Let’s start from the beginning. Tell me about your early years and where you come from.
I was born in Thailand in 1980 in a refugee camp near the border of Thailand and Cambodia. It was the aftermath of the Killing Fields where a million Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge’s communist regime. My parents never talked much about that time, since it was so traumatic for them. And I don’t remember anything because I was so young. I do know that both of my parents lost their first spouses during that time.
“I was the poorest person in class, and one of the only Cambodians. At the time, I didn’t realize everyone else was actually pretty poor. But there was still a hierarchy even amongst the poorest of the poor. Like it was hard getting teased for wearing the wrong type of shoes or the same shirt several days in a row.”
My mom did tell me about how I had gotten pneumonia as a baby and almost died. She still has the X-rays. It was very, very hard for her, but she loves telling me that the early sickness boosted my immune system because I rarely got sick after that as a child. Too bad it didn’t last into my 30s. I get colds all the time now.
In 1984, we immigrated to the US as refugees as war. Our airfare was sponsored by a Mormon family, whom I don’t remember ever meeting, but it’s why we converted to Mormonism. We landed in Oakland and I’ve been in the Bay Area ever since.
You may not have super early memories but I’m curious to know what it was like arriving at the States for your family and what adjusting to life in Oakland was like?
My earliest memory is us living in cramped apartments around the Lake Merritt area with my grandmother and cousins. I went to a year-round school called Franklin Elementary, which was predominantly Asian. After the first grade, we moved to West Oakland, and I attended Hoover Elementary which was mostly African-American.
“It felt completely normal to live together with eight or nine people in a tiny one bedroom apartment. It was really communal, and we survived on very little—24k a year of government assistance, which my mom miraculously made work somehow.”
In both settings, I felt like an outsider. I was the poorest person in class, and one of the only Cambodians. At the time, I didn’t realize everyone else was actually pretty poor. But there was still a hierarchy even amongst the poorest of the poor. Like it was hard getting teased for wearing the wrong type of shoes or the same shirt several days in a row.
My parents also didn’t speak English, so it was a constant struggle to switch between different cultures between home and school.
What did your family expect of you? What kind of pressure did they put on you to excel or be something when you grew up or that sort of thing?
My mom was particularly emphatic about education, and doing well in school. That was the top-most priority. She would always say, “You don’t need friends. They’ll just bring you down. Just focus on school.” I just assumed it was an Asian mom thing. But later, I learned she had an uncle who paid for her to attend school back in Cambodia. That experience must have made her acutely value education, because it’s not free in many countries.
“Food is interesting. People I meet love to say, “wow, you must have had delicious food growing up”, as if every meal was a dish from their favorite Thai restaurant. It’s always weird to be exoticized. What was normal for us was actually an extremely basic diet of rice with a small side of protein. McDonald’s and Chinese take-out was like the “fancy” treat for special occasions.”
With my dad, he was hands-off about education, but he cared a lot about appearances. He learned to be a barber in the refugee camps and was very meticulous about it. He cut my hair growing up until his hands failed him. He was also very particular with the shoes and clothes he bought for me, even when they came from The Goodwill. I have a fond memory of him saving up money so that he could get pants made by a tailor in Chinatown. It was really fun to see him pick fabrics. I definitely got my eye for design from him.
What aspects of growing up to you obviously felt normal at the time? Now that you’re in Silicon Valley you’re like, “Man. My upbringing was different than a lot of people’s here.”? What memories stick out to you?
I have a lot of siblings, six younger than me and one older half-sister. It felt completely normal to live together with eight or nine people in a tiny one bedroom apartment. It was really communal, and we survived on very little—24k a year of government assistance, which my mom miraculously made work somehow.
Nowadays, I hear complaints about how small the apartments are in SF and how making 175k/year isn’t enough. I totally get that in this market, but everything is much more luxurious than what I grew up with.
Food is interesting. People I meet love to say, “wow, you must have had delicious food growing up”, as if every meal was a dish from their favorite Thai restaurant. It’s always weird to be exoticized. What was normal for us was actually an extremely basic diet of rice with a small side of protein. McDonald’s and Chinese take-out was like the “fancy” treat for special occasions.
I remember one of my first “American” meals. A woman from our church invited me to her brother’s family for dinner. Everything was so plentiful, and I remember this giant salad bowl, and I immediately asked. “Oh, there’s no rice?” That became a running joke every time I ate dinner there. I also remembering getting to high school and eating a bagel for the first time. I was like, “Whoa, delicious!”
