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Persistence

Johan Jessen
October 18th, 2020 · 11 min read

Persistence

The air was warm and thick with a smell of spicy cooking, warm asphalt, and a whiff of stale garbage. Yellow Taxis crawled by like giant caterpillars trying to pick up people on the street. The glassy skyscrapers gleamed down on me as I was trying to imagine how all this could have been built. It was 1996, I was 13 years old, and I had just landed in New York City. My mom had taken me on a “culture trip” with a group of theatre professionals from Denmark. We saw musicals on Broadway and sang Gospel in the Bronx. We dined in quirky back alley restaurants and lined up for the kitschy tourist attractions. I loved it all. The sounds, the sights, the smells, the people, the buildings, the energy – it was my first time in the US and I was convinced this is where the future happens.

Fast forward a few years and I had just finished high school. Like most other 19 year-olds I had no clue what I wanted to do in life. But the idea of the US was still there. I got a job as a Runner at a big movie and TV production company in Denmark called Nordisk Film. The job was great. Long days and hard work. My goal was to save up enough so I could take a three months road trip around the US. This was the age of the early internet and online forums were all the rage. I had stumbled upon a guy who was also looking for a road trip companion. We met up and hit it off. I had worked for about a year, hatched a rough plan, and then I was off in the summer of 2003.

The plane touched down in San Francisco. The sights and smells were all different, but the energy was the same. No doubt this was where the future was happening. My companion was there already and had bought a car for us. A 1995 Mazda MX-6 in faded Bordeaux red. It was glorious. He picked me up at a hostel in the Tenderloin neighborhood. We would drive up the West Coast to Portland, down to Los Angeles, stay a few weeks, and then drive east over New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. It was a trip. After two months we had made it as far as Key West in Florida. My friend was heading back but I wasn’t quite ready to leave. I still had a month left on my visa and wanted to experience New York again. Alone, I took the long way up and explored the South and detoured into Ohio. At a BBQ in Ohio I met a family with five kids. They asked me about Denmark and what it was like. I said it was a small country with friendly people and free education. They couldn’t believe that education was free. I explained that we actually get paid to study through student subsidies. Their jaws dropped and their reaction stunned me. I hadn’t given it much thought up until that point. I was pretty tired of school, yet here was a group of strangers on the other side of the world asking me why I didn’t go to college when it’s free! That encounter stuck with me. While driving to New York on the last leg of my journey I pondered which kind of education I should get when I got back.

New York was even better the second time. But after 13000 miles I had to go back. The job at the movie studio was still there but it wasn’t the same. The idea of a proper education gnarled at me. When I was offered a prestigious job as a full-time Producer (as the youngest ever), I turned it down. My friends were all surprised and they tried hard to convince me to take the offer. But my mind was set. If I were to go back to the US again and build the future, I needed a formal education. In reality I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I applied to Acting School, Film & Media Studies, and the Study of Rhetoric. I didn’t get into any of them. My high school grades were too low for the university programs and my acting skills were too poor for acting school. My last choice was Philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. I had to put something on the admission application and Philosophy sounded open-ended. I got in.

Philosophy was incredible. For the first time I really enjoyed learning and was getting properly good at it. I met some of my closest friends during these years. While the study and the people were great, the direction of my journey wasn’t pointing me towards the US. I had asked the local student counselor if I could take some of my studies at an American university, but to no avail. One night my friend Morten half-jokingly said, “You know, we’re never going to make any money doing this.” I feared he was right.

In the early 2000s I had dabbled in web design. Back then, everybody seemed to need a website. I started a company and was soon busy building layouts and input fields. I had no formal training – I just did it. When Morten suggested we should study computer science after our Bachelor in Philosophy, it sounded like a natural progression. In 2008 I applied to Digital Design & Communication at the IT University of Copenhagen.

