Interview with Colin Parsons
Age is just a number. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.
Hey Colin! Thanks for taking the time to share.
Introduce yourself! Tell us about where you go to school, where you have worked, and what you are up to nowadays.
My name is Colin Parsons! I’m a rising sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis studying math, finance, and Spanish. I’ve worked at Eyefluence, a virtual reality eye-tracking startup acquired by Google, at Contrary Capital, a VC firm focused on pre-seed stage startups at the university level, and at Centrify, an identity access management (cybersecurity) company. When I head back to St. Louis, I’m planning on building a few machine learning projects with a friend of mine, using neural networks to teach computers some high-level concepts and abstract thinking. I’m hoping to develop startups at WashU as an investor at Contrary, and with the student entrepreneurship group Y’s Thoughts. I’ll also be expanding the GravityGames program — where students create games to be 3D printed on the International Space Stationand played by astronauts — to colleges, giving me some cool opportunities to speak at some more astronautics conventions and find motivated students interested in space!
What are you studying in school? Have any classes been helpful in the real world? If not, where did you learn what has been most helpful at work?
I’m majoring in math, with a second major in finance and a minor in Spanish. I’m not certain how long that second major in finance will last; it’s looking like a less interesting set of courses the more I learn of it. The most exciting class I’ve taken in college was a proof-based math class combining multivariable calculus, linear algebra, and matrix algebra! Not surprising that that was my favorite course, given my focus on math.
The most useful course I’ve taken was actually an intro to business class, designed to give an overview of the business world to arts and sciences majors. It’s given me a much greater appreciation for conciseness and organization-wide teaching. If you’re used to writing essays for school, you can get caught in the rut of constantly embellishing and complicating ideas. But it’s a huge skill to do the reverse — taking a complex concept, distilling it to understandable terms, and helping people turn that idea into their own.
Generally, though, the skills I’ve used at work or on projects — practicing object oriented programming, learning python, understanding neural networks, using laser cutting, game design… — those are all things that I’ve had to learn on my own. And all you need is the Internet — codecademy, free classes on Coursera, Google searches, Wikipedia, and Arxiv papers. I can’t recommend free Coursera courses enough — there are some really awesome professors out there at top universities who want to democratize their knowledge for students anywhere. If you need to learn something quick, just try to find a free online class!
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Tell us a bit about how you got your job at Eyefluence, and what it was like to get acquired by Google.
One day when I was working on the GravityGames project, the lady who organized the program — MJ Marggraff; she’s absolutely awesome — messaged some of my friends and me. She said her husband, Jim, had an extra Vive VR headset lying around in their garage, and a few free hours! So we could come over and play with the headset. I jumped at the chance and had an otherworldly experience with the headset, complete with swimming with whales, making a sculpture in space, playing Fruit Ninja, and getting incinerated by a robot.
Obviously, I was entranced. So when I went home, I began figuring out how to make my own headset. I took advantage of a few resources. After three years taking woodworking at my high school, I knew we had a laser cutter, which I thought might be able to cut cardboard. My mom works for a food exporter, so they had tons of extra cardboard boxes that they were just recycling. I read the newspaper every morning in high school, and we saved the rubber bands from each day’s paper. Packaging tape was available for extremely cheap. And (after a ton of time searching) I found a Chinese manufacturer on Ebay that was selling plastic lenses for 94% off the retail price in the United States. And finally, Google made the plans for their Cardboard VR viewer open source!
So I spent the next month in my high school woodshop, modifying Google’s design and tinkering with the laser cutter. Eventually, I was able to make fully functional Cardboard VR headsets from scratch, for a cost of 67 cents per viewer and a total manufacturing time of 20 minutes per viewer. I made about 25 of these.
That summer, I decided to message MJ and ask if she had any ideas for a summer internship. She said that Jim ran a VR startup and I should interview there! Thanks mostly to her and Jim’s recommendation, and to a lesser degree my Cardboard project, I was offered an internship at Eyefluence a few minutes into my interview! I was told I could choose which team I wanted to work with, and I decided to work on the algorithms team.
The summer experience was absolutely incredible — just an awesome place filled with some of the best people I’ve ever worked with. I was ridiculously happy that summer, because I truly had a great job. I was sad to leave after summer — and the team joked that they shouldn’t let me go to college. But they set me up to come back over winter break and over next summer, and in any case, I was excited to head to WashU.
Then, one October morning, I got an email telling me about a “routine data auditing procedure” that required me to turn in my personal laptop (on which I’d written all my code). I’d been kept abreast of companies that we were working with and their interest in our technology over the summer, so I had a pretty clear hunch about what this meant. Within a couple hours, I received a phone call — the company needed me to mail in my computer as soon as possible (within a couple days). To speed it up, they bought a computer for me to pick up that day in St. Louis. I was quite excited — it was a huge event to take in as an 18 year-old, even if they couldn’t tell me explicitly what was going on. So I picked up my new computer, overnighted my old computer back to California after the weekend, and later that week, read about the acquisition in the news. It was a really euphoric feeling — I was so happy for everyone I had known at Eyefluence to see this kind of payoff for their hard work.
