Undergraduate Student Profile: Jian Wei Gan

From the Spring 2011 issue of Threads

Every college senior faces the daunting and stressful task of planning what to do after college. But for Jian Wei Gan, a Duke senior Computer Science major with an Economics minor, finding a job turned into one of the best experiences of his life.

Attracted by the problem-solving aspects of computer science, Gan enrolled in numerous CS classes and before long became a TA for Professor Owen Astrachan. During his spare time, Gan taught himself web development and built an iPhone app called WeiWatch. In 2009, he joined Professor Xiaowei Yang's lab as a research assistant and created a Facebook app to collect data on trust and social networks. "It was a really positive research experience," says Gan. "By the end of the year, we had collected data from over 1,000 users."

"Wei is a very motivated student and a creative thinker," says Yang. Gan and another student finished the app prototype in a very short amount of time, and proposed many useful ideas during the design discussions, she notes. "I am very impressed by his technical competence, motivation, and creativity."

But as Gan entered his senior year, he knew he would soon have to leave the comfortable research bubble of academia and enter the work force. Interested in start-ups and entrepreneurship, Gan set his sights on Palo Alto, California, a hub of young technology companies. As a junior, Gan had spent a summer in Palo Alto working for Box.net, a cloud content management company co-founded by a former Duke undergraduate. "Spending the summer out there really changed how I see things," says Gan. "It makes you feel like anyone can start a company. It's a great ecosystem."

After toying with the idea of starting his own company straight out of college, Gan decided to get a few years of experience at a start-up under his belt first. Happily, serendipity intervened. In November 2010, Gan presented a website idea at the Duke Startup Challenge Elevator Pitch Competition. Though he didn't win, Gan had the chance to speak with David Thacker, an investor focusing on mobile and digital media at Greylock Partners, a top tier investment firm, who spoke at the event. Thacker, impressed with Gan's presentation and passion, offered to put Gan in touch with several start-ups in California who might be hiring. Thacker didnít have to offer twice.

In December, Gan flew out to Palo Alto over winter break to interview with several of Thacker's connections, including TellApart, an ecommerce data company, and 1000 Memories, a new online obituary website. By the end of the week, Gan had received offers from several companies, and had to make a decision. After asking for a higher offer from TellApart, Gan's first pick, he sat waiting and jittery in his hotel room at 9:30pm on Friday night. Soon he received a text from TellApart's CEO, Josh McFarland, who told him to be at a nearby restaurant in 10 minutes. Gan ran.

When he arrived, the restaurant was nearly empty, but Gan was ushered to a private room in the back. There, McFarland welcomed him and began introductions to the men sitting around the table, including Aneesh Chopra, the United States' Chief Technology Officer; Vivek Wadhwa, a Duke professor in the Pratt School of Engineering who writes about entrepreneurship for the popular tech blog TechCrunch; and Mandeep Singh Dhillon, CEO of Togetherville, a social network for kids. "It was completely surreal to be surrounded by all these prominent people," says Gan. And it was enough, along with a new attractive offer letter, to convince Gan to sign on the spot, becoming the newest employee of TellApart. All the attendees clapped.

After graduating from Duke this May, Gan will begin his new job as a software engineer for TellApart on July 1st. "It's pretty exciting," he says with a smile. "It's just the beginning."

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