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The X Factor

By Michelle Choate
David Jen ’98 decides what radical new technology to finance at X, The Moonshot Factory. 
David Jen ’98 says he has “the most boring job at the most interesting company.” The job is managing director of finance and corporate development; the company is X, The Moonshot Factory (previously known as Google X). But while it may be true that X is indeed a very interesting company, doing extraordinary things, David’s job is anything but boring. He’s not the person responsible for inventing the self-driving car— one of X’s most famous creations—but he plays a critical role  in providing the funding and strategic guidance that make it possible for creative minds to innovate and bring previously unimagined products and progress to the world.

X is undeniably a special place to work, turning groundbreaking ideas into realities. As an innovation factory, its mission is to solve the world’s most critical problems through the discovery and creation of innovative technologies. To achieve this mission, X fosters an environment where radical thinking thrives, and failure is not only tolerated but rewarded. “Innovation requires a certain mindset and environment,” explains David. “At X, we encourage thinking big and trying cool new things, failing at them, celebrating that failure, learning from that failure, and moving on to the next thing and trying again.” 

Managing its investment portfolio and assessing financial risk may not be the most headline-grabbing job at X, but David’s humble nature makes it easy to overlook just how valuable his strategic guidance and support are to X and the companies in which they invest. He considers himself lucky to have a seat at the table, to be the numbers guy among a brilliant group of thinkers and entrepreneurs. 

From One Path to Another 

It was so much more than luck that brought David to X. Growing up, he always felt he’d end up in finance, but he wasn’t sure in what industry or capacity. He credits his time at La Jolla Country Day School for providing him with much of the foundation on which he built his future. “Country Day provided me with a safe environment to learn, to stretch, to focus on what I was passionate about in addition to the core curriculum,” says David. 

After graduating from LJCDS, he tried out life on the East Coast, attending Tufts University in Massachusetts. From there, he followed a traditional finance path into investment banking on Wall Street. David planned to stay east for the foreseeable future, but life had other plans. His father became ill, so he moved back to California to be with him, expressing that the incident was a “wake-up call” for him. “I wanted to spend time with my dad, with my family, to be available if they needed me,” he says. That time also prompted a reevaluation of his life as a whole. He enrolled in UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and graduated in 2009, smack in the middle of a recession. That same year, he followed his wife up to the Bay Area and landed a job at Google as a senior finance analyst. He figured he’d be there a year at most. 

Then in 2012, Google was looking to recruit a finance person to support a small and relatively unknown part of the company called Google X.

The X Factor 

That guy was David, and he’s been working with X for more than a decade. Strictly speaking, David’s role is to lead the finance team and work on capital allocation. “I help determine where we put our money, what projects we should greenlight from a financial perspective,” explains David. “When we buy or sell a company, that runs through me.” 

While no one can definitively pick what will and won’t make money, David’s experience at X makes him the person most likely to provide an accurate prediction. He creates data-based models to guide data-driven decisions. While he is not a technologist, a scientist or an entrepreneur, his years of experience and inquisitiveness have earned him an important seat at the decision-making table. He adds immeasurable value not only through his understanding of the complex financial concepts and models to evaluate a potential investment but the strategic guidance he provides about how to manage those companies financially. For David, it’s about asking a series of questions to help team members think deeply and form a narrative and strategy around their ideas. 

Thinking Differently 

A key to X’s success is its unique approach to problem-solving. Not only does the company nourish out-of-the-box thinking in regard to potential solutions, but it also spends a great deal of effort assessing the problems themselves. Oftentimes, this assessment yields the realization that the perceived problem is not actually the problem at all. David says X’s creation of the self-driving car is a perfect example of this process. “Millions of people in the world die in car accidents every year. The old solution for that is to make better seat belts and have better brakes. The real problem, the root cause, is not the features of the car. It’s that many people are horrible drivers. While you have humans in the loop, there will always be errors. The radical solution is to see if we can take humans out of the equation by making a computer drive a car. Can we make the car drive itself?” We all know the answer to that question.

A Tolerance for the Untraditional 

X’s unique philosophy cultivates innovation, but the level of uncertainty that comes from repeatedly trying and failing, the lack of traditional measures for success, is not for everyone. “Everyone who comes to X is super smart,” says David. “But here, there isn’t necessarily a right answer for everything. We are trying to solve problems no one has ever solved before, and there are likely multiple potential answers. We do not embrace the concept of rewarding work for the sake of work; we don’t measure success by the achievement of arbitrary milestones. What matters here is actually solving a problem.” 

Of course, not every project X takes on is a success, and as the “money guy,” it is often David who has to deliver the tough news that a project is being defunded. But pulling the plug on a project does not mean that X throws out the baby with the bath water. At X, no intellectual efforts are ever wasted. Says David, “Sometimes we can go back to things that didn’t work in one form or another, but there are still key ideas or technologies that are worth exploring more. We have a project right now focused on ocean health that was the culmination of many projects we had shut down over time for various reasons. As a result, we already know what didn’t work and what did, and we’re super excited about the project.”

Ready for the World 

Perhaps more valuable than keeping his eye on the bottom line is his partnerships with the CFOs of X’s spinout companies. “Many of the CFOs of these new companies have to be ready to go on day one,” explains David. “It’s not like they’re a startup in a garage with a 10-person staff. When you become an X company—which makes you part of the Google/Alphabet family—you have to be ready for the world.” Several of the CFOs for these new companies have been selected from David’s own team; he hired them and mentored them. “Much of what I do is help them to understand how to work in this system and how to roll with some of the punches that are unique to this place. I think our job here at X is to create companies for Alphabet. And part of that is ensuring that there is a management team for that company. And what I do is make sure that that management team is in place and ready to go from day one.” 

A Solid Foundation 

David often reflects on his time at LJCDS as a pivotal part of his life. “I think Country Day helped prepare me for a place like X, a place where you have to be a self-starter and be comfortable with change all the time,” he explains. “Country Day made me a learning machine by teaching me that there is joy in learning, in tinkering around and figuring something out. And part of that tinkering is that once in a while we’re going to break something, but that’s OK. We were encouraged to keep tinkering with the next thing and to carry forward the lessons we learned. A great deal of that conviction comes from my time at Country Day.” 

Paying It Forward 

David is committed to investing in the next generation of leaders and innovators by sharing his expertise, time and resources with others. He serves on the board of the Derby Entrepreneurship Center at Tufts. “I really believe in this idea of the entrepreneurial spirit,” he says. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and found Google tomorrow or be an entrepreneur. The cool thing about having an entrepreneur’s mindset is that you’re able to deal with problems that have not been solved before. I want all the students everywhere to be able to think that way regardless of whether or not they start a company. That’s what you need to be successful in the future. It has nothing to do with how good of an accountant you are or how good of an engineer you are.” 

This entrepreneurial mindset mirrors how LJCDS approaches education—and has contributed to David’s success. Says David, “I had a solid foundation that has helped me to be successful. I’ve been privileged to grow and to never stop learning. I’ve come to realize that I’m very blessed, and in a lot of ways, I’ve won the life lottery.”

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