Accounts and Balances
I have two quarters left at Stanford, unless I stay a third year.
My goal of going to graduate school was to become the best I could be at designing for people and communities that are traditionally underserved. Where am I in that journey and how do I use my time left so I can effectively deliver value to the people I serve when I enter the real world? What will I do immediately after graduate school? Do I feel ready? All these questions are on my mind.
I made this chart above to take stock of where I perceive I am at in terms of the skills I wanted to develop. Orange represents where I started, blue where I think I am currently and dotted where I want to go. I put cooking, which I see more as a hobby, as a control to place all the career related skills in perspective. I’ll take this methodically, piece by piece.
Before Stanford, I was in the thickets of emerging markets. I was closer to my dream than I ever was. It was right after undergrad when I jetted off to pursue my dreams: a water project in Morocco and design with rural communities in India. I lived so fully in those years. I remember writing in my journal that 2019 was going to be year of immense transition: graduating from Columbia University with a degree in engineering, implementing a water project, and moving to India for ten months. Earning money was something that never broached my mind – I was bent on making impact and spending as much of my life, the earlier the better, doing just that.
Serve, Learn, and Lead. Those three words were the motto for my fellowship in India. I saw worlds, met people, and spent time in villages. I saw what real community was like in the forests of the Western Ghats. I’ll always remember what Vishwanath Hegde, a middle-aged farmer, told me when I was with him in his areca nut and vanilla bean plantation – “Success to me means all of us rising together.” He had introduced vanilla bean cultivation to the community, an activity that women could do because vanilla bean grows near the base of a tree and was not as height-prohibitive as other plantation activities.
Sitting in Palo Alto, these memories of the forest and the villages feel distant. But I told myself, to never lose perspective while attending Stanford. I want to go back to the worlds I’ve seen and design with the populations like the ones I’ve met. Living question: How do I connect the worlds I’ve seen together?
When will I go back? How long will I stay in the Bay Area? There’s a lot of exciting things to be learned in the States. One field of study I’m spending my free time researching these days is urban cities. When I mention emerging markets, I’m more specifically interested in the outskirts of burgeoning mega-cities – the peri-urban areas. As these cities grow larger, the rural shrinks, and the in-between is an area where jurisdiction is blurred, development can be haphazard, and infrastructure is built. Built infrastructure can shape our lives, our society, and our culture. Intentional infrastructure can make our lives more pleasant and potentially foster more community. I say this because I saw the impact a simple water distribution system could have on a village community. Another example are types of parks, vibrance of suburbs, and width of sidewalks. Even the number of two or three bedroom apartments in a new complex can affect how family-friendly a neighborhood is. The design of the built environment is a reflection of our values and I wonder to what extent our human values are considered in the design of new infrastructure, in these peri-urban areas.
Sidewalk Labs is doing a lot of interesting urban planning and design work. Perhaps I work there for a couple of years before bringing learnings to other contexts. I do want my work to be human-centered or community-centered at the core rather than work on a purely systems level problem, a mix of both would be ideal.
While I’m here at Stanford, I can spend my credits to learn more about emerging markets, new types of business models, and urban planning. To my end, I spent last winter break reading about how cities work. I read Lectures on Urban Economics by Jan Brueckner which was incredibly informative on the theory of a city.
When I first came to Stanford, I had nearly zero making experience. Besides some 3D printing, cement casting, and helping make some concrete forms with a hand drill, I was largely new to the world of ‘making’. It was only when I met Harrison and Eli that I started to develop a lot of my making skillset. Eli taught me how to properly use a hand-drill, Procreate, and foam modeling techniques. Harrison and I ideated and made a cube using power tools that I’ve rarely touched in my life. They might not know it, but I am indebtedly grateful towards them.
2020 was a virtual year and the seminal making class ME203 was also virtual. I got to use the lathe and mill only a few times. I remember fondly who taught those labs to me: Frank and Ashley. Being a mostly virtual year, any human contact with another life form was significant. I thought Frank and Ashley were immensely ‘cool’. I asked Frank how he became a course assistant. He was the foundry specialist and I studied materials science in undergraduate but never poured metal in my life. I had only dreamed of pouring metal. I spent the following spring break preparing my application to become a course assistant.