What is a big misconception about working at a big company?
Real progress doesn’t always require a startup mentality? Working at Centrify was really eye-opening for me — people work very reasonable hours, the pace is not frenetic, and the work environment is really relaxed — but the company consistently hits excellent growth targets.
Generally speaking, though, the stereotypes about big company work — less demanding or erratic, not as much immediate accountability, etc. — hold fairly true. So I can’t honestly say that I’ve found a really big misconception there.
How is it being the youngest person on a team? Do people treat you differently?
People definitely treat you differently if you’re the youngest. In my experience, though, it’s never been a negative thing. Generally, people are generous with their time and (if they like their job) love the chance to explain their line of work to a younger person! One of the funniest moments when I worked at Eyefluence was when I was introduced to everyone at my first company lunch. People said their name, what they did, and their highest degree level. About a third of the team had Ph.Ds! When it was my turn, I had to say that my highest degree was my middle school diploma (my last day of high school was the next day). But it was pretty funny, and everyone got a kick out of that.
It’s pretty natural to be intimidated by an age difference with coworkers.
It’s pretty natural to be intimidated by an age difference with coworkers. But if you can suppress that emotion for a little while, see things from your teammates’ perspectives, and remember that almost all of them are really good people who want to help you out, you can turn that difference into a learning opportunity! Just a couple of months after that introduction, I was sitting with four coworkers at lunch — our UX designer, a senior executive on the product side, and another student engineer. And (one of the kicks of working at a startup) we realized that I had worked at Eyefluence longer than any of them! The feeling of “newness” happens for just about everyone, but as long as you focus on doing good work and learning from your teammates, you can get settled in and connected with people relatively quickly.
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What advice do you have to someone looking to get more experience with machine learning and neural networks? Any resources you’d point them to?
I think that the best advice I can give is about your frame of mind. You can learn all about machine learning really quickly — if you’re obsessive about learning. As I mentioned before, pretty much anything you want to learn is available for free on the Internet — the question is just the depth of understanding you’ll pursue. Don’t settle for a “general idea” of what you’re learning, and instead really try to understand the content down to the details. You won’t get everything right away, but if you adopt that kind of goal, you’ll learn a lot quicker. If you don’t feel uncomfortable, lost, or confused when you’re learning a concept for the first time, you’re probably not pushing yourself enough.
In terms of resources, absolutely! I’ve made a prioritized list of resources that I’ve used to learn about machine learning. It’s by no means exhaustive or complete, but I think it’s a good place to start! Here’s the link: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/13R4Tg-0qRjgjirCc33Z_er_EKPGFNKri4bAlOItIpQM/edit#gid=0
You sent a 3d printed game to space! How did you get involved in that and what have you learned from there?
Another long story! I think it’s another good example of an irrational passion producing really unexpected results. I had worked at the YMCA the previous summer, and earned about $1000. I proceeded to spend it all on a cool drone I’d researched (the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced). When I showed it to my acquaintance, he was fascinated! We spent a few hours playing with it. We became a lot closer, so he decide to tell me about this project he was working on — GravityGames. I was fascinated and decided to start working on it.
GravityGames is designed to help middle school and high schools students appreciate the value of STEM, by creating a game to be made and played in space! Students design the game and send it to the company Made In Space. Made In Space has two 3d printers aboard the International Space Station, and they print the game in space. Astronauts then play it aboard the station!
My high school was chosen as the pilot program for this project, and I was fortunate enough to join the team working on it. The first day I went in, I had an idea about a “dart” shaped game design. I was fascinated by the probability of an irregular shaped dart making it through an irregular shaped hole, and worked on a math problem related to that. Although we never actually went with the dart design, I later learned in college that I had independently derived Fubini’s Theorem for multivariable calculus! So even though the design I liked was never used, when MJ Marggraff came by to check on our progress, she was really impressed with my math and encouraged me to keep working on the project and iterating over designs.
After many more iterations, we settled on a design similar to the kids toy “Perplexus”. Basically, it involves getting a marble into a chamber, which we hypothesized would be particularly difficult in zero gravity! We called the design “StarCatcher.”
It took almost a year from the completion of the design to its actual print on the ISS! In the meantime, I got to speak at the 2017 ISS Research and Development Conference in San Diego, alongside MJ and my friend who originally introduced me to the project. When it finally printed (February 2017), I was ecstatic! I’ve actually just had the chance to see the video of the ISS commander playing our game for 6 minutes on the station, which is absolutely mind-blowing. Hopefully that video will be released to the public soon — check http://www.gravitygames.org/ for updates.
Now, myself and another student leader — Ray Altenberg; his email is email@example.com — are focusing on expanding the GravityGames program nationwide. We’re deciding exactly what kind of educational institutions / organizations this will involve, but if you’re interested in this kind of thing, feel free to reach out to us! You might get the first chance at expanding this program across the country.
How has being introverted shaped how you thrive in a professional environment? What are any notable advantages/disadvantages that you find being introverted?
