Creating a global social system inspired by UCI students

October 27, 2015

ICS alumnus Sajjad Mustehsan '04 is hoping to tap a diverse mix of talented UCI grads to help him expand his location-based networking app Locye.

Sajjad Mustehsan (B.S. ’04) jokes he’s been programming since he was 9 years old. Perhaps that’s why he’s amassed such a wealth of experience in software engineering, pursuing a master’s degree in the subject at Carnegie Mellon University and working for companies like Adobe-owned Omniture and Esri, the biggest geographic information systems (GIS) company in the world. Still, Mustehsan counts among his most proud accomplishments the entrepreneurial projects he’s spearheaded on his own. His latest: location-based social networking app Locye, a project inspired by a visit to UC Irvine.

Locye uses a sophisticated mapping technology to share (personal or anonymous) posts with fellow local users. The definition of “local” changes depending on the density of users, thanks to Mustehsan’s smart technology. For example, a user in a classroom full of users will see posts from that class only. If local users are sparse, the app will automatically widen its range. The app is a culmination of skills from his life’s work, Mustehsan says. With more than 1,000 users gained in about a month, he’s happy to see Locye’s fast-growing appeal. He hopes soon to expand the project to employ ICS grads here in Irvine. Learn more about Locye and Mustehsan’s multifaceted career path below.

What drew you to computer science and software engineering?
I started programming when I was 9 years old on a Windows 3.1 PC 386 in 1992 or ’93. I had been making small things here and there and then webpages and the Internet came, so I was inclined to build things. I realized computer science would be my area of expertise. When I came to UCI, I was thinking I’d pursue programming. I thought programming was everything: You come in and write XYZ and that’s it. When I studied at ICS, I had the chance to take a software engineering course with Professor Andre van der Hoek. That’s when I realized there was more to computer science than programming. It was all about designing and taking big problems and breaking them into smaller pieces and building software systems. That’s why I took the software systems specialization then. I realized it was software engineering that I really liked, which is why I did my master’s in software engineering.

What did you do after graduating from Carnegie Mellon?
Right after I completed my master’s degree, I started working for a company called Omniture, which is now part of Adobe. I worked there for more than half a year, and then I moved to Esri, the largest GIS company in the world. I worked in their Washington, D.C., office, mostly on federal and civilian commercial projects, serving U.S. government agencies and large Fortune 500 companies. I did GIS work—using data to create maps and analyze maps with software to identify where customers live for advertising or where to place new stores—so store site selection, business continuity, things like that. For example, if a disaster happens, how can a business stay open or what items would they need to provide?

In 2011, I realized there was some opportunity in taking GIS as a very complex system and making it something small businesses could use as an integrated system. For example, a large company has large systems—a point of sale system, a margin system—and they use several custom software systems to convert that data and use it as a GIS dataset, and analyze that dataset and use it to produce maps and more. What I wanted to build as part of a project called Exachain was a single product that combined all those systems on a smaller scale for small businesses so that they have the same power and data analytics that big companies have, so that they can compete.

That didn’t really take off. Part of the reason was I was a one-person team and I didn’t realize that building is one thing, but selling a product is a big challenge. One of my professors at Carnegie Mellon told me ‘I know you can make the product, but the problem is, do you have the resources to go and sell it? Small businesses are more difficult to get money out of than large companies.’ In the venture capital business, you need to have proof of concept or existing sales ... it doesn’t matter how good the project is, they want to see real revenue sources. I didn’t have the resources to sell it, because I was bootstrapping it from my own savings.

I had to come up with smaller projects that would be less risky, so I suspended the project, which currently has more than 300,000 lines of code. As a smaller project, I came up with Locye.

What's the story behind Locye?
I did a project in Irvine before Locye called JunkLo. I had a relative who was a junk dealer—you know how people have lots of junk stowed away in their garage. JunkLo was a kind of Craigslist platform for those people. That didn’t take off either. ... I realized a better project would be a social platform, where I didn’t have to rely on any single person because every person is a potential user. So if I could come up with something that used my GIS experience and everything I’d done so far and funnel it into a single project, I could gain more traction. Plus, there’s the cost of marketing in the U.S., which is pretty high ... but if your product has a global appeal, it can be more affordable to advertise elsewhere and raise funds to capture the U.S. market.

