Jack Chen — His Vision of Adventure

Jack Chen Triathlon cycling
Jack Chen Triathlon cycling

A lawyer in Google’s New York offices in Chelsea, Jack Chen navigates two train stations, the subway and busy sidewalks as his daily workday commute. A graduate of Fordham Law School, Chen started as an associate patent counsel at Google in 2010. In 2014 he became the company’s product counsel in charge of Chrome: what he called “the quarterback or the general counsel of the product from a legal perspective.”

Chen has degrees in computer science from Harvard and Berkeley. Before law school, Chen interned at AT&T, and worked as a systems engineer at Xanboo Inc., a New York-based startup that produced internet-based home automation and security systems.

He also spent two years as a patent and trademark attorney in the NY office of Kenyon & Kenyon, and three years as an associate at Baker Botts.

Chen has competed in five triathlons, including two Iron Man triathlons, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a 26.2-mile run.

Chen does the swimming and running portions by hooking to another athlete with a length of rope; he rides the biking portion on a tandem bicycle. When Chen was preparing for his most recent triathlon, he said he routinely got up at 3:00 a.m. to train before coming into the office.

Chen climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Chen underwent an operation to improve his vision, but the surgery damaged the retina.

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The precise medical reasons for his blindness are unclear, but there’s good reason to think it’s genetic: Chen’s brother, Richard, was also born with a severe visual impairment, though he’s not totally blind.

ABILITY: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Jack Chen: Well, gosh, it’s a broad question. I am totally blind. I lost my eyesight when I was 16 years old through an eye operation that did not go according to plan, we should say. However, I was born with very limited eyesight. I would describe it as if I could see light, dark, colors, and large shapes. If I was standing at the bottom of the driveway, I could see that there was a large object with various colors. But I couldn’t tell what the shape was, if there was lots of the white and lots of the red, I couldn’t tell that it was a door. That kind of thing.

ABILITY: This is pre-16?

Chen: Pre-16. And then when I was 16 I went for a cornea transplant that was supposed to try to replace the cornea in my one functioning eye, there was some hemorrhaging in the operation and I lost my eyesight. Just to put that in context, that was around the time of my sophomore-junior year in high school when you start taking SATS and college entrance exams and those kinds of things. It was a very challenging period in my life, for sure. But taking a step back a little bit and what’s relevant to the overall story, I remember very distinctly in fifth grade I had a teacher who said something that was kind of surprising to me at the time. I was always a child who tried to do really well at school, being from an immigrant family. And I used to get quite stressed out over homework and wanting to get everything perfect. And the teacher said, “You know, you don’t need to work that hard, because the government is going to take care of you.” For a child to hear that at that age, that’s quite a—that can leave an impression. And thank God that it did not do that to me. It did not cause me to give up. But it did show me I think at the time that I would need to—if I wanted to do something in my life, it would have to be up to me to have the wherewithal to make it happen, to continue to work hard and to in some sense tune out certain things.

Fast forward many years. I’ve had a lot of really wonderful opportunities to do many things in life, including going to college at Harvard, which is a story in itself. A lot of athletic things as well.

ABILITY: Let’s not go so fast forward yet. Back to high school you’re 16 and lost total sight. Did you have to find new ways to adapt or had you been so close it wasn’t as big of a transition?

Chen: I had been pretty close to being—not having so much sight, so I did to try to do things like read Braille, although I wasn’t very good at it. I knew very well that I would have to absorb information in classes without access to lots of textbooks or what was being written on the blackboard, that kind of thing. Those kinds of skills were already being developed at the time. What wasn’t well developed or at times something I struggled with was, going from sight to no sight at all is an enormous transition, no matter how little sight you had had. Realizing that before I could walk down the hallway, I could generally tell I was walking in a straight line. I didn’t need to use a cane. But now I needed to. That kind of navigation, that basic, basic aspect of my life, was now totally different. And that kind of affected many things.

For example, if you’re standing there talk to somebody. If you have some sight, you can when the person moves away from you. You can tell if you’re not facing that person. But when you become totally blind, you don’t have the visual cues. It’s very challenging to have the confidence to be out there knowing that your information isn’t perfect and you’re going to make mistakes. And the kinds of mistakes you make are quite awkward in this society. So I think there was a lot of transition in that.

There was a lot of transition also from a personal standpoint. As soon as the eye operation was done, I remember thinking to myself, “Well, what am I going to do then? I’m done. My life is over.” Even though I had had limited eyesight my whole life, it felt like all the optics were now shut down. There was a lot of wrestling with self-doubt through that period as well.

