Sunday, December 30, 2012


“Impact” is a key term used by both startups and big companies to attract talent. Both claim that joining them would be the best way to “changing the world”. But “impact” and “changing the world” can mean two very different things: setting direction, or creating value.

In a startup, you have heavy influence on the direction of the company and thus how society as a whole allocates resources. If you’re the founder or the CEO, the idea is yours and you’re setting the direction. However, the amount of actual value created per person is not yet certain.

In a large, established company, the company’s activity is known to be something with a high yield, one that creates a lot of value for society. As an employee, while you did not set the direction, you’re doing something that guarantees the creation of value.

Both of these influence the world. The former is important because it can further society in new and previously unthought of ways, even though there is little guarantee of success. The latter is important because it is where value is actually created, even though there is little room for innovation.

So who is changing the world more? The Microsoft or Google employee whose code is routinely rolled out to hundreds of millions of people, or the founders of startups creating new and exciting yet-to-be-released products?

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Goals vs. Resources

Should you define your goals based on the resources available to you, or find the resources for the goals that you choose?

That's what I think book So Good They Can't Ignore You really boils down to. More often than not, successful people got to where they are by taking full advantage of the resources that are available to them. They did not choose a goal blindly, without having access to the resources to support it. Instead, they let their goals be influenced by what is available around them.

If you're equally interested in two fields, and have more resources, connections, and skills in one of the two, then it's obvious which one to pursue. But what if you're more interested in the one with less resources? No resources? Wouldn't your passion guide you through?

Perhaps, but the odds are against you. The sad thing about all the success stories we hear where "passion" won out is that we don't know how many people failed doing the exact same thing. Failures don't make a good story, so it doesn't get talked about.

Then again, "success" can mean different things to different people.

End of Entry

Friday, December 7, 2012

Startup Girl Survival Guide

This is a guest post I wrote for VeloCity's guest blog. When Kim asked me to write about being a startup girl back in September, I wasn't awfully thrilled about the idea. There were many of themes that I was only beginning to come to term with, so it look a lot of thinking. By far this was the hardest blog posts I've ever written. (Yes, even harder than the blog post about Galois Theory.) You can also read the post at, and check out my startup Polychart when you're done! Enjoy!

It feels like I’m doing a disservice talking about being a startup girl. True, I’m one of the few female technical founders in the VeloCity program, and as a pure & applied math grad, a programmer, data scientist, entrepreneur and a go player, there are many facets of my life where I’ve felt a distinct lack of the double-x chromosome. Despite all of that, I was fortunate to have a very supportive (and female) programming teacher in high school, and really awesome co-op and VeloCity mentors. They helped me make it through without feeling like a startup girl is all that different from any other startup founders.

But are we really that different? We face the same challenges as anyone else, balancing between getting the product out, talking to users, innovating, shipping, selling, building, and marketing. We go through the same emotional roller coaster ride as everyone else.

I don’t think that we are really different. I do think, though, that there are challenges we face that our male counterparts do not. That’s what this guide is about, advice from one startup girl to another.

1. Be confident. Confidence is crucial for all startup founders, and especially key when you could be mistaken for the secretary or the supportive girlfriend who’s helping out her co-founder boyfriend. It should be your priority to take the lead to introduce yourself, and to take a more assertive role in conversations. Confidence building is very personal, but there are tools out there that can help, rejection therapy being a great one (that I haven’t, but should have, finished). Understanding the imposter syndrome helped me a lot personally.

2. Build a Reputation. Just by having a female name, women are perceived to be less competent. How, then, can we build trust and make sure we are heard? One solution for this is to build a reputation by being outspoken about your work. Keeping a blog is a great way of doing that. Writing about projects you’re working on, sharing insights, and contributing to the community gives people a chance to understand what you’re capable of. It also gives a chance for people you meet to do “background checks” on you, and see the best of your talents.

3. Find Mentors. Lack of mentors is a frequent complaint from women in technology. Entire blog posts have been written about why this is the case, and the most interesting one hypothesizes the following: older and more experienced men don’t want to be seen as the “dirty old man” that is helping a young woman for a less than altruistic reason. This is a difficult stereotype to overcome. One way around it is to join a program with a mentorship component. VeloCity is one, as are other incubators and accelerators.

4. Find Peers. I don’t necessarily mean being in a community of other startup girls, but I do find it important to be amongst peers — people who are in similar positions, with whom there is mutual respect. This should happen naturally as you gravitate towards people with similar interests, but in a male dominated industry, groups can be difficult to break into. Like in any situation, confidence is key. The culture of the group may change because you’re a female, but let your confidence and actions speak for themselves. As with all social groups there are always challenges to entry, look at this as an opportunity, not a problem.

