Nathan Leung

@nathanhleung


I'm an intern at Google who enjoys running trails, writing essays, and building apps.



June 24, 2019
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Hey Nathan! Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m originally from a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I’m currently a rising sophomore at the University of Michigan studying computer science and math. I’m interested in running and hiking (was an avid cross country and track athlete in high school), writing and blogging (one of my favorite classes at school this past semester was “The Art of the Essay”), and startups and system design (I’m amazed by the rise of cloud computing and how easy it’s become for amateurs to set up resilient infrastructure at scale).

This summer, I’m working as a software engineering intern on infrastructure and full-stack development as part of the Nest team (formerly Home) at Google in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What are you working on?

I strive to create for impact and feel blessed to have grown up in the age of the internet, where I can build and write for people all over the world. In high school, I built apps to help my classmates find who else was in their classes before school started, calculate the lowest grade they could get on their final exams to pass a course, and generate Instagram captions from Drake lyrics.

Now, I’m working on:

  • a location-based social app to incubate new friendships at colleges and conferences, where people can scale the amount of serendipitous connection they experience — the type of community-building human connection that often transpires in new cities and countries
  • a blog to share my thoughts about getting into college, life at university, and getting tech internships, where it’s my hope that my lived experience can help others can gain insight and clarity into their own lives
  • an innovative hardware product used in millions of homes worldwide, which has enabled me to learn software engineering at scale at one of the biggest tech companies in the globe

What motivated you to work on these projects?

At the very start, I think it was because I had a sort of foolish sense of self-confidence with tech that made me believe I could do anything I set my mind to. If I saw something that could potentially be fixed with technology, I’d see if I could put together a quick solution. I didn’t have much of a concrete motivation besides a desire to leverage my skills to make things people wanted. So that’s how I got started with my programming projects.

I only very recently got started with writing, and it’s been a combination of influences - on one hand, a desire to become more coherent and expressive through conscious, deliberate organization of my thoughts, and on the other hand, people like Naval Ravikant (especially his tweetstorm about wealth creation) and David Perrell. In his Twitter thread, Naval brings up the idea of “permissionless leverage” — things you can do on your own that can increase your impact and influence on the world, in contrast to “permissioned” leverage like capital investment and employees — and cites “code and media” as examples of “permissionless” pursuits. I knew just how scalable code could be, but I never thought of “media” like that — it was an eye-opening realization.

David doubles down on the media side of things, and emphasizes the importance of writing as a way to build a personal brand and network on the internet. As someone who already knew how to code but wanted to magnify the reach of the things I built, coupled with my desire to express myself more clearly and compellingly, writing (au contraire to a few of my friends in CS who dread Michigan’s 300-level humanities requirement) felt like a perfect complement to my existing skill set — so that’s what motivated me to begin practicing the craft.

And now, I think both interests have come together: through both coding and writing, I’m aiming to build and share for impact, doing things that are not only good for me — such as making me a better communicator or generating my Instagram captions for me — but doing things that have the potential to affect people all over the world, for (hopefully) the better. I’m in a very fortunate position to have learned how to code at a very young age, and I’ve been lucky enough to find writing extremely fulfilling also. I think if I don’t put the rare combination of youthful energy, technical expertise, and (hopefully) improving communication ability that I possess to good use making innovative, helpful products, and sharing meaningful, important insights, I honestly would disappoint my future self. So that’s what gets me up in the morning nowadays.

How have you attracted users?

I’ve done a lot of organic marketing (talking to friends, meeting new people) and I’ve found that if what I’ve created is interesting and compelling, people don’t need to be prodded to try it out. I don’t have millions of users or anything like that, but at this point I’d rather have ten people that love what I’m doing than a million that sorta like it.

But perhaps ideally, in a few years, maybe a billion that love it?

What do you believe helped bring you to where you are today?

I’ve just started Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness, which has made me realize more and more that the reason I’m sitting in an apartment in the heart of San Francisco typing this right now instead of milling around at home on the East coast is a series of multiple lucky coincidences. But I guess if I had to say how I got to where I am today, it would be that I kept my head up, stayed hungry, and was ready to seize any opportunity I could. There’s a (likely apocryphal) Thomas Jefferson quote that goes somewhat along the lines of “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” While Taleb would most definitely disagree with the causal relationship between hard work and good fortune that this quip seems to be implying, I think it captures the general spirit of what I’m going for: I’ve always wanted to come out West and see what Silicon Valley was like, and while I definitely worked hard in learning how to code and preparing for my internship interviews, the fact that I even was drawn to programming at such as a young age and that Google didn’t immediately throw out my resume (though they probably did at first) was sheer luck. So it was essentially me being lucky and seizing opportunities as they arose — to say anything different would be untrue.

In terms of learning my skills, I was fortunate that it was organic — I was interested in creating apps and websites, and four or five years of coding, doing projects, and launching new things gets you a pretty good idea of how things work. (And speaking of doing projects, try out some of the ones posted here on Enlight! The first web app I ever made, back in 2015, was a todo app from following a tutorial just like one here).

In this same vein of “randomness,” one thing I want to mention is that I’ve tried to start embracing a certain sort of stochasticity in my life, and in fact have started seeking more of it out (perhaps a good technical analogy would be an algorithm like stochastic gradient descent or simulated annealing, which utilizes randomness to obtain optimal solutions faster). That mindset has manifested itself most notably in my course selection at school, where I’ve tried to take at least one non-quantitative (i.e not math or CS) class a semester. My first semester it was a performance studies class and last semester it was “The Art of the Essay,” which was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Seeking out these nontraditional opportunities, both within the classroom and without, has been extremely rewarding.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced?

This question has always been a bit difficult for me to answer, and for a long time I never understood why, but now I think it comes down to the fact that I’m always seeking new challenges, and those challenges end up making my previous challenges look trivial in comparison. A good analogy comes from Sam Altman’s essay ”How to be Successful” — in a way, I try to “add another zero” to the difficulty of what I’ve been doing. I’m not exactly sure where this desire to push myself comes from, although I definitely think my career as a high-school runner is a key contributor. In essence, hopefully, the biggest challenge I’m facing is what I’m doing right now.

I guess that whole mindset could be a challenge in itself, in that I’ve been working decently hard for the past few years, whether it was AP classes and ten-mile runs in high school or taking pure math and trying to launch a startup in college. Perhaps my biggest obstacle, one that I still haven’t overcome, is learning when to relax a bit and enjoy what I already have — there’s definitely a lot to be thankful for.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Enjoying some cold ones with the boys and watching the sun set behind the Golden Gate Bridge. Savoring ten happy, meaningful years of a life well-lived — and importantly, well-examined — and making even grander plans for the next ten to come.

What advice would you give to new makers?

Learn how to use Twitter, read voraciously, and remember that there’s more to life than knowing how to code :)

Where can we go to learn more?

I write regularly on my blog, blog.nathanhleung.com, and I love meeting new people on Twitter, too - find me @nathanhleung.

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