June 13, 2023

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Saga, privacy, and AI in the words of Alex Nguyen — one of OSOM's first software engineers

Alex Nguyen is one of OSOM’s first software engineers, hired just after the founders first established the company. Discussing Saga’s software features and Seed Vault at a recent company meet-up in San Diego, I was struck by his thoughtful opinions, and cornered him to discuss his history at the company and some of the details he’s worked on. Below, we discuss his takes on the future of software development and AI, educating users about privacy, and his work on Saga.

Thanks for taking the time, Alex. So, how did you get to OSOM, and what’s your title?

So after leaving my job at Everest Labs in Fremont, an AI robotics company, I looked for other opportunities. It’s a pretty normal story: I found a job posting and interviewed with our Chief Product Officer Gary at OSOM. It’s funny — I worked for Andy Rubin’s wife at her cafe when I was younger. (Editor’s note: Andy Rubin was the CEO at Essential, the company that many of OSOM’s engineers came from.) We connected a little over that, then I went through the normal interview process. This was early on — I think I was actually the first non-founding software engineer to join the team. 

I don’t think I’ve ever discussed what my actual title is. That’s just the nature of a startup, right? But I’m a software engineer working on the higher-level OS stuff. My responsibility mostly has to do with Seed Vault and the things the user sees and interacts with there. I’ve owned and built many parts of the Seed Vault user experience. 

That’s our biggest differentiator, a pretty important job! In this context, it could be a bit of a leading question, but what feature in Saga are you most proud to have worked on?

I am proud of the work that I’ve done on Seed Vault. It’s nice to hear that it’s been so well received and that people are excited about it. [Laughs.] I guess that was a leading question, but I am very proud of it!

Just this morning, although the software team is enjoying our time in San Diego, I was thinking about some UX touch-ups and improvements that we can make — the initial designs were static, and there are some subtle things I’ve been thinking about that can improve the feeling of things for the user. There are many small and nuanced details that can affect that experience, and Jonas has been encouraging me to look into it and the tiny ways we can make it feel even nicer, working out the priorities there. Customer feedback helps now that Saga has been released, but I also have to balance that time with some of the other work we’d like to do for privacy and security features. 

Looking at the work that the rest of the team has done, what’s your favorite feature on Saga?

That’s tough. I’m going to have to say (because Nick is standing right here) that I like our camera a lot! I do genuinely like it a lot, and it’s probably what I’ve fiddled with the most. 

I should point out for our readers that Nick Franco, our Head of Camera, has been here the whole time and is nodding threateningly. [All three laugh.]

I don't have much experience with camera systems, but Nick put a lot of work into it and knows his stuff really well. I also appreciate how difficult pivoting to Android 13 so quickly has been for the team, and I appreciate that, though I haven’t had too much of a hand in it. 

We’ve had some fascinating late-night discussions here on the nature of software and software development. Security and the use of secure environments for tasks are changing. And, of course, we’re in the middle of AI disrupting seemingly everything. What do you see as the future in your work? Is there anything specific you are planning around as things change? 

To be completely honest, and I could be wrong, but I think that the impact of AI is being sensationalized a lot. AI will definitely benefit software development in a lot of ways, but the human element isn’t going to be limited any time soon, in my opinion. But I do think it is going to accelerate development in a general sense — both speeding up the process and the volume. 

I don’t think you can just toss in keywords and accept the code something like Chat GPT spits out. These systems are just autocomplete on steroids, bugs are a thing, and people will be needed to iron out the problems. With human editing, the results can be highly useable, and I think it has value as a tool, but I am hesitant to believe that it has the capability to do the sort of bleeding-edge and sophisticated work that can really differentiate. And there are still privacy concerns about how it is applied. 

Before we break for lunch here, let’s talk about that. We’re a privacy-centric company, so what is your opinion on the future of privacy and how to build a more privacy-based software or product ecosystem? (And don’t spill any beans here, Alex!)

First, I think it’s not just about giving people the tools to manage their privacy but encouraging the use of those tools and educating them about the advantages. Too many people have just accepted that the big-brand tech overlords are going to take and use their data however they want to. This status quo is an unreasonable arrangement we’ve been conditioned to accept as the cost of modern living, and the government has barely done anything to help protect customer privacy in the US. 

On the other hand, there are circumstances where things like a targeted advertisement can be legitimately useful, and customers that tell you, “I actually wanted to see that ad.” But people still need to be encouraged to care about privacy so these details are in their minds and they know the trade-offs they are accepting. The dangers of not owning your own privacy are real. With the rise of AI (and AI models being only as good as the data you feed them), end-user data privacy is going to be even more important. 

As for ecosystems, I think that’s quite a challenge: An ecosystem implies broad connections where privacy vulnerabilities are almost intrinsically present. That’s a difficult thing to balance…

It definitely would be. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Alex! You have a very considered position when it comes to a lot of these details, and I appreciate your insight!