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Where Are They Now: MATHCOUNTS Champ Albert Ni

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MATHCOUNTS champ, USAMO winner, and one of the very first AoPSers, Albert Ni talks about his path from being a math contest winner a decade ago to his leading role at Dropbox today.

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Facilitator: Albert Ni

rrusczyk 2013-07-30 19:32:52
Tonight, I'm pleased to introduce Albert Ni.
rrusczyk 2013-07-30 19:33:00
I met Albert at National MATHCOUNTS in 2002, where he proudly announced to the Countdown round audience that his favorite school subject was...
JOJOSHI 2013-07-30 19:33:15
jenniferwang 2013-07-30 19:33:15
MathBrain2000 2013-07-30 19:33:15
rrusczyk 2013-07-30 19:33:19
kimt9 2013-07-30 19:33:29
rrusczyk 2013-07-30 19:33:36
We have a winner!
rrusczyk 2013-07-30 19:33:43
That must have been some good food, because Albert won Nationals that year. When AoPS launched in 2003, Albert was one of the first 2 or 3 students to join. He would go on to earn a perfect score on the AMC 12 and become a USAMO winner before heading off to MIT. He assisted some of our courses while there, but left MIT early to become one of the first employees of Dropbox, which did not even have a public product when Albert joined the company.
rrusczyk 2013-07-30 19:33:57
Now, Dropbox is one of the most successful companies of the last 5 years, and one of the sponsors of our Worldwide Online Olympiad Training.
rrusczyk 2013-07-30 19:34:04
I'll turn the room over to Albert and let him tell you more. Albert will let you know when it's time to start firing questions his way.
albertni 2013-07-30 19:34:15
thanks Richard!
albertni 2013-07-30 19:34:34
hey everyone - it's great to be here
albertni 2013-07-30 19:35:05
I remember when I first met Richard, I was 14 and called him "Mr. Ruscyzk", to which he objected
albertni 2013-07-30 19:35:22
so it's a bit surreal to be here now and get a bunch of "Mr. Ni" going on - I'm "only" 25
albertni 2013-07-30 19:35:59
While I'm going to feel old for the duration of this session, fortunately in the "real world" that's not so bad
patl02 2013-07-30 19:36:06
So, can I call you Albert?
albertni 2013-07-30 19:36:08
Yeah, for sure
albertni 2013-07-30 19:36:24
Anyway, let me do a quick introduction and then we'll get started with questions
albertni 2013-07-30 19:36:57
Today above all else I want to talk about one of the most important questions you can ask. It's a question you've asked a million times but probably still don't ask often enough. I know I didn't when I was in school.
albertni 2013-07-30 19:37:13
That question is very simple - "why?"
rhvg 2013-07-30 19:37:26
cxiong 2013-07-30 19:37:27
albertni 2013-07-30 19:37:31
Ok good start
albertni 2013-07-30 19:38:12
A lot of times we talk about the "what". For example, making the Countdown Round at National MathCounts is a "what". Making MOP or the IMO is a "what". Getting into MIT, doing a Ph.D., working a hedge fund, joining or starting a startup ... you get the idea
albertni 2013-07-30 19:38:50
However, a lot is lost if you simply focus on the "what". It's the "why" behind what you choose to do (or, equally as important, not to do), that makes all the difference.
albertni 2013-07-30 19:39:21
For example, just to give you guys an idea of what I mean here
albertni 2013-07-30 19:39:46
Why is being smart / hard-working important? Or an analogous question - why is it that some of the smartest and hardest working people out there are "not successful" (definition of success TBD)?
albertni 2013-07-30 19:40:02
Why does it help to do well at contests? Or to get into a good college? Or why not?
albertni 2013-07-30 19:40:18
Why learn to code? Or learn to draw? Or open a lemonade stand?
albertni 2013-07-30 19:40:38
Why do math at all?
jenniferwang 2013-07-30 19:40:44
Just because.
albertni 2013-07-30 19:40:54
That's actually not a bad reason, haha
albertni 2013-07-30 19:41:19
Don't get me wrong, I think "because math is fun" is a perfectly valid reason. In fact, it's the ONLY reason I spent so much time doing math when I was younger.
andyzhu 2013-07-30 19:41:28
for money
albertni 2013-07-30 19:41:41
I'm also seeing some interesting comments like the one above
albertni 2013-07-30 19:42:08
That begs another question - why do you want to make money? Why are some people with lots of money really unhappy?
albertni 2013-07-30 19:42:23
Anyway, the list goes on and on and on.
albertni 2013-07-30 19:42:56
To zoom back in a little bit, let me start by focusing in on one area, and let's try to make the initial few questions relevant to that area.
albertni 2013-07-30 19:43:06
Then we can expand outward again.
albertni 2013-07-30 19:43:43
The area I want to focus on is how being "good at math" has been both surprisingly helpful AND unhelpful in the "real world"
albertni 2013-07-30 19:44:06
So if you have questions that are even remotely related to that, let's have at it
GlaingTx 2013-07-30 19:44:11
What do you mean unhelpful?
mathgenius01 2013-07-30 19:44:14
How can it be Unhelpful?
mrjag 2013-07-30 19:44:16
How is it unhelpful?
jeffchen 2013-07-30 19:44:18
unhelpful? ?
