An Explorer's Lessons On Happiness, Photography, And Greeting Whales

An Explorer's Lessons On Happiness, Photography, And Greeting Whales

"People joke that I went straight from the ocean into the air and skipped land," Eric Cheng says. But the joke isn't totally accurate.

Land is where Cheng obtained his two computer science degrees at Stanford, and where he trained as a concert cellist. It's where he developed a passion for pursuits that are creative and also highly technical.

After that, it's true, Cheng did start spending a lot of time with sharks and whales. He left an unfulfilling startup job, taught himself the complex workings of underwater photography, and improvised a career around his expertise. He led expeditions to a drool-worthy list of tropical locales, his photos won awards, and he built one of the web's largest underwater photography communities.

Nowadays, however, Cheng is flying high (and dry). He oversees the Silicon Valley presence of the world's largest maker of civilian drones, a company called DJI. If drones have a face in the United States, it is arguably Eric's.

DJI was the first in a crowded field to bring sleek, high-quality, and simple-to-use quadcopters to market for under $1000. It also bested competitors by focusing on drone-enabled aerial photography.

As a result, DJI's growth has been meteoric. It now sells the most popular drones in the world, making it possibly the first Chinese company in history to be the global market leader in a consumer industry. Sales in 2015 are on track to hit a billion dollars, The Verge reported this week.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Cheng shared lessons on happiness, productivity, and parenting, his favorite travel destinations, keeping a diary, and the future of drones.

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Have you had any recent realizations about living a more fulfilling life?

I had a big turning point after being in the software industry for a while and being at a company that went public. It was at the end of the big tech boom in the '90s, when there were hints of decline, hints of a crash coming. I saw that a lot of my friends who were making pretty good money, becoming successful financially, were actually less happy.

I also realized that I didn't care about what I was doing at the time. The company I worked for did enterprise software so... [Laughter] What fulfilled me were the little things: surrounding myself with smart people and small interesting problem-solving tasks on a daily basis.

And then I had other friends -- the ones in the arts or people who were pursuing their real passions, whether they knew it or not -- and I thought that would be a better path.

It's very easy to see all of these things in hindsight, but at the time, I just wasn't sure what I wanted to do. Everything became clear as soon as I found that passion which, for me, was creative imaging and technical imaging, that space between technology and art.

A lot of parents would love their children to be technically skilled and also passionate about the arts. Is there anything your parents did for you that many parents don't do that you think had a lasting impact?

My parents gave me a structure around daily discipline, which I think was great. The initial desire to play music came from me -- but I was forced to do it, I was forced to play music.

I initially asked to play music in part because we were surrounded by other kids who were playing music, and this has a lot to do with being a first-generation Asian immigrant family.

Every single Asian-American I know who grew up around the same time plays at least one instrument. The goals from our parents were usually to have us play well enough to do it professionally -- but not to do it professionally.

This is a pretty hard goal to achieve. It requires thousands of hours of forced interaction with an instrument. No one sits there and makes you practice; you're motivated to practice because you have to.

Some percentage of those people then convert to loving it. And many don't. I've seen a lot of people who don't play anymore. They haven't touched an instrument or pursued anything creative in a long time. But most of them seem to be pretty appreciative that they had that structure when they were growing up.

I remember one day I was sitting in a room with no clock. I asked my mom what time it was, and she actually got really mad at me. She said, "You can just get up and figure out what time it is yourself. There's a clock in the next room. So why are you asking me?"

I think about that all the time because a great percentage of my day is filled with people asking me through social media how to do different things. The boundaries for interaction are almost non-existent now. You can reach out to anybody you want and ask them a question; but in fact, it probably takes less time just to go figure it out yourself. We have so much information at our fingertips.

And that says a lot about somebody. Usually if someone is doing research on their own and learning, I feel like they internalize it. Those are the people who become experts. And a lot of the people who are looking for quick solutions find a solution, but they don't actually learn anything from it. This is an old story, about teaching a man to fish. It's exactly the same thing in the Internet Age.

You're a new dad and you created a little parenting site (with the amazing URL I noticed you asked your Facebook followers to stop sending you advice. I've never seen that before.

It's funny because a lot of my friends were applauding me for asking people not to give me advice.

As soon as we became pregnant, we started being asked the same questions over and over again -- which I think is normal. People are excited about it. I think probably the collective excitement around me having a kid is more than my excitement of having a kid.

