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Culture Doesn’t Scale

On 07, Jul 2014 | No Comments | In Entrepreneurship | By Daniel Kao

The book I’m Feeling Lucky talks about Google’s progression from being a 50 person startup company to being the company we see today. It’s an account from a journalist who steps on as Google’s 59th employee. The book shares many of the milestones that Google experienced along the way.

Culture is one of the biggest if not the biggest shift in companies as they transform from small scale startups to large companies. Growing companies inevitably comes with a transforming culture, and is something that needs to be taken into consideration as each employee is hired.

Many companies such as AirBnB, Zappos, and G Adventures are learning to deeply value and place a emphasis on company culture.

However, when it comes to company culture, culture simply doesn’t scale the same way that most other organizational operations do. Dunbar’s number is a scientifically experimented value that states that humans are only mentally capable of maintaining 150 or so relationships.

How then, do you scale an organization while maintaining a close knit culture?

By redefining what scale and growth mean to your company. Not every company should scale by adding more employees. In fact, not every company should necessarily attempt to scale by gaining more customers.

The company that is able to provide better value to a small number of customers is scaling. The company that figures out how to do more with less is scaling. The company that figures out how to crowdsource or outsource is scaling.

And the end of the day it boils down to two questions: How do you define scale? and How much do you value culture?

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In Life

By Daniel Kao

Nitrogen and Collard Greens – What 2 Weeks of Farming Has Taught Me About Life

On 03, Jul 2014 | 3 Comments | In Life | By Daniel Kao

About 2 weeks ago, I began the intern program at Full Circle Farm. And as I walked into the field on the first day, I was greeted with completely foreign tasks, feeling like I was just starting to learn how to crawl. These were certainly not the buttons and pixels I have been so accustomed to manipulating.

I’m not writing this claiming to be an expert in agriculture, but rather I claim a role of a complete amateur, still learning the absolute basics of planting and harvesting. I will probably follow this up with another post toward the end of my internship.

I learned a couple things from my experience growing my lemon balm in my click and grow, but the last two weeks have been on a completely different scale.

Being on the farm and working the field has not only been my escape from the world of gadgets and internet, but has immediately presented lessons that have offered fresh perspective. To me, farming has been an interestingly spiritual experience, with each day uncovering more and more of life.

Here are a couple thoughts.

Everything is Cyclical – Perhaps the biggest thing being on the farm has given me perspective for is seeing life not as a linear progression, but a cycle. Plants are sprouted in the greenhouse, transplanted into the field, pruned and harvested, and then tilled back into the ground where cover crop is grown to refill the soil with nitrogen and other nutrients. With farming, there’s never an end goal to reach because the cycle is continuously happening.

And even the crops must be rotated on the fields so that the same crop is not growing in the same place multiple seasons in a row. Crops are rotated on fields in order to utilize nutrients as efficiently as possible, often growing in a procession of leafy greens to fruits to roots to legumes. Leafy greens require the highest amount of nitrogen to grow properly, fruits and roots require less nitrogen, and legumes replenish nitrogen into the system. It’s all about learning the cycles that happen within the cycles.

Fields must be worked, but crops take time – The farmer must diligently tend and nourish the crops, making sure the crops get enough sunlight, water, nutrients, etc, but no matter how hard the farmer works, there is no ethical way around how fast the crop grows. Sometimes impatience begs to see results immediately, but the work only affects the condition in which a crop grows, not the speed. But neglecting a crop can lead to a loss.

Every crop uses different nutrients and attracts different pests – Knowing which crops take what kind of nutrients helps to strategize and plant your farm in such a way to ensure a healthy growth. Not every problem is tackled with the same solutions, even though it would be much easier if every type of crop was identical. Additionally, with different crops comes different hosts of problems and pests that must be dealt with appropriately.

Growth is determined by the quality of the soil where the crop is rooted – Soil, the seemingly invisible factor that is under the surface is one of the biggest factors in the quality of a plant’s growth. Many things require looking under the surface to find potential qualities and problems of how a crop will grow.

Pests indicate an imbalance – Gardens grow toward and equilibrium, and much of a farmer’s job is arranging and planting the crops over cycles in order to maintain equilibrium in a field. Weeds and pests are often indicative of an imbalance of a certain nutrient, which is often something to pay attention to. Instead of simply solving the problem by attacking the symptom, restoring the balance often requires a thorough assessment of multiple factors.

To be continued…

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Using College to Self Hack My Education

On 30, Jun 2014 | No Comments | In Education | By Daniel Kao

I’ve thought about education a lot in the past couple years, especially when it comes to my own.

