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Data Sheet—What’s Next for the Guy Who Told Mark Zuckerberg Not to Drop Out of Harvard

February 21, 2019, 1:09 PM UTC

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There are plenty of different career paths, some more stable than others. I have one lawyer friend who’s had the same work phone number since the early 1990s. Others have taken more varied routes. On Wednesday, I interviewed software engineer Matt Welsh, who is about to make the sort of career jump that many of us wouldn’t, even if we had the financial security. But then he’s done it before.

It’s been almost a decade since Welsh left behind a tenured professorship in computer science at Harvard so he could join Google, at the time a very successful company—though not yet a titan of the tech scene. Best known for his work designing tiny, wirelessly-connected computing devices (like these sensors he helped build and then place on a volcano in Ecuador), Welsh was on sabbatical when he got the corporate itch. Google was trying to solve some big problems—really big problems—like getting the next billion people connected to the Internet. And they were thinking about doing it with new software that could run on small, cheap, wirelessly-connected devices. Ultimately, Welsh helped develop a version of the Chrome browser to run on low-end phones and sip data on slower wireless networks in rural areas and developing nations.

But Chrome for Android is now a mature product and heading a big team on a long-established product at a big company isn’t exactly being on the cutting edge. “I felt like I wasn’t learning or stretching myself as much,” Welsh says. “I thought, maybe I’ll check out the local tech scene,” with “local” in this case being the Seattle area where Welsh lives.

The startup bug can bite at any time, as Welsh well knows. Focused on academia earlier in his career, Welsh turned down an initial offer to join Google back in 2002. Just a couple of years later, a smart student named Mark Zuckerberg was in one of his classes. Welsh tried to talk Zuck out of quitting school since he thought the idea for a social network was too similar to MySpace and Friendster. And Welsh turned down a later job offer from Facebook early in its development. It wasn’t until 2010 that he made the jump to Google.

Welsh’s recent restlessness connected him with startup, spun out on its own from the Paul Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence about three years ago and looking to hire a principal engineer. The company is creating A.I. and machine learning programs to run on cheaper, simpler hardware. That is close to the heart of Welsh’s speciality and sounded like a challenge worth pursuing. “It’s not just turning the crank on an existing technology,” he explains.

Among other implications, XNOR’s tech could mean less Big Brother if more A.I. apps could run independently on a user’s own hardware, without sending all their data to the cloud for processing. Welsh participated in the debate over A.I. at Google (and signed the letter last year seeking more transparency), though he says that’s not at all why he’s leaving the company. “I’m going to bring that sense of what’s important to XNOR,” he says. Admittedly, after more than eight years at Google, he can afford to take a risk. But it also sounds like a risk worth taking.

Aaron Pressman


Shiny new things. If you're on the Android side of things, Samsung unveiled a handful of new phones on Wednesday in San Francisco, including a $2,000 model with a 7-inch, folding screen. In its more mainstream Galaxy S line, Samsung offered three models of S10, ranging in price from $750 to well over $1,000. Sounds like a familiar strategy (but they might want to consult with Tim Cook about how that turned out for Apple last year). Oh, and there will be a 5G version of the Galaxy S10 later this year, too.

Stop following me around. Speaking of Facebook, the company is finally adding a setting to allow users of its Android app to opt out partially from location tracking, as iPhone users have previously been allowed to do. And non-advice taker from Professor Welsh Mark Zuckerberg is meeting on Thursday with Britain's Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright to discuss regulatory issues as that country moves ahead with new rules for online companies. And speaking of Zuckerberg at Harvard, the university also posted an interesting summary of the CEO's return for a public conversation last week with students and faculty at Harvard Law School.

Drag race. No. 2 ride sharing startup Lyft is looking to be No. 1 in the stock market. The company is preparing to list its shares in late March or early April, seemingly beating larger rival Uber to the initial public offering destination.

Failing, again. Did we learn anything from the attacks on the 2016 election? An investigation by Politico finds a massive disinformation campaign already gearing up against 2020 candidates with all the tell-tale signs of "foreign state actors" behind the scenes. In other scary security news, researchers have found serious vulnerabilities in password manager apps on Windows computers. Yikes.

Lifting the covers. The so-far secretive effort to revamp health care insurance that's backed by Amazon, JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway revealed some details as part of court case in Boston. Chief Operating Officer Jack Stoddard says early tests will focus on making primary care more accessible and lowering the price of drugs for chronic conditions.


With the streaming video wars seeming to escalate daily, the decision by Netflix to stop producing a whole line of its original programming seems puzzling. But the company's mass dumping of shows linked to Marvel comic book characters starts to make sense when one remembers that Disney bought Marvel, and Disney is planning its own Netflix rival service and...Lesley Goldberg at the Hollywood Reporter has many more thoughts on what the move means. And there's probably lots more conflict ahead, Goldberg writes:

In short, it's easy to say that Netflix canceled its Marvel fare because of economics, the answer is much more complex than simple ownership as Disney and Netflix have not exactly been good bedfellows in the past year. So while Marvel may have been caught, at least partially, in the crossfire, media titans like Warners and Comcast may very well be next when it comes to pulling their respective content from Netflix as the new (streaming) world order takes over.


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This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.