver on its promise of awesome mentors (like Ben, Sean, Brad, Angus, Josh, Charlie, and Jonathan) as well as connections to investors and customers, I realized that I had found a shortcut to all the connections that I wanted to make through the MBA program. So, if my primary reasons to go to Stanford were (1) learn how to start a business and (2) make the connections necessary for it to be successful, then I no longer had a reason to go.

The first week of August, I began throwing this idea around with Brian. I had convinced him to be my replacement as CEO of AwesomeTouch, and the transition had already begun (per our website and LinkedIn profiles). I sought some advice from other entrepreneurs, admits and GSB alumni, and they suggested I try to defer one more year. In the early stage, startups are crazy. Maybe it would be more stable in a year. I emailed the GSB’s admissions staff to explain my story, and got a call back from Derrick Bolton, the admissions director. While Derrick is sometimes portrayed as the GSB’s gatekeeper, my experience lends to a different theory: he’s the designer. When going through the admissions process, I never felt like I was a faceless number, or a hacker trying to crack the code and break through the door. I felt like I was selected, like the missing piece of some unfinished puzzle. When Derrick called me, I asked about extending my deferral. Wisely, he suggested that I reflect not on when I wanted to go to business school, but if I really wanted to go. The extended deferral was not an option. I reflected some more, and concluded that for my prescribed reasons, it was no longer a logical decision. In spite of how amazing the opportunity was, I knew that I must I turn down my offer of admission to the GSB.

Since it prompted me to turn down Stanford, somewhere in here I should tell you about the crazy awesome stuff we’re doing with AwesomeTouch. Here’s the short of it: we’ve found a way make giant touchscreens affordable, so more places will have our maps, and you’ll never have to get lost inside an airport, hospital, shopping mall or college campus ever again. That’s pretty cool. But what’s more important is that we’ve found a scalable way to create maps for inside buildings. This may seem like a small step, but if you look at Google Maps, you’ll notice that for all the outdoor roads they’ve collected, they don’t have any maps of indoor hallways. We humans spend 80% of our time indoors, so there’s a lot that Google is missing. We’re calling this project BuildingLayer, and someday it’s going to power the world’s best indoor location-based services.

So, you might be wondering what my Stanford application essay claimed “matters to me most”. My answer was my family. They have been the only constant in my nomadic life, and are consistently a source of inspiration. Both my grandfathers are entrepreneurs, and I recently learned the full story of my grandfather Jim’s career choice. You see, he was a smart kid, too. He spent his whole live preparing to go to a prestigious engineering school. Just before he was to start, he realized that this degree path would train him to sit at a desk and make calculations all day long. He instead opted for the hands-on approach and became a plumber’s apprentice. I, too, have chosen the hands-on approach, and I’m excited to see where it takes the family we’ve formed at AwesomeTouch.

PS: If you’re in a similar situation (startup or b-school?), and need some additional reading, start with these:

Steve Blank – Entrepreneurial Finishing School
Vivek Wadhwa – Is an MBA a Plus or a Minus in the Startup World?
Charles Huang – The blue pill or red pill: Start-up life or an MBA?
Brian Scordato – Don’t be a hippo (be yourself)
And for kicks, help Mike Moradian decide if he should go to HBS or work on CampusBuddy

Midnight MTB

2010/08/22 Leave a comment


It has been a few years since I’ve tried night mountain biking. According SnowBikers, I am on step 3 of the night riding process. To GTFM for this post, I cheaped out by building a DIY light instead of spending $100 for a decent one, and paid for it with a really poor ability to see in the dark. My battery (brand new, undercharged) was dead within 30 minutes, and the faint yellow glow that it emitted was easily drowned out by the Waxing Gibbous perched in the clear sky. Fortunately, those 30 minutes on Skullbuster were a lot of fun.

Following my headlamp failure, I did what any good engineer would do: came home, trickle charged the battery to about 14V, and then started a discharge test. Here are the results:

My discharge curve looks very typical for a NiMH-based battery pack. Steep initial voltage drop, voltage plateau across most of the discharge capacity, then another steep drop at the end. There’s a pretty good writeup on NiMH on Wikipedia. From this test, it appears that I had not quite reached a full charge before I began discharging. At 12V, a 10W lamp should be drawing about 0.83A. From a 2000mAh (or 2Ah) battery, I should get ~2 hours of discharge. However, I hit the second voltage drop on the discharge curve before 1.5 hours. Some thoughts on this: I’m charging at 0.5A (about C/4 for a 2.0Ah battery), so I’m likely out of the range for the most appropriate manual charge. Additionally, I have now discharged the battery past the lower discharge inflection point twice, so that might be lowering the actual capacity. This most likely explanation is that I have not yet fully charged the battery. At a 66% charging efficiency, the 0.5A charge should take about 6 hours. I’ll try to be a little more patient before my next discharge test 😉

For you spec-hungry readers, here is what I’m working with:

MR16 Lamp: 12V, 10W, narrow flood pattern (from Harrington Lights – $2.60)

12V NiMH battery pack: n=10 cells, AA-size, 2000 mAh (from Batteries Plus – but comparable prices at Battery Space on NiMH and LiFePO4)

Tamiya connectors (for 9.6V RC Car battery): $4

And for you historians, here’s my 5-year-old description of this same project.

