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2 Early Bloomers Who Found Success From Persistence

The story is the same: “I feel like I’m behind”

We have two inaugural Early Bloomer stories to tell you, starting with personal relationships, and later of others a bit more well-known. The point is that many of us feel like we’re behind the 8-ball no matter how young we are. We push and we strive and we know we can do the job, but run into the age old “how do I get experience if you don’t hire me to get the experience”.

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

~ Calvin Coolidge

If you’re not an Early Bloomer and find yourself later in life, but with the similar struggle of feeling like you’re too late, don’t fret. We can help. Read The Mission’s Late Bloomer series showing that you may, in fact, be closer than you realize.

I. 14 Years Old & Just Can’t Break In

The first one came from a friend who was only 14 years old when I met him. He was a software developer, self-taught, who had been coding since he was 10 years old. He found the idea of typing a few commands into a computer, pushing a button to compile it, and then see the code running a machine as a power akin to modern-day magic.

When the iPhone was first launched in 2007, he knew it was a new platform that would create a tremendous amount of value. But there was a problem: even though he wasn’t even a teenager yet, he felt like he was behind. How could he learn this new thing fast enough and do it all himself without any mentors or relationships in the big world of business?

It’s worth repeating. Not even a teenager and he felt like he was behind because he wasn’t already working for a big tech company building big products that affect a wide swath of the population. And besides, he didn’t have the respect of most of the grownups because he was so young, so how would he even have a chance?

He did what any enterprising entrepreneur, creator, or artist does. He did it himself. At first he started building one-off automation applications. He studied Ruby on Rails to build administrative back-ends. He tinkered with Amazon Web Services to run his software on. He got access to an iOS Developer account by paying the $99 per year. He began linking simple mobile app front-ends to Ruby on Rails back-ends.

He then leveraged that piece, like a ladder, to go up a notch. He reached out cold to some people at Badgeville (remember the gamification startup around the time of the location wars with Foursquare and Gowalla). All the work he had put in on his own time was enough to convince them to hire him as an intern and give him some access to working on a real-world product. On the company’s side, it was a way for them to get great talent at a lower price point than most Valley engineers would charge.

So it was a win-win. He got experience. The company got some work.

Once that internship was over, he wrote a few blog posts and found his way to another entrepreneur who had built a small eBook business. This chap wanted to extend what he was doing into more of a platform. So he needed a high-quality engineer, but one that didn’t cost a lot because he didn’t have a lot of money.

So my friend was a perfect fit. And by this point, this 14 year old now had 4 years of experience under his belt. So he was good. And pretty fast. Because he had gone through the process of spinning up his own little platforms multiple times, he just went through the exact same processes he had done time and time again.

The entrepreneur was so happy that he wrote a blog post about it, talking about my friend’s skills. And the fact that he was, get this, only 14 years old. Wow. And lo and behold because this chap had built a little tech community following, other people came across his blog. Including me.

We were starting a new social media startup that crossed multiple media formats: detecting emotion from voice recordings using an AI engine (this was in 2012, long before voice or AI were talked about regularly), a mobile app that let you record your voice over multiple photos and transfer that into a shareable video, then an animated character that reacted emotionally to the stories, plus a chat / messaging aspect, and a back-end administration area for the business people.

We got my friend on board immediately. He told me nobody would take him seriously because he was only 14. We looked not at age, but at raw talent. And he had raw talent for days. So we set him loose and my god, was he one of the fastest engineers I’ve ever met. He built the first version in a week or two. Holy moly.

So here was this kid, incredibly talented, but not respected in the wide world of business because of his age. He felt held back, and behind, from achieving the success he deserved.

But here’s the thing. He never gave up on himself, and he kept going. He leveraged this work into an internship at Adobe after interviewing and getting recruited by the big tech companies like Apple and Google. He helped Adobe build some incredible new products and then leveraged that into his own research building robotic arms with grippable hands, doing his own CNC milling and industrial manufacturing in his garage and starting a startup for cloud-based 3D printing.