5. Affirmative Action. There, I said the “A” words. I used to get very worked up about affirmative action and how unfair it is to men, and even pondered whether my team won the VVF because I am a startup girl. Not any more. While affirmative action programs are right in our faces, the subtle ways we are discouraged are not. It’s a fair compensation.

6. Don’t think about being a startup girl. If you look for discrimination, you’ll find it everywhere. As a startup girl, you’re better off spending the emotional energy on the startup itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that as a society, we need to understand and eliminate the extra barriers that prevent startup girls from succeeding. There are a number of characteristics that women must have that men don’t need to be successful in this business, and it’s not fair. For now though, I think the best way for women to be successful is to be confident, be relentless, and break through those barriers.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Don't follow your passion

Cal Newport argues in his book, So Good They Can't Ignore You, that "follow your passion" might just be terrible advice. This is a much needed challenge to the typical North American "you can do whatever you put your mind to" philosophy. While Newport's tone is not at all pessimistic, it's hard not to be reminded of this comic:

No one in their right mind (at least in North America) would tell a kid that they can't be what they want to be. This optimism can be healthy and can encourage innovation, but can also trivialize the amount of hard work required to build any kind of great career. Great careers are rare and in order to have one, one must have skills that are equally rare and valuable. These skills take many years to develop.

Newport studies people who are passionate about what they're doing, to find out how they got there. For one, these people took little steps (as opposed to big ones) to get to where they are. They focused on gaining valuable skills at each step, and when their abilities outgrew their current job, they took the next logical step.

These people did not identify a passion and follow it. Newport believes that focusing on passion is harmful. He believes it convinces people that there is a magic "right" job waiting for them somewhere, and the moment they find it they'll recognize it. In reality, this kind of certainty is rare, and questions like "Is this who I really am?" and "Do I love this?" rarely reduce to a clear yes-or-no response.

Among the many suggestions he makes, one that stood out was to try different projects, each one not taking more than a couple of months, and see how you and the world feel about them. This feels like the start of a "lean career" movement: try a lot of different projects, see what works and what doesn't, and iterate. He also suggest that perhaps it's not so much about what you do, but about how you do it and the attitude you take. I certainly know people who seem to enjoy everything they do, and do it all with an intensity that makes you think that this is their life passion.

So Good They Can't Ignore You is a book with some refreshing ideas: ones that finally put more emphasis on skills and hard work, and less on passion and dreams.

PS: Sivers has a great set of notes for this book that covers the main points (and is also more concise than the book itself).

End of Entry

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Best for the company

A while ago I heard of someone saying something to the effect of this,
I don't believe that the decision to do X would benefit anyone, but it's the best for the company.
No matter what Romney says, corporations are not people. Corporations do not have values or desires the same way people do. When we say "Y is the best decision for the company", it is ambiguous whether we mean Y is the best thing for its employees, its customers, its investors, or its other stakeholders.

Maybe this ambiguity is intentional. Maybe we ourselves are confused. Or maybe we are too afraid to acknowledge who we're really trying to benefit at everyone else’s expense.

End of Entry

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why women may be thought of as bad programmers

I got my first tech-related internship back in the summer of 2009. The position was a very competitive one with a company in the heart of San Francisco. While I was ecstatic, I was also confused.

I hadn’t done very well on the interview. I screwed up the first question about dropping two eggs from a 100-story building (couldn’t get away from thinking binary search), and messed up a different question about the number of bits required to store some large number (mixed up “bits” and “bytes” and tried to calculated log_2 in my head, only to get it wrong).

Nor did I have much experience. I had barely heard of a version control system, had never really gotten accustomed to the command prompt, and hadn’t even written a single line of production code (well... beyond my silly tournament signup page, which refused to let you sign up if you had an underscore in your email).

Needless to say I probably left very bad first impressions on my coworkers. I was the silly little girl asking questions like, “What was that command you use to get into that other machine?”

So, here’s the hypothesis: companies want to hire more female programmers, either because they are constantly accused of being sexist or because they actually value having a gender-balanced team. So they lower the hiring bar for women, and end up letting in people who may not be as experienced. The rest of the team only sees that a woman was hired and she has very little experience as a programmer, and concludes that women are bad programmers.

End of Entry

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Value of Re-Posts

Prior to 2009 all of the posts here were written for my own pleasure. I didn't consider writing for a wider audience to be worthwhile, because there were already a surplus of mediocre bloggers and z-list blogs. If there was something I could think of to say, it was probably already said in much more eloquent words by a more accomplished person. Would I be adding any value by just saying the same things in different words?

Then in late 2010, there was a discussion about a biologist who published a paper in 1994 reinventing the trapezoid rule in calculus. While it points to a serious flaw in the peer-review system, John D. Cook had this to say,
The paper reinventing the trapezoid rule has been cited 75 times. It must have filled a need. Yes, the author was ignorant of basic calculus. But apparently a lot of other doctors are just as ignorant of calculus. The author did the medical profession a service by pointing out a simple way to estimate the area under a glucose-response curve. The technique was not original, and should not have been published as original research, but it was valuable.
The message contained in a blog post is not the only factor that determines its worth. What matters more is how much the message is spread and how it affects its readers. This is true for other communication mediums. The endless retweets, reposts, etc. does serve the value of making an idea reach more people.

