What I'm Reading
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Monday, November 26. 2012
Zeitgeist - "the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era." - Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Right before I left for my Ecuador missions trip, I was busy at work trying to convince various co-workers to consider staying at Yahoo!. The backdrop was we had just endured a very baffling round of layoffs from Scott Thompson, CEO of Yahoo!. Months later, Scott Thompson was fired, and we installed an interim CEO, Ross Levinsohn. The direction of the company was definitely in question, morale was fairly low, and recruiters were busy picking off our employees. Hiring people to try to replenish our ranks was definitely a challenge as a lot of candidates were simply not even returning our calls. There were definitely a lot of sexy pre-IPO companies such as Zynga, Groupon, and Facebook which were potentially very lucrative. I thought I was fairly good at reasoning with people on why they should stay, but there were definitely limits to my powers. Call it hope, call it faith, but my reason to stay was that things can't stay bad forever, and when things do turnaround, it's going to happen very quickly, and it will happen in a blink of an eye.
A New Hope
As I left for my trip, one of my co-workers left the company, despite my rallying cry. A week into my trip overseas, my guide tells me, Chris, did you know your company has a new CEO? I assumed our interim CEO, Ross Levinsohn had gotten the nod for the job. My guide tells me no, apparently some high ranking female executive from Google is your CEO. I was completely caught off-guard. Later that night when I returned to the hotel, I got on the internet, and it was true, Marissa Mayer from Google had become our CEO. I couldn't quite believe the press release that I was reading because I had always assumed that Marissa Mayer was being groomed as a CEO-in-waiting at Google.
Upon my return to Silicon Valley, as I got into work, you could feel the excitement in the air. The first all-hands that the new CEO threw was completely packed out, and one the most highly attended events in a long time. Some of her first edicts was to make our perks and benefits on-par with other Silicon Valley peers, such as free food. Next, she immediately starts soliciting feedback/painpoints from employees; people suddenly felt empowered because feedback was being acted on at break-neck speeds. A lot of roadblocks were being removed for engineers, and I think my fellow engineers collectively gave a sigh of relief that we finally had an engineer at the top of the company that understand us and the culture (unlike Scott Thompson who was very much a wall street raider type). I think the bravest move that Marissa did was to confront our problem of leaks to the press, she did it by being radically transparent in order to build trust with the employees.
The shift in public sentiment towards Yahoo! has been remarkable. The volume of incoming resumes was astounding, and engineers out there are genuinely excited at the prospect of working for Yahoo!. I'm screening resumes as fast as they come in these days. I attend external tech talks, and people actually come up to talk to me now when they see my Yahoo! Inc. name tag. In my tenure at the company, I don't recall when morale was this high.
Why Is Everyone Starring At Me?
A couple months back, I had to visit human resources because I filed a bunch of complaints about a website that they manage. There were a lot of broken features, and one of their managers wanted to get to the bottom of the problems. As I enter the room to meet with several HR representatives, they're starring at me kind of funny. I introduce myself. One of the HR folks says they know me from somewhere. That's odd because I had never met any HR folks before in my career.
One of the HR ladies go, "oh I know you from your Demos & Drinks presentation." Another HR rep then remarks, "oh I know where I know you from, you're in one of our career commercials." Apparently Yahoo! Careers has been running a number of videos featuring footage from Hack Days, and my team is featured in those commercials.
I watched the first commercial, and I thought it was actually really well done. It perfectly captures the zeitgeist of Yahoo!. We are a company that has been through a lot, and is in the process of healing, and we're trying to revitalize our company, a company that the world loves and trusts. The video features Tim Parsey, SVP of Design at Yahoo!, he was a judge in Q1 Yahoo! Hack Day, and he gave my team a design award. A couple months later, he fronted half the funding to get my hack project off the ground, so I definitely owe the Tim my thanks for being the catalyst that started my amazing journey this year.
Last week, Yahoo! Careers put out another article talking about how Yahoo! invented Hack Days. It features footage of my team again.
It's funny that the commercials characterizes my job at Yahoo! as standing in front of a computer, explaining ideas to people, or posing for cameras in the winner's circle. In either case, I'm very fortunate that the one Hack Day they decide to film for the public, I happened to be a first time competitor, and happened to win. That's too much of a coincidence. I'll thank the good Lord for his impeccable timing.
In either case, let me know if you're interested in working at Yahoo!, we're hiring.
Wednesday, October 3. 2012
What is Hack Day?
