Wednesday, 31 July 2013

What is more important

Just recovered from last weekend's hackathon in Blk71. It was a nice one, except that our team didn't get the top prize.

Honestly, we are among the most hardworking teams and we delivered a cool app. That's great. Though it is the process that matters the most, the team still feel quite down when the result doesn't fit our expectation. The less hardworking teams actually made it, not because their apps are cooler, but that they used the apis provided by the sponsors. However, our app will probably be further polished to fit the real market whereas most other teams will not move on. That's a quite big difference.

The idea first came when Jerry(the project manager) and I met in a hotpot restaurant in Beijing two months ago. It's a travel app which records the friends' location when they post images and generates travel history summery.  Two of my juniors, Zeyu and Cui wei are very interested to join, thus we form a team to make the app out. Jerry himself is good at product growth and promotion. He also recruited two very talented designers which are great assets in his company. The company is now under a painful transaction state from mainly making social web apps to mobile apps. Socialisation is still the key value for the company. It is good that he already found the way to make money from his small apps(kind of social advertising). But the future is so uncertain that he needs to try on different ways to move the company forward.

To me, making something usable is an important factor. However, when I look back to my previous decisions, to create long-term value seems to be a more important perspective in my value system. If you made a very popular app today, but the app cannot add value to itself and quickly died within a few days(months), that's not a long term career. It's just a way to feed the company with short-term cash flows.  Some people say that one needs to feed himself before pursuing for bigger dreams. However, I recently find the saying not really that valid. Being an idealist and a practiser at the same time is possible, just that it is sometimes quite painful.

For instance, I find the wanmen university a long term career. However,  as a NGO, it can hardly support itself financially. The founder is an idealist. He quitted his PHD study in ETH and came back with a big dream to make higher education accessible to all. What's so amazing about him is that he is not only an idealist, but also a practiser. He really did a lot to make the university possible.  This summer, he taught university physics from 8am-9pm for almost a month EVERY day even without financial support. He even slept in office to save money to buy a high-quality video shooting device for in-class recording. I see passions more important than money in his case.

Personally, I'm also quite an idealist. However, I started to feel the pressure from the real life.  I've written in another blog saying that my top interests are 1 music. 2 education. 3 travel. Fortunately, I'm doing education now and started doing travel related technical service in the hackathon last week. Honestly, what I've being doing for education is not a very commercializable approach. I met a senior who is the CTO of an e-commerce technical service provider. He thinks that my recent education related projects(readpeer.com and wanmen.org) are purely non-profitable. What drives me is the 情怀 instead of the commercial potential. I admitted that. Why shall we compromise to the materialistic world?

However, money does matter. Fortunately, it doesn't matter so much to me at this moment. Last week, I felt quite overwhelming, to a state that I started to feel unhappy. I stated to rethink about my priorities and dreams.

I've got a few commitments. Let me list the stuffs down.

1. wanmen university content management system (July+ Early August)[education NGO]
2. GSOC bioinformatics patient timeline project(August+Early September)[feed myself+learning coding]
3. Travel app backend polishing(1-2 weeks)[travel related&for fun]
4. Clocky app polishing(1-2weeks)[for fun]
5. CodeRobot Website(August- October)[possible career]
6. ReadPeer design outsourcing and UX improvement(August- October)[education&product development]

I was working on the first 2 stuffs this month which are already quite busy. Next month is going to be more overwhelming. I'll probably need to share some work to other people&restructure my time table.

1 with a junior
3 with two juniors
4 with three juniors
5 with a front end developer
6 with another designer team

Once I told someone that I want to make some self-sustainable companies/projects. Gratefully, I'm walking towards this goal. As for serious career, I seldom have thought about that. A voice told me that I don't want to work for others, I want to start my own company. But what kind of companies? There are some role models, like 37signals and Instagram, which are small and flexible technical oriented companies. Though that sounds too ambitious, it is not impossible. IT insourcing as a way to feed the company and at the same time making own lightweight products to impact the world. No limitation on location, timezone, etc. That would be so great! The problem is how to position/brand your company and how to attract/become super talented people. I really need to learn a lot to be capable of dreaming that big.

One thing I learned from hackathons is that as a project manager, you don't have to be the best developer in the team, but you'll have to be the most hardworking one. I used to be quite a slacker, but I'm now more hardworking and becoming more trustful in the team.



Friday, 19 July 2013

Commitments

"When you commit for something, it becomes some sorts of responsibilities."