Most people enter college expecting the institution to hand them everything they need for their future on a silver platter. After all, college students followed all the rules in order to get into school, so the thinking is that if they continue to follow all the rules they will find themselves in a good career.

However, through my journey in learning over the past couple years, I realized I was responsible for my own learning, whether school is a part of it or not.

Strangely enough, this term used to refer to someone who is taking charge of their own learning is a “hackademic”. As if somehow learning isn’t supposed to be done apart from an institution, and you have to hack it in order to get take control of your learning. The other issue is that many hackademics think that being in college is somehow incompatible with being a self directed learner. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. In fact the whole point of this post is to show how college can be used within a self directed education.

Don’t get me wrong, college is a great experience to meet professors and peers, as well as open yourself up to a wide variety of perspectives and subjects. Being in school can be one of the best decisions you can make if you have reason to be in school. And even for me, I plan to finish up my Computer Science degree unless an opportunity of a lifetime presents itself before I finish. I am grateful that I have the means to attend a four year institution, and do not mean to belittle the privilege of being in school.

But by no means is college the end to learning.

Around the beginning of my undergraduate career, I began thinking about how I could fully take advantage of college while also fully being self directed in my learning. I wanted to figure out how to remain in the system in order to be relevant to my peers while also exemplifying how it was possible to have autonomy in education.

I had support from many mentors to bounce ideas off of as well as a few peers in the same boat to process things with along the way, and I am eternally grateful for their support.

I soon realized that the very core of being a self directed learner was having your own personal reason to learn, and things that you want to achieve.

I began pondering how to integrate college into self directed education by establishing a list of things I wanted to learn. As a list, I wanted to:

  • Learn how businesses operate, how to go from an idea to a profit and value generating company.
  • Learn how people operate, how to interact and network with people to add the most value to others.
  • Learn as much as I can about technology, and areas that I can apply technology to industries such as agriculture and education in a significant, paradigm-shifting way.

The next thing I had to do was figure out the best sources to learn these different subjects, what college was good for that I could extract from, and what I needed to get around.

The good is that college is a great hub for networking and meeting people, especially being able to leverage my age and my status as a student to meet alumni and industry professionals. This power to network that comes with being a student is one that few people understand how to leverage, and fewer people actually do leverage.

The bad is that most classes bore me out of my mind, assignments often serve little purpose, and grades are often extremely arbitrary and not reflective of how well you actually learned, not to mention the astronomically unjustified price to attend college. Every once in a while you’ll meet a professor who truly knows how to empower their students in a way that is engaging and relevant, but in my experience, those are hard to come by. But when you do find yourself in a class with a phenomenal professor, taking advantage and putting effort into that class is totally worth your while.

Upon realizing that the value of being in school for me personally wasn’t primarily the academic material, but my ability to leverage my status as a student, I began setting up systems to implement the 80/20 rule into my academics. I began figuring out how to chunk course material in such a way that 20% of my effort would generate 80% of the academic result, while also spending time to deeply learn the things that were truly interesting to me.

One example sticks out very clear in the last quarter. I took a software engineering project project class last quarter. This class is based heavily on your team’s ability to build a software product within 10 weeks of the class. As our team was discussing and brainstorming projects to do, the natural tendency was to propose difficult projects that would require large API integrations and other complexities.

But as we thought about it more, we realized that the easiest way to get the best grade possible was to simply fulfill all the requirements. We realized that it would be better to create a simple application that works flawlessly rather than a complex application that barely functioned. At the end of the quarter, we had spent a total of 10 hours to complete our project, while some other teams were working 10 hours a day to get their project working. Our final grade? 100%.

School doesn’t reward people for taking bold risks, it actually often unconsciously penalizes the people who take bold risks. Failure is seen as a negative thing, not because it’s explicitly warned against, but because the rewards only go to the people that have followed all the rules.

Part of applying the 80/20 rule to my academics was learning how to play the game of school without being sucked into the toxic standardization and performance mentality that has been traditionally present. I had to set up the things that I did in order to maximize authentic learning and networking while being as efficient as possible in my studies.

The hardest part I found was keeping focused when my mind simply wanted to wander and not engage in any productive activities. I ran into this issue often as I was trying to be productive, only finding myself wasting hours of my day. This problem went away when I solidified my purpose and began to intentionally build routines and structures that would help me achieve my goals.

I began applying many of the principles from Tim Ferriss and other “productivity gurus” to my daily routines (Tim Ferriss has a great article on the choice minimal lifestyle). For example, my breakfast and lunch plans were a very specific handful of dishes that I would make over and over again to simplify decision making and standardize my diet. My exercise routines were very consistent from day to day. My sleep schedule looked almost identical day to day, and even the clothes I wore were chosen from a handful on a regular basis.

