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Thursday, February 21, 2013


The conventional wisdom on interns is that you cannot expect to get significant work done by interns: they take time to train, and by the time they leave your company, you can't possibly have trained them to the point where they're productive and pay for themselves in terms of work done.

I've led internship programs at Mpath and Google, and each time I've defied conventional wisdom. Mike Danylchuk, Alex Murkes and Carolynne Surfleet all interned for me at Mpath, and they did tremendous amounts of work. Both Alex and Mike converted to become full time employees, and were immensely productive.

At Google, Stephen Chen, Phil Sung, Matei Zaharia, and Nikola Postolov all interned for me at Google. All 4 were immensely productive, and Stephen and Phil eventually became Google employees. All these engineers made huge contributions to their projects, and more than paid for their training time.

I attribute my past successes at hiring interns and managing them to two factors:

  1. I don't lower my standards when hiring interns. I interview and apply the same metrics to interns as I do to full time employees. You can do this if you focus on fundamental computer science and coding problems during your interviews.
  2. I don't give interns "make work" or insignificant work. I put them on high risk projects with complete ownership of a project from end-to-end. They do the design, they code, they test, and they deploy. The sense of ownership and satisfaction with the end result gives them a hugely positive experience. This doesn't mean I just let them do their thing --- I provide design reviews and code reviews, and I provide suggestions as to which projects would be good uses of their time and talents, but providing autonomy is the key to engineering happiness.
I used to think that this modus operandi was par for the course in the tech industry, but one day I sat on a hiring committee for interns who wanted to convert into full-time employees. My jaw dropped constantly in horror at what some of my colleagues were doing to their interns:

  • Putting interns on demoware, code that effectively would have to be thrown away if the data input ever had to change.
  • Having interns pair program with each other, relieving the mentor of the need to code review or provide feedback to the interns. Unfortunately, this also meant the intern supervisor had no clue how his interns were doing, and whether they would be a worthy hire.
  • Writing glowing reviews for an intern who did very little or next to no work (had no checkins into the source control system).
Well, here at Quark Games, we're kicking off our summer internship program next week with visits to both the Berkeley and Stanford Career fairs (we'll also consider full time applicants). I guarantee we won't' do any of the crazy things described above, and my aim is to have fully productive interns all summer. While we're only visiting these two schools because they're easily within driving distance, we'll accept applicants from any school. Feel free to send me e-mail or apply through Quark Game's site if you're interested.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Long Term Review: Republic Wireless

In my earlier review of Republic Wireless, I mentioned that I would likely give up the phone and return it and switch to Ting instead. Well, I ended up not doing that. The phone is slow, it's got wide variance in battery life --- in normal usage I'd end the day with 40% of the battery, but some times for no apparent reason I'd drain the battery by 8pm.

At my new job, however, I have no desk phone, but excellent wifi, which meant that the wifi calling feature that Republic Wireless offers is what I depend on day in day out in order to take and make phone calls from the office. While those calls aren't as often as you might expect, they still happen on a regular basis, and usually when they happen I need to take them, rather than have them go to voice mail.

The unlimited data has also come in very handy over time --- given the size of web pages nowadays, even a few minutes of surfing can run well over 100MB of data, which would pop you over to the next tier on Ting. Given that I occasionally walk to work (a 30 minute journey each way), having access to data means I can stream wireless music or use TuneIn to pick up KQED or other radio station, which has been very nice whenever I do walk to work.

Most people aren't as cheap as I am when it comes to phone plans, but $19/month unlimited voice/data/text is almost too good to be true, and I for one hope that Republic Wireless succeeds in their quest to change the way cell phones work. For most people in Silicon Valley, I'd venture to say that Republic Wireless' plan would be exactly what they want. I can't wait for them to introduce better phones and I for one am surprised that such a game changing startup is happening outside of Silicon Valley.

Highly Recommended.

