Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Kevin Lin walks the speak as he left Amazon to launch startup and host his personal podcast

Kevin Lin traveling in Guilin, China, with his trusty stuffed animal named Thunder in his backpack. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Lin)

Kevin Lin is computer software engineer who has an endless curiosity about technology and people and he likes to keep himself busy at the intersection of those two things.

Born in China, raised in Germany, and educated in Canada and the United States, Lin spent the last five years at Amazon, working with Amazon Web Services and other initiatives within the company. He recently left to launch his own startup called Cloud.Thence, a consulting firm aimed at businesses using AWS and other cloud providers. Lin is GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week.

“I first got interested in software engineering in middle school programming Logo — an educational language that allowed you to move a cursor (called a turtle) around the screen,” Lin said. “I started by drawing abstract shapes using infinite loops but soon moved on to creating real life games like tic tac toe and chess. Programming just made sense to me and had the perfect mix of rigor and craft.”

Lin called himself an early adopter and believer in the cloud ever since Amazon launched Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2) back in 2006, adding that it was the primary reason he joined AWS. “It’s been gratifying to see the rest of the world come to the same conclusion,” he said. He made the leap to start his own company because he thinks he can help businesses makes sense of the enormous complexity around cloud computing.

“Someone once gave me unsolicited advice about being a parent and said that it is never something you can be ready for, you just do it,” Lin said. “When I joined Amazon in 2013, I always had the plan to start my own company. I never expected to stay five years but between the projects and the people, I always found reasons to stay. It came as a shock this year when they gave me a yellow badge (every five years, Amazon changes your badge color). I realized then that I need to do this now or stay at Amazon for the next five years.”

When his head isn’t in the cloud, Lin hosts his own podcast called Folk Stories in which he has hour-long conversations with people, covering what they do, how they got where they are, and lessons they have to share. He used to do a similar internal podcast at Amazon, talking to senior leaders, engineers and creatives.

“I like the long-form conversation format because it runs counter to the frenzied, tweet-inspired media blurbs that seem so prevalent today,” Lin said. “Instead, you get to take your time and explore topics from multiple angles and have nuanced conversation on things. A few minutes into the podcast, the microphones are forgotten and its just two people having a conversation, something that humans have been doing for over 100,000 years now.”

Away from work and podcasts, Lin likes to run ultra marathons, dabble in cooking and flirt with blogging. He said he has no idea what he’s doing in Acroyoga, but he does like to salsa dance way past his bedtime and once in a blue moon he performs improv at Unexpected Productions and Pocket Theater.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Kevin Lin:

What do you do, and why do you do it? My time is primarily split between three areas of focus: writing software, having conversations with people and running.

My main thing is software. For the past five years, I focused on writing and designing large distributed systems and subsequently scaling these systems. Distributed systems are simply multiple computers that communicate to accomplish a task. It’s kind of the computer equivalent of asking a few friends to help move your couch. Scaling means optimizing these systems among a particular dimension (eg. throughput). Scale is the thing that separates Amazon from a lemonade stand.

When I’m not writing software, I run a podcast where I have in-depth conversations with people I find interesting. I like to talk to people from all walks of life, not just tech, and past guests have included film directors, artists, VPs, CEOs, security engineers and non-profit executives. The podcast, as I readily admit to my guest, is really just an excuse for me to talk to people who I admire.

Finally, I like to run. I’ve been racing competitively since middle school. Ever since moving to Washington, I’ve been getting into trail running and ultra marathons and am super grateful that Washington has ample opportunities for both!

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? The term “tech” company is going to be meaningless in a few years. Just like how they aren’t any businesses calling themselves “excel” companies or “office” companies, technology will simply be a necessary and ubiquitous part of every business.

That being said, technology is already embedded in every facet of our lives (social media, mobile phones, etc) and has completely upturned entire industries (music, publishing, etc.) Moving forward, this trend will only accelerate. This means that consumers and business alike, regardless of what field or line of business they’re in, need to have a baseline of digital fluency to navigate this brave new world.

Where do you find your inspiration? At the risk of sounding morbid, death and injury have always been some of my greatest inspirations. Death because it makes me realize that my time here is limited and that I need to make the most of it. Injury because it reminds me to be grateful for what I have and to rest when I need to.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Vim. Vim is a terminal based text editor from the 1990s and the reason why I can’t use Office or any other text editor that has been invented since.

If you want to get into the details, Vim is shorthand for Vi IMproved, which is an upgrade of Vi, a programmer’s text editor that was released in the ’70s. Vim is a modal editor which means that you operate it using multiple modes. Most text editors like Office have only one mode (Insert mode) where anything you type gets inserted into the text. You can do that in Vim but Vim also has ‘Command mode’ where the characters you type get executed as commands (eg. move 5 lines up, highlight all characters from the cursor to the next comma, repeat the last 5 commands on the next 7 lines, etc). Vim also comes with its own scripting language which means that you can make Vim do anything that a computer program can do.

