2017: a yearly retrospective

“Read more. Give talks. Execute.”: How that went, stuff I learnt, and where I’m going from here.

So it’s 2018 and it’s that time of the year again to relentlessly keep in mind not to sign off dates with ‘17’; and it’s also time to look back on both what I’ve achieved that I planned to, and where life flipped me off and told me to go another direction.

I’ve never believed in new years resolutions and as such, I have no qualms breaking resolutions that don’t make sense and taking up others that suddenly did. My goals set for myself in 2017 from my blog post a year ago:

  1. Read more — one book a month
  2. Give talks — one talk every two months
  3. Execute — one project every two months

Let’s see how that went.

Read more.

Before 2017, I was hooked onto platforms such as Quora and Medium. However, I realised that the bite sized woohoo-you-can-do-it-too information wasn’t particularly good for my soul. There wasn’t depth of knowledge and I wasn’t being as mentally stimulated or intellectually nourished as I would have liked. So I started to pursue a different medium, books.

I got an account with Goodreads — awful interface, but good intentions and awesome experience — and stalked the more prolific readers in my social circle for books to read. I managed to achieve 8 books this year, two books took two months and I failed myself by choosing to pursue more side-projects over reading —alas, it still drives me more to create than to consume. Alternatively, I could have done with more engaging reads (recommend me some!)

If you’re interested, here are the 8 books I devoured:

And you can add me on goodreads if you’d like! Some things I’ve learnt from reading books:

  1. All self-help books are roughly the same. Read one, and move on to less feel-good, more informative stuff.
  2. A lot of time is spent commuting — use it wisely and you can achieve much.
  3. A well-timed read can help you improve lots — choose reads based on your current problems and you’ll have an opportunity to immediately apply models and theories set forth in the book.

Give talks.

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” — Jerry Seinfield

I didn’t want to prefer to be in the casket, so I decided to overcome my fear of speaking in front of humans.

It started out really scary and the first talk I gave in 2017 was backed by a red bull, a can of monster and a sleepless night. It was a Saturday and even if it was in a place I was familiar with (National University of Singapore) and the crowd size was roughly 30 only, my nerves still got the better of me. I have the video of it somewhere and I still cringe at it. Wait, what am I talking about, I still cringe at any video of myself, but that’s just part and parcel of putting oneself out there — you either gotta be stupid or brave, and you’d hardly know the difference yourself.

I ended up exceeding my goals for this year of six talks, giving seven in total (✌🏽). In the order which I gave them:

  1. NUS Hack n Roll 2017 (January) — Failing Fast: How GovTech uses Open-Source Tools to Innovate
  2. GovTech Brown Bag (February) — Designing Human Conversation
  3. React.js Meetup (May) — Testing React.js Applications with Enzyme
  4. NUS Orbital 2017 (August) — CI/CD: The Continuous Cycle of DevOps
  5. GDS Rebase (October) — Introduction to <unreleased product name>
  6. ACE Tech Sharing (November) — DockerFu: Writing effective Docker Images more Effectively
  7. Talk.js Meetup (December) — Continuously Delivering Full-Stack JavaScript

Some of the slides are available on my presentation blog.

While it was nerve-wrecking at the start, my journey in public speaking so far was fulfilling and I strongly urge everyone who has always wanted to but has never dared to, to give it a try. Some things I learnt through the process of throwing myself into the deep-end:

  1. You are not as important as you think you are — no one’s going to remember your name just from a single talk
  2. The audience is always hoping for something great and will often find their own meaning to material you presented, sucky or otherwise
  3. Never present on something you’re not truly interested in, the talk will suck and you will find yourself out of your depth
  4. Designing your presentation to be an extension of your personality is the most important thing you can do — for me, that comes in the form of injecting comic relief. When people laugh, I feel more at ease. Find your own!
  5. A unanimously well-received technical walkthrough is impossible to achieve, get used to ‘too fast’ and ‘too slow’, it’s normal. Always go for ‘too slow’, since it’s the slower people who will benefit the most from your material.
  6. No two microphones are made equal — always arrive early to try them out and see if you can make adjustments to the EQ so you won’t be so self-conscious about your voice

Execute.

So I wanted to start on a new project every two months. It didn’t go well, but I learnt things about myself I wouldn’t have otherwise.

