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CTO interview - The philosophy that "design everything thoroughly before actually creating it" supports borderless development

MODE Japan

※ Japanese translation is the following.

MODE, Inc. is a startup founded in Silicon Valley, USA in 2014. Based on the vision that "MODE makes it a norm for people to make informed decisions by giving visibility to the physical world through data.", we aim to realize digital transformation for our customers through IoT (Internet of Things) and data utilization.

Here, we interviewed CTO/Co-Founder Ethan Kan about MODE's founding story, development team, and future prospects in chronological order of the past, present, and future.

CTO/Co-Founder Ethan Kan

Casual question

What's the best food you ever had? Where was it from?

– As a starter warm up question, let's go with the easy one. So you are a foodie. You love food. What's the best food you ever had? Where was it from? 

Ethan: Wow, it is hard to pick one. It changes from time to time because it's just about memory, right? And it's affected by many things, not just the food itself. So it could be just that the day was a good day, or you were relaxed and you felt happy, and then the food tasted better. 

Because I once had a burger after driving through the desert, and the burger tasted really nice. I didn't eat well for a few days. I was just eating crappy food. I was driving through the desert to LA from Arizona. And then when I got to LA, I had a burger at a place called Umami Burger. It's a mini chain. I think they had a couple of places in LA, and a couple of places in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were pretty new at the time. 

They call it an Umami Burger because they actually use shiitake mushroom in their sauce to create the umami flavor. And the cheese in the burger is crunchy, instead of melted. That year I was driving around the country and eating a lot of burgers throughout the country.  Everyone is doing pretty much the same thing. They usually just say, "oh, we are better because we have better beef." But this place actually did something different. So when I tried that burger, I instantly felt,  "oh, that was the best burger I've ever had. "

A couple of years later, I would have that burger again. I still liked it. It was still good, but it was not the same anymore. But just that one time, the first time I had it, that was so memorable. And so I would say it's the best meal I've ever had so far. Because although I had other really good meals since then, this is one food memory that stood out for me.

Past

What was the biggest challenge since MODE was founded?

Ethan: This is not just in the past. It's a continuing challenge–Finding the right business model to make the business scalable. You can have the technology, you can serve a customer really well, but can you do it repeatedly and in a profitable manner and sustainable manner. Part of it is finding the product-market fit. You want to create a virtuous cycle–You keep building things that customers want, and they like it and they buy more, and then at the same time, your employees can sustain the product, and they get satisfaction in serving the customers.

I think we are still being challenged to meet those goals. No companies can ever fully meet them, but the most successful ones usually get, like, 80%, 90% there.

How did you feel when you heard the idea of starting an IoT business from Gaku? How did that come about and what were your thoughts at the time? 

Ethan: I think Gaku had his own story about why he came up with the idea. But at the time, he just explained to me that he's kind of tinkering with some gadgets for watering his lawn. 

He could have bought something off the market, such as an electronically controlled sprinkler system. But he is really good at tinkering with stuff. And so he got a Raspberry Pi and then started hooking things up. He got the prototype working and then he wrote some programs to control it. 

At the time, it felt like, “oh, that's very interesting, exciting, and cool”. At least from an engineer's standpoint, that's a pretty fun project to me. And I think the key thing is he said his idea was to build the software platform to control this and then let other developers or engineers use it. 

And that part really got me interested. Instead of trying to create something to sell to consumers, we are creating something that other engineers, other programmers would use. I thought that was a good change of pace for me. I worked at Yahoo! which created services directly for end users to use. But I always thought it would be pretty cool to build something that other engineers can use.  And it's a little bit more technical. It's all about creating the right set of tools and APIs and things like that. So that's quite interesting. That's how I felt at the time. 

– So from the beginning, was it more of a BtoB product rather than BtoC?

