Tri Ahmad Irfan: Silicon Valley Internship, Engineering Leadership Learnings & Y Combinator 60-Second Pitch - E351

· Start-up,Founder,Indonesia,Singapore,Podcast Episodes

“A lot of the failure points, whenever engineers or engineering leaders want to step up that game, is hesitation or fear because I think there is this stereotype that engineers are just coding. They can talk only with computers, but not with people. And a lot of engineers believe that so they are hesitant to talk to people outside of their team, their company. So I think not wanting to try all of this and then holding back from speaking with non-engineers are some of the failure points that I see. The other one is thinking with only an engineering lens. A lot of engineers mostly think in systems, in algorithms, but not everything in business and product is about systems. Sometimes it's all about people, understanding their emotion, their cultural background, and how society works. And that's very hard to be taught in systems.” - Tri Ahmad Irfan

“I learned a lot in the past seven years of building products and helping build companies. As an engineer, a lot of my peers and I know all of the principles in software engineering, but we weren’t taught about how our program or our product can influence business results, because at the end of the day when we’re working at a company, we need to pursue the business objectives. A lot of my friends forgot about this so they tend to just focus on engineering, getting the system scalable, and making sure that the system is scalable. They forgot that all of those things need investment and that investment can be put into helping the business team think about what product to build, and what kind of technology can help the team get users. As an engineer or an engineering leader, you need to be aware of business so that you, as the person who builds the product, can actually help the business reach its objectives, especially in Southeast Asia, where the products are mostly business or offline transactions that digitize.” - Tri Ahmad Irfan

“I always look at the data. So whenever we want to launch something or release even a technical feature, I'll always compare whether the data before and after matters. So if I release something and it doesn't impact the metrics that I want to impact, then your product isn’t doing what it's supposed to do. Another one is managing stakeholders. A lot of product managers might already know about this, but engineers usually just leave the stakeholder management to their product managers. That's a bit scary for me because as an engineering leader, you need to know how to communicate with your stakeholders. You need to get a lot of information from them. You need to empathize and really know what their objective is.” - Tri Ahmad Irfan

Tri Ahmad Irfan, Cofounder & CTO of Lumina, and Jeremy Au discussed three main themes:

1. Career Inflection Point: Irfan described his initial exposure to computers in junior high and his passion for web development and problem-solving. He leveraged his skills to secure his first international internship at Twitter, marking several firsts for him – flying, obtaining a passport, and enduring a grueling 2am to 7am interview. He talked about the culture shock he experienced in the US and how he adjusted from his introverted Indonesian upbringing to the more extroverted and outspoken American communication style. He detailed that the experience was a pivotal inflection point, as it opened the door to opportunities beyond local internships in Indonesia and set the trajectory for his career.

2. Engineering Leadership Learnings: Irfan emphasized the importance of engineers understanding business impacts and prioritizing user needs in product development. He highlighted his experience at STOQO, where he acquired valuable lessons in building products, managing teams, and hiring. He stressed the need for engineering leaders to embrace business knowledge, data analysis, stakeholder management, and direct user communication to effectively contribute to business objectives.

3. Experience with Y Combinator (YC): Irfan recounted the excitement and the intensity of participating in Y Combinator, a dream come true for him. He navigated the pressures of the three-month program, including intense late-night sessions and the preparation for the 60-second demo day presentation. Despite the remote nature of the program due to COVID-19, Irfan and his co-founders made significant progress, leading to the successful growth of Lumina over the past two years.

They also talked about risk management, the importance of embracing opportunities, the value of direct communication with product builders, and the nuances of adapting to different market demands and user behaviors.

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(02:31) Jeremy Au: Hey Irfan, really excited to have you in the show. You're the co founder with a good friend of mine, Ashwin for Lumina. And you've obviously had a tremendous life story as well. I'd love for you to introduce yourself.

(02:44) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Well, thank you, Jeremy, for inviting. Yeah. Moxfield has been a really great supporter of Lumina as well. Yeah. So I'm Irfan currently I'm the co founder and CTO of Lumina. So we are a company working in the intersection of employment and future of work, and we've been launching Lumina as a job platform early last year. And now we have around 2 million workers using our platform. So, before that, I worked as an Engineering Leader at GudangAda. So it's a B2B company. Before that, I spent a couple of years as the first engineer at another B2B company called STOQO. And that's where I met my co-founder, Aswin, as well, that you mentioned. Yeah before that, I mostly do a lot of internships both in Indonesia and in the US and I also do a lot of competitive programming since I was in high school throughout university as well.

(03:38) Jeremy Au: So how did you decide to become an engineer in the first place? Were you always in love with engineering or was it something you accidentally did?

