🐝 The Buzz of Collaborative Thinking: An Interview with Yash Vakil
I interviewed Yash Vakil, a machine learning and data science student, and founder of The HiveMind Project (12 min read)
|Jason Bartz||Oct 23, 2020|| 3|
Homescreens is a publication about how we interact with our most intimate possession, our phones. Each week I interview founders and creators across industries, and we reflect on the apps they use, how they’re organized, and their philosophy on notifications and mindfulness. Check out the end of the interview for a full recap and links to all the apps and media discussed.
Yash is a student attending Arizona State University, pursuing his Master’s in computer science, with interests in AI, space, and technology. In his free time, he tends to break electronics and finds joy in putting the pieces back together. A tinkerer by nature, he has developed products ranging from computer vision plant recognition software to Arduino-based, remote-controlled battle bots, boats, and cars.
While attending undergrad in India, he and a group of students started a peer-driven platform, The HiveMind Project, which aimed to bridge the gap between education and the job market. During its four years, this project grew to include 10,000 students from various universities — helping them grow essential skills and start their careers through collaborative thinking.
What follows is our interview, edited for length and clarity.
Jason: I like to start these interviews with a backstory about yourself. I’m very interested in learning about the HiveMind Project; I see that you developed it as a student-led platform, and it looks fascinating! Give me the story, what you've done with it, and why you decided to go into computer science?
Yash: When I got your email confirmation about this interview, I went to Homescreens, and I saw the different people you’ve had for interviews, and I tried to see where I fit in. I realized that I'm kind of ordinary compared to those people. I'm not like Ali [Abdaal], who started coding at 12, or Amber [Lundy], who had access to the early internet and knew the capabilities that it had. For me, my entire life, I've been fascinated with the physical world and the problems that it has and trying to propose tangible solutions that can go into effect right now, not at a later point in time. So, this particular problem solving is at the core of my journey. That is why my journey isn't linear, so you'll see my work spread out in different areas, with small wins, sustainability, and ethics.
HiveMind began, similarly, because I had a problem in mind and set out to solve it. I had recently started my bachelor’s in India (I moved to the USA last August), and a couple of friends and I walked in on a conversation about how hard it was to land a job. We got involved in it, and at the end of the conversation, I'm not quite sure what we felt, but it was like a fear that maybe this is what our future holds. These mixed feelings are what propelled HiveMind. So, within a few days, we launched Swarm Net — the first project of HiveMind. For the general public: it was a networking forum for technology professionals, enthusiasts, and students to connect, share their ideas and experiences. For us, it was a tool to understand the problem at hand: what its scope was, how widespread it is, and how difficult it is.
Once we had enough information, we called up a few people and made a few groups. The first was for those that were graduating and looking for jobs. We asked them what problems they were facing and why they think that these problems existed. Then we went on to entry-level positions or someone that has just found their job, and we asked what they did differently, what mattered to them, and what advice will they give to the next batch. And then, we talked to people deep into their professional fields with maybe five to six years of experience. We asked them what they expected from the newer generations.
With this pool of information, we learned there was this knowledge gap between the education sector and the professional field, so we launched Beez Wax. Beez Wax was a platform where students could collaborate on projects, but we took it a step further. Instead of just having students converting theoretical aspects into practical knowledge, we tasked them to transform projects into production, labor, and deploy how it actually affects the world. That way, they will have enough knowledge of building a project and seeing it throughout the entire lifetime. We try to reduce this knowledge gap between education and the professional field, and it spread like wildfire in a few universities, so yeah, that's the story!
Jason: That's a pretty cool idea. I don't think it strictly applies to people in technology either, but anyone leaving college asking, “how do I get a job now?” I did have a couple of questions about HiveMind: How did everyone communicate, and how did you foster the community? Was it through Slack, Discord, email that you were able to keep everyone together and allow for exchanging ideas?
Yash: I'm not even sure that Discord existed at that time. I was aware of Slack and stuff like that, but rather, we used the website itself. Both Beez Wax and Swarm Net were websites, and we acted on our knowledge to learn something from them. We knew what the solution was, but we did not have any experience with it. So, we chose Swarm Net to be a web service where we could learn from our mistakes and then see how we could find the solution and not make blunders in the solution itself. Both of them have websites that we coded from scratch.
