Meet The Disruptors Interview: Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
Meet The Disruptors: Chris Sachs Of Nstream On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
In partnership and reprinted from Authority Magazine.
“The things you expect to be difficult will be easy, and the things you expect to be easy will be difficult.”
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Sachs. Chris Sachs is the founder and CTO of Nstream, and the creator of SwimOS: the first full-stack, open-source platform for end-to-end streaming applications. Chris excels at building vertically integrated software stacks from first principles. Leveraging the power of design thinking, Chris strives to solve deep technical problems for the benefit of humans. Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Let me start by sharing a personal point of reference. I have poor eyesight, and because of that, I had to find solutions to unique challenges from an early age. I was unable to read standard textbooks, so I taught myself to read by cutting up textbooks and scanning them page by page so I could more easily view them.
This grew into a deep dislike of artificial complexity — in college, I read different books about databases, filesystems, and network stacks, and I would think, “These are 90% the same!”
Fast forward to my career life, and there’s so much needless complexity in modern software stacks, which is debilitating to certain kinds of innovation and progress. I decided to try to reset the complexity equation by developing a vertically integrated software stack, built from first principles to meet the needs of modern, distributed, autonomous, intelligent, real-time applications. So that’s what I did.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
We’re upgrading the fundamental capabilities of web applications to make them pervasively real-time and streaming. The world wide web was built for documents — Tim Berners Lee developed it to exchange research papers between CERN in Switzerland and Stanford in California. How far we’ve been able to take it since then is a testament to the brilliance of the web. But not everything is a document. And the web really struggles with application and data models that aren’t well-represented by documents. A connected car is not a document. AI is not a document. You are not a document. At Nstream, we turn every passive Web Resource into an actively computing Web Agent that integrates seamlessly into the existing web. But we added the ability to have stateful, streaming conversations with any Web Agent instead of being limited to checking out documents from a big distributed library.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We developed the bulk of our core technology within about six months of starting the company. After we built the core platform, we started building demo applications to show off the platform’s capabilities. The demo apps were so cool that we got sidetracked trying to productize the particular use cases we demoed, instead of staying focused on our core competence — building and supporting the platform. To this day, I still get a little heartburn when one of our engineers comes up with a cool new demo in their spare time! Focus is doubly difficult when you’re having fun.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I remember my Dad showing me an early web browser in the early 1990s. He was geeking out about how cool it was, and I remember him saying to me, “And this is just the first version!” We spent a lot of time pondering the future of technology and humanity. He didn’t just like talking about it, though, he did something about it. He started a company in the late 1990s and developed the first electronic book. As a teenager, I was fortunate to see firsthand how incredibly difficult and taxing starting a company is, but also how rewarding the experience is to organize a group of people to do something meaningful and new.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
It’s important to avoid thinking unidirectionally. Assumptions constantly change. Requirements constantly evolve. I think disruption is generally good when an industry is unable to shift its assumptions to meet an emerging need. But disruption shouldn’t be the goal in and of itself. If disruption becomes the goal, it’s always easier to tear down the status quo to try to make yourself look better by comparison; this is not productive. Healthy disruption emerges as a consequence of building people and industries up in a way that overcomes artificial barriers.
Can you share five of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
“Ideas are a dime a dozen; it’s usually the execution that matters.”
I was given this advice when I was about 20, after giving a potential angel investor an overly zealous, idea-heavy pitch. This was a major bummer to me, as it disrupted my own idealized view of what it would take to be successful. It’s easy to dream big. It’s much more difficult to turn dreams into reality. Work is hard. Creation is hard. It takes grit and stamina. It’s uncomfortable. We all wish that manifesting change wasn’t so difficult. And it’s easy to become cynical when confronted with the reality that not everything in life is up to you, and you might not succeed at what you set out to do. I’m grateful to have been persuaded to embrace these struggles and the vulnerability that accompanies them. To be liberated from the entitlement that can arise from being told you’re smart.
“Design is a method, not an outcome. Like Science, Design is a methodical process for determining what works for humans. Apply design principles everywhere.” Design thinking keeps your focus grounded in what really matters to real people. It’s an inoculation against pursuing technology for technology’s sake, or for pursuing disruption for disruption’s sake. We create technology to better the lives of people. We build companies to serve people. Not vice versa. Without a methodical approach to keep these goals front and center, they can quickly get lost in pursuit of “optimization”. Everything we do should be traceable back to its benefits for people. This is the ethos of Design.
“Starting a company is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss.”
I remember thinking to myself, “That doesn’t sound so bad.” It really is that bad. Exercise your pain tolerance to strengthen it, if you’re thinking about starting a company.
“The things you expect to be difficult will be easy, and the things you expect to be easy will be difficult.”
You prepare for what you expect to be difficult, which is why they often seem easier than you expect. You’re less prepared for what you don’t think you need to prepare for, which is why supposedly easy tasks often turn out to be the most grueling. You have to stay on your toes and be ready to shift your attention to where it’s needed most, without losing focus in the process.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
There’s a lot more about how technological civilization operates that can be automated and made more efficient. Prior to starting Nstream, I developed software to intelligently control thousands of internet-connected smart lights. We were able to cut real-world energy use in half simply by deploying a software update to the cloud that enabled the lights to “see” through each other’s sensors, and coordinate their actions in real-time. The lights themselves didn’t get any smarter. What we did was create a simulated world in the cloud in which virtual representations of the lights freely collaborated, then we translated the actions of the virtual lights to commands for the real lights to follow. This experience opened my eyes to the idea that we can blend real and virtual worlds together in ways that can be immensely beneficial for society and for the environment. I want to use virtual worlds to make the real world more sustainable.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
Dr. Robert Zubrin, the President of the Mars Society, has a great five-minute video on YouTube answering the question, “Why Mars?” In it, Zubrin describes how societies — like people — grow when challenged and stagnate when not. It’s a concise and inspiring reminder that we’re still at the beginning of history, not at the end, as it often feels when you watch the news.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do” — Steve Jobs, Think Different commercial. I’ve always been struck by just how different entrepreneurs are from each other. Jobs, Gates, and Musk are each so radically different. What they have in common isn’t their background, education, or status — it’s that they’re each crazy enough to think they can change the world, and they did.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think humanity needs a frontier. For example, a human mission to Mars would do the most amount of good, for the most amount of people, of anything within our reach. Most of our problems are not technical but cultural and psychological. I view cynicism about the future as the greatest threat to human well-being. When we believe that the future is bright and open, we work together to improve our collective lot in life. We fight and oppress each other when we believe that the future is finite and diminishing. The biggest barrier to addressing climate change is the cynical and false belief that humans are a parasite on the Earth. I believe that human exploration of Mars would snap humanity out of this dissonant rut and uncork the dam of cynicism and anti-humanism that prevents us from solving our myriad other problems. The cost of the program is minuscule compared to the benefits of that outcome.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!