It’s amazing to think back, because I’m such a foodie now and really enjoy the spectrum of food available in San Francisco. I hate bagels now, though.
Oh man. What were school years like for you? Did you have any technical inclinations or creative inclinations? When was that first developing for you?
In first grade, we had a computer lab, which I took to very naturally. Creatively, I was obsessed with origami and could make very intricate pieces. My mom thought it was an incredible waste of paper, so I would rip out endsheets in books and use that for folding.
In middle school, I took both art and computer classes. What was really cool, was that my art teacher was married to my computer teacher. Later when my art teacher, Ms. James, found out that I’d become a designer, she was thrilled.
Walk me through those later years of school and then eventually getting into college.
High school was awesome. Many people talk about their high school years as the most horrible time in their lives, and I actually had a really wonderful time. I went to Oakland Technical High School—which I had to work really hard to enroll in, because it wasn’t my assigned school.
I had a great education because I was equally exposed to the sciences, liberal arts, and creative arts. I was in a Magnet program called the Health & Biosciences Academy, as well as a humanities program called Paideia, which was taught using the Socratic method. Both of those programs really taught me to think critically and very deeply about the world.
“I started studying for the SAT’s when I was in the seventh grade because I was just like, ‘If I don’t go to college, then I’m never leaving the ghetto.’ I had this great fear of being in a cycle of poverty that I saw my peers get trapped in.”
At the same time, I was also really involved in the journalism program. I was co-Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper, which is where a lot of my inspiration to become a designer came from. We were designing the newspaper by hand, actually cutting out printed columns and doing paste-ups for the printers. I also worked on our high school’s first video yearbook, which introduced me to Adobe products for the first time.
Was college something you thought that was possible for you financially? Or like as a kid, did you think it was basically possible?
I always believed it was possible. I had both incredible faith and anxiety around it. I started studying for the SAT’s when I was in the seventh grade because I was just like, “If I don’t go to college, then I’m never leaving the ghetto.” I had this great fear of being in a cycle of poverty that I saw my peers get trapped in.
I didn’t worry too much about the financial aspect of it, because I was pretty aware of loans, scholarships, and grants. If I had worried too much about the finances, I think I would have been paralyzed to act.
In the last couple of years of high school, my grades ended up being really shitty, so I didn’t apply to the Ivies or UC’s like most of my Paideia classmates. I had been too focused on everything else that interested me non-academically: helping to run the school newspaper, starting a gay-straight alliance, leading our high school’s Sierra Club program, learning radio journalism at Youth Radio, and performing in plays and dances. And, at the same time, I was trying to come to terms with being both gay and Mormon. It was a lot, and my grades got pretty shot. In the end, I knew I wanted to do design and applied to just one school, the California College of Arts and Crafts. It’s now just called California College of the Arts. I was relieved when I was accepted, and I remember telling my best friend, Ben, “My future’s going to be okay now.”
At that point, did you have any idea that you’d end up working in Silicon Valley. Was that on your radar?
I don’t think so actually. The dotcom boom was still nascent when I entered college, and I was very interested in motion graphics because of the work I did on my high school’s video yearbook. Of course, the dotcom boom reached its peak quickly after I started school. CCA was mostly print-based, but a professor named David Karam started a program called New Media, which I quickly enrolled in. It was a mix of motion graphics, information design, programming, and interaction design. I fell in love with the classes and knew I wanted to work on very technical, internet-related projects.
What was going to art school like after coming from a big high school in Oakland?
I’d been exposed to so many different cultures and types of people early on in life—Asians around Lake Merritt, African Americans in West Oakland, and wealthy white Mormons in the Oakland hills and beyond—that adapting to art school was relatively fluid. You just learned to weave in and out of different groups.
On the other hand, I felt a lot of otherness. I met so many kids that came from an enormous amount of wealth and privilege, who weren’t serious at all. They didn’t know what they wanted to do and had parents who funded their experiment with art school. The majority of students truly wanted to be artists or designers and they were very serious about it, but others were just there to play.
Walk me through your tech career. What happened from there?
When the boom went bust, I went to work for Youth Radio in Berkeley as a teacher and designer.
After that, I was hired as an intern by Conor Mangat at MetaDesign, which is one of the top branding agencies in the world. The San Francisco office had been started by a favorite professor of mine, Terry Irwin, along with Erik Spiekermann and Bill Hill. I was lucky to get that job because it was the nadir of the dotcom bust. The San Francisco office had just downsized from over 100 people to less than 10, so I’m very grateful to Conor for believing in me early on.
