Could you tell us about yourself? What inspired you to attend Cornell?
My name is Keivan Shahida. I’m from New York, and I wanted to attend Cornell because I was looking for schools with strong Computer Science programs. I wasn’t looking for just that, as I was also interested in schools that had a strong focus in entrepreneurship and where those programs were really growing -- because in high school one of the things I was introduced to that I really enjoyed was product development: building apps (mobile app, web app, or a physical product). I always thought that was super interesting, so I wanted to go to a school where it wasn’t just theory. I wanted a school where it was actually applied as well.
We saw that you’re currently a member of Cornell AppDev. Could you tell us more about your work?
On AppDev, I am the product lead, so I oversee the five different products we’re working on now. First, there’s Eatery, which is used by a few thousand students everyday to find out where they want to eat. There’s Ithaca Transit, which is also used by a few thousand students to go to class or to work. Uplift is used for finding fitness classes and how busy the gyms are on campus. There’s also Pollo, which is an iClicker replacement they’re working on. Lastly, there is this mobile ordering app we’re building for Chatty Cathy, a small acai bowl business here in Ithaca.
What motivated you to begin your career as an app developer and decide to do Computer Science?
Fortunately, growing up, the school that I was a part of had computer science courses in middle school, so I was introduced to computer science through that. What really got me interested was when I attended this program called “Make School,” which was this eight-week long summer program that took you from essentially knowing nothing about building apps to eventually launching an app on the App Store. That was my first taste of product development and launching a product. I got to build this app that was basically a game. It was a super simple game--I launched it on the app store and then it became a “Top 100 Free Sports Game”, so that was a super cool experience for me. In the process, because Make School is funded by Y Combinator, a top start-up incubator and accelerator, I got to meet a lot of interesting people that got me into entrepreneurship. I got to meet the founder of Reddit and spend the afternoon with him, as well as get to know the founders of Codecademy. At the time, I had no clue who these people were, but it was exciting to hear about how - from their computers - they were able to build something that then was used by millions of people.
What made you decide to try “Make School”?
I was looking for a program in New York City just for the summer because I was interested in app development. There weren’t any programs for people my age, as most of them were for students attending college and beyond. Make School was actually for these older college students, but they allowed me to attend, as I wanted to apply my skills further.
Seeing that you applied to LaunchX twice to get in, what have you learned from initially being rejected and how has that shaped your work ethic and motivations moving forward?
I applied to MIT Launch that same summer I went to Make School; although I didn’t get in, I took it as an opportunity to sit down and work on projects that were meaningful to me and develop my skills in product development and computer science. What ended up happening was that when I applied the next year, I was able to show that I hadn’t been sitting around. I was able to apply and say, “Here's everything I’ve done in the meantime.” It showed that I was willing to not just sit around but actually keep pursuing my interests with or without the program. Now, I want to learn how to build these products that are actually viable - I don’t want to just build games, I want to build things that actually deliver value to be and can be used by people around the world.
Given that your startup has been in the works and has garnered some attention from within the Cornell community and beyond, could you tell us a little more about your startup?
We’ve been working on this project called “Response,” which is a web application that automates purchasing for non-profit procurement teams -- so the idea is that whenever someone in the field needs to purchase something, Response makes it easier for them. Right now, there is this very tedious and manual labor-heavy process in which they have to write up these very specific technical contracts. They have to post those contracts publicly for suppliers to bid on, and most of the bid collection is done through email and paper. These NGOs, non governmental organizations, and non-profits often have to hire data clerks to essentially translate information from PDFs to Excel spreadsheets for evaluation, so you end up with this long and tedious, and quite frankly, antiquated process that actually lends itself to being heavily automated. So we’ve been working on this web application. We joined eLab last semester, and eLab requires that we do over 70 customer interviews, and one of the main challenges we face is that our customers are all over the world. Because of that, we’ve spoken to people in over 40 countries. Whenever we are on the phone with someone, they come from a new country, and it was really difficult to get ahold of these people for interviews about halfway through the semester. We kept telling ourselves that we were not going to be able to hit 70, so we had to sit down and reevaluate. The only way for us to get 70 interviews was to go to a conference specifically for humanitarian aid and relief. We found this conference in Brussels, Belgium, and one of our mentors in the Johnson School told us was that the school was initially only sending one person. Our mentor advised us and gave us a strategy. He told us to overshoot and make people say no at first. After that, we would backtrack from there to ask for the most ideal situation possible. Our “overshoot and backtrack” strategy led us to sending the entire team to Brussels, free of cost. The head of eLab just forwarded it to reimbursement, and we ended up doing over a hundred interviews by the end of the semester.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in founding your startup? Furthermore, as a full time student, how do you balance school-work with your pursuits outside of the classroom?