Some of it has to do with just being fairly public online. I think it's a social-interaction-in-the-Internet-Age issue. It's very easy to reach through the Internet and interact with somebody in a way that makes sense if you just analyze that one interaction; but if you compound hundreds or thousands of interactions, it has an effect on that person on the other end.

When I interact with somebody online, I'm always thinking about what other kinds of interactions they might have had that day because you have no idea what their day was like. Maybe 50 people just said the same thing. Every newsworthy event that happens in the drone industry, for example, gets sent to me a hundred times. And I already know about it, guaranteed. So it's sort of similar to that in that the advice seems innocuous.

I actually appreciate advice when I talk to somebody in person, or let's say I meet you and you have a 5-month-old and we have a conversation about babies. That's great. I love that kind of interaction. What I don't want is a stranger giving me advice because they just feel like they have the advice to give. Maybe we have totally different value systems. Maybe they don't immunize their kids and I don't want anything to do with them.

Looking back, would have handled your education any differently than you did?

I am very, very grateful and glad that I got a computer science degree -- two of them -- because computer science is sort of the ultimate -- well, it gives you a framework about how to problem-solve, especially at a school like Stanford, where the computer science department and the standard curriculum actually don't have anything that is immediately useful when you get out and are looking for a job. It's all learning about the theoretical and learning how to solve problems.

I remember going in for exams and having nothing on the exam be anything that we had learned in the class because they had figured that they had taught you how to think and you could figure it out. So I loved studying computer science, and think the applications of computer science can be wide ranging -- pretty much any field now.

I think what was missing for me was a sense of design in the curriculum. Now computer science can be merged with other disciplines, like product design or any other technical disciplines. At Stanford, computer science has become so big that they offer it with any other major, and the other major gets the statistic for that major. So you could be a biology and computer science major, and you're a biology major statistically because otherwise it would be skewed way too much towards computer science.

I think we're seeing computer science developing as a general education area, which makes a lot of sense given where we are now. But when I was going through it, I couldn't really find a way to have design be a very big part of the curriculum because I feel like human interaction and design are -- they're very compatible with computer science. And at the time, it was really rough.

You've spent a very substantial amount of time under water. Can you convey that experience to people who have never dived? What is something that took you years to learn about diving?

I think an analogy is the right way to start. Let's say you move to a new environment, a new country. Absolutely everything about it seems foreign when you arrive. But over time things normalize. You stop noticing what's foreign. The way you maneuver in the environment starts to move back in your mind, it just becomes a part of you.

It's very similar in the ocean. People who don't spend a lot of time in the ocean feel like they're drowning or it's claustrophobic or they're scared because they don't know what's under there. It's a much more extreme environment. It pushes you around. The way you move is different.

But what I've found is that people who spend a lot of time in the ocean just start to move around in the ocean as they would in their normal lives. You don't really notice that you have to do something to get from one place to another.

It's a feeling of freedom in the third dimension. In the ocean you move in three dimensions, and it's a very organic kind of movement. You move by breathing. If you breathe in a shallow way, you descend. If you breathe with full lungs, you ascend because of buoyancy.

And so that feeling of initial claustrophobia very quickly turns into the opposite: a feeling of being in a completely open space with the freedom to move in three dimensions.

Then you layer on top of that the beauty of the environment and the marine ecology -- which I'm really interested in -- all the weird animals that are there that have very complex relationships with other critters and the reef around them, especially. We have that all around us here, but it's kind of hidden, especially in urban environments. If you squat down on some corner, you'd probably see some life trying to survive there. But it's just more accessible in the ocean. And we know much less about it, so there's also a sense of discovery. You find something new, and no one's photographed it. Maybe a researcher has written about it but never documented it.

You can still go out and find completely new perspectives and behavior to document in the ocean.

You've traveled to and photographed some incredible locations. What are you favorites? What's the most beautiful place you've visited?

I think the most beautiful places for me are maybe a little different than they might be for other people because while I appreciate a beautiful beach or a beautiful tropical coastal environment, that doesn't necessarily mean it's interesting underwater.

The places that I tend to remember the most are places where I've had really spectacular marine encounters.

One area that perhaps has it all is southern and eastern Indonesia. I keep going back there, and it's because the marine life there is the most diverse, certainly by metrics. If you go and count species, you'll count more there in a given amount of time in the same area than anywhere else. But the reef is very healthy there, in part because it hasn't really been developed as aggressively as other areas because the islands are very remote and there's still a lot of subsistence living there.