By freeing up my academic as well as streamlining my life errands, I suddenly found myself with more free time to learn, explore, network, and do the things that I knew I wanted to learn. Note that this is different than “following your dream” because I set up a way to systematically take steps toward achieving the things I knew I needed to learn instead of merely being driven by how I feel on a day to day basis.

That being said, this last quarter I was able to accomplish the following:

  • 4 CS classes (101, 110, 130, and 140)
  • Part time internship (8 hours a week)
  • Kept my blog regularly updated (once a week)
  • Worked closely with Student Voice
  • Did freelance web design work
  • Cooked nearly every meal
  • Exercised 2-3 times a week
  • Had a social life to the extent that I wanted
  • Read one book every two weeks
  • 7-8 hours of sleep per night
  • Had time to spare for spontaneous fun activities

I’m not saying this to brag, but to provide an insight into what is possible with a little bit of structure and motivation. If I can do it, anyone else can.

I’ve found that the core to being able to “self hack” your education isn’t about whether you are a part of a system or not, but it’s about the mindset that you have when it comes to being able to critically consider the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the opportunities around you, and taking the best of what is around.

An illustration that can be used is imagine shopping for a set of wrenches. Not every repair project that you take on will require every single size of wrenches, but most people would rather get a whole set of wrenches rather than just one or two. And sometimes you’ll encounter projects where none of the tools in the set are adequate for what you are working on, and you’ll need to go out of your way to get a specialized tool for that specific scenario.

School, while providing access to a great deal of connections. knowledge, and experience, is much like a standardized set of tools that a person can draw upon when faced with different projects. It isn’t sufficient for solving every problem, and many of the tools acquired in school you will never actually find a use for. Thus, the mindset when it comes to self directed learning is your ability to combine the tools that you personally need, whether it be knowledge, experience, or connections.

The reason why most college students are simply satisfied with the tools that colleges give and rarely go out of their way to learn is because they have no idea why or what they need the tools for. And as I mentioned, the most important aspect of self directing your education is knowing what you want to achieve, and having a purpose for learning.

Self hacking your education in general isn’t simply doing whatever you want, but it’s about having systems that facilitate learning through understanding the value of the opportunities that are around you.

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In Life

By Daniel Kao

Providing Value by Reducing Risk

On 26, Jun 2014 | No Comments | In Life | By Daniel Kao

Many companies become successful by reducing risk for their customers.

Lyft and Uber exist to take the risk out of hitchhiking. AirBnB exists to take the risk out of letting strangers into your house. Insurance is a huge industry dedicated to taking the risk out of everyday life.

The company that is able to take on risk for their customers in such a way where they can systematically deal with risk at scale is a company that has a solid value proposition.

But even on a day to day basis, being able to reduce risk for someone else builds rapport and stronger relationship whether it be through doing work for someone else, doing small favors, or even simply providing advice.

What risks are you helping to reduce in the people around you?

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Common Core – What is it and What Difference Does it Make?

On 23, Jun 2014 | No Comments | In Education | By Daniel Kao

Before we begin, I’d like to preface this post by saying that I am not claiming to be an expert in education or common core. I have never been a school administrator or a teacher, so this post is simply a compilation of my personal thoughts and research on common core. If you spot an inaccurate comment or interpretation or simply want to spark some good natured discussion (please share your perspective), feel free to leave a comment.

Feel free to check out the official website or video for the Common Core for more background and information.

What is Common Core?

In simple terms, Common Core is a set of unified standards that benchmark what each child should know at a certain grade level. It’s purpose is to unify standards across the country so that every elementary, middle, and high school have the same standards of being “college ready” across the board. It’s framed as a solution to our national achievement crisis, supposedly being the way to fix the lack of college preparedness.

The Common Core consists of math and english learning standards that can be seen here.

Up to this point, most States have begun to adopt common core, but other states are beginning to repeal Common Core, finding it difficult, frustrating, and confusing. Again, since I have no experience as an educator, I will refrain from making comments about the standards themselves and the quality of the standards. I’ll leave that discussion to much more qualified individuals.

First Things First

Before we can begin discussing the implementation of Common Core and whether it plays a positive or negative role in our schools, we must define what the goals of education, and more importantly the goals of school are. Unfortunately, this point in it of itself has advocates from all over the spectrum, leaving it nearly impossible to talk about a set of goals that everyone can agree on.

But for all intents and purposes of this post, I will be building my interpretation and perspective of the Common Core off of my convictions of education. In case you haven’t been reading my blog long enough to get a sense of what I believe about education, I’ll give a quick run down.

