The second day of Creative Convergence Silicon Valley (C2SV) took an introspective look at Silicon Valley, a land of immigrants, innovators and self-absorbed noobs.
Thuan Pham, the chief technology officer of Uber, keynoted the morning session, detailing his incredible journey from a young boy whose family was forced to flee Vietnam to overseeing engineering for the largest ridesharing company in the world.
Other highlights included a panel on autonomous vehicles, author Antonio García Martínez, whose book Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley delivers a hilariously scathing look at tech, and Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant. The festival concludes this evening with concerts taking place all night in downtown San Jose’s SoFA District.
Uber CTO Thuan Pham, Keynote Speaker
Sometimes parents just don’t understand.
Fresh out of college, Thuan Pham got an engineering job with Hewlett Packard. After three and a half years, he decided to leave the company for Silicon Valley Graphics, Inc. The difference was working for a company with roughly 100,000 employees to one with only a couple thousand.
“My mother did not react well to it,” said Pham, who decided to stop telling her about his career jumps. In the end, it’s worked out pretty nice for Pham, who’s now the chief technology officer (CTO) of Uber.
On Friday, he keynoted the second day of the C2SV Tech + Music Festival and shared his incredible life story, from leaving Vietnam in 1980 as a young refugee and arriving in a new country with no ability to speak English, to overseeing the engineering side of the most successful ridesharing service in the world.
His mother, an accountant who worked odd jobs to support the family during Pham’s youth, may not have been overly impressed with some of his career choices, such as leaving a steady job at a large company. But Pham has won the respect of his peers, if not his daughter.
“My mom doesn’t care (about my job); my daughter thinks I’m cool,” Pham said. “I constantly remind her that she has to work hard. The only reason I got here is because I worked hard my entire life.”
Few companies in history have grown as fast as Uber, which this summer was valued at $66 billion. Now a global company with a presence in more than 60 countries and 400 cities, Uber intends to continue reshaping the way people commute and are transported, including a move to autonomous vehicles in the coming years.
“Our mission is to provide transportation as reliable as running water,” Pham said, adding that he gets “goosebumps” thinking about going to work each morning. Similar to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Pham said, the CTO’s mindset is to never be satisfied with what Uber has already accomplished. The moment that happens, he added, a company begins to “atrophy.”
Much of the conversation with moderator Quinn Tran, who is also from Vietnam and the CEO of GlobALL Connect LLC, focused on Pham’s early years and the keys to now leading a team of 1,000 engineers. But during a question-and-answer session, Pham also discussed challenges the company has encountered, such as how to properly compensate drivers who are spending more and more of their free time driving for smaller financial returns. An increasing amount of Uber drivers has made life easier for riders, but not necessarily for drivers.
“That’s probably a factor we haven’t communicated as well,” Pham said.
As to solving issues like traffic congestion in regions like Silicon Valley, Pham pointed to Uber Pool, a ridesharing service for commuters to share services and save money.
“We already have studies that show the decrease in congestion,” he said.
Empowerment with Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant
Being black in Silicon Valley can be an isolating experience. At Facebook and Google, black engineers make up just 1 percent of the overall workforce. At the biggest tech companies overall, black women comprise just 3 percent.
So for black engineers and entrepreneurs who have charged through systemic barriers to find success in the field, there’s a sense of responsibility to pay it forward. There’s a drive to improve access and opportunity so the Silicon Valley of the future is representative of the world around us.
Aniyia Williams calls it her guiding ethos: “uplift as you climb.”
“That’s a reality as a generation becomes more and more successful than their parents,” Bryant said. “We have to learn how to accept that, but also learn how to give back. That’s everything we do in Black Girls Code.”
The nonprofit she created in 2011 teaches young black women how to code first and foremost, but also adds social relevance into the curriculum.
“We weave that consciousness into the work that we do,” said Bryant, a Tennessee native whose electrical engineering prowess brought her to the Silicon Valley ecosphere two decades ago. “We’re not trying to take them out of the community, we’re trying to keep them in the community and help them rise, too.”
That same consciousness is what inspired Divine to create the BLAK Card, a socially responsible answer to the predatory payday lending industry.
“I’m really pushing my social impact,” he said. “We need to give African-American communities access to these same opportunities.”
Divine, who grew up in a crime-plagued neighborhood to drug-addicted parents, found his way to Silicon Valley through his music. And Twitter.
Toward the end of his 10-year prison stay, Divine read a profile on Ben Horowitz in which the famed venture capitalist mentioned his love of hip-hop.
“I thought that would be crazy if I could go meet him,” Divine told the audience. “That was a goal in my mind.”
When he got out, Divine wrote a rap about Horowitz and alerted him about it in a tweet. Horowitz tweeted back. Divine asked his new Twitter pal for advice about how to succeed in Silicon Valley. The two became friends. Horowitz became a mentor. And Divine, who took all that advice to heart, became a CEO of his own company.
Divine has used his experience to become an evangelist for African-American entrepreneurship and creating businesses that uplift disadvantaged communities. “Black people have always had to create their own industries within those industries that exist,” he said. “Like Black Wall Street.”
Companies reap enormous profits by tailoring products to black consumers. “Look at hip-hop,” Divine said. “We’ve made other people millionaires off of hip-hop. … That’s power. Everybody creates products for us. We need to create products for ourselves.”
Our Autonomous Future
The future car will be electric, shared or autonomous. But will the United States be the first to see that future? Or will it follow the lead of China, Singapore or some other technologically advanced nation? “I don’t think it will happen in the States,” said Stratim CEO Sean Behr. “I think we’ll be a fast follower.”
Venture capitalist Amit Garg posed the question as part of a panel discussion on the future of automation Friday. Peloton Technology cofounder Dave Lyons and self-driving car expert Annie Lien joined the panel, which touched on high-tech’s role in the future of automation. “There has to be some sort of consumer demand,” Lien answered. “It has to be the right environment that doesn’t restrict the risk, and the bold decisions we like to make as technology companies.”
With those two factors—liability and regulations—she said the self-driving revolution would probably see its first big breakthroughs in other countries.
Another factor that could slow down adoption in the U.S. is the American mentality of wanting to be in control. Behr said people are still unsure how well they can trust a computer-driven car, even if it drives better than a human would.
Lien predicted that the distrust would eventually phase out. “You probably won’t give up your own car,” she said. “But the next generation may be more open to the idea.”
Where people live matters, too, Lyons added. In Manhattan, where 70 percent of residents don’t have cars, it’s simply too dense to navigate efficiently by car.
“Once you reach that point where the convenience of it surpasses the need for control, then it will take off,” Lyons said.
For some car companies, Silicon Valley may pose an existential threat. “Will traditional carmakers survive the autonomous vehicle revolution?” Garg asked.
“They won’t all die,” Lien told him, “but maybe a few will lose.”
Lien said it would behoove established manufacturers that have spent the past century innovating on cars to invest their resources in building vehicles that drive themselves. “I think they’re smart enough, they’ll get on board,” she said.
That would require a convergence with Silicon Valley, which is the industry creating the technology needed to make a fully self-driving car, Lien noted. The foray of Google and Apple into the car space can be viewed as either a threat or an opportunity for old-school manufacturers.
The success of ride-hailing apps like Uber—one that’s been able to raise an enormous amount of cash—has certainly put the pressure on carmakers, Behr said.
“As a parallel to the smartphone market, it’s like being Nokia [in the advent of the iPhone],” he said. “If Uber weren’t around, I don’t think [carmarkers] would be as aggressively going after self-driving and those technologies.”