Ethan: Not even BtoB. It's almost like a kind of geeky product. It's a tool for other engineers to use. And we're not really thinking too hard about the revenue stream. So, you know, like typical startup ideas, you start with something you got excited about and then you think about what's next. That's much later. And then we need to, of course, come up with a story to tell the VC about the business model. But at the beginning you will just think, it will be cool to literally put your ideas up on the internet and ask other engineers to try it out. 

So it was not fully a BtoB idea.  We definitely were very much oriented towards technical users, basically. But the big pivot a few years ago was to focus on the nontechnical part of our customers. Our customers don't necessarily have a strong technical team to directly work with us. That's why we have this big component of consulting and customization. I will say today we are not the same company. We moved away from the original idea, but the original idea did excite me.

Ethan and Gaku

When Gaku suggested IoT business, did he have any other ideas? Could it be a good business idea?

Ethan: One idea I remember was some kind of online tool for people to plan their travels and vacations. He created the prototype of it, actually. 

Gaku is a pretty seriouswtravel planner. He would research all the restaurants he needs to go to, all the key things to do, and figure out whether he needs to buy or reserve tickets ahead of time, etc.

You need to come up with your own ways to organize these plans and different people do different things. I think he wondered if there can be an easier tool for everyone to use, instead of, say, using a spreadsheet.

I think that when people come up with a business idea or an app idea, they usually come from their own point of view and say, "oh, how I want things to work in a certain way." I think it's legitimate. But if you're building something for consumers, you need to think about all the consumers. Millions, or tens of millions of people. The work you need to do to figure out what people actually want is much harder. 

So coming back to that question, building something for other engineers was actually a lot easier for us compared to building some apps for mass consumer markets. And I think that's why I felt a little bit more confident about doing that rather than building apps for regular consumers.

When I think of all these companies that are building apps for consumers, they are dealing with a totally different beast. A lot of them needed to do a lot of market research. Meanwhile some people are just lucky or they are just good, they would have a spark of inspiration and they would build the app and it just works perfectly. I think Pinterest is one example. It was a simple idea, but they captured the essence of something special, then they built it and it became very successful.  And I think at the beginning they didn't really research a ton. Someone came up with the idea and they liked it and they just did it. But then perhaps there is only a one-in-a-million chance for this to happen.

It's been 8 years since MODE was founded. How has the IoT industry changed during that time?

Ethan: I think it’s matured a lot. Basically IoT came from a solution looking for a problem at the beginning, to much better developed use cases of how IoT should be used and what it is for. So I think that's the biggest change. 

The expectation actually has been lowered to a more reasonable, attainable level from a technical standpoint. It's not going to be magic. it's really just about trying to get data into the cloud reliably. The magic will eventually happen after that.

The magic will be in the software, in the cloud. Meanwhile the hardware part is still evolving. Eight years ago, actually a lot of the hardware was not ready for it. I'm talking specifically about connected devices. They could connect to Wi-Fi, but they probably would crash after a few days. A lot of them could be easily hacked. They were not practical because you don't normally have really good Wi-Fi in a lot of these industrial scenarios. 

And now I think there are a lot more reliable ways to collect data in the industrial scenarios. But still, I think that part needs to continue to evolve for the whole industry to fulfill its promise. I think we are maybe only one third there. In the meantime, we can continue to improve the software part on the cloud side. But for certain use cases, we will hit a wall until the hardware part of the equation comes along as well.

How did MODE’s engineering organization grow in line with the changes in the IoT industry?

Ethan: The company at the beginning was really looking to partner with IoT companies that are basically creating consumer-oriented solutions such as home automation. So the team was trying to be a vendor to other companies that are building home automation products. 

But the IoT industry actually shifted to become more about data collection for enterprises in the industrial setting. So our product is also reoriented towards serving these customers. And so the team has to change accordingly. That's why we have an enterprise solutions team focusing on helping enterprise customers to onboard. And of course, the organization will need to be responsive to feature requests and demands from the enterprise customers.

What was your biggest struggle or crisis in your engineering career, if you have had any?