Being really introverted is a mixed bag. On one hand, I really, truly can’t connect with as many people as my extroverted peers — not because I don’t want to, but because I physically just can’t spend so much time with people. I really can’t spend more than three hours at a social event; I have to leave because I feel too tired. So that does limit me from a networking perspective. I’m also not given to talking about myself — that’s why writing for this article feels pretty strange for me. I hate to feel that I’m bragging or acting self-important; that’s annoying for everyone. I really hope that’s not the tone that comes across in this article. But when you’re introducing yourself to someone, sometimes it really is important to talk about your credentials, your skills, and your background! I just don’t particularly enjoy that.
On the other hand, introversion helps me make more meaningful connections with the people I do meet. I prefer to listen rather than talk, and people understand that when I show interest in what they’re doing, I’m almost never just being polite or trying to ingratiate myself with them. I really do love the opportunity to hear what they have to say! Another advantage of introversion — I probably wouldn’t have learned or built as much if I didn’t take so much time to think and be creative on my own. Groupthink and “idea averaging” can kill good ideas, and, thankfully, I don’t have a natural affinity for that kind of process.
So on the whole, I’m pretty happy with being introverted. It means I can make meaningful connections with a smaller network of people, listen more attentively when someone’s explaining an idea or opinion, and recharge and focus when I’m on my own. My roommate told me at the end of my first year of college that I was the most introspective person he knew, and I take that as a compliment!
Do you have mentors? How/where do you find them? What do you talk about with them?
I absolutely do — I’ve been deeply fortunate to connect with some really smart and interesting people throughout my projects and in my first year at WashU. Generally, I find mentors while I’m working on something, whether that’s a project like GravityGames, a job like Centrify or Eyefluence, or even a sport like high school soccer. Trying to find “important” people to connect with is kind of insincere — I generally find that the people whom I most enjoy talking to, I encounter through a shared passion, or in the course of pursuing some concrete interest.
That makes talking particularly easy — we always talk about what we’re doing, what we’re passionate about, and what we think we want to do next! Ideas, advice, and opportunities flow pretty naturally from that kind of positive dialogue. And I almost always leave wanting more, and feeling a lot more curious and happy than when I entered the conversation.
As for mentors of a more spiritual or philosophical sense, I’m not quite certain. I’ve found very few people who “have it figured out.” It’s probably because because nobody has it all figured out, although it’s also possible I haven’t done a good enough job searching for that kind of person. In any case, if that’s the kind of mentor you’re looking for, I’m afraid I can’t offer you a playbook.
What is the worst advice someone has ever told you?
I’ve received a lot of bad advice, some of it actually quite interesting! From people’s opinions about what college I should attend, to an inductee trying to recruit me to a cult, I’ve seen a good deal. I actually don’t think that what I’ll share is the worst advice I’ve ever heard, because of course I’ve heard objectively dumb aphorisms. But I think that what I’ll share is a particularly nefarious piece of advice that might be harder for you to identify as a bad idea. So maybe you’ll gain more from this than if I were to explain how “living each day like it was your last” is a stupid way to approach financial planning.
Here it is: “Always find an excuse to say yes.” On the surface, this seems like a good idea — you should really strive to try new and uncomfortable things, because it’ll help you learn more about the world, the people around you, and yourself. And you should really, really, really try to empathize with others. That’s a totally valid concept!
Saying yes to trying something new is a virtue; saying yes to something you know you aren’t interested in wastes everyone’s time.
But besides that one good idea, it’s very bad advice. Why? First: respect other people, and yourself. Saying yes to trying something new is a virtue; saying yes to something you know you aren’t interested in wastes everyone’s time. Have respect for your own convictions, and for the other person’s precious energy! If you’re not interested in something they’re pushing on you, tell them so in a considerate fashion.
Second: you are not a blank slate — you have your own passions, your own motivations, and your own ideals. Don’t ignore those convictions for the sake of appearing open-minded. Eventually, even the people who appreciated your initial receptiveness will grow tired of its insincerity. Conversely, if you’re honest about your interests, people will enjoy working with you on shared passions, because they’ll know your engagement is sincere.
Third: listening to someone, or experimenting with something new, should never be something you need to make an excuse to do! It should be something you do naturally. And if it really is so painful to try a new thing that you have to make an excuse to do it, you’re probably better off just trusting your gut and not doing it.
Where can people find you and what opportunities are you looking for? (Twitter, linkedin, personal site, medium, etc).
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d also love to connect on LinkedIn. I don’t have a twitter, I don’t have a personal site, and I’ve only written one (pretty embarrassingly näive) Medium article.
I’m looking for potential collaborators on a machine learning project I’ll be building with my friend Martin Cepeda. I’m looking for collaborators on expanding the GravityGames program nationwide. If you have an interesting opportunity involving entrepreneurship, machine learning, astronautics, data analysis, or a worthwhile social cause, feel free to message me! And I always love talking to student entrepreneurs, so if you have an idea, want a beta tester, are looking for advice, or want to discuss deep philosophical issues or existential questions, I’m all ears.
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Originally Published on Student Hustle