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Monthly newsletter
October-November 2020

Hello there! I'm Samson Zhang, an 18-year-old student, designer, and engineer training to impact billions. To my core, I'm a learner 📚 and a builder 🔧. I'm currently a second-year student at The Knowledge Society and a Product Manager at StartupTree.

Welcome to my second newsletter! I'll be sharing what I've been doing and thinking in the past month. See past newsletters on my website, and consider connecting with me on LinkedIn or Twitter! 😁

TKS x Illumina
Pitching to a $45B biotech company

For the past three weeks, I worked with three other TKS students to identify the biggest economic opportunities within Illumina, a next-gen sequencing company worth $45B. We dove into the market access workflow, identifying time spent logging and understanding relationship interactions as a bottleneck to eliminate. Over the weekend, I presented our pitch to a panel of Illumina judges, who selected our pitch as a close runner-up to the winning group.

Our team has follow-ups with Illumina staff planned to see if our idea can be implemented, but from the beginning our objective was to learn from the process rather than targeting specific outcomes.

  • I learned a ton about the biotech/pharma/medical industry, especially about the process of drugs and medical programs getting to market and the potential medical applications of next-generation sequencing 🧬
  • After learning about the entrepreneurial process of pain point discovery, hypothesis formation, and iteration, I led my group to execute it for real. We derived key insights and pain points from interviews with industry professionals and experts, refining our hypothesis until we arrived at our final pitch.
  • This is the first time in a while that I've really put effort into a presentation. Getting practice delivering a high-standards pitch greatly boosted my confidence, and the experience will be highly useful in future challenges and pitches 😎
Product Managing and Software Engineering at StartupTree
Bringing high standards to a multi-million dollar startup

StartupTree is a startup building a SaaS platform used by MIT, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and 120+ other institutions to power their entrepreneurship ecosystems. Since October, I've been part of their ten-person team as a Product Manager and Software Engineer.

In October, I conducted user and stakeholder interviews, ran through UX analyses, and drew up prototypes to eliminate pain points. Then, I built out the changes in React and Django. My first project has been redesigning and rebuilding the platform's startup profile/job board module, wrapping up now and due to launch shortly.

Tools of the trade 🔨

As exciting as directly building product is, I'm more excited to be increasingly taking on a product leader role in the company. StartupTree is at an important transition point, from B2B expansion to new B2C sources of revenue and scaling beyond individual client needs.

Here's what I bring to the table:

  • Business skills from TKS: economic analysis from the Illumina challenge, decision-making from the HBS case
  • Product and entrepreneurship intuition from tons of reading, my own projects, and programs I've been a part of
  • Understanding of high-performance mindsets, especially high standards (I made them read Jeff Bezos' letter 😛)

I apply all this and work closely with the CEO to make key business and product decisions:

  • Setting OKRs and determining what initiatives/opportunities to pursue
  • Managing our engineers: directing and giving input on all product-related work
  • Essentially, I get to directly lead a team of experienced engineers to execute what I help determine as the best vision and strategy for the company.

Needless to say, it's an exciting job in many ways. I get to be on the ground furiously building 🔧, and at the highest levels making a company-wide impact 💥, putting the whole range of my skills and learning to use. And I'm getting paid for it 🤑

Looking backwards and forwards
Priorities, priorities, priorities

Last month, I wrote about how to find your passion. Setting clear priorities — being intentional about what you're pursuing in the moment, and just as importantly what you're not pursuing — was a big part of it.

In September, my priorities looked like this:

  1. Build breadth and depth of knowledge (machine learning focus, exploration of quantum computing, blockchain, genomics, and more)
  2. Apply to college
  3. Make an impact at StartupTree

I felt focused and motivated and found a good amount of success: I tore through ML courses and laid the groundwork for college apps and StartupTree.

I began October with the same priorities, but I started to rapidly lose motivation. My commitments had become misaligned with my priorities, so I took action to correct it. I dropped my position as CTO of Life Changing School, put a pause on all ML/tech learning, and re-prioritized so I could focus on what mattered:

  1. College apps
  2. Illumina challenge
  3. StartupTree

Being able to focus on the first two priorities was crucial to finding success — in the Illumina challenge anyway; we'll see about college, but I'm happy with the essays I submitted.

As I write this, it strikes me that this breakdown is incredibly simple. Am I not thinking enough about what I'm doing? Are there more interesting things to share? I remember, though, how much I agonized over how to spend my time and energy just two months ago. The value of basic prioritization is precisely that it takes an ever-changing and multi-faceted problem and provides a practical, straightforward interface for managing it.

As two of my three past priorities are done and over with, my new three-set has naturally shaped in my mind. My top priority for the last few weeks, and the next few, is StartupTree, continuing the leadership impact I've just started making. I've picked my machine learning courses back up again, planning to get through Andrew Ng's Deep Learning specialization (CNNs and RNNs!) by the end of the month. After putting my effort into pre-structured pitches, college apps, and company initiatives for a month, I'm looking forward to getting out some content of my own again, too.

In closing

Thanks for reading another of my monthly newsletters!

This one's shorter than my last, without fancy graphics or a relevatory mini-essay. Maybe it reflects the fact that my efforts have been largely external this month (TKS, StartupTree, college) rather than self-grounded. I'm also in a slight dip in resolve, I think, questioning what I value and where I want to go a little bit.

But that's okay. I'm on a much larger journey than any single thing in, or not in, this newsletter. I'm incredibly lucky to have a paying job and tons of opportunities to explore, do cool things, and meet cool people as I'm slowly finding myself. If you're reading this, you're very likely one of these cool people, so thanks for being a part of my journey 🤗

After the excitement of September, October has been a month of continued learning, but more so settling into the tracks I put myself on. I'm excited to see what the rest of November brings for me, and I hope you are too 😁

See you all in December!

Samson Zhang
Samson Zhang
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Samson Zhang

18-year-old student, designer, and engineer training to impact billions. A learner and a builder to the core, currently diving into machine learning and quantum computing and working as a Product Manager at StartupTree.