The Technical Mind
By Angela Teng
Behind The Company
From starting out as a physics major, to working within the finance industry, and mentoring at hackathons, John’s expansive technical experience has given him the depth and breadth to spearhead the end-to-end development of Pangea.
With Udemy, Youtube, other online courses as his guide, John has built Pangea from the ground up. Get a glimpse into a day in John’s life as Pangea’s CTO, and read on to discover his spirit animal.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
When I think about what defines me, two things popped up in my head. The first one is a Spongebob episode where he learns to be a waiter and doesn’t remember his name. The second is a Batman quote that goes; “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” I play games, I dance, and I listen. I’m always analyzing and questioning things.
How did your experience at Brown as an APMA concentrator transition to learning programming and developing the app?
[Because of Brown], I am always questioning things. I originally wanted to be an engineer, although I wasn’t sure what kind of engineer I wanted to be, so I decided to do physics because it’s related to all types of engineering. But then I questioned physics, and so I did applied math, which was a bit broader. What’s great about Brown and their open curriculum is that you really get to explore. That’s one of the big differences between education here and in the US in general versus education elsewhere. In the UK, students are expected to know what they want to study when they finish high school.
So I experimented a lot in academics, just like many Brown students do in all aspects of their lives. I took a few CS classes at Brown, and hated it but loved it at the same time. I went to a few Hackathons and that’s when I learned that I really liked it. I’ve probably been to around 10 of them to date. I went to a few really great ones; one of the really good ones was called Science Against Slavery. It was a hackathon to combat sex work on the internet. That was one of the hackathons where I learned a lot from some serious hackers–one guy was a Harvard professor and he scrapped an entire internet forum, parsed the relevant data, and used a little bit of data visualization to show how involved the moderators were in the actual conversations. It was eye-opening to me and really got me interested in programming.
“There are a lot of peaks and valleys; you get good days when you feel like you can code the matrix and bad days when you feel complete incompetency. It’s important to be able to persevere through that. “
How have your previous internships and academic experience (physics background at JHU, studying abroad in Edinburgh, Summer Intern at Lazard Asset Management) enable you to have the skills to build Pangea from the ground up?
The common thread between Hopkins, Edinburgh, Brown, and working at Lazard was that they were all new environments to me. I am truly fortunate to have had the opportunity to not only try learning new things but also to try learning them in new places.
My experience at Hopkins and as a freshman in general was chaotic but I grew a lot personally from it. I have nothing but respect for the students there, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t the right learning environment for me and I transferred.
I then studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh before transferring to Brown. I knew absolutely nothing about Scotland before hand. I didn’t know what to expect but that’s what I loved about it. It taught me how to adapt and I developed a better understanding of culture outside the US.
My internship at Lazard Asset Management was my first real experience in a non-academic work environment. The human intellectual capital in that company is outstanding with some of the most talented, hard-working people I’ve ever met. In terms of technical experience, I worked a lot in visual basic for applications, which is used in Excel. I had access to a Bloomberg account, and became familiar with their API and API’s in general. I was part of a great team and was motivated to work hard because they worked hard.
What are some qualities that you think are important to being an effective leader and CTO?
Know your strengths and weaknesses. Know what you’re good at, and recognize what you’re bad at and find ways around it by getting help from other people.
Something that I’ve experienced from taking CS classes at Brown is that there are a lot of peaks and valleys; you get good days when you feel like you can code the matrix and bad days when you feel complete incompetency. It’s important to be able to persevere through that.
In terms of being a good leader, there’s a picture on the internet showing a leader versus a boss, where the boss is on a chariot telling people to pull the chariot and putting all the weight on them. The leader is right next to other people working alongside all of them. Leading by doing really helps by making the dynamic not just one sided but a two-way relationship. I was the co-captain of my wrestling team in high school and because my team saw me working hard constantly and putting in the effort, they practiced just as hard and were able to put more into it and stay motivated.
Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with the name Pangea?
Adam actually came up with the name of what was originally called Good2Go. We changed the name to Pangea because we want to reconnect the world. Pangea, the unified supercontinent that existed millions of years ago, embodies that notion.
How did you initially get involved with Pangea? What were the early days like? What was your founding story?
Adam brought me into Pangea. They were looking for someone to program the app, and that’s how I initially got brought on. As far as how the early days were like, in a sense I’d say they’re pretty similar to how they are now. Everything we were doing then was new and everything that we’re doing now is still new.
So Adam mentioned that you initially started talking about Pangea after discussing your experience at Hack@Brown. How did that event inspire you to learn how to build apps by yourself, and eventually spend a semester to focus on the holistic app development process? Any tips for other students who are trying to learn how to program on their own?
