Mark Johnson

CEO Descartes Labs

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON January 27, 2016

Discussion

Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
Hello! I'm Mark Johnson. Currently, I live in Santa Fe, NM, and I'm cofounder and CEO of Descartes Labs. We're applying machine learning to satellite imagery to become better stewards of our planet's natural resources. Prior to this, I was CEO of Zite and involved with both (!) of its sales, to CNN and Flipboard. I also used to work at Bing, Powerset, Kosmix, and SideStep as a product manager. Despite all of this resume stuff, I don't define myself (only) by my jobs. I enjoy hiking, reading, thinking, and contemplating the nature of meaning. This is probably because I was infected by studying philosophy in college. I still dabble in Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Rorty, and, of course, Descartes. M
Ben Parr@benparr · Co-founder and CMO, Octane AI
Mark, what happens when you're in Vegas?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@benparr I'd like to think that it stays in Vegas, but I think you know better. What I learned this time in Vegas is that all good experiences begin and end with booze.
Kris Hulbert@kris_hulbert · Gratwick Films, Filmmaker
@philosophygeek @benparr You didn't learn that from your hometown?
Robert Griesmeyer@robert_griesmeyer · data scientist Flipboard
Hey Mark. What advice do you have for someone who just started on their first startup?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@robert_griesmeyer talk to tons and tons of people but don't follow advice blindly. Talk to potential customers, talk to investors, talk to friends in similar spaces, talk to friends in different spaces. Just keep talking and learning. I look at the early decks we had for Descartes Labs and we didn't have any freakin' clue what we were going to do. I refuse to pretend that where we've ended up sprang from my forehead like Athena from Zeus. We evolved into the awesome company that we are now and I attribute our success to constant conversation. I was really influenced by the cybernetics movement, which emphasizes feedback loops as a way to build robust systems. I want my company to be robust, so I need to be in constant conversation to give the information I have at hand the "requisite variety" (a technical term) to be successful.
Daniel Roberts@readdanwrite · Journalist
Mark: what do you think are the biggest misconceptions around startup-land right now? something other than the "unicorn" craze (snooze) but what are journalists/outsiders/critics getting wrong?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@readdanwrite since leaving Zite, I try not to pay attention to the tech news - as much as is possible. I think one of the huge advantages of being in NM is not being part of the mainstream tech scene. That being said, I get really bummed when I see the tech press ripping apart amazing companies like Twitter and Apple. Sure, Apple didn't have a stellar quarter, but all signs to me still seem positive. Poor Jack at Twitter has hardly been on the job 3 months and gets dragged all through the mud. Press should remember that running a company is really hard. Sure, there are asshole out there running companies, but most people are just trying to build something meaningful and lasting. Cut us some slack sometimes :)
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
@philosophygeek Thanks so much for joining us today! During your career to date, what is the best piece of advice you've ever been given? Flip side - what's the worst?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@ems_hodge I don't trust generic advice without context. I did have one boss who, when I asked him for a raise, told me to go get a competing offer. I left within 3 months and joined Kosmix. You definitely shouldn't tell an employee that :)
Karen Smetana@karen_smetana
Hi Mark, What is interesting or new with satellites? Can you please blow my mind?!?!
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@karen_smetana traditional satellites are the size of minibus and cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. Companies like Planet Labs and Spire are fleets of satellites that are as small as a breadbox and cost under $100k. That's a total game-changer. Imagine that we have a VIDEO of the globe. Now that will be a bad-ass dataset.
Thomas Stöcklein@tomstocklein · FoundersFundersFuture.com
Elon Musk and Sam Altman recently launched the AI research company OpenAI. Musk and others are worried about the potential dangers of AI. What's your position in the AI debate?
Robert Griesmeyer@robert_griesmeyer · data scientist Flipboard
@tomstocklein We should be worried about the loss of jobs due to AI atm. What you're referring to is "general intelligence" and we're no where close to anything like that. It makes for good headlines though.
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@tomstocklein humans have proven time and time again that we're terrible at predicting the technology of the future. One of my favorite quotes is from Paul Saffo: don't mistake a clear view for a short distance. I like the concept of OpenAI, but I don't share Musk/Altman's concerns that AI is going to consume us all. Or maybe it will and that's just the natural progression of planets that have intelligent beings that get to our point. It's going to be fun to watch how AI affects us, regardless.
Who is your favorite philosopher of all time? And what area did you specialize in when you studied philosophy in college? Did you always have a clear idea of what you wanted to do in life? How did you fall into your career path?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@roz Nietzsche said that "God is dead," but he was wrong: Nietzsche himself was god (with a small "g"). "The Gay Science" is a mind-blowing book (his first statement of "God is dead") but all of Nietzsche is enlightening. I'm also a huge fan of Richard Rorty (was lucky enough to take classes from him), Wittgenstein, Frege, Kripke, Descartes (obviously), Hume and many others. I focused a lot on the philosophy of language, where I think all philosophy ought to begin. In terms of how I got here, I took a year off from Stanford because I was a terrible student and realized I could study whatever I wanted and still work in tech. So, when I went back, I took a philosophy class and fell in love.
