Jun Wong

AGE: 35
INTERESTS: Machine learning, board games, Tetris, badminton, finding the “meaning of life.”

Where are you from?

I grew up in NYC in an average first-generation family. Before we had “internet” I would never stay home, and afterward, I would never leave the house.  My life revolved around maximizing having fun, video games, and avoiding as much homework as possible. I was the oldest grandchild on both sides of the family.  Usually, this means you’ll turn out to be a spoiled brat. My dad knowing that, would purposely try to undo some bad behaviors I developed. I remember one year I really wanted a Super Nintendo.  My dad instead bought me $300 worth of math books. I was so angry at him for doing such a dumb thing! My math would be above the school level after that, and my friend ended up bringing his Super Nintendo over every day during the summer. Yay !!

Tell us more about what shaped you:

My two favorite T.V. shows growing up were Star Trek and Friends.  My first failed business venture happened when I was in second grade. I was folding origami and ended up selling one to a classmate for a quarter. I spent the next two days making more origami of different sizes and colors but didn’t get any more customers. Our teacher was really happy though because I was quiet all day and stayed out of trouble.  

After high school, I attended City University of New York (CUNY) and transferred to NYU for a semester only to find out they would not take most of my credits, so I returned to the previous college. I was split between going into computer science, business, or psychology. I ended up with a degree in marketing. At the time I thought a business degree would allow me to make the most impact and change in the world.  I’m not 100% sure that this is true.

My college life was mostly focused on my first startup and the group of friends that took part in it. I started a little web business during college which eventually grew into me hiring a bunch of my friends and working out of my parent’s basement. At the time I didn’t really know what a startup was. But my little web business pretty much was a startup, except I didn’t know you could raise money. I felt like I aged 10 years during this time, it was the most exhausting and also the most enjoyable years of my life so far.

What did you do before 42?

After my first startup, I did a few other ventures related to gaming and content marketing. Post-college graduation I ended up in mostly product marketing roles at startups because of my experience. I had already given up coding because there was just too much to manage. That led me to doing some consulting until I moved to California. Right before I came to 42 I was managing a nonprofit incubator in Mountain View called Hacker Dojo. I started as a member, then a volunteer, and later became Executive Director. I worked there as executive staff for 4 years.

What did you take away from your startup experiences:

I got involved with my first startup when I was 19. We were the first wave of the Dot-Com kids. I created a secondary market where people were buying and selling virtual items in online video games. Through that startup, I was able to witness the early stages of growth, maturity, and consolidation of an entire industry within 5 years. I felt what it’s like to create something that gave customers value. For me, this was the best work environment so far. Partly because all of us were already friends.  It was pretty impossible to go back to a 9 to 5 job after that.

Success or fail, I think it’s a privilege to get a chance to build a startup. We often forget that not everyone in the world gets this opportunity. One of my friends has an entrepreneurial spirit but has to put it on hold because they were an international student, and must hold an H1B job in order to stay in the U.S.  Doing a startup because you don’t want to work for someone isn’t a good enough reason. You most likely will have to commit more, and work more than any full-time job. Those closest to you will also be making sacrifices to support your startup. And lastly, I would say, do hire your friends. Don’t hire just any friend but you will know your friends better than any interview can tell you about a person.

Did you have any programming experience before 42?

Yes, I was self-taught.  I took a class in college and I felt the track was too slow, I wanted to do web and they wanted me to start with C++ which would have taken 2 years before my first web programming class, so I decided to go into marketing, my other interest. I worked with a web technology called LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP).  PHP was a lot different then than now. In my previous job, I would sometimes implement emergency patches with the help of the community, mostly written in python. Going to 42 was a chance to relive my path as a developer/engineer.

How did you hear about 42?

I heard about 42 before it started in Silicon Valley from one of my board members in January of 2016 and then found the Techcrunch article shortly after. I was like, “I’d like to do this” but I was busy with my job.

What did your friends and family think about your decision to attend 42?

My parents don’t really know what this place is, I just told them I am going back to school. Most of my friends thought it was great for me because they knew I always had good analytical and problem-solving skills and wondered why I wasn’t a programmer. 

What was the piscine like?

I thought it was great, it felt like I was on vacation. It was one of the only times in my life I could solely focus on programming and I really enjoyed it. I’m pretty terrible when it comes to academics.  Traditional education didn’t seem to be a good fit for me. The way you had to learn in the piscine was much more my style. It was the perfect atmosphere where everyone is together and doing the same thing, and you can bounce ideas off other people.

What was it like when you received your post-piscine decision email?

There was about a two-week break between finishing the piscine and when I received my acceptance to 42. I was really looking forward to staying in the lab and coding again for 14 hours a day.  During the first week back as a cadet, I almost fell asleep at the wheel driving back home a few times. After that incident, I started leaving the lab before 2 am.

How does the cadet program differ from the piscine?

In the piscine, your projects are due at the end of the day. With the cadet program, you need to be more self-motivated and disciplined because not every deadline is short. The average cadet project will take 1 – 4 weeks, therefore you need to plan more and the rewards come less frequent but in higher amounts.  There’s also more of a feeling of comradery during piscines. In the cadet program you progress at your own pace, but at any one time, there may be only a few people working on the same project. That can make it harder to find people to discuss your work with, but you can subsidize that by asking more senior cadets who may have previously done the project. I am an ask someone first and then Google kind of guy.  So it makes things a little harder for me.

How do you find help with your projects?

They say the second smartest person is the one that sits next to the smartest person. I was really fortunate to have met some really talented and helpful students during my piscine.  I was never stuck on something for too long because of them, and we worked as a group sometimes. When it comes to the pace and material of the piscine, there is no way to finish if you are working on your own because you need to come up with a strategy to complete everything. I am definitely not the strongest programmer so I needed to come up with strategies to mediate that.

What do you like best about 42?

I’ll give a different answer besides the awesome community.

I really like the convenient lifestyle at 42. Dorms are only a 2-minute walk from the lab. The cantina, which offers lunch and dinner, is on the ground floor of the dorm and there is a laundry room on every floor. The lab is open 24/7 making it possible to study on your own schedule. Life’s distractions are gone. For me, the piscine was like that, a month where I could actually spend 14 hours a day coding. Coming from a large city like New York, where the commute is on average 40 minutes each way, and there are even lines for food during lunch and morning coffee, it was a blessing to recapture all that time back.

What is the most challenging aspect?


What do you like to do in the Bay Area?

I love that you can randomly talk to someone, and they’re likely an engineer or doing a startup.  Red Rock Coffee (another great non-profit) in Mountain View is my go-to place.  They also have board game nights there.

What is your dream job?

I want to do research in machine learning.

What is your favorite quote?

“When you can eat plain rice, and it tastes delicious. That’s when you’ve found happiness.”  

Connect with Jun on LinkedIn

Photos by 42’s in-house photographer, Priscilla Vongdara

Interview by: Stacey Faucett