design

In a Valley of Silicon and AI, don’t forget people are human

By Jessie Hughes/ Interactive and Visual Design
They're the latest buzzwords: AI (artificial intelligence), blockchain, VR (virtual reality), ML (machine learning), data mining, AR (augmented reality), bitcoin. When you're working or travelling in San Francisco, there's a good chance at least three of these acronyms will appear in your conversations.

In late 2017 I returned from Startup Catalyst’s life-changing Future Founders Mission to Silicon Valley, US. The mission takes 20 of Australia’s emerging ‘future-Zuckerbergs’ over to Silicon Valley to expose them to the intense hustle of the Bay Area.

Jessie Hughes with members of the 2017 Startup Catalyst mission

The mission selects 20 young (18-29 year old), high-achieving, tech-focused Australians with the intent to immerse them in the glow of the world’s biggest tech giants, to inspire Australia’s next founders to return home and grow the Australian startup landscape.

The program was founded by Steve Baxter, Australian tech entrepreneur and Queenslander investor on Network Ten’s Shark Tank. The mission relies heavily on sponsorship from external partners and QUT was a major sponsor, covering four places on the mission.

Jessie Hughes with Steve Baxter

The cohort I was part of was as diverse as the tech industry itself. Our cherry-picked group was made up of eager tech-heads from backgrounds in machine learning, neuroscience, 3D printing, tech education, humanitarian engineering, agriculture tech, VR, drones, reverse-engineering, the list just goes on. Oh, and of course, creative technology.

My current working title is as a creative technologist, with a background in the creative industries. In 2014, I graduated from QUT with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interactive and Visual Design.

During my studies, I don’t think I could have quite anticipated where my degree would take me: I’ve worked in New York with Adobe to design artwork that now covers the elevated city-landscape; I’ve created solar data-visualisations for one of the world’s most advanced astronomical observatories (video below) which exhibited in the Tate Modern; and I’ve worked at Facebook Headquarters to direct a multinational virtual reality experience under Oculus which exhibited at Sundance, Cannes and SXSW.

I remember deciding to enrol in tech-heavy electives during my last semester at uni, curious to explore units where I could experiment with technology creatively. This turned out to be a move that has opened up a world of endless opportunities.

If there’s an international plane ticket involved with an opportunity, I’ll apply for it the next day. This was my seventh sponsored trip to the United States. My first time to the U.S. was in my final year at QUT for a six-month international exchange program. To any students reading, if there’s one piece of advice you take from me, it’s to study abroad.

The way in which we glorify the U.S. made we believe for a very long time that it was where I needed to be in order to succeed.

Now, thanks to Catalyst, I’m not too sure.

“To any students reading, if there’s one piece of advice you take from me, it’s to study abroad.”

Our mission took place from the 29 October to 10 November, 2017, in San Francisco and Palo Alto, otherwise referred to as Silicon Valley, so-called because of the high concentration of computer industries and companies involved in the making of semiconductors (silicon is used to create most semiconductors commercially). During this fortnight, we were run off our feet travelling to more than 32 different meetings, tours and events. The schedule was designed to overwhelm and exhaust us, to push us beyond our limits.

The most impressive tech giants on our itinerary included Google, Facebook, Twitter, and to any massive social-design fans like myself, Ideo.org.

Our agenda also included visits to Startup House, Atlassian, WeWork, Australian Landing Pad, Kiwi Launch Pad, Instacluster, Lytro, Stanford, Runway, Nasa, Safesite, Xero, Bespoke, Boosted Boards, Palintar, Singularity University, and Service Rocket, to name a few.

The goal of the program was to gain insight from a diverse pool of start-up founders to absorb as much knowledge and advice as time would permit.

And so, without further ado, here’s what I learnt:

“If you’re in film, you go to Hollywood. If you’re in tech, you go to Silicon Valley”

I remember once climbing into a taxi in Los Angeles and the first question I was asked “So, actor, director or writer?”. In the Bay Area this translates to “programmer, founder or investor?”. The concentration of skilled technical people combined with big money eager to be invested means things happen, and things happen fast.

The intense scale of technical talent within such a tight proximity, the abundance of opportunity for funding, the contagious and excitement-inducing enthusiasm that companies are on the cusp of the next biggest thing; the whole city is designed to drive development, entrepreneurialism and innovation.

It has this whirlwind energy that takes your breath away, where you could very easily get swept off your feet and whisked up into the grind of the Silicon Valley lifestyle.

If you’re fed up with the pace of your current surroundings and have little commitment to your life at home, I would say go, go, go! But make sure you have an energy drink in hand at all times. If what you want is to be immersed in the tech world 24/7 then San Francisco is the place for you. Just be prepared to never switch off. Emails are still being sent well past 11pm at night, deals are taking place at breakfast before work, everyone is online always and is expected to be – it’s a lot to take on. If that’s what you’re chasing, then go for it, but just be prepared for the city’s bustling intensity and its 24/7 attitude.