(03:44) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Yeah I was introduced to computer pretty late actually. So it was in my junior high school when I was around 12 or 13. So back then, I never touched a computer my whole life. And then back then, I came from a very remote area where we don't have a computer and then during junior high school, I moved into a bigger city. And that's in the school you get taught how to use computer as well. And back then in 2007, there are a lot of internet cafes in Indonesia. So I was immediately drawn to computer and using the internet. Yeah, I do a lot of blogging and trying out to build websites and a lot of this. So that's my first introduction to computer.

And then my interest grew into senior high school. I joined the Computer Olympiad club in my school. And that's the first time I got introduced to Programming and algorithm and back then I didn't realize that it's going to be useful when I look for a job in Silicon Valley, but back then I just like it to problem solve with algorithms and to a lot of problem solving and I get to win medals in competitions in Indonesia. And yeah from there I got offered to study in University of Indonesia. So I didn't need to take a test because I won a medal in the computer science olympiad. Yeah that's the stroke of luck that I get.

(05:17) Jeremy Au: Amazing.

(05:18) Jeremy Au: So when you were studying Engineering what were some specialties or what were you interested about?

(05:23) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Yeah back then in university a lot of my competitive programming friends just stayed to do competitive programming. So it's basically you get five hours to work on several problems and then you just aim for it. But for me back then it's a bit hard to make money just from computer programming because I need to fund my study by myself because my parents didn't have enough money to give me my living costs in university. So I decided to do a lot of web development. So basically, I become a software and website agency. So, I look for clients who are looking to develop websites or trying to develop apps, so I've built for them. So back then, I mostly do web development and that's where I believe I was good at back then. And then when I was in my junior and senior year, I move into backend and then did a lot of distributed systems as well.

(06:25) Jeremy Au: So, you did your internship at Twitter, so how did you get that internship?

(06:29) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Yeah, that's a very long story actually. At UI , back then a lot of my peers are mostly interning in Indonesia because at UI, back then it is mandatory for you to have an internship before you graduate. But a lot of my friends are just looking for internships in Indonesia. And as you can see, like, Silicon Valley is the maker of technology, right? So I was just curious on, can we, as Indonesian students really get in the ship there. So, there are several of my friends who are intrigued with that question as well. So, we started looking for a lot of resources, like articles, videos, and a lot of materials basically on what is required to intern in Silicon Valley.

So we learned that, okay, actually international students outside of the US can intern there. And then you need to be really strong in algorithm and data structure because they will assess you at least like four to six interviews on algorithmic and data structure problem solving. And you need to have like previous experience before, and then your CV needs to be really strong. So, yeah, a lot of this criteria becomes my benchmark. Okay. In the next couple of years, I really want to apply to Silicon Valley companies and I need to master all of the subject above. And fortunately, in terms of problem solving in algorithm and infrastructure, I already have a long headstart for at least three, four years since high school. So it's a bit easy for me, but main hurdles was how to apply and then how to make your CV really stand out among other candidates who are coming from much better university, like Stanford, MIT, or Harvard, because I came from the local university in Indonesia. And then, how to do the interview as well in English, because English is my third language. Actually, my first language is Javanese. My second is Indonesian. Yeah. So it was like a lot of preparation and hard work for me to nail all of those things all the way until I can get more comfortable doing technical interviews under pressure.

(08:43) Jeremy Au: Yeah. And so you mentioned your interview, what was the interview like? Do you remember?

(08:48) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Yeah it was more intense than I expected. Actually I applied to a lot of Silicon Valley companies. Most of them got rejected. I got like several companies interviewing me. Usually they interviewed in several rounds at Twitter and other companies that applied. They have the first phone screen interview with HR and then they have one phone interview with an engineer, more senior engineer at the company. So it's most, it's all problem solving with algorithm. So I have 45 minutes to quote the problem that the interviewer gave me. And then that leads to the second technical interview. After I managed to nail those they then send me to onsite interview, but because I'm in Indonesia, they do it remotely. So it's four back to back technical interview basically because the time is an issue that I need to do the interview like 2:00 AM until 7:00 AM.

(09:45) Jeremy Au: What? 2 AM to 7 AM.

(09:47) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Yeah, so it's their daytime and it's my late time and it was super anxious for me because I need to drink a lot of coffee and my heartbeat's just like all over the place.

(09:58) Jeremy Au: You're already stressed with the interview and now you have all this coffee. You yeah. So yeah, so there you are, and you get the offer and then you start learning.

(10:06) Jeremy Au: So was it like a culture shock to be working in the US?