Ethan: After I left Yahoo!,  and then before I started MODE with Gaku, there was a few-year period that I actually didn't know what would be a good direction for me. 

So I worked on different projects with some other former coworkers. I wanted to keep coding and keep my technical chops. At the same time I was helping with engineering team management. I couldn't quite figure out what would be the best use of my time. I won't say it was a crisis.  That's why jumping on MODE was an easy decision because I saw that there are so many opportunities for personal growth when you start a company. There were so many things to learn as a founder. After struggling for a few years in figuring out what to do next, I found what I wanted to do.

Present

Ethan and Gaku

What do you think of the culture and atmosphere of the engineering development team? 

Ethan: I think the main thing is we emphasize collaboration and helping each other. When an engineer is assigned a task, they should never feel they are alone in finishing the task. They are encouraged to seek advice and feedback from their peers. Code and design reviews by peers are a crucial part of our engineering process.

The culture of collaboration also extends to proactive sharing of knowledge. Our team is always about teaching new skills and ideas to each other, and helping each other to level up as engineers and problem solvers.

This culture just came organically from the team that we built together. Over time we kind of cultivated this sense of community around the team. And of course, as we continue to grow the team, we definitely want to maintain this.

Are there any unique challenges for us from a technical point of view compared to other companies?

Ethan: Our approach is to try to create a more generalized solution for all types of industries and customer use cases. We try to minimize the amount of custom work for each customer. It is a challenge to effectively create an effective common product that can be valuable for everyone.

Engineer team in MODE

As an organization, what are MODE’s strengths?

Ethan: I would say the strength is that everyone is very approachable. The communication channels are all open. There's no hierarchy that you have to jump through to get information across. Even new team members who just joined the company should feel free to talk to everyone else in the company. 

What are the technological edges of MODE?

Ethan: MODE is close to a "full stack" solution to IoT problems. We prescribe specific ways on how data should be relayed from sensors to the cloud, and how the data should be organized and stored in the cloud. Our customers only have to deal with a single vendor (MODE) to take care of their needs. I think it's an edge that we have today compared to other existing solutions, which tend to offer only parts of the puzzle. They usually require their customers to make a lot of technical decisions and pull together technologies from multiple vendors in an effective way. It's a difficult and expensive process.

How do you describe MODE’s engineers? What do they have in common?

Ethan: MODE has a very strong core of really good and experienced engineers. And we also have some junior engineers who are really eager to learn and are open to challenges. 

And they have two things in common. Firstly, they are very generous with their time and effort in helping each other. They enjoy sharing knowledge with each other. It's all about making their teammates better. 

The other thing is their attitude in solving problems. Nothing can stop them from just continuing to push forward and figuring out why a problem occurs and how to solve it. It's partly due to talent and experience, but also because they take pride in their work.

According to some of our engineers, it’s the philosophy of “Ethan to design everything thoroughly before actually creating it.” Is it true? Since when has this become your style? Also, why do you think this is important?

Ethan: Yes, that's true. I’ve been emphasizing that a lot in the last few years. I know that software engineers tend to be eager to start writing code as soon as they are assigned a task, but I encourage them to fight that urge and try to take time to organize their ideas and write them down.

I think it started when we began building a Tokyo team. Obviously, there's a time zone barrier and a language barrier.  So a lot of times I won't be able to have face-to-face meetings with them to really figure out what they are thinking. And they may not have clearly understood what I was thinking. So I told the team: if you're building something, you should think clearly about what you are building and document your design.

There are two obvious benefits. One is you can communicate your ideas more clearly with other team members, and give them an opportunity to offer feedback. It comes back to our team philosophy of collaboration and helping each other do a better job.

The other one is that now you have a record for your own future reference. Two years later, even yourself may have forgotten why you made a certain design decision. But you can look up your design document and things make sense again. And when new engineers join the team they actually can still see why these decisions were made. It would be very costly to the team if such knowledge is lost.

