Hey it’s me, an engineer who is so lucky to have a career that he loves. Here is a little story about me.
I was born on an island — a mini one that you could walk around in two hours. Yet its beauty is unparalleled. The ocean laps onto serene beaches, birds sing in dense woods, and sounds of piano flow around lonely alleys. It could only exist in sweetest dreams.
The island is called 鼓浪屿 (Gu-Lang-Yu). People also call it “piano island”. At the time I was born, there was on average one piano every three people on the island. My family was among the lucky ones that owned one at home. When my grandfather played, I always crawled onto the piano stool and sat next to him, sometimes listening quietly, sometimes forcing a hostile takeover. I was so obsessed that my parents found me an amazing piano teacher who was willing to take me as a student when I was only three years old.
The story took a turn, however. I did not end up a pianist, but I was still working with keyboards.
My dad was a physics teacher in a high school. In retrospect, I am pretty sure he was a geek at his time — he loved messing with radios and electronics, and naturally ventured into their ultimate form — computers. That’s why I was so fortunate to start playing with a different kind of keyboard at a young age, and started learning programming when I was ten years old.
The first programming language for me was Logo, which was a language designed for kids (and a dialect of Lisp as I recently found out). It has a graphical interface with a cursor called “turtle” that you can program to move around and draw pictures. I definitely had a lot of fun playing with it.
Before I took my college entrance exam, my dad told me that I’d like it better if I could use computer as a tool to achieve greater goals, instead of diving into the tool itself. My dad certainly knew me.
I studied industrial engineering at Tsinghua university, and later operations research at MIT. I’ve been fascinated by how one can use math to formulate real-world problems, derive optimized results in mathematical forms, then actually apply them in reality. It’s been powering our search results, routing on maps, facial recognition, even matching with dates! It certainly blew my mind when I first came in touch with it. And what’s better, I found that I could write code to make this happen!
I couldn’t help learning more and more about the subjects that made such magic happen — linear programming, dynamic programming, machine learning, stochastic processes, game theory, graph theory… In this journey, I experienced a different kind of beauty, also unparalleled.
I kept going until I finally got my PhD. I dived really deep into graph theory and game theory, and my thesis was about dynamic networks, with applications in transportation.
While I was doing my PhD, I occasionally worked with some friends on interesting data problems as side projects. As it turned out, business opportunities surfaced when we started working on parking data. Huh? Parking data? Who cares about parking? Exactly! That’s why there were still so many interesting and valuable problems to solve when I accidentally stumbled into it, before most researchers thought to spend any time on it.
In 2015, I joined my friend at Y-Combinator’s winter program. We raised two rounds of funding afterwards. With all the up and downs, all the struggles with code, business and people, here I am, still with Smarking after five years, happy as ever.
Surprisingly, not only didn’t I run out of interesting and challenging problems to tackle, I’ve been getting more. I am so happy with my job that it barely feels like working. Occasionally, I code until dawn, totally forgetting about time.
Thank you for following my stories to the end. I am incredibly fortunate that I’ve been studying and working on what I love, and I can’t wait for my next chapters to come.