Welcome to November

IMG_2279Welcome to November. My plans to have read more this year have gone severely awry. But one of the things that have disappointed me the most is that I’ve failed to read more.

I’ve been making it a point to read more fiction instead of the regular self-help books. I just finished Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In my head I kept picturing the voices as they were in the movie, but I realised that there were so many details left out from the wonderful book because of time.

Jane Austen had such a clear, critical perspective of life in her days. In Mr. Darcy’s pride, you recognize that money can’t buy everything, particularly, Elizabeth’s respect at the start of the book. It’s only towards the end, when he started acting out of love to help her that they grew fond of each other and won her heart. For Elizabeth, her prejudice against him made her blind to the wrongs that Darcy had had to endure with Mr. Wickham, and in the end it was her own sister that would suffer from her prejudices.

It’s interesting how a story can help you learn lessons.

From Pride and Prejudice, I learnt that a couple has to learn together to become the best versions of themselves. I think it’s naive to say that, “if you love me, you will accept me as I am.” A large part is realising that you are wrong, and wanting to improve.

It might have had a good ending, but it’s also far from a fairy tale. I’ve never seen so much critique in a love story about the effects of money in society and it’s power in determining who we should love. I do feel she’s a romantic at heart, because in the end the love Elizabeth and Darcy had far outdoes the pragmatic kind of love that Charlotte opted for when she decided to settle down with the annoying Mr. Collins.

Jane Austen was an excellent judge of character, reminding us that it’s more important to be a moral character, than a rich one.

It’s a joy to watch people do good work

kopitiam_honglim
Left: Dedicated kopi-uncle who makes the best kopi in Hong Lim Hawker Center

There’s this kopi-uncle working in Hong Lim Hawker Center. Everyday I get kopi from him and it’s pure joy to watch him make coffee.

What sets this uncle apart from the rest of the kopi-uncles is his dedication to making a perfect cup of coffee each time. He douses hot water on the cup, whirls it around and throws it out to make sure it’s clean. Then he goes on to make the best cup of kopi, making sure everything is properly stirred and the coffee is a good brew, even if it might take a little longer than what other stalls require. It’s not hard to see that he’s truly enjoying it as well.

I guess that’s why people don’t mind waiting in line to get their daily fix of coffee. As I sip on my Kopi-C now, it’s a good reminder that no matter what you do, making the best of your craft is an important facet to enjoying what you do. And when it happens, it’s brightens up people’s day and makes them appreciate it – even if it’s just a cup of kopi.

From being a romantic to a classical as you grow older

I’m obsessed with School of Life. It’s started by contemporary philosopher, Alain de Botton.  There are three bite-sized videos each week and it’s a super practical YouTube channel, using concepts from Philosophy to help viewers lead better everyday lives. I love that it makes the subject much more accessible to the layman, instead of being shrouded in mystery and with the idea that it’s only for intellectuals.

 

I was re-watching this video about being a Romantic vs a Classical person today and it got me thinking a lot about how we evolve as we get older.

When I was much younger, I thought that many things in life were about following your instinct. We live in a age where it’s all about “following your passion” and “do what you love” or “never settle”, very American concepts that have personally led me into becoming slightly disillusioned about my own achievements in life.

More and more, I’ve found that being a better human being is very much a work-in-progress. It takes courage to accept that you are not perfect, and we all need to take a step back to reflect upon our status anxiety, envy and gradually learn to become a better person, just as we learnt to walk, talk or play sports.

 

Building a job board in Rails

So I’ve been following Mackenzie Child‘s online tutorials for ROR and managed to build a job board by following his screencast!

ggjobs

 

Interesting things I learnt during this tutorial:

  • HAML -Beautiful, DRY, well-indented, clear markup.
  • Adding models via the console.
  • Adding filters (categories to jobs).

I really enjoyed this tutorial, please try the app and let me know how I can improve.