Review: The Amazing Spiderman 2012

I missed the reboot of the Spiderman movies last year, so caught it on my Nexus 7 instead recently. The Tobey Maguire Spiderman movies were great, especially the second movie where the scene where the subway passengers lifted Peter Parker up over their heads and said, "it's just a kid" moved me in a way few other superhero movies did. I bought Marvel stock based on how I felt about those movies and those paid me back very well. The third of the series is not worth your time watching, but even Christopher Nolan screwed up with The Dark Knight Rises.

Unfortunately, The Amazing Spiderman just cannot live up to those standards. If the other movies didn't exist, this one might be barely acceptable. First of all, Andrew Garfield just does not pull of Peter Parker very well. He's too stylish and good looking for someone who's supposed to play an awkward nerd who's frequently bullied. Emma Stone did portray a smart and spunky Gwen Stacy, and I was pleased with the way her father, Captain Stacy was portrayed.

Gone, however, is the strong sense of morality that Spiderman always had. Gone is the motto, "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility." Gone is the closure that Peter Parker had when he caught the crook who'd killed Uncle Ben and discovered that his apathy had cost the life of a loved one. Instead we have a murky sense of betrayal that Parker was orphaned, and a villain who's transformation into one makes no sense in either plot or moral sensibility. Just as badly done: Parker's second job as a photographer is gone --- he now comes off as a freeloading high schooler with an attitude problem rather than the likable nerd with a secret.

I don't regret the time spent watching the movie, but I do regret that the stars/director who made my favorite superhero series asked for so much money that the franchise got rebooted early and we ended up with a lousy Peter Parker. I definitely would pass on watching the sequel in the theaters.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review: Suzanne Vega @ Villa Montalvo

I'm a bigger fan of concert venues than I am of individual performance artists. My list of great venues in the Bay Area include:
All of these theaters, unlike the larger venues, offer close intimate seating where you can see the performer, rather than stadium seating where you have to see the performer on a big screen. My view on those is you might as well stay home and watch YouTube.

When I saw that Suzanne Vega was going to be live at the Carriage House in February 9th, I made it a point to bring my wife to it. I'd never seen her live before, but I liked her introverted lyrics and my wife thought she was good after watching some videos on YouTube.

Vega did not disappoint. Her second song on the set, Small  Blue Thing, blew me away. I had heard  the song on CD before, but it did not had the impact the live performance had. I said "wow, that's beautiful to my wife" and then heard someone else in the audience say loudly, "Wow!" The rest of the concert went by in a trance, with Vega playing some new songs mixed in with some old favorites.

It did not come off without a hitch. In particular, my favorite song of hers, The Queen and the Soldier was marred by her coughing in the middle and then having to regain her place with the help of the audience. I also felt the non-a capella version of Tom's Diner was too distracted by the electric guitar. Nevertheless, most arrangements were just her accompanied by an electric guitarist, so you couldn't accuse the concert of being overly elaborated or over-produced.

I had a great time, and if you get a chance to see her in an intimate venue while she's on tour, I highly recommend doing so.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

First Impressions: Ting Galaxy Note 2

I bought my wife a Galaxy Note 2 from for Christmas. The selling point of buying from Ting as opposed to say, AT&T, Verizon, T-mobile, or Sprint is that you buy a phone without a contract, and Ting charges you by usage rather than a flat $70 (and up) with a 2-year contract, which is far more expensive than paying for a phone up front and then paying per megabyte or per minute for use. It is possible to pay $30/month for unlimited T-mobile prepaid voice + data, but T-mobile coverage is so pathetic inside the Bay Area that your phone would effectively be an ornament if you were to choose the service. That works very well if you're an iPhone user, but is not very practical for anyone else.

Ting's plan charges $6/device, and then $3/month for 100 minutes and $3/month for 100MB, with a gradually decreasing cost as you consumer more data or more minutes. In the extreme, if you're fond of using uncapped data for viewing videos or streaming music, then you're likely to pay more. However, Bay Area professionals live in a wifi zone at home, and have access to wifi at work, so are very unlikely to stream large amounts of data during the course of a typical non-travel month. In practice, my wife uses $12 worth of Ting service a month.

