Since I first founded Avvir I’ve gotten one question so often that I felt it worthwhile to answer it in writing. I’m a bioengineer by training, with a particular interest in neural engineering and brain computer interfaces. How then, I’m asked, did I come to start a company in the construction tech sector? It’s a fair question, and one which there’s a pretty simple answer for. But the surprised tone with which people ask the question always bothers me a little. It seems to speak to a widely held belief that a “good” career is a linear one, with few twists or turns, and it implies that we expect people and their interests to fit into neat little boxes.
Before I dive into that though, let me answer the question. I pursued bioengineering because I’ve always been passionate about brain computer interfaces. The idea that we might harness signals from the brain and use them to control electronic devices was and always has been, for me, the apotheosis of all of science fiction. I went to a liberal arts college though, so to get some engineering experience I applied to an internship at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute.
I was assigned to work in a robotics lab that was researching applications in civil engineering. That summer I learned all about point clouds, structure from motion, photogrammetry and various construction processes. I learned about the importance of reality capture and how robotics and computer vision fit into that space. And I thought that was it, one interesting summer in civil engineering was all it was.
I attended grad school at the University of Pennsylvania for a PhD in bioengineering, following the plan I had set for myself in high school. However, while in grad school I discovered that though I loved bioengineering, I loved entrepreneurship more. I had entered a business plan competition at Penn that asked us to create a business case for drones being developed at the University. That competition took over my life, and kept my interest far more than my classes ever did.
My business plan was inspired by my time at CMU. I built a business case around drones with laser scanners capturing the reality of construction sites. We came in second place. As much as I loved the idea of turning that idea into a business right then and there, I was terrified of what that actually entailed. I knew nothing about starting a company. I did know research wasn’t for me though so I took my masters degree and began a career in product management.
For three years I’ve worked as a product manager at different software development agencies, all the while toying with the idea of starting my own company. I realized though that for me to be engaged in a startup for the long haul, it had to tackle some big difficult problem. It also had to be doable. As I played around with different ideas I kept coming back to the business plan I wrote in grad school. I knew if I was going to pull it off though, I’d need help. I called up my old advisor at CMU and asked him what he was up to. It turned out he was living in San Francisco and exploring the idea of starting a company. I told him I had the same though and he asked me to join him. I agreed.
Two weeks later, my advisor called me and told me he had received an offer from Facebook he couldn’t turn down. I was on my own. But at this point I was too excited to let the idea go. I asked him to introduce me to some other people who might be able to help me and through a string of connections I eventually met one of my cofounders Vamsi. After that, we were off to the races.
So that resolves the “how” I came to be doing what I’m doing. But it doesn’t address the “why?” that people telegraph with their tone and their expression: why would you, someone interested in bioengineering, pursue anything related to construction. The thing is, while I’ve always been interested in neuroengineering, that was never my only interest. I have stacks of presidential biographies on my bookshelf, a good portion of which I’ve read, and another stack on military strategy and ethical philosophy (of which I’ve admittedly read fewer). I also have always loved architecture and urban planning and while I ultimately chose to attend graduate school for bioengineering, I was genuinely torn between that plan and spending two years working for the NYC Economic Development corporation. The choices I made in life, to attend graduate school, to accept a particular job offer, were often zero-sum, but I as a human being am not.
And we know that instinctively. People have all kinds of interests. Why then the shock? To some extent I think it’s because like with everything else, people desire simplicity. It’s always much easier to put ideas into neat categorical boxes than to deal with complexity. But I think there’s something else going on too.
Modern society demands career specialization. There are so many of us that unless you have become super specialized in some field, there is little way to differentiate yourself from the competition. The most often repeated career advice I received in school was that employers will always prefer someone who can do one thing extraordinarily well over generalists who are good at a little of everything. Sometimes it seems schools have been built around this idea. With each tier of educational achievement a student is also required to narrow his academic focus. As an undergrad you choose a major, with a masters a specialization, and a PhD, a topic, often so obscure as to be irrelevant. But the more we deify specialization, the more I think we under-appreciate the Jack of All Trades.
While it is certainly important to have people with a deep understanding of a particular field push the boundaries of their disciplines, it’s the Jacks of the world who will find unexpected connections between those disciplines. It is a skill all its own to know a lot about a little, to have interests in far flung fields. It’s only with wide ranging curiosity that you get the ever-elusive renaissance man. So I’d contend that maybe the pendulum has swung a bit too far in the direction of specialization, and that it would be a net positive if more people pursued eclectic academic and career paths. It would add a much needed interdisciplinary perspective to many important conversations and hopefully, it would result in me having to deal with far fewer puzzled looks when I explain what I do and how I came to do it.