Soon I realized that the process of writing down our design actually helps us clarify our ideas as well. In many instances, by the time we finish writing down our design, we already spot some holes in it, and we will immediately revise it.

How do you feel about working in English with Japanese people?

Ethan: I think it's more difficult for our Japanese co-workers than for me, frankly. I would continue to use English and they are the ones who have the burden to adapt and improve. So I would just try to be patient and make an effort to understand them even if they couldn't really fully express themselves. Obviously, there's some overhead to it, not just because of language, but because we are not in the same physical space. If we were in the same space, even if we couldn't verbally communicate clearly, we could still use a whiteboard. Now there are all kinds of electronic ways to do it remotely, but whiteboard is still a more natural way. 

Regardless, given the engineering talents we can get in Japan, I think it's worth the effort.

– MODE is not the first time you work with an international team, right?

Ethan: Actually, when I was at Yahoo!, we had to work with Yahoo! Japan. But at the time, I was working with Gaku on the same team so he could bridge the gap sometimes. And also Yahoo! actually had a few in-house bilingual product managers. They would sit in our meetings to help us communicate with the Yahoo! Japan team.

In MODE, we definitely emphasize the use of English as the language of internal communications even among our Japanese staff, and I think it's been working better than expected. We actually didn't know how well it would work, but in the last couple years I think we have become pretty effective. And even if sometimes verbal communication in English is hard for some Japanese staff members, they are able to bridge the gap a bit by writing on Slack in English.

Future

How would you like to grow the team down the road? 

Ethan: We need to grow the product development team so that we can accelerate the rate of innovation in our core platform. At the same time, we need to scale our technical team in charge of onboarding customers. We very likely will need to beef up our operations team as well.

As we add more engineers we inevitably need to structure the team into more autonomous groups. In some ways we already started the process. We have certain sub-teams that are each given a focus area. I think over time, we will organize ourselves into many 3 or 4 person sub-teams.

We were talking about the Japan market and North American US Market. How would you like to grow the team with that regard? 

Ethan: Obviously as we grow the other regional markets, a big part will be onboarding customers in those markets. As we move into each market, we need to build a local team as well. It's not just about speaking the local language, but also being in the same time zone. It will be a lot less stressful than serving customers from 15 time zones away.

– Yes. But engineers work long, late into the night, right?

Ethan: I think if they have a choice, they probably still prefer more normal hours. So I think we should try to aim to make life easier for everybody.

What makes MODE an attractive company for prospective candidates?

Ethan: I think MODE is for candidates who are open to unusual challenges. MODE is not just a web or cloud application. IoT is about "things'' after all. And the "things" are more than some physical objects. It's also about the environment the "things" operate in. It could be outdoors, it could be underwater, or it could be in the mountains. These are all part of the equation of whatever you do.  I think for engineers who want to be challenged outside of the virtual space, MODE will be an interesting place to work.

MODE operates "things" such as sensors and gateways

– So not just software, not just dealing with ones and zeros.

Ethan: It's not just pixels on the screen, it's not just bits in the cloud. But actually you need to figure out how to transfer gigabytes of data from an underwater sensor to the cloud.

I think MODE is a good place for new engineers to hone their skills because you will have many opportunities to do things in multiple domains and learn from the more experienced engineers.

Please tell us your thoughts about the future of MODE. 

Ethan: Well, I think the future of MODE will depend on whether we can deliver on our mission statement.

I just think the future is to be written, but I do think that we have a good foundation now. It took us a few years to sharpen our focus. But I think as we build the team right now, there's more and more clarity to where the area of growth is, how we can attack the market, and what our product strengths are.

So it will be up to us to create a product vision, to make sure everyone on the team is able to align well, but at the same time, to be agile and responsive to changes in the market and the world.

But as of this moment, I would say, the future is wide open. Many opportunities are right there for us to grab.

– It just reminds me of the last scene from Back to the Future Part III,  your future is not written. So that was the last question. Thank you for that, Ethan!