The coral reefs there are beautiful, and that's probably the one place that I enjoy the most. But there are a lot of places with unusual species to be found, I guess, or a regulatory environment that allows you to do something there that you can't do somewhere else. So if you want to see sperm whales, you might go to Dominica in the eastern Caribbean -- which is a beautiful island in itself; but when I go there, we pretty much go straight into the water to interact with animals there.

What are some tips you give to amateur photographers trying to improve?

I guess it depends what your goals are. People who would like to become more serious in photography I think should slow down in general and limit themselves in terms of equipment to something that they can get to know really well. So it's kind of the classic 35-millimeter lens, a prime lens that requires manual or physical interaction between you and the device because there's a lot of that feeling of getting to know a physical object that plays into inspiration behind shots.

It's like the smell of a book, the things that are kind of going away now that help you to remember things and remember moments and how you reacted in those moments. If you take your phone out and tap it and it takes 10 pictures, and you never look at those pictures again, you probably didn't learn a lot from that interaction or that photographic workflow.

But if you have to think about focus and exposure and framing, and you have to move to achieve the right kinds of framing, and you have to anticipate how your subject might react -- this is a lot of what we do with wildlife. You have to first understand the behavior before you're going to get any kind of meaningful capture.

[Ed. note: you can read Eric's guide on buying a quadcopter and getting into aerial imaging here.]

So in general I think just being more thoughtful about how you take pictures, and not being so obsessed with the gear but just using the gear that you have until you feel like the gear is a serious limiting factor. Usually the gear is not the limiting factor in somebody's photography.

And then the last piece now is sharing with a community, if you're that kind of person. I always have encouraged people to post their favorite picture every day or every week and to also write about it. At the least, you'll go back after a year and see this incredible progression of your skills as you've developed as a photographer. And you'll have gained a following if you've actually progressed as a photographer, or have something to offer to the general public.

It's not everyone's goal, of course, but...

On one of your personal sites, you've documented memories from your childhood and your time in school. Do you keep a journal or a diary? Are you systematic about memory-keeping in the way that you are with some other aspects of your life?

I have the desire to be systematic about writing a journal or keeping a journal, but all of my attempts have failed. I have periods of time during which I've written a lot, usually by hand in an actual paper journal; but for the most part, I think my pictures are now kind of a running journal for me. I'll often use it as a tool to help remember certain moments, which is strange because when you use a camera, it can remove you from the moment, as well.

I frequently look up from the camera -- maybe not so much in daily life, if I'm just taking pictures of what's around me; but certainly when I'm having an incredible moment in the field, I've always taken the time to put the camera down and look up and soak it in, take it all in.

Do you ever travel without taking photographs?

I think not having a camera for long periods of time might be difficult. In fact, I've had technical problems in the field and been diving, for example, without a camera. And I really hate it. It's hard for me to do.

Taking pictures is kind of the main reason I'm there, and I just happen to have to go underwater to capture the things I want to capture. The diving part is fun but maybe not fun enough for me to do it without a camera.

Your work involving photography and quadcopters started off with you tinkering around at home. You mentioned you spent hours playing around with a $90 dollar drone. What are you tinkering with these days?

First of all, there are some running themes that have lasted many years. Right now I'm still very drone- and aerial imaging-focused because it changes so quickly. I'm constantly tinkering with the things that DJI makes but also what other people are doing.

It's still really easy to do something that no one has done. You can do it in a day. When has that been the case, ever? We have very brief moments during which you can really do something no one's seen before, and this is one of them -- in this space, in robotics in general.

But the themes that are running are often around efficiency and archiving. So there are tools, either physical or software tools, that I use to help me be really productive. And storage in general. Data is one of the biggest problems that I have. Photographers and videographers, anyone who captures a lot of data -- we are beyond the normal consumer limits. And so it creates a lot of problems. And if you're non-technical, it's very difficult to get around. The cloud is not it. It's just not. Our bandwidth is insufficient to deal with real data.

It's fragile, and if you don't think about it, you can pay the price. People I know have lost a lot of their pictures, which is very sad. So I'm constantly like a local IT admin in the house.

You didn't have a boss for much of your career. You needed to be self-motivated. Any productivity tips you'd recommend?

The biggest one is to do what you want to do. I think if you're doing something that you don't enjoy, it's very hard to be motivated to do it all the time. The people I know who are doing what they probably would be doing anyway tend to not have problems with productivity issues.