Overall conclusion from this experience: I wasted a bunch of time building this project and still don’t have a really good light. Next time, just buy a MagicShine from GeoManGear.

Categories: Bicycles, Engineering

Gmail UI Updated

2010/08/11 Leave a comment
gmail updated ui

Ooh, pretty!

Looks like the friendly folks at Google released a UI update for Gmail to go along with some updates to the contact feature. Details: http://news.cnet.com/8301-27076_3-20013203-248.html

Categories: Web Tech Tags: , ,

Why I Hate Cars #2: Wasted time

2010/06/21 2 comments

Automobiles in a traffic jam on a highway

Life is not static, it is in motion. That is why I chose to become a mechanical engineer. I really like stuff that moves. I am going to ride my mechanical bicycle home shortly. While doing so, my lungs will exchange oxygen with the atmosphere and my heart will move blood throughout my body through pressure differentials. My great mission in life is to improve the way people move about the world. Just like horses, carriages, and steam engines, cars have seen their time come, and now it is quickly departing. With the advent of ‘internet everywhere‘, my commute is no longer about getting to where I am going so that I can start work. I can start work on the way. Heck, for must stuff I don’t even need to be in a communal, or even static, location. The downfall of the reliance on personal automobiles in suburban America, however, is that I cannot safely and legally do my work (or have my fun, for that matter) while transporting myself. My time in the car is lost time, and soon others will realize that their commutes are nothing but a frustrating waste of their most valuable resource.

My friend and roommate Phillip realizes how valuable his time is. But he is stuck in a rut when it comes to finding a good alternative to his commute. In July, Phillip will marry his high-school sweetheart and move to Louisville, where his fiancée has a nice job as an actuary. The problem, however, is that Phildo is just starting the second year of his PhD program in Materials Science and Engineering…in Lexington. Each day, he will give up three hours of his productive time in order to move his body from Louisville to Lexington and back. While PhD’s are sometimes mocked for viewing their bodies solely as transport mechanisms for their brains, these intellectuals are a vital part of our society. Without people like Phillip who push the boundaries of modern science and technology, America would not be the country that it is today. This is why I am so bothered that Phillip’s only viable option to commute between Kentucky’s two largest cities is to drive his personal automobile. How will America reclaim its title as the world’s economic superpower when our brightest citizens must trade several hours each day of productive life for a monotonous stint behind a steering wheel?

This is a the problem I want to solve in my lifetime.

Two New Media events at Awesome Inc

2010/02/26 1 comment

This week, Awesome Inc has enjoyed being the host venue for two events that experiment with new, digital approaches to old concepts: politics and games. These are deeply ingrained traditions that affect how we as a society make decisions, and how we interact with other human beings in structured, competitive environments.

It’s been interesting seeing a variety of generations interacting with each other, and creating/sharing content via their smartphones and MacBooks. Next step: integrate stuff like this into the educational system. With ready access to free blogs and video posting, why are students still writing papers and delivering presentations that are only seen by teachers/professors and ultimately buried in a desk drawer? Post it online!

Nextington 3: Digital Democracy

Moderator: Prof. Kakie Urch of the School of Journalism and Telecommunications.

The first forum featuring all four 2010 candidates for Lexington mayor will be from 6-8 p.m. Wed. Feb. 24 at Awesome Inc. on Main Street, a technology incubator in downtown Lexington.

The forum, subtitled “Digital Democracy,” will be online in real-time in several formats, with bloggers as part of the panel.

The forum is sponsored by the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky.

About 60 people will attend the forum in person, but voters all across Lexington and beyond can participate in the digital aspect of the forum on Twitter, Cover It Live, UStream and local blogs.

Herald-Leader: Some Agreement, Some Friction, No Dancing at Lexington Mayoral Forum

IdeaFestival: Collective Intelligence / Game Design Workshop

Workshop Leader: Greg Niemeyer and Ozge Samanci, UC Berkeley Center for New Media

Participants will discuss the design, dynamics and potential of Collective Intelligence (CI) Alternate Reality (AR) games. Following this, participants will play a game or participate in the game as Non-Playable-Characters (NPC’s).

The hopeful collective resolution of the game will lead players and NPC’s to lunch, where all participants will discuss their play experience, review play statistics and share what they learned. In a final session, players will discuss how they would modify the game to help their audiences address specific issues.

At the end, participants will know if and how a CI/RA game can help them solve particular change, communication and education goals.