Why beginners should attend technical meetups

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I’ve attended, sponsored or organised possibly  a total of 100 hackathons, technical meetups,  workshops, talks and conferences combined in the last couple of years. I realised that a lot of people don’t come for those meetups because they think they won’t understand the content. I’d like to change that perspective today.

You go to meetups to learn and be inspired by the community.

Some people approach meetups thinking  that everyone else around them understands exactly what the speaker is talking about and end up feeling depressed when they don’t actually know. But most meetups don’t work this way.  When I was at the last Ruby meetup I had little clue what was going on because I’m still a beginner rubyist, but when I asked my seasoned ruby dev friend sitting next to me if he understood what was going on  he whispered in my ear, “nope, no idea what he’s talking about too.”

Learning to code is like learning a new language, you need to constantly put yourself in an environment where people are speaking that new language to get good. The more you listen, the easier it is to get used to the terms people are using and how to apply them in everyday context.

Of course, you should do all the tutorials you can get your hands on and build projects, but if you couple it with attending meetups or hanging around other helpful developers who are working in the same field, you’d be surprised at how much more you can learn.

You don’t know what you don’t know.

Not fully understanding is actually a good thing. If you understood everything the speaker is sharing about, then these meetups would have little value in exposing you to new ways of doing things, or new technologies.

I know its hard to see value when you’re just picking up a new skill, but this pushes you higher up the learning curve and you never know when that tip the speaker shared about could help you become more productive in your work.

There are so many times that I’ve found out about a cool open-source project, a new tool, a better framework, a new tech initiative just by showing up at these talks.

You might find a job, a co-founder, or someone who can be your mentor at these meetups

I’ve seen how these meetups facilitate serendipitous encounters. Encounters where you may find yourself a job, a co-founder, or even someone who could be your tech mentor. The tech community in Singapore is so vibrant, so active and most importantly, so helpful. Ever since I started Geek Girls, there have been so many people who are volunteering their time to teach, coach or speak for free.

If you’re the shy type, then don’t stress yourself out about having to meet people at these events. My good friend Valerie attends meetups and tells me that she’s not there to meet 100 people or exchange namecards with everyone. She’s there so she can find one person to have a good conversation with and exchange insights about the industry for an hour or two. That’s how she decides if that event was fruitful for her.

OK, so where are the meetups in Singapore anyway?

I’m glad you asked! WeBuild.SG or TheList.SG are great resources for tech meetups in Singapore. See you there!

Building BentoBooks #launchin30

Hi everyone!

Today I’m excited to announce that I’m going to build BentoBooks for my #launchin30 challenge, inspired by Mackenzie Child‘s 12 x 12 challenge.

In thirty days, I will launch this new book exchange app. I’ve already completed OneMonthRails and built a small Pinterest clone – although the images are disabled because AWS is crazy expensive for hosting!

Purpose of the app:

To facilitate easy book exchanges between a book club community.

Here are some of the features that I can foresee this app having:

1. User Authentication

2. Private Messaging

3. Image Uploads

4. Validations

5. Pagination

If you’re starting just like me, some guides that have been really helpful so far (will be updating as I go along):

Install Rails – For a step by step guide to installing Rails on your Mac or PC.

Ruby Toolbox  and Ruby Gems – For DB of Ruby Gems

Heroku Toolbelt – headache free way to deploy your apps

I’ve really enjoyed building the Pinterest app, but have totally dropped the ball and this is a good chance to reboot! Good luck to me! You can check out Bento Books‘ progress.

The five most important words to winning a client

How

By far, the five most underrated words in winning someone over are “How can I help you?“.

Far too often I’ve experienced cold emails,  calls, face-to-face pitches that start off with a pitch about the company’s products and services, but never asking about the person or organisation’s personal goals. You read all these sales textbooks that teach you to hustle, do objection-handling and how to create the perfect pitch, but they seldom tell you to ask the most important question.

