Member Spotlight: Joseph Yang (BS ’86, MS ’87, PhD ’91)
Tell me how you first got involved with the Caltech Associates and why supporting Caltech is important to you.
I wanted to give back to Caltech because it played such an integral role in shaping who I am and my career. I spent nine years there (BS '86, MS '87, PhD '91) and in the process, I learned—sometimes not entirely voluntarily—perseverance, discipline, and how to think about and analyze problems at a fundamental level. Those critical life and career skills have served me well, not only while I was an engineer, but also long after I left engineering to become an attorney.
What role does the Northern California chapter play within the Caltech Associates, and what motivates you to stay involved?
As one of the larger chapters outside of Southern California, we are a testing ground for how to engage Associates without the infrastructure of or proximity to campus. Some ideas include bringing a Watson Lecture to the Bay Area through a live-streaming event, adding family-friendly events to increase accessibility to Associates with children, and partnering with local tech companies (Microsoft or Google) to host events and foster networking. We're trying a lot of stuff to see what works.
These ideas come from a great Northern California committee that is deeply connected with Caltech at all levels, as well as Associates Board leadership who are regulars at our events and planning sessions and help build bridges between Northern California and Southern California chapters. We are also fortunate that Brian Lee, Diane Binney, and Catherine Reeves at Caltech have focused the Associates leadership on supporting and growing the Northern California chapter. Their energy, creativity, and can-do spirit are remarkable. We at the committee level come up with ideas, but they and the Associates staff really make them happen. I can't say enough about the great job they do.
What do you enjoy the most about being part of the Caltech Associates?
For me, it's mostly about the people. Associates members are—almost by definition—people who have been very successful in their lives and careers. Here in Silicon Valley, our group tends to be heavy with entrepreneurs—not just MBAs and VCs who commercialize other people's ideas (apologies to my financial friends!), but people who actually spawn ideas, then grow and commercialize them. The kinds of things we didn't (at least in my day) learn at Caltech. Learning from my fellow members' experiences enriches my life. I also enjoy the Associates' "sneak peeks" into the amazing research that is happening on campus, such as Dr. Yu Chong Tai's efforts toward restoring vision in the blind or enabling paraplegics to walk. It's interesting to read about it in a newspaper, but a lot more fun to hear it live from the researcher who is doing the work.
Outside of your involvement as the chair of the Caltech Associates Northern California committee and a member of the board, what do you do?
I'm a partner in a Silicon Valley law firm that I founded with my law partner Roxana, who is also my wife. Before that I was general counsel of a cryptography/security company. I structure and negotiate tech- and IP-centric deals for my clients: development, licensing, joint venture, and other agreements to help bring products to market. My clients were traditionally semiconductor/electronics companies, but as technology has spread into the fabric of our lives, I now find myself doing lots of work for companies in the consumer products (e.g., Nike) and entertainment (e.g., Disney) space. It's exciting to see industries that were once quite distinct start to come together and to play a role in helping that happen. I also enjoy teaching, including chairing three IP licensing programs that we run annually for practicing attorneys in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. This year, I am also teaching "Patent and Technology Licensing" at Stanford Law School.
Outside of work, I love spending time with my lovely wife, Roxana, and our terrific kids, Jackie and Russell (who is clearly an engineer's son, and who I hope may attend Caltech when his time comes). We really like to travel, explore, and hike and bike. Recently we were able to visit Scandinavia and Japan, and it was a blast.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
For many years, my hobby was target shooting. I got into it at Caltech, actually. As a graduate student, I studied fluid mechanics, aerodynamics, and propulsion—the core elements of flight, whether of a rocket, a plane, or a bullet. So it was a natural hobby to complement my academics. JPL and Caltech had, and I think may still have, a little-known gun club, with weekend access to a private shooting range tucked away in the foothills behind the secure JPL perimeter. To use it, you had to be a club member, have passed a proficiency test, and some kind of background check. I have many pleasant memories of relaxing Saturday mornings at the range. It was a great way to decompress and clear one's mind.
Do you have a favorite Caltech memory, story, or moment?
Two stand out in my memory. Studying at Caltech was the hardest thing I've ever done (well, maybe except parenting). But Caltech made it as frictionless as possible. It started the day I arrived on campus as a new freshman. I had driven across country with a carful of heavy moving boxes. I asked the parking office where I could park for a half day while I unloaded. They assigned me a numbered parking space in a small lot off of Holliston that I could use until I graduated. Can you imagine that?
After I became a lawyer, I was a volunteer alumni admissions representative, or AAR. One year, a bunch of us met with the Caltech professor chairing the admissions committee. Somebody asked him what kind of students he wanted. He answered with an example of what he didn't want—someone who wanted to attend Caltech to get a first-rate technical education and then become a lawyer. A fellow AAR pointed to me and said something along the lines of: "Well, Joe got three degrees here. I guess you would have rejected him multiple times!"
Any closing sentiments?
If I could time travel, I'd go back to relive a semester (minus final exam week) as a student there!
Name: Joseph Yang
Member Since: 1999
Membership Level: President's Circle
Chapter: Northern California
Job Title: Attorney