The main thing I’ve been doing is trying to make sure that everything is complementary. For example, the classes I’m taking are very similar to what I’m working for in Response and AppDev. I can take advantage of a lot of different resources to learn different skills I might need. For example, I knew nothing about back-end development for software engineering, so this semester, I decided to join the back-end team for AppDev. Now, I’m developing that skill set that I can use for building that component within Response. As for Response, we treat aspects of our project almost like a class. We meet every day from 4 - 7 PM, so that creates a solid work session to do a lot of work.
As the Product Lead for Cornell AppDev, you’ve helped develop several successful apps -- are there any notable leadership skills that are vital to the success of your team and ultimately yourself?
One of the biggest takeaways is that when you’re in a position of leadership, you are a servant of the people. Your job is to be there for them and to help them with anything they need, and that’s something that wasn’t intuitive when I was first introduced to these leadership roles. Because everyone says “you have to be a strong leader, and you have to tell people what direction they need to be going in.” The reality is though that a lot of people have the answers, and your job as a leader though is to help them realize what those answers are. It’s your job to be more like a sounding board, as someone that's there for them and making sure that they can always openly communicate with you. One of the biggest problems that was coming up when I was first taking on leadership roles was I thought that you have to lead everyone. Once you start to say it's my way or the highway, people don’t necessarily talk about the risks they are facing or potential roadblocks, and they are not as open. This is because they are afraid it doesn’t align with the things you think should be done, and at the end of the day, it’s counter-productive because you set these goals, but you don’t know what's going on behind the scenes -- so there is a total misalignment
How do you accept feedback and other commentary, and go about incorporating input into product development or software updates?
We’ve been really systematic about how we do this, and there a few different resources we’ve been using for our overarching process. One is a book called “Discipline Entrepreneurship.” It’s written by the Managing Director of the MIT center for entrepreneurship, and other books we’re using are the “Lean Product Playbook” and “Running Lean.” Basically, these books are a framework for how can you set up tests for a key hypothesis that you have, take input, and objectively look at that input and say “okay, do we have an answer to this question?” When we did those 100 interviews, we were very methodical about having Google Forms with the same set of questions, and then every 10-15 interviews, we updated our form based on which questions were answered and which need to be answered. Each piece of evidence from these interviews gets tagged and documented and gets implemented into an equation. We could actually calculate at the end of the semester, based on many factors, what the biggest pain points nonprofits and suppliers are facing in procurement. It was a very data driven process in terms of how we approach in a way that’s as objective and actionable as possible.
These people had very limited time, and we had to be aware of that. It was not uncommon for us to reach out to someone and then say -- “sorry, I have to deal with an Ebola outbreak and can get back to you in a week, but send me the questions.” It’s crazy. We’ve spoken to people in regions of the world with malaria, drought, famine, civil wars -- it’s been crazy for us because we are very removed from the emotional aspect. At the same time, it makes us realize that all this is happening on in the same world we live in. That's been the most fascinating thing, and the stories these people tell us are out of this world.
Favorite thing to do at Cornell:
I love running. I used to run alone, but recently I used the Nike Running Club App -- all of a sudden there is a leaderboard within the app. Now, we created a group, and there is like 20 of us running and competing.