I'm typing this up as I'm sitting at the airport, on my way to St Petersburg, Russia to speak at pitercss conference and it still seems slightly surreal to me. If you are one of a handful of people who actually read the things I write, you might have gleaned that I haven't been doing this very long. This being the web develop-y stuff that I like to write about.
Saddle-up, this is going to be a lengthy non-technical post. You have been warned.
I'm about three decades in now, and I can kind of see a few milestone decisions that have impacted the life I have right now. The one decision that set all this into motion was made when I was seventeen. That I wanted to play basketball at as high a level as I could get to. In a society that valued academic qualifications, I suppose some may see it as a ludicrous decision (but not me, I would do it a thousand times over 😈).
And yes, I am known to be a stubborn person, but I attribute my conviction to my older sister. To say my sister is exceptional, is an understatement. She was brilliant in school, seemingly without much effort on her part, articulate and very much a people person. Even though I am seven years younger than her, she never talked down to me.
Everyone expected her to do the whole medical school thing that Asian families tend to gravitate toward, but she said no. She decided to become an Occupational Therapist instead, because she knew that was what she wanted to do with her life. I was barely out of primary school when this happened, but I think it left quite a lasting impression on me.
This is a grave generalisation, but the typical life roadmap for an Asian kid is, go to school, get good grades, graduate University, get a respectable job, get married, buy a house and car, have 2.5 kids. My sister said nope, and happily went off the beaten path on her merry way.
When it was my turn, it was a no-brainer. Now, I'm nowhere near as brilliant as my sister, but I got by reasonably well, so a good degree from NUS (National University of Singapore) was probably in the works for me. No thank you, basketball for me, please.
Basketball is the most influential thing in my life, because it gave me so much more than an ability to dribble and shoot a ball. It taught me life lessons that would take most people decades to learn, it brought me friends that are essentially family at this point and it gave me opportunities many others never get.
I have a coach who has known me since I was thirteen, so she practically watched me grow up. And the best compliment she ever gave me was not about how many points I scored, or how well I played. She told me, and I'll hold on to this forever, that I finally got over myself. That's the best thing anyone could have ever said to me.
My first experience with the web came about while I was still training full time with the national team back in 2008. The coach trusted me enough and gave me free reign to do whatever I wanted for the association website. And that's how I realised I actually enjoyed doing this stuff. It never felt like work to me.
After I left the team, I got my first job, at a consulting firm. We'd landed a big contract with a major bank and I was thrust head-first into a multi-million dollar project that had a lot of people's jobs at stake.
Of course, I was too young and stupid to be aware of that and just soaked everything in. My boss was very competent and knew exactly how to get things done, though he may have stepped on quite a few toes along the way.
If there was anything I learnt during my years on a basketball team, it was that rookies paid their dues and kept their mouths shut until we proved we were capable of making positive contributions to the team.
That worked out extremely well for me, as I witnessed first-hand how high-stakes corporate environments really worked. It was great, like swimming with the sharks, but in a protective cage. In spite of his abrasive manner, my boss protected his own people, and I truly appreciated that, more so now that I'm older.
The next big decision was to come back to Singapore. At the time, I had flirted with the idea that maybe I'd stay on in Malaysia, and continue on with this consulting thing. But pragmatism probably kicked in and I decided to return south. I think my parents were secretly happy I did, though they never mentioned it.
I really agree with Ellen Degeneres' response to Julie Bowen when she said she couldn't imagine how her life would have been had she not done Modern Family:
It would be different, but it would be just as good in a different way.
– Ellen Degeneres
My life would have been very different, maybe not better or worse, but different.
Pixel Onion was the company that took a chance on me. I was barely qualified, having only slapped together two websites before, but I guess I was convincing enough during the interview. It was there that I learnt good habits, like coding standards, responsible git commenting, never hacking core (this is a Drupal thing) and writing code in a team setting. I met my very good friend, Zell, there as well.
Zell is a special human being. And I love that in web development age, he is one year ahead of me. Let me explain. He started his web development career one year before I did, and while we were working together, he was basically my training wheels while I was still figuring out what was going on. This may be largely one-sided, but I have taken it upon myself to be his “hype man”, because he doesn't think he's as awesome as he actually is.
I started writing blog posts for my own personal benefit, because I needed some way to document code and stuff for future reference. When I started there was no actual blog, so maybe they were more like notes. But I finally hunkered down and built my own website, so they evolved into blog posts from then on.
Because I was such a noob at web development, I desperately wanted to catch up. Went the whole nine yards, really. Subscribing to RSS feeds for web development blogs that I read every day, reading books, going through multiple online courses from Codeacademy to Codeschool to Treehouse, and listening to podcasts, lots of podcasts.
One of my favourites is The Web Ahead by Jen Simmons. There was just something about her ideas and opinions that resonated with me. So I had just listened to her chat with Paul Boag about CSS shapes and that somehow compelled me to write around 1500 words on how awesome they were. I also wrote her a “thank you for inspiring me” note, you know, because that's not weird at all 😆.