It seems like common sense, but I’ve found that it stems from our own self-interest, to promote our own products than to focus on really bringing value to your clients. “How Can I Help You?” literally allows you to discover your customers needs and injects a personal touch into the brands service.

My favourite book on this is SPIN SELLING (summary of book in linked-pdf), a sales-book based on data that dispels the myth of pressuring people into signing contracts with constant irritating calls for high value sales. I think this should be made an essential reading for all B2B entrepreneurs looking to make their first sale.

I’m a firm believer that if we took more effort in starting the pitch by asking our client, “What are your goals this year?” and “How can I help you achieve those goals”, will not only help us sell more, but create better products.

So.. my dear reader, how can I help you? What are your goals for this year? How can I help you achieve them?

New Beginnings

Happy New Year. It’s 2015.

START

I’m excited about this year. It’s the year where I’m not running away anymore. I’m just going to dive head first into starting my own business, focusing on SG Geek Girls and doing some freelance work on the side.

“Don’t let the person you were hold you back from who you want to be.” I’ve seen this quote a couple of times and it’s been stuck at the back of my head.

For too long I’ve been focusing on what people think about what I do. But it’s never about that, it’s not your job to rate your work. Your job is to keep creating, making, building. I’ve become scared to put something out there under my own name that it’s stalled my work. I hide behind working for someone else because if it fails – it’s not my fault.

Here’s to a new year ahead. Enjoy everyone!

Twenty Four

3 months into graduation, I was panicking.

I remember sitting down at the Arts canteen with two of my friends lamenting about our slim chances of getting employed at a good company with our “tissue-paper” degrees.

Both of my friends had more hope than I did, armed with economics and business degrees, they could at the very least join a bank.

I on the other hand, had on the previous night interviewed for a role at an 4A advertising agency like most of my “Communications and New Media Studies” peers.

They told me my starting salary would be $1,800 if I was hired and that I was expected to work mostly long hours, 14 minimum a day, without overtime pay. I asked my interviewer what I could expect to learn from him, especially since I would be spending so much time working with him. He looked shocked that someone so low down the chain dared to ask.

“Well, (he cleared his throat nervously and continued speaking in a fake american accent) you can learn a lot from me,” he said. He then proceeded to show me how fancy and creative the space was.

Right.

When I walked out through that door I told myself that there was no way I would join an advertising agency to work with a guy whose life goal was to help a telco company (M1, I think it was) change promo ads every week and couldn’t even grow a moustache successfully. No matter how fancy the office.

Now what?

I never considered a job in tech before that, mainly because I hated the way my “Intro to Web Development” teacher was teaching us to use tables instead of CSS to layout our sites (it made me horrified at my own creations). But that night two job openings caught my attention. The first was an opening at Facebook for a Sales Associate, the second, another opening at a local startup called 2359 Media.

“I could do that,” I thought to myself.

Thinking that since I was a “people person” who had successfully sold photography workshop packages to unsuspecting parents before, I applied for both – determined to get any other role than follow the sad fate of maiming my existence by getting into the ad industry.  (Little did I know that there was no way I would be able to escape from the ad industry.)

I got through to both of the final interviews of the Facebook interview where I had to simulate a pitch to sell Facebook Ads to an advertising agency. Naturally, I was trained by university to whip out  my PPT slides and go straight into hard selling Facebook Ads. Little did I know that that just wasn’t the way to sell (at least not for high-value products).

I didn’t get it and was a tiny bit disappointed, but 2359 took a risk with me and as soon as I graduated, I had a job. 9 months later into my sales role, I was pitching and closing deals with brands like Laurier, big 4A  ad agencies, Capitaland, government agencies and so on. I learnt that you never begin a sales meeting with powerpoint slides, but instead ask like a normal human being, “how can I help you?”. I realised why Facebook didn’t hire me. I was a complete noob.

9 months later, at a beginner’s programming workshop for girls, I decided to start Singapore Geek Girls together with a friend I met on Twitter. She later introduced me to a job at Microsoft.