One of the biggest things I did was get rid of a TV signal. I cut the cord more than 10 years ago, maybe 12 years ago -- before on-demand content was really convenient. And I haven't missed it at all. Actually, when I go to friends' houses and they have the TV on all the time, it's like an alien environment. I just can't imagine how that signal on all the time could not be a negative influence in their lives and their kids' lives. But of course, I'm not going to give kid advice. [Laughter]

You put a lot of your life online. How do you manage all of the incoming communication?

I have a really hard time managing inbound communication because it comes from so many different sources now. And some of the most viscerally stressful moments in my life were not big events that would stress me out, but the moments during which a phone call, a text, a Facebook message, a Twitter direct message, my Pebble goes off -- everything kind of rings at once.

Apple now makes it by default so that all your devices ring when anything happens. And we all have multiple devices. So I just turn as much of it off as possible and try to cope, really. It's really not a good answer, but I have a really hard time with managing inbound communication.

The other thing I do is I nest my posts in concentric circles of closeness to me. So I post a lot only to friends; but of course, on Facebook I have 2,000 friends or something. They're not all personal friends. They can't be. But I have inner circles that I interact with. So I think managing the feeds on all the different networks is really important, and luckily most of them seem to have tools that let you kind of massage it into a way that can work.

I don't think I have a good answer for it. I think it's broken, actually -- the whole system. It's very easy to have most of your interaction come from a social network, and it's not a very fulfilling way to live.

Let's talk about DJI and newer products like the Phantom 2. What do you tell someone who is starting to think about buying their first drone?

The original Phantom was released about two years ago, and really was the first aerial-imaging platform or quadcopter -- or "drone," as the media has decided it will be -- to be accessible to most people, because you could fly it out of the box.

The Phantom 2 polished what we did with the original Phantom and really made it out-of-the-box accessible. No tools needed; auto-tightening props; some safety features to allow it to come home automatically, avoid airports. A lot of building blocks that are still being developed but kind of all came together at the right time to produce a product that was really accessible. That's why you see the vast majority of videos being shot with something like a Phantom 2.

That product has been by far the most successful from DJI. It's the single product that propelled very, very rapid growth -- although the growth of the company started years before the Phantom came out. It's been really great to see how transformative it's been. Most of the other products we see in the market are clones or look very similar to the Phantom 2. And it's enabled a lot of people to do things that they had almost literally only dreamed about in the past. We get contacted all the time by people who had the dream of flight and, for the first time, they've realized that by wearing goggles while they fly a Phantom around.

The possibilities in the industry are tremendous -- even from something like a Phantom 2, which is small enough to fit in a backpack and inexpensive enough for many people to own. So we've been very focused on both consumer and are increasingly pushing into commercial. Essentially, it is freeing up the third dimension for the placement of cameras and other devices.

Most people are using commercial drones for photography, but there are plenty of other creative uses of the Phantom 2.

The vast majority of use is photographic. Basically, people want to put a camera somewhere that they couldn't have before. It could be really modest -- it could literally be a picture of their house from 20 feet up -- or it could be much more extreme, as we've seen in many examples.

But we do get a lot of requests for stranger payloads. One of my friends in a scientific expedition with NASA, an education outreach expedition, just did a sample collection in some kind of boiling lake in New Zealand. He took Phantom and put a winch on it with a little test tube and flew it out over this lake, which you can't get to -- it's boiling bubbling mud -- and lowered the test tube in and took a sample from the middle of it.

That's one very basic example. We've also seen scientists collect whale breath. They fly through breath of a whale with a petri dish attached, and suddenly they have a sample.

And we've seen a lot of very interesting uses with sensor deployment and data collection in the conservation realm. You can imagine dropping a bunch of sensors in some very, very dense forest or something -- inaccessible -- and then flying back over periodically to pick up data which gets beamed back to the drone.

It's very early. I think we're seeing people experiment a lot with the technology. As I mentioned, I think pretty much anyone could do something no one's done virtually on their first day of ownership, which is pretty exciting.

DJI also recently released a software development kit (SDK). What are developers creating that's notable to you?

So first of all, the SDK is a mobile SDK, it's for iOS and Android. It allows users to either read data from or control the Phantom 2 Vision series. So any of our devices that are phone- or tablet-connected. We'll have an SDK for the Inspire 1 pretty soon.

