Interview with Niniane Wang
Niniane Wang began programming in basic on a game console from Radio Shack when she was just five years old. Now serving as the CTO of Minted, Niniane has come a long way in her technological pursuits.
Niniane is the CTO of Minted, a San Francisco startup that crowdsources graphic designs from a global community and allows consumers can customize and purchase online. Niniane was formerly an engineering manager at Google (5 years) and Microsoft (5 years). She was a member of the founding team on Google Desktop which reached 38 million monthly users, for which she received the Google Founder's Award. She led a team on Gmail Ads, and also founded Google Lively. Niniane has 30 patents in various stages of filing. She co-founded Sunfire Offices, a collection of top entrepreneurs, engineers, and designers. Niniane graduated from Caltech in computer science with honors at age 18.
An Interview with Niniane Wang CTO, Minted
Date: September 6, 2011 [music]
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders, the CEO of the National Center for Women in Information Technology, or NCWIT and with me is Larry Nelson from W3W3. Hi, Larry. How are you?
Larry Nelson: Oh, I'm magnificent and very excited about being here.
Lucy: Well we're doing another interview today as part of the NCWIT Entrepreneurial Heroes series with great women entrepreneurs, people who have started companies and all types of technology sectors and have told us fabulous sectors. I think today is going to be especially good because we have the pleasure of interviewing a Chief Technology Officer...
Lucy: ...which we always like to do. Today we're interviewing Niniane Wang, the CTO of Minted, and it's a great site. I went there last night to take a look at it and immediately sent the URL to two people who I know are in the world of design. Minted is a start-up out of San Francisco and it uses technology to crowd source graphic design for a global community. It's really a great site. You can go there and discover the work of great designers from all over the world. They have design challenges. People who achieve a popular vote have their designs on stationery and invitations. It's just a really interesting process for getting great new designs out there. Niniane, super cool and fun. What a great site. She's got a great track record at Google and Microsoft and she's now the CTO. Niniane, tell us a little bit about Minted and what's going on there.
Niniane Wang: Thank you for that intro. I'm really glad that you enjoy our site. I thought you did a great job of explaining our mission. I t's great to hear that. I joined Minted about a year ago and I've been so happy. I lead the technology team including the engineering and technical operations. As you described Minted is a growing community of graphic designers from all over the world. We crowdsource designs for them in contests. The top ones are then sold on our site as templates where other people can customize and purchase anywhere from business cards, calendars, notebooks, wedding invitations, holiday cards, stationery, anything that has a design and is printed. I'm just very happy to be working with the amazing team here. It's a group of super-capable people who are very passionate. I feel lucky to come in to work every day.
Lucy: Well some of our listeners might not know what a CTO or a Chief Technology Officer does. Why don't you say a couple words about that?
Niniane: Basically the Chief Technology Officer manages the strategy and execution of technology within the company. For us, it is web software as well as operational software, in terms of keeping the website experience very usable, making sure that the [indecipherable 00:02:57] graphic designers that we service, as well as our customers, will have a world-class experience that is fast and able to help them achieve their goals. Then after orders are placed making sure that the software that lets each order be reviewed by a graphic designer will work smoothly, and then the technical operations of keeping our servers running on our site and internally.
Lucy: That's a great job.
Niniane: For all of those things I lead the day-to-day operations as well as setting long-term strategy and vision.
Lucy: Well, and that gets us to our first question around your experiences as an entrepreneur. How did you first get into technology? A follow-on question which I'll ask just right now, as you look out on the landscape today at technology, which ones do you see on the horizon that are particularly interesting?