2 years later, I was managing the startup community at Microsoft BizSpark in Singapore, organising events where I invited prominent VCs, CEOs and in general worked with many inspiring people in the startup industry. With an awesome team at SGGG, we also started a series of events to teach women to design, code and start their own company. We had over 1000 people attend our events in the last 3 years.

It was amazing. But I had to take a break and travel. I was tired, so I here I am, writing this note of reminder to myself of everything I’ve learnt in the last 3 years. It is all I wish I knew at 24.

1. I don’t know shit 

There is a Chinese saying that goes, “If you think you know everything, you don’t know anything. If you think you don’t know anything, at least you know something.”

When I first graduated, I felt like people owed it to me to employ me and give me a high salary, “But I’ve worked so hard for this!,” I felt like waving my tissue paper degree to their faces. It was only when I started working that I realised how little I knew about building a business and how to effectively contribute to a company. What is my value proposition? I started to ask myself. I was humbled by the opportunities I got to learn from my experiences at 2359 Media and Microsoft. There is so much I still do not know. And I rejoice at that, because not knowing makes me want to learn.

2. You learn much more about what you know and don’t know when you join a startup 

When you join a startup, you can’t afford to “stick to your job description”. Everyone has to contribute and there is little space to hide behind your laptop screen and pretend that you are contributing by surfing on Facebook and YouTube. At my first job I was networking like mad, learning to convert leads to actual sales, prepping sales decks, learning about marketing the business and I even had to project manage the deals after they were closed because we didn’t have enough project managers at the time. It was tiring but I learnt so much.

In life you can choose the easy way and learn a little, or the harder way and learn a lot. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and you will never be ready for it, but you can choose to just do it anyway.

3. You learn even more about what you don’t know when you start something of your own.

Starting Singapore Geek Girls is more or less a trial and error process for me. At first I was doing it by myself. And then I realised I couldn’t do it by myself. Then I realised how I could get support from volunteers. Then I got volunteers and teachers. Then we started giving classes and it just rolled out piece by piece by itself. I became a pro at getting sponsorships because I was also learning to sponsor events at Microsoft. I learnt about pricing and that people who don’t pay probably aren’t serious about wanting to learn about something. I also learnt that you learn even more about what you don’t know when you start something of your own. And that’s an important revelation because if you do start something, it will probably be at something you like.

4. Everything’s going to be alright.

Now that I’m 2 months away from going back home. I find myself slightly nervous and worried. Kinda like how I felt like when I first graduated. But the most important lesson I’ve learnt is that everything’s going to be alright. No matter what choices I make, I just have to have an open mind, learn as much as I can while I’m young and just keep hustling.

I hope if you’re 24 and at the start of your career, this helps you too!

Book Notes: On Writing – Steven King

Reading is such luxury. Reading about how to write from someone like Steven King is a greater privilege.

The first thing I thought about after reading the book was, why aren’t Singaporeans writing more? Fiction, non-fiction, whatever? Or are there people who write but have gone undiscovered? What happened to our generation of Russell Lees, our Teenage Textbooks, our Catherine Lims?

On Writing should be made a textbook for all writers. Fiction or not – Steven King covers the nooks and crannies of writing with honesty and pragmatism. There’s lots of practical tips in his “toolbox” for beginners but it’s his emphasis on writing about the truth and sticking to what we know, said what was on everyone’s mind but hadn’t been said before.

Here are my highlight / notes from the book:

Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around. So you don’t need a big fancy desk to start writing under the perfect conditions. All you need is a closed door, a computer or notepad and grit. In fact, put that table in the corner of the room and just focus on the writing.
From the toolbox:

The paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing—the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.

To write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you.

Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colourful.

One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.

The simplicity of noun-verb construction is useful—at the very least it can provide a safety net for your writing.

Rocks explode. Jane transmits. Mountains float.