His name is Sam Baumgarten and he’s a genius, now soaking up the knowledge in college while he continues to build. Follow him closely, you might be working for him one day. Success isn’t something that happens overnight, and you’re never behind, even though we all think it. Rather, it’s something that takes a decade of daily wins before you get the payoff.

His parents support him and let him set his own path in the Universe. But they also made sure to meet the people Sam worked with before he was 18 to make sure he was in good hands. We got to spend some time with his family over coffee in California and created a wonderful lifelong connection. So kudos to the parents for protecting while also enabling. It’s a difficult balance to manage but they did it well.

II. 18 Years Old and Already Decades Behind The Curve

This is the story of junior in high school who’s highly likely going to be building our future over the coming decades. Over the last year, we’ve become closer after he initially reached out due to the stories we were writing in this publication.

In one of our first conversations, he mentioned to me how he felt like he was behind. As a high schooler! Based on what he’s already accomplished, most rational people would consider him far, far ahead, but it stems from the popular tech press.

You read these stories about child prodigy chess champions at age 16, or the 19 year old who raised a $20M venture capital fund. Or the college kid who founded Facebook and grew it to one of the most valuable companies of all time. It’s survivorship bias. You only hear about the success, so you compare yourself to it, without having any sense for the 100s of millions of teens that are just struggling to fit in at school, let alone build the next billion-dollar unicorn startup.

He lives in California, but finds himself traveling cross-country every year to attend a private boarding school.

Over the year we chatted over email about his story, what he was looking to do, and eventually concluded with a few Skype video calls.

He’s interested in artificial intelligence and what that means for robotics. We now have two young gentlemen who both feel like they’re behind because of the young tech entrepreneur superstar success stories in the major tech publications. And so they’re pushing incredibly hard in, interestingly, a similar area: artificial intelligence, robotics, and software.

In this case, this young upstart is self-taught, reading everything he can get his hands on related to concepts like reinforcement learning and robot operating system.

He’s got a hexapod robot that he’s using (that’s six legs if you’re counting) that he’s running the software on, you guessed it, an NVIDIA chip.

A hexapod robot

So what did he have to go through in order to get to this point?

He started a long time ago learning the basics of computer science and programming, starting with an easy to learn and use language called Python that many people start out in. He used it to start making simple apps and moved on to more intense applications.

When the AI market got hot in early 2016, he began working with Google’s Tensorflow framework and eventually OpenAI’s Gym product to train his AI. But this took him down a new, unexpected path that he didn’t quite foresee before that. And it was a tough one. Mathematics.

You see, much of what is described as artificial intelligence today is actually based in mathematics. It includes things like multivariate regressions and linear algebra. So, in order for him to get his AI to work, he needed to read a number of scientific papers being published in ArXiv, which is the leading open-source scientific paper publication. He had to go back and start studying multivariate calculus to keep up and understand the equations in these papers.

So, it wasn’t so much that he was in school doing rote memorization and learning for learning’s sake, but rather that he was learning with a purpose. With an end goal in mind. This makes all the difference. It’s a force that pulled him along into new, weird areas he didn’t expect before all because he has something he wants to see exist.

Eventually this will take him into other areas like marketing and lead gen, finance and legal when he takes his innovations and attempts to make a business out of it.

However, his ultimate goal was to get experience and have something tangible to show people so he could break into the industry. As such, he asked if we knew anyone hiring for internships over the summer in an AI capacity, which is what he really wants to do.

He now has had two internships in the financial services sector, doing web scraping to understand which companies are undervalued or overvalued to help hedge funds make big trading decisions. He worked all this summer helping one.

At first it was a simple ask. Scrape this website’s data and see if you find anything interesting. Then he would add a little visualization to the data to show what he found in an easy to understand way. The owner of the fund saw it and found remarkable insight into the data. And asked for another analysis. Then another. Then another.

Heat map of the ranking for productivity apps in the US

He found himself a niche and where he was valued an incredible amount. So much so that they continue to ask for his help now that he’s out of the internship and back at school.

Which shows a valuable lesson. Something so simple and basic that most any software engineer can do (i.e., web scraping) has a tremendous amount of value in an industry that has been traditionally void of high caliber software talent, aside from quants of course.

