*APAC Heritage Month* Fireside Chat: Oli Yu
Oli Yu, Enginerering Director at Cloudflare, will share with us the story of his career, and the path he took to be where he is today.
Welcome to Cloudflare TV and happy APAC Heritage Month. I'm your host, Jade Wang, and I run the Cloudflare for Startups program here.
And today, as part of our Amplifying Asian Voices series, we are doing an interview with Oli Yu.
Welcome to the show, Oli.
Hi, nice to meet you. It's nice to see you again. It's good to be here.
Awesome. So we're showcasing a little bit about Oli's career trajectory and what you do.
So real quick, can you give people an overview of what you work on here at Cloudflare?
Yeah, so I am the Director of Engineering here at the Emerging Technologies Incubation Group.
Basically work through kind of kicking off and kind of resourcing a lot of the various projects that kind of we work on.
It kind of ranges anywhere from like we were the ones to kind of kick, you know, get some of the things off the ground off for the for the Cloudflare Teams product for starting from access all the way up to like one of the more recent ones, Cloudflare TV.
So we kind of we are kind of tasked with kind of trying to go where that where we're kind of Cloudflare hasn't gone before, but leveraging our existing platform to kind of to do that.
All the new, exciting, fun stuff. Yeah, absolutely.
We would literally not have Cloudflare TV as a network without your hard work.
That's right. I mean, every time I have an external guest, I get a kick out of telling like, you know, Cloudflare TV takes you directly from one Zoom call to another.
And it does all this, you know, amazing stuff under the hood.
Do you think you I mean, like, you have a whole blog post on how Cloudflare TV works under the hood.
Can you like kind of summarize for our viewers real quick? Yeah, I mean, like, I think early on, and it went in like, I can't take all the credit for it.
There's this on all of these projects, there's like a ton of people that are kind of working behind the scenes.
I just get the pleasure of being able to be the first to kind of jump in and kind of put a lot of the stuff together.
So I think people had early on had the insight that, you know, that, that, I think what we were seeing is like the multiple trends kind of converging, you know, obviously, with, with COVID and everything that we saw that, you know, the rise of video was, video was already like, you know, a large, large part of kind of like the Internet traffic that we see today, you know, I forget what the statistics on it are, but it's like, it's probably like 70, maybe even higher than 70% of all Internet traffic is video.
And with especially with COVID, we see like the interactive video kind of rising as well.
I think people made the connection that people are doing a ton of zoom calls and creating a lot of content in these kind of calls.
You know, there's where, and especially in the time of COVID, where a lot of this stuff, we don't have as good of a mechanism for sharing a lot of this, a lot of this content.
And so why not have a mechanism where we could kind of do that.
And I think people have the insight that zoom at the backend also supplies them a way to kind of send this using RTMP and RTMP is one of the standards for kind of essentially delivering kind of live video.
And so putting that together is like, well, we have a lot of the technologies that allowed us to kind of assemble this.
Well, let's go ahead and try and experiment and see if we can put something together.
And then, so that's, that's when we kind of jumped in and said, all right, let's try proof of concept.
That's often like a lot of what we do on this team is essentially like, let's see if we can, what it would take to put something like that together.
And then we can kind of see how that would integrate kind of like the rest of our system.
So that was kind of like, and now we have software TV.
So we, so it's been a really kind of a very interesting experience. It's been an experiment as we kind of been kind of going through it.
And like, there was definitely a lot of headaches as we kind of like figure out as we went along and now we have new people on board that can like take it even further.
Nice. So I want to, I want to shift the spotlight a little bit more onto you personally and your life trajectory.
So this is kind of a two-part question. So like the first part is like, can you share with us a brief overview of your trajectory starting from university?
And the second part is, you know, like there's, there's these transitions from like, from going to an individual contributor to a manager or from that to a manager of managers, like how different is each transition as you go over your, your career trajectory.
So hopefully we feel, how long, how much time do we have now?
I'm actually fairly, fairly old, I guess you could say. So my career has been pretty long, I guess.
So I started out kind of university and kind of had already started working while I was in university.
So I actually started out in the gaming industry, actually.
I started out kind of working and that was, had been like during kind of college that had always been kind of my, my dream kind of passion would be, it's not necessarily gaming, but just in the graphics industry in general.
And so I had kind of like a, so out of college, actually, I joined a couple of friend of mine's in a startup to do games.
And so we had actually published one of our games kind of in tier and like, but our first, well, this probably dates our company, but like it was called crack .com literally with the.com in the name, because I'd be that back then.com wasn't as much of a thing.