Hislop 2013-07-30 19:44:20
how can being good at something be unhelpful?
123piratejoe 2013-07-30 19:44:25
What are the drawbacks of math?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:08:37
Why do you think math would be helpful?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:08:52
For instance, I don't think it'll come as a shock to people that you don't solve too many IMO problems in most jobs
PlatinumFalcon 2013-07-30 20:08:58
Real life applications
minimario 2013-07-30 20:09:02
It is used in many careers.
andyzhu 2013-07-30 20:09:03
to get smarter
JOJOSHI 2013-07-30 20:09:16
So we can go to good colleges
longwang 2013-07-30 20:09:16
the problem-solving skills can be helpful in many areas
CountdownFTW 2013-07-30 20:09:17
math's used in everything
LittleGauss 2013-07-30 20:09:22
Sharpens your logic!
albertni 2013-07-30 20:09:38
There's a lot of good stuff here
albertni 2013-07-30 20:14:20
So anyway, the common theme is not "I'm going to solve these exact problems in my job"
albertni 2013-07-30 20:14:34
It's more like "getting good at math helps develop skills that will be useful elsewhere"
albertni 2013-07-30 20:15:14
And that's definitely true. For example, one of the most useful things about learning math was that it helped me develop confidence that I could become a good software engineer.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:16:03
I didn't really start programming until college (highly regrettable by the way - don't imitate that =P), but after getting over an initial hump, I found CS a bit easier because of my math background.
attometer 2013-07-30 20:16:12
what did you study in MIT?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:16:23
I double majored in CS and theoretical math
albertni 2013-07-30 20:16:40
But I focused on CS primarily in my last year and a half (I was at MIT for three years).
torquoiseworld 2013-07-30 20:16:43
Why did you decide to become a software engineer and not stick with math?
lenbob 2013-07-30 20:16:43
albertni 2013-07-30 20:16:54
Good questions - I'll get back to these
snow529 2013-07-30 20:17:33
What does CS stand for?
violincrazy101 2013-07-30 20:17:33
Hislop 2013-07-30 20:17:33
whats CS?
rrusczyk 2013-07-30 20:17:37
Computer science.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:18:50
Anyway let me go back toward how math has been "unhelpful"
albertni 2013-07-30 20:19:21
So it's not so much that math itself is directly unhelpful (cue sigh of relief)
albertni 2013-07-30 20:19:35
But getting good at math tends to correlate heavily with some attributes
albertni 2013-07-30 20:19:40
For example, people who are good at math tend to be smart
albertni 2013-07-30 20:19:50
They tend to be hard-working (I know not all!)
albertni 2013-07-30 20:20:03
They tend to like challenges
albertni 2013-07-30 20:20:23
They tend to like "quantifiables"
albertni 2013-07-30 20:20:43
I say "they" but I really should say "we", because I'm all of these things, or at least the latter three =P
snow529 2013-07-30 20:20:52
albertni 2013-07-30 20:20:53
I'll explain in a bit
albertni 2013-07-30 20:21:14
So continuing the correlation chain
albertni 2013-07-30 20:21:53
There are a lot of positive correlations between being smart, hard-working, and liking challenges / quantifiables and other stuff
Hislop 2013-07-30 20:22:29
can you define what you mean by "smart"?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:22:29
This is going to be a gross oversimplification but let's go with "capable of learning quickly"
albertni 2013-07-30 20:22:57
There are also some negative correlations though
albertni 2013-07-30 20:23:36
For example, people who are all of the above attributes tend to be successful in school. People who tend to be successful in school tend to travel "known paths". When you can always take a step forward, you are less likely to stop and think "should I move in a different direction?"
