Niniane Wang (BS ’98)
To you, it's a holiday greeting card. But to Niniane Wang, it’s a social-media canvas.
Wang is the chief technology officer of Minted, a social-commerce company that discovers artists and graphic designers, curates their creations through online competitions, and then connects them with customers who can personalize these designs to their own tastes and have them produced in the form of wedding invitations, framed art, and more.
We met with Wang near Minted’s headquarters in San Francisco to ask a few questions about her company, her career, and her time at Caltech.
Caltech Alumni Association: Why did you choose Caltech?
Wang: I’m one of those annoying people who loved everything about Caltech, starting with the day I first heard of it, which was when I received the informational brochure called “Ten Little Reasons to Choose Caltech.” It listed the usual things—strong academics, beautiful campus, etc. But inside, it also had a poster that when unfolded read “Ten Big Reasons to Choose Caltech.” Kip Thorne took up a third of it. I remember thinking that was so quirky, different, and adventurous. I knew I wanted to go there.
CAA: Why did you pick computer science?
Wang: A friend of mine said that God “hit her with a brick” one day, and she suddenly knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. I remember thinking, “I want a brick, too.” But it was a little more subtle for me.
I had just turned 15 when I got to Caltech, so I was young. Before my second term, I sat in my room in Dabney trying to pick courses from the catalog. There were so many in computer science that I wanted to take. To fit them all in, I looked at the schedule and actually tried to calculate the exact time it would take to walk between classes. It was then that I realized I should probably be studying computer science.
CAA: Was there one mentor or one particular class that inspired you?
Wang: Peter Schroeder at the time was quite an imposing professor. His first assignment to us was, “If you don’t know C++, learn it now.” People rise to the level of expectations that you have for them. If you expect they’ll be strong, then they’ll be strong. And I learned C++.
CAA: What’s your favorite memory of Caltech?
Wang: That’s easy. One day, a 20-foot-tall palm tree toppled in the courtyard of Dabney. Someone came up with the bright idea that we could replant it across campus in the middle of Beckman Lawn. So a bunch of us gathered around and picked the tree up. It was incredibly heavy and awkward; the bark of the trunk scratched our hands. As we moved across campus, people would stop and laugh—then 30 seconds later they’d join in. We enlisted almost everyone we saw. We were like this growing amoeba of students drifting our way to Beckman Lawn.
It turns out that it’s really difficult to get a 20-foot tree to stand up. We spent a lot of effort trying to figure out the mechanics—should we use a lever, or have a fulcrum, what physics would be involved? In the end it was pure brute force—and we got the tree to stand up again.
That’s what I love about Caltech, people really celebrate and support one another’s uniqueness. If you want to carry a palm tree across campus, you can find someone to help you.
CAA: What were your first steps after graduation?
Wang: I started my career at Microsoft, where I worked on the game Flight Simulator. I developed rendering mechanisms for clouds, rains, snow, the sky, and other features that were applauded by reviewers and contributed to the success of the game.
I then went to work at Google, where I helped to start their Desktop Search product and led the Gmail ads team. Taking advantage of the company’s “20 percent time” [through which employees were encouraged to devote 20 percent of their time to personal projects], I started Lively, an avatar- and room-building project. Users could create avatars and virtual spaces that they could decorate with wall art made from their Picasa pictures or YouTube videos. Lively was eventually discontinued during one of Google’s refocusing initiatives, but it was a terrific experience.
CAA: Tell us about Minted.
Wang: Minted is a social-commerce company. We are a platform for a global community of artist and graphic designers who submit work into our competitions voted on by customers. It could be in the form of framed art, holiday cards, wedding invitations—almost anything that has a design. The top pieces are then made available for people to customize and purchase, and the original designer gets a commission for every sale.
I met the founder and CEO, Mariam Naficy, through Jeremy Stoppelman [founder of Yelp]. I was originally going to help Minted find a new engineering leader, but I ended up falling in love with the company and decided to do it myself.
CAA: What are the technical challenges that you have had to face?
Wang: Our demographic is very savvy and has high expectations about design. So we want the technology to be smooth, seamless, and fast. On the user-interface side, artists come up with very elaborate elements, such as curvilinear text, that need to be customizable and work in every Web browser. Then, when outputting the high-resolution art file, it needs to be pixel perfect. In the community-and-competition model we employ patent-pending algorithms we have that make sure we get the best crowd-source results.
CAA: How has the response been?
Wang: It’s been very gratifying. Artists have been able to use these tools to produce incredible work, and our customers love the products that they’re able to purchase. In October, we announced a $41-million round of investments. This will enable us to expand our technology capabilities, create new tools for designers, expand product offerings, and reach new audiences.
CAA: What advice do you have to offer entrepreneurs or those interested in pursuing computer science?
Wang: There are two aspects that are important to building a company: First, it’s very important to understand your customer—what types of books they read, their favorite magazines or websites, where they shop, how they interact with their friends and colleagues. You want to understand them as well as you would a relative. Then you can supplement with metrics, measure their behavior, and see how they actually interface with your product.
Computer science has been and remains a very hot field. Skilled programmers are in demand and can have their choice of jobs. I think if someone really enjoys programming they can work to make themselves an attractive engineer for others to hire and partner with.
CAA: Are there resources that Caltech graduates can take advantage of?
Wang: Techers have a very warm bond and will try to help one another out when possible. The Caltech Career Development Center was very helpful to me in lining up interview opportunities. One of my Caltech classmates is working with me at Minted right now.
CAA: It seems that you like being at an intersection of art and technology.
Wang: I just feel a personal calling toward enabling storytelling and self-expression. I think that humankind relates to one another through telling stories. I think that I’ve often wanted to work on products in which people are able to express who they are and tell their own stories.
It's important to focus on something you love. You do your best work that way.