(10:10) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Yeah, it was a lot of culture shock because I've never been overseas before. And that's the first time I got my passport. That's the first time I went into a flight on my own. And that's the first time I went to the US as well. And that's also the first time I work at a real tech company. So, a lot of things I need to unlearn and a lot of things I need to learn fast. Like for example, Indonesians are technically more introverted and they are more shy, especially in communicating their opinion. But in the US, everybody just, they are able to say whatever they want. And whenever there is a discussion, it is expected for everybody to have an opinion and to really speak for it. I need a lot of adjustment from my introverted personality and the culture, the Japanese culture that I grew up with to something that's more expected to be extroverted and you can say anything out loud. That's probably like one of the biggest culture shock for me.

(11:20) Jeremy Au: And what's interesting is that, you'd spend time not just as an intern, but also an engineer at Twitter, and you made a decision to leave America and work in Indonesia. So can you walk us through like, a lot of folks would have chosen to stay in America. So what was your thinking?

(11:34) Tri Ahmad Irfan: When I was in the US, so I interned with her twice. One in my sophomore year and second in my junior year. And I actually have another opportunity to intern again, but my parents back then didn't allow me because I have already missed eight holidays. And that's very important for Muslim family in Indonesia. So they asked me to stay for my next summer. But then again, I still have a lot of options to choose, especially if I want to go full time in the US, but back then, I was exposed to the entrepreneurship scene in the Bay Area. And that's something that I feel is enlightening for me because okay, you can work as an engineer at all of the big companies, but a lot of the innovation and a lot of the big companies are actually start from where is small, right? They start in the founder's parent basement, or they start in the founder's garage, and I get to see a lot of the energy as well in entrepreneurship. Almost every weekend, I went to conferences. I participated in hackathons, where we just hacked things up for the whole weekend.

So I really like that energy of making something new and then launching it, and then getting users and getting feedback. So from that point in time, I always see myself that, okay, I need to be an entrepreneur someday, I need to build a product of my own because I like building stuff more and I like working in a small team compared to working with hundreds or thousands of other engineers. So that decision to be an entrepreneur someday is actually what leads me to go back to Indonesia and learn from actual entrepreneurs which is Aswin and Ankit back then. So I feel that I would have more chance to succeed if I live where I want to build my company, because back then , I want to build my company out of Indonesia.

So I need to network with a lot of people here for hiring, for fundraising, for partnering, and then I need to have the skills of actually running a company. So I learned a lot during my time at Stukul to how to build an MVP, how to hire the first few people. So I think, in retrospect, all of the decision makes sense for me as opposed to it just having the easier life of getting a good salary at big tech.

(14:05) Jeremy Au: Yeah. I think what's interesting is that you also made a decision, not just to go back to Indonesia, but also choose to be like a founding kind of engineer with startups. So what was your perspective? What did you have to learn about being Engineer leader in startups.

(14:22) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Yeah. When I go back to Indonesia, actually, I was conflicted between starting on my own right away or joining another startup who are at a very early stage that I can learn a lot of things, but I don't need to take a lot of risk. Back then, I decided to join Stocko because I do like working with the founders. I really like their mission. And I feel that I didn't have a lot of experience yet to actually build a company. So yeah, I just work ed with Aswin and Ankit in the engineering team, I learned a lot there because I was the first engineer and during the first year of the company, I was actually like the only engineer aside from the CTO. So I get to see a lot of products being built from scratch. And then, when the product actually get traction and then the customer base crew, we need to build even more products. And that's how I learn to do hiring as well. So a lot of my time at STOQO are spent in building products and then like managing the engineers and hiring and growing the team. So that's a lot of my learning at STOQO..

(15:40) Jeremy Au: Yeah.

(15:41) Jeremy Au: And what's interesting is that you also went to Y Combinator as well. Can you share a little bit more about that?

(15:45) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Yeah. I actually was a fan of Y Combinator even from my college days, especially when I was in the US, I see that Y Combinator is like the breeding ground for a lot of great startups like Stripe, Airbnb, Dropbox, and a lot of Strong startups are coming out of Y Combinator. So even when I was at STOQO I was super pleased with Y Combinator. Whenever there is any events or programs from Y Combinator, I always attend, especially if I can. The first time I get to Y Combinator is actually in 2019. Back then, I started a side project. So it's a career preparation platform. That's the first time I applied to Y Combinator. We get shortlisted to do the final interview on site, but we didn't get it.

