May 22, 2024

I’m Luis von Ahn, CEO of Duolingo, and This Is How I Work


Duolingo is a popular language leaning platform that has helped thousands of people develop their multilingual skills for free. Its gamified lessons emphasize quick learning so you can memorize a few new words without much effort while waiting for the bus.

Luis von Ahn co-founded Duolingo in 2011 as a way to offer free education to the world. But it’s not his only accomplishment; in fact, the project was originally sponsored in part by a MacArthur fellowship that Luis had won. He also happens to be the co-inventor of CAPTCHAs, those series of tricky letters and numbers that you occasionally have to type prove that you’re human, and he’s sold a couple of companies to Google. We spoke with Luis to learn a little about how he works—which is, we learned, alongside his dog.

Location: Pittsburgh, PA
Current Gig: I am the co-founder and CEO of Duolingo, the platform bringing free language education to over 150 million people around the world.
One word that best describes how you work: Focused.
Current mobile device: iPhone 7
Current computer: MacBook

First of all, tell me a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.

I was born and raised in Guatemala and came to the U.S. in 1996 to attend university, first at Duke to earn my B.S. in Mathematics and later at Carnegie Mellon to get my PhD.

While at Carnegie Mellon as a PhD student and eventually a professor of computer science, I worked on a number of projects that were used by millions of people and that also served as inspiration to what we now call “crowdsourcing.” Together with my advisor, Manuel Blum, I co-invented CAPTCHAs, or computer-generated tests that humans are routinely able to pass but that computers have not mastered (they are the squiggly computer letters that are prevalent across the web). My other projects included inventing the ESP Game (a.k.a. The Google Image Labeler) for image recognition and reCAPTCHA to help digitize the world’s books, both of which were acquired by Google.

In 2011, after spending a couple of years working at Google, I decided that I wanted to dedicate myself to helping to transform education. I was particularly inspired by my upbringing in Guatemala, a poor country where high-quality educational opportunities are limited to those who have money. Because education is such a broad area, I chose to focus on language learning. To put it into perspective, there are 1.2 billion people across the world who are learning a foreign language, and about 800 million of them are learning English in order to get out of poverty.

So, I co-founded Duolingo with the mission of bringing free language education to the world. Today, Duolingo is the most popular way to learn languages online, with over 150 million users worldwide. One fact we’re particularly proud of is that there are more people learning languages on Duolingo in the US than there are people learning languages in the entire US public school system. Duolingo is available for iOS, Android and Windows devices, as well as on the web.

What apps, software, or tools can’t you live without?

I’d be remiss not to make a shameless plug for Duolingo, as I’m currently using the app to learn Portuguese! I’m also always on Slack, which is one of my main ways of communicating with the Duolingo team throughout the day. Some of the other apps on my phone’s home screen include Lyft, Sonos, Google Hangouts and Tinycards (the flashcards app launched by the Duolingo team last year).

What’s your workspace setup like?

What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?

This sounds strange to many people, but I work out for exactly 16 minutes every day, and do so at maximum speed by running 2.5 miles. This keeps me healthy without taking up too much time so I can stay focused on other things. It’s one of the most efficient things I do each day.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

I usually make to-do lists with timelines, and pen and paper does the trick for me.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?

If my Tesla counts as a gadget, that would be it. I wouldn’t be able to get around Pittsburgh without it!

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?

I am always able to keep a laser focus on one thing at a time without getting distracted. It helps that I try to break everything I do into small, achievable tasks that take at most a few hours to complete, so it is much easier to stay focused and motivated this way.

What do you listen to while you work?

I have been listening to CHVRCHES quite a lot lately—it’s a British synthpop band.

What are you currently reading?

I recently finished reading High Output Management by Andrew Grove, which had such valuable insights for leaders that I’ve been forcing managers at Duolingo to read the book now.

How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?

It’s hard to think of a time when I’m not working, but when that is the case, I like to travel and eat good food. In fact, I just went to Peru for a food tour, and it definitely didn’t disappoint!

What’s your sleep routine like?

I am an early riser, and always wake up between 5 and 6am.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see ____ answer these same questions.

Neil deGrasse Tyson.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

If you get asked to do something that would take place down the road (say you get asked to speak at a conference that’s a year away) and you wouldn’t want to do it if it were taking place next week, then don’t do it. This advice has helped me evaluate the opportunities that I truly want to dedicate my time to and those that I don’t.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?

Every day without fail, I bring my dog Bunny to work. She’s a Westie and is 15 years old now, so I have to carry her pretty much the whole way to get her to the office. Here’s a photo of her in my car recently on the way to work!

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