I still wanted to go back to the US though. A second time I tried my luck with the student counselor. I told her I wanted to study at Stanford University. The place that birthed Google and other world-changing tech startups. I was eager. Regardless of what happened, I figured it’d be a great place to be. The counselor smiled at me and said she couldn’t help with that, but she had an open spot at a program in Malta. “Malta!?” Why would I go to Malta if I was going to the US! I had to find a way through the maze. I figured out that Stanford offers non-matriculated status for visiting PhD students. It allows you to take specific classes without applying for a whole degree. Honestly, I wasn’t really keen on starting over on my M.S. degree. I surmised I could get 90% of the value (and fun) by just being enrolled and not worry too much about the degree. Through many twisty turns, tests, emails, grants, and battling the bureaucracy of higher-ed on both sides of the Atlantic, I finally managed to get into Stanford.

Howard Rheingold was teaching a class on Social Media in the Department of Communication. Howard is one of the clearest thinkers in tech and his particular focus on the intersection between technology, design, and communication was intriguing to me. Howard consulted on my thesis while I wrote research papers for his book, Net Smart. We are friends to this day. I also took classes from (the late and great) Cliff Nass, Jon Krosnick, and Fred Turner. For the first time in a long time my abilities got stretched. Ambition had slowly but steadily swelled in me. I knew I wanted to do great things, yet the concrete goal was fuzzy and I lacked courage. I wasn’t the only striver on campus. The people I met at Stanford taught me two things. Firstly, it’s really the people that set Stanford apart – not the curriculum or fancy buildings. Secondly, they’re all just trying to find their way and make the most of it. Not that different from a kid from Copenhagen.

In 2010 I was done and had to go back again. Two steps forward, one step back. My target was sharper but the path was still unclear. I needed milestones; go to the States, get a Green Card, earn money, and start a company. Simple as that. And then the real world hits. The US immigration system is notoriously difficult to navigate. The great filter that breeds persistence and agility from the brave who dare enter. It would take me another four years before I’d be back permanently in California.

While in Denmark I resurrected my design agency and started four small startups. I made everything from online credibility tools to beauty product blogs and construction management software. None of the ideas really took off like I wanted. I applied to Y Combinator and a dozen large and small companies in the US with no luck. I felt stuck like a feisty chick basking in a shallow pond. Moving but barely. On our honeymoon my pregnant wife sat on the balcony of our hotel room and asked me what I wanted to do when we got back. Frustrated, I replied I didn’t know. But I knew where; California.

At Stanford I had met a fellow student from the Computer Science Department. He had just sold his company to Google and he encouraged me to apply. In 2012 I flew to California for a round of eight intense interviews. A couple of weeks later the recruiter called me with the good news and the bad news. The good news was they wanted to hire me. The bad news was the H-1B visa cap had been filled so they couldn’t hire me in the US. Instead, she asked if I was interested in joining one of the engineering offices in London, Zurich, or Munich. After another round of phone-interviews we settled on the Privacy team in Munich. My wife and I had never been to Munich, so why not.

Nine days after our first son was born, we were gliding slowly up the escalator in the airport waving teary-eyed goodbye to our families. Our entire life had been packed down and shipped off to Munich. Here we were, off to a new country, new job, and a new life. Looking back, this was not for the faint of heart. Had we known how intense it would be we likely wouldn’t have done it. But that is the blessing of naiveté. All great adventures require sacrifice – you just don’t know which.

In Munich I joined a team of 40 German Google Engineers. The one other designer in the entire office of 250 people was frustrated with Google and quit a few weeks after I joined. I had never worked at a big corp office before, let alone an American multinational in Germany. I had no idea how things were supposed to work so I just got to work. Before I arrived the communication between Product Management, Design, and Engineering had deteriorated. I didn’t know how to fix it – but I knew I couldn’t if I sat isolated in an office far from where the code was written. So one day I got into the office and dragged my desk across the carpet in the aisle and put it next to the three tech leads on the engineering team. I smiled at them and started setting up my workstation. One said I could just have filed a ticket. I didn’t even know you could do that.

This new dynamic changed things for the better. A few new folks were hired and together we molded the culture and started to ship again. In tech, launching products is like air; if you don’t do it you suffocate. Working as the sole designer with a large team of heavy-hitting Google engineers wasn’t easy. But it taught me very valuable lessons about deep technical complexity and the art of compromise. The team was great and the city of Munich was lovely. But it wasn’t California. My dream of the West was real but every day the weight of obligations grew heavier. I knew I had to push hard to get to the States before my desire got washed away by sensible planning and sound judgement. After a year and a half in Germany, I transferred to the Identity team at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. Finally.

