#CareerTalk with Harry Li, CTO of Braven

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Introducing a new blog series: #CareerTalk! In Braven’s new exciting blog series, we’ll cover people’s inspiring stories, explore their career paths, and share advice they have for Braven Fellows.

Our first guest on #CareerTalk is Harry Li, Chief Technology Officer at Braven. Born to two immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, Harry grew up loving STEM courses. His passion for computer science led him to not only study it in undergrad, but inspired him to obtain his Ph.D. from UT Austin. With hopes of becoming a professor in computer science, Harry’s plans quickly changed when he had to make a career pivot that landed him at Facebook in 2009. Read about how his career path in CS led him to his current role as CTO of Braven.

 

Tell us about yourself.

In 1998, I went to Brown University where I studied computer science. I graduated in 2002 right after the dot-com bubble burst and promptly went to the University of Texas at Austin to obtain my Ph.D. in computer science where I graduated right after the housing bubble burst — I have great timing! 

In 2009, I became a software engineer at Facebook. In 2014, I was the founding engineer for the Summit Learning Platform team. In 2017, I stayed with the team when it joined the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. In 2018, I founded a data consulting practice for education organizations. In 2019, I joined Braven as Chief Technology Officer.

 

That’s quite an impressive resume — what led you to your current career?

My wife has influenced my entire career. For me, it is 100% true that the most influential career decision I made is who I chose to be my partner.

I moved from Austin, Texas to the Bay Area before I was done with my Ph.D. because I had just gotten married and my wife was starting a graduate program at Stanford. While finishing up my dissertation in 2009, several things happened:

  • The housing recession had just hit rock bottom, so it was hard for me to find any professorships for which I had been training for years.
  • I had the opportunity to pursue a nice post-doc in France, but my wife was specializing in education policy in U.S. urban areas.
  • I was grabbing a weekly lunch with my former college roommates who were working at Facebook.

To balance my new marriage, friends, interesting career paths, and finances, I ended up choosing to be an engineer at Facebook. It was fun and paid well. Five years in, I welcomed a daughter into my life. I used all four months of my parental leave to care for this new bundle of happiness; it was delightful and filled my soul in a way I could not have anticipated. When faced with going back to work, I realized that my job as a manager of software engineers, while providing plenty of room for growth, didn’t fill my soul enough.

And so I searched broadly for a new mission. I ended up finding it in education (probably because of my wife’s influence through Teach for America and working for charter schools). When I went back to work at Facebook, I immediately told my manager that I would be leaving and there was nothing he could to keep me because I wanted to work in education and that’s not an option at Facebook.

I was wrong. A few days later, the leader of Facebook’s Data Infrastructure team came to talk to me about a new K12 initiative within Facebook that had just started. I did my due diligence and transitioned out of my engineering management role to become the founding software engineer on a custom platform we were building for Summit Public Schools.

That team eventually moved over to a separate organization called The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. I loved working in education and grew more in my first two years on the team than my first five at Facebook. First hand, I learned how much of a difference it makes when I could align my passion and joy with my work. While at CZI, I founded a data science subteam and handed it off to a data leader that I recruited.

I left CZI only one year after joining because my mother-in-law was diagnosed with lymphoma in the spring of 2018. The following summer, my wife and I sold our house and moved our stuff and two kids plus one cat to New Jersey to be close to our parents. With the financial flexibility that Facebook afforded us, I spent a few months being the primary caregiver for our two kids and easing everyone’s transition to our new home. I eventually founded my own data consulting practice focused on bringing my mix of engineering and data experience to districts, charter schools, education nonprofits, and ed-tech startups.

During my time working with Summit Public Schools and CZI, I networked heavily with the data leaders at high performing charter schools across the country. One of those people is the Chief of Staff at KIPP Chicago who it turns out is good friends with the Chief of Staff at Braven. When Braven was seeking a consultant with web engineering and data experience, my name came up. Braven was my favorite client as the people were ambitious, hard working, kind, and competent. It’s rare to be able to surround yourself with people like that and I had a chance to, so I took it.

 

Walk us through the average day of a CTO.

With only a small team right now, I manage to reserve my mornings to myself. It is my time to get technical by writing some basic code, reading others’ code, or investing in project planning.

My afternoons are typically packed with meetings. They fall mostly into three broad categories:

  1. Regular alignment meetings; so folks are up to date and on the same page when it comes to a project’s direction. 
  2. Ad hoc meetings; for when I need to provide input on an issue or solicit input from others.
  3. 1:1 meetings (the most fun); I carve out blocks of time with each person on my team to work on something together. These working sessions keep me grounded in their work and gives me a natural and informed way to provide input and guidance so that the “C” in my title doesn’t go to my head.

 

Tell us about a failure you’ve had in your career. What did you learn from it and how did you bounce back?

Growing up, I was academically smart but I knew I wasn’t always the best. I applied to MIT for undergrad, got rejected, and went to Brown University. For grad school, I applied to the top programs (Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, and Carnegie-Mellon) and was waitlisted at all of them

I ended up going to a top 6 school: UT Austin. After seven years spent obtaining my Ph.D., I was ready to become a professor. But the housing recession hit and nearly every single computer science professorship dried up. I pivoted and chose a career at Facebook — fast forward 10 years and I have a wonderful wife, two beautiful children, and am incredibly happy as the CTO for an organization that is well respected and making a difference in the world.

Here is the lesson I take away from all of this:

Focusing on good and solid work while making the best out of a situation is more useful than agonizing over what individual setbacks mean.

I wouldn’t have met my wife had I not been rejected by MIT. I wouldn’t have enjoyed a Facebook IPO had it not been for the housing recession. I wouldn’t have left CZI and made my way to Braven had it not been for my mother-in-law’s cancer (she’s in remission now!). One of my kids’ books is titled Zen Shorts. Its main character is a panda named Stillwater. He tells a story of “The Farmer’s Luck” to a boy named Michael:

Once there was an old farmer whose horse runs away one day. His neighbors say “Such bad luck” sympathetically to him but the farmer responds to it with a “Maybe.” The next morning the horse returns bringing two wild horses with it. The neighbors exclaim “Such good luck” but the farmer replies with a “Maybe” again. When the farmer’s son tries to ride one of the untamed horses, he falls off and breaks his leg. Neighbors say “Such bad luck” and farmer says “Maybe.” A day after, military officials come to draft young men into the army to fight in a war and let the farmer’s son go because of his broken leg. Neighbors say “Such good luck” and farmer says “Maybe.” From this story, Michael understands that “Good luck and Bad luck are all mixed up. You never know what will happen next.”

 

Which people have had the most influence on your growth? What is valuable advice they gave you?

My graduate school advisor had a tremendous influence on me. He showed me how it’s possible to succeed in a relatively aggressive and sometimes harsh field of study while being a class act, consistently demonstrating integrity, hard work, kindness, and sacrifice. He holds everyone to a high bar and invested the time to develop me into a real academic.

He firmly believes that you should always bring yourself just a little past the limit of your abilities — that’s how you grow. He wasn’t wrong.

 

What advice do you have for current Braven Fellows nearing the end of their undergraduate programs?

Don’t waste time complaining. You’ll have no shortage of peers who lean towards complaints. You’ll never have too many peers who bias towards actually solving problems.

Every problem is an opportunity. No manager ever complained about a direct report taking too much initiative. When there is a gap to fill, there is a chance for you to step up and show you can operate at the next level. Don’t let it slip by.

 

Learn more about Harry: