Q: Who are you? Where are you from?
A: I’m Mike Pappas (he/him/his), the CEO and Cofounder of Modulate. I grew up in the greater Boston area and have lived here most of my life - furthest I’ve managed to get was a year and a half spent living in Connecticut. As of today, I’m based out of Kendall Square, not far from Modulate’s office.
Q: What’s your background? What did you do before Modulate?
A: In undergrad, I studied Physics and Applied Mathematics at MIT - my favorite project involved working with an Applied Math professor to try to recast the equations of quantum mechanics into something that can give us classical intuition for quantum weirdness. After MIT, I spent some time working on cloud infrastructure at Bridgewater Associates, then joined a travel startup (Lola Travel) as a jack-of-all-trades-but-mostly-technologist in order to learn how experienced entrepreneurs (in particular, Paul English, a co-founder of Kayak, who was at the helm) built a successful company from scratch. I was at Lola until I finally left to go full-time on Modulate.
Q: What’s something a potential Modulate employee should know about you?
A: I’d recommend they read my User Guide! This document - one of which each Modulate employee builds and shares with their coworkers when they join the team - describes my preferred communication style and how to interact with me most effectively. Probably the most important component I mention there is that I want, need, and strive to hear as much feedback as possible. If someone disagrees with me, I can handle that, but I can’t fix problems I’m not even aware of.
Q: How did you become passionate about building a company culture? Any thoughts on how an individual can help shape the culture?
A: I’ve thought a lot about social dynamics ever since high school, but it wasn’t until I went to work at Bridgewater Associates that I really started thinking deeply about company culture in particular. Bridgewater has a thorough and robust set of “principles” as well as a large software toolset, all built around realizing their desired culture - and I spent a lot of time there trying to digest what exact goals they were trying to achieve, why the solutions they chose made sense at the time, and whether they still did. I found a lot to love about Bridgewater’s emphasis on personal growth and respect, but had different ideas about how to realize such a culture, so I’ve been excited to have the opportunity to put all my thinking to work at Modulate.
In terms of how someone can help shape culture, the most important part of culture is that it’s clear and consistent. So the best thing anyone can do is ask questions - loudly! - when they are confused, upset, or otherwise uncertain about something relating to the culture. Either they’ll learn something new, or they’ll help the company refine its culture for the future.
Q: When did you realize that Modulate was going to be an ethics-first company?
A: That’s a tough question to answer. I probably never would have said something like “ethics-first” until we’d been working full-time on Modulate for a few months. This isn’t because we hadn’t considered any ethical questions until then - rather, it was because we’d kind of taken for granted “we’re good people with ethical standards, so of course we won’t be evil.” Once we started talking to more people about Modulate, we found ourselves confronted by genuinely difficult ethical questions with no clear right answer, and that pushed us to spend much more time really focused on fleshing out the way we thought through ethical concerns, rather than trusting our moral intuitions to work perfectly in every scenario.
Q: What’s the voice skin you’re most excited to use, and how do you plan to use it?
A: I’m hugely interested in understanding how changes in underlying perspectives, values, biases, and fears can lead to really important differences in how we make decisions. So I’m really interested in trying out voice skins from other demographics, both personally and hopefully in actual studies, to see how this impacts how people interact with me and what I can learn about equitable communication through the experience. It’s certainly not the same to be judged on a voice I’ve chosen compared to something I had no control over, but I hope it helps me on the path to understanding the kinds of circumstances that different people face.
Q: What’s your ideal work environment? Any special strategies you use to stay effective?
A: My life is a tightrope walk between avoiding monotony (and therefore aiming to have a couple different tasks each given day) and not being especially organized (and therefore terrified of letting something important fall through the cracks.) I tend to manage this through a combination of spreadsheets (for the more regular stuff) and unread emails (for the more one-off tasks). I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for my strategy being particularly clever or effective, but it’s worked for me this far.
Q: Who are you outside of work?
A: At my core, I’m someone who loves theorizing about, or trying to understand or break, systems. So I’m excited about anything that lets me flex that muscle - whether it’s playing games or consuming media built around well-thought-out worlds; speculating about politics or the economy; or trying to discover new techniques for cooking or bartending through controlled trial-and-error. That said, I’m also kind of an introvert, so you might also find me running, playing piano, or watching “Let’s Play”s to recenter myself.
Q: What’s something you’re great at that few people realize?
A: I think I’m a decent writer, and pretty great at conceiving of stories or settings. This definitely wasn’t a natural talent, but starting in early high school I found that I enjoyed writing fiction in my free time, and ever since have kept to a habit of writing at least a couple pages of something - whether fiction, blog posts, half-baked treatises that will never see the light of day - each week, both to keep myself always looking for fresh ideas and to polish my communication skills.
Q: Leave us with a fun tidbit - a favorite joke, a story from your past, an obscure riddle, whatever you like!
A: In the vein of riddles, I’m a huge fan of MIT’s Mystery Hunt, which is a yearly puzzle hunt at a massive scale. There are keyword-based archives here, but some of my favorites include N-tris (a special variation on Tetris) and Shift (a puzzle using the board game Codenames). Believe it or not, these are both comparatively straightforward puzzles - often the most fun at Mystery Hunt comes not knowing what to do next, and then all getting to share in the burst of joy and adrenaline when someone finally realizes the trick.