Eric Frazer@eric_frazer · paramedic
Since leaving your hometown and settling out west west you have accomplished so much. What do you feel has been your most noteworthy accomplishment and why? What is one goal you would like to achieve in your personal life for the upcoming year?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@eric_frazer I try not to think about my life in terms of numbers and accomplishments - maybe that's my greatest accomplishment. I do what I love, whether it's working or hiking or listening to music and don't give much of a damn how the world scores me on the Report Card in the Sky. My only two goals for this year are to continue enjoying the majestic natural beauty of New Mexico and to make sure Descartes Labs continues our upward trajectory.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
How is AI helping us to better steward the worlds resources? Would love to know more about the work your doing here and how you first got into this?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@ems_hodge The Gaia Hypothesis suggests that we should look at the world as an organism. I remember reading about that when I was in high school and have never forgotten that dream. It's pretty cool to be one of the companies now leading that charge. There are publicly available satellite imagery of this globe going back to 1972, thanks to the prescience of NASA and the Landsat program. There are tons of new satellites going online in the next few years that will gives us daily pictures of every meter of this planet. Up until now, we haven't had the techniques (ML, for example) or the computing power to fully utilize these datasets. Imagine that we have a living atlas of this world - that we know in real time what natural resources we've growing, pumping, deforesting, and mining... that we watch where those resources go... and that we can see how we as humans use those resources to change the planet. There are so many implications - some of them financial and others humanitarian - that it's mind-boggling. At Descartes Labs, we're starting off with the goal of understanding global agricultural output in real time, but that's just the beginning...
Kerri Couillard@babierge · Founder/CEO Babierge
Why here in NM @philosophygeek? As a baby startup here in our fine state - what is your biggest piece of advice in terms of doing 'this' in NM?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@babierge an excellent question, fellow New Mexican... we spun out of Los Alamos National Laboratory and decided it didn't make sense uprooting the team or their families. Looking back on it, that was a fantastic decision for us. By being in NM, we're far enough from the day-to-day madness of the Valley that we can focus on building a business, but we're not so far that we're disconnect. Without tooting my own horn, a really smart thing that we did early on was bringing in someone who had experience from the Valley (i.e., me...). That allowed us to have strong connections in the startup world without having to have an expensive office in San Francisco.
What inspired you to start Descartes lab? Why the association with Descartes? BTW, Descartes is my favorite philosopher of all time.
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@roz I used to hate Descartes, but he was absolutely a genius. "Meditiations" and "Discourse on Method" are... well... methodically written and extremely accessible, while still being incredibly deep. Young philosophers often try to rip Descartes apart. They ought to read his "Replies" when reading the Meditations. Honestly, we chose "Descartes Labs" among many different possibilities (we looked at philosophers, mathematicians, words that suggested something about space/Earth) because I was able to get the Twitter handle and Web site. I called the naming debate over after that. Turns out it was a great decision. "Des cartes" is "maps" in French. And, of course, we're trying to make computers think.
Robert Lucas@robert_lucas · Tracher
Fascinating career path, Mark. What would you say to young students today who are advised to pick a major and follow that career path no matter what?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@robert_lucas the saddest thing I saw at Stanford was when a student who was passionate about 16th-century French literature decided to go study economics because they thought it was a more "practical" major. Unless you're solving monetary policy, it's not clear how much economics helps in the real world. Even worse are people who spend 4 years of college studying something like accounting. That ought to be a trade school, not college. In my opinion, college is the time for you to study whatever the heck you want. There are plenty of companies who are looking for smart, passionate people and can train other skills. I never took a class in marketing, business, finance, or entrepreneurship. I don't read silly business books with terrible generic advice. I draw upon all of my experiences - intellectual, worldly, business - to come up with solutions. I use my background in philosophy to distill problems at work so we can prioritize them; but if I had a different intellectual training, I'm sure I'd draw upon that to be better at work. In the end, I'm confident that if you teach people to be smart, they'll figure out stuff on their own. There's no reason to train for the working world like you're training for a marathon.
Thomas Stöcklein@tomstocklein · FoundersFundersFuture.com
Can you recommend any areas in New Mexico that are great for hiking? What are your favorite hiking trails in the SF Bay Area?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@tomstocklein Everywhere in NM is great. I like going up to the ski basin above Santa Fe (at ~10,000ft). From there, you can hike to a number of peaks > 12,000 ft, like Lake Peak or Santa Fe Baldy. It's beautiful up there in the souther tip of the Rockies. For a quick easy but incredible hike, try Tent Rocks National Monument. It's like you're on another planet. Here in the Bay Area, the Big Basin trails are some of favorites, though if you'e never been to the Almaden Quicksiler Mines (!) it's worth it.
