Juhana Kangaspunta is an Industrial Engineering and Management alumnus from Aalto, Startup Life alumnus AND ex-Startup Life Program Manager, Stanford alumnus, ex-Google, and currently working in Silicon Valley at a startup that makes self-driving cars.
All in all, he sounds pretty much like a rock star. How did he get there?
Juhana begun his career as a data analysis intern at Boston Consulting Group. Even though the work was challenging enough and co-workers were smart and inspiring, Juhana was looking for more responsibility and decided to try out something new.
In 2013, Juhana plunged into the startup ecosystem, and worked in three projects simultaneously. He was active in both Startup Life and Slush, and worked at a Finnish game startup, Grey Area. “At Grey Area, I got a lot more responsibility compared to BCG. The work itself, as well as the working environment were also from a completely different world.”
After working at Grey Area and in the Startup Life team, Juhana decided to turn the tables and apply to San Francisco himself. Juhana applied to a company called Chartio as a Software Developer, even though he didn’t have that much experience in software development.
Why San Francisco?
“I had traveled quite a bit before and I thought to myself: what could be cooler than go to work in San Francisco and see how Silicon Valley is like, and how products and software are made there.”
“When I was travelling in San Francisco with the Startup Life team, I figured out that this part of the world is what interests me the most, and where all the new and exciting things are done”, Juhana says, and continues, “the Bay Area has, throughout its modern history, manifested a refreshing ‘out with the old, in with the new’ culture. It has been at the forefront of racial rights, gay rights, and the hippie movement, and it has always attracted people who want to do stuff differently and in new ways.”
“If you want to work in tech, I strongly believe that San Francisco is the place to be. There’s no other place in the world where brains, money and enthusiasm come together the way they come together in San Francisco.“
“Chartio builds a data analysis software, information visualization. I had done a lot of data analysis before, and I thought that their product was something I’d use myself. The team was also super laid back. We synced immediately.”
“An important thing to understand about job interviews is that it’s not just you trying to convince the company that you’re worth their time”, Juhana points out. “You’re also trying to figure out if the company is worth your time.”
I need to ask one specifying question: Juhana said that he was an Industrial Engineering and Management student and that he hadn’t done that much programming before. Was he just an exception or does he think that people interested in techy roles with not too much coding experience could apply for programming jobs in general?
“Absolutely! Especially, if you’re good at maths and logical thinking comes naturally to you, it’s pretty easy to learn programming. You just have to like learning quickly”, Juhana replies.
What does Juhana consider his biggest professional development during his 6 months at Chartio?
“I learned what it was like to write professional code. There are different kinds of processes that you have to follow when there are multiple people working on the same code. I got to see what good management and leadership in a team of programmers is like, and how work should be organized in order to make the product work. And of course I got a lot of exercise, which meant that my coding skills were on a quite different level when I left the company.”
What did you do on your free time?
“Life in San Francisco is very social. Even during weeknights people go to gym, go eat out, or go get some drinks. It’s like a Finnish summer lifestyle all year round.”
“I also enjoy surfing, and climbing, and there are a lot of good places for those activities near San Francisco. You can do hiking in Yosemite National Park, and Lake Tahoe is comparable to the Alps as a ski resort. To me, being close to the nature and having an easy access to outdoor activities are really important.”
“I think that one of the things that people might be the most scared about when thinking about moving abroad is that if they’re going to be lonely. With Startup Life, you don’t have to worry about it at all. There’s already such a big community of Finns in San Francisco. You find friends so quickly and so easily and you can go for lunch, beers, trips and so on.”
Almost at the same time when Juhana heard that he got the job at Chartio, he also got an acceptance letter from Stanford. He completed a Master’s Degree in Management Sciences and Quantitative Methods.
“You can pretty much tailor the program for yourself, but what I went in for had to do with AI and Machine Learning, as well as Probability Theory and Statistics. Studying at Stanford is quite intense – I could easily spend 70 hours a week just studying. But I also learned a lot more there than at Aalto during my Bachelor’s. The professors expect a lot from you.”
While studying at Stanford, Juhana became a Software Engineer Intern at Google.
“Working at Google was different from working at a fairly small startup such as Chartio or Grey Area, because at Google you didn’t have to do anything else than what you’re good at and what you’re interested in. Basic processes and infrastructure were handled and they worked super well. At Google, I got more deeply involved in computer vision, which I am super interested in.”
Where is he working now, then?
At a startup called Zoox. It has 150 employees, and it’s a spin-off from Stanford’s self-driving car research. Zoox builds a tax service with self-driving cars.
“At Zoox, I’m working with computer vision, and I get to do something that no one in the company has done ever before. It’s called semantic segmentation, and it means segmenting a picture into different classifications on a pixel level. That way, the self-driving car will be able to determine if it’s looking at another car, or a person, or a building, and so forth.”
“I’ve never been this excited about a job in my life. What’s really cool, is that I get to do something that is at the very cutting edge of the technology I’m dealing with. There aren’t too many companies doing or even trying the same things as we’re doing at Zoox.“
“What’s also very inspiring is that I truly believe that self-driving cars will change the world that we live in. In the future, no one has to own a car. There will be a metro system and the last leg of your trip you will travel by a self-driving taxi, which hopefully one day will be part of the public transportation system.”
That sounds pretty darn cool. Is Juhana ever coming back to Finland?
“I don’t know”, Juhana laughs, “most likely not for the next 5-10 years. San Francisco feels really good right now.”
It’s time for the last question: why is it worth it to go to work at a startup in San Francisco?
“In that peer group, and in that environment, your conception of what is possible, or what is big, or what is success, or what is being good at something goes to the next level. You really get an idea of where the world’s best people are. And then you realize that those people aren’t any more special than you or me – and that you actually can compete with them. That gives you a lot of self-confidence.”
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