I took a semester off in junior year to focus on Pangea. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after I graduated and I wanted to try something in tech. I was on the fence about doing something tech related or something finance related. Working on Pangea fulfilled both those interests. Taking the semester off made me realize that this was something I enjoyed doing, and so that’s how I got into learning software development.
Before Pangea, I had no experience developing native apps. I did mostly stuff on websites at hackathons. These hackathons were very helpful in learning [how to code] as well as being in that hackathon environment, and particularly at Hack@Brown, it gave me exposure to realize what you can do in tech.
In terms of tips, I’d say go to hackathons!
“One of the values I see in Pangea is that it can truly bring people closer together. Current social networks make it easy to connect and share past experiences but they fail at creating new experiences.“
How do you keep hustling? And how do you stay on track and motivated to finish online courses despite how challenging they are? Any tips for future founders looking into technical development?
Coffee helps. A lot. Second, celebrate your successes–this is important to keep from getting overwhelmed. Third, when you’re working on huge projects – break it up into smaller parts that are more manageable and that you’ll be able to handle. Fourth, for a more technical standpoint, do research and look at what options you have when you’re trying to implement specific features. For example, this is what was really helpful for me when we were trying to work on the messaging system for Pangea, and adding user pictures for each message. It’s important to keep asking yourself, “What is one thing I can do right now? Let me focus on that and then take it from there.”
Biggest challenges leading Pangea and as a CTO?
We’ve had our fair share of tech challenges and if we’re doing a good job, we’ll continue to have new ones. One specific example involved putting all of our UI in one storyboard file. XCode, the IDE (Integrated Developer Environment) for iOS apps, kept crashing whenever we would open that file. One day while working in the CIT, we decided to ask around for help. Another student who had interned at LinkedIn told us to break up all the UI we made in the Interface Builder into separate .xib files. So yeah, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
As a CTO, some of the biggest challenges include making decisions–not just coding-wise but also deciding where to spend our time, and thinking about how much effort we want to invest in things. What is the best way to spend our time? How can we be most productive? Can some of the things I’m doing repetitively be automated? An important piece of advice I heard before was that “A lot of coding and technical [progress] is innovation and replication.” Understanding and identifying the problem is often the hardest part.
What is Pangea to you? What is your vision for Pangea, and how do you see it changing the industry?
I can think of Pangea in two ways–the first as a product, thinking about where it stands in the competitive landscape of businesses, and the second, as like my child. It’s still in its early stages, and so I’m super protective of it because I want it to grow and be as great as it could be.
One of the values I see in Pangea is that it can truly bring people closer together. Current social networks make it easy to connect and share past experiences but they fail at creating new experiences. In my opinion, the most memorable experiences aren’t made on the internet, they’re made in person. And this is aligned with what Pangea is–it’s a great way for people to connect with one another through interactions in real life. Platforms like Meetup exist, but they don’t enable people with monetizable skills. Apps like Tinder are really only designed for one particular type of relationship. If you have a skill you’d like to share or a service you think you can provide, Pangea is a great way to make money doing that thing you love, or simply sharing it with the world.
When you hit scale, how will you instill culture? How would you describe our company culture?
That is honestly probably the hardest question–because this is almost like predicting the future of our company in a way. To me, it’s finding a balance. We want it to be a successful company but we can only succeed if the people working in the company can succeed. We want people to feel like they contribute to part of the community. We want our team to be empowered and respected. And we want to let people know that their opinions matter. It’s that delicate work-life balance that creates an environment where people can be the best they can possibly be. A lot of this we would have to learn as we go along, but as far as being successful as a startup, we each have to hold ourselves accountable. This means going above and beyond what’s asked of you, and [showing your passion in your work]. And this is one reason why I’m excited about startups and entrepreneurship. Everything that we’re doing is something that we own. We work for ourselves but also there’s a lot of pressure on us to succeed. If we don’t work, no one else will do it. Because of this, it’s clear that everyone has their role–so it’s important to know what roles we need and finding people for those roles. We each have our own skills, and things that we’re not good at. This means we should recognize what we need in order for the company to succeed, and finding those people through finding the best fit.
Lastly, what are you working on right now that excites you?
Because we are finally on the appstore, we have all of this feedback (criticisms of my child)–things that would make our product better. We’re gathering a lot of feedback. It’s good because I’m learning how to take it with a grain of salt and not let it discourage me, and it’s also good to know that everyone who gave us feedback just wants to make Pangea better. Right now I’m listening in to everyone’s feedback and prioritizing things we can do to improve the product and just making those changes.
What is your motto?
“When in doubt, pinky out!” – Spongebob
What is your spirit animal?
A meerkat. Meerkats live in burrows and that’s sort of analogous with my introvertedness. That being said, meerkats also have their squads and are always looking out for each other. I don’t have a large group of friends, but I care about them and my family a lot.
“We want it to be a successful company but we can only succeed if the people working in the company can succeed.”
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