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Monday, July 2, 2012

Startups vs passion

One thing I dislike about the startup world is that we sometimes take the word "startup" to be synonymous with doing what one loves and pursuing one's passion. Founders talk about how their love and passion are the reasons why they started a startup, and the rest of the world concludes that anyone who is not doing a startup is not doing what they love.

It is true that a lot of love and passion needs to be poured into a startup. As Steve Jobs puts it, "because [doing a startup] is so hard, that if you don't [have the passion], any rational person will give up."

What's not true is that startups are the one and only way to pursue one's passion. By definition a startup's purpose is to find a repeatable and scalable business model. If you don't want to find a repeatable and scalable business model, you don't want to do a startup.

Instead, your passion may involve a business model that is not scalable or not repeatable. It might not be a business at all. Perhaps your passion can be better packaged as one of the following:

  • open source project
  • consulting firm
  • blog
  • lifestyle business
  • non-profit
  • vacation
  • academia
  • etc...

The nice thing about startups is that there are fair amounts of resources and support systems around building them. How do you know if a startup is right for you? Instead of saying "I want to do a startup in X", say "I want to find a repeatable and scalable business model in X", and see if it makes you wince.

End of Entry

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Ikea shopping and λ-calculus

Yesterday I was at Ikea with a friend of mine (whose startup, Flockwire, has desks right beside mine), picking furniture for my first ever unfurnished apartment.

I was spending way too much time trying to pick the right shower curtain, when two thoughts simultaneously crossed my mind.

The first was a recent story I heard about why Alonzo Church picked the greek letter λ for his calculus. It is from Dana Scott's talk in the Turing Award webcast,
...but many years later I asked John Addison, Church's son-in-law if he would ask Church where the lambda came from. So he wrote him a post card [...] "Dear Prof Church, Russell had the iota operator, Hilbert had the epsilon operator, why in the world did you choose lambda for your operator?" So Church didn't write a letter, he just annotated the post card and sent it back, and he put in the margins, "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe."
The second was the following clip from Fight Club,

On one hand, a shower curtain is a shower curtain. There is really no difference between two shower curtains of a similar quality, just as the letter λ is no better or worse than any other greek letter. On the other hand, whichever shower curtain I pick will be sharing my bathroom for at least a year, so as silly as it sounds, I did want to choose one that "defined me as a person".

It's funny to imagine Church asking the question, "which greek letter best defines me as a person?" The letter Church chose is now attached to his name -- not for one year, not for two years, but indefinitely.

I ended up choosing the curtain by bringing two to checkout, and making the final decision under time pressure. It was much easier that way.

(It feels so strange, even blasphemous, comparing λ-calculus to my shower curtain.)

End of Entry

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Microsoft and Income Distribution

Last year Forbes published an article titled "9.2% Unemployment? Blame Microsoft." The premise was the following:
Over the past twenty years, the technology industry, led by companies like Microsoft, have given us  powerful databases, operating systems, networks and software applications that have made it easier for us to accomplish more tasks than we did before with less people.   And it’s not just Microsoft who you can blame.
The article included the following graphic, which shows that despite a decrease in manufacturing jobs, manufacturing output has risen from 2000 until the 2008 crisis.

It shouldn't be surprising that we're becoming more and more efficient, and that there are fewer unskilled job options available. The question is, with US unemployment rate at about 8%, and 12 million americans unemployed, (and Canada only doing slightly better,) is this increased technological efficiency part of the root of our current economic situation? What if these people just aren't needed in any modern economy, healthy or not? What if we just don't need many people to work to support everyone?

I have one group of friends who are complaining about the economy, and another group of friends who studied one of the STEM fields and have many competing offers for six-figure salaries right out of school. By and large the first group would balk at hearing something about executives being paid millions of dollars to lead a company to lose money, about the University of Waterloo President's $500,000 2011 salary, and heck, even about how much Facebook interns make.

But what if it really is demand and supply? What if, because of technological advancement and other factors, these CEO's skills and work are more valuable than 100 or even 1000 workers? What would it do to society if a quarter of the population (plus some robots) can produce more than enough for the rest of the world to consume? What, then, would be a "fair" way to distribute income that would take advantage of this surplus?

End of Entry

Friday, June 29, 2012

Who you know vs. what you know

Back in high school, people told me that in real life, success will be determined more by who you know and less by what you know.

I think that these people have been correct in that success is largely determined by who you know. But they failed to mention that who you know in turn depends on what you know. What you know, what you learn, what you do and how interesting your projects are determines how interesting you are as a person, and whether someone might want to get to know you.

