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How Vienna Escaped the Cubicle
A Conversation with Vienna Teng, Part I
by Bill Venners
Jun 9, 2003

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Pursuing Medicine

Bill Venners: In your first two years at Stanford, before you switched to computer science, you majored in biology with the intention of eventually going to medical school. How did you first realize you wanted to be a doctor?

Vienna Teng: Childhood is filled with many different inputs. You have certain experiences and you believe you want to go into that direction. I was the classic kid in that if my class visited the fire department, I came back wanting to be a fireman. But I loved our family doctor, our pediatrician, who was just wonderful. Not only was he really good with kids, he also told us what was going on whenever he was examining us. It made me really curious about human physiology, and also about taking care of people. I was interested in making sick people feel comfortable and in being able to problem solve, to "trouble shoot," the human body. I also got some encouragement from my doctor. I told him I was interested in biology, and he actually found an old microscope in his lab and gave it to me.

So I got a lot of encouragement to go in the medicine direction. And when I was entering college, being a doctor seemed to me a far more practical way of life than being a musician. I always thought being a musician would be a lot of fun, but I already knew that there was a lot of the entertainment industry and business involved. Being a doctor just seemed more glamorous, ironically. I wanted to be Doctor Somebody.

When I went to Stanford I had this plan that I would major in biology and minor in music. So that defined right there that I was going to become a doctor, and pursue music pretty seriously, but as a hobby. That was my plan at the time.

Switching to Computer Science

Bill Venners: What caused you to change majors from pre-med to computer science?

Vienna Teng: That was probably the big turning point of my life. I had been pretty sure I wanted to go into medicine. I loved the science of it. Medicine seemed like a career that was not only intellectually stimulating, but also really had an impact on people.

But in the course of taking pre-med classes, I began to get the sense I was going to burn out before I was done. I was never a competitive person. I found myself steeped in this competitive environment where people were always comparing each other's grades. People would not want to work together necessarily because that might "raise the curve." It got to be a culture that I didn't want to be a part of.

At the same time I was taking computer science classes. Computer science was still competitive, but in a different way. Everyone in computer science seemed fascinated with it, wanted to make a game out of it, and was just having fun building things. I was also taking history classes where people seemed just more intent on finding out the stories of what had happened. It felt more like a learning environment than the pre-med environment.

I had also spent some time shadowing doctors. I went to Stanford Hospital and followed doctors around on their shifts. For the most part, their work consisted of a lot of bureaucracy. The everyday life consisted of filling out forms, and then filling out other forms, and then dictating forms to other people. I know that everybody probably gets disillusioned with their career at some point, but I got disillusioned with mine before it even started.

At that point, I was also starting to play my songs in the dorm lounge, and whenever I would play people would gather around and listen. They would request songs that I had written, and I would say, "Wow, you remember that song?" They would say, "Yeah, we remember when you played it last time. It was really good." They started asking, "When are you going to record a CD? When are you going to perform shows?"

All this collected during the middle of my sophomore year. I realized I couldn't go down the pre-med path anymore. I was going to have to leave that behind. I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do instead, but computers were becoming interesting to me. And then I thought, a career in programming or computer design would still leave open the option to do music.

Finding Time for Music

Waking Hour
Listen to: The Tower
Bill Venners: How did you find time for music while you were going to Stanford and working at Cisco?

Vienna Teng: They were very demanding schedules. In school, whenever we could steal time to do music, we did. I've never thought of myself as a very disciplined worker, because I tend to work on what I want to be working on, regardless of whether it's a good idea. So I tended to write songs whenever I had other things to do. That's always the way it happened. I tended to want to record songs when I had other deadlines. It all worked out, but it was very stressful. In retrospect, I probably tried to do too much when I was in college.

But when it came to work, actually, it was easier to spend time on music. When I was interviewing for jobs I consciously thought, I need to take a job that will leave time for music. I did get a couple of offers from startup companies, which by definition consume your life while you're working for them. I decided that wasn't really something I could commit to.

When I interviewed at Cisco, I went through all the technical interviews. During the second round of interviews, the hiring manager sat me down and was trying to convince me that this was the job I wanted to take. And I actually asked him about it. I said, "I have some outside pursuits that I'm very passionate about, music in particular. I would like to be able to leave work behind when I go home and basically focus on some of my other interests. And I'm wondering if I'll be able to do that." It was really great. He actually told me, "I know that work is not everything to a lot of people, and we'll make sure that you have time to pursue other things."

Bill Venners: You asked him that in the interview?

Vienna Teng: Right.

Bill Venners: That was risky.

Vienna Teng: I mentioned that once I knew they wanted me, but not before. So while I was working, it actually wasn't that hard to find time for music. There was a lot of leaving at 6:30 and racing to the coffee shop to play, and things like that, but it really wasn't that bad.

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