I came back to SG to attend the commencements few days ago. Actually, I didn't intend to come back so soon. Firstly, I still haven't finished the voluntary job in One-Man university(wanmen). Indeed, I enjoy it so much that I spend days and nights coding the system. Secondly, my favourite profs are not attending the commencements(Indeed, I think my favourite prof would rather me to work harder on the great projects than taking a photo with him). Thirdly, the commencement of CEG(computer engineering)takes place in different dates with SOC and Engin while my most projects are actually accomplished with SOC peers. However, I finally bought the air ticket, firstly because I have committed to Sharon(the NOC Israel coordinator) that I'd better come back to attend the commencement day since it is one of the most important days in one's life. Secondly, our iOS team has committed to attend the iCreate competition and I've got to work things out before the last minute. Another commitment is to Prof.Anthony when I told him that I'll start working with him from August 1st onwards. However, this commitment doesn't require me to come back so soon. I also told my little brother Rick Qing that I'll probably visit Chendu (with 70-80%certainty) when he's on vocation home in Sichuan. I've got a cousin from Fudan University who's coming to NUS for exchange next semester, thus there is a responsibility that I shall at least pick him up in the airport(August 1st) and treat him a dinner.  By coming back to attend the commencements, I actually can fulfil most of the commitments(Sharon's sincere suggestion, iCreate, Prof's work, cousin) by sacrificing some of my own passions(staying longer with the One-Man U team, traveling in Sichuan).

Most of my decisions are actually influenced by the opportunity cost of different commitments. For instance, an important reason I took Prof.Anthony's FYP is that I've worked with YunReading in CS3216 which is a digital publishing project. I don't want the project to die because of my own lack of continuity in moving this project forward. If I don't touch the digital publishing related area for the last year in NUS, I will probably never touch it again for another few years, which would be really really bad. It is me who decided not to accept the 6k purchase of the system, I shall have the responsibility to move it forwards(at least pay off the teammates' talents and hard work).

My initial commitment to One-Man University(Wanmen) is to make an iOS app for them during the summer. However, they have got no website yet. Since the NGO has got no extra hands to help it out, I've got to pick the skills up and build the web system. It's not a Coursera for the Chinese students, but a knowledge curation system which helps integrate useful online academic resources to the mass public. I built a basic version using Rails. However, there are not enough contents yet, thus we still haven't officially launched the system yet. To make it a nicer system, we've got to work with more talented designers/developers.

These few days, I'm learning Node.js because I've committed to the GSOC organisation that I'll work this project(patient timeline viewer) out in the summer. The main purpose for doing the GSOC is to financially support my voluntary work in Wanmen and learn more some stills along the way. However, when too many commitments come along, they become burdens. These few days, I stay late around 2-3 am finishing either GSOC or the Wanmen project. In the first two days back in Singapore, I stayed overnights with Zhixing to finish the icreate iOS demo.

In August, I'll move forward to other projects(primarily ReadPeer, CodeRobot) and hopefully not too many other commitments will come along. Otherwise, I'll have no life.... Currently, there are some potential commitments from other project teams and I have to learn to DELETE and FOCUS.













Monday, 8 July 2013

Super Fruitful Weeks

These two weeks are extremely fruitful. Almost all my expectations for coming to Beijing have been met in such a short time-- to form long term relationship with entrepreneurs here, to work with talented designers, to improve my coding skills, to experience the tech entrepreneur life, etc.

I'm loving the city. Though not as clean and nice as Singapore, this is a place for young dreamers to pursue their careers. As a famous song writer wrote about Beijing, "我在这里欢笑(I'm laughing here) 我在这里哭泣(crying here) 我在这里活着(living here) 也在这里死去(dying here) 我在这里祈祷 (praying here)我在这里迷惘(confusing here) 我在这里寻找(seeking here) 在这里失去(losing here)". The extreme inequality creates a lot of diversities and opportunities here in Beijing. The youth have a strong desire to be successful and they form active entrepreneurial communities in cafes, meetup groups, incubators,etc(mostly in and around Zhong Guan Cun).

Here is a photo taken in Cheku Cafe which is a tech hub for young entrepreneurs to work and communicate with each other. Programmers, VCs, designers, all kinds of people gather here. You can order a cup of coffee to chat with the entrepreneurs. Also, you can also spend 30 RMB to stay overnight and drink unlimited beverage. The scene looks more like an incubator than a cafe shop. There are quite a few similar entrepreneurial cafe shops around Zhong Guan Cun. This kind of environment seldom appears in Singapore.