So in 2017, here are the projects which I started together with their curent status:

  1. KopiBoy — chatbot to recommend nearby coffee places. Deprecated in the end due to lack of demand. Google Maps worked better for most people and information gathering was hell.
  2. MakeSmth — a service intended to help makers find like-minded creators, form gatherings/classes. We had a total sign-up rate of 3 people after two weeks, even after advertising on Facebook. No go.
  3. Trello-as-a-Backend — a library to transform the Trello API into a document store of sorts. Still ongoing, but moving pretty slowly.
  4. Knearby — an app to get contextual information written in React Native. Still ongoing!
  5. The Tee Repo — an effort to create cheap/quality t-shirts for developers. Still ongoing.
  6. Featuris — A feature toggling service designed for use in Trunk Based Development collaboration models. Development is still ongoing!

Some things I learnt while mindfully navigating through multiple side-projects:

  1. I get bored pretty quickly without technical exploration/excellence — I need to spice things up often to keep the drive to deliver present
  2. Proof of concepts are more exciting to me than long-term support — how do I recreate the same excitement in longer term projects?
  3. Side projects are a really good way to test if I truly understand what I executed on a professional level
  4. It is possible to code effectively during the nine-to-five, as well as the five-to-twelve if you manage your energy level by taking breaks sensibly
  5. Quantity without quality is very possible and I need to have more of a focus on business use cases if I wish to eventually be able to launch a product while keeping the day job
  6. It’s not as easy as it seems to get people engaged with a service/application

What else?

In 2017, I also began a regular exercise regime together with a new diet. It wasn’t easy and there were sporadic periods of non-activity and ‘cheat-weeks’, but ultimately, I found myself feeling better and more productive in the day. Some things I learnt through the process of establishing a more health-focused lifestyle:

  1. Goal-setting is ironically a setup for failure. Creating new habits and letting these ‘goals’ be a side-effect is the most effective way of achieving a ‘goal’. For me at least.
  2. Eating less/no carbohydrates for lunch works really well for productivity in the afternoon.
  3. Tea breaks are essential for curbing a huge appetite when dinner-time comes. 4:15 PM is the ideal time so that a substantial amount of work can be done between lunch and then, leaving an hour after finishing eating for closing up tasks of the day.
  4. Measurable progress is the greatest form of motivation. It sucks to keep working at something without knowing whether one has improved. Get a heart-rate tracker and a credible weighing scale or even a fat percentage calculating scale if you’re serious about your efforts.
  5. You can stay fit without a gym membership. A pair of dumbells and resourcefulness are more effective than a binding, paid-for contract you won’t respect.
  6. The effects of high intensity training are not lies. Thirty minutes a day three times a week of sporadic high burst activity can increase your fitness to average at least.
  7. A nutritious, accurately timed and varied diet is more important to look good naked than exercise. Exercise is for keeping fit, not for looks. But this is easier said than done.

Towards 2018

I don’t make new year resolutions and likewise with the upcoming year. However, I do seek out opportunities for growth and change in more fundamental forms like starting new habits and making them public is one way for friends/family to hold me accountable to them (don’t be afraid to shame me if I haven’t started any of them by June!).

For 2018, to contrast with my areas of growth in 2017 which leaned towards outward expression, I shall be pursuing inward expressions to achieve higher mindfulness, clarity of thought and focus.

Three habits/goals I have set for myself to take on:

  1. Take up one martial art — Wing Chun sounds good for its philosophy of being fluid, and its ability to defend/attack in short range contexts through focusing of energy. The goal in this is to reinforce my (relatively) healthy lifestyle by put an application to it, to be able to say I can defend myself physically, and hopefully dabble with Qi (might be a buzzword, I’ll let you know in 2019’s post)
  2. Engage in one hardware project— hardware has eluded me for years, and by dipping my fingers into it in the later part of 2017, I have found that it takes a lot more planning than software. Planning has not been my forté and I would like to learn how to do so more effectively, which is the goal of this aim.
  3. Record one song — since I’ve gotten a full-time job, I’ve neglected some aspects of my life which I used to love and which I suspect had a synergistic effect in other things I excel in. One of these is making music, and my goal this year is to dedicate time each week to active practice with the goal of being able to perform once again (anyone wants to form a band with a noob?)

Wish to be part of this journey? If you’re in Singapore, hit me up and let’s see what we can do together (form band/build something/spar together).

That’s it for now folks! Happy New Year! 🎉

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