26: Data Scientist & YouTuber Siraj Raval | Believe You’re Awesome, Even When Nobody Else Does
It was such a pleasure to have my friend Siraj Raval come on The Lavendaire Lifestyle. Siraj Raval is a data scientist, best-selling author, and YouTube star who's on a warpath to inspire and educate developers to build artificial intelligence.
Siraj will inspire you to go after your dreams, even when no one else believes in you. You might even get inspired to learn more about coding and artificial intelligence—and how this knowledge can truly shape our future. [Full transcript below]
Links: Siraj Raval
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Welcome to the Lavendaire Lifestyle, the podcast on lifestyle design for millennials. I'm Aileen and I'm here to guide you to become a master artist of life. Every Sunday you'll get new insight and inspiration on how to create your dream life. After the episode, the conversation continues in our Lavendaire Lifestyle Facebook group, so I can't wait to see you there. Life is an art, make it your masterpiece.
Aileen: Hi everyone. It’s Aileen. Welcome back to the Lavendaire Lifestyle. Today I am so, so excited to have my friend, Siraj Raval. Let me read his bio and then I'll bring him in. Siraj Raval is a data scientist, best-selling author, and YouTube star who's on a warpath to inspire and educate developers to build artificial intelligence. He'll teach you how to make games, music, chatbots, self-driving cars, and much more.
Me and Siraj met at YouTube NextUp which was basically a weeklong creator camp at YouTube Space LA. He's such a cool guy. First of all, he has a great personality. And second of all, he is so smart and he works so hard on everything he does online so I'm so excited for you guys to meet him through this podcast, so hi Siraj.
Siraj: Hi, hi everybody. Aileen is also awesome. We’re just awesome together. That was a great time at YouTube. I'm excited to be here.
A: I know, that was so much fun.
S: So much fun.
A: So let's talk about your background so they kind of get a gist of who you are. I mean, I don't know much about your background too. Can you talk about your life before YouTube?
S: Totally. I was born in Houston, Texas to immigrant parents from India, and it was–yeah, eighteen years in Houston. I could not wait to get out of there. I was like, “Man, this place is boring and racist,” so you know, I just kept my head down.
And I was like, “I gotta go to school,” so I went to school in New York at Columbia. I spent a couple years there. And then I moved to San Francisco. I started doing some contract work and full-time jobs, and eventually I started my YouTube channel about a year ago. That's like the highest level.
A: That was a real quick background. First of all, what did you study at Columbia, and what jobs did you have?
S: Here's how it went down. When I went to Columbia, when I was eighteen, all I cared about was making money because my parents never had money. I was focused on money so I was a finance major, and I wanted to be an investment banker. But then, what happened was: I got suspended when I was a freshman for stealing a laptop.
A: No, you didn't.
S: I swear. It was first semester, and yeah, no I stole it. So I got suspended for a semester for doing that. Then I–for that semester I couch-surfed around Europe for three and a half months. It was pretty, borderline homeless. Couch-surfing in Europe.
A: That's crazy. I mean, first of all, your parents let you go to Europe after you got suspended?
S: No, they definitely–definitely not. The whole story about my parents is–I am, if you look at me as an Asian American, an Indian American kid, I'm like the worst child that an Asian parent could have because I don't listen to anything they say. They said, “Don't go to Europe.” They said, “Don't date White girls.” They said, “You have to get a PhD.” They said, “You have to live near us in Houston. You can't go far.” I just did exactly whatever I wanted and that's kind of why I feel like I'm feeling success right now.
A: Did you always have that inner compass? Like, “I know what I'm gonna do. I'm just gonna do it.”
S: Yeah, pretty much. Pretty much, yeah. And at first, I always felt guilty and I felt bad about it. Like this is not what you're supposed to do. Look at what everybody else is doing. Don't you want to be a good kid like this other Indian kid? My parents would always compare me to all of these other Indian kids in school, and all the grades they made and stuff. Part of it was good because it helped me study and get the grades necessary to go to school at Columbia, but most of it was just like, “I don't need this.” You know what I'm saying? I had idols growing up and I think my idols got me through all the bad times. I always idolized Walt Disney, and I idolized all these great people in the world. And okay, there's actually the thing I want to say: when I was 18 years old, I legally changed my name to Jason Scott Raval.