albertni 2013-07-30 20:24:21
I've seen plenty of friends who just kept going to the "next thing". Do well in high school. Go to a good college. Get a Masters. Maybe do a PhD or join a well-known company that pays well and has an interesting job.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:24:40
Note that none of these things are exactly terrible - so it's not so bad.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:25:02
However, there's this really important concept known as "opportunity cost"
albertni 2013-07-30 20:25:50
You can Google it, but basically it's the cost of doing something when it precludes you from doing something else.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:26:11
There's a similar concept known as "BATNA". Best Alternative To Negotiated Available.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:27:14
Even basic negotiation training will teach you that you should always understand your BATNA. For example if you're trying to get a contract to sell your product to company X, and you already have an offer from company Y, then the offer from company Y is at least a lower bound to your BATNA. All other things being equal, of course.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:27:40
But this concept extends to everything you do.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:28:30
And forgetting to think about this concept is something that I see very often
rushi97 2013-07-30 20:28:53
But how do you know what is the "best alternative"?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:28:53
Especially from people who have a lot of good options, which smart, hard-working people who like challenges often do
albertni 2013-07-30 20:29:02
Unfortunately I can't answer that for you
albertni 2013-07-30 20:29:29
This "Math" Jam will leave you with more questions than answers. And that's the point. To even be thinking about that concept at all is one of the most important things you can do.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:31:33
So real quick and we'll get back to questions again
albertni 2013-07-30 20:31:38
Let me talk about the whole "quantifiables" thing
albertni 2013-07-30 20:32:30
A basic example is that a natural tendency that I saw a lot at MIT in software engineering classes is that people tend to prioritize "feature-completeness".
albertni 2013-07-30 20:32:47
So when building a product, a lot of emphasis gets put on "can it do X? Does it cover Y edge case?" etc.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:33:20
But a lot of times that's not actually the best way to build something good, at least initially.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:33:42
The iPhone and iPad versus Linux are good examples of this. And I say this as a Linux user and fanboy.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:34:02
The fact that Dropbox only lets you sync a single folder on your computer is another example. And the list goes on.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:35:19
So anyway, let's get back to more questions now that I've given you more food for thought.
violincrazy101 2013-07-30 20:35:48
how did you prepare for the math competitions?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:36:07
I'll give a brief answer to this, but I'll try to focus on how it helped me later.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:37:53
There's the obvious part about preparing for math competitions where you do a lot of problems.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:38:26
For example when training for MathCounts, I did every MathCounts problem ever written (including the warmup / workout handouts) 4 times.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:38:57
So it was something like 10K problems? Maybe more. It was a lot.
54math 2013-07-30 20:38:58
Why 4 times?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:39:22
It wasn't 4 times in a row, but I had a system to get through all of them.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:39:49
I figured the first time it was a new problem, the second time I'd hope to know it already, by the third time there was no excuse to not know the problem, and by the fourth time I absolutely had to get it.
theron 2013-07-30 20:39:55
what was the system?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:40:50
It wasn't anything fancy - I just did like three hours of math a day and kept track of when I did what problem. I worked alone and had minimal coach / parent involvement.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:41:10
However, I don't want to focus too much on that, even though I know this is what you guys are most interested in =P
albertni 2013-07-30 20:41:30
Instead I want to talk about "why" I had that system.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:42:24
My reasoning was pretty simple. I figured I was unlikely to be the smartest person in the country, but I could potentially be the hardest working / most prepared one. And since most MathCounts problems are repeats and it was technically feasible to just do all the problems, I just went ahead and did that and hoped for the best.
torquoiseworld 2013-07-30 20:44:16
how did you prepare for usamo? was it the same strategy?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:44:34
So I didn't believe that I could do the same thing for USAMO, which may have been a mistake.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:45:00
There are a lot of other ways to look at these problems.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:45:29
In fact, it was probably a BAD thing that I was able to be successful in MathCounts with my system of "brute force".
albertni 2013-07-30 20:45:57
This is because it a) encouraged me to keep using such a system and b) more importantly, subconsciously discouraged me from wanting to do things where that system might not work.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:46:21
Again I want to come back to the concept of opportunity cost I mentioned earlier, as well as the concept of asking "why"
LittleGauss 2013-07-30 20:46:35
So it worked for usamo?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:46:42
I didn't think brute force could work for USAMO for a variety of reasons (some correct, some incorrect)
albertni 2013-07-30 20:47:42
Consequently I was at a bit of a loss for how to prepare well.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:47:44
It ended up just causing me to not work as hard as I could have.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:48:07
And that's one of the reasons it's so important to think about "why" not "what"
pablo 2013-07-30 20:48:09
but you still won?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:48:18
USAMO winner means you got top 12
albertni 2013-07-30 20:48:31
I did not make an IMO team though (6 people make the team)
albertni 2013-07-30 20:48:57
See all I thought about in high school was "what". And the "what" was making IMO.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:49:45
I didn't think about "why" it would be important or useful. I also didn't think about why I wasn't working as hard as I used to (I only realized later on it was because I was at a loss as to how to effectively prepare without brute forcing)
mrjag 2013-07-30 20:50:29
What have you learned?How do you prepare for the Why, or can you?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:50:39
You can keep asking the question
albertni 2013-07-30 20:51:23
It sounds so simple but I assure you that just by asking it a lot, you will have an advantage in some ways over some people who may be much smarter than you =P
snow529 2013-07-30 20:51:38
So what you are saying is to think about not WHAT you want to do in life but WHY that thing is useful and/or important?\
albertni 2013-07-30 20:51:42
That's part of it
albertni 2013-07-30 20:52:01
Similarly, when developing a skill, why is that skill useful?