If New York is the city that never sleeps, San Francisco is the city that never unplugs.

“Your network is your net worth”

We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘It’s not what you know. It’s who you know’. In Silicon Valley, this couldn’t be more reflected. Your networks are everything. The way deals move, the way founders connect with the right people – it all comes down to who knows who. Here, people don’t underestimate the power of a single relationship and it’s influenced the way in which people interact. There’s a ‘give first’ mantra which radiates from every meet-and-greet and new handshake, where people immediately ask ‘How can I help?’. This generous way of building connections means people are instantly looking for how they can put you in front of the right people.

As a testament to this connected culture, the last thing I had expected from a simple fashion compliment was to be having breakfast with the head of accessibility at Google. I was at a networking event in inner-city San Francisco, when a t-shirt design caught my eye. A tall man was wearing a black t-shirt with what appeared to be the Google logo on the front, but instead of letters, ‘Google’ had been spelt out using braille and American Sign Language graphics.

I have just spent the past six months developing a VR education game for teaching Australian Sign Language, and so the shirt intrigued me. After sharing my interest in the design, David had explained that it was Accessibility Week at Google, with the shirt representing Google’s effort to making technology accessible and usable by persons of all abilities. I had previously worked as a researcher for QUT into how to improve digital experiences for people with disabilities, and so I was eager to see if there was a way I could involve myself in this initiative. Before I had even asked, David had whipped out his phone and already emailed his list of contacts at Google, asking how I could get into Google’s A11y activities. Over the next few hours, continuing past midnight, emails jumped from this person, to that person, to this person that that person knew, and so forth. Through six degrees of separation, by the end of this email chain I had a breakfast-date booked at Google.

The morning of, I parted from the rest of the Startup Catalyst crew to make my way over to GooglePlex, the corporate headquarters complex of Google over in Mountain View. I was met with a buoyant welcome from Christopher Patnoe, senior program manager of accessibility at Google. For the next hour we discussed all things accessibility, from how Google designers and developers have a focus on inclusivity and accessibility in their ideation and testing processes, to my SignVR project and my vision for inclusive UX design. I can say with confidence that I hadn’t expected to form a personal connection with a head at Google just from a compliment, but that’s the magic of this city.

“Value human connection”

It might sound like the most basic advice a person can give, but be a good person. The Bay Area runs on relationships, and every interaction you have could be the catalyst for something bigger. The human connection, the shaking of hands, the shared laughter at a networking event – this is how you are remembered, and more importantly, how you can build influential relationships. Meeting face-to-face gives you the chance to make a great impression, and sets you a mile ahead from another unopened email lazing in an inbox. Even in the Bay Area, ‘the land of digital interactions’, networking events are everywhere and are a brilliant way to mingle with future investors, employees, or employers; an in-person interaction gives more in a minute than tens of emails back and forth. As with any relationship, kindness is key.

You might hold the elevator for someone running towards it, open a door, grab a second napkin for the person behind you – if you’re kind to everyone, you never know who that unknowing stranger might be; they could just be your critical key forward. And of course, be yourself. Make business decisions with people who align with your morals. There’s no point in trying to pretend to be anything otherwise, because at the end of the day, you won’t be happy. Building strong relationships with the people you connect with allows for a functioning team and positive business relationships. Teams are everything, and they need to be built out of people who underlying respect each other: “We believe behind every great human achievement, is a great team.”

While a company logo takes credit for an amazing outcome, that work was really created by a phenomenal team. Get out of your computer chair, and meet in person: remember, we’re all just people.

“You grow as big as your fishbowl. If you want to be a big fish, you have to be in the big ocean”

In Australia, investors want a 10x return on their investment. In the US, investors expect a 100x return. You don’t pitch in San Francisco unless you can claim you’re onto a billion dollar business, seriously. The figures in San Francisco are on steroids compared to Australia, but so is the cost of living. We met people who were on six-figure salaries, who were living in compacted share-houses. On the flip side to this, investors are looking to put in millions of dollars for investment into tech start-ups that catch their eye, compared to a few hundred thousand dollars of funding if you’re incredibly lucky in Australia. If you’re wanting to move to the Bay Area to chase the big bucks, take into consideration the inflated cost of living. It’s an entirely different economy; I paid $8 AUD for a single coffee, and yes, I am still salty about it.

