Thursday, February 19, 2015

The transforming 2014

Without any planning or intention, 2014 was surprisingly big to me. It is not 2008 (when I graduated from high school), it is not 2012 (when the world supposed to end), 2014 is the biggest transition in my life, when many doors were closed, and other turned open. No photo or video could have captured my experience over the last year, but lucky enough, I have words. My wish when writing down these lines is that a few years from now, I can look back and say, "oh boy, there was a time like that".

1. Look. 

I went from this

to this

Oh its just the hair style, no biggie? I had had that hair side parting with me for as long as I can possibly remember. For 24 years, that had been how my hair looked. The idea of changing the hairstyle never came to me, even during those rebellious high school years when I got to know that weed wasn't grass. When I was a kid, a cousin told me that my head was not round and looked kinda ugly. I wasn't too fond of the idea of showing that weird-looking head to everyone.

But as some point, life was so depressing, and I got tired of that same look  in the mirror every day. And it was just the hair, I had my head shaved once when I was 10 (that was how my cousin commented on my head shape), "how worse can this be?", I told myself. Fuck that.

Though I still miss the thick layer of hair covering my neck and ears during winter, I also enjoy rubbing my head really hard, all the breezes running through it every night I ride bicycle home, and the fact that I wouldn't ever need a comb again. More importantly, I learned that restricting myself from something someone said randomly in the past is really stupid.

2. I left the company I founded.

Okay, strictly speaking, I did not found the company. I was employee number zero in Vietnam, and I was fortunate enough to get a bunch of friends, who are all smarter than me, to believe in "building a fun place to work", and together we tried. I spent 3 years at the company. The first 6 months I lived in a tiny little apartment office in Taipei, Taiwan which was right opposite of the National University of Taiwan and had a spectacular view over Taipei 101, the city's most prominent landmark. The next one year I continued to live from another apartment which was 5 minutes away from RMIT where I frequently passed by to give customized pitches to people I would love to work with.

During this period of time, the press painted a rosy picture about my career. But just among us colleagues, we all knew the reality was far less compelling. Why it happened the way it did has been a repeating topic among us, both current and ex-colleagues. But we could all agree that I was a horrible person. As a manager, I horrified my subordinates with my temper. As a colleague, I was far from a source of inspiration, I was the source of depression. And as a friend, I was an asshole. Lets not get into that.

At some point, people had it enough, and they made clear that the picture of "a fun place to work" couldn't be painted with me in it. It has been more than a year since, and I still haven't figured out how did I stray off my path so far, and so wrong. I was blindfolded and didn't know what to do, and yet was given too much authority. I am grateful that my colleagues showed me a way out. But I also came to learn that friendship isn't something you can screw and expect it to heal, at the cost of an arm and a leg.

3. I learned to cook.

My mom is over 50 now. She doesn't know the difference between Skype and Facebook. Actually she doesn't know how to shut down a computer other than pressing the power button for a really long time. And she thinks most of the things I do are stupid. And like all moms on earth, she is a great mom. My father is a man of work. As a professor, he seems to be very good at doing research and guiding his students on their thesis. But you leave him alone in the house, he would be starving. Mom has been looking over him and then our brothers ever since their marriage, and I can see she would continue to do so for many more years. I grew up to be a clone of my father, utterly useless at house chords.

But soon after I gave up hoping there would be another woman cooking for me, I'd better come up with a plan to survive the rest of my life. I had denied that I did not suck at house chords, just that I was so busy. Well, being unemployed, time was one of a very few assets I then had abundantly. Being a bookworm, I got started in this kitchen business in the most reasonable way I could possibly imagine: bought a book and read the shit out of it!

Now three books, a few cuts in fingers and many months later, I have to say that I am a terrific cook with excellent outcome 80% of the time. The other 20% conveniently "coincidently" all happened during the time mom came to visit me, with the peak being the kimchi soup that too sour for human to taste. She has been teasing me endlessly for being useless and inferior to her. But that was one more topics for family dinner, I really don't mind.

My signature disk, tía má con mực, though I love adding some beans and call it đậu má con mực

4. I got back to bicycle.

One day, I came into the Martin shop on Võ Thị Sáu street and proudly requested the shopkeeper "Can I have your cheapest bicycle please?" And that how I got my super average jade bicycle. She isn't a trendy fixie, nor is she the kind of bicycle you can travel along the country with confidence. But she is the one you can see every morning going to school with kids, or going to daily market with housewives. And that was 3 years ago.