And now I actually chat with Jen semi-regularly about design, the web, life and it's amazing (to me, at least). That CSS shapes article was the first thing I wrote that got some traction, and it wasn't even planned. The words practically wrote themselves. I've since continued to write about whatever tickles my fancy, but nothing does that more than CSS anyway.
The first article I wrote for an external publication was Using Responsive Images (Now) for A List Apart. I would never have thought about submitting until Anna Debenham encouraged me to give it a shot. Again, this was a reply from a thank you note I wrote to her. Look, I like telling people they're awesome when they create stuff that benefit me, like blog posts and podcasts, for no charge at all!
I do help out Manoela Ilic AKA Mary Lou with the Codrops CSS reference as well. Her reaching out to me to write for the CSS reference is one of the best things ever, because it gave me the motivation to deep dive into the various CSS specifications and learn things I probably wouldn't have otherwise. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't know as much about CSS grid if I hadn't wrote the reference entry for it.
All that writing led to my first meetup talk, which was at talk.JS, because Sayanee Basu thought I ought to talk about the article that I wrote on responsive images. Public speaking was never much of an issue for me, to be honest. I attribute it to my thick skin and act-first-worry-later attitude to life 🤷.
On a whim, Chris Lienert and I decided to launch a meetup centred around CSS, since nothing of the sort existed at the time. It was sort of a sister meetup to talk.JS so we named it Talk.CSS. Look, naming things is hard.
I do go out to other web development meetups when I can, and got to know a bunch of incredible people. One of them being Sebastian Deckers, who asked me to be a guest speaker at the web development course he was teaching at General Assembly at the time. That led to me teaching a couple of workshops on HTML and CSS, which was eye-opening because giving a talk and conducting a workshop are quite different experiences.
If you come to a web development meetup in Singapore, you will not fail to notice the crew of videographers recording every talk. In the early days, it was a one-man-show by Michael Cheng, and now it has grown into a team of dedicated volunteers that form the core of Engineers.sg.
Through Michael, I met Elisha Tan, the spunky founder of TechLadies, who didn't know me well enough at the time to realise how nonsensical I could be when she asked me to be part of a panel at her inaugural TechLadies launch party.
Fortunately, I wasn't as bad a trainwreck as I expected, as Elisha found me decent enough to hold a number of introductory front-end development workshops for TechLadies as well. I now see myself as one of her minions 🙆.
The first web development conference I ever attended was Form, Function, Class 5, in Manila, which I strong-armed Zell to go with me. It was a wonderful experience. The organisers, PWDO, are incredibly warm and friendly, and the conference was very well run. I also managed to convince Pixel Onion to pay for my ticket to CSSConf.Asia 2014 and that was brilliant too.
So I now had a two-for-two positive experience at web conferences and really wanted to attend more. The following year, Zell was in charge of building the website for CSSConf.Asia 2015 and suggested to Thomas Gorissen, organiser of CSSConf.Asia and JSConf.Asia, that I would make a decent host. I added that I was also an useful source of manual labour, good for doing registration and carrying heavy objects. Hey, all that athletic training has some real-world benefits .
That was Zell's first conference talk, and he was great. I had great time as the host, because I had a front-row seat to a star-studded line-up, became friends with another wonderful human being and fellow Malaysian, Aysha Anggraini. Plus, I didn't have to pay for a ticket. Things went full circle for CSSConf.Asia 2016 when I gave my very first conference talk with Zell and Aysha hosting the event this time.
Being involved with conference organisation actually puts you in closer contact with the speakers, and I got the chance to chat with them, which was great. I'm quite sure I was a little star-struck but I was all chill on the outside 😎. We even managed to get Rachel Andrew to be part of Talk.CSS when she was here. #crowningachievement
And then I met a superwoman, Charis Rooda, who put together an exceptional inaugural Webconf.asia with her team, hours and hours of work that culminated into a successful conference. She gave me an opportunity to stand in front of more than a hundred people to talk about a topic that I was really passionate about. Plus front-row seats to top-notch talks by people I really respect.
Vadim Makeev, organiser of pitercss, also thought my talk would work in his line-up and was willing to fly me kilometres to Saint Petersberg, Russia for it. I never thought I'd get an opportunity to even go to that part of the world, but here we are.
I can't really put into words how grateful I am for every person who took a chance on me, who gave me encouragement and opportunities to show what I could do. And there are so many more people I haven't mentioned, especially the group of guys I have had the privilege of working with for the past year and a half. But that requires a separate blog post to do them justice so I'll leave that for another time.
It is a privilege to be able to do what I do, to create stuff for the web, to share what I learnt with others, to have the choice to do something that makes me happy on a daily basis. If you made it this far, I'm thankful that you indulged my naval-gazing so here's a doughnut emoji 🍩.
Much love ❤️.
Originally published at www.chenhuijing.com on June 11, 2017.