And so that intersection creates stickiness for his talent. He was looking to break in, and he now found a way.

But there’s a problem. He doesn’t want to be in the investment space forever. So what to do?

He went back to the AI in Robotics work, digging deeper into a concept called Reinforcement Learning. The concept is simple. If you touch a hot stove, it hurts, so you don’t do it again. If you try to walk, and fall, you get up and keep trying until you get it right. Of course, that’s easy to talk about conceptually, but much harder to program into a machine. Especially one with six legs.

So he turned back to OpenAI’s Gym, which is a digital playground of sorts for small software avatars or machines that run your program visually to see how they perform. He attempted two different problems.

One was called CartPole and the other Frozen Lake. For the former (see image below), your goal is to move a card without making the pole that’s resting inside it fall over. For the latter, you have a stick figure walking across a grid pattern that represents a frozen lake. If you step on the wrong square, you fall into the water.

His goal was to write a software program (i.e., artificial intelligence) to “beat” both of these challenges. Then take that same software program and apply it to his six-legged robot to see if it would walk itself in the real world.

But, of course, his boarding school in Massachusetts beckoned and he had classwork to attend to.

When he described how he felt like he was behind his peers, I asked if anyone in his classes are doing any sort of software engineering, computer programming, or AI or robotics work. Of course, you already know the answer. He was the only one. He didn’t have anybody else around him to talk about this work, or work on the problems with him.

He thought it was just because he was in the wrong place or the wrong school. But what he didn’t realize was that he’s one of the very few people in high school working on some of the most advanced and difficult artificial intelligent machinery problems in the world.

We told him to cut himself some slack. There’s always someone better, but in his case it’s highly likely that there are far more people doing far less with their time.

As an example, we cut back to the summer where he was, on his own accord, teaching himself linear algebra because it’s required for working on machine learning problems. He also taught himself 3D CAD techniques to design his own parts for the robot. He was going to mill the parts himself.

Then, once he completed that, he needed to go back and learn how to use custom-built computer chips called GPUs (graphical processing units) that his AI software would run on to control the robot. One of the most popular was the NVIDIA Jetson TX1, but that requires understanding electrical engineering, wiring, and running the embedded software on the chip itself to “install” his AI.

He, of course, saw all of this as just a normal part of the process that any ole teen goes through. If you’re reading this, your mouth is likely as agape as mine was. How could he think he was behind when in reality he’s so far ahead?

The answer is that we all feel this way, whether or not you’re working on advanced AI or playing around with ingredients in your home kitchen because you dream of being a famous chef one day.

It’s the gap between your current skills and the people you see atop the mountain that beckons you to develop your skills and keep learning.

But back to our friend.

One of the biggest issues he had was understanding the mathematic notation that kept popping up in the research papers he was reading to try to understand how to make his machine come alive. It was like reading a foreign language. Where to even start?

He went back to some of the popular software libraries being used in big tech companies and across academic institutions. One such library is called NumPy and includes many of the linear algebra concepts that seemed so foreign to him. So, by reading more and more research papers, writing more code, studying the NumPy library, looking at other people’s code, it all began to click into place.

In his own words,

I like the idea of creating the things that I’ve always dreamed of, and robotics/AI has given me a way to do that. Like you said earlier, I have thought (many times) that I am behind, and I’m glad to know that I may be wrong. For me, it seems like this will be one of the most important industries/technologies in the upcoming years, so I’ve been trying to learn as much about it as I can.

Today, our young friend is back in school full-time focused on his studies. He’s got a small side business going where he continues to do the web scraping and alternative data analysis for the hedge fund he interned at, and in his free time continues to plug away at his artificially intelligent hexapod rover. All while he’s on the other side of the country from his family.

Stay tuned, the future is a bright one for this young man, who has requested to remain anonymous. But no doubt, one day he will be responsible for the future products that we find ourselves using and buying.

And for all of those pushing forward, learning things on their own, but still feeling like you’re behind the curve, fear not. Everyone feels that way, but it’s never true. You are more ahead than you can even imagine.

Keep going. You are an Early Bloomer.

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