Interview with Sarah Allen

January 14, 2011

Series: Entrepreneurial Heroes

Sarah Allen is a serial innovator with a history of developing leading-edge products, such as After Effects, Shockwave, Flash video, and OpenLaszlo. She has a habit of recognizing great and timely ideas, finding talented teams, and creating compelling software.

Sarah Allen

Sarah Allen is CTO of Mightyverse, a mobile startup focused on helping people communicate across languages and cultures. The technology is still being incubated, but parts of it are emerging at mightyverse.com. Currently, Mightyverse is primarily self-funded, so Sarah is paying the bills with independent consulting and training.

Sarah has led small and large teams and confidently turns vision into reality. She leads a small consulting group, Blazing Cloud, and in her spare time works to diversify the Ruby on Rails community with a focus on outreach to women. In keeping with her belief that programming is a life skill, she also regularly volunteers teaching programming to kids. Sarah believes that open source software provides solid technical foundations and compelling business models. She is an expert with Ruby and Rails and is on the OpenLaszlo core team.

In both technical and leadership roles, Sarah has been developing commercial software since 1990 when she co-founded CoSA (the Company of Science & Art), which originated After Effects. She began focusing on Internet software as an engineer on Macromedia's Shockwave team in 1995. She led the development of the Shockwave Multiuser Server, and later the Flash Media Server and Flash video. An industry veteran who has also worked at Adobe, Aldus, Apple, and Laszlo Systems, Sarah was named one of the top 25 women of the web by SF WoW (San Francisco Women of the Web) in 1998.

Sarah Allen

Transcript: 

An Interview with Sarah Allen CTO, Mightyverse

Date: January 14, 2011

Interview with Sarah Allen [intro music]

Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO of NCWIT, the National Center for Women in Information Technology. This is the next in a series of just great interviews with entrepreneurs who have started some really interesting companies and our interviewee today is no exception. With me is Larry Nelson from W3W3. Hi Larry.

Larry Nelson: Hi, I'm happy to be here. This is an exciting series.

Lucy: What's going on with W3W3?

Larry: Well, we're interviewing all kinds of interesting people. Now, we don't interview only women, just so you know.

Lucy: Oh, OK.

Larry: Our interview not too long ago with Leonard Nimoy was fantastic.

Lee Kennedy: You're such a bragger. [laughs]

Larry: Yes. I couldn't help it.

Lucy: Also with me is Lee Kennedy, who is a director of NCWIT and also a serial entrepreneur. Her latest company is Boulder Search. Welcome Lee.

Lee: Thanks Lucy, always great to be here.

Lucy: Today we're interesting a really busy, interesting person, Sarah Allen. She's currently the CTO and co-founder of Mightyverse. I went and played around at Mightyverse and you just must go. All the listeners must go to Mightyverse and play with it. I don't know, Sarah, if that's the right thing to say, play with it, or not, but I had great fun looking for languages and thinking about phrases. Basically what you've created at Mightyverse what you're calling a language marketplace. And you just don't see a pronunciation or hear a pronunciation, but you see people's faces actually saying it. It looks good on your mobile device. You can be anywhere and go figure out how the heck to say something. Sarah is primarily self-funding this company through some independent consulting work. And one other thing before we get to the interview, I wanted to say especially to our listeners who follow NCWIT and what we do, Sarah has started RailsBridge which is providing free workshops teaching Ruby on Rails aimed at women. Thank you for doing that Sarah and welcome.

Sarah Allen: I'm very happy to be here.

Lucy: Before we start, why don't you tell us a little bit about Mightyverse, over and above what I said, as a way of introduction?

Sarah: Well, I think that it's fine to say that you played with it. I feel like playing is the best way to learn. We definitely want to create an engaging way to learn how to speak languages. And I'm really excited that we just released a collection of Hebrew phrases on the iPhone. So if you have an iPhone or an iPad you can go to the store and for 99 cents get a collection of Hebrew phrases. And we're really in a phase where we're market testing the mobile angle of Mightyverse. So you can see the full collection on the web but we're releasing a series of collections to get feedback from people about the mobile experience.

Lucy: Well, people in the Bay area, I think you can show up and record your phrases and maybe even get a free lunch from Sarah? [laughter]

Sarah: Absolutely. If anybody wants to come and record a phrase in their native language we'd be delighted to have you as our guest.

Lucy: Sarah, you are quite a technologist, obviously you're a chief technology officer. But prior to your work at Mightyverse, you've worked in Shockwave and Flash and you were named one of the top 25 women on the web in 1998. So a very amazing technology career. How did you first get into technology?

