A Candid Conversation with Jialiya Huang about hardware development, working with co-founders, and what it feels like to get a company off the ground.
Jialiya Huang, class of 2013.5, founded Technical Machine with Tim Ryan, class of ‘13.5, and Jon McKay, class of ’13, this summer. The company launched Tessel, their first product on September 5th, and is both thrilled and innervated by all the interest the Tessel has received already on Hacker News, Hackaday, and Japanese Slashdot.
Full disclosure, I’m working for Technical Machine too– mostly on press and marketing at the moment. But it was still a great opportunity to speak with Jialiya at length about the future of hardware development and her personal goals in starting a company.
BRESEMAN: Is Tessel just a starting place for your users to get into hardware?
HUANG: Right now, when software developers look at something like hardware, the first thing that I think of is, if I create something cool, how do I share it with the world? That’s one of the biggest things that I want to do with any software library that I write, is put it up in the open, have people using it, and put my name out there.
Tessel is trying to make it easier for that entire process to happen.
Currently, the set of knowledge that you would get from making one hardware device doesn’t really translate into making more of them. Tessel is trying to streamline that entire process so that if you can make one, you can make ten; there’s a service that lets you make 100, or make 1,000.
BRESEMAN: How does Tessel streamline that process?
HUANG: Some of the things that we looked into in particular were other services: an API for hardware, essentially. You have all these capabilities that you want on your device– let’s say I want Bluetooth and accelerometer, for remote sensing or something. And that’s all I need. And I can do that on an Arduino: I can get an Arduino accelerometer shield; I can get an Arduino Bluetooth shield. But in order to migrate onto my own PCB requires me to now know hardware design. Whereas with the Tessel, what I hope to accomplish is making a service so that someone can say, here’s what I need, and then we send them back something that is exactly that.
BRESEMAN: What is most exciting to you about Technical Machine?
HUANG: Everything is incredibly exciting because I have no idea what’s going to come the next day.
We were unsure about technical development, the first few months. That was a lot of getting our heads down, making sure that what we were proposing was feasible. Of course, that has its own highs and lows. And then all of a sudden we launched on Hacker News, and suddenly we were getting so much attention that we had to respond to it, and it’s just been building up.
There are so many decisions that we need to take care of, and that we need to think about. It’s very different from any other job I’ve had. I’ve been an intern at other places, but those are very much low-level. You get thrown a very specific task, or a chunk of a task; the parameters are very well-defined. But with Technical Machine, because we’re creating this company and creating the market as we go along. Every decision that we make is impactful.
BRESEMAN: What are you worried about at the moment?
HUANG: Absolutely everything. I’m worried about moving out of my house, I’m worried about finding enough things to eat. What happens when we’re no longer at Highland and I don’t have access to oatmeal 24/7?
I’m worried about living, and then I’m worried about the business, and then I’m worried about technology and how this is going to go.
BRESEMAN: Are you still glad you’re doing this?
HUANG: Yes. This is definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had. It’s amazing how easy it is to actually do. A lot of our– looking at where we are right now versus where we started the summer, we are so much further than I thought we would get. Opportunities just pop up, and we grab them. It sets us on a path to success, almost.
I went to a talk by the creator of- they’re now called Ink, they were called Filepicker.io– Brett van Zuiden, and he was saying how you can just set yourself on railroad tracks. You make all these goals, and then all you have to do is hit them. And hitting goals is something you’ve been trained to do since you started to do: you have a test; all you need to do is pass that test. You have a project; all you need to do is get to the next stage of the project. And along the way, people have opened themselves up to us and have said, “Hey, why don’t you do this? We’ll give you expertise in this field,” and all we have to do is take it. And we take it, and we’re like, “Oh, that was a good decision.” And then that just leads to more good decisions.
I guess starting at Highland was the very first good decision we made, and since then I think we have been setting ourselves up for better decisions. It’s not so much of a “what the hell are we doing”, and more like, “here are the five possible choices; let us pick out the best of these five based on these metrics.”
BRESEMAN: You’re going back for another semester at Olin- are you going to leverage the Olin community while you’re there?
HUANG: Definitely at least for testing, and I think that we should also be able to leverage the Olin community for some development tasks. There are plenty of good engineers at Olin. Plenty of them are hacking away at stuff anyway, and they’re very much a demographic that we want to hit with our market: tinkerers, hackers, whatever. And I also think that they would be good people to bring on for at least some projects– we need to ship out a ton of peripherals. We want to have a great community in place when Tessel first launches, and I think Olin is a great place to get that started.
BRESEMAN: How does it feel to be running a company and going back to Olin at the same time?
HUANG: Really strange. School feels very familiar; I know exactly what I’m going to be doing in school, and it’s not dangerous, and I get kind of a warm feeling because I’ve been there the last four years.
On the business side, I’m always angsting about Technical Machine. It’s the combination of not a lot of anxiety, because we have a lot of safety in this– just because it’s Olin, it’s like coming home, really. I know that I can be safe, that I can hide, at Olin, from people that I don’t want to see on the internet, for example.
I’m taking like 12 credits. One of them is E! Capstone, which will literally be working on this business; one of them is Chinese, because I’ll be going to China for manufacturing, and the other one is Sanjoy’s Bayesian class, which I heard was good.
I’m not worried about the workload because I got all my hard work out of the way. Hopefully I can just cruise and have a free place- well, a very expensive place to stay while I work on the business.
My mom told me that I had to get my degree. I told her, “Oh, look, we’re trying to raise a round, things are going well–” and she’s like, “I hope you stay in school!” No, mom, God! You don’t understand!
BRESEMAN: Have you seriously considered dropping out?
HUANG: I don’t really care about the degree. I think that I’ve gotten a lot of Olin these past four years, to the point where if I was the weakest link here– if everyone else would have been working in Boston, in an office together, I would have dropped out. But since Tim also had a semester to finish and he’s not dropping out, and I think it’s important for the team to stay together in this sense, because Tim’s at Olin, I’m going to be joining him at Olin.
BRESEMAN: Is there anything else you would like to say to the Olin community?
HUANG: I wish there were more companies started out of Olin. I think that the skill set of building a company is very transferrable when you’re in a community such as Olin.
It’s hard to start a company when you’re the only one doing it and you don’t know anyone else.
Not even just to start a company, but even when you’re starting to get some momentum and you have incoming investors wanting to talk to you. There’s all this weird shit in business that they don’t teach you that- it makes no logical sense, but it’s the status quo, and having someone who’s at least with you, or one step ahead of you, just getting really quick feedback from them is super useful. And having someone else in the same situation, who can ground yourself in– where you can feel like this is a normal state to be in. Because for a lot of students, it’s not. It’s not normal to not be doing an internship at a big company, but it should be the normal for Olin, because that is what our education consists of: design, engineering, business.
It seems like a lot of Olin rhetoric, especially when you’re an incoming student, is, you should start your own business! This will teach you to be a great entrepreneur, because you’ll have all these skill sets. And then it turns out that no one’s starting a company, or very few are. It’s just weird that we’re educated for that, and yet we’re taking jobs which are safer. I think that if a community starts growing around the idea of starting a company, it becomes much easier for other people to enter into it. And a lot of resources get cheaper because they can be shared.
Read more about Technical Machine online at technical.io, and particularly on their blog (often written by yours truly). Additionally, check out their successful crowdfunding campaign at dragoninnovation.com!