Back when I first got her, turned out riding bicycle right after a big meal was not a very good idea. But once I learned how to cook, and honestly, was unemployed, I had certain control over my daily routine and riding bicycle just made sense again. And hey, it is environmental friendly, you dinosaur-fossil-burners! 

"Are you doing this for exercise?" was the most common reaction I got when people knew I was using a bicycle for 90% of my travel in this mega city . Well actually it was not. I simply felt good, really good, whenever I rode a bicycle. It somehow inarticulately reminded me the time I was in high school. High school time was carefree, no stress, no KPI. And for a while, I used to ride my high school sweetheart home every day on a borrowed bike. Pedalling around the city must have awaken the pavloved animal in me.

I also enjoyed the slow pace a mediocre bike had to offer. Ever since after high school, thing had moved too fast for me. RMIT. Assignments. Exams. MultiNC. MultiUni. ITClub. Internship. Cogini. I realized I didn't really have time to look back and retrospect what had happened and how I had responded. Every day the trip coming back home was the new precious break I needed to get back to the balance I had long lost.

And in a city like Saigon, everything happened on the streets. A random foreigner lost her bike ticket and had trouble explaining it with body language. An auntie fell off her bike due to a street accident. A high school girl in her áo dài almost busted to tear when the chain of her bicycle misaligned with the gear. Riding a bicycle meant I always travelled at the speed I could comfortably stop to help these people and had no worries leaving my dear bike on the side of a street. It might add a couple of minutes to my schedule, but made somebody's day, such a bargain.

5. I learned to love Dalat again.

When I was 18 and left home for college, I had this weird feeling that the place I had spent my entire life would all of sudden become a place I would stop by a couple of weeks every year. That empty feeling gradually turned into the reluctance of going back home, because what was the point if I soon would have to say goodbye again?

By the time I graduated, my whole family got into a hideous fight over the only piece of land my grandparents owned, the piece of land I spent my childhood wondering around, with a running nose. I hated seeing people who were so close to me turning against each other. I hated how lonely it was every Tet ever since then. And I hated Dalat for reminding me of all the good memory. And that was back to 2011 and I thought to myself, getting back to Dalat once a year was more than enough.

But as time gone by, and I had to travel more often for work, I spent more time, usually on bus or airplane, thinking about home, as a real physical place, instead of that definition of home vs house I learned in high school. If there is a place I have to spend the rest of my life living there, it aint gonna be Taipei, Condao, or Hoian. It gotta be the place where every breath is full of cold air filling my lungs, where sunlight is scorching and shade is freezing, where morning dew cracks my lips like a dry field. As long as I can still enjoy those, there is one and only home for me. And it is really ridiculous to hate your only home.

And then there were guys like this and this who took fucking mesmerzing photos about Dalat and by doing so, remind me every day how beautiful she is. They gave me the motivation to explore a new Dalat that I have never seen before. And like that, I am in love with her again.

6. I standed up where I fell.

I believe it must be a struck of luck that got me the current job. When I left the company I founded, I went through six months of unemployment. The time was precious to me. I got time to think about what I really wanted to do in my life, what I was better than others, and how my skills aligned with my goals. During this period, the internal healing process took place. I came to understand there are many other important things in life other than work. I realized that the easiest way to be hated is to try doing things that I am bad at. And then that I was burden-free, I could focus on learning rather than earning again.

But on the other hand, I also felt that the life without a schedule, a team, and a goal was rotting my mind and body. At the end of six months, I started to find a job. I understood that even though the healing was happening, something was wrong with me fundamentally. I wanted to find an entry level work that I could spend less time worrying about the daily work and had more time to observe a team dynamic and learn leadership from the ground up. To my surprise, I went on a whole month without getting a single interview. I was freak out, I thought that what had been wrong with me, was then obvious to others in the industry and no one would want me again. Out of depression that my professional value was below zero, I applied for management level vacancies. Within a week, I got 4 offers. I picked a Singaporean company that wanted to build its development team in Vietnam for 03 reasons. (1) The company was the one that hustled the most to get me. (2) I got to do my own product for the first time. and (3) building a sustainable team was where I fell and I wanted to stand up from that.

I proceeded to build a team, with the constant fear that I would fuck everything up again. I ran the team with XP, believing that a good team is a self-organizing team, and my job was nothing but to empower them. The team got its first milestone, rebuild the system from scratch in 6 weeks. During that period, we also managed to send our designer, Minh, to Singapore for a conference without slowing down. We ran our first Product Design Sprint, under the lead of Minh, and got tons of good ideas what we wanted to do with our product. We received investment, moved to a new office and continued working our asses off to meet the expectations from investors.

