Tomás Pueyo answers his cell phone and it’s clear from the background noise that his typical office atmosphere no longer exists. He and his wife are both working from their San Francisco home during California Governor Gavin Newsom’s shelter-in-place order, and that means the kids — three-year-old twins and an almost two-year-old — are awake and active.
“I’m a bit exhausted by all the craziness,” he says.
Beyond the craziness of trying to work from home and parent three toddlers, amid a pandemic, is this: On March 10, Pueyo, a 2010 graduate of Stanford GSB with a diploma in public management and specialization in behavioral psychology, published a data-driven article on Medium titled “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now.” It was aimed at politicians and community and business leaders, and it posed the question, “What should you do and when?”
Within nine days, the post had been viewed 30 million times. By the time he spoke to Stanford GSB on March 26, that number had reached 40 million — with translations available in 30 different languages. His second Medium post, titled “The Hammer and the Dance: What the Next 18 Months Can Look Like, If Leaders Buy Us Time,” has racked up 10 million views since its March 19 publication.
Pueyo spoke to Stanford GSB on March 25, in the midst of juggling his day job as vice president of growth at Course Hero, a platform that allows students to share course-specific and other educational resources, with his shelter-in-place parenting duties. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What prompted you to write the first post, “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now?”
I work in Silicon Valley in growth. That’s a critical factor, because not everybody in Silicon Valley deals with exponential growth rates every day. I’m very acquainted with growth rates and what they mean. When something has an exponential growth rate, we know the consequences and what it means. Early on, after Wuhan shut down, I was looking at numbers and I thought, “This is crazy, this is flabbergasting.” And I started posting on Facebook information about coronavirus to my friends. It was clear exponential growth was going to happen.
Every time I posted, people would ask questions and share, and so I kept posting. It became more and more urgent, because what was obvious to me and my friends was not obvious to the rest of the world: There’s community spread, and you’re not tracking it, and you might want to shut down. I was talking to my company about the data, and early on there wasn’t a lot of urgency on my company’s side. That was the case all over Silicon Valley.
I started covering it from that perspective: “Hey, companies, when should you shut down?” was one of my early posts. A friend said, “What you wrote is super-relevant and I would like something about Paris so they can also understand the need of working from home.” That was the prompt for my first Medium post.
Did you have any indication of how widely it was going to be shared? Before I knew who you were, I had sent it to multiple people and received it from multiple people — it was all anyone was talking about.
A previous post I had done was seen by 200,000 people, so I thought that would be the most I would dream of, and now this is up past 40 million. For a 25-minute piece that’s full of charts, it’s crazy.
So to ask the question you were addressing: Did we wait too long?
For sure, most of the world waited too long … but it’s interesting to talk about different regions. The Bay Area was the fastest to react outside of East Asia. East Asia had lived through SARS in 2003, and they all reacted well and contained it really well. The Western world didn’t do this with the coronavirus. The Bay Area was relatively quick to respond — there are a lot of growth thinkers here, and a bunch of people were sounding the alarms on this early, because they recognized the patterns.
Also, we are an industry that can move to work from home quickly. California’s infection numbers are good, compared with New York, for example. That’s because we reacted faster than most — although it was still too slow. Spain, for example, and Italy, they reacted much too slow, but now I think the slowest of them all is the U.S., with more than 50,000 cases [that was on March 26; by April 1, the U.S. had more than 200,000 confirmed cases] and no centralized lockdown.
I think it’s human not to understand exponential growth.
What kind of interactions have you had as a result of so many people reading your work on this?
It’s been both frustrating and satisfying. Frustrating because people are not reacting fast enough — they have the information and there’s no reaction. But satisfying because I’ve had an overwhelming amount of positive feedback. I’ve lost count of the number of friends who have said, “I received this from four different people.” I pushed it out through my networks and they received feedback from several different governments who acted the day they received the articles. An ex-director of the World Health Organization shared it, famous people like Marc Benioff and Margaret Atwood and Ehud Barak were tweeting it, it was really everywhere and it was crazy. But knowing that governments eventually did the right thing, that’s super satisfying.
I’m nobody. I’m just a guy in the right place and right time with enough storytelling ability and analytics ability to put it together.
— Mary Duan