Jason: Impressive. You spun that up while you were pursuing your bachelor's in India; now that you're here at ASU pursuing your master's, is there any thought of starting something like this in the States?
Yash: I'm not quite sure that they need this because they have a lot of facilities over here, labs, and the area that ASU encompasses is more like a city. It has a lot of facilities, libraries, labs, incubation centers, which I never had access to [in India]. But I'm still on that quest to find a problem to solve, so let's see what happens.
Jason: That makes sense. You were doing it in India because it filled a need there. Now, let’s jump into your phone. The first thing I noticed on your main home screen was that you have eight clocks from all over the world. Is that for aesthetic reasons, or do you have friends and family in all of these timezones?
Yash: I always get called out on why I don't call people, so I have all these time zones, so as soon as I open my phone, it’s a constant reminder to call them up. Then, if I get free, and I have a friend in Calgary and is it's the right time to call, I just end up calling them.
Jason: That's clever. It looks cool, too, but it’s a nice reminder as well. Also, on that screen, you have a knowledge folder. Some of these apps I definitely recognize like LinkedIn, Product Hunt, and Reddit. Let’s start with Reddit, what are some subreddits that you browse often?
Yash: My Reddit and Twitter are both purely for knowledge. I follow things about my field of technology like AI, computer vision, neural networks, stuff like that. So if there's some new development, or a new paper comes out that intrigues me, I’ll read it.
Jason: I saw that you had developed products for the defense, space, and agriculture industries. Could you share an example of one of these products? I find that super interesting.
Yash: Let’s start with a building footprint extraction. This was during my research assistantship at ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organisation. They were tasked with a problem with satellite imagery, and they wanted to find out how many solar panels they can effectively utilize on empty building rooftops and analyze the energy that could be provisioned. Going through every building’s specs and paperwork was an extremely lengthy process, and it's not something that's tangible. It's not scalable, nor is it robust. So what we ended up proposing was an automated way to segment the buildings from the images. It was an AI model that differentiates the building rooftop from the building itself and analyzes the area.
Jason: That's very cool. Besides Twitter and Reddit, what other apps are you using to learn on your phone? Are you listening to any podcasts or listening to any audiobooks?
Yash: So my entire day is trying to cram as much as I can multitask in it. As soon as I wake up and freshen up, I listen to Spotify’s Commute Podcast, which has a mixture of news and songs. While I’m cooking I listen to TEDx — I try to cram podcasts into things that don't take a lot of thinking, and I can multitask with them. I usually use Spotify for podcasts. I’ve never had a separate app for it; I find everything on YouTube and Spotify.
Jason: Sure, I mean, everything's on Spotify. Spotify is buying pretty much all the big names anyways: Gimlet Media, The Joe Rogan Experience...so sticking with it is probably a safe bet. What recent TEDx talks have you found interesting? Anything in ML or AI?
Yash: There was this one TEDx talk on big data, and it was a story of two tomatoes, basically about how they use big data to understand the problem of waste management. It's a story of how the process of farming itself, we have turned into a business, and what we have on our plates is not something that we should have; it does not have the same flavor, it does not have the same taste. We don't think about the farmers but just rather, the corporate profits. They were using big data, analyzing solutions, and seeing that the solutions that we have currently are suboptimal.
Jason: Are there any books or audiobooks you would recommend to someone getting into your field?
Yash: I read books on neuroscience, psychology, architecture, but the most defining book that stands out was when I started my journey and made me get involved in computer science was Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. It showcases the evolution of humans through six epochs, and how, with every epoch, we are exponentially increasing the rate of change. So the first epoch, we found things like physics and chemistry, and the information in atoms and molecules. The second epoch was about biological information in DNA, what it encodes, and the third was about the brain and the information in neural networks — how one neuron transfers information to the other. The fourth was the technology of how we'll be connecting the hardware world to the software world. Right now is the onset of the fifth epoch, a merger of technology and the human body. And what he says is that there's going to be a sixth epoch, where it's going to be hard to distinguish between technology and humans. But, the rate of change in that sixth epoch will be so fast that we won't be able to comprehend everything. It will just be a singularity. That's something that got me involved in computer science, and I definitely recommend that.