And then, things happen during COVID. So we decided to pause that project. And then after SoCo closed down, I get reconnected with Aswin and, hey, I think both of us still want to build startup. So we decided to team up and the first thing that comes to our mind was, Hey after all this time we haven't get the experience of y Combinator, which is how to build a real technological product that can be global. So that's our reasoning to join Y Combinator. And when I joined Y Combinator, it's still in COVID. So all of the sessions are, it's still happening remotely. So we decided to just, okay, we still apply and during the program, the three months of the program, there are a lot of sessions and calls, office hours, and the demo day. All of them happen like, 12, 1 AM until four or 5 AM. I check on the time. I think it was worse for us being in Singapore. But those three months was super intense that we make a lot of progress that we thought, okay, even if this is a win for YC, then we wouldn't get the progress that we could have hoped for because it's so intense.

(17:50) Jeremy Au: And when you say it's intense, how was it intense?

(17:53) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Yeah. One is because the, all of the late night sessions, because it's still all remote. And then we are joining from the other side of the globe. So that adds to the intensity. So you have to work all the way from morning to the evening and then from the evening till morning, you need to join all of the YC sessions. That's one. The second is how they managed to crunch all of the curriculum and all of the sessions into just three months. So basically, you joined the batch in January and in late March, you will have the demo day. So it's only three months to get a lot of results so that your startup can fundraise well during demo day. And wow, that's only three months. And a lot of things can change and we haven't released our main product yet back then. So, we need to release our product and then we need to get all of the traction so that we can fundraise well during demo day. So that's a lot of pressure and we need to have the office hour with our YC partners as well, who always push us and encourage us to get the result that we want for demo.

(19:06) Jeremy Au: And when you think about that demo day, how did you feel? Were you also nervous the same way you did at Twitter interview?

(19:13) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Not the one who is presenting. So, if you have a multiple co founders, only one founder should be able to do the demo day. And the demo day was in front of 2000 people, most of them investors or angels from all over the world and you need to present in only one minute to get all of your message and selling point across to all of those investors. And man, that's like probably the most pivotal 60 seconds in my life. Yeah. So I was like praying so that Aswin can be smooth in doing that 60 second presentation.

(19:52) Jeremy Au: Yeah. Yeah. In 60 seconds, you can probably make a TikTok. Right.

(19:57) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Yeah, and that can influence whether you can raise or not.

(20:04) Jeremy Au: And, you know, obviously you've also like built multiple companies along the way. So we had good and then, Stocco, then Lumina.

(20:12) Jeremy Au: So what are some of the lessons that you've learned from being and building engineering teams and the product?

(20:18) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Yeah. I learned a lot in the past six, seven years of building all of these products and helping to build the companies as well. I think as an engineer, a lot of my peers and me are taught all of the principles in software engineering, like, how to build scalable system, how to write clean code. But we are not taught about how our program or our product can influence the business results, because at the end of the day, when we are working at the company, we need to pursue the business objectives, right? A lot of my friends forgot about this. So they tend to just focus on engineering, focus on getting the system scalable, focus on making sure that the system are shiny, scalable, extensible, and all of those things. Then they forgot that all of those things need investment. That investment can be put into helping the business team think about what product to build, what kind of technology can actually help to the team of users get users. So, all of my experience I think boils down to, as an engineer or an engineering leader, you need to be really aware and you need to know a lot about business so that you, as the person who actually builds the product can actually help the business to reach its objectives. Especially in Southeast Asia, where the product are mostly business or offline or like offline transactions that digitize.

So, I think a lot of the engineers and engineer leaders in Indonesia can can be more helpful if they know a lot more about business.

(22:02) Jeremy Au: Okay. What should they know more about business from your perspective?

(22:05) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Yeah. I think one is data. So, when I was in STOQO in GudangAda and now in Lumina, I always take a look at the data. So whenever we want to launch something or whenever I want to release even like a technical feature, I'll always compare whether the data before and after actually matters. So if I release something and then it doesn't impact the metrics that I want to impact. Then your product is not doing what it's supposed to do. That's one. Second is managing stakeholders. I think a lot of product managers might already know about this, but engineers usually just leave the stakeholder management to their product managers. I think that's a bit scary for me because as an engineering leader, you need to know how to communicate with your stakeholders. You need to get a lot of information from them. You need to empathize and really know what's their objective. And that one is probably talking to users.

So at STOQO, we have a culture where during the first week of onboarding, every new hire, including the engineers and product managers we are asked to meet with our customers for the whole day. So they go with the salesman for the whole day to visit our customers and then they need to go with our drivers as well for overnight deliveries and they need to stay overnight at the warehouse as well. I think that's super useful because your customers and you really know firsthand, okay, this is my customer, this is how they think, this is their objectives. So when you are building products for them you can actually make more informed decision. So I think that's those three, what data stakeholder management and getting to know your customers.