Hack Day is a competition where teams come together with an idea and try to turn it into a working piece of software in 24 hours. Hack Day is a forum to showcase the most innovative and entrepreneurial talent. The idea could be the next great mobile app, a feature you've always wanted to see, a tool that will make programmers more efficient, etc. The whole thing starts 2 weeks ahead of Hack Day with Hack Bazaar, where people with ideas try to recruit talent for their project. Talent could include scientists, back-end engineers, user experience designers, mobile developers, etc. On Hack Day, these teams spend 24 hours (with little sleep) turning that idea into a working prototype. At the end of 24 hours, teams will give a 90 second pitch and demonstrate their idea to a panel of distinguished judges. To the winners, glory and street cred amongst the hacker community, and a chance to get their idea funded.
Forming The Team
The idea I actually had for this Hack Day was from my innovation backlog. I already had the idea ready to go back in Q1, but I just didn't have enough mental bandwidth to properly lead 3 teams at Hack Day. In either case, right after I won Q2 Hack Day, I already picked out my team for Q3 Hack Day. I picked people who wanted to compete in Q2 Hack Day but couldn't compete because they were busy. I wanted to give as many people a taste of the Hack Day experience as much as possible. I had also made a bet with my boss that I could get everyone under his team a Hack Day win before the year was out, that is one of my focal goals for the year. Ambitious no?
I was also adamant in choosing people who had never competed in a Hack Day before. Why?
During Hack Bazaar, I pulled in my team to brainstorm what we were going to work on. My right-hand man, Huge, the coding ninja sat down in the room and he said he might not be able to do Hack Day. I inquired why, and he gave some lame excuse. I called him out on it and asked why he really didn't want to do Hack Day. He said we had already won three Hack Days, so there's a lot of pressure for us to win, and shouldn't we quit while we're ahead. My diplomatic answer was, let me show you what I am planning to do, and then you can decide whether you want to compete in Hack Day or not. My non-diplomatic answer was, "Huge, don't worry about losing, we're going to win, this is the big one." We had five really solid ideas on the board. but we quickly rallied around the hack from my innovation backlog.
I asked the million dollar question, who will join me in Hack Day to build out this idea? Huge was in. Phew. I had one person decline my call-to-arms because they said they couldn't offer anything of value to the hack. While I appreciate the honesty of that, when opportunity is knocking on the door, you seize the moment. I spent the next 24 hours thinking of a feature that could leverage this person's expertise. I actually came up with a brilliant feature that actually became a core piece of the demo. After I presented this new feature, that person joined the team.
The team consisted of six people total, and it was the biggest idea and the biggest team I had ever attempted at a Hack Day. Just to add even more difficulty to the task at hand, I would be out of office for a week go volunteer at Royal Family Kids Camp. That left no time to prepare or coordinate, and I would be coming into competition pretty sleep deprived and tired. This was going to test my physical and mental stamina.
The Day Of Competition
I woke up early that morning because I couldn't sleep, my mind was racing about Hack Day. Had I prepared enough? Was my idea good enough? Will people like what I came up with? It was still too early to go into work, so I spent the early morning pacing around my apartment praying and meditating on the task at hand.
I drove into work, gathered the team and headed to building C where Hack Day was being held. I entered the room, and saw some familiar faces of friends and competitors from former Hack Days. We picked a workspace, and proceeded in setting up our command center. In about 15 minutes, our table was littered with laptops, tablets, books, and smartphones. The clock started, and we had 24 hours to build out our idea. As the day progressed, some people recognized who I was and came up wanting some advice about Hack Days, and how to pitch ideas. I was more than happy to oblige. I had a poor soul come up to me wanting to recruit me for their project, I was tempted to ask them, "do you know who I am?", but instead I politely rejected their offer.
By 8pm, the mood at Hack Day started to change. You could see some teams starting to really hit their stride in the competition. You could see some teams still debating what they build for Hack Day because they hadn't planned enough. Some teams start realizing, oh no, we only have 16 hours left, and were no where close to finishing.
I decided to look at the roster of competitors, and noticed that one of my work rivals had joined Hack Day with a big team. We're rivals because after my Q1 Hack Day project got funded, my rival lost control of his project because my product was superior. I look up, and then I see my rival enter the room with his team. The guy walks in wearing business casual attire which basically violates the core principles of hackerdom. Every Hack Day, I tell all my team members to make sure that they wear a geeky t-shirt to Hack Day; if they wore a polo or a collared shirt I would send them home for a change of clothes. Anyways, this Hack Day just got a lot more interesting. I told my team, if that guy beats me at Hack Day, I'm retiring from competition because I am no longer a worthy adversary. Fast forward to 11pm, and I see my rival arguing with his team while sipping on a cup of wine. Who drinks wine at a Hack Day competition!?