“I joined the Gmail team. When I started, there was only one other full-time designer on Gmail. The way we ended up splitting it, was that my colleague, Jason Cornwell, worked on desktop, and I worked on mobile. It was just really cool to have that much responsibility and impact. Mobile Gmail was supposed to be my 20% project, but that quickly became my 120% project.”
My work at MetaDesign was mostly visual design for brands and websites, but eventually, I wanted to branch out into UX. I was really inspired by Hugh Dubberly, a former design manager at Apple who’s ridiculously smart and knowledgeable about design history and theory. He eventually became my mentor and hired me at his studio, Dubberly Design Office. I was super happy working there and stayed for 5 years.
One day a sourcer from Google emailed me out of the blue. I remembered when I was at MetaDesign, a recruiter from Apple had contacted me. I blew it off and later regretted it. So this time around, I decided to follow up on the email, even though I was very happy at Dubberly.
I had a few phone conversations with Google, then went down for a day of interviews. I was so impressed with everyone I talked to, and the opportunity for learning was so huge, that I decided join. It was an amazing experience, though when I first joined, I felt like I didn’t really belong there.
“It’s a big psychological shift to be a founder. Our employees depend on us to feed their families and themselves. They depend on us for helping them grow professionally and personally. I take it much more seriously because of that responsibility. It’s not a hobby. It’s a real business where the success or failure of the company has huge impacts on everyone.”
Expand on that.
I just felt like everyone was so much smarter or so much more accomplished. During orientation, they were like, “Oh, here’s some amazing people that work here.” They profile all these ridiculously-accomplished people. I’m like, “Uhh. What? Why am I even here?” Eventually you get over that a little bit, partly because you talk to other people who say, “Oh yeah, I felt the same way.” Later on, I read about impostor syndrome which describes this phenomenon.
What did you work on while at Google?
I joined the Gmail team. When I started, there was only one other full-time designer on Gmail. The way we ended up splitting it, was that my colleague, Jason Cornwell, worked on desktop, and I worked on mobile. It was just really cool to have that much responsibility and impact. Mobile Gmail was supposed to be my 20% project, but that quickly became my 120% project. Now the Gmail team is huge and it’s really awesome.
So crazy. What has it been like transitioning from a tech employee to tech-founder?
It’s definitely very different. There’s a lot more responsibility because of who is dependent on you. At Google, I was an individual contributor, and even though I had a lot of impact, no one was dependent on me for their own livelihood. It’s a big psychological shift to be a founder. Our employees depend on us to feed their families and themselves. They depend on us for helping them grow professionally and personally. I take it much more seriously because of that responsibility. It’s not a hobby. It’s a real business where the success or failure of the company has huge impacts on everyone.
What are some of the struggles and roadblocks that you’ve had to overcome both as employee and entrepreneur?
My biggest struggle is social anxiety, which progressively got worse as I got older. There were times when I would have panic attacks in public streets or just walking into a room. It was a huge barrier to becoming a leader. That probably held me back a little bit, actually probably a lot, at Google. I overcame it when I stumbled on a research program at Stanford that was comparing methodologies for treating social anxiety. I was accepted into the study, and went through 12 weeks of treatment and cognitive behavioral therapy. It worked, and it’s much less of a problem now, even though it’s always there.
“My biggest struggle is social anxiety, which progressively got worse as I got older. There were times when I would have panic attacks in public streets or just walking into a room. It was a huge barrier to becoming a leader.”
Awhile back, I read about how Nightmare on Elm Street was inspired by Cambodian trauma survivors who died in their sleep from nightmares. And I later read about how trauma, especially amongst survivors of genocide like Cambodians, can be passed down biologically to their children. It really helped explain why depression, stress, and anxiety is so prominent in my family, so it’s something I continuously watch out for in myself and my family.
What has working in tech been like knowing that you don’t have any financial network or safety net?
It’s hard and it’s fragile. I talk to a lot of other entrepreneurs who have families they can fall back on if they fail. And if their families aren’t wealthy by income, they own property and have accumulated value, so they still have another plan B. Many other entrepreneurs also have fewer financial obligations, meaning they don’t have to support their siblings, parents, or extended family. I get that everyone struggles. But clearly, some struggle more than others. A lot of people take for granted the network and privilege they have, and they don’t realize how incredibly lucky they are. For me, it’s always precarious. I’m on a founder’s salary, which is less than half of what I was making at Google, and I still need to support family members as well as myself. It’s very tough when you don’t have much of a plan B, but it makes me more driven to make the business succeed.