mrjag 2013-07-30 20:52:14
Are you saying these competitions are not as important as 'we' think...?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:53:08
Not necessarily.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:53:24
I think that preparing for competitions is useful in ways you probably don't realize. Same with everything else.
pablo 2013-07-30 20:53:32
How did you get the time for brute forcing? Most of the AoPS users here do extracurriculars, I believe. (sports, violin/cello, piano, lego robotics, etc.)
albertni 2013-07-30 20:53:42
Not going to answer this - instead I'll ask you questions =P
albertni 2013-07-30 20:53:49
Why do you want to brute force? Because I said it worked for me?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:54:10
Why do you do those extracurriculars? I understand you might be "forced to" by your parents.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:54:12
Why are those extracurriculars important?
DarkPikachu 2013-07-30 20:54:25
So you are basically saying that we should have a purpose in everything we do, right?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:54:38
You probably do have a purpose in everything you do already.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:54:50
However, it's a shame if you do something and you don't fully realize the benefits of it.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:55:22
Similarly it's an even bigger shame if it causes you to become biased, especially subconsciously, against opportunities, skills, etc.
mathisfun7 2013-07-30 20:55:37
my question isn't how do you get time to brute force, but how do you incorporate 3 hours of math into your daily school schedule
albertni 2013-07-30 20:56:01
Maybe my school was easier. It might not be possible for you. The playing field might not be fair!
albertni 2013-07-30 20:56:29
Let me talk a little bit about Dropbox, what it is, and my history with it.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:56:59
Dropbox was started by an MIT alum and MIT dropout in 2007.
hametm 2013-07-30 20:57:02
What does Dropbox do?
albertni 2013-07-30 20:57:31
The core use case is we want to make it as easy as possible for you to get to your data wherever you are. We also want to organize your data for you as much as possible.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:57:58
So if you put something in your Dropbox on your phone, computer, etc., you can get to it from any other phone, tablet, computer, etc., you install it on. You can also share it with other people more easily.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:58:10
But that's not what's important here.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:58:38
What is important is that Dropbox was started in 2007, and I joined in 2008 when there was about 5 people at the company. The product hadn't launched yet meaning you couldn't sign up.
albertni 2013-07-30 20:58:54
Needless to say, the product didn't make money, and I could have gotten a (lot) higher salary working elsewhere.
jeremylu 2013-07-30 20:59:21
so why did you join dropbox?
gaberen 2013-07-30 20:59:30
Why did you decide on joining a brand new startup instead of going a safer route of becoming a professor or something similar?
qwerty137 2013-07-30 20:59:36
Then why did you stick with the Dropbox company?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:00:00
I'd love to say it's because I was psychic.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:00:08
But I had a simpler, and I think actually better reason to join.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:00:30
See by the time I joined Dropbox, my experiences with contest math and at MIT had changed the way I viewed the world a lot.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:00:48
I realized there are a few things that mattered a lot to me.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:01:22
1) I wanted to learn as much as possible. Why? Because I enjoy it, and because I thought it would help me with other things I may find myself wanting in the future.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:01:51
2) I wanted to have a positive impact on the world. Why? Because it just mattered a lot to me. I honestly don't know why, but I also know that I probably couldn't change that about myself so I shouldn't fight it.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:02:41
3) I wanted to be in an enjoyable environment. Why? Because in my experience, enjoyable environments actually lead to more learning. Enjoyable doesn't necessarily mean easy. I found MOP to be extremely enjoyable even though it was very hard. That was a data point for this third preference.
mrjag 2013-07-30 21:02:49
Weren't you learning at MIT?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:02:55
Yes! A ton!
albertni 2013-07-30 21:03:16
MIT is an incredible place and I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity to have gone there.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:03:17
albertni 2013-07-30 21:03:26
It's not about learning. It's about where I could learn the MOST.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:03:35
Remember what I said about opportunity cost, BATNA, etc.?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:04:03
So anyway
albertni 2013-07-30 21:04:27
Those were the things that mattered to me, and I felt that working at Dropbox would give me the best opportunity to get the most of those three things.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:04:53
I didn't necessarily think we'd be successful.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:05:28
I didn't care about the money. In fact, my exact thought was "would this be worth it even if I didn't make a single cent other than base salary" (base salary was pretty much just enough to live comfortably)
hametm 2013-07-30 21:05:38
What did you learn at dropbox that school didn't teach?