(24:03) Jeremy Au: Yeah. As we think about all of that, what do you think are mistakes that you think engineering leaders can face or make?

(24:11) Tri Ahmad Irfan: A lot of the failure points whenever engineers or engineering leaders want to step up that game is I think it's only hesitation or fear because I think there is this stereotype that engineers are just coding. They can talk only with computers, but not with people. And a lot of engineers actually believe that so they are hesitant to talk to people outside of their team, outside of their company. So I think not wanting to try all of this and then holding back yourself to from speaking with non engineers are some of the failure points that I see. The other one is thinking with only engineering lens. A lot of engineers mostly think in systems, right? They think in algorithms , but not everything in business and product is about systems. Sometimes it's all about people that requires understanding their emotion, their cultural background, and how society work. And that's something that's very hard to be taught in systems.

(25:21) Jeremy Au: And when you think about all of that what has been something surprising that you learned about yourself or about engineering leadership over this journey?

(25:30) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Initially, When I started talking to users, drivers, blue collar workers, I felt that there will be the users will be annoyed with me coming over there because who is this IT guy trying to talk to me all the time? But surprisingly they receive it with a lot of positivity. Because sometimes even, whenever they have issues with the app, it takes very long to resolve because they need to go through the CX department. The CX department to go through the product ops or the product management team until it can get to the engineers eyes, to be a debug and resolve. When we met with all of those users and stakeholders, they can talk firsthand with the guy who built it and they realize that, wow, why haven't anybody come to me before, because it's so useful for them to just flesh out a lot of their problems that they have with the systems and programs to the guy building it. And I think it shortcuts a lot of things. Yeah. So I think that's something that. A lot of stakeholders really appreciate that.

(26:44) Jeremy Au: Yeah, could you share about a time that you personally have been brave?

(26:48) Tri Ahmad Irfan: I think the bravest moment in my life probably just happened a couple of years back when I decided to start Lumina at the beginning of a downturn, during COVID. So back then, I was becoming more comfortable as an engineering leader. I have a pretty good position at the company. I have already make a lot of relationships with my team, with my peers at the company and everything is going really well. I have a career path as well. But there's always an itch in my mind that, okay I really want to build a company someday, but at the time I was not sure as well because it's still COVID and there might be a downturn coming. But then I realized, I can stay a couple more years to wait out and then gain more experience. But I realized that I have been doing that already for the past five years, so I decided to just jump in knowing all of the challenges involved.

(27:54) Jeremy Au: Amazing. When you think about all of that how do you think about risk? How do you try to avoid risk? Do you think you'd assess risk? How do you think about risk in general?

(28:05) Tri Ahmad Irfan: Coming from someone who grew up very poor and don't have anything to lose, I tend to be very risky because the downsides for me are pretty minimal. So I mean, I still have some money and then I can still live peacefully. I can still buy food to eat. I can still pay my rent. And that's a very low baseline for a lot of people, but for me, it's already sufficient. So it enables me to take on a lot of risks that other people might not be able to. So traditionally, I'm always more risk taking, especially that the downsides from my end is pretty low. But the upside is pretty big. Yeah, then the only thing that matters is the opportunity cost choosing one specific path versus the others.

(28:59) Jeremy Au: note, I just want to say thank you so much for coming to the show. I love to kind of summarize the three big takeaways I got from the conversation. First of all, thank you so much for sharing about your early journey about learning to be an engineering student and your first internship and how that was your first time ever flying, but also your first time getting a passport. I guess the first time getting caffeinated and doing a 2 AM to 7 AM interview. Sounds like what a crazy set of moments, but also like you said, it's an inflection point for your whole career because you could have stayed in Indonesia and done a local internship and you'll probably have a very different career path because of that. So it's just amazing to see how some of this education, but also serendipity has allowed you to be who you are today.

Secondly thank you so much for sharing a lot more about, from your perspective, the lessons for what engineering leaders and what you yourself as engineering leader have learned about business in terms of what to do, what not to do, how to talk to users and how to build product. So really interesting to see that.

Lastly, thanks so much for sharing a little bit about your YC experience but also some of these like small moments, I really enjoyed hearing them about how excited you are to be a YC because you were at all the events, but also I really laughed at the idea of again, the 60 second presentation, one minute and how you're even more anxious because you're the one in the audience watching him and hoping that he doesn't screw it up. Right. And he succeeds. Well, I just want to say again, congratulations, because that 60 second pitch succeeded and it's awesome to see how far Lumina has grown over the past two years. So on that note, thank you so much, Irfan, for coming on the show

(30:37) Tri Ahmad Irfan: thank you, Jeremy. Yeah. I hope it's useful for the audience.