Harry Stebbings@harrystebbings · Podcast Host @ The Twenty Minute VC
thanks so much for joining us today, actually a big fan of your thesis on better stewardry of planetary resources. I would love to hear where you believe the big changes in machine learning will evolve this year? What are you most excited for in the space? By the way, would absolutely love to have you join us on @twentyminutevc would be amazing to hear your story in more detail!
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@harrystebbings happy to join @twentyminutevc - just shoot me an email. It's pretty easy to figure out. The big changes in machine learning for space are really all about data. Planet Labs is putting up it's massive constellation, ESA's Sentinel program will put up a few more satellites, plus a number of smaller projects. With ML, it's not just about the algorithm (there's always something hot, deep learning, boosted trees, whatevs) but it's about the quality of your dataset and your ability to measure how well you've been doing.
neeharika sinha@neeeharika · Google, Threadchannel
Hello @philosophygeek thanks for joining us here today! Would love to know your fav read, TV shows and podcasts?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@neeeharika I don't watch a lot of TV, though I'm absolutely obsessed with Archer right now. He is my hero. I don't really listen to podcasts, though I do listen to books (mostly histories) on Audible while I'm commuting from Santa Fe to Descartes Labs HQ in Los Alamos. Best books: "The Gay Science" (Nietzsche), "Juliette" (Marquis de Sade), "Great Expectations" (Dickens), "The Phantom Tollbooth" (Norton Juster).... so many books =)
Kris Hulbert@kris_hulbert · Gratwick Films, Filmmaker
Hey Mark, congrats on the success! What inspired you to come up with the idea for using satellite imagery in this manner? You seem to have quite a bit of social awareness, are you familiar with the Venus Project at all? and if so, do you think Descartes Lab could help find a viable section of the planet to build an automated city?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@kris_hulbert I'm not familiar with the Venus Project... and I'm typing so furiously , I don't have time to look it up. IMO, the best thing that Descartes Labs can do is not to imagine an alternative future, but to supply leaders with good data to make smart decisions on our natural resources, what we're doing to the planet, etc. The answers you are looking for are always in the data. It's up to the computers to translate them into something human-readable, but it's up to us to be flexible with out opinions based on the new data we find.
Kris Hulbert@kris_hulbert · Gratwick Films, Filmmaker
@philosophygeek when you have a second, you should definitely check out the Venus project. Their goal is to build automated cities that would live and breathe based on the data and resource management you are talking about. Let the documentary "Zeitgeist: Moving Forward" be your rabbit hole!
Justus Brown@justusb · Head of Product, Founders Factory
Hi Mark. You've seen a lot of exits of one kind or another from the companies you've been involved in. (You forgot the auto-dialer!) What are some key pieces of technology or insights that those companies had, which you feel have been underutilized or lost in those exits/acquisitions/failures?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@justusb a question that brings a tear to my eye. In the case of Powerset->Microsoft/Bing, I think we were just pursuing the wrong goal from the beginning. That is, people do want to interact with technology naturally (i.e., in their own language) but it's not clear that a search engine was the right place to apply it. Turns out that something like Siri was a much more natural (to overload the term) place to begin bringing NLP into the consumer's world. So, in that sense, I don't feel like Powerset was wasted, just way ahead of its time. With Zite->CNN, I learned from a lot of the mistakes during the Powerset acquisition and was able to ask the right questions of CNN to ensure a future for Zite. We were a dinky little team when we started and pushed the product to what I consider still to be the best news reading application *ever*. However, a startup within a media company that challenged core business model assumptions about the media space itself is probably not going to work in the long run and we all realized that at some point. Thus, the sale to Flipboard was really a great move for the team and technology we built. Of course, Flipboard more or less effed up Zite by killing it and not evolving their own product, but that was no longer my problem...
Kris Hulbert@kris_hulbert · Gratwick Films, Filmmaker
B.o.b. says the world is flat, have you been able to have first hand access to a satellite to confirm or deny this?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@kris_hulbert in some geometry, I'm sure the world is flat. So you should totally believe that.
Kris Hulbert@kris_hulbert · Gratwick Films, Filmmaker
@philosophygeek the conspiracy theorist in me might say that is an answer without giving an answer. lol. You're the only person I know who may have first hand access to a satellite, so I'd take your word over B.o.b or Pythagoras!
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@kris_hulbert the Landsat archive is available on the Google Cloud... you can go play with it. I haven't noticed any ships sailing off the edge of the planet recently though.
Do you have a day to day strategy for prioritizing your life? What are some of your favorite learning resources you reference regularly?
Mark Johnson@philosophygeek · CEO Descartes Labs
@roz I'm terrible at prioritizing my life. I have been pursuing zero inbox aggressively and like to start every week with no e-mails. That helps a lot. I'm much better at prioritizing projects and companies than I am myself. I've finally accepted that I'm a bit scatterbrained and that's totally OK, as long as I generally get stuff done. I don't believe in business books or advice columns.