People still come and go. Once in a while I still got reject from a applicant because what I did (and didn't do) in the last job. But the most important achievement I got from this is that, once again, I can make new friends, like, really close friends. It means tremendously to me when the guys asked me out for lunch/dinner, let me know troubles they had in their lives, and even sought for advices from me. I am glad that I wasn't as broken as I thought. Or I was actually broken, but time and friendship fixed me.

People seem to love what I have been doing. I was asked to mentor a team to run Scrum. I was also asked to build an even bigger and more demanding team in Singapore, which has been giving me butterflies in my stomach recently. And we are planning to bring the team members to the next level, sticking to the one and only promise I made when they chose to believe in me: giving them the platform and support they need to  "punch above their weight class". As a former office dictator, I couldn't ask for more. Thank you, guys!

7. I led the organization of Barcamp Saigon for the first time.

Organizing Barcamp Saigon 2014 was probably the most stressful experience I have had since 2012. Coordinating different parties for a 1000-participant event was an incredible amount of work, especially when I could only spend a few hours a week on it. A month before the event day, my full-time job became part-time and Barcamp became my full-time obsession. I really appreciated the support I received from my company and colleagues. Without them, I wouldn't have been able to devote my time to Barcamp as much as I did.

There were multiple times when things were FUBAR (oh man I love this acronym) and for more than one time we talked about an exit hoping that it would save us from all the miseries. But this brutal experience also taught me the importance of not losing hope even in the darkest hours. And the rest is history now :)

Volunteer work like Barcamp also made me rethink a belief I had built up since college. Remember that in every group assignment there would be a free loader and you, trying to get a good grade, had to cover his ass and called him assholes multiple times a day? I thought that once I graduate and work with serious people it would be better. But guess what, it is just wrong. Actually most of the time there is no such person as a free loader. Just that everyone has a different set of goals and values in life, and at the end of the day, commitment is more of a moral question than a radical one. I learned that I am responsible to fulfill my expectation and the good news is that as long as I do a good work on my own, respect other people and let them feel confident in what they choose to do, the team will jell and miracle happens

.It is also another personal achievement that despite all the stress, I didn't get nuts and lose any friends, which would have been very likely to happen if it has been a year ago, with my notorious temper. I pat myself on the back for that.

I also got a chance to go to Barcamp Danang and was blown away by what these people at their 19, 20 have done. Freedom of speech might be still limited in Vietnam, but Barcamp is definitely going strong.

8. I came to accept my life would never be back to what it used to be again.

Few years ago, I met a woman who changed my life. The story, among many others of my life, didn't have a happy ending.

When I was a kid, a friend told me that to love someone is like to save a file to a hard drive, you can't really delete it until you save a new one on top of it. But the last two years taught me that true love sticks with you, changes you and continues to change you as the years go by.

I still remember the overwhelming emotions when I saw her, the incredible excitement when I wandered downtown with her, and the moment my heart stopped when we kissed. I continue to revisit all those memories from time to time... But what I remember the most is the empty, helpless, and unbearable feeling the day she gone.

The pain wasn't all at once. It took time to form, to grow, and to, in turn, alter my life. In contrast to my belief that as time gone by, I would forget her and get back to the old me, I'm awed to realize that the life I am living today has had her embedded in its framework. I came to accept that history will stay, and I'd better cope with that.

The new life shows me that I need to work on and improve on before I'm ready to be a part of a loving and committed relationship. And hence all the points above.

Although it has been taking a really long time now, I hope to once again find love and that pain will hopefully turn into fond memories I can revisit with a smile and sense of nostalgia.


Having all these said, by no means I am a completely different, flawless, prince charming now. I am still skinny as heck and my effort to put on some weight hasn't got any return yet. There are many broken relationships since the old time that I don't know how to fix. I still have a long way to go with anger management. There are a whole lot of technologies/practices I would love to bring to my team. And to do that, I need to be better at time management and delegation. I am still struggling to write 01 blog post a month, and I have been telling myself that I need to spend more time to read and meditating and less time on social network, but the fact that I am writing this note on Facebook is pretty much self-describing :)

So, in all possible ways, I am still trying very hard everyday to be an okay person.

I don't have the habit of making new year resolution, nor do I plan to have one this year. 2014 was a surprising turn of event, and I am looking at 2015 with the same eagerness!

