Chip Huyen Talks Tech And Travel Writing
Chip Huyen is a Stanford-educated computer scientist and author of “American Dream—Journey to Stanford” and “Don’t Die In Africa.” She also interned with Netflix, and she was creative director behind Vietnam’s second most popular search engine, Coc Coc. And she’s had some controversy along the way.
Chip Huyen has lots of stories to tell. The writer and computer scientist has Bachelor and Master’s degrees from Stanford where she taught courses like “TensorFlow for Deep Learning Research.” Chip Huyen was also creative director of Vietnam’s second most popular search engine, Coc Coc, she launched the community action group Free Hugs Vietnam, and she interned at Netflix—experiencing their innovative approach to culture and recruiting firsthand.
She has also written three best-selling books in Vietnamese: “Asia Is Home, Don’t Cry” (Chau A La Nha, Dung Khoc), “Don’t Die In Africa” (Dung Chet O Chau Phi)—in her “Get Your Backpack And Go” series (Xach Ba Lo Len va Di)—and “American Dream—Journey To Stanford” (Giac Mo My—Duong Den Stanford). But in 2013, whether or not Chip Huyen was telling stories became a media furor as doubts about the authenticity of her first travelogue surfaced.
On a short meeting-packed visit to Vietnam from London, where she’s based for the summer as she works on two new books—her first in English—we invited Chip Huyen over to our temporary home at Toong’s “Jungle Station.” “This is my fourth meeting of the day so excuse me if I’m slow to answer,” Chip Huyen apologizes as we sit down to talk tech and tackling controversy.
What books are you currently working on?
I’m writing two books in English. One is a technical book with a publisher in the US. And I’m also working on a book that’s provisionally called “Humans of A.I.” I’ve been very lucky to be working with and meeting people who have made significant contributions to the field.
How would you describe what A.I. is to someone who hasn’t been following developments in the industry?
I’d say that it’s something that helps you do tasks you don’t like to do—or that you cannot do yet. For example, I don’t know how to drive so I’m waiting for self-driving cars. And A.I. can do lots of analytical tasks and data-driven predictions around stock price fluctuations, or even about the weather.
How will you portray the A.I. community in your book “Humans of A.I.”? Who do you plan to include?
I want to focus on significant people in the A.I. community by presenting their real side—they’re often falsely portrayed as evil or as geniuses. I’m thinking of asking people like Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu and one of the creators of Google Brain. He’s also co-founder of Coursera. There’s another person I admire, called Richard Socher. He started a company named MetaMind which was acquired by Salesforce. He’s young too—he’s in his early 30s. He always looks like he just woke up, he’s super chill.
Then there’s Andrej Karpathy. He started the first popular deep learning course. He’s the head of A.I. for Tesla right now, so he works with Elon Musk. He’s young, and lots of people are jealous of him. Do I think he deserves it? My view is everyone deserves everything. But I do think we do need more women in the industry. There are a number of friends currently doing their PhDs in the field so I feel confident they’re going to make big contributions in the next few years…
What’s your perception of shows like “Black Mirror”? How do you generally feel about the reporting on artificial intelligence in the media?
The media talks about A.I. a lot—but it’s often misrepresented. There’s hype with any new technology. Some people just want views and clicks for their stories, and so they deliberately misinterpret it. But also, we can’t always expect journalists to fully understand the latest developments so their reporting isn’t always malign, just misinformed. For me, A.I. is a tool. It can be good or bad depending on who is using it.
And I have to be honest with you, the first episode of “Black Mirror” totally grossed me out so I didn’t watch any more.
With A.I. and technology taking such a powerful role in our lives what does the future of work look like?
I’m certain many jobs will be displaced through automation. But if you look at humanity, we’ve been through lots of revolutions and have adapted. Each time, there’s pessimism around jobs and the future. Effective education will be less about specific subjects, but more about learning transferable skills like critical thinking and learning methodology. And communication is becoming increasingly important.
How did you connect to Netflix? What was your impression of Netflix culture from the inside?
