Ellen Chisa is an engineer, product manager, and founder. She is the co-founder of Dark, a programming language coupled to its editor and infrastructure. Chisa advises and invests in startups, sometimes working with Flybridge and parcelb.vc.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in Rochester Hills, MI, outside of Detroit. Seeing what it’s like for an economy to rely on one sector definitely shaped my view of tech. Another big impact on my childhood was participating in OCCRA (Oakland County Competitive Robotics Association) and FIRST Robotics. Robotics competitions taught me about how to systematically work through a problem. Plus, OCCRA permits iteration after competing with your robot, which models real-life engineering more closely. The competitions are fairly intense, so I felt a deep personal attachment to my work, and saw adults on the team have the same. On the really tactical side, FIRST was also how I found out about Olin, where I ended up going to college.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The hardest lessons come back throughout your life, and this is one that I’ve been through a few iterations on. Early on it meant I was committing to too many things, and not always doing them well. I think that’s a common mistake in young people and I don’t regret it.
Recently it’s come up as “just because you can handle a difficult work environment, or can handle someone behaving badly, doesn’t mean that you should”. It’s easy to say “oh it’s so great I can handle this hard situation most people couldn’t,” but that energy gets taken away from something else. You can do it, but it isn’t free, and it isn’t necessarily good.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
There are so many! I think one I’ve felt lately is the idea that there’s a “right” way to build a startup. From my perspective, our modern idea of how startups work is only about 15 years old. There’s no reason it won’t change completely again. Is it a good idea to study successes and emulate behaviors and strategies that make sense for your business? Yes. Should you just copy whatever the latest unicorn did? No.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
This one is more personal, but at one point I ended a codependent friendship. I’d relied on the friendship to cement the idea that I was helpful, and ending it caused me to spiral into a pretty dark place. For a long time, I got by day by day, relying on the support of my other friends and focusing on what I was interested in. Some difficult situations just require time.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Being comfortable in making decisions. I think it’s easy to want to find a perfect answer or get lost in tons of opportunity or ambiguity. You can never know exactly what will happen, so after a point continuing to dwell won’t result in a better outcome.
What is your morning routine?
I don’t set an alarm because I think it’s important to get as much sleep as I need. I usually wake up around 8 am and check my Whoop recovery score. After that, I don’t have a rigid routine. I try as much as possible to work with how I’m feeling at the moment. Sometimes I wake up and immediately want to exercise. Other times I’m full of ideas for a specific project and immediately sit down at my desk. There are days when it takes a bit longer to feel ready for the day and I’ll make coffee and read before getting into something else.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Getting the Whoop has been a game-changer for me. It’s given me a much better sense of when I’m pushing too hard or I’m feeling too stressed, and I can do experiments around specific behaviors. Apart from that, I’ve been doing the crossword with my husband every day for a little over a year. It’s nice to spend the time with him and I think it helps me think more divergently.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Being in the flow as often as possible. That’s why I have an unstructured schedule. I pick whatever task or activity I feel most called to, and work on that. Often once I’ve started something I’m content working for a few hours until there’s a natural stopping point. When I hit the point where I’m no longer being efficient, I stop working. The easiest way for me to figure that out is when I stop wanting to answer simple emails. That means I’m done for the day and should do something else.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
Great question! I love to read (here’s my Goodreads). I think the act of reading influences me more than specific books. Reading before bed dramatically impacts my resting heart rate and heart rate variability, and it adds perspectives to my life. I love reading memoirs, and the two I regularly read together are Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett. The pairing shows how deep friendship can be and the multiple perspectives on the experience.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
Yes. I come back to the Robert Frost poem “A Servant to Servants” whenever I’m in a challenging time. In particular, the passage that reads: “By good rights I ought not to have so much / Put on me, but there seems no other way. Len says one steady pull more out to do it. He says the best way out is always through. And I agree to that, or in so far / As that I can see no other way but through –”