Niniane: OK. I got into technology by programming in BASIC when I was 5. It was very serendipitous. My parents had immigrated to the US so that my dad could get a Ph.D. in math. They didn't have a lot of time or money and they bought this game console from Radio Shack because we couldn't afford like a Nintendo. We just bought this Radio Shack game console, but it happened to have a BASIC interpreter on it. If you didn't have any game cartridges you could write BASIC programs. They came with a book of BASIC programs. I would just start copying in the programs. It was very visual, so all the programs basically looked like screen savers. They would be lines or triangles, some of the times the triangles move around the screen. I just amused myself this way. I think that learning has to be fun. It was very rewarding and a lot of instant gratification to type in something. I couldn't type yet, so I would just peck and take a really long time to tap in the program, but then getting the visual result was so wonderful. Actually, when I was eight, I went and took this beginner programming class. Then I discovered that I already knew how to program from typing in these BASIC programs, but I didn't know that that was what I was doing. Then once I had learned that throughout growing up, we encountered various people like grad students that my parents knew who thought it was fun to teach me other programming languages. In their spare time, they taught me LISP and I would play around with programming. I think most passionate programmers that I know started doing it because it was so fun.
Lucy: You know, I wonder how many programmers got their start out of Radio Shack. [laughter]
Lucy: I remember going to the Radio Shack.
Larry: At five to eight years old, yes.
Lucy: Yeah. What's your crystal ball reading on the technologies of the future.
Niniane: Well I'm really excited by the Kindle, for one. I think it's changed the world of books and of publishing and made it accessible to people instantaneously. I've bought ten times as many books because of the Kindle. I carry my Kindle everywhere. I'm excited by disruptive technologies like that. Also for me personally, I like more artistic technologies, things that are very beautiful. I like a lot of these photo apps that have come out recently and a lot of the ways to use technology to create beautiful movies, beautiful modifications to peoples' existing videos and photos and being able to share that easily.
Lucy: I like the Kindle too. I just got to hold one for the first time. I'm a little behind.
Lucy: They're really excellent machines.
Larry: She's always on top of things. [laughter]
Niniane: Yeah. I guess in this vein I think human-generated content is becoming more and more critical. First we saw user-generated web pages. Then we saw proliferation of user-generated social information, updates of what people are doing. Then photos, statically, and videos, and now I think we are seeing more proliferation of people creating art. I see that as one of the most personally exciting movements that is coming up, of people creating... On Minted, they create these beautiful graphic designs, and I think, all forms of art, like the Kindle, allowing people to publish beautiful novels and works in writing, programs like Instagram, allowing people to share their beautiful photography with each other. A lot of interesting sites cropping up that now that we have passed the survival mode of people sharing functional information with each other, now we're going into, you could say the Golden Age of people sharing beautiful art with each other.
Larry: Now I know you're a CTO, but what is it about the entrepreneurial spirit that makes you tick?
Niniane: I really like being able to make fast progress. We sometimes have ideas that we then execute within a day, or even a few hours, we can start making progress on those ideas. This time between having an idea and to when it's live in our sight can be very short. I find that very rewarding.
Niniane: There's a lot to do. The whole company is rowing one boat together, so people's interests are aligned. It's all about making fast progress toward a really passionate vision that everyone shares.
Larry: That's great. That is super.
Lucy: Well I think the thing about fast progress is really, we hear that a lot. It's the ability to decide and move I think that a lot of people really like about the startup companies.
Lucy: Yeah, absolutely. Niniane, who supported you or led you into this entrepreneurial career path? I know you had experience with larger corporations and you chose to then come to a smaller company and help it get its footing. Why?
Niniane: Well I was surrounded by many people who have chosen to join a startup or create a startup. Many of my ex-Google friends have started their own startups and were able to talk pretty candidly with each other. I think that many people, too many to list, have really benefitted me by being honest with their own experiences and by showing with their own example how fulfilled they feel by being able to turn their vision into reality and to have a large impact on their startups.
Larry: All right. I've got another tough question for you.
Lucy: [laughs] With the word tough in it.
Larry: With the word tough in it, yeah. Lucy: [laughs] Larry: What is the toughest thing that you've had to do in your career?
Niniane: There are actually a couple of things that I would say have both been very tough, both around projects ending in a way that was less successful than I would like. When you work in large corporations, sometimes projects will get cancelled. I would say that project cancellations would be the toughest things that I've experienced, both in my own having to come to terms with accepting that certain visions will not be carried out, and sometimes then having to be the extension of carrying that out even though it's very painful for me having to then carry out the ramifications of that decision. I think that the cases that I can see how events led and my own actions contributed as well. I can see the responsibility that I and the circumstances and other people combined to lead to these projects ending prematurely, but it's always a very painful thing because I tend to really put my heart into the project and fall in love with it. Having something end is like divorce or like your spouse dying. [laughs] It's a very painful process, but I think that that's what happens when you take risks. Overall, I recognize the necessity and I can self-reflect and think about what I can do better in the future. But at the time it's always a very challenging experience.