Netflix doesn’t usually do internships—I think I was one of the rare cases when I joined as a research assistant. And they don’t hire new graduates. They hire people at senior level, or who have experience and can do things on their own. After Reed Hastings, Netflix’s co-founder and CEO, posted the slide deck on Netflix culture, it made the rounds of Silicon Valley and became famous. I think that’s because it was anti “bro” culture—they didn’t want ping pong tables in the office or pool parties.
Personally, I found that there’s no hand-holding at Netflix. There was no orientation. I just started working. If I wanted anything, I had to go out and get it. The hierarchy is super flat. At other companies, when you want something you might have to go through management and HR. Whereas there, if, for example, managers want something, they have the authority to go and get it—in fact, it was a manager who contacted me about joining, not a recruiter.
And how did you get involved with Coc Coc, Vietnam’s second most popular web browser?
I joined Coc Coc—which means “knock knock” in English—in 2012 when the parent company was very young. I was creative director, so I was doing a number of things. At that time they had a bunch of products which I was asked to give ideas on pre-launch and help to connect them to local Vietnamese companies. The second thing I worked on for them was the Coc Coc browser. It began as a side project but it went on to become Vietnam’s second most popular browser with 23 million users.
What’s your approach to putting together a book that you’re writing? How do you maintain the focus to write?
When I’m doing something I forget about everything else. My friend next to me would be talking to me and I wouldn’t hear them. Actually, it would really annoy them, but I’ve always been like that.
In terms of process, I used to carry a notebook with me, but now I use the notes app on my phone—partly because my handwriting is terrible. There’s definitely something romantic about a notebook and pen but it doesn’t work for me in practice anymore. My first book was about Asia. It didn’t take so long to write—I think it took around a month. I felt if I revised and edited it too much, it would lose its energy. I did edit it a little for the new edition that’s out next week.
Which books inspired your travel writing?
“On The Road” was always an inspiration to me. And “Lord of the Rings,” if we can consider that a travel book. I think J.R.R. Tolkien’s prose is beautiful. I also like George Orwell. Most people know him from his fictional work, but he wrote a number of essays which are probably the reason I write. I also like John Steinbeck, especially his travelogue “Travels with Charlie: In Search Of America,” and “Grapes of Wrath”—which, as it traces the migration of farmworkers to California, I’d also class as a travel book.
With a few years since the controversy over the authenticity of your travel writing, could you explain what happened and how do you feel about that period now?
I wrote an article about traveling to 25 countries with US $700. The story got famous and became my first book. The problem was, first of all, people didn’t believe I traveled that much—they said it was impossible on a Vietnamese passport. Then, people said it was impossible on that much money. I started the trip with US $700, but I didn’t complete the trip with that much money. The book explained everything including how I earned money. People even looked back at old blog posts I’d made and said I got sponsorship for the trip. That was my plan, but it never happened.
Plus, lots of the countries I visited didn’t require a visa. But journalists demanded to see my passport. I feel that’s my identity and I didn’t want to show it. There were lots of rumors and the media capitalized on it and my name was trending for a while.
What’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to you about your work?
I got an email from a 66-year-old Vietnamese man. He said he’d lived his entire life in the same place and then he read my book and decided to travel for the very first time.
You founded “Free Hugs Vietnam.” Why are hugs important? And how did that project become a wider social movement here?
I was inspired by the global free hugs campaign. It began when I was away from home at high school in Hanoi. All my friends and other young people were very supportive. One old woman—who was a street seller—started crying when we hugged her. But other older people reacted negatively saying that I should be focusing on studying and not wasting my time hugging strangers. And my school also didn’t like it. But then the organization focused on supporting NGOs that work with orphans and hugging really represented our philosophy.
What’s your proudest achievement so far?
I think just being myself. Being yourself in a world where everyone wants you to be something else is the hardest achievement of all.
Who should we speak to next?
Have you heard of Joe Ruelle? He’s a Canadian who speaks Vietnamese, and I think he has an interesting perspective because he’s taking care of the Google Cloud market for Vietnam. Then there’s Hoang Duc Minh who was in Forbes’ 30 Under 30. He does lots of community building connecting NGOs. He’s in Hanoi now. And the artist Thai My Phuong, but I think you spoke to her already…