So it was kind of like a cool thing to kind of call it.com.
And then, and we had published the game abuse, which is so it's, you know, obviously it's a terrible naming that we, our first kind of like a delivered kind of product was called crack abuse.
So, yeah, but that was, that was us being kind of young.
And so that was kind of like a first foray into kind of like, kind of professional kind of programming.
And that's, as I kind of gone, went through the gaming industry, I kind of went, got a little bit burned out by the industry, I guess.
And it was also still early days. So I kind of switched over to doing kind of like, to doing kind of like other kind of programming.
And I eventually got to essentially into the actual.com boom, I guess, once it started kind of going, doing that.
And then, so that's where I started getting my first kind of taste of actually being kind of like the lead.
So I was doing essentially, I was leading the, the development teams on like very early kind of phase kind of.com startups that kind of went, it went through its heyday and kind of fizzled out.
And, and then I kind of started switching gears again. And then like, so, but most of my career pretty much has been in various kinds of startups around.
And I've been in Austin for quite a while for this whole time. And so, so my, my career is like littered with kind of Austin startups.
And then as part of that, you know, just you kind of build up the network.
Eventually I kind of got found myself kind of like Cloudflare.
I actually worked with a lot of previous, a lot of the previous members of the Austin, starting the kind of like the Austin Cloudflare.
How many employees was Cloudflare when you joined? Oh, I mean, when I joined, I guess, you know, mainly it was Dane recruiting a couple of people.
And like, so I think I was number four, I guess, or maybe either three or four here in Austin.
So like, like previous to me that he had talked to kind of, I think, I think technically John was first maybe, and then Igor and then me, and then, and of course Dane.
So, so that was kind of like, and then we kind of like, I still remember the days when we were kind of at the, when we had started out here in the Austin office within the WeWork.
And it was like us in the, in the, in the glass window offices in the fish tanks.
And it was just like a tiny room that, you know, it will follow up us in there.
And then we, that was kind of like the beginnings. And so, and, and that definitely did kind of have that startup feel and everything.
And of course now, you know, we're now it's kind of like balloon, like crazy.
It's like, it used to be that you could know everybody in the office and the names of everyone and actually know everybody.
But now it's, that's no longer the case. It's very difficult.
So, so you've spent, you know, parts of your career, whether in, you know, smaller startups versus larger teams and more established companies.
And some people say that, you know, you end up leveling up a lot faster in a smaller startup because you get more responsibility versus in a larger place.
Sometimes there's more sort of best practices and processes that you sort of learn.
Like what, what do you think of the trade-offs here when people are growing their careers?
Yeah. I'm, I mean, like, if you look at my, my, my kind of like trajectory, I am totally on the side of startups is kind of like the way to go, at least, at least for me personally, that was definitely the case.
And I would, I would highly suggest that if you have the stomach for the, I guess, the risk, I guess you should definitely do that, especially while you're young, when you kind of have a little bit more that can kind of risk a little bit more.
Because of the, the exactly that, which is, you know, you get a lot more responsibility and, and you have a lot more opportunity to kind of flex in areas that, that you might not normally get to.
And it kind of like, so in one of the things is like in a, in a place where like, say like a larger company, some of the decisions are essentially made for you, like whether it's technology platforms or kind of like tools.
And so, which is kind of nice in the, in the way that you kind of have feel safer, but then it might not be the most optimal decisions because like some, you know, they might be different reasons for those, those decisions.
And those might have been kind of locked in place from, because of just like, it's easier for the organization to have the same technologies.
So it is good to be able to have kind of a little bit more free reign where you, you actually kind of have to think through all the trade-offs and be able to make those decisions on your own.
So having that kind of responsibility to do that, I think is a huge key.
And, and also it kind of builds your own confidence of making those decisions, which is one of the key kind of things that you have to be able to do kind of, as you kind of grow as, as a leader and kind of being kind of leading other people.
So, so I definitely think startup environments kind of give you that opportunity much more easily.
It also depends on kind of where, you know, like where in the startup life cycle you start with as well.
You know, there's definitely, there's definitely kind of nuances to that as well.
But I would absolutely suggest people, you know, try a startup.
So I want to dig in a little bit deeper into what you said about leadership.
So, you know, over the course of your career, can you tell us a little bit about how your frame of mind changes when you're leading a team of people versus earlier in your career, when you were just making a technical decision or hammering out the code?
Yeah. Yeah. It's definitely one of those things that's kind of tricky.
And like, even throughout my own career, there's, I think every engineer kind of goes through that kind of that calculus in their own head of, you know, kind of the, the kind of like technical excellence versus kind of being able to kind of scale people and organizations.
And so there's, there's definitely different people that kind of fall various, you know, wherever it is on that spectrum.
And I, I've always had a kind of a problem, I guess, in the sense that I've always enjoyed both.
And I've always, and I've, a lot of my experiences involve both.
Because even in the startups, I'm usually kind of in there kind of jumping in and kind of leading efforts and everything with the startup.
And so you do have those kind of the two sides of that.
And I think the biggest thing is really just like, when you're doing it, when you're kind of just solving problems on your end, you really don't have to think about, well, how does that affect kind of like the team itself in terms of how does team scale?
And how is it working, you know, in terms of team growth?
So that's probably the biggest thing.
Well, first of all, say, you know, I'm by far not the best kind of like person in terms of like, like running organizations.
I wouldn't say that that would, that was necessarily my strongest point.
My strongest side has always been kind of more of the technical side.
But I've always had a passion for kind of seeing how like teams grow and kind of like making sure that the teams are kind of running on all cylinders.
So. So I think that was kind of like the biggest shift is really kind of starting to think in terms of, well, how does this affect, like some of these, like, especially like technology decisions, and kind of like, and kind of like process decisions, how does that affect kind of like everyone on the team?
So someone famous once said that all advice is personal experience over generalized.
And I would love to hear, you know, a piece of career advice, whether it's for, you know, someone in an engineering role, or any other kind of people managing role, with the story behind it, and, you know, and all the things that happened.
Sure, sure. All right. So let me think. I think one of them that was kind of, that's always stuck with me is like, I had, I was, so I had a couple of startups ago, I was working at Spreadfast.
And like the, I had gotten hired to board by like the CTO at the time.
His name was Keith Zeller. I very much looked up to him in terms of his kind of ability to kind of see both kind of like the business aspects of things, as well as like the technology aspects of things.
And like, we were in the process of kind of like, going through some major architectural changes in terms of like, doing a lot of experiment on, because we were kind of dealing with kind of social media, kind of at scale, and for enterprises.
And so one of the big things there was, you know, how do you make sure that we can kind of scale to kind of with the, especially at that time, it was like, you have the Twitter firehose, where like, there's just so much information, and you have to, and you want to be able to get the insights and kind of like the ability to manage that kind of firehose of information.
So we were looking at various kind of data architectures around kind of doing that.
So as part of that process, as we were kind of looking through kind of various alternatives, and kind of doing a lot of investigations, one of the things was just being able to kind of talk about that, and kind of presenting it, and kind of being able to like, present kind of like, what our proposals of what we're kind of trying to do.
And I, and one of the things that has always stuck with me was kind of like a quote that from Keith was that, you know, context is worth like 100 IQ points.
And he's always good at those sayings, and like, and I wish I was better at kind of like being able to like, come up with these nice quips.
But it's like, but it's totally true that like, in a lot of these situations, especially when you're jumping into a new situation, being able to think through and like think, well, in order to give the other person context as to what you're trying to do, you need to have, you need to kind of build that story around that context.
And then that in itself, having that context itself gives the individual so much more kind of like, intelligence.
Again, it's basically worth an additional 100 IQ points in a situation where that person has the ability to kind of like, think through the issues and problems much more clearly.
So they know how to dive in, right? Yeah, exactly. Like they can kind of see the, they can see a bigger picture is, and that's kind of literally what it is for me is like, you know, the context is kind of like being able to paint the picture around, like the specific problem or whatever involved so that you can kind of see the big picture.
And you can see that problem in the context of a larger, potentially a larger problem, or just a larger system of systems, you know, that's that that kind of helps, I think, for a lot of people to kind of gain that, you know, ramp up faster, get the game that ability to kind of jump in.
That's, that's always kind of stuck with me in terms of like, is just always just being aware, like, what is it that you know, what is paid, you know, if somebody is maybe misunderstanding something or, or not quite quite getting what kind of like what I'm getting, then like, what is the context they need in order to do that?
You know, what are they missing in terms of like, you know, they don't have the full background, but I need to kind of paint a bigger picture around it until they can kind of see that as well.
Yeah, because they don't have all the same information as you.
Yeah, no one has the same experiences. But you want to be able to kind of, again, paint a big enough picture that you can kind of have that shared vision of what's going on.
So I want to bring it back a little bit to the APAC Heritage Month theme.
And, and, you know, in particular, advice on the bamboo ceiling, which is the, you know, you see a lot of people in our demographic get stuck, like, you know, come in into technical roles.