Lucy: I just so resonate with that. My background is in R&D at Bell Labs. That was a very painful part of being on leading-edge projects because they technically could be wonderful, but also ahead of their time or people didn't know how to sell them or the population not ready or perhaps technically they just didn't come together. But, really great technologists do fall in love with their projects. T,hat's what makes them great.
Niniane: Yeah, except the fact that then have to tell other people that have also fallen in love with it either users or other team members who are equally in love and who are pleading to have it go on, to be the person to tell them that it cannot, when I myself am also grieving. I think that is also very challenging, but it is a learning experience.
Lucy: It is an essential component of leadership, unfortunately, for sure. Well, if we had a young person on the phone and pre-career and you were giving them advice about entrepreneurship, what advice would you give them?
Niniane: I would give two pieces of advice. The first advice is a quote that says "Never compare your insides with someone else's outsides." [laughter]
Lucy: Say that one more time. That's great.
Niniane: The quote is "Never compare your insides with someone else's outside."
Niniane: The idea is that inside we're all feeling bad or nervousness, or we might be having some tension with someone we're working with that we're working through, but it's causing us stress. From the outside, we all seem perfect and completely on top of everything. If you are looking at somebody from a distance, if you are basically looking at their PR around them, you're not going to see all of their human foibles that they share just like everyone else. What can happen is that, especially as an entrepreneur, you're going through so many challenges and taking risks. If you just look at other people from a distance you won't see they're going through the same thing and you'll feel isolated. It helps if you have some close friends who are going through similar experiences that you can talk to and talk candidly. If you just talk to distant acquaintances, they'll always say things are going perfectly and everything is wonderful. It's important to have close friends you can talk candidly with to feel more supported. The second piece of advice I have is go read a book that I recently read. It's called Touch the Top of the World. It's by a man named Erik Weihenmayer. It's an autobiography. He had an eye disease as a child, and he went blind by age twelve. At first he really struggled and felt victimized and felt, "why me?" That it's so much harder for him to do something basic like walk down the hall. But, then he started to be action-oriented and to learn how to triumph despite this adversity. He started doing wrestling because it's a close contact sport. Then he started doing rock climbing. He then went on to climb mount McKinley. Then he summitted Everest. Now he has become the first blind person to climb the seven summits which is the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents, including Antarctica.
Niniane: I read this book and I felt so inspired that this guy went blind and instead of, "Oh I'm going to wallow in feeling disadvantaged in feeling that it's so easy for other people to see the path up a mountain and walk up it," whereas he has to use poles and he has to devise these systems to use sound and to have his climbing partners wear bells and all these complicated procedures, he chose to triumph through them and be action-oriented. I felt really inspired because I think all of us feel disadvantaged in some way. You can either be a victim, I've heard women say, "Oh it's so much harder for women and men do this they get away with it, it's so much more difficult." Or people will say, "I'm so much younger people won't take my seriously," or "I'm much older people think I'm obsolete." Everyone has some way that they feel that it's so much harder for them than for most other people. We could either allow it to paralyze us or decide that we will take the actions necessary to deal with that. That is so fulfilling and inspiring to other people. I think that for me, reading this book and seeing how he actually... All these examples of the painful but fulfilling challenges he went through. I see a very interesting parallel to entrepreneurship. I highly recommend it.
Lucy: Wow. Fabulous.
Larry: That's great. Now, you've been with huge companies. You're now CTO at Minted. What do you think your personal characteristics that given you the advantage of this entrepreneurial spirit?
