Dr Duncan Riach


I’m antifragile as fnck. Please break me.

Photo by Jordan Whitt (via StockSnap)

What happens when you must be the minimum viable product

This is a story about me and my friend up-leveling our careers, about him becoming a React Native developer, and about me becoming a world-class expert in AI. It’s a story of reciprocal inspiration, and of the power of antifragility, especially in the hiring process. This story is unfolding right now.

My friend Dago runs a consulting business from France. He helps companies enhance their web presence through things like website design and search engine optimization. He is also passionate about a new technology from Facebook called React Native, which enables you to write mobile apps in Javascript, and then compile them to run on any mobile device. He’s been using React intensely for over a year, and has become an expert. Dago is becoming a professional React developer. He needs to get paid for it so that he can do it full time. React developers are in really high demand.

I became friends with Dago when I met him on a trip to Paris with my wife, Cindy. Cindy already knew Dago because they were both part of an international community of people focused on authentic relating. After we met, Dago and I interacted a lot on Facebook. We discovered that we shared a similar sense of humor: quick and dry.

A few months ago, I started keeping a list of people I wanted to spend more time with and Dago landed on that list. I reached out to him and scheduled a Skype call. That first call was a little awkward; we both had high regard for each other, but we didn’t know what to talk about. Dago’s desire for a career shift soon came up in the conversation, and so we talked about that. He hadn’t realized the success that I had had in my past in the realm of engineering, nor how I had switched gears into psychology. I naturally started mentoring him around his career.

Dago is very much like me. He is highly competent and aspires to great things, but often lacks belief in himself and his capabilities, or at least he tends to think he’s not ready to level-up. We also share the same Enneagram Personality Type (Type Three, The Achiever). Dago started telling me about where he wanted his career to go, and I got the sense that he was aiming really low. I supported him in acknowledging and expressing what he really wanted. There were early-stage companies that he was really impressed with, and which he wanted to work with, but he believed that he could never work there. Through my own story, and by helping him to see the large possible benefits and small possible risks, Dago started to dream that what he really wanted was possible. He lit up, his energy grew, and his passion blossomed. He was on the right path.

Over the next few weeks, I think we met one more time via Skype, and I watched and encouraged him as he prepared his resume and sent it out to various companies. We talked about the concept of minimum viable product as used in the lean start-up approach, of which he is very familiar. Applying for a job is like that: what value do you have right now, how can you best package and deliver it, and how can you quickly get end-user feedback?

Aside: a while back, I wanted to write an article about how friends can encourage each other simply by believing in each other. I believe in Dago, and he, reciprocally, believes in me. I love knowing that there is another person who is 100% certain that I am going to thrive.

Soon, Dago asked if he could come and stay with us in the San Francisco Bay Area for a couple of weeks. I felt a little cautious about this. I have not been in many roommate situations, and the few that I have been in didn’t work very well. I value my privacy and personal space a lot. I shared these concerns with Dago, but said that I was willing to try it.

It turned out that Dago was really respectful of space, noise, and privacy, and it was a pleasure having him stay with us. Dago and I are both very introverted, and we like to work a lot. Much of the time, he was working on the sofa in the living room, and I was working at my desk in my office. Throughout the day, I would wander in, and we would start talking about software engineering, technology, start-ups, productivity, philosophy, business, and many other topics. We spent dozens of hours over those two weeks talking with each other.

I spent years in high school pretending to learn French, and I thought that I had not really learned anything, but I found that I could understand many of the words that Dago was using when he talked on the phone with his fiancée back in France. I wanted to learn some more French from him, so he taught me to say, “je t’emmerde toi en particulier!” Which means, “Fuck you in particular!”

While Dago was visiting, he inspired me to make some bold moves in my own life. I’m finishing my PhD dissertation at the moment, and it’s almost complete. Next, I knew that I wanted to either join a start-up or start my own company. A coaching session helped me to get clarity that I really want to join or start a company that is fundamentally advancing artificial intelligence. Instead of looking around for whatever random job opportunities might have been out there, I got focused, and asked people I knew who had contacts at the kinds of companies I really wanted to work at.

