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.

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.

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? ...
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