Have you done test runs of Locye outside of the U.S.?
We got the first version out in July and started marketing in August 2015. We have over 1,000 users in Pakistan, a place where English is not the first language (Locye’s user interface is in English); where the education level is not as high as in the U.S.; and the connectivity, Internet bandwidth and infrastructure are not as high as in the U.S. Despite this, with every ad we’ve put up so far, our cost of acquiring each user has been less than a dollar. Every ad has received a tremendous response. We have a fast-growing user base and I think we’ve done pretty well with bootstrapping resources.

Give us the premise behind Locye.
I’ve been a longtime user of social networks. A young person, especially a student, has a few hundred friends—sometimes thousands—on these networks. As time goes by, you realize most of those people are only acquaintances. Most people only have 10 or so close friends—but there’s also a world beyond these friends. If you’re looking to share something, or get broad feedback, or give feedback, there’s a whole world beyond friends.

For example, there’s 30,000-plus students at UCI. Each of these students have a few hundred friends on a typical social network, but what about the remaining 28,000 students? With Locye, the system uses the GPS on your phone to determine your location and other users’ locations, and based on where you are and whom you are with, it will share messages with the people around you. Locye is smart: It can detect when you are with people. Say, if you’re in a class of 30 people, Locye will know to share with the people closest to you in the class. When you’re not around people, it’s smart enough to go outside as far as Anaheim. ... We also have selective anonymity. You can share things as yourself, or anonymously. ... Still, in our terms of use and otherwise, we want people to be responsible with their content. We want to encourage freedom of expression, but responsibly. There are other apps with anonymity only and they have been abused. With Locye, anonymity does not mean abuse or bullying; we take that very seriously.

It seems like it would be handy in really bad traffic, and other situations where you’d want to notify the public.
Yeah. Locye is not the only GPS location-based app out there, but we are the only app of our kind. Since we’re using fairly sophisticated GIS technology, it’s smart enough to detect when you’re in moving environments. Let’s say you’re driving from UCI to Los Angeles and you’re passing by South Coast Plaza. In typical GPS-based applications, it will detect that you’re close to South Coast Plaza and give you the option to tag yourself there. When you’re closer to Long Beach Airport, you will be able to tag yourself there, too. But what if there’s no nearby landmark, like on the drive through the desert to Las Vegas? The nearest thing you can tag is probably 50 miles off, which is not accurate. With Locye, we use a sophisticated map that determines exactly where you are and will automatically use your location as the tag itself. It will be the same for other users, so you’ll be able to see who is near. The definition of near will change, depending on the density of users around you.

How big is the Locye team?
Officially, there are three people, but it’s really just one engineer and two assistants. For non-technical things, we’re going to need a lot of people. We’re going to need a lot of engineers because we have a long line of features planned and this is just the beginning. We still have to come on other platforms, add features and capture the market.

Is it true that a visit to UCI inspired you to create Locye?
Whenever I was in Irvine, for business or otherwise, I would visit the campus once every two or three months. I realized there were so many people here, and I could see that everyone was using some form of social communication. I could see students coming out of Mesa Court, where I used to live, and typing something. Back when I was in college, 10 or 11 years ago, cell phones were still rare. There were no apps, no iOS, no Android, not even Blackberry. I realized there is so much around them that these students are missing. They could meet new people and share ideas freely—and there are situations where you might want to share things without being connected to your identity, or share things with new people and get their perspective. So that’s when I realized I should go and build something for these students with the technology I’ve been working on. This is a little bit of Exachain, JunkLo and everything I’ve done before. It’s a social system inspired by students and intended for them, but the application can go beyond students. Still, it’s a good starting point.