Niniane: A couple of things come to mind. One thing is a tend to do thing because I love them. Not because I think it would be best for my career or because it will impress other people or it will great in five years, something like that. I think that I really follow my heart. Sometimes nervously. [laughter] . But, I really fall in love with my work. It's very hard for me to do work that I'm not in love with. I think that it actually makes a lot of things easier. Because your gut will help guide you. I really believe in Minted's mission. I think we are helping graphic designers all over the world find an outlet for their talents and be able to get community and make money from it. We are helping consumers find excellent unique designs. Being in love with that mission and with the missions of previous projects that I'm working on really make things easier. It makes it possible to travail all through the inevitable bumps that come along the road because you're in love with what you're doing. Just like when you're in love with your child, it's much easier when your child gets sick. I think that has helped. I would say that the second thing that I have found helpful is the throughout my life there were incidents where people told me certain things were impossible or that I would regret doing them and I'd did them anyway and then they were great. [laughter]
Lucy: [laughter] Good for you.
Niniane: I skipped three grades when I was growing up. I graduated high school at fourteen and I went to CalTech and graduated CalTech in Computer Science when I was eighteen. A lot of people told me it was going to be bad in so many ways and that I'd be socially outcast or I would romantically have trouble or various gloom and doom predictions. Even along the way, as I wanted to take more advanced courses or start taking college courses when I was in junior high or whatnot, people had all sorts of predictions about how it'd be so bad for me. I felt like they all were not true. They did not come to pass. Seeing so many people say that things were impossible or they would have these bad repercussions and then have them turn out totally false makes me skeptical when people say now that something is not going to work. I think being a woman in a predominantly male industry there are sometimes people who will say similar doubting statements but to me know I'm used to ignoring that tone of prediction because, in my experience, it tends to not come to pass.
Lucy: The thoughts are just a downer, right? I mean [laughter] , it just like go away and keep those remarks to yourself.
Larry: I have four daughters and they say the same thing.
Lucy: You've mentioned a few times about being in love with your work and it really comes across in how you speak about your projects and about Minted. On the other side of it though, we often have to, should be blending at least a little of our personal time in with work. How do you handle that? The demands of a startup with really being able to hang out with the friends and the family that mean a lot to you.
Niniane: I think it's actually a similar philosophy which is do what you love as much of the time as possible. It doesn't necessarily mean you won't do grunt work, because just like with my analogy with the child, if you love your child you will be doing things you don't particularly enjoy like driving them long distances. But, my philosophy is to spend as much time as possible doing things that I really love, whether that is work or picking up a hobby or reading. I love reading on my Kindle. [indecipherable 00:19:51] whatever that is, I think it is good to spend as much time as possible on it. I've actually seen some research that if you focus on what you like to do, what you really feel passionate about doing that you will then become more successful at it because your mind is focused on it a lot. You will gravitate towards things that you are strong at. I think it's actually when you do what you love, it becomes much easier to blend personal life with professional life because you're not gritting your teeth doing something you don't love and then finally being able to go and do other things that you do love. Or trying to stuff down your instincts to stop doing something that you don't enjoy. I think that when you love the things you're doing, it actually becomes much easier to switch between them or to decide how to allocate time between them.
Lucy: That's true.
Larry: That is absolutely true. You know, Niniane, you have accomplished so much. You've done a great deal with the big companies, which you're doing now. What is it you think you're going to be doing next?
Niniane: Well I was intending to keep doing, just keep following my heart and doing what I love. For the foreseeable future we are doing some really exciting things as Minted and making, building off the successes the site has already had to be able to expand this vision and enable more graphic designers and get our designs out to more consumers in various methods. I know some people like to have a five-year plan, a 10-year plan but I actually feel like the best opportunities of my life have come by being open. I wasn't really looking to switch from Microsoft to Google, but I felt that joining Google would be a good experience. I try to just stay open and listen carefully to my gut and then keep doing things that I enjoy.
Lucy: Well we can't wait to see what those things will be.
Lucy: I just think that Minted is such a great thing.
Niniane: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this interview.
Lucy: Well we enjoyed having you. I want to remind listeners where this is. Although they're listening to us I guess they'd know where it is, but they could pass it along to others. Www.ncwit.org and
Lucy: Thank you very much Niniane we really enjoyed that.
Larry: Thank you. Niniane: Thank you so much.