A career as a Designer at Google was never my goal. Starting a successful company in the US was. I had now gotten to California but still no Green Card and very little savings. I felt I couldn’t leave and start a new venture until I had enough cash to support the growing family and a stable immigration status. A few months after settling down in Silicon Valley a friend from the Munich office told me over beers about a new position at a secret robotics lab led by Android-founder Andy Rubin. They were looking for a designer to lead a few projects and maybe it was something for me. I had no experience with robots. But fate favors the bold. I biked out to a nondescript building in Palo Alto and figured I’d probably spend an hour chatting over coffee. Four hours later I was energetically explaining to Anthony Jules, the COO of Redwood Robotics, how we could let the user control and program a robot without using any code. I got the job.

“Replicant”, as the program was called with a sly reference to Blade Runner’s humanoid robots gone rogue, was incredibly fun. I worked super hard on crazy technical and design challenges. 2015 went by quickly. Our second son was born and for the first time it all made sense. The place was wonderfully weird. Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robot was stacking foam boxes in the room next to my desk. A bi-ped robot from Shaft, a Japanese robotics company, was carefully ascending stairs on the backside of the building. And the precursor to “Spot”, the robotic dog, was awkwardly walking around on the lawn outside. We all had a blast when Larry Page took his family out to pet the metallic animal. Every week we invented new things. We had robot arms flipping pancakes while we sipped espresso and discussed life extension, moon missions, and crypto. We 3D printed giant structures using Kuka robot arms and developed projection mapping interfaces for robotic manufacturing. I loved my core project, a safe 6-DoF robotic arm with a visual code-less interface 100x times faster than the industry. It was wild.

Good times don’t always last. The Replicants didn’t comply and in late 2016 the team got absorbed into Google X (now just called “X”). Building the future is definitely not easy. Sleepless nights from crying babies and tumultuous working conditions took a toll on me. I had been running for about 8 years at this point and at every round the pace and pressure picked up. My wife was enormously supportive. I was persistent but I was also burned out. And still no Green Card. At X, I asked to work on the least contentious project available. A couple of folks from the Google Security team were working on bringing Google-level cyber security to the enterprise and they needed a UX Designer. This project would later spin out as the company Chronicle. Along the way I got to work on autonomous drones (Project Wing), internet balloons (Project Loon), home robots, satellite control software (for SpaceX), farming robots, computational biology tools, and a myriad of other moonshots. We built a small but mighty design team. After 6 years playing with letters in the Alphabet my chapter was written. I felt it was time for me to try something new and correct my trajectory once again.

Another friend from Munich had just left Google to join Lyft’s new Autonomous Vehicle program called Level 5. He said they needed designers and that I should join. The family and I moved to San Francisco and I started at Lyft. New city, new job, new life – take two. In the last two and a half years I’ve been building the design side of our self-driving car program alongside some true heroes. Lyft was a radical departure from the steady state of Google. You tend to take for granted stuff that works until it doesn’t. Getting my hands dirty again, rebuilding a team, shipping real products, and operating in a new culture was a gust of fresh air for me. Living in San Francisco, meeting new people and blazing new trails, invigorated my spirit.

Here we are in 2020. The year of reflection in an era of change. 24 years ago I set my eyes on the USA. The aim was clear but the path was not. Reflecting on the draws that pulled me here; the energy, the people, the adventure – it’s all still here. It’s tempting to doubt the future when the world is burning, rage is ablaze online, and we can’t even hug our friends to seek comfort. But being persistent is never easy. You keep going through the ups and the downs. It’s always tempting to settle during the good times or give up during the bad times. There are always reasons to stop, detours to take, and friends to meet. It’s never a straight line. It’s never easy. And it’s always worth it. Life finds a way.

A good friend of mine once said, “There are stories we want to tell and the life we want to live.” I know which stories I want to tell. But I wasn’t sure about the life I wanted to live. For 20 years this tension has pushed me forward. An examined life is a life worth living and hopefully my journey will inspire you to embrace persistence and tell your story. My future journey is still not written… so that’s a story for another time.

Title photo of King's Cross Station, London by Sophia Sideri.

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