Crossing The Finish Line
By midnight, half my team had retired for the evening. The other half would stay at Yahoo! all night to try to get all the coding done. We worked furiously over the night. At around 4am, I decided to get 30 minutes of sleep inside a phone booth. I've never gotten so little sleep at a Hack Day before, but there was a ton of work to do.
Immediately after the demos were submitted, we're all given a number, and a rough time window of when we'll be presenting to judges for a preliminary round. This is like the pre-judging that happens on American Idol, only the top 30 make it into the next round. While everyone around me were nervously preparing their speeches, putting the final polish on their presentations, I was watching inspirational videos on my laptop. I'm getting into the zone, I'm cool and I'm calm. Our number was finally called, and we walked into a room and the judge was none other than the Chief Architect of Yahoo! Wow! I walked them through my original rationale and inspiration for the hack, and then showed them the demo. I saw smiles on the judges face as soon as they saw the demo, so that was a good sign. They were also fascinated by some of the algorithms that we had employed. The business case I had laid out seemed very reasonable as well. As we walked out of that room, I told my team, no matter what happened today in judging, I'm very happy with what we built, and what we presented, we couldn't have done it any better, and that was winning in my books.
One of my team members noticed that my rival was spamming people with emails asking them to vote for his project (top voted projects advance to the next round as well), my team members asked if we should rally support as well. I told them, I wanted our product to speak for itself, if it was truly great, it won't need marketing. When voting closed, my product had 17 votes, my rival had 87 votes. I was absolutely unphased.
Shortly after lunch, I was sitting in a lobby. My rival was sitting across from my team. An email came out with a list of finalists that were advancing to the final round of Hack Day. My team had made it to the finals, my team was celebrating. My response was much more subdued just because I assumed we would advance. I also saw that my rival's team did not make the shortlist. The opposing team's engineers seemed genuinely disappointed, and one of them muttered, "never follow a product manager in a Hack Day." I saw my rival go argue with one of the judges, and 30 minutes later, an additional email came out saying that my rival's team was "accidentally" left out of the finalist list. Hmmm. Oh well, bring it on. Out of 64 teams, 30 teams would be competing in the finals.
We enter the classroom where the Hack Day finals are being hosted, and it was packed full of people. The audience was exposed to a wide variety of hacks, some funny, some inspirational, some really odd ones, and some crashes and burns. I was glad to see that many of my peers from Search had also participated by either competing or was part of the audience; my division must have fielded at least 5 teams. We got to the middle of the program, and my rival took to the stage. He started his pitch with a use case that didn't seem like a real problem users were facing, and then he gave a demo of what his team had built. Someone from Search whispers to me, "Hey, isn't that just a derivative of what you had built and got funding for in Q1 Hack Day?" I responded, "uhhh... yeah it is, oh well, good luck with that one." I was scratching my head. Why did my rival need such a big team to build that? My original Q1 Hack Day project required only 1.25 engineers. Oh well, I was happy because I knew there was no way my rival was going to win.
My team's number finally comes up, and I took to the stage. Compared to other Hack Days, I was definitely far more confident because giving pitches were now second nature to me. I noticed that as I started talking, I was just so focused on giving the demo and hitting all my talking points and jokes; everything around me just faded away. It might be because I was just so tired from lack of sleep, but I wasn't able to actually detect how the audience was responding to my pitch. In the middle of the demo, the projector actually cut out, and the audience wasn't able to see my screen anymore. Thankfully it happened at such an ironic time in my pitch that the audience just laughed. I recovered pretty quickly, and still had 30 seconds left on the clock to show them the killer piece of the demo. I end with the punchline, and I leave the stage with applause.
As I walked off stage, I asked my team member if the audience laughed when I told them my key joke, and he said yes. I was relieved because I had done my pitch like a comedy routine, and it all hinged on jokes and making people feel entertained. Are you not entertained? Is that not why you're here? In either case, I felt bad for the team who happened to go after my pitch because they were competing in the same idea space as I was. They had quite an act to follow.