So the moral of the story is: to meet interesting people, do interesting things.

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Small decisions

We normally think that big decisions are what makes the biggest impact on our lives. We thus spend a lot of time deciding where school to go to, which job offer to take, and where to live. These decisions are so-called "big decisions" because they end up affecting a sizeable chunk of our lives for a large period of time in somewhat predictable ways.

Small decisions are rarely thought about. These are decisions like whether to send that email now or in an hour, whether to ask to present your findings in tomorrow's meeting or next week's, and whether you follow up with someone you met last night or put it off.

There's only a small chance that any single small decision would affect much of anything. Most of the time, the email receives no response, the presentation is uneventful, and no useful lead comes up. But because we face these small decisions on a regular basis, sheer number of these events mean that there is still a lot to be gained from being just a little more proactive.

I found that reaching out just a little bit further on a regular basis makes it more likely for those one-off "lucky" events to happen: a blog post goes viral, a grant is received, a new friend gained. In fact many of the wonderful things in my life happened by making a small decision that required being a little bit out of my comfort zone.

So in the end, which school you go to, which job offer you take and where to live might affect your life much less that what you do there, which opportunities you seek and how much you push yourself.

End of Entry

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Reading and Writing

It is quite unfortunate that English teachers are the ones who teach young children about the importance of reading. The only things I ever saw English teachers read were novels, and I found it difficult to believe that reading novels is that important.

Fast forward a couple of years, almost everything I learn is from books, blog posts, or other forms of written media. Reading has been the easiest way to get inside the best minds.

Since I've founded the data visualization startup Polychart, I've been spending a considerable amount of time learning enough business-ish concepts to get by. Books I've recently enjoyed include:
  • The Lean Startup by Eric Ries: a book that everyone in the startup world talks about and references. The case studies included are interesting.
  • The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman: a really dense book about many aspects of business; claims to contain all the fundamental principles taught in an MBA program.
  • The Art of Profitability by Adrian Slywotzky: thoughts about profitability in an almost novel-like format. It's hard not to read many chapters in one sitting, even though you're not supposed to.
  • Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod: fun read but really only learned one thing from it, which is to separate one's work from one's hobby. This goes against the conventional wisdom that you should follow your passions and make it your career.
  • Purple Cow by Seth Godin: again a fun read but it seems like the ideas in this book are already well-received enough that they are no longer surprising.
  • Don't Just Roll The Dice by Neil Davidson: a short read on software pricing. Page 37 onwards contain a lot of not-so-obvious psychological nuances about how people react to pricing. There is also a free PDF version.
It is also quite amazing how much time I'm spending writing. I spend maybe 10-20% of my time on email, and at least 30% of my time writing. This includes writing things like documentations, blog posts, emails, and other necessary documents.

So if you're still in grade school, don't neglect to practise reading and writing.

End of Entry

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Pure and applied math

I had several questions about my majoring in pure math and applied math. To people not acquainted with the different branches of mathematics, this is the picture they have in mind:

Here, pure math is thought to be the kind of math that has no foreseeable application, and applied math consists of everything else. Fortunately (for me), the actual picture looks more like this:

Applied math is about modelling systems (e.g. physical systems) using calculus and tools derived from calculus. Pure math can be thought of as a combination of two sub-fields: algebra and analysis. Algebra deals with properties of sets objects that can be operated on (i.e. added/subtracted/composed), and analysis provides a rigorous basis for calculus (i.e. a lot of epsilon-delta proofs). Since applied math relies on calculus, analysis is a topic of interest to applied mathematicians as well. Thus pure and applied math intersects. 

A lot of times, we consider other branches of math that are "applied" as their own branches. In that case, the picture looks more like this:
Computer science uses many ideas from pure math, and some computer science theorems and proofs read like theorems and proofs from algebra. Machine learning, a computer science discipline, is really just another name for statistical learning. There are other topics in mathematics, but I don't know about them enough to come up with a full taxonomy.

Moral of the story is: pure math and applied math do intersect. In fact, if you pick any two branches of math, there is probably an overlap.

End of Entry

Monday, January 16, 2012


It's pretty awesome to see ordinary people speak up for the Internet to prevent the passage of SOPA. The whole "black-out" campaigns and boycotts were quite nicely played out. It reminds me of a year ago when telecom companies in Canada tried to introduce Usage Based Billing to charge Canadians more for internet use, and squeeze out independent ISP's. Canadians won in a similar manner: by making their voices heard on the internet.

Yes this is great, but there's something unsettling as well. All this activism to stop the politicians from mingling around with the beloved Internet, and dead silence on NDAA, which allows indefinite detention without trial to be codified into law. Rights and freedoms? Sure, take them! But god help you if you try to charge more for Internet.

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