Sarah: Well, I started programming in Basic on an Apple II, back in the day when your computer would arrive with a manual that taught you Basic. I really taught myself from a book that shipped with the Apple at that day. And I got into it because my mom went into selling computers after being laid off from teaching in the public schools in the Boston area. And so, she brought an Apple II home and I taught myself.

Larry: Wow.

Lucy: Basic, I learned Basic in my high school math class.

Lee: That's amazing. Had you done other kind of techie things before you jumped into that?

Sarah: I think that that was the first really technical thing that I had done. I didn't see a big division between technical things and non- technical things. My dad had a philosophy where he would always teach both my brother and me everything that he did. He did handy stuff around the house and fixed cars. He taught us both math and different things. So I didn't really see that the computer was a really technical thing. I thought that building physical circuits was really technical and I thought that fixing cars was really technical. But I thought that it was just a toy.

Lee: Yeah.

Sarah: I knew it was a serious thing for my mom and for other people. I approached it as like this adventure, like "Oh, let's play with this thing."

Lucy: Certainly from your position as a CTO, you're always assessing technologies and listeners are always curious to know which ones you see as being the most exciting.

Sarah: Well, I think right now mobile is super exciting. But what's most exciting about mobile is the fact that we now have these huge data storage that we can access. We have cloud computing so that it's really easy to deploy services and to access data stores. We're starting to see a lot of easily interconnected web services. I think we're finally approaching what Tim Berners-Lee meant by the semantic web, this notion of having these services on the web that you can connect to and machines can connect to and make sense of. So, we're starting to be able to assemble fairly complex systems without building every piece ourselves. I think that's really exciting.

Lucy: So it's clear how you got into technology. How did you get into being an entrepreneur?

Sarah: Well I feel like I kind of stumbled into entrepreneurship because all through college I was a teaching assistant at this one class. And these two guys who TA'd with me and then we were head TAs. And we did a number of projects together, coding together. And they both hooked up with another friend of theirs and they decided to start a company. So this happened about six months before I graduated because I graduated in the middle of the year. So I did as like "Well, my friends are starting this company. I'll work there for the summer." And kind of fell into it because I got wrapped up in what we were doing and ended up really being a co-founder of that company. And that was CoSA, which was a company that created After Effects, which is now sold by Adobe. That really gave me the feel for what it meant to be involved in a startup company which otherwise I don't think I really would have understood how exciting that is and why I would have wanted to do it.

Lucy: Tell us what it is about being an entrepreneur that you love so much.

Sarah: Well, I really love creating things that don't exist and solving problems that either people don't see or they don't realize can be solved by today's technology. I think that's really exciting. The thing that convinced me to actually be a software developer, because I graduated from college... I graduated with a CS degree. But I didn't think I was going to be a software developer because I thought it was straightforward. I thought it was like doing crossword puzzles or Rubik's cubes. It's entertaining. But I didn't really take it seriously. I didn't see when I was in college the power of computing and how it can be applied to real world problems because everything seemed really obvious to me. So I figured anybody could do it. And then when I was working at CoSA, CoSA actually was a very small company. We also kept up tech support. And I remember somebody who was calling to ask me about a question who had bought our software said "I didn't think computers could do this." And I realized that I had a unique perspective that I never recognized before. Because of my experience, because of my skills, because of my unique world view, I can see things that I'm not the only person who sees. But the majority of the world doesn't and that's a real opportunity for me. That's kind of exciting.

Larry: Boy, I'll say. Well you mentioned your parents. It was really neat how they had a way of helping steer you somewhat. But I want to talk about your career. Who are some of the people along the way that have supported your career, whether they be mentors or role models or whatever?

Sarah: Early in my career I really struggled with not seeing women role models. That was really important to me. I felt a little isolated. I was often the only woman on my team. I did find men who were great role models. Harry Chesley, who created the Shockwave team and hired me at Macromedia, was the person I learned about the Internet from. He was the first person who I ever heard say that he wanted to work on open source. I asked him what he would want to do if he made it rich and could retire early and he said he would want to write software for free. And I thought that was really bizarre and now I understand what that means.

Lucy: Yeah.