The first apps that were written were focused on 3D mapping. 3D mapping is one of the most obvious applications that has huge gains any way you look at it. It's incredible cost savings, time savings, safety improvements and no risk of life. So that's a very obvious use. We saw someone -- Pix4D -- created a mapping app, and it's almost literally one click. You either manually fly it, or you can autonomously fly and generate a 3D map of whatever you fly over. So that was one of the most interesting uses initially.

A National Geographic video shows the 3D mapping of an active volcano using Pix4D mapping technology.

DJI is among the first major consumer-facing Chinese brands to dominate its global market. What are your thoughts about that?

DJI being a Chinese company is not what led me personally to pursue working with them. It happens to be a Chinese company, and it happens to be a really interesting one because it's one of the first of a new breed that is pulling incredible engineering and R&D talent out of the pool in China, which is very big, and then combining that with incredible work ethic, competitive drive, and very sophisticated and fast global manufacturing.

The area around Shenzhen is perfect for a hardware company to grow up in because everything is accessible. You don't have to ship anything to make a product. All of us here in the U.S. -- you can prototype locally, but as soon as you want to manufacture at scale, you pretty much have to go across the ocean.

So that's been really fascinating, and I've enjoyed learning about the culture. I have a Taiwanese background, but essentially I'm mostly American. It does help to speak some Chinese. I speak some Mandarin, which helps to navigate around the area when I go visit.

One of the challenges has been that the company very much has become a global brand in that we sell Phantoms and other products virtually in every country around the world, yet it's very strongly a Chinese company internally.

But you don't see that very much from the outside. From the outside here let's say you showed someone a Phantom. They might not assume it was a Chinese company, not because DJI is hiding anything but because it's just this new breed of company that just doesn't consider distance to be a barrier in product availability.

When you say it's a strongly Chinese company internally, what does that mean?

First of all, there's a very strong sense of pride in being a Chinese company.

Second, I think there are massive differences culturally between any Chinese company and any American company. I think historically a lot of the Chinese companies have looked towards companies here, especially the tech companies in Silicon Valley, with a lot of admiration. And we see that from the DJI side, too. We look at all of the big Silicon Valley giants and think, "We could be a brand like that," certainly at our current growth rate.

And I think it's probably a good idea for a lot of the tech companies here to be looking east. Most of the employees in Chinese tech companies are very young. If you walk through the office, everybody is either very young or looks really young, and it's hard to tell between the two. There are a lot of very young, very smart people working.

One of the things that I've been most impressed with is the speed at which R&D is accomplished at DJI. We're very engineering-oriented as a company. A very large percentage of our team is engineering. We have 500 engineers working. And I think we see some companies here in the U.S. that are perhaps similar, that are very R&D-oriented. That all comes from the roots of the company, which are all around R&D and engineering and technical excellence.

But I think getting in a situation in which you can prototype very quickly and react very quickly to necessary changes during development is important. I've only been in one hardware-related company here, and it took forever to prototype. We had to wait long periods of time for an integrator overseas to do something, and then manufacture a prototype and then get it back. And we sent people there, of course, to work very closely.

But seeing how fast we can do things compared to companies that have an ocean between them and their factories makes it seem almost unfair.

I'll circle back to our earlier discussion. You talked about friends who had pursued financial success but who weren't necessarily fulfilled -- how are they doing now? I ask in part because your own life has shifted away somewhat from adventure photography to a slightly more 'traditional' career.

Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of my friends who were searching for motivation during that time have really found peace in family life. They started families much earlier than I did. And then having financial success really helped them to maybe be less stressed when they had their kids and had to raise them.

I sometimes look back and imagine what it would have been like to stay in that industry for longer because I definitely made financial tradeoffs that were not smart from a financial perspective but really great from a life perspective. But I don't really have any regrets about it.

The biggest thing that I've been thinking about more recently is that opportunity cost is real. It's maybe not obvious if you're 25; but now that I'm older, I realize I have only a certain number of years to be productive, and I should be using those in the smartest way possible.

The people who get stuck and they end up somewhere for five or 10 years or longer, or a whole lifetime, only because they didn't have the courage to leave; they're not happy about it, but perhaps they actually do have other opportunities that are obvious to the people around them. That's been the hardest to see. You see that someone has the ability to do something that they really want to do, or something that would at least make them a lot happier, but it's hard to get that person to see it. So I remind myself all the time that there are plenty of opportunities out there.

Transcription services by Tigerfish; now offering transcripts in two-hours guaranteed. Interview text has been edited and condensed.

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