ABILITY: This affected your social life,

Chen: Yeah, there was a pretty significant turning point at that particular time. I remember that when I came back from surgery, word had spread what had happened, and I wasn’t the most popular kid when I had my sight, but I got along with a lot of people. And after the operation, it was as though I didn’t exist. I didn’t really have—I don’t quite understand, I should actually ask some of my high school friends, but it was pretty depressing for me. I felt like I didn’t really have a place in the student body any more, I was much more isolated after that. Even to this day, the first person I connected with, only a couple weeks ago, that was the first time I’ve connected with anyone from high school, and it’s been 25 years, and I hadn’t really connected with anybody, because I just didn’t feel like I had friends in the student body any more.

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ABILITY: Was the technology that was afforded you changing at that time?

Chen: I think at the time, this was in 1991, the technology that was out there was pretty rudimentary. It wasn’t the kind of thing that I really gravitated towards, because I didn’t see a whole lot of benefit in it. It was things like the very early Braille computers. I was very much more the kind of person who was able to survive through listening and understanding and absorbing information that way, as opposed to doing a lot of reading. I was much more auditory in my learning through audiobooks and various services that are made available to people who are blind. But no, I didn’t do the whole computer thing at the time. I knew how to type and could type my papers and things like that. That was it.

ABILITY: Did you have support in high school that helped you navigate to get into Harvard?

Jack Chen and friends at Harvard Graduation
Jack Chen and friends at Harvard Graduation

Chen: The support that I had in high school was mostly in the form of a teacher who could help me to work through some of the visual tests. I would take tests orally, so they’d read the problem to me and I would say what the answer was and they would write it down and turn it in. That was the way I would do my tests. Other than that, in terms of support, there was some equipment, like I was going through calculus and higher-order math classes, so Braille was the method I chose to use for that subject. It was a Braille machine or something that I used. But I didn’t have a whole lot of other services available from the school other than that.

ABILITY: Can you use Braille for math formulas?

Chen: There’s a special kind of Braille for math. Again, I wasn’t super-good at Braille, but I could kind of do the formulas. I wasn’t good at the Braille part of it.

ABILITY: Or the calculus part of it!

Chen: (laughs) That part was actually easier.

ABILITY: What was the experience like at Harvard?

Chen: Harvard was a really unique experience. Here you are, with what’s supposed to be the brightest and the best in the world, and I was only two years into this whole being totally blind thing. Never having lived away from home for a significant period of time, now put into an environment—there were a lot of aspects that were very challenging. One is, I would describe the main, central part of Harvard’s campus as a bowl of spaghetti in terms of the way the pathways are organized. Sometimes you had pathways where five sidewalks came together, or eight, and you had to walk it alone, walk to this—first of all, detect that the sidewalks were joining and then pick the right one. And if you picked the right one, you went the wrong direction.

And in the wintertime, when the snow covered everything, you couldn’t tell where the sidewalk was to begin with. It was a very large area. It was obviously not square. It was very challenging first of all to get around the campus. I had a little bit of orientation to help with that, but I think there’s nothing that can replace making mistakes as you try to learn how to tell the cues to get from one place to another. So navigating was challenging initially.

The bigger thing that was hard was the amount of reading and schoolwork. I had tried to be very prepared before I went to college. I went and had a conversation with a woman in the disability office and let her know what I needed. My hope was—I think that was April or May, something like that—the hope was to get started on the material so that I would feel I had stuff for taking classes. As it turns out, that wasn’t the case. Harvard works on a volunteer leader system, so other students and maybe other people in the community would come and if you had an assignment in a book, they would read it onto a tape and leave it for you in a particular location where you would go in and pick up tapes. What would happen is, I would have some material, but the vast majority of the materials I wouldn’t get until after the class was over that the materials were related to, or I wouldn’t have any materials at all.

I say it like this: think about putting together a big jigsaw puzzle. The easy things are the facts and the lessons that you get from audio, for example, sitting in the seat in recitations. That’s all the stuff that I call the edge stuff. Anyone can learn to do that. But then there’s other material in the classes that’s part of written form, maybe a handout or various other source books, where the professor says, “I’m going to put these 150 articles together into this one volume,” and you pick that up at the beginning of the semester. And of course that’s not a published work, so if nobody has read that, there’s no access to it.

So here I am. The trick was to go from filling in from the edges and a couple of pieces in the middle and filling in all the rest. I had to fill in all the rest without that information based on what I knew. It was extremely challenging. And sometimes I would have 10 or 12 books. The first semester, for example, for psychology class, to just not have access to half, maybe more than half of the materials. And if I did, it was after the point at which the class was going over that material. It was an extremely challenging time.

ABILITY: What was your major?