I believe that the goal of education isn’t to educate a certain collection of knowledge into our children, but to educate our children in such a way that they would be empowered to find their most fulfilled place in the world.

I believe that the goal of education isn’t to educate a certain collection of knowledge into our children, but to educate our children in such a way that they would be empowered to find their most fulfilled place in the world. I believe that education should cultivate growth through fostering a child’s creativity and curiosity by providing them the tools and instruction that is necessary. I believe that the best education isn’t a school that tells students what to do, but an environment made up of resources, peers, and mentors that equip students with a practical toolkit for their specific path in life.

I believe that the goal of education is to create the next generation of thinkers, innovators, and leaders. I believe the goal of education is to help students grow in such a way that they can be challenged to fearlessly tackle and solve the problems of the future, whether it be social, technological, or otherwise.

On Standardization

With that perspective of education in mind, it brings up the question “what should be standardized, if anything?”

As Sir Ken Robinson points out, standardization is not a bad thing. Many things require standardization for our world to operate. It would be hard to imagine a world without a standard set of rules and regulations governing things from products to behavior.

However, when it comes to students, it becomes a fatal mistake to apply the same mindset from products and services onto students. Every student is unique. Parents can attest to the fact that applying the same set of standards and expectations to multiple children simply doesn’t work because each child is so different. It doesn’t make sense in light of our definition of education and human nature to force every student into the same cookie cutter mold.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

However, although I believe that students themselves should not be standardized, I think there is a difference between writing a set of standards for the students and writing a set of standards for skills. Somewhere along the line, a distinction needs to be made between who a student is and what a student does.

For example, if you walk into a physician’s office, you’re going to want the physician to have background in human biology before you’re likely to trust the physician’s judgment on your physical condition. You’re going to want a standard that the physician adheres to.

In that sense, we should be careful to ensure that students acquire skills that can be backed up by standards, instead of educating students so they fit a standard. The difference is nuanced, but with extremely significant implications.

A student who is taught to achieve a standard learns that they must look exactly like a profile of a model student, often teaching students that their future success is dependent on how well they can fit the profile. But students who are empowered to most effectively be themselves learn that they will have to pick up skills of a certain standard in order to achieve where they want to go.

Tying it All Together

Bringing it back to Common Core, it seems to work in theory to apply a set of standards defining “college preparedness” to students all across the country. But in practice, I don’t think that the Common Core State Standards will do much to change how much students are learning.

As I looked deeper into education and different learning philosophies, I’ve found that the most foundational differences to learning lie in the psychological and emotional areas of a student. In other words, the most important influences on how a child learn is their environment that is made up of their community, teachers, peers, standard of living, prospects of the future.

The reason why many charter and private schools do so well isn’t because of their standards, but because of the culture and environment they cultivate in their classrooms. It isn’t so much about the standards as much as it is making sure that the student is in a safe place. All the young and hip startup companies are beginning to understand the importance of a good company culture, and I believe we will see the same effects when we apply a positive learning environment to our schools.

Without a proper and healthy environment for students, implementing learning standards will likely have negligible effects. It doesn’t matter whether the standards are of quality or not, the problem is that the standards are being implemented in a way that does not consider improving the learning environment of schools, practically forcing a standardization of students.

Students deserve to be free to be themselves in their learning, and teachers deserve to be themselves in their teaching.

tl;dr – Common Core is the right solution to the wrong problem. Standards in it of themselves are not a bad thing, but it depends on how they are applied. The lack of “college preparedness” isn’t because of a lack of standards, it’s because we aren’t creating the right culture for our students to learn.

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In Life

By Daniel Kao

Embracing Uncertainty

On 19, Jun 2014 | No Comments | In Life | By Daniel Kao

Last Friday, as I was about to get on the ramp for the freeway, my car’s electrical systems gave out.

I reached for the emergency lights after my car had begun sputtering, and the lights would not turn on. Instinctively, I decided not to get on the freeway, sputtered a quick U-turn, and pulled into a nearby In-n-Out parking lot.

Needless to say, I spent the next couple of hours figuring out how to get it towed back to my apartment.

Unforeseen incidents happen all the time. Whether something breaks, an accident happens, or some other kind of surprise, things happen.

Last month, I read Robert M Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was a deep introduction into stoic philosophy through a story of a cross country motorcycle trip a father takes with his son.

According to Ryan Holiday, stoic philosophy is centered around the idea that “You can’t always control what happens to you, but you can always control how you respond”.

“Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.” – Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

It may be hard to remain positive when unforeseen events are happening and emotions are triggered, but the people who are able to respond rationally will always come out on top of whatever situation they are put in.

The obstacle is the way.

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