As part of my series about “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Lane, Chief Technology Officer at Tanjo AI.
As a teenager in Durham, NC in the 1970s, Ken Lane was doing diamond-based semiconductor fabrication during his summer breaks, and spent his free time developing computer games on his home computer system. After graduating high school, he entered Davidson College as a National Merit Scholar and quickly placed out of every computer science course the college had, so pivoted to Biology and Neural Simulation. That degree led him to fieldwork in statistics, tracking dolphin populations in the gulf of Baja, Mexico, laboratory brain surgery and a year working as an stock market analyst in London. After college, he travelled west where he grew a pony tail and started a computer business out of his garage, as is compulsory in California. He sold Virtual Alchemy, a “serious games” video game company to a North Carolina firm that moved him back home. That group expanded and was later acquired by Lockheed Martin. At Lockheed Martin, Lane won the technologist of the year and built 3D interactive training for the military, healthcare and the power industry. This journey has fostered in him a lifelong commitment to optimize instruction and workflows by enhancing the activity of people using the newest artificial intelligence advances in machine learning, which is his passion and mission today, as CTO at Tanjo, Ai.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
This is the story of a geek who learned acting and ditched school for a year. As a kid, I was that hyper-nerd who won science fairs and got an internship at 15 helping make diamond semiconductors. It all seemed pretty normal to me at the time. I grew up with the “internet” in the late 70s using my Dad’s work terminal so I could play Adventure and other text games on machines around the country. Then I started making my own little games with BASIC & Pascal and I was hooked on the puzzle of making code. From there I kept laddering up through school and jobs doing physics image analysis, database stuff, neural networks, simulation, computer graphics, serious games, and now AI websites. I guess I like complicated stuff.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Well, as is required by law in California when you have a garage, I grew a ponytail and started a company in it. Once we got big enough to get an office, I let three different folks live in there. I learned three times that stuffing someone in your garage doesn’t work out very well — — not great for anybody. Just adding a “nap-o’clock” room at the new office helped immensely.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I really got into Frank Herbert’s Dune books. Lots of ponderables for my teenage brain. It taught me to look at life and later work from a distant arc of history. I also got on a kick of training myself, honing my skills, always improving. Heck, you never know when a planet teeming with building-sized sandworms will need a leader!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Pretty simple… Create cool, helpful stuff, solve people’s problems, and keep learning in the process.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Always be kind and assume kindness was meant. There is no benefit to wrangling and fighting through the rocket science of selling and building incredibly complicated tech. Most folks respond well to being treated with kind respect. The ones who don’t, I “translate” what they meant to say to realign a better tone and angle whenever I can.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Well, our kids are full-time virtual now and I’ve had a couple Covid scares in my close family. And my office is the area just in front of a space heater in my basement. I suppose overall, I try to force my own enthusiasm for new challenges, new puzzles. I am crazy thankful that I get to wake up and write code that could help so many people and be near to my family while I do it.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Some of the biggest challenges come from finding customers that are in good enough shape to spend money on enterprise software.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
You should always focus on building your own “beautiful bubble.” You can’t control everything, but you can build a life that is fulfilling, and a community that is supportive.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Remote work will make software even more important.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Generally, remote work will be more accepted. That will have a lot of knock-on effects.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Focus on customers that are in good enough shape to still be customers post-pandemic.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Explore newfound opportunities from the new wave of remote work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
- Frank Herbet’s Dune
I used this one to crush anxiety out of myself, in the choices I make, and talking to large groups of people.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Check out tanjo.ai, or follow me on LinkedIn.