This app could be useful in advertising, too.
Yeah. Let’s say there’s an event—someone is coming to campus and you want to get the word out to students. One way would to be put an ad on a system that targets UCI undergrads, but that would cost a lot of money. In the market where we currently operate, South Asia, we use one of the conventional social networks to advertise. However, people don’t always put in accurate information—their ages are wrong, their locations are wrong, their schools are wrong. This is less of a problem in the U.S., but in developing countries it’s a bad situation—the accuracy is way off. This makes it difficult to target your ads and get your message to the right people. You’re paying to get your message to people you didn’t intend. With Locye, since it’s location-based, one thing you can do immediately is share the post on campus or within however many miles you choose. The feedback you receive will show you the commenter’s distance.

Are you planning on basing the company in Irvine?
Yes, I love Irvine. I’ve lived in the Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh. I think there’s a lot of untapped potential on this campus. It’s a Top 30 computer science school and I personally think it’s better than Top 30. I think the workforce being produced here is really strong technically and in terms of motivation and dedication. Irvine is a great place, too. ... It would be great if there was a way to harness all this potential, keep it in Irvine, and pay these grads as well as Silicon Valley with all the benefits of Irvine—it’s the safest city, one of the cleanest cities that I’ve seen, and I’ve traveled all around the world. My personal desire is to put the business here in Irvine right across from campus, if I can, and hire people from the campus. And not just from computer science, but from all over the campus, because when you’re building something like this you’ll need people from a psychology background, from an arts and design background, social sciences—all of it. You’re dealing with humans. It’s a social system so you need to understand those people and different cultures.

How did your time with ICS influence your career?
When I came here, I was more into programming, but as I took more courses I built systems that were useful. That’s when I realized I was learning a skill to be used in the real world. When you haven’t studied a subject as a subject—let’s say you’re an amateur programmer when you come to campus—you can probably build small things here and there, but you don’t know whether you’re capable of building something with real-world relevance. Once you’re asked to build something that addresses a real-world need, it does a few things: It gives you confidence, firstly, and then it convinces you that you can probably do something even better.

Back in 2002, in Campus Village, I built an AOL messenger app using Java remote method invocation (RMI), which is probably a very hard way to do such a thing, but I just wanted to learn how to build something on my own. We did a software systems project course and that was a game changer, because people from Raytheon came here and had a real demand to build something for the Department of Homeland Security.

What advice would you offer graduating students?
As I said, ICS is a great program, but the people I’ve seen who really succeed in an entrepreneurial setting, in their individual careers, and in grad school are self-starters. Do your classes and projects, of course, but you need to do things on your own. Instead of going to a party, build something cool and make it work. Even if it doesn’t work, seek advice from people around campus. Do independent studies, too. I would love to see an entrepreneurial independent study here on campus, because that would foster a lot of entrepreneurship on campus.

When you do things on your own, it’s scary at first. In class they give you homework and say, ‘Build this and deliver it on this date.’ This is a controlled setting with a fixed time frame and a fixed objective, and peers doing the same homework. In the real world, especially in entrepreneurial settings, you control the timeline and the budget and the project objectives. You need to practice this skill over and over again.

What would you look for in a potential hire?
There’s something I’ve observed over the years: I had friends with super high GPAs, and I didn’t have a low GPA myself, but they were too focused on succeeding in the classroom. Academic success is good, but you need to be able to do this in a non-classroom setting, especially on your own. It’s good to have a track record of individually delivering on projects. ICS does a great job of teaching technical skills and how to learn on your own. Whether you have a track record is what someone like me, in a fast-growing startup setting, would look for, because resources are very thin at startups. Self-starters, self-learners—that is the most important thing. It’s good to have experience and internships, but pursue things on your own, even outside of independent study.

UPDATE: By the end of October, Locye was accepted into the UCI Applied Innovations' Cove Share program. Through this, Locye now has an on-campus presence at the newly established Cove in the University Research Park.

— Story by Courtney Hamilton
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UCI ICS Feature: Creating a global social system inspired by UCI students