At Stanford, I always had three pillars in mind: business, making, and design. What I found was that this ‘making’ or ‘craft’ had a long legacy and there was something specially enchanting about it. I wanted to be able to make and prototype anything. Making and design are incredibly interwoven. I would argue that design encompasses making but design thinking was extracted out of ‘design’. I’m taught design thinking through my master’s program, not a holistic ‘design’.
Fast forward to now, I spend 20 hours per week at the Product Realization Lab helping students design and manufacture products. Through this job, there is an incredible learning opportunity to get better at designing, scoping, and making products. I coached nine students this past quarter. That means I have to know how to bring their ideas to life. Through their projects, I learn about mold design, casting, milling, sheet metal, and lathe. I have a large role in influencing their design process.
I break down craft into two components: aesthetics and making. Aesthetics is about what. Making is about how. Together, they inform each other. Regarding aesthetics, I’ve spent a summer in China learning how to draw. That summer, it was like I learned how to see. I clearly have a lifetime of drawing ahead of me. I’ve read Grid Systems by Josef Muller Brockmann, Elements of Design by Gail Greet Hannah, & Geometry of Design by Kimberly Elam. Every time I’m in a major city, I try to visit the museums for inspiration.
Regarding making, I’ve taken ME203 Design and Manufacturing, ME181 Deliverables, and ME318 Computer Aided Product Realization. I am comfortable on the lathe and mill. I can active cast aluminum and bronze. I am proficient at CAD, 3D printing, & laser cutting. I have a general understanding of connections. I have yet to become proficient at welding (TIG/MIG) and the wood lathe.
In my free time, I am making a pottery wheel with my friend Nicole and most recently, collaborated with my friend Kyra to create a tote bag. Within the span of 12 hours, we had taught ourselves how to use a sewing machine and made custom totes. I’ve also created two cutting boards in the woodshop. The last fun side project I’m working on is with one of my best friends Rony. We are making a retro nixie tube clock. He’s completed the circuit board and now I’m putting the last touches on the physical design. Design of these minute details is hard but I remind myself that simple design is the best design.
I do feel that I can make many things now. One of my friends told me I could be what is called a design engineer. Craft will always have a role in my life. I want my future house to be full of intention and aesthetic. Beauty as a lens to see the world is something I never thought I would develop at Stanford, it was not something I grew up with. Craig, my current boss, tells me that to become a better designer, I need to learn from many designers. That is my goal, to push my ability of formgiving and to see design from the perspective of other designers so that I may refine my own process.
I want to be able to bring a design sensibility to the projects I engage in the future. My mind feels wider with possibility, but I still have worlds to learn. For the upcoming quarter, I will pour myself into bookbinding with Professor Gail Wight or Physical Interaction Design for Music and push what I create with more intention and art. I will continue to teach students and find my identity as a maker and hone my craft.
If I stay an extra year, I can practice craft even more extensively. I think there could be incredible value especially in an environment such as the Product Realization Lab. An additional year would create a strong foundation for me as a design engineer for a lifetime to come. If I leave too soon, I may not be able to practice and train my craft depending on where I end up.
Design Thinking / Creative Process
When I first experienced the d. School, I was struck by how ‘creative’ people were. People moved post it notes around, they let loose, embraced silliness, ambiguity, deferred judgement, and let crazy ideas flow. Outside looking in, the d. School was a place of creatives. I just dreamed of spending time in the hallways of Building 550. It almost seemed unattainable. I felt that only the smartest and most creative could be there. When I got into the Master’s program for the d. School, I thought I would be able to be just like the creatives I saw so many years ago. That’s been hard with COVID changing the nature of classes being offered. I tried to become a course assistant for the d. School, but those emails fell through. It is just so hard to develop meaningful relationships when the reality is that people seem to not really want to do so over a virtual medium.
Since joining the Master’s Design program, I don’t think I’ve gotten to practice and become like the people I met so many years ago. I don’t yet feel like I have the swagger and confidence of the designers I met so many years ago. What’s missing?
In the Product Realization Lab, we first watch, then we practice, and then we teach. We are literally thrown into the deep end, having to teach structured labs to a section of students all by ourselves.