And then there's a statistically a big drop off into manager roles and a big drop off every tier upward in a in the career and, and you've successfully gone through a lot of these transitions in your own career.
And I just want to, you know, like for for people who are watching, like, what kind of advice do you can you give to our viewers who are maybe earlier in their careers, or maybe they're stuck in being perceived as, you know, technical IC only and how they can move past that?
How can they get mentors and get better stretch assignments and kind of the ability to move their career onward?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'll have to be honest, I feel like in a lot of ways, I was kind of lucky in that in that my temperament, like I, I, I, personally, I guess I haven't necessarily directly encountered kind of like the bamboo ceiling, or maybe I haven't, I just kind of not self aware to be able to see it.
But my directions that I've always wanted to go was kind of more in kind of like a this sort of a hybrid role of both leadership and kind of technical excellence.
So I haven't been kind of in a position where I'm all I feel like I'm kind of trying to take on the lead role.
And like it and that it's kind of like, and I feel like I can't get it because of, you know, the circumstances around.
So I think in some ways, if I just look back upon my own experiences as a guide, I guess.
But I think the advice on startups is actually really useful as well. Because in a startup, you kind of don't have the luxury of kind of saying that, okay, just because you're Asian, you shouldn't be able to or some of those biases, you're less likely.
Yeah, exactly. Like, it's more like, you know, we're on fire, we need somebody, you're good, you're really, you're good at this.
You don't have to, you don't have the choice of failing, you just got to jump in.
So I think in some of those situations, it does help.
You know, and I guess, I definitely have seen the seen, I guess, the effect of it kind of in, you know, you see it kind of like, because like you said, like, just just numbers wise, you just don't have as many role models, I guess, kind of like, and now, you know, as the rise of kind of like Asia as a power in kind of tech and everything, you start seeing more of it where there's kind of leaders that are kind of that you can kind of see as a hey, I see myself in that.
And I think that will definitely help kind of longer term. But from an individual perspective, I think I kind of was looking at some of these things kind of more recently.
And you know, there's like the whole the lean effect, Sheryl Sandberg's kind of lean in, leaning into it is definitely helpful kind of to think about.
So I think from an individual perspective, when you if you want to try to help yourself individually, definitely, you know, networking more is always helpful, the more people that you know, because like a lot of opportunities that I've kind of gotten able to kind of tackle is through kind of people that I knew and knew of me and knew of my work.
And then like also being kind of in the startup communities, because you also get the more opportunities.
So it is kind of like a feed, self feedback effect of some of these things.
So so I think part of it is just Yeah, you do have to kind of put yourself out there a little more, take some risks, and go after some of these things.
And then, and then at the same time, you definitely need to kind of get out of your own comfort zone and kind of be able to kind of just work with a lot of people and talk to a lot of people as well.
You know, risk tolerance makes me think of this next question. So, you know, so you were born here in the US, right?
And, and very often, you know, the parents of the first generation versus the second generation, there's, there's often these sort of cultural differences and divides.
And as a parent yourself, who is raising, you know, your next generation, can we do like a keep stop start on your own parents versus how they parented you versus how you parent your kids?
Like, yeah. So first, like, what are things your parents did that you want to continue?
And then what are things that you don't that they did that you don't want to perpetuate?
And, and then what are some things that they didn't do that you want to start?
That's, that's a hard one.
I have to think through that one more carefully. Definitely on some of the key, there's definitely a lot that I really do that I really do enjoy, or I guess I appreciate kind of like what they did for me in terms of the like, a big part of it was kind of like that focus on like, education is important.
And I still think that, you know, across the board, and not necessarily even just academic education, but just, you know, just that ability to kind of keep yourself learning is super important.
I feel like that was something that my parents instilled in me.
And that was hugely valuable. And definitely kind of like, the strong kind of ties of family is also kind of, I guess, it's a double edged thing, I guess.
Some of like, if we go to things that the, if you go to the next one of, you know, what would I want to change the stop?
That one's a little bit harder to think through.
I mean, a lot of, I mean, certainly in there.
Yeah, go ahead. I mean, on the, I definitely think that there's part of it, which was like, culturally, there's a little bit more of a, in some sense, there, you know, that some of it is some of the kind of like the, the, the stereotypes are true, you know, like, even my parents wanted me to be a doctor or early on.
So some of that kind of like the understanding of like, you know, hey, that the world out there of potential kind of like success stories can be a much brighter, broader range than kind of what maybe we normally think of.
