CXO

Nancy Hua: Apptimize founder. Mobile visionary. Fencer.

Nancy Hua talked to TechRepublic about her life as a first-generation immigrant, path through the tech industry, and goals for accelerating innovation through mobile.

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The Apptimize team, with Nancy Hua, co-founder and CEO, fourth from left.
Image: Apptimize

Growing up as the child of Chinese immigrants, Nancy Hua always felt incredibly lucky. Her parents had come to America with nothing. Her father's family died of starvation when he was a child. He spent his nights studying secretly so that he could become the successful material scientist he is today. And when the couple came to America, they were poor and worked almost nonstop throughout her childhood to provide the best life possible for her.

Because of that, she had a great life. They weren't typical Chinese parents, Hua said — she had plenty of autonomy. She even jokes that she "tiger-momed" herself, forcing herself to be extremely productive all the time because she was home alone so often.

"I had the sense that everything they were doing was for me. Love [was] being equated with sacrifice from their perspective, and I always felt they were sacrificing for me," she said.

That sacrifice Hua felt was fuel for her to work exceptionally hard and excel. She was a total bookworm, and spent hours and hours at the library. Her dad would wait months to get the one copy of a book in town just so she could read it.

"I think I always felt like I needed to pay this back somehow, and the way to do it was through innovation of some kind, and make everyone's lives better," she said. "You can never really pay it back — you always owe it. It's a sense of guilt in a good way."

Hua went to MIT for undergrad, with the idea that to make that impact on the world, she needed to study hard science. After years of visiting her dad in his lab, she was excited to be in a lab of her own. But when she landed a coveted apprenticeship in an MIT lab her freshman year, she realized how much she disliked the slow process of academic research. It wasn't good for her personality. She loved fast feedback, and didn't have the patience for it.

So she switched from physics to math to computer science to the arts. She took writing classes with Junot Diaz, a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, back when he had only written one book, and became a better writer and reader.

"Everyone I know who is really successful at anything is multidisciplinary," she said. "The world is too complicated to only really focus on one thing."

But after MIT, Hua went into algorithmic trading in New York City. She stayed with that until 2012, when she found out both her parents had cancer.

She started flying to Pittsburgh every weekend where her dad was, and Princeton, where her mom was. She was in New York to be closer to her mom, who was much more sick. She eventually passed away. Her dad went into remission.

"I was thinking a lot about dying, if I would be happy, if I could die easy, on the trajectory I was on, and I really couldn't," she said. "I couldn't say my life had been a useful endeavor."

Objectively, of course, she looked successful. She had a high paying job where she excelled. People wanted to work for her. People wanted to hire her. But she felt like what she was doing was a complete waste of time.

Hua had always been mission-driven. When she was younger, she would make lists for various things: her mission for the human race, for society, for the company she was working at, for friendships and family relationships, for herself. So after her mother passed away, she wanted to make progress on them.

She started her own company with a detailed vision of the team she wanted — she wanted to have that control, rather than join another company's team. Starting a tech company was also about taking a risk worthy of the safety net she had. Above all, she wanted a challenge.

Hua zeroed in on mobile app development where she saw the most growth and opportunity in the industry, and founded Apptimize, which allows mobile teams to iterate faster and better by enabling them to develop native iOS and Android apps in real-time through updates, A/B testing, and analytics.

"The key to tech is to make innovation a lot easier. In the past it would take your whole life and billions of dollars... right now you can do that in a few years, if you're creative and correct about timing and execution. [I wanted to] get in on that and try to accelerate all the innovation that's happening in the world."

It all stems back to the fast pace Hua likes to maintain. The combination of computer science education, reading, and writing has kept her creative, and she always seeks to absorb more information.

She said she's willing to sacrifice whatever she needs to right now to achieve her goals for Apptimize, which is to set the gold standard of how apps should work. And she wants her team to evolve, constantly. If they IPO one day and are worth a billion dollars, she doesn't want everyone to be the same person as when they started. And right now, they're all growing fast professionally, learning new skills, and being effective in this industry.

Personally, Hua is thinking even bigger.

"I want to help others be more innovative and happy and formidable and accelerate the growth of the world," she said.

In her own words...

What do you like to read?

"I just read Elon Musk's book, it's a fountain of Elon Musk information. I love reading books about other founders. I find it really inspiring and always tear up when I read about their struggles and mission. I have a team Kindle account so everyone follows along the same things. There's this fear of missing out on our books. I read a lot of business books. I probably read like 10 books a week now. Business books are lighter to skim. I read David Foster Wallace, he's one of my favorites of all time."

What do you do to unplug?

"I hang out a lot with my friends, and my boyfriend lives in Chicago so he and I visit each other there a lot. He flies to see me once a month and I fly to see him once a month. I do various physical activities. I have a lot of energy. I used to be into climbing, but I got super bored with it — that was six months ago. I dance a lot but I'm really bad at dancing, so I was taking these classes. I think I'm going to get a personal trainer to teach me how to do stuff."

Looking back, what's some advice you'd give yourself?

"When I was young I didn't want to do anything hard enough that required anyone else. It was more efficient to do it myself. I was more motivated and accomplished, independent. The double edged sword of that was the things I wanted to accomplish were so easy, so that's why. Once you want to build Apple or SpaceX or a company like Apptimize you need a lot of help. Even living a good life right now and having a family plus a job is too much for one person anymore. [I was always] thinking I would handle everything, now it's just too much work. You need help.

"That's not emphasized in school at all, at least in the way I approached school. They don't ask you to do anything that requires actual teamwork. That's not really teaching you — what you really need to do is inspire everyone, work for a long time towards a mission that is hard and start again. I got some of that at MIT [when I was] captain of the fencing team. It was a D3 school, a lot and for a lot [of people] on the team, it was first time they're fencing. That's where I got a lot more exposure of teamwork and mentoring."

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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