The phone's screen is huge and a delight. It's also fast. While both Ting and Republic Wireless ostensibly resell Sprint's service, on head to head comparison there's no doubt that for whatever reason, the Galaxy Note 2's faster when loading web pages over 3G. The battery life is also incredible --- my wife usually gets at least 2 days a charge, and it's gotten to the point where she frequently forgets to charge the phone because it so rarely needs it.

The UI is wonky and strange if you're used to Nexus devices. There's all sorts of switches and sliders for controlling data usage, and we got a bit too aggressive at first with turning off background data, and then discovered that Google Navigation didn't work if you got that aggressive. Backing off that aggressiveness a bit and we ended up with very parsimonious use of data yet all the usual services worked (push e-mail, navigation, etc).

Samsung's also been very good about supporting users: soon after getting the device, there was an offer for a free Flip Cover as well as a free 5-pack of TecTiles in order to take advantage of the NFC built into the phone. I doubt very much that my wife will ever get conversant enough with phone technology in order to use it, but it still speaks volumes as to Samsung's support.

All in all, having used the phone for more than a month and getting $12/month of use out of it, I'm very impressed and can recommend the phone and service package to anyone who's lusting after a fast phone.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Review: The Best American Science & Nature Writing

Amazon had The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2012 on sale for $1.99, and when I saw Dan Ariely's name on it, I figured it was a good deal. It's a very good collection, but not nearly as good as last year's selections.

The most chilling story in the collection is the one on global atmospheric pollution --- fundamentally the scale of China's pollution into the atmosphere can only be believed by measuring it from Washington and Oregon's mountains. I also enjoyed the article about growing meat in laboratories

Perhaps one reason the articles are less interesting is because Ariely finds the geeky internet stuff interesting while perhaps I do not as much. The articles on Bitcoin and the Turing test would be interesting if you're not a computer scientist. The hero-worshiping article about Nathan Myhrvold's $400+ book on Modernist Cuisine is also not what I would have expected in this book.

Nevertheless, every article is good reading and a lot of fun. Recommended.

Startup Engineering Management visits Wharton School of Business in San Francisco

Did you know that Wharton School of Business had a San Francisco Branch? I didn't, until James Kilpatrick, affiliated with their entrepreneurship program contacted me and asked if I was willing to give a talk to the students in the program. Given the prestige of Wharton, who was I to turn them down?

The talk will happen in Wharton's San Francisco campus on Saturday, March 16th around noon. (Yes, it's a weekend MBA program) The talk will be directed towards MBA students who are mostly not technical. Hence, it will be about "attracting, recruiting, retaining, and keeping engineers happy at a startup." The school of business has about 30 free spaces available for non-MBA students who are interested in Wharton's MBA program to attend, in addition to its current students who may attend the talk.

If you're interested in going to the talk, please send e-mail to James Kilpatrick telling him you want to attend the talk, and he'll send you the details if there's enough room. Those attending the talk from outside will need to stay fora short admissions information session with Director of admissions Katherine Lilygren.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Publishing Milestone: Piracy!

Last week, a friend of mine noticed that one of my books was pirated on ScribD. In some ways this is a milestone --- I didn't expect a book whose most valuable chapter is boring tax advice to go through three editions and get as much attention as it did, let alone be worth the trouble to pirate (especially since none of the 3 editions have DRM). It is a testament to the integrity of my early and current readers that this had not happened until now. As the license to my books indicate, you are free to lend, backup, or even resell my books without any penalty. There are many countries that are famous as being "one-book" countries --- meaning that you're only able to sell one copy of the book to the country before it gets pirated wholesale. Yet I've even managed to sell multiple copies to some of those countries.

Different self-published authors have different approaches to the piracy problem. Gayle McDowell's best-selling Cracking the Coding Interview, for instance, has been so frequently pirated in India that she had no choice but to stop selling electronic copies of her book and only sell paperbacks on Amazon with a special cheaper edition for the Indian market. The externalities are clear: the pirate gains access to the book, but the rest of us lose the convenience of buying an electronic book.

For now, the indications are that my books haven't encountered runaway piracy (in India or other places), so I won't be taking any measures that drastic. However, if it does happen, I expect to have to take measures similar to what Gayle's been forced to take.