CountdownFTW 2013-07-30 21:05:39
would working at say, microsoft, not do that?
nathan_wailes 2013-07-30 21:05:42
What was it about Dropbox that gave you that impression? (that you'd learn the most there) Were you especially impressed with the other 4 people?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:05:54
Great questions
albertni 2013-07-30 21:06:32
In terms of my impression at Dropbox, a close friend of mine, Arash, was one of the founders. I'd known him at school and through him met some of the other people at the company. I could tell quickly that they were all really smart and better software engineers than me.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:06:45
In terms of working at say Microsoft, or Google
albertni 2013-07-30 21:07:27
Well, again it was about the opportunity cost. I felt like even though I couldn't quantify some of the skills I'd likely develop working at a small startup fighting for its life, they would still be really worthwhile and it was a chance worth taking.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:08:01
In terms of what I've learned at Dropbox that school didn't teach ... it might be easier to list the opposite.
bestwillcui1 2013-07-30 21:08:27
Do you encourage us to take the same path as you?
mrjag 2013-07-30 21:08:29
What did you learn at dropbox that was unique..unlike school?
Fortify55 2013-07-30 21:08:34
Why did you want to be software engineer?
gxu 2013-07-30 21:08:36
Did you consider what could have happened if Dropbox had not been very successful?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:08:48
I am definitely not saying that you should take the same path as me!
albertni 2013-07-30 21:09:01
That's *why* I keep talking about why
albertni 2013-07-30 21:09:33
I want to explain why I did some of the things I did, to hopefully help you all think about the why more often and more effectively
albertni 2013-07-30 21:09:46
In terms of why I wanted to become a software engineer.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:09:53
Again, those three things I listed.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:10:09
At least in terms of learning and impact, I felt like software engineering was the best mixture of both for me.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:10:35
In terms of Dropbox not being successful, that's actually what I expected.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:10:57
One thing that I think people often don't realize is that there's no magical barrier you cross when you graduate or leave college.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:11:15
You should still be aiming to learn as much as possible and develop as many skills as possible.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:11:26
In that sense I viewed Dropbox as a "post-graduate" experience of sorts.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:11:50
It wouldn't have mattered if it was successful, because I was learning, and learning more than I think I could have elsewhere.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:12:09
Now I understand not everyone has the luxury of making this choice. I am fortunate and didn't have to worry about paying off student loans or supporting my parents for instance.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:12:25
That's worth highlighting as well. But I understood my constraints (or lack thereof), and operated within them.
mrjag 2013-07-30 21:12:29
Does school/college even give students time to think about the why?
SomeOtherGuy34 2013-07-30 21:12:43
How did you find the answer to your "why" questions?
gaberen 2013-07-30 21:12:45
So in what way has all those years of math benefited you the most in your professional career?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:13:06
mrjag, how long do you think it takes you to think about the "why" each day?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:13:30
If you spend even five minutes doing it (say while walking to class - look both ways before crossing the street of course), you'll have done it for much, much longer than most people.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:13:47
In terms of finding the answer to my "why" questions ... there is no easy answer here.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:14:05
I thought about it a lot, and didn't get worried when I didn't have the answer immediately
albertni 2013-07-30 21:14:30
I tried to look for patterns in my experiences, things I'd read and heard, and also used my intuition for what things I might not know.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:14:53
In some sense, it wasn't actually that different than thinking about why I failed to see the solution to an olympiad math problem.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:15:24
In terms of how math has benefited me the most in my professional career
albertni 2013-07-30 21:15:39
It should be noted that I don't work at a hedge fund, am not getting a PhD, etc.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:15:52
So this answer even more so than the other ones shouldn't be taken too generally.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:16:36
For me personally, the biggest benefit was that it trained my brain to learn. Sounds overly simple I know, but math is one of the best ways to do that.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:17:12
I think math made me better at learning, and as I got better at sensing the pitfalls commonly associated with being good at math, it became more and more of a strictly positive experience.
Fortify55 2013-07-30 21:17:17
Why just math, what about science or dancing , etc?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:17:33
Same goes for those. It just so happens that I focused on math. Why? I liked it the most.