Sarah: And my friend David Simons who I started CoSA with who still works on After Effects at Adobe. He's really always inspired me because he stays true to himself. He always respected me. And he always saw, I think even before I saw things in myself he saw them in me, in terms of what I could do. Our collaboration showed me how we could work together. And those kinds of relationships were really inspiring. It may sound clich�, but my husband has been incredibly supportive, I think another person who will see in me things before I recognize them myself. Having his support in picking through these career choices is super, super important. But after a while I started to get frustrated that I didn't have women ahead of me. I started to feel that maybe I didn't belong. Maybe this wasn't the career for me. Were some of the things happening that I didn't like because of my gender? I didn't know and I felt uncertain about that. I actually read this book about the 50 Nobel prize winners in math and science who are women. And I read an essay about Emmy Noether, who is a German mathematician who was actually the first woman to be paid to be a professor in Germany. But before that she did math because she loved doing math and she lectured under somebody else's name because she was so thrilled with the opportunity to talk to people about her ideas about math. She helped Einstein lay the mathematical foundation for his theories of relativity.

Lucy: Wow.

Sarah: She was just very excited to work with people who had respect for her so it didn't matter that she didn't get paid for it, that the rest of the world didn't acknowledge it because in her small circle, they all knew that Emmy was the person to go to when you had a math question. Then I looked around me and I saw that, OK, I have this group of guys who all respect me and we build great software. I was working on Flash video at the time, working with an amazing team. And I just felt like "Well, this is what I love to do. Forget all of that nonsense. I'm just going to follow what I love and the rest will take care of itself."

Lucy: Well, that's a great story. I think, too, some of the work you're doing with Ruby on Rails giving women the confidence and skill set to get out there and to start contributing in a space is really going to also add role models.

Sarah: It is my hope.

Lucy: And thank you for doing that. So, we are going to turn now, away from technology and mentoring into sort of the dark side of the career. [laughs] And asking about the toughest thing you ever had to do so far in your career.

Sarah: This is actually the hardest question. I am thinking about this interview. There isn't one thing. The hardest thing is really making decisions like the hardest thing for me, it may sound a little tried, is just making priorities, making decisions. I used to feel that they were right answers, and that if there were some negative consequence to a decision I made that then I have made the wrong answer. And what I come to realize is that every decision comes with risks and if am deciding am I going to do A or B or C, each thing has potentially negative consequences. And to make a decision with your eyes open and to say "OK I am going to do this and there might be some fallout and I might do it anyhow." I feel like I make those decisions 20 times a day running a company. I make new significant technical decisions for my neighbors who make strategic decisions, who make those life decisions. Should I be spending this much time on my career instead of my family? It's not really that kind of either/or but all the little decisions add up and they have consequences both good and bad. So, I think that's the hardest thing.

Lucy : Well and sometimes, too, I think. You think if you don't do anything. There is no risk with doing nothing and not making decision, whereas in fact, right?

Larry: Yeah.

Sarah: That's the biggest risk.

Lucy: That's the biggest risk of all.

Sarah: I mean I think that, I probably instead of the most wide spread computer software that I've ever developed was Shockwaves where I wrote... Even though there were only four engineers in the project. I wrote a significant amount of code. I was involved with many, many releases of it. I don't think I got any real risk in developing that. I never did anything that I wasn't sure what's going to work. I really like the civilization in the late 90s. I have never really taken real risks in my career, and so later I started to try to take risks. I was able to do much more impressive things because they didn't know it worked the first time. But if you make a decision, you try to do something knowing that it might not work and litigate that. You can lay a path. You can set expectations that you are experimenting and then you are able to do things that are much more clear.

Lucy: And that brings us to the next question when you think back about all the things you have done in your career, whether it's working with technologies, making decisions or what to do. If you are kind of sum it all that and give advice to somebody that's looking to get in to being an entrepreneur, what advice would you give them?

Sarah: I have couple of pieces of advices. The number one piece of advice is to pick the people you work with first, it's more important than the project, the technology anything else. It's that you are working with great people that you respect for, that you can learn from, that they have respect for you and that you are going to have a great working environment. When I went to college, I would say pick your college class by the professor not by the subject. I feel that's completely true for your working environment. So if you think it's an amazing job but you are not sure about the people or an "OK" job with amazing people, take the OK job with amazing people because the amazing people will turn it into an amazing job. It's more likely your project is going to change than the people change. So, that's the first thing which I think is really important

Lucy: And that's great advice.

Larry: Yeah, you got it.

Lucy: Very true.

Sarah: The second thing is to really find your passion. Find the things that makes you tick, find the things that you love. What is the thing that you can do just forever and never get bored of? And that's what you should be doing. It can be very, as a young person, I didn't know what that was. But when I found it and I didn't recognize that when I found it that I kept following it. What's this thing that I am into? I would pick things. It felt like I was making career choices on a lark. But I would just follow my gut instinct about this. This feel is exciting to me and then in retrospect, I could see a pattern, but it was seven or eight years before I saw a pattern. But I was following what is it that drives me? What is that excites me and that lead me to where I am today.

Larry: Very good, great advice. What are your personal characteristics that have given you the advantage of being the entrepreneur?