Chen: I was a computer science major, an engineering major, and then Harvard has core curriculum classes, like eight to 10 classes you take as part of your core, a lot of humanities classes and things like that. That made up the substance of the classes.

ABILITY: And you made it?

Chen: I did!

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ABILITY: You’re off-campus now, you found your way back.

Chen: (laughter) I’d better be, otherwise I’d be a very, very extremely old student!

ABILITY: (laughs) Did you ever go to Lampoon?

Chen: I did not, although my brother also went to Harvard and was part of the Harvard Lampoon.

ABILITY: Where did you go to graduate school?

Chen: I didn’t go to graduate school for a number of years. I went to computer science for graduate school at Berkeley from 1998-99, and then I took some time to work and then I went to law school after that.

ABILITY: From computer science to law school.

Chen: (laughs) Yeah.

Jack Chen climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
Jack Chen climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

ABILITY: What do you do now?

Chen: I am currently a corporate counsel for Google, so I’m an attorney working in a legal department for Google. I am product counsel, which means I manage the legal issues for particular products. My focus area is the Chrome browser and Chromebook.

ABILITY: What is the daily makeup of that kind of a title?

Chen: It doesn’t have—product counsels are interesting positions because they’re not super-deep on any particular topic. We also have specialty legal groups to handle a lot of other things as well, so we have explicitly our litigation group, our patents group, our copyright group. But product counsel are responsible pretty much for knowing everything, being able to versed in and provide advice on all areas of law. It just that when things get very complicated, we have the ability to call on the specialty teams for extra help. We basically have entire large functioning law firm within the legal department as well as specialty groups in it.

ABILITY: How did you get involved in this bike ride?

Chen: I am one of the—I came up with this crazy idea of—my other partner in crime is a gentleman named Dan Berlin based out in Colorado. He and I met because I got his contact information, he’s also visually impaired, he’s the co-founder of one a successful food company and one of the largest products vanilla extract. For example, if you go to Costco and you buy vanilla, that’s his product. I interviewed him for a podcast I have called “Excellability, and I interview people who have disabilities who are super-successful and try to understand what the attitudes, techniques, practices, and habits are that have enabled them to become super-successful. It’s kind of a more NPR-style interview format.

I interviewed him, and we got to talking afterwards and realized that we have a lot in common because he had done the Inca Trail, not together, but he had done that and I had done that Kilimanjaro climb. Now we both climb out in Colorado and we’re both triathletes. We’ve done a lot of very similar things together and love to go out there and try it just for ourselves. And we both also have this knack for trying to really show the world what the capabilities are of the blind and visually impaired. And so we came up with this crazy idea, “What’s the hardest thing we can think of doing?” And cycling across the country was right at the top of the list.

ABILITY: (laughs)

Chen: We were originally planning to do it as a project, just take our own time, and then we found out about this thing called Race Across America. It’s a real race. It’s probably one of the most difficult cycling races in the world, because it’s longer than Tour de France without any rest. In Tour de France you ride during the day and you get to sleep at night. No disrespect to Tour de France people, of course, but—

ABILITY: They’re wusses!

Chen: (laughs) They’re so rested! This race is like 24 hours! There are people who do this race solo. We weren’t that crazy. We decided to put together a team to do it, a sort of a kind of—I guess you would kind of call it a relay format.

ABILITY: So you will have rest?

Chen: We will have some. It’s a complicated format.

ABILITY: So you’re a wuss?

Chen: (laughs) Yeah! This race is supposed to take between seven to eight days. It’s about 3,100 miles. We’re going to do the Wolf Creek Pass. It’s about 11,000 feet elevation.


Chen: At the time—there was never a question about whether we could do this race. And putting together something like this is a massive undertaking. There are 20 other crew members who are coming with us, who are volunteering. They deserve an incredible amount of credit and thanks because they’re giving up time and sleep and being thrust into an environment that’s extremely challenging. It’s like a roving caravan, with two RVs and three to five vans. Putting together something like this is incredibly complex, the funding, the logistics, the bike mechanics, the routes, getting all the vehicles, just everything. And on top of that, we wanted to create a—we thought, “What else can we do with this race that could really make an impact?” We’re filming a movie about what we’re most passionate about, which was success of people who are blind or visually impaired. We knew that those were two things we wanted to do. We wanted to create a film that would highlight the level of capabilities of people who are blind or visually impaired on the bike, but also off the bike in a social capacity.

We put together a team of blind professionals who would be the riders, and it was great, who all had a great story to tell about their own impairment and success. The goal was to take on and challenge themselves and impact the 70% joblessness rate of people who are college-educated and who are blind or visually impaired.