“Doing the right thing opens up new opportunities”

Going back to that tip about being a good human, doing the right thing opens doors. Many major tech giants are now realising the importance of inclusivity, accessibility, equality and diversity in their teams, with many pushing to be and do better than they’ve done before. As discussed at Google, “Applying an inclusion lens to all you say, do, and build creates better products and grows your business.” Companies are seeing benefit in the retention of their staff, the extension of their markets, and the improvement of their products, by considering how they can be more inclusive with their company structure and product outcomes. It’s very easy to fall into echo chambers of thought and culture, and so there’s a true push in the Bay Area at the moment to widen the cognitive diversity and diversity of difference in lived experiences of teams. “People who have different perspectives solve problems differently.”

Before approaching a problem, consider the market issue you’re trying to solve, and ask how you could build a balanced team from people who would be able to bring a unique perspective to the table. The values of founders trickle down to the values of their company, and so what core ethics do you want your company to reflect?

“No amount of success at work will make up for failure in a family”

Despite this being an era of robots, what impacted me most strongly was that all people are human. All founders, employees, investors – we’re all people with families and pets and partners. To listen to speech after speech about how founders had sacrificed everything to succeed, it made me reflect on whether this is what I want for my own life. Elon Musk is idolised in the tech community and is considered one of the Kings of Silicon Valley. He is an incredible engineer, inventor and investor and has a smooth estimated net worth of $20.8 billion. So what rung true to me was an interview Elon Musk recently gave where he stated, “If I’m not in love, if I’m not with a long-term companion, I cannot be happy. Going to sleep alone kills me.”

It’s drilled into us that we have to separate our personal and our work lives, but the reality is that the two are inherently intertwined. To see so many people sacrificing their happiness, whether it be their health, relationships, quality of life, for the goal of success, it was something which seemed like a recurring theme in the Bay Area. I’ve always been a ‘go big or go home’ kind of person, sacrificing my sanity to produce better, bigger work, but looking in from the outside awoke me to the fact that at the end of the day, happiness and health need to be the top priority.

I do think that you can have both happiness and success, but it’s critical that there is a strong focus on an even work-life balance. Silicon Valley is quickly becoming the capital for suicide in the United States, and after two weeks of insight into the ‘110 per cent’ environment, it’s understandable. If you’re eager to give the Silicon Valley life a whirl, just remember to stay alert to your mental health and your work-life balance. Goat Yoga has recently made its way to the Bay Area, so perhaps yoga with goats could be a good one to add to your weekly schedule.

“Fail forward, Learn fast”

Never has failure been praised so highly than as in Silicon Valley. And personally, I think this is awesome. It’s through failing that we learn the right way forward, and the Bay Area culture agrees with this. You’re expected to learn from your mistakes, and move forward. Build better. Create bigger. “If you’re not changing, you may as well be dead,” summarises the energy of this constantly evolving town.

With this cultural urge to grow fast, evolve fast and change fast, failure, at some point, is inevitable. But it’s by making the mistake that we can see where we went wrong, and build better. “Good designing is predicting parts to break, and planning the solutions.” As someone who lives for change, Silicon Valley is a breath of fresh air for supporting play and experimentation. Only do we find innovation through experimenting, and failure is all part of that game. Fail forward, learn fast.

There are a hundred and one other learnings I could share with you, but I’ll let you experience them for yourself on one of Startup Catalyst’s missions in 2018. For me, this experience was perspective-changing. To be able to see the inner-workings of the Silicon Valley culture without rose-tinted glasses, and to truly delve into what it takes to make it in the valley. The status that comes with working in the Valley is a badge earned.

Here’s the future of tech! A future of ever-evolving buzzwords.

Entrepreneurialism at QUT

A fortnight before leaving for the mission, I received an email outlining that I had been offered a place in QUT’s bluebox Accelerator program; a three month intensive program aimed at getting startups commercially ready. The program, aimed towards QUT students, alumni and staff, offers funding, education, and mentorship, concluding in a final public pitching event to investors in the coming March of 2018.

Now that I am spending the next three months building my own start-up and becoming a founder myself, I could not be more grateful for all of the stories that were shared from these impressively persistent Silicon Valley Founders; their raw stories of their struggles, successes, their regrets and their proudest moments.

Acknowledgements

I would love to truly thank my incredible sponsors, QUT and RACQ for my place on the mission. My sponsors have been essential for the amazing opportunities offered to me time and time again, and I will be forever grateful for their investment in my personal development and my career. Thank you to Aaron and the whole Startup Catalyst team for the many, many months of organising that went behind structuring this mission; I could not rate the experience more highly. To Peter and Tom who were our leaders and mentors for the mission; thank you for being incredible, always… Peter, you’re brilliant and I hope you continue to lead these missions for years to come. And finally to all of the other participants, thank you. You are the core reason I had such a transformational experience. I cannot wait to see what we all do next.