Jason: That sounds very interesting. Thinking about the latter half of the fifth epoch and any part of the sixth epoch sounds like science fiction, right? But, we're already getting there — Elon Musk and Neuralink!
Tell me about this Automate app on your second screen. Is this used for custom phone workflows?
Yash: Yes, it allows me to automate my phone. They have this block UI where I can place blocks and tell the system what process will happen. Take, for example, if I lose my phone. Instead of going to Google and Find My Phone and I don't even have my location on, what I end up doing is message my phone from another number that turns on my phone, shares my location, and rings the phone. I use it for a lot of different tasks.
Jason: What would you say your favorite app on your phone is that is not work-related?
Yash: There are apps like Audible, but I use Moon+ Reader. It’s not something that recommends books or stuff like that, it only accesses the books I have. It allows me to read them in a nice manner, in a simpler manner, and it does not showcase extra things, like ads. It supports multiple file types like EPUB, MOBI, and PDF.
Jason: Do you do a lot of reading on your phone?
Yash: Yeah, before I used to have physical books, but what I realized was that books are extremely costly. So I've transformed from learning from physical books to phones like this. Because I have my phone every day, I can just pop it open and start reading something. So yeah, I read a lot on my phone itself, about an hour or two and definitely when I go to sleep.
Jason: Got it, are there any oddball apps that maybe other people haven't heard of that you use?
Yash: There's this one dating app called Dil Mil, but it basically caters to South Asians. So that's one more app that I have. It translates to “meeting of hearts.”
Jason: What are your thoughts on notifications? How do you work them into your workflow?
Yash: I don't like notifications at all. I don't like clutter. If you see my home screen, it's all in folders. So I try to minimize my notifications, and I personalize each app to only notify me via email, or only if it's for emergency purposes. My notifications are usually filled with messages, and I read the messages in the notification bar. If I think that it's worth replying to, I’ll call them and discuss it, or else I'll just swipe them off.
Jason: Within your work folder, I see Asana and Trello. How are you using them?
Yash: Asana, I only use it for my work, and Trello is for personal projects that I have. Because most of my time is on the laptop, I end up using Asana and Trello on the laptop itself. I find it much easier to transfer my information from one thing to another shifting cards and inspirations on a laptop. On the phone, I only have it to notify me, so if I'm commuting, or maybe there's something that I have forgotten, I just end up just opening it. Then when I get home, I end up clearing the clutter and then getting deeper into it from my laptop.
Jason: Are there any apps that we didn't talk about that you want to mention?
Yash: You may find most of my apps are pretty common, but I have the SmartNews app and Inshorts. Inshorts is news stories that are 60 words or less, so you are getting a clear news brief on a card view. And SmartNews has categorized news in different sectors, like business and technology, and you access just the headline itself, and if I want to read more, then I just click it, and it will showcase the entire news [article].
Jason: News in 60 words, that’s very cool, I’ll have to check that one out! Yash, it was great getting to know you and learning about what you’re working on!
Yash: Thank you, it was great talking to you too! Bye.
Next week, I sit down with Jonathan Reichental, the former Chief Information Officer for the City of Palo Alto, California, so stay tuned!
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📱 App, Product, & Media Recap
🍅 TEDxNatick Talk: Big data, small farms and a tale of two tomatoes - Erin Baumgartner
📕 The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil
🤖 Automate - Automate various tasks on your Android smartphone or tablet. Create your automations using flowcharts.
📚 Moon+ Reader - Read thousands of ebooks for free, supports online ebook libraries
❤️ Dil Mil: South Asian singles, dating & marriage - With over 20 million matches made Dil Mil is the leading South Asian dating app that is completely free to use.
💻 Asana - Asana visualizes how work maps out over time.
💻 Trello - Trello's boards, lists, and cards enable teams to organize and prioritize projects in a fun, flexible, and rewarding way.
📰 SmartNews: Local Breaking News - SmartNews analyzes millions of articles every day to deliver the top trending news stories influencing the world right now.
📰 Inshorts - 60 words News summary - Inshorts is a news app that selects the latest and best news from multiple national and international sources and summarises them to present in a short and crisp 60 words or less format, personalized for you