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Recognizing that Dan and I and others have had an opportunity to become successful despite our visual impairment, we knew that there’s incredible talent out there in the blind community. We wanted to highlight success. We want corporate America and people in general to know that there is an enormous talent pool out there that’s ready to be tapped. We’re standing as examples, if you will, of some success that can be found in the community, and we want people to realize that it’s not just us. There are others, too, and there are others who haven’t even had a chance to get started yet, and they need to get a chance to get started. That’s the way that we’re going to be able to help companies realize more of potential. Right now everyone’s got talent, and no one’s tapping this space, and we think that there’s an incredible opportunity in the space.

ABILITY: Did you ever talk to Isaac Lidsky?

Chen: I have not personally spoken to him. My brother did have a couple of conversations with him.

ABILITY: Did you know we created the first job site for people with disabilities?

Chen: No, I’m not.

ABILITY: We built it in 1995.

Chen: Wow!

ABILITY: It’s the largest employment site for people with disabilities. It’s called abilityJOBS.com. Back in the day it was called Job Access, but we—

Chen: Oh, I’ve heard of that.

ABILITY: And now we’ve built the first accessible online career fair, ABILITYJobFair.org. Brings new accessibility to online career fairs with video, sign language interpreters and speech to text.

Can you think of anything else you’d like to talk about?

Chen: I think our real main thrust of the project is less about—the race is kind of a metaphor. We feel like it will highlight the unique skill set that people who are blind and visually impaired bring to the table. For example, I’ll give you a great example. The pilot I’m riding with, Caroline Gaynor. She’s committed her life to riding with people who are blind and visually impaired all over the world. She just finished an event in Texas in April with a blind person. She did Hawaii last year. During her crossing, she did this race as part of another team, a solo bike team, so four solo bike teams a few years ago, they parked their van on the side of the road in Arizona and the grass caught on fire, and the car completely burned out. So they’re down one vehicle.

Anything like that can happen at a race. And one of the aspects that this race will bring out is the ability to problem-solve and keep going. People who have disabilities, people who are blind or visually impaired, their life is not “normal” every day. Nothing is easy. Everything is difficult. Everything is challenging. Everything needs a custom solution. This race will truly bring out that aspect, which is unique. It’s a distinct advantage, maybe not particularly unique, but a distinct advantage that these people bring to the table.

ABILITY: Problem-solving techniques.

Chen: And another one is the ability to keep going no matter what happens, no matter how bleak things seem to be. We’re just going to make this happen. That’s the kind of never-going-to-let-things-get-you-down type of mentality a lot of people with disabilities bring to the table, too. For example, if you were in a company and you had a division that was in deep trouble, what kind of person would you want to run that division? Would you want a person who’s never faced hardships to run that division? Or do you want someone who has every day faced hardship and in particular most of their lives had an extreme hardship? You’re talking about losing your eyesight at three years old. Who do you want to run that company? People who can see beyond the immediate to the future and little by little get you to the point where you business can be profitable again.

There are things like that that we want to bring out as part of this film, to highlight. We don’t know what will happen, but we know for sure that it’ll be hard. There’s lots of great lessons that can be drawn out of that. I think that our main goal is to highlight this successful capability, partnering with other organizations like the American Foundation for the Blind and Blind Connectors is another disability talent sourcing group, those are the organizations on the ground that are going to be able to take our message and then translate it into actual jobs in actual companies with people who can be successful and can be the next GM CEO so that we can show America what the full capabilities are of people who are blind or visually impaired. I think that’s the broader messages we’re trying to convey in doing this. The race is a means to an end. That’s the real thing. Emphasizing that aspect is important to the whole team.

The other aspect that’s very important and that fits your mandate is that we don’t do this alone. Like I said, there are dozens of people who have given their time, talent, and resources to make this happen because they believe in it. Everyone who hears about what we’re doing no doubt understands that this is going to change perceptions in the real world. People have jumped behind it. There are drivers, navigators, people cooking the food for us, cleaning the RVs, they’re doing laundry, they’re doing everything to help us to make this a reality. They deserve an enormous amount of credit and appreciation for what they’re doing. They’re not getting the spotlight, and they’re not—they’re there to enable the whole thing to happen. It’s an incredible, incredible gift they’re giving to us.

There’s a lot of logistics getting on and off the bike, the vans will leapfrog, it’s a complex thing. We’ve practiced twice, and every time the whole crew gets there, it’s like a party. Everyone has such a great time. Everyone loves to be together. It’s all smiles, all jokes. And the race, a lot of it will be like that. Everyone loves to be together. Everyone gets along. Yes, there will be some rough times, but you know what? Everyone’s so behind this project that it’s awesome.

Jack Chen wedding day
Jack Chen’s wedding day


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