In a weekend hackathon named Beijign Tech Hive, I, together with some local and overseas entrepreneurs worked on an interesting idea to teach normal people how to code. There are quite a few successful US websites like CodeAcademy and Treehouse who teach people how to code. However, there seems to be no efficient/fun code teaching websites here for the Chinese public. It's not a copycat, but our own thinking on how to gamify and engage the mass Chinese Diaosi(a term to describe the mass general public in China). There will to be a lot of trial and errors when we are not sure about how the business will go.

During the hackathon, a few VCs came and gave suggestions to teams. One suggestion from Mr. Hu who knows the Chinese IT industry so well suggests that the premium/membership model will not work well in China. Job portal service may not be profitable&workable if the courses are for beginners. A promising business model would be to work with IT companies, as a outsourcing recruiter for training, examining and recruiting programmers.  Another VC suggests that the Diaosi group is the most promising target group in China. A very successful live video streaming service named YY has recently tripled their stock price in NASDAQ mainly due to their successful self-positioning in identifying the diaosi market. That's a very interesting advise.

I worked very hard on the project since other PMs in the team don't really code... Well, personally I think good PMs should be more capable in coding and be able to build their own business. I picked up Ruby on Rails quickly and built the demo out with a super talented designer and two PMs who worked on the front end. Another android developer worked on the mobile platform and the team leader worked on the video contents. Our team got the second place in the hackathon, which is pretty amazing.

The team leader who got his MBA in the US is doing full time in entrepreneurship when his fiancee who works in microsoft can support him for a while. He is actually very clever in moving the project forward. He strategically form good relationships(share equity) to honorable people as mentors, which is good for positioning the company in the long run. The talented designer comes from another startup which is recently bought by Alibaba. He is interested to move this project forward. Two PMs in the right corner will be working on a traveling service and not be interested to continue working on this project. The android developer may probably help in a parttime basis. As for me, I'm personally not confident enough to make it a great service. My skills would probably only be able to support the early stage business for half a year-1year. However, by the time we are strong enough to employ amazing developers, I will feel extremely delighted. By then, I may become a PM working together with talented developers.

Integrity wise, I will never break the bonds in Singapore. That's why I didn't apply for fulltime job in the US/China. I tried to apply for summer/winter internships in the US/China. I even planned to delay half a year for Israel as a last chance to pursue entrepreneurship before serving the bond. Unfortunately, I didn't get these opportunities. As for the jobs in Singapore, I applied some interesting startups. However, that may not be the right time for me at this moment. Prof. Anthony is really interested to move his social annotation service forward and he offered me to work on his project for another half-one year. Well, I personally think the UI/UX is too bad in the industry standard. It's not so promising to make good money on that project,either. Doing enterprise solution would probably be a right approach in Singapore. However, that's not cool. I would rather a service being used by many people than dying in a corner with a good price but no one uses. Thus I suggested Prof. Anthony to target on the Chinese market. He also think that the Chinese market should be the way to go thus he agreed me to stay in Beijing for quite a while. It's very likely that I will be doing my own business( the coderobot project and part of the social annotation project) in Beijing in the next half-one year. I'm ready to fail and die in the next year. But I'm sure I will learn a lot along the way.

During the hackathon, I also get to know a few very talented developers. One of the teams work on a show-off app which allows the ladies ageing 20-40 to publish beautiful pics of their own to the public. Only positive feedbacks(like and share)will be allowed, thus the ladies will show-off more after using the app. Two of the team members are very talented programmers(one of which is among the most talented I've met so far). They opened up their small tech company around Zhong Guan Cun. The other team members are ladies who know design/fashion and love to show off. The super talented developer once worked with a business co-funder. However, when they received 5million RMB funding, the business co-funder kicked him and another tech co-funder out and continue doing the business in HK with other people. That was so bad! During the hackathon, a VC from Sequoia Capital also came. He was impressed by the developer on his intelligence. The developer shared some thoughts with me on being a tech entrepreneur. "It's like painting. Before finishing your work, it's like a piece of shit(piles of inks vs tons of codes). However, when you polish it in a year, it looks like a masterpiece.","To maintain a small tech company, we'll need to have new ideas every month, otherwise, it's very hard to feed the team." That's so interesting.

My main mission this month is to help the 万门大学(One-Man University) build a first stage website out. I used Rails to build the whole CMS system again which is hosted in Git. Unlike Coursera which provides all kinds of courses, Wanmen is more of a knowledge integration system which gives suggestions on how to learn by oneself. A good thing about open-sourced project is that it liberate people's creativity. I feel so lucky and honoured to work with my friend, Tong Zhe, the president of this virtual university. Wish all the best to him and the open university!