“I talk to a lot of other entrepreneurs who have families they can fall back on if they fail. And if their families aren’t wealthy by income, they own property and have accumulated value, so they still have another plan B. Many other entrepreneurs also have fewer financial obligations, meaning they don’t have to support their siblings, parents, or extended family. I get that everyone struggles. But clearly, some struggle more than others. A lot of people take for granted the network and privilege they have, and they don’t realize how incredibly lucky they are.”
Yeah. I feel you. Do you ever feel isolation in the industry? For me personally, when I worked in tech, I felt a sense of otherness and isolation a lot. Not from being a white chick, there are plenty of white chicks—but socioeconomically. I came from a small town, went to public state school, moved here with no money, also did not have a financial support network. I just never met anyone that I could really relate to. I’m curious if you ended up feeling those senses of isolation during your career? Just based on being different?
At Google, I remember sitting at work and overhearing a conversation where someone said, “Oh yeah, I have a couple of houses and my partner has a house too, but it’s just too hard to manage.” She was literally complaining about having multiple houses, and I was just like, “Wow, what world is this?” It was definitely not a world I came from.
When you come from poverty and you’re also gay, Cambodian, Mormon, and a refugee of war, there’s always an inherent isolation. Of not fitting in anywhere. Of not knowing anyone else like you. Until my 20s, I was even stateless, and couldn’t get a passport from any country. So I felt a very deep sense of isolation. You have to cherish your own uniqueness, but you also have to learn how to adapt in order to survive. It’s exhausting.
Let’s get more into identity. What is your experience been as a gay man on top of everything else? I’m especially curious about being gay in the context of being Mormon.
That was really tough for me, because I was very religious in high school and earlier. I was a Boy Scout, I went to Mormon summer camps in Utah, and I planned to go on a mission. I tried very hard to be the perfect Mormon boy. And it took me a really, really long time to reconcile that. When you have this belief system that doesn’t include you, you have to figure out how you fit in or not. Eventually, I realized I didn’t fit in, and I became a much healthier person afterwards because I didn’t hate myself. In San Francisco, we still have some diversity left, so I don’t really feel too separate in terms of the gay facet of my identity. I feel lucky about that.
“When you come from poverty and you’re also gay, Cambodian, Mormon, and a refugee of war, there’s always an inherent isolation. Of not fitting in anywhere. Of not knowing anyone else like you. Until my 20s, I was even stateless, and couldn’t get a passport from any country. So I felt a very deep sense of isolation. You have to cherish your own uniqueness, but you also have to learn how to adapt in order to survive. It’s exhausting.”
On the flip side, I don’t know how active you are socially in the gay community, but what is it like being a techie in the gay community? Total other side of the coin.
Ah, this is an interesting topic. What’s sad is the mainstreaming of gay culture. I talked about this recently with my partner, Harold. When I was growing up, being gay was synonymous with being rebellious and iconoclastic. You were expected to be different. It was still taboo, but it afforded you a great amount of freedom and space to express yourself.
The world has made a lot of progress in acceptance of gay people, but a side effect is that assimilation has happened. Gay folks are in the mainstream, but they fit into what is acceptable. In media, they’re usually normalized into caricatures of what’s expected: wealthy white men who fun, attractive, and inoffensive. Yet there’s a full spectrum of people who still aren’t represented—there’s poor gay people, there’s gay people of color, there’s lesbians, there’s trans, there’s gender non-conformists, there’s gay people who are angry, and there’s people who have sex with the same gender but aren’t “gay.” So I’m saddened by the mainstreaming of gay culture, because I wish we had a greater representation of difference and all of the in-between states.
Most sad of all, is how mainstream San Francisco has become. One of my best friends, Sean, moved to the East Bay recently, and he was like, “Yeah, I wondered where all the people with the weird haircuts went. They’re all here in the East Bay!”
My next question, which we’re already touching on—what’s it like being both a techie and local?
In some ways, it’s really fun because I feel like I’m getting to do what I love in the place I grew up in. But, San Francisco has changed a lot. Oakland is changing even more. Many things have been lost because of how much tech has transformed the area. I miss that.