LittleGauss 2013-07-30 21:17:50
Tired yet Albert?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:18:06
I'm doing fine. Remember, I spend a lot of time typing in front of a computer =P
angiejang 2013-07-30 21:18:13
If there was one thing you could go back and change one thing in your life so far, what would it be?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:18:29
This is a great question. I recommend asking a variant of this to people you meet all the time.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:19:00
For example, when I meet a startup founder I very frequently will ask what they'd change about how they've approached their startup.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:19:44
It's hard for me to answer this question, because a lot of my regrets turned out to be beneficial in other ways.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:20:24
For instance, I regret not learning to program earlier. However, realizing that also triggered the realization that I wasn't thinking hard enough about whether or not I was spending my time as effectively as I could have, and I got better at doing that as a result.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:20:52
For Dropbox, if there was one thing I could change, it would be that I wish we had spent more time recruiting people earlier.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:21:11
Instead, we had a bit of an attitude of "if there's more work, just work harder"
albertni 2013-07-30 21:21:24
This was a big mistake, and a great example of one of the pitfalls of being smart and hard-working.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:21:40
We overconstrained ourselves because we were used to always just working harder in response to having more work.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:21:49
Both math competitions and MIT trained this....
albertni 2013-07-30 21:22:03
And it's a good thing overall, but this was a downside.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:22:18
Had we recruited people more aggressively earlier on, we would have been able to do more even more quickly.
aadinator 2013-07-30 21:22:45
All right answer this hardball, to prepare for the amc 12, did you think about why this was important to you. Would you have changed your pattern of preparation which I am guessing is brute force
albertni 2013-07-30 21:23:10
My "why" was pretty lame there actually. I didn't want to do poorly in high school at math competitions after winning MathCounts. True story.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:23:42
That actually became more of a reason for doing math than liking math for awhile for me. Actually to answer the earlier question about if I could change one thing in my life ... that might be it. I wish I'd focused on doing math for fun instead of as an obligation to my "prior success".
animath 2013-07-30 21:23:59
Earlier you said that you regret using brute force in math competitions like MATHCOUNTS.. How else would you prepare?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:24:16
I don't regret using brute force - I just regret allowing that experience to bias me toward using brute force later on for other things.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:24:34
If brute force is the most effective approach somewhere, you should still use it. Again it's about the *why* (I know I sound like a broken record).
jeremylu 2013-07-30 21:24:54
so would you say mathcounts had downside, because everyone expected you to perform well on AMC's?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:25:22
I would say I irrationally put a lot of pressure on myself. It was entirely from myself, and I wish I'd taken a step back and asked myself "is this really a good reason?"
mrjag 2013-07-30 21:25:31
When did brute force fail you?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:25:43
It's not as simple as if it fails you or not.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:26:01
Brute force implies that you have a tractable, and somewhat well-understood space, upon which you're iterating through.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:26:12
Like, I have 20,000 problems and I'm going to do them all.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:26:24
Unfortunately the real world doesn't work that way. A lot of times you don't even know that a problem exists. So how can you brute force it?
forthegreatergood 2013-07-30 21:26:58
Looking back, how important are math competitions as a whole in terms of future success?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:27:46
It is quite valuable to have goals and work toward them. That's a good experience and why you were or weren't able to reach them is a great opportunity for introspection and learning that will extend for future things.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:28:04
However, the dark side of competitions is that they are very well defined.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:28:37
Everyone takes the same test (I know there's AIME1/2 but you get the idea). Everyone gets scored in a very quantitative way.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:28:51
The real world doesn't work that way, and it's important to remember that.
ImNervous 2013-07-30 21:29:14
How do you keep from getting nervous?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:29:37
This question is being asked with respect to math competitions, but it could be asked about a lot of things.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:29:45
Why do you get nervous?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:30:13
In any situation? It's actually a good question to ask because it helps you understand why something is important to you, and then you can think about whether it's worth being that important to you (or maybe even more important)
albertni 2013-07-30 21:30:46
I wish I could give you a magic formula for not getting nervous, but there isn't one.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:31:32
One thing that helped for me is to envision the actual scenario. When I did practice exams, I would always act like it was the real thing. I wouldn't look up the answer to a question in the middle of the test. I wouldn't make excuses for my "silly mistakes". By doing this repeatedly I was less nervous at the real thing because I felt like I'd been there.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:31:55
Some of you missed this but when asked what my favorite subject was at Nationals Countdown I said "lunch"
albertni 2013-07-30 21:32:22
This was a joke I actually planned if I was asked that question (I knew it might be asked because I was at Nationals the previous year). I figured it would lighten the mood and help me relax.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:32:41
There are a lot of small things like that but there's no magic formula, unfortunately.
