Coursera is an online education platform through which you can take courses from some of top educational institutions in the world, covering topics that range from the humanities and arts to computer science and coding. It takes a lot of work behind the scenes, though, to keep Coursera’s catalogue up and running for their 22 million users while also innovating for the future.
Behind the scenes is Richard Wong, head of engineering at Coursera. Richard has working in tech for nearly two decades for companies like Microsoft and LinkedIn, and a few years ago he joined the Coursera team to get a taste of the startup life. As someone who enjoys travel and learning about new topics, the curious nature of this engineer made him a natural fit for the company. We recently spoke with Richard to learn a little about how he works.
Location: Mountain View, CA
Current Gig: Head of Engineering, Coursera
One word that best describes how you work: Empower. As a leader, I think it’s important for everyone at a startup to feel empowered to share their ideas and solutions.
Current mobile device: I’m your quintessential gadgets guy, so it comes as no surprise I have an iPhone 7 Plus. I’m obsessed with the iPhone 7’s dual lens, which enables you to take photos with the bokeh effect.
Current computer: I use a MacBook Pro at work. At home, I have a Mac Mini. I used to be a PC-only person, back during my days at Microsoft, but now I’m pretty much Apple only. It has some of the best development tools for engineers.
Tell me a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I wrote my first code at age 10 growing up in Hong Kong, so I’ve been an engineer of sorts for my whole life. My uncle had an Apple IIe computer, and he showed me how you could input things into a computer and it responded. I was hooked — obsessed with the elegance of programming. I begged my parents to get me a computer and, after saving three months worth of their combined salaries, they did. After that, I was immersed in the world of computers. I spent a lot of time at the library researching and exploring how they worked.
Professionally, I earned a Master’s in electrical engineering at Stanford. Before that, I studied in Hong Kong for my undergraduate. My first job was at Microsoft, where I had a chance to work on distributed systems that support hundreds of millions of users. I spent 11 years there and rose through the ranks of different product levels at Microsoft, and later on at LinkedIn, where I stayed for about four years.
I joined Coursera two years ago, after a former LinkedIn colleague introduced me to the company. I was immediately drawn to the close-knit, fast paced nature of startup culture. I also truly believe in the mission of making education more accessible to others all over the world. It’s something I think is really profound.
What apps, software or tools can’t you live without?
Sublime Text is an engineer’s dream tool and I couldn’t imagine doing my job without it. One of the biggest differences between great developers and average developers is how fast you can translate your thought into source code. A great developer can memorise keyboard shortcuts and execute their thoughts in almost a reflex-like fashion, and Sublime Text makes this seamless. It’s a huge productivity saver.
I use Coursera (promise this isn’t a plug!). I still find so many things I need to improve on and learn about — from tech to leadership skills. I also spend a lot of time on Quora. I read conversations about topics ranging from policy to technology and science. For instance, most recently I read about astronomy and the nature of black holes and the speed of light. There was this crazy thread about what happens when something travels faster than the speed of light. Basically… all bets are off.
What’s your workspace setup like?
In truth, I spend a majority of my time in meetings, often jetting around with a cup of coffee in hand. In some ways, you could consider me a mobile workspace.
I do have a desk too. An adjustable one (to stand or sit), and I’ve got a big 60-inch monitor right next to my desk that I can check from time to time. It gives me an overview of how the Coursera platform is performing. It’s cool to see all this information on one screen.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
Keep your meeting attendee lists small! Only the most necessary people should attend. The more people at a meeting, the less comfortable people tend to be with sharing their ideas or expressing their opinions. Small meetings enable open conversation and usually, by the end, you’ve got everyone engaged and a great solution.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
Apple Notes. I look at it each morning to edit it, and I sort it out by priority and personal versus work. It’s the simplest way to stay on top of everything and it’s easily accessed across all my mobile devices. It’s a lifesaver (and environmentally friendly).
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
Oh, without a doubt — my home automation system. It’s amazing. I’ve got all my gadgets — the Amazon Echo, smart lights, garage door, thermometer, television, motion sensors all connected to the system. It’s funny how quickly I’ve become use to the convenience of having all of these devices so intricately connected. The other day I realised I’d forgotten my house key when I came home. Normally I’d be locked out, but with this I just pulled out my phone and I could open up the garage.
Bonus: It also serves as quite the entertainment system for my four-year-old. He has quite the conversations with Alexa.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
I don’t know if I’d say I’m better at it than everyone else, but I’m certainly one of the fastest eaters I know. No matter who I’m with, I’m always the first person at the table to finish my meal.
What do you listen to while you work? Got a favourite playlist? Maybe talk radio? Or do you prefer silence?
Silence — I prefer the quiet. When I’m not running to meetings and I need to dive into something for an extended period of time, I stash myself away into a quiet conference room.
What are you currently reading?
One I just finished reading that’s very interesting is Our Iceberg is Melting by John Kotter. It’s a fun fable about penguins all migrating to another iceberg as the one they’re on is melting. It’s a book on how you handle and address changing situations in life and in the workplace. It’s an important subject for leaders to think about, especially in technology when everything is always changing.
How do you recharge? What do you do to stop thinking about work?
I jet set. I love exploring the different culture and history various places have to offer. I went to London most recently and my 2017 wishlist includes a trip to Germany or Switzerland as I’ve never been to either. If I’m not travelling, I find washing the car very therapeutic.
What’s your sleep routine like? Are you a night owl or early-riser?
I’m a night owl. It’s when I focus best and can make progress on big items. I do some of my best thinking at night. Although, I’m trying to be better — I sometimes curb my caffeine intake and have actually picked up different breathing exercises to try and help fall asleep over the years.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see ______ answer these same questions.
Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It was from Jeff, actually. His advice: Act like an owner. Many of us often place limits on ourselves or feel like we can’t change a situation we encounter. But in reality, we’re far more powerful than we realise and we can take ownership on influencing an outcome for the better. I love that. It’s truly inspiring, and is a great life lesson.
We’ve asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? [contact text=”Let us know.”]