S: I changed it on my passport. I changed it on my social security card. I changed it on everything because I always wanted to do great things. And I felt like, when I was eighteen, growing up in Houston, TX, the only way to do great things was to anglicize your name to be White. I wanted that privilege. I wanted to be able to do great things without it being like, “Oh, this Indian guy did it.” I wanted it to be “Siraj did it.” Not ‘Siraj', obviously, but–
A: Jason Scott.
S: So I went by that name for three years in college. I tried to completely change my personality, you know. I didn't want anybody to know anything about me. In fact, I even told people, “Yeah, I'm half Italian.” You know what I mean? So I had a lot of self hate. I had a lot of self hate.
A: And that's something that's pretty common. I wouldn't say super common, but I know of a couple people who've done that, Asian Americans who've changed their name from something Asian-sounding to like ‘Jay Cameron'. That's my friend, he changed to that name.
S: Oh, really?
A: Yeah, he went from ‘Toan', which is a Vietnamese-ish name, to ‘Jay Cameron' and it got him better jobs in finance.
A: And it's a thing, you know? Yeah, I understand. It's very interesting.
S: Yeah, for sure. I legally changed it back a couple years ago.
A: Oh, okay. So let's talk about your YouTube channel. What made you start your channel? You were working at a job doing computer science, right? Let's talk about that transition.
S: Yeah, when I was in–I was looking for jobs. I got rejected by so many jobs because I was applying to the wrong position. I was applying to a specific role called ‘iOS Engineering', making iPhone apps. But I didn't really care about it. You can really tell on my face if I don't like something, and I think the interviewers could always tell like, “This guy's not that interested. Let's not hire him.”
But then I applied to Twilio as a different role when I was so fed up. I was like, “I'm going to apply as a Developer Educator.” Turns out that was the role that I was best at, educating other developers. So I got that role, and I worked there for eight months. It was a great team, great people. I learned so much from them, and then I was fired because–well, there were two reasons. One is because I started my YouTube channel on the side while I was there, and it was really affecting my performance. And they gave me some warnings like, “Listen. You know, we know you're a passionate guy, whatever. But you gotta focus on the work.” And I was like–you know, I tried to. But I just loved doing the YouTube channel. And I also tried to get them to make more developer videos but they didn't believe that developers watched videos. Can you believe that?
A: Then how did they learn?
S: By my success right now! They were like, “We don't even need this guy. Fire him, whatever. We'll get someone who's focusing on the writing, not the videos. This is not–Developers don't watch videos.” Literally my boss, my boss's boss, they all told me this. And they didn't let me speak at the conference that everybody else got to speak at. They didn't think I was a good enough public speaker. So you know, as some rappers would say, “Look at me now, I'm getting paper.” That's the whole story.
A: So now are you not friends with anyone? You're like, “Take that.”
S: Well, I have maintained professional relationships with people there.
A: Okay, that's great. Well, you didn't really talk about what sparked how you started your channel. Was it because you were so interested at that job? You're like, “Oh wait, I want to do this on my own.”? What made you really start?
S: Well, my boss there really showed me that developer education was a craft in and of itself. This is an actual skillset, being able to communicate technology is a very unique skillset, and it's an emerging skillset as well. And as technology propagates through our industry, everything, it's going to become more and more important. Basically, he was my inspiration to realize, “Hey, this is a thing. Hey, I'm good at this. Let me try to–what is a good medium for showing this?” And I found YouTube. I thought YouTube would be that medium.
So I started making some videos at Twilio. I would spend my nights there, and I remember, basically the Hagrid of Twilio, the groundskeeper dude, he would always see me in the conference rooms. And I had this hacked-together green screen and lights. He's like, “What are you doing here? It's midnight on a Saturday.” I'm just like, “No, no, no. I'm just making a video.” He's like, “…this weird kid.” Whatever.
A: That's the life.
S: It's the life, right?
A: Okay, so I want to talk about your videos because, anyone out there listening, you do have to check out Siraj's channel. I'll post the link on the show notes and stuff. Basically, for example: I watched your latest one, “How to Make an Image Classifier“, and just the amount of work you put into your videos is crazy.