Happy New Year!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The mesmerizing Barcamp Danang 2015

Last weekend I had a chance to join Barcamp Danang 2015. On the days before the event, a couple of incidents happened, including a major server crash and a winter cold, that made me think really hard on whether I should travel half the country or not. I am glad I made it, because Barcamp Danang was absolutely fucking mesmerizing.

That was the first Barcamp ever for Danang, and it was held by a team of organizers and volunteers whose average age was 20 and never experienced a Barcamp first-hand before. I had been enjoying being the youngest person in the room for quite a while, then all of sudden, I was older than everyone. And that awed me. When I was 20, I was probably sitting in some random corner playing game and these guys had already organized the first, and therefore biggest (can't beat that), Barcamp in Central Vietnam.

Barcamp Danang was organized at Duy Tan University, which I found some similarities with Hoa Sen University where Barcamp Saigon was held last December. Both are private universities with urban campus and a paranoid of freedom of speech.

The event started at 8AM with the opening session. I was invited to be the MC of the session, like, of all the people on earth, me - an introvert that has a tiny panic whenever talking to a stranger? Unlike the opening of Barcamp Saigon, which was simply a recap of what Barcamp is and what to expect on the event day, the one in Danang had three small speeches from distinguished guests, so pretty much like a standard conference. The speeches left little time to convey the Barcamp spirit. I find that a pity. Minh Do, organized Barcamp Saigon for 5 years, once told me that the most important thing about opening session is not the information, people will always ask questions about the thing covered in opening session, it is the spirit. So ideally the opening is the time for ice breaker and audience participation so that they are set into the right mood for moving around, meeting new people and exchanging ideas. I made a mental note to myself that the meaning of opening session should be better communicated next time.

The first Barcamp in Danang attracted 32 speakers, covering 4 main topics: technology, entrepreneurship, education and volunteering. Around 10% of the speakers were foreigners, and aside from Vi Nguyen from Funkoi, I don't think there was another local using English in their presentation. The organizers was worried there wouldn't be enough speakers as the format of Barcamp was new there, so of these 32, some submitted topics to Barcamp, and some were invited. No matter what, I think they did a pretty good job at bringing diversity to Barcamp topics. I ran into all sort of speakers, from motivational speaker who had the room repeat "I believe in my own success" to students holding a fireside chat about their volunteer project. For people who experienced Barcamp the first time, I have to say they (the speakers) were really creative on methods of delivering their content.

Most of participants were students. General speaking, students are great, they are young, energized and willing to learn. But in an event whose focus is the interaction between participants like Barcamp, an average student is lack of the depth of thought and experience to really engage in a presentation or conversation.

At lunch break, Tam, an organizer, managed to invite an indie band known as Du Ca Danang to come. The band absolutely blew my mind with their talent. The little music show was first held at the lobby, but soon attracted way too many people that we had to move them to the school yard cum parking lot where they played even more passionately and the crowd went crazy. I talked to myself "Damn it, I love this! Barcamp Saigon really should have this!".

I have to admit that I had a little worry that people wouldn't come back after lunch break. But it turned out to be ok. 70-80% of the participants came back and the presentation rooms were still crowded. And there is this thing that I have observed in many Barcamp, people usually find the afternoon session more enjoyable. The event was less crowded, and those who stayed were more serious about Barcamp, which translated into more focus and interaction.

To end the day, Alex Cuva helped me running his signature Open Space to give everyone a refresh after a long day. The final activity was feedback from participants. Barcamp organizers always love feedback, it lets us know what we did good, and what we didn't. Feedback time is always a very touching time. From the heartfelt sharing of everyone, I felt like Barcamp Danang scratched the right itch of the local community. There were people who wanted to be exposed to new schools of thought and there were people want to share their ideas and experience so that the rest can stand on the shoulders of giants, and Barcamp Danang, though strictly not 100% a Barcamp, brought all these people together.

I believe Barcamp Danang was a success, everyone seemed to learn so much from the event, be it organizer, volunteer, speaker or participant. The organizer team is planning to have another, bigger, better Barcamp in August 2015. It is hard to know if the event can happen as planned because a Barcamp is the joint effort between many parties and leaps of faith are always needed. But I know for sure that Barcamp Danang will have a special space in my mind for a long long time (in fact, I am still getting Facebook notifications about the event everyday).

Wish the young organizer team of Barcamp Danang best of luck and success on their journey.

PS Of course every Barcamp needs to end with a decent Beercamp. I made sure it happened. What happened in the Beercamp, is another story ;)