You should avoid the passive tense

Write The meeting’s at seven. There, by God! Don’t you feel better?

You might also notice how much simpler the thought is to understand when it’s broken up into two thoughts.

The adverb is not your friend.

The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.

Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.

While to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.

You always add ’s, even when the word you’re modifying ends in s—always write Thomas’s bike and never Thomas’ bike

Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs—including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long—and lots of white space.

Topic-sentence-followed-by-support-and-description insists that the writer organize his/her thoughts, and it also provides good insurance against wandering away from the topic.

Writing is refined thinking.

The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming on their own.

Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes. The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story … to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all.

On reading and writing

Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction. If not so, why do so many couples who start the evening at dinner wind up in bed?

You must learn to use it well if you are to write well. What this means is lots of practice; you have to learn the beat.

Words have weight. (Literally)

if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one. If you’re good and want to be great … fuhgeddaboudit.

There is a muse,* but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor

If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well—settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns.
Reading takes time, and the glass teat takes too much of it.

I’d like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing. And how much of a sacrifice are we talking about here?

 If there’s no joy in it, it’s just no good. 

Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy.

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing

Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people.

How much and when to write?

Writing is at its best—always, always, always—when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer. I can write in cold blood if I have to, but I like it best when it’s fresh and almost too hot to handle.

When I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good.

I believe the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season

I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words.

You can read anywhere, almost, but when it comes to writing, library carrels, park benches, and rented flats should be courts of last resort—Truman Capote said he did his best work in motel rooms, but he is an exception; most of us do our best in a place of our own. Until you get one, you’ll find your new resolution to write a lot hard to take seriously.

The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business

Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings, the work is always accomplished one word at a time.

I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with.
When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.

But you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become.

Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three.

If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.

What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all … as long as you tell the truth.

What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money.

Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do.

(John Grisham)  He was once a young lawyer, though, and he has clearly forgotten none of the struggle. Nor has he forgotten the location of the various financial pitfalls and honey-traps that make the field of corporate law so difficult.

Don’t imitate,  emulate Grisham’s openness and inability to do anything other than get right to the point.

John Grisham, of course, knows lawyers. What you know makes you unique in some other way. Be brave. Map the enemy’s positions, come back, tell us all you know. And remember that plumbers in space is not such a bad setup for a story.

Do you consciously need a plot?

I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

Honesty in storytelling makes up for a great many stylistic faults, as the work of wooden-prose writers like Theodore Dreiser and Ayn Rand shows, but lying is the great unrepairable fault.

Descriptive writing

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

Good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else

It’s also important to remember it’s not about the setting, anyway—it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story.

In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it “got boring,” the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.

When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects—a restaurant bar and a cave, a mirror and a mirage—we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way.

The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.

one of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell us a thing if you can show us, instead

Talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character; it can also be a breath of cool, refreshing air in a room some people would prefer to keep shut up.
The only question is how it rings on the page and in the ear. If you expect it to ring true, then you must talk yourself. Even more important, you must shut up and listen to others talk.

I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.

in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby.

Boredom can be a very good thing for someone in a creative jam. I spent those walks being bored and thinking about my gigantic boondoggle of a manuscript.

The Ideal Reader

In the end I listen most closely to Tabby, because she’s the one I write for, the one I want to wow. If you’re writing primarily for one person besides yourself, I’d advise you to pay very close attention to that person’s opinion.

Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time.

Ideal Reader is also the best way for you to gauge whether or not your story is paced correctly and if you’ve handled the back story in satisfactory fashion.
Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds.

The best way to find the happy medium? Ideal Reader, of course. Try to imagine whether he or she will be bored by a certain scene
Editing and backstories

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.

Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.

Back story is all the stuff that happened before your tale began but which has an impact on the front story.

Back story helps define character and establish motivation.

In a very real sense, every life is in medias res.

Don’t go to writing class, just keep writing

It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.