On average, Vim makes me 1000x more productive and I can’t ever imagine using anything else (especially not emacs).

Kev in Lin’s home workspace. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Lin)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I work based out of my apartment in Belltown. I have one 28-inch screen and one Mac, both propped up by stacks of printing paper for maximum viewing ergonomics. I keep an iPad to control music and act as an additional screen if needed. I use a Kinesis keyboard which allows for maximum typing with minimal wrist movement. Not only does this help with potential wrist issues, it also has the added benefit of keeping everyone off my workstation because the keys aren’t in standard QWERTY positions.

Outside of electronics, I have a single notebook where I write down my daily priorities. I also keep hundreds of sticky notes to keep todos, notes and plan consulting sessions. A nice office hack I learned is to use a shower board (~$10 at Home Depot) as a whiteboard. I love whiteboards.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Sticky notes. I’m often on the go meeting with clients and I don’t like to carry around a big notebook. I therefore carry a wad of regular Staples sticky notes which I use to jot down details. This gets me the best of both worlds because stickies are super portable and I can still put these in my notebooks later for long term archiving.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac. Used to be a Windows user but switched to Mac in college to do iOS development and have never looked back. I like Macs because for the longest time it was the only laptop that you could get that would have +10h battery life. Also, most software that’s created tends to be Unix based and a Mac provides a Unix-based development environment with an integrated hardware enclosure that just works.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Kirk!

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? I would get a time machine because it seems like the deus ex machina of super powers. Would use it to go to the far future and snatch a transporter and cloak of invisibility (at which time they would presumably be invented and available on Amazon Prime)!

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … I’m actually launching a startup now. It’s currently bootstrapped by consulting but the end goal is to turn it into a SaaS-based platform to help companies manage their infrastructure on Amazon Web Services and other public clouds.

I once waited in line for … Liquid-nitrogen-cooled cereal. It made popping sounds during consumption and would stick to your mouth if the eater wasn’t careful but the actual taste was rather hollow and unfulfilling. I don’t regret many things in life but I do regret waiting in line for this.

Your role models: I don’t imagine I’m the first one to say this but Richard Feynman has always been a huge inspiration in terms of having a deep first principle based understanding of fundamental physics and being one of the most respected scientists of his time while still keeping a sense of mischief, humility and disregard for established powers.

Greatest game in history: Life. It’s kind of like Calvinball where you get to make up the rules and there’s infinite ways to play.

Best gadget ever: If we don’t count my phone, I would say that the gadget that has had the most impact in my life the past year are AirPods. I’m a voracious consumer of podcasts and audiobooks and AirPods remain the only wireless headphones I’ve used that just work seamlessly every time I put them on.

First computer: An old dell CRT computer that took up the whole desk and was the weight of multiple baby seals. Used it to play video games that were loaded on floppy disks (kind of incredible to think that games used to be around 4KB as today’s can be over 100GB).

Current phone: iPhone SE. It’s my favorite smart phone because it has regular security updates, all the apps I need and great battery life. It’s also a 5″ smartphone, a form factor which I love but has become virtually extinct in today’s world of tablet-sized smartphones.

Favorite app: Drafts 4. It’s a note-taking app with customizable edit menus, keys and shortcuts that let you programmatically move text around to any service of your choosing. I use it to take notes in the rare cases when I’m without sticky notes or I need to record a longer thought that would take too many stickies. After I’m done, I sync it to Dropbox and make sure to preserve timestamp, location and other useful metadata on each note.

Favorite cause: Electronic frontier foundation (EFF). They are the leading nonprofit in defending digital privacy, free speech and innovation — all things that we could use more of these days. In a world dominated by big brother and multinational corporations, the EFF helps give individuals a fighting chance and make it possible for us to have technology divorced of dystopian authoritarian surveillance states.

Most important technology of 2018: Machine learning through deep neural networks. This has been a hugely transformative force in the world, enabling everything from Apple’s Animoji to Amazon Alexa. We are still early days in terms of what this technology can do and the use cases it will be applied to. It’s not an understatement to say that advances in this field are at the cusp of ushering in the next industrial revolution.

Most important technology of 2020: Self-driving cars.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Can’t live life according to a double negative. I’m “not not” OK with my job isn’t a bar that you should settle for, especially if you have the means to do otherwise.

Website: Kevin Lin

Twitter: @kevins8

LinkedIn: Kevin Lin

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