First, you have so much technical research and knowledge behind it. Then you have to write a script. Then you have a mini-rap in your videos. Then you put a bunch of memes and montages of different clips of different places. You're putting so much together and–oh yeah, then you have to actually teach us how to code. It's a lot. So what's your process? How do you handle that?
S: First of all, I really appreciate you watching my videos. Thank you so much. I'm one of those–I notice none of the other YouTubers post their videos on their newsfeed, but I don't give a–I just post it. So I really appreciate it. I've been doing it–I release one weekly video every week and I've been doing that for about a year now. And I notice myself getting better and better every time. What I try to do is challenge myself. What is something–so I don't get bored, right? If it's too easy to make, I'll start getting bored.
My initial videos were just me coding. There wasn't much. How can I make this more interesting? Then I started adding in skits. I said, “How can I make this more interesting? Let me start adding in intros, different things.” Then, one thing I was most afraid of doing, which really made me realize this bigger realization, was adding the raps to the videos because no one does that. You know what I mean? No one does that. No one raps about something as complex as dimensionality reduction, and it was so–the audience was–I didn’t even–they were just blown away. What happened was: when I started rapping, that's when my channel started blowing up. So I realized, you gotta do what only you can do. You have a very unique skillset. All of you watching this: you have a very unique skillset. You probably don't even realize, but when you find a way to put all of those pieces together in a way no one else does, you will find success.
A: Yes. Oh my god, that's exactly what I was trying to get at because it seems like you really use all of your gifts, and you bring in all of your personality, all of your music tastes, your communication skills, plus your knowledge of this coding stuff. Everything is used. It's super cool to be able to see you use everything that you have. I think that's the goal that everyone should aim for, right?
A: Put all of you into your work. Another question I want to ask is: all of the stuff that you're teaching, is it stuff that you already know and you're teaching it? Or do you actually go out and learn certain things so you can teach it on YouTube?
S: When I first started the channel, I literally was just super excited about learning this stuff. Basically every week, I would be learning just so that I could say what I had just learned. That's when I first started the channel. Now? The thing is, I'm moving so fast that it's hard for me to even realize how much that I know now. But really, for these past like ten videos, I haven't done any research. It just comes from what I've learned over the past year. Teaching something is literally the best way to learn anything.
A: Yeah, I agree. That's how I am with my videos too, because whatever issues I'm going through and whatever I need to learn, I make a video about that. So it's a way to teach myself as I'm teaching other people.
S: Yeah, and have you found you understand it better, when you teach it?
A: Yes, and something I do is: I go back and watch my old videos to learn from my old self. It's interesting.
S: I actually cannot watch my old videos. I'm like, “This is so bad. I'm so much better now.”
A: Oh yeah, in terms of video quality, yeah I'm better. But–because mine's personal development, sometimes there's lessons that, even if you've heard it before, it's good to remind yourself of this.
S: That's true, that's true.
A: So when I watch a video from two years ago, I remember what I was going through. I'm like, “Oh yeah.” It hits me again.
Another thing that I notice you're doing is you're teaching a class through Udacity. You know what's so funny? Literally, a couple days ago I was on Facebook and the ad for that class popped up on my feed. It wasn't posted by you; it was their ad. I was like, “I'm so proud.”
S: Oh my god, that's awesome.
A: Do you want to tell us what exactly you're doing there?
S: So the CEO tweeted me. He's like, “I love what you're doing.” I actually said no at the time because I'm just focused on my channel. I don't want to become Udacity's Siraj. But then, he was very persistent and he's like, “No, seriously. Just come meet us in Mountain View. We just want to talk.” I was like, “Alright, fine.” He said, “You can meet Sebastian Thrun”, which is the guy who started Google X. I'm like, “Oh, yes I'll come, yes.” You know? I was like, “Yes, you've lured me over.”
Basically, Sebastian and the whole crew there are just super friendly people and they explained that, “You know what? We're going to let you keep your brand. We'll make this ‘Siraj Raval's Deep Learning'.” I'm like, “Yes, that's what I'm talking about.” Not ‘Deep Learning' and I’m just in it; specifically ‘Siraj Raval's Deep Learning'. I was like, “Yes, I'll do it.” I get to have all my videos be on my channel. They're free, but also they have extra content and that's what people pay for. I've been working with them every week on this.
A: Cool! So does it go along with the content that you post on your YouTube? Or is it different?