One of my goals is to be in a technical leadership role in an early-stage, funded start-up which is fundamentally advancing artificial intelligence. I also want to be in a culture that is fun, intellectually honest, and focused on quality and smart use of energy and effort. I either want to join such a company, or to start one of my own. Particularly if it’s my own company, I will encourage meditation, exercise, enough sleep, social time, family time and other things that lead to increased creativity and productivity. These things lead to sustainability, and to long-term success.

Within a few days I had some leads, and I was sending out customized resumes, plus customized cover-sheets with bullet-point lists highlighting the ways that I seemed to fit the companies and roles. I started having video-chats and live meetings. So far, under NDA, I have seen several secret labs containing amazing technology.

I had a really good chat with the Director of Software Engineering at one company, and the following week I went in for a technical interview. I was there for four or five hours. Although this was the first technical interview I’d had in about twenty years, I seemed to scrape through, and they offered me a job as infrastructure lead. That means leading the development and operation of the remote part of an internet-connected product.

After seeing what other opportunities were available to me, and spending more time reflecting on what I wanted, I realized that this company and role were not focused enough on fundamentally advancing artificial intelligence. They’re only planning to use AI in the product. It was really hard for me to turn down a perfectly good job offer, and I felt bad about letting them down, but I had to stay true to what I really wanted.

I also had several conversations with the CEO of company that is working on accelerating artificial intelligence algorithms. After first meeting with them, and seeing their technology, I felt overwhelmed and unclear about whether it was right for me. After a night of sleep and a morning meditation session, I was able to fully digest all of the new information. While meditating, it suddenly became very clear to me that I was perfect for this role, and I felt really excited about it. It was a perfect mix of my skills and experience, and also a growth opportunity that was really exciting to me. I immediately emailed the CEO and arranged to visit again.

In the second visit, I had two technical interviews. These interviews were with software engineers that worked for the main investor in the company. Afterwards I thought that I had failed both interviews. It took more than a week for me to discover what really happened because both the CEO and I were away on vacation. When we got back, we talked on the phone and I found out that one of the interviewers had said yes and that the other had said no. I know it sounds crazy, but I ended up spending over an hour on the phone with this CEO supporting him in figuring out how to confidently hire me, and keep his investors happy, even though I did poorly on one of the interviews. I referred him to my extremely positive references, and we discussed various hiring experiences that we both had from the past.

I understand why I failed the interview. It makes total sense. I was extremely rusty and I was not prepared for technical interviews. I was tired—this being the second hour of interviewing with almost no break—and I was trying too hard because I really wanted the job. A year ago, I had been preparing a lot for coding interviews and I would have probably done much better then. The frustrating thing is that I know that the performance on that interview is totally uncorrelated with how I would perform in the role, even on the specific things that the problematic question was intended to test for.

I told the CEO about the story of an engineer who I once interviewed and rejected. People that had worked with in the past advocated for him, and my decision to not hire was overridden. He ended up reporting to me, and he turned out to be one of the best engineers in the company.

I spoke with the CEO the following week, after they had had a long meeting discussing the situation. They decided that even though they really wanted to, it was too much of a risk to hire me as the first software engineer. He said that they could hire me after they have already hired one or two others. I felt a little bit shocked and amazed that I could get this far, and for everything to seemingly fit so perfectly, and then for me to have self-thwarted by not being prepared in such a simple way.

I still find it hard not to see myself working at that company. I had already started working on their technology, and developing it for them. Throughout the discussions I started planning out architectures and roadmaps for them, unable to stop myself. I know this company is going to be very successful. Today I persuaded a friend and past colleague to apply.

I find my mind wandering to self-judgement. I have surmounted many extremely challenging technical obstacles in my engineering career. These interview problems are not difficult. They’re actually trivial, which seems to be much easier to see once the pressure of the interview is off. If I could have asked more clarifying questions, written a little more Java on the board, and taken some time to relax and enjoy myself, then I would have aced the question I stumbled on.

In reality, I’m not to blame. No one is to blame. I did the very best I could. I dived in and applied to these positions, and things moved quickly. Before I interviewed at the first place, I had only a couple of days to review one set of skills. Because the second set of interviews happened to come one day later, focused on a different set of skills, I had no time to prepare for those as well.

In any case, one cannot prepare for these interviews very well in only a few days. It requires weeks or months of practice in advance. Little by little, one can get deeply primed for technical interviews. I know because I achieved this a year ago.