Sarah: It's kind of a hard question because I feel like I'm such a different person than I was when I started being an entrepreneur and I feel that the things that made me successful now, they feel like there are very different things that made me successful then. But I think the common thread that runs through it is that it's creative work. At least this is my angle at it. In college, I got two degrees. One in computer science and the other in visual arts. I am at studio art. There are two things that I learned. One was in being creative, sometimes that blank canvass if you want enemy. You need edit the paper. You need to pour your creativity into and creativity is work, like creating that structure for yourself. Creating the path, getting yourself into the creative mindset is working at a discipline. The other thing is being able to receive and give in an affective critique. One of the things that you learned in Art 101 or whatever they called it is we did lots of drawings. Everybody would put their art in the wall and you were supposed to critique it. I would come and I would look at a drawing. It would be like Oh, my God. I can't believe that person just turn that in. [laughter]

Sarah: And if you would say, the composition of the little jumbo but this quality of line really speaks to me. I like the gracefulness of that line and I learned to pick out the parts of a drawing that were really wonderful and disregard the thing that didn't turn out OK. And that made me not only be able to communicate more effectively but more importantly, see things that I otherwise wouldn't see. I think those skills lead me to be able to interact with people and hone my own skills in a way that to give me an advantage of an entrepreneur.

Lucy: I think that's great. Was that your picture that she said about Larry?

Larry: Maybe.

Lucy: Maybe just a little?

Sarah: I would never say.

Lucy: No, never say.

Larry: Thank you. Thank you.

Lucy: No, never say but I just thought that was wonderful. Just to say it. Now, Sarah, you mentioned in your earlier question around decision making about is it the right time for me to be spending this time away from my family and working so much in my career? And so, get us to our next question about bringing balance to your personal and professional lives. Any advice you would like to give the listeners about that?

Sarah: First off, I'm probably the worst person to give advice about work right now.

Lucy: Go ahead. Yeah?

Sarah: I do have a family. I love my family. I wish I could spend more time with them which is ironic because it obviously not a big enough wish to overcome my drive to do other things in my life. And so, in that way you have to have some kind of balance. You have to figure out how you are going to make peace with all of these things that you want in your life. I was very influenced by a woman. I don't know her name who gave a talk at Grace Hopper Celebration of Women Computing. I think it is 1997. Right around that time, I was either pregnant or about to be and it was that talk about having children and having a technical career in. For the first time I heard somebody who actually said that she thought that having a career in technology was an advantage for being a mother. I was expecting to hear all about compromise. But she said it was an advantage and she went through a lot of ways that it really helped her relation with her son. And, what she said was, "You can have it all, just not all at once."

Lucy: That's a good way to put it.

Sarah: That's what I try to do at my best. That when I am home with my family, I am there with them. Like I'm most successful when I can make time to do what I am doing and really do it fully and then decide that "OK, this is time I am not going to spend with my family. I'm going to spend it on other thing and really spend it at that. If you can do that successfully then I think you can have really great balance. But it is really challenging. But it is incredibly rewarding when it does work.

Lucy: Sarah, we've really enjoyed talking to you. Just feels like you've got this Zen about you. So, tell us what's next for you?

Sarah: Well, a lot of things. I am really excited about RailsBridge becoming self sustaining. I read a great book "The Starfish and The Spider." Its subtitle is the "Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations" I'm taking a bunch of lesson on that book in trying to create, help create or empower this group of volunteers and create structure around it so that it can just... The workshops can be self sustaining and don't need me as a leader. Or don't need any leader and they can just work by themselves. It's really exciting that's starting to happen. Also, I'm working to have my consulting company with this grown up around me. It started with just a way to fund my product development ideas but that also started to become a self sustaining company. And then, that will really liberate me to focus on my neighbors. I am really excited to spend more time writing code, spend time figuring out the hard problems around language or even better yet, figuring out the easy problems that are going to be most rewarding first. It's such a vast problem space but there are also so many things that don't require a lot of technology. I am excited about a problem which is as much a human problem as it is a problem for technology.

Larry: Excellent.

Lucy: Well, we are going to stay tuned, that's for sure.

Larry: Yeah.

Lucy: Well, thanks very much Sarah. It was great talking to you. I want to remind listeners where they can find these interviews at w3w3w3.com and ncwit.org.

Larry: We are really looking forward to it. We are going to follow you, Sarah.

Sarah: Great, you can follow me on Twitter at my hacker identity. It's all sorts.com. Like the dinosaur.

Lee: OK. Cool. We will be there.

Lucy: Thank you so much.

Sarah: All right.