S: Yeah, pretty much. I'm just doing what I always do. I'm posting videos on YouTube. What they're doing is, they're on their website for people who sign up. They're creating extra content–not video content, but written content to aid students.
A: Okay, I see. So it's your videos, plus some extra content that people pay for.
S: Exactly. So what they do–they don't even know–our agreement was: I'm not going to tell them the video I make, so they're just as surprised as everybody else when the video comes out.
A: Oh, that's so funny.
S: So then they have to make content around that. Like, “Oh, he's using this library now. Alright, let's rush to make some homework on this.”
A: I see. Does that mean you have to show them your video beforehand, before you post it? Or is it literally when you post it?
S: It’s literally right there, yeah.
A: Oh my gosh, okay. That's cool though. Can you briefly explain: what is deep learning?
S: Yeah, totally. Deep learning is a new technology that lets computers learn. When we think about programming, we think about–let's say I want to code a baseball game. I want to make a little baseball game. So then I would say, “First I'm gonna code what the map looks like. Grass would be there and I want colors and I want people. Then I'm gonna code the game rules. Then I'm gonna code the players.” But that's the traditional way of thinking about programming, step-by-step instructions.
But deep learning is, instead of saying, “Here are all the steps to reach this outcome,”–the outcome would be to have a baseball game–”Here's the outcome. Have a baseball game. Learn all the steps you need to create the baseball game.” Instead of writing out all the steps, we write these very small rules like “I want it to be a big map.” Very generic rules: “I want there to be a big map,” and “I want there to be ten players,” and a computer will learn all the steps to generate a game just like that. And we found that this is being used across every industry, and this is going to take over all of computer science. Everything's going to be learning. It's going to be learning and adapting to our needs in real time.
A: Oh wow. I see how that relates to AI and, you know, self-driving cars. Is it like they learn through experience?
S: Exactly, they learn through experience.
A: See, that's cool and kind of creepy.
S: Yeah, part of the creepiness is it's just such a new technology and we don't have that many people talking about it. In terms of popular culture, all we have for AI is “The Terminator”. Everything is AI apocalypse. But really, the apocalypse would be humans. You know what I'm saying? It's not about the AI. The AI just does what we tell it to do. The apocalypse is if someone bad gets in control of this power. So what we're trying to do, what I'm trying to do is democratize it so everybody has access to it, instead of one company like–I won't say names, but you know.
A: Yeah, that's true. But the level–obviously these computers learn super fast, so don't you think it surpasses everything? It's exponential, this growth of learning.
S: Yeah, I'm glad you recognize that. It's totally exponential. I mean, the goal is for it to be smarter than all of us so it can help solve all of these problems we're having. A lot of people say, you know, “It's too late for climate change. It's already too late.” A lot of people think it's too late for a lot of things. That's just because we haven't thought about it the right way. AI could use data we could never even dream of looking at because it's able to and say, “Hey, this is actually how you solve it.” You never thought about this. It's like, “Oh, of course.”
A: Definitely see the possibility of this changing the world in so many ways, in every industry.
S: Totally. It's very exciting.
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A: Yeah, let's talk about your life, your dream life. I guess, with what you're doing now, if you maybe look forward five years, do you have an idea of what future Siraj Raval looks like?
S: Totally. So you know James Bond, right? There's not a brown James Bond. Basically, I want to be brown James Bond. That means I want to be in movies, I want to be really well-known, because it's not just about me. As high as I go, I'm taking AI with me. And it's about getting AI into the public consciousness, and making it a very normal thing that everybody understands. So I will do whatever I have to do: I'll rap, dance, sing. I'll do anything I can to raise attention to myself and, as a consequence, AI. Basically, when I look at my dream life, I'm in movies.
S: Big production projects, like Kanye West “Runaway“, that short film, 30-minutes long? That'd be so cool to do something like that.
A: Oh my god, I can totally see it. It’s so cool, because you're bringing a level of entertainment to computer science, and I haven't really seen it done. Right?
A: You never see a personality like this. So you're a star, dude.
S: Thank you. So are you.
A: So exciting. That's awesome. I can't wait for you to be there, and you better not forget me.
S: Oh, no I won't. I definitely won't. We still have to do that collab with the silver hair thing.