The pitches finished, and the judges left the room to deliberate. They returned with the co-founder of the company, David Filo, and had a list in hand of the winners. I was competing in the mobile category, and when they announced the winner for mobile, my heart sank when it wasn't my team. I thought, uh oh, I promised my team we would win, this was not good. After a couple categories had passed, they announced yet another mobile category winner. I was sitting on the edge of my seat, and then they called out another team's name. The odds were narrowing very quickly. The only two awards left were "Hacker's Choice Award" (as voted by the people), and "Overall Best Hack." Filo then said, "and the winner of the Hacker's Choice Award is.... wait.... is this right? Really? (Goes and whispers to the judges). Wow.... uhhh okay." He then called out our team. I reacted by raising a solid fist in the air signalling victory, at long last, victory. When we walked up to pickup our award, David Filo asked in disbelief, "how many Hack Day wins has this been now?" I responded, "This would be number four."
I felt relieved. I felt vindicated. The strategy worked. I had accomplished my goal of ensuring every team member under my boss had won a Hack Day award. That evening, I got an outpouring of thank you emails. One of my team member's wives even sent me a message thanking me for letting her husband onto my team.
Below is a slideshow of photos from Hack Day
Now comes the hard part, raising another round of funding...
Wednesday, September 5. 2012
Last month, I had quite the epiphany that really shook my faith in humanity. I was having dinner with some friends and acquaintances in Palo Alto (one of the wealthiest areas in Silicon Valley). We were leaving the restaurant after some dessert, and one of the acquaintances wanted to stop by at Yogurtland for some dessert. I was supposed to be driving everyone home, and my friends had an early flight to catch in the morning, so we were already short on time, but we let the acquaintance stop for yogurt. We JUST had dessert, but whatever. The acquaintance finally gets her dessert and we start walking towards the car again.
Along the way, we saw a single mother on the side of the road with a sign that read, "please help, homeless, have three hungry children to feed." The acquaintance angrily says, "I have no respect for people like that." The rest of my party was unprepared for such a reaction, and we wondered if we misunderstood what was just said. The acquaintance clarifies her stance by saying, "If you can't afford having three children, you shouldn't have three kids. It's her fault for choosing to have that many kids, and I have no respect for people like that. She shouldn't be able to have kids." No one could comprehend these cold remarks, especially since that single mother wasn't even begging us for money, she was just standing there with a sign. My acquaintance couldn't understand that sometimes life just happens, and people fall into poverty sometimes without any fault of their own.
The walk back to the car was long and awkward. When we got to my car, the acquaintance asked if she could eat her dessert in my car. As an act of social justice, I told her no, and to throw out that yogurt.
I was completely shocked by the acquaintances outlook on the poor. I know for a fact that she came from a rich family, and went to some of the most expensive private schools money had to offer. She had just landed a job at a prestigious tech company. I couldn't comprehend how someone with such privledge could be so cold with no empathy for the poor. The thing that worried me the most is that as she grows older, she would be our future leaders, and in a position of power. These events really made me ponder, what a leader should have in order to have the right to lead? What should leaders do to prevent them from growing cruel as they accumulate power? These thoughts weighed on my mind as I went to camp.
Off To Camp
So I had just got home from Ecuador, and I had one week to get ready for camp. I had exactly one week at work, and then it was back out to the field. I had time to unpack my luggage from Ecuador, repack, rearm, and we were off. This second leg of the journey was definitely going to test my endurance. This year we had 32 kids registered, and about 50 volunteers signed up. I had a headstart on growing my annual camp beard used for repelling ladies who think I'm 18. Alright, we're ready for camp!
On Sunday afternoon, we drove up to the Santa Cruz mountains to the camp site. The camp site was pretty nice, it had a swimming pool, dining hall, chapel, archery field, cabins, basketball court, volleyball court, and soccer field. The cabins we stayed at could house eight people, and each had two bathrooms. I had the honour to serve with Oliver again this year, a recurring camp counselor. Jeff was also back, the man who had suffered head trauma and couldn't speak nouns or numbers, so he resorts to pointing to objects. There was also a new guy I had never worked with before, Dennis.
The Children Cometh
We woke up Monday morning, and started decorating our cabins for the kids. We also started getting some preliminary information about the kids we would be taking care of for the week. One of the camp directors came up to me and told me I was getting a kid from the wait-list, and he was a very troubled kid, so he would be a handful. I put my alert status up to Defcon 1, and prepared for the worst.
The kids arrived on a bus, and my little camper, Fabian, came up to me. I'm thinking, this little quiet kid was supposed to be handful? Surely this was a mistake. My second kid, Darrian, got off the bus, and I recognized him from last year's camp. The third kid, Jesus, got off the bus, and he was this kid that was just always smiling. Thankfully, they were all 11 years old. I always request 11 year olds at camp because they're typically old enough that I can reason with them. My logic and reasoning is impeccable, so usually I can get the kids to behave for the most part.
After observing Fabian for a couple hours