batter8642 2013-07-30 21:32:57
What is the difference that you mentioned earlier about how Linux and Apple built their products?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:33:25
Linux isn't actually an entity by itself but I'll talk about it as if it were for the purposes of this question.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:33:45
I remember that when the iPad came out, a lot of my "nerdier" (read: MIT haha) friends derided it.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:34:11
They would say things like "it's basically a slower computer that does less. You can't type on it as quickly. You can't run as many programs.", etc.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:34:32
When I saw the iPad I knew almost immediately it was going to be a hit.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:34:57
Look, you'll pry my Linux terminal from my cold dead hands one day, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate something even if it's not the best suited for me.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:35:22
The reason why I figured the iPad would be a hit was because I felt like for the first time, someone was trying to make a "computer" for people who aren't "good at computers".
fluffymilk 2013-07-30 21:35:30
Apple is built for simplicity. Linux is made for people who want to do many things in different ways.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:35:37
This is a reasonable simplification of the situation, yeah.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:35:56
That's one of the philosophies that drives Dropbox as well actually.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:36:11
For example, one question that hasn't been asked of me yet is "why are you still working at Dropbox?"
gaberen 2013-07-30 21:36:13
Have you ever considered taking your startup experience from Dropbox and starting a company of your own?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:36:21
though the question I just posted is close
albertni 2013-07-30 21:37:11
The reason why I'm working at Dropbox is because I think it gives me the best opportunity to make an impact on simplifying various technology problems. Just like the iPad was actually a lot more intuitive of a computing device for people who weren't as experienced with computers, I think there are a lot of opportunities to do that with more things.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:37:53
For example, if you take a photo of a group of people, 9 times out of 10 you want to share that photo with exactly that set of people. But right now it's still pretty annoying to do that (and even Dropbox doesn't do a great job of it).
anmolsakarda 2013-07-30 21:38:36
Facebook does...
albertni 2013-07-30 21:38:49
well, sort of. If you tag the people, now a bunch of other people can see the photo too.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:39:33
Anyway Facebook is actually another great example of a company that people underestimated at first.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:40:30
I remember looking at it and thinking "I don't really think this is that interesting." This is another case where I was very naive and overly biased toward challenges and problems that I could understand.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:41:08
I didn't really see Facebook as something that would get as big as it did. Seeing that happen (and seeing how Apple has been successful) has really helped shape my views on how to think about building stuff in ways that being "good at math" actually biased me against.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:41:34
Just got this question from someone: Why does Dropbox so heavily recruit people who did well at math competitions, or is that just a coincidence? (It seems like Dropbox is now the top non-academic employer of USAMO winners from the past 10 years, haha.)
albertni 2013-07-30 21:42:07
It's not a coincidence. It's partly due to the fact that I was responsible for engineering hiring at Dropbox for the past two years.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:42:44
I know there are a lot of common flaws with "contest math people", but I also felt that if we understood those flaws, we could utilize the strengths of people with that profile very effectively. So far I think we have.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:43:12
Ok I'll take questions for another 15 minutes
54math 2013-07-30 21:43:27
why did being good at math make you be biased against those companies at first?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:44:04
I think it caused me to bias toward things I could understand better. I didn't understand the merits of simplicity and the potential of quality "social" products. This caused me to underestimate them.
david_sun 2013-07-30 21:44:23
So you are looking for USAMO winners when you recruit people?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:44:32
Again it's about the "why"
albertni 2013-07-30 21:45:22
We hire all sorts of profiles of people. If we only had USAMO winners it would probably be a very bad thing because no matter how much of an understanding you have of the biases, you won't be able to overcome all of them. That's one of the "whys" of hiring people from a diverse set of backgrounds - to cover for each others' blind spots.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:46:24
If you're a USAMO winner, you are almost certainly capable of being a great programmer. So if you're a USAMO winner who is majoring in CS, that's a good starting point.
david_sun 2013-07-30 21:46:47
Can you share your experience when winning different math competitions and how it affect you?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:47:40
It was good and bad. It was good in that I developed confidence that I could "do hard things". It was bad in that I over-biased toward things that had well-defined paths to success (score the highest on this test, etc).
albertni 2013-07-30 21:48:30
After awhile I realized that I never felt as good as I thought I would after doing well in some competition. I asked myself "why" and I realized it was because there were more important things to me, like learning new things and having a positive impact on the world.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:48:43
In that sense it's good that I had some success because it catalyzed deeper thinking on my part.