I don’t think I’ve quite gotten that with design thinking. Before coming to Stanford, I already taught and led the design thinking process to others. What I lacked was confidence in the process, confidence that I was doing it right. But what I get in this Master’s program is that there is no ‘right’ way of doing it. We are given a very light barebone version of design and then left to figure out the design process ourselves. This is essentially no different than what I was doing before. To make matters even more difficult, we don’t spend much time around these designers unless we take d. School classes. With my first year being virtual and the classes I wanted to take cancelled at the d. School, what’s the remedy? Perhaps it is taking one in-person d. School class before I leave.
I also think a big part of the process of becoming a better designer is going through the process, all the way. Imagine if I conceived of an idea and developed it to such a high fidelity and achieved commercial success. I think the latter part would give me incredible confidence in my abilities as a designer. If I could run through the whole process with a hand in branding, experience, UI/UX, marketing, business models, and product design, I would feel competent in my abilities. And I’ve done part of that with my project over the summer.
With my homelessness project, I got to go from needfinding, to ideation, prototyping, and to creating a medium/high fidelity product that is being used by the nonprofit at six locations in the Bay Area! What’s missing for me is that, the work was for a nonprofit and there wasn’t a sense that the design was entirely from scratch. We used a Google interface but used design thinking to find out all that needed to be on that interface experience. There was also no free market customer. My goal with Capstone is to have a hand in making a commercially viable product.
On the side, I want to design as many things as possible. The more I practice, the better I will get.
Working on Teams
I now have had more experience working on teams with people that are very different from me. I’ve also matured a bit more. You don’t have to be friends with everybody. In fact, not everybody wants to be friends with you and wants to like you. As we get older, we start to have more engrained priorities. Family, hobbies, and interests can take precedent over the work. Aligning teams is incredibly difficult. We all show up with long histories and diverse backgrounds. How do you bring people together to get work or a project done? It is not always about making friends. And that is how I’ve matured. I need to become more effective about bringing people together to get a project done.
Other traits I want to continue developing are I need to show up with fundamental curiosity about the situation and person - to never take things personally. I want to show up as a d. School creative or like Bill Moggridge. I want to have deep expertise in making and design, enables the creativity of others, and is a joy to work with. I want to inspire people with the possibility of design and then actually realize those thoughts.
One skill I ought to practice is that of giving critique. When Sarah Stein Greenberg joined our class, I noticed she gave excellent critique. That’s something I also want to keep practicing.
I don’t speak like a business student, but I recognize the value of being able to communicate business. I’ve taken a couple GSB classes at this point: Real Estate Finance, Taking Social Impact to Scale, and Marketplaces. These classes have exposed me to a world where people speak about ‘millions’ of dollars as if it was liquid. I’ve met venture capitalists and investors that hold billions in assets. I’ve gotten to hear how billionaires speak, act, and think. Next quarter, I am taking a class with my friend Casey on how important people make difficult decisions.
I want to be sharp in business acumen. I want to develop a business sensibility, to know what businesses will work in a market, how markets can react, and sizing business opportunities to gauge potential of impact. I want to be able to leverage, if applicable, existing trends such as Web 3.0, IoT, and big data. I want to have business sensibility because I believe market forces has the potential to scale and impact masses of people. If I want to bring a product that can benefit people’s lives, I need to understand how products can live in a real world environment.
I want to focus the remainder of my time on understanding how emerging markets work, practice interpersonal dynamics, and better my communication skills so that I can one day perhaps lead an organization.
I feel like I am getting a mechanical engineering degree with all the Product Realization Lab courses I’m taking. I do feel like I’m a better engineer than before because I am much capable with my hands now. Learning theoretical engineering is different from the practical one I practice at the PRL. They are complementary and I wish my undergraduate engineering school incorporated more hands on learning into the curriculum.
There are still some areas in which I would like to be more competent on as an engineer. Specifically, more IoT projects and machine learning. It is just hard for me to justify learning engineering at school especially after going through that experience at Columbia. At Columbia, at the end of the day, I just had to sit down and teach myself difficult physics and theory. I’m in school to learn from extraordinary instructors and to have their influence on me.
Summary and a Peek into the Road Ahead
After writing this, I’ve mapped out five pathways my life can follow for the next few years. Those pathways follow three predominant feelings that lie on the spectrum of familiar to going back into the independent unknown. After my bachelors’, I jumped into the deep end of the independent unknown and learned an incredible amount from doing. Though that gave me an adventurous and full life, my heart tells me it’s not time to do the latter extreme just yet.