A: I'm gonna do your hair. Yeah, I can do it whatever color you want.
S: You gotta do it. Are you going to be up in SF anytime soon?
A: I'll let–I am actually. We'll talk about that after this podcast.
S: We'll talk about it, great. Cool.
A: Okay, so last question I have for you is: what is the biggest lesson you've learned so far in the past year?
S: Hmm, wow.
A: Because you've had a big year. This was a huge year. Can you recap to everyone out there what happened to you this year? Because you just started your channel then you did YouTube NextUp, plus what else?
S: Yeah, then Elon Musk shared my video on his personal Twitter feed. So Elon Musk watched my video.
A: Oh my god, he knows who you are.
S: He knows who I am, and you know what? He is obsessed with AI. Every single interview he talks about–you know he's watching my videos. You know he's a fan.
A: Oh my gosh, that's crazy.
S: It is crazy. The White House contacted me. Chief data scientist at The White House, DJ Patil, was like, “Hey, Siraj. We love what you're doing. Could you make a video for data.gov?” He CC'ed this other guy. So then I was like, “Yes, absolutely.” But then they never replied, so…
A: But you have their email! You know what I mean? That's power.
S: There’s power, yeah. That was encrypted shit in the email. That's cool. So the biggest lesson I've learned is there's this popular notion out there that you shouldn't be too…you shouldn't believe in yourself too much. Now that sounds kind of obvious like, “Wait, what are you talking about?” But if I were to say, “I'm awesome,” immediately, that's going to put off 30% of people. Like, “How can you think that you're awesome?” You know what I'm saying? But you really, you have to believe in yourself to do anything brave. Really, when I was making YouTube videos at Twilio after I got fired people were laughing like, “What is this guy doing? Get a–” People who I talked to the most, my most trusted friends were like, “Dude, this YouTube thing is not gonna work. You have to get a job at Google. You're a smart guy.” No one in Silicon Valley is doing this. No one had even thought about doing this. I had idols and I used their influence–I tried to copy what they did but for a different thing. That's the biggest thing I learned: no matter what anyone else says, you have to tell yourself that you're awesome, and just keep doing that over and over and over again.
A: I love it. So all about believing in yourself and having that confidence, even when everyone around you tells you that you're stupid and you shouldn't be doing this.
A: Because it's so true. I see your world, the Silicon Valley world, everyone has something better to do. That's why I look at you, I'm like, “Wow, you could've done so many other things but you chose to do a YouTube channel.” But in one year, look at everything that you've done, because no one else was willing to take that risk. So that's really cool.
A: I really love that. Alright, so how can our listeners find you online?
S: Totally. Just search my name ‘Siraj Raval'. My YouTube channel, if you search my name in YouTube you'll find me. It's the first link. Please subscribe. I'm trying to grow fast as f. S-I-R-A-J R-A-V-A-L. You can find me on Twitter too: @SirajRaval. Those are my two main outlets. I also have a Facebook page: Siraj Raval, as well. Everything's ‘Siraj Raval’.
A: And you do live videos weekly on YouTube.
S: Every single week. God, it is so hard. It is so hard to go live every week. Because when I first started, I only did it like once a month and I was like, “Yo, I need to chill.” You know what I mean? Have you ever gone live before?
A: I have. It takes a lot of energy out of you.
S: It is a lot of energy. It is a lot of energy. But I do it every week because, you know, it's a commitment to my subscribers, and I'm just gonna keep doing it.
A: Wow, that's amazing. Yeah, good for you. I do want to do more live stuff on YouTube too. I haven't tried YouTube for live. I've done Facebook and Instagram, but yeah.
Alright, so listeners out there: definitely check out Siraj Raval, especially if you want to learn to code, build AI, just be a part of the future basically. Check out all his stuff. It's all wonderful, and you'll be very entertained as well.
Alright, thank you so much for being here. I'm sure everyone will love you, and good luck with everything that you have planned.
S: Awesome. Thanks, Aileen.
Alright, that's it for today's episode. Thank you so much for listening to The Lavendaire Lifestyle. If you like the podcast, please show your support by leaving a review on iTunes. It helps me so much. It also helps other people find the show. You can also catch me on YouTube and Instagram at @lavendaire, where I have even more content for the Artist of Life.
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