Last summer, after months of practice, Cindy and I were taking a street-art tour of Barcelona. We came to one piece of symbolic artwork, and the guide explained to us what it meant. Later on the tour, we came to another piece by the same artist. The guide asked our little group if anyone knew what it meant. I could instantly decode it, and gave the correct answer. The guide was shocked, and said, “That’s amazing! Nobody has ever worked that out before!” I smiled and thought to myself, “I’m coding interview ready.”

Even though I seem to have lost the edge I developed, rather than feeling discouraged, I now feel even more motivated to achieve my goals. I find myself re-doubling my efforts to become acquainted with as many aspects of the latest artificial intelligence technology as possible. I’m diving into preparing for coding interviews again, and learning from the ones I’ve had so far. Knowing more clearly where I am going next, I also feel even more motivated to complete my PhD and get it behind me.

Instead of applying for positions a few weeks ago, I could have held back and prepared for coding interviews, but then I might never have had these clarifying experiences. I interviewed at one place and got an offer with almost no preparation. That process helped me get clearer on what I really want. I also found a company that I am really excited about, and I had the amazing experience of going through extensive discussions with them, both about technology and about hiring. I also know that they really want to hire me. There has been some uncertainty, and some surprise—even shock—but I haven’t died. I have met a lot of cool people and I have learned a lot.

When Dago was visiting us, he kept telling me about the book called Antifragile. I started reading it after he left. I now understand that holding back and getting ready rather than launching in is often an attempt to make ourselves robust against failure. In fact, this tends to make us fragile. When we finally dive in, we think we’re prepared even though we might not be. We often dive in and fail, and we do that after spending time and effort trying to become robust.

On one end of the spectrum is fragility, where breakage is destructive. The opposite of fragility is not robustness. Robustness is the ability to resist breakage. Antifragility is at the opposite end of the spectrum from fragility. Antifragile systems become stronger and more adaptive when they break. If you shipped an antifragile product, you might choose to stick a label on it that reads, “Antifragile, please handle carelessly.”

When we dive straight in, we find out where we are not prepared and then we can develop in those areas. We grasp the opportunities that are there, and we have adventures. When we “break,” it makes us stronger.

Interestingly, the epitome of learning and adapting is antifragility. Intelligence can be defined as the ability to integrate experiences and adapt to them, which leads to more effective future behavioral responses. The most effective artificially intelligent systems are inherently antifragile.

I have been learning to become more antifragile. I am developing the courage to immediately leap into situations where there is a large amount of potential upside, and very little downside. What’s the worst that could have happened? I could have not got a job offer. I could have blown my chance with a company that I really wanted to work for. That’s nothing compared with the value that I had to gain from actually discovering what the companies were like inside, from going through some technical interviews, and from learning where I fit in, and don’t fit in.

I know people who send resumes to many companies at once. I have a very focused approach in this process because I’m very clear and specific about what I want. Last week I attended the Machine Intelligence Summit in South San Francisco. The founder of another company that I’ve visited and talked with was there. When I saw her talk, I perceived the company vision more clearly. Feeling excited about that vision, I spoke with her immediately after she came off stage, and then I ended up talking with her at lunch.

At the same conference, the founder of anther company presented his vision, and it resonated with me. I met him immediately after he came off stage, and I then immediately sent him a customized version of my resume.

I also listened to a venture capital parter talk about a problem she sees with companies that form and contain large numbers of experts in AI, but that have no clarity about a product. I have some ideas that could revolutionize industries using AI, so I also met with her after she came off stage, and later arranged to have a phone call with her.

This is all very unusual for me. I never used to dive into things like this. I don’t know if it’s because of my consistent lifestyle practices: meditation, goal review, socializing, or the regular coaching I get. I feel like I’m on fire.

I’m also aware that it’s much easier to see myself as an employee than as a founder of a company with investors. I’ve worked for free for years in a software company I co-founded, but I don’t feel like a real founder yet. It feels to me like this is where my true potential lies, and I’m working on removing my blockages related to this with my coaches and mentors.

Perhaps one of the reasons I’m spending time with all these founders and venture capitalists is to understand that I am also capable of founding a world-changing company. Perhaps it is both my destiny and my responsibility.

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