AlanLiangTheAsian 2013-07-30 21:48:57
do you think it is possible to qualify for usamo for someone starting competition math in just high school?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:49:10
It's definitely possible, and like most things requires a ton of hard work.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:49:21
You should remember to ask yourself "why" you want to qualify for the USAMO =P
albertni 2013-07-30 21:49:55
If it helps, I didn't start doing contest math until seventh grade. The first time I took a MathCounts Nationals test I got a 5/46. 6 months later I made Nationals through a lot of hard work and some luck. It's always possible.
henrikjb 2013-07-30 21:50:20
Do you still do competition math, just for fun?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:51:07
I haven't done any for awhile, though I did keep up with the USAMO in college. I've thought about this a lot. As you'd probably expect by now, the question I ask myself is "why do competition math now? What's the opportunity cost / BATNA?"
albertni 2013-07-30 21:51:44
I won't go into all the details here but I'll look at a random problem from time to time for fun.
thejet 2013-07-30 21:52:03
How did you manage math (counts and in general) with extra-curriculars such as music classes and practice, homework and anything else? In general, how did you manage your time?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:53:44
As I've mentioned earlier, I think it's important to think about why you're doing each of the things you're doing. That can help you prioritize things. Odds are you can't be perfect at everything, and odds are you can't stay sane without doing some other stuff "just for fun" too. It's a problem with constraints - you just have to assess the various constraints and figure out something that works.
sugarj 2013-07-30 21:53:48
What is BATNA
albertni 2013-07-30 21:54:31
But I've been using it here outside of a purely negotiation-focused context. I think you can always think of what your best alternative is and it's important to do so.
monarchb 2013-07-30 21:55:00
What do you think about the stereotype that people who are good in math lack people skills? Because they like questions that are clean and have right answers, and working with people isn't like that. Does sitting alone working on math skills make it hard to develop skills with people, because working with people is very different from working on math problems? Do you develop your USAMO rec
albertni 2013-07-30 21:55:11
I think there are a lot of reasons and I'm not the best person to answer this question.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:55:28
However, rising above some of the "math people stereotypes" is one of the best things you can do.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:55:47
For example, working on people skills, being an articulate communicator, etc.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:56:13
Why? Because those things are useful in many situations, just like being a good problem solver is useful.
jeremylu 2013-07-30 21:56:38
do you still remember the problem that you answered to win the national MathCounts?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:57:06
Yeah, I am lucky in that I have a really good problem memory. I still roughly remember all the questions in the final round.
albertni 2013-07-30 21:57:14
The answer was (-2)^34
albertni 2013-07-30 21:57:23
They gave a list of five numbers and asked which was the biggest
albertni 2013-07-30 21:57:46
Another question was (n+1)!/(n-1)! where n=50
albertni 2013-07-30 21:57:56
Another was "how many integers between the cube root of 10 and cube root of 200"
albertni 2013-07-30 21:58:32
And one more where there was a ratio and it asked for how many integer values would work
gaberen 2013-07-30 21:59:04
Since we're almost done and there was a lot of topics discussed today, what are the most important things we should take away from this Math Jam?
albertni 2013-07-30 21:59:18
This is a good question for me to close on.
albertni 2013-07-30 22:00:07
I think the most important thing to take away is that you should always look to ask "why". If you want something, ask yourself why you want it. If you think something is good (for example, being good at math is supposedly good), ask yourself why you think is good. And so on.
albertni 2013-07-30 22:00:56
I also think it's important to remember that there are a lot of things you don't know, and there will always be a lot of things you don't know. So, don't get too attached to the things you do understand well.
albertni 2013-07-30 22:01:25
In particular
albertni 2013-07-30 22:02:10
A lot of the best opportunities out there are precisely ones that aren't well understood. Joining a startup was not well understood five years ago when I did it. Most people thought I was crazy to do so. Now it's already a lot better understood (which is a good thing).
albertni 2013-07-30 22:02:33
I'm not saying you should always do things just because they aren't well understood / kind of crazy. Most things that fall into that category are that way because they are bad ideas =P.
albertni 2013-07-30 22:02:47
However, it is important to be cognizant of those possibilities.
albertni 2013-07-30 22:03:28
Remember, for me the reason I joined Dropbox was not because I thought it would be successful (and we have a long, long way to go anyway), but because I figured out what three things at the time were most important to me - learning, positive impact on the world, and being in an enjoyable environment. I then looked for the opportunity that I felt would fit that the best.
albertni 2013-07-30 22:03:58
Also note that I didn't overconstrain that by also including "prestige" or "money" in my equation. It's fine if they are in yours, but don't subconsciously include them without realizing it.
albertni 2013-07-30 22:07:08
Thanks again for coming everyone
rrusczyk 2013-07-30 22:07:20
Thank you all for coming tonight, and especially thank you to Albert for spending so much time with the next generation of math superstars. 2.5 hours is definitely a record for a guest Math Jam!

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