I’m in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco, and I can’t actually afford to move back to Oakland. It’s just really crazy because I spent all this time trying to escape Oakland, and then I can’t actually afford to go back. It’s very ironic. I touched on it a little bit when my friend made the comment about haircuts in the East Bay—San Francisco just isn’t as diverse as it once was. It’s very homogenous, and that’s increasingly getting harder for me to accept. It’s heartbreaking.
“I’m in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco, and I can’t actually afford to move back to Oakland. It’s just really crazy because I spent all this time trying to escape Oakland, and then I can’t actually afford to go back. It’s very ironic.”
I used to think I’d live in San Francisco for the rest of my life because it’s just so open, diverse, and you can live how you want to live. But when toast is $5 dollars, it’s kinda crazy. I actually love the $5 toast, but when that’s the norm, and there is not much deviation, it’s obscene.
Can you expand on what’s been lost?
My partner is much more conscious about social justice, diversity, and oppression. He’s definitely made me more attuned to those issues. For example, the queer arts in San Francisco is dying because it’s getting pushed out by rising rent prices, evictions, and a lack of studio spaces.
My techie side says, “Oh, well. It just means, as an artist, you have to adapt, and try to figure out who the audience is and cater to your audience”. The other side of me is like, “Wow. That’s a really shitty thing to say. These are people that have a particular point of view and a particular statement they want to make, and you’re telling them they need to suppress that?”
The fact is, their way of expression is being taken away from them. I have to constantly ask myself, “Am I part of the problem or am I not?” It’s very, very complicated and I’m not sure what the answer is.
How do your friends and family from growing up feel about how you turned out?
I think they’re all super excited for me. My mom still doesn’t really know what I do. She doesn’t have an understanding of technology but my siblings do. And I feel good in that I can set an example. I wish I could write an autobiography that was like, “I grew up poor, then bootstrapped myself, and did it all by myself,” but the reality is that I had a lot of help and people who believed in me. I had mentors, I had family that watched out for me, I had amazing teachers. I feel like it was definitely like a group effort, and so, I hope I continue being a good example for others. More importantly, I strive to help others in the same way others have supported me.
What would you say are your biggest motivators? What drives you?
Well, I had this experience growing up where I had to do a lot of translation and filling out of forms for my mother who didn’t speak English. That made me aware of things that may be invisible to others, like the design of forms, for example. So there’s a notion of service design that I get really interested in. How do you help others accomplish what they need to get done to survive or excel? Answering that question is a huge motivation for me. It’s partly why I started Mixmax with my friends, Olof and Brad. I wanted to make something that would actually help people do their own work better in order to succeed.
My life with my family and partner is also a major motivator for me. I’m driven to help support them. I believe when you succeed in your personal life, you also succeed in your professional life. It’s not about “balancing” work and life, but about creating flexibility in each so that both areas can succeed.
Let’s go macro for a second. How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? What excites you, what frustrates you?
I’m extremely excited about software for professionals. It’s so cool to see how people use existing pro tools for their work. The current tools are really, really awful. It’s just amazing to me how much we focus on consumer products, but there’s this world of professional software that needs great design. So it’s very exciting to think about those possibilities.
What’s frustrating? Everyone is so entitled. It’s definitely a bubble in the Bay Area where people feel like they deserve the world, because they happen to be an in-demand tech person living here. Super, super frustrating. It’s refreshing to talk to people outside Silicon Valley, who are also hungry to learn and grow, but have a lot less entitlement.
“Always ask yourself, ‘How can I exceed expectations?’ Set explicit goals and push yourself to achieve more than what was previously asked of you.”
Lastly, what advice would you give to folks from similar backgrounds to you who are really interested in tech but just not quite sure how to get into it and succeed?
Gosh, let’s see. Well, one tip is to don’t be afraid to approach the people you admire and recruit them as mentors. You might be hesitant to reach out to people, because you think they’ll flat out reject you. For the most part, I have found that many people are willing to help and are awesome about it.
Another tip: always ask yourself, “How can I exceed expectations?” Set explicit goals and push yourself to achieve more than what was previously asked of you. I learned this from Google and from my time at Dubberly. Hugh phrased it as “pulling a rabbit out of a hat.” Overachievement increases the chances for success and learning.
My last advice is to foster a wide variety of interests that make you happy. Tech might not be what fulfills you in the end, so consider other things that could also make you happy, and at the same time, viable as a living. Even within tech, there are many hats to wear, many subjects to explore, and many products to design. It’s super open.