Stephen Tse speaks candidly to Blockleaders about growing up across two continents, his passion for building technology products for the greater benefit of people, and what it is to be a serial entrepreneur.
Stephen Tse has long thought about building technology that can benefit the world. He became curious about programming languages and mathematics at an early age, and now holds a double major in mathematics and computer science, and later earned a PhD in security protocols. It is little wonder that his strength lies in the knowledge of multiple computer languages and cryptography.
Stephen presented himself in a thoughtful and humble manner but this is someone who designed global-scale products for the big players in the technology world. He worked as a senior engineer at Google, for instance, and principal engineer at Apple (to whom he sold his prior start-up). And more recently, Stephen became the founder and CEO of Harmony, a consensus protocol that intends to be decentralized, secure, and scalable for billions of people.
On moving to Canada
1997 was a momentous year for Hong Kong, as this was the year that the territory finally obtained its independence, after 156 years of British rule.
And 1997 was a pivotal moment in the life of China-born Stephen Tse, as this was the year when Stephen and his family moved to Vancouver in Canada.
"I went to school and high school in Hong Kong, and started my pursuit of science and math. Then, my family moved to Vancouver and I did my college degree there.
"My family had read that Vancouver was one of the best areas in the world for a variety of reasons. So our entire family, including my three brothers, moved there. We found it very easy to access sport programs and a much better education system.
“Adapting to a new country, language and culture helped me realize that a person can really thrive in a new context by keeping an open mind and working constantly to improve oneself.”
Stephen defines himself as a serial entrepreneur. He has founded or been involved in a number of start-up projects and initiatives over the years. I was interested to hear more about this aspect of his career.
"I'll give you a bit of background about my family. My parents were working as pig farmers in Hong Kong. So growing up there, I knew that life was all about hard work, and freedom comes from working for yourself.
"I see entrepreneurship as finding what the market needs. As entrepreneurs, we talk a lot of product marketing, for instance. That's essentially what entrepreneurship means for me, to identify any market needs and design a product that matches these needs.
"In China, for instance, the market is so big, there are a lot of opportunities there. That's why entrepreneurs are very, very keen to explore that market."
On cryptographic security
Stephen specialized in the field of formal verification. He graduated with a Ph.D. in security protocols at the University of Pennsylvania and wrote a doctoral thesis on the subject. These credentials make Stephen an authority on topics including compilers and I wanted to know from him more about how blockchain and security worked together.
"When I went to college in Canada, I hoped to take four majors: Philosophy, Math, Physics, and Computer Science. I dropped out of Philosophy after the first quarter because I focused all of my mental energy on analytical and mathematical problems that I didn’t reserve bandwidth for writing words. I guess I choose to write elegant code over elegant words. I also had to let Physics go, as I just didn't have the time to do all the lab work, because Math and Computer Science took all of my time.
"I really like Math anyway, so it was easy for me to study Algebra, Geometry, etc. I also got the chance to study security protocols that used cryptography, which would become some of the fundamental concepts for my later work and research in the blockchain space."
The sense of community is strong in the blockchain space. Most successful projects have a thriving group of developers and enthusiasts who give technical feedback and build their own ideas on top of the base layer.
So it is of the utmost importance to ensure that an engaged community is growing alongside the development of any blockchain-related project.
"At Harmony, we started off with a very small community. It was just a couple of founders, including myself. Before we even started working together, we'd meet once a week to talk about our ideas, goals, and what we wanted to achieve. The founding team of Harmony all met through this small but powerful group, so we know the value of building a genuine community, and have experience doing it.
"Our team members have traveled extensively across Europe, North America, and Asia, so we appreciate the value of different communities and different opportunities. And I don't mean just direct business opportunities. Just the simple opportunities for good conversations too can lead to identifying market gaps for entrepreneurs to contribute solutions to.”
Sometimes, all it takes is one voice to change the course of an entire project. Stephen spoke about how someone's feedback changed the vision for his current work. This would become a pivotal moment in his career, as paying attention to good feedback enabled Stephen to discover the true potential of blockchain tech.
"A bunch of us ex-Googlers came together to build a machine learning community that we called TGI-ML (Thank God It’s Machine Learning). This evolved and grew into our weekly community gatherings for founders and collaborators to give each other inspiration.
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"Around 2016. We had been looking at different markets to apply machine learning to tackle, but we had also been hearing a lot more about the emerging field of blockchain. At first, we all thought that it was just a 'craze', and that it would die down eventually.
"But a friend of mine, with whom I had played basketball, was involved in the TGI community and he just kept talking about blockchain. He made many good points every week. This friend managed to change the course of our project, and many of us too in the process. Because of his insights and sheer persistence, our community began to pursue ideas not only in machine learning, but also in blockchain.
"This event spurred me to began researching deeply into blockchain and consensus protocols."
On Voice AI and how a Hollywood film brought inspiration to the project
Artificial Intelligence will likely become an integral part of technological products over the next decade. We have already seen AI routines being integrated into anything from online marketplaces to e-learning tools, gaming, and autonomous vehicles.
Prior to Harmony, Stephen designed Voice AI, a voice companion project. This got me intrigued to find out more about it, and I realized that the inspiration for this particular idea came from an unlikely source.
“Voice AI was something I had been thinking about for a long time. I was working at Apple when I first thought deeply about the idea. Because Apple deals with millions of users, we needed to use machine learning to work with the data generated by these users. This got me thinking about other applications of machine learning.
"And what happened was, I watched a movie called Her. It is a science fiction movie, highlighting the magic of human relationships.
"A friend of mine and I both love watching Her, over and over again. We must have watched it about 20 times. The movie got us thinking about speech recognition, speech synthesis, language processing, all those aspects normally associated with human interactions.
"We tried different business models for Voice AI, but in the end it didn't scale into a company. It was a hard lesson on the challenges of tackling opportunities in the machine learning space.”
The thread led to an interesting part of the conversation, where we discussed a possible future with AI co-existing with mankind.
"I do believe that AI is a natural progression of technology. It really is about us (people) learning how to use it.
"A lot of jobs will become automated, which will enable people to have the time and freedom to be more creative. It will be the ultimate test for what it means to be human.
"Robots are beginning to be a relatively commonplace presence. You can find them serving at restaurants now and we see entirely automated coffee shops and stores coming up.
"Right now, so much entertainment, knowledge, education, and tools for starting a business for yourself are made possible because of AI. AI enables us to be creative, and to be entertained.”
Connecting with people
People are at the heart of communities, and communities are at the heart of blockchain projects. So a clear and effective strategy for connecting with people is essential for success. Everyone connects with people in different ways, and I wanted to know how Stephen did so.
“Harmony is a high-performance blockchain project and, for me, the most important part is the human side. Talking to people and aligning strategies is much more powerful than what you can accomplish alone.
"I was an engineer before, and you can get really busy. So you'd think 'don't talk to me for the whole day, I'm working on this thing'. Basically, heads down looking at your computer, and that was it.
"But I find that if you wish to have a successful project, it is essential that you broadcast yourself. In other words, send a message to people, and make it resonate.
“As a team, we are energized about our vision and execution today because we are able to communicate so directly and work together in unison. Not only have we put together a team of super individuals, but we are running in sync to unleash our collective greater potential.
“We are beginning our journey. Join our community, reach out to our team, give us your insights, and help make open consensus for 10 billion people a future we share.”