I think definitely having that kind of broader view of things would definitely be a good thing.
But, you know, that being said, my, my parents were pretty open, you know, I don't know what they would have done if I had decided like, hey, I think I really want to be like, say less, something less traditional, I guess.
Like even engineering is not like too far. Yeah. Like if I wanted to, like, if it was something that's more kind of in the art realm, like, say, if I wanted to be like marketing or something like that, even if it's not like way on the art side, but like, that it be that I don't know what they would have kind of how they would have felt or, or how they would have responded to that.
So, you know, like for, for, for some part of it, you know, my actually, my dad was an engineer as well.
So in some ways, I kind of followed the stereotype into kind of like, into my ears.
So, Or maybe, you know, you were inspired by him.
Yeah, definitely. I was, I mean, like, it was just in me, like, and so there's, it's kind of hard to really think through, like, again, like, I'm not always the 100%, the most self-aware person.
So I don't know how much of it is like, influence, you know, of just kind of being the indirect influence of just seeing that and kind of like in going that versus my own kind of internal personality of, well, this is the kind of thing that I enjoy just naturally.
But I've always enjoyed creating and just make and creating things.
And so like, that just naturally kind of screamed engineer at me.
And I, and I didn't really think about like trying to do anything else really as a kid.
What about your relationship with your kids?
And the kind of directions that they want to take? Yeah, that's been kind of like, really, the one of the more interesting things is to try to like, you know, watch and discover and kind of and try to make sure that, you know, it is, again, it's kind of like a, there's two very much two sides of it.
It was like, there's a one side is which is, which is, you know, I have a certain set of kind of like things that I would love to kind of give to them in terms of, you know, my own knowledge or my own kind of passion of things, just because I think that's something that would be difficult for them to get anywhere else.
But at the same time, I want to make sure that they also have the space to really kind of explore and kind of like discover kind of what things will really drive them as well.
You know, so, so that's, that's been kind of one of the hard things for me is just kind of like that, that balance of, you know, well, I really enjoyed this.
And like, I think you would too.
But, you know, I don't, you know, let's, let's kind of see what you want to see, see where your drives are going to.
So we have about two and a half minutes remaining.
I, you know, so, so you spent like most of your life in Texas, right?
And I imagine, and Austin in particular, I imagine the demographics of Austin have changed dramatically from your youth to now.
And can you, did you feel like a minority when you were growing up and socially accepted by peers?
And how has it gotten better?
Like, how can you tell me about the demographic shifts? Yeah, yeah.
Let me, like, even before for Austin, I was, I grew up in like a even smaller town, Corpus Christi, Texas.
And like, and so I've been in Texas for a long time and you're right.
The, the, the difference between kind of like then and now is huge, huge.
I mean, like literally in a lot of my classes growing up, I was the only, you know, Chinese American, much less Asian American.
And so in a sense that was both kind of like, so I was very keenly acute of the fact that I was the only Asian kind of like in all these situations.
But on the flip side, and I don't know if this is like an effective, because there was only one, maybe most people didn't feel threatened.
I was very much, I felt like most people, I was fairly included.
There was definitely a little bit of, you know, kind of, you know, you're different.
And I think, again, I keep on maybe going back to, I was not the most self-aware kid.
So I didn't really like pick up on maybe a lot of this.
And so I just kind of jumped in anyways, and then just kind of like, you know, I'll play with you.
I wasn't, it didn't, it didn't register to me as much that, you know, we're super different, or that the ways that we do are super different.
We just kind of like, so I'm pretty sure there was, I know, there was definitely incidents in which there was kind of like, where the race did, my race did kind of make a big difference, you know, and being made fun of and stuff like that.
But for the most part, I think I felt like it was a friendly kind of curiosity, kind of as a, whereas like, I know that in some situations, when, you know, when people kind of feel more threatened by like you, and as the race, then that's kind of when people start kind of getting a less more of the, the unconscious bias starts kicking in and really kind of becoming fear.
And that's kind of when things kind of go really bad.
So I've been lucky in that regard, that no, it hasn't been on that side.
It's been more of a, I would say, just a friendly curiosity, kind of.
And so it does create, you know, good opportunities for talking about it.
So that's, that's always been good. So, but you know, now, now, it's completely, you know, you know, it's a completely different than what it used to be.
So, you know, now, now there's a lot more kind of opportunities, you know, even, yeah, supermarkets and whatnot.
So awesome. Well, it's been a great episode. We're all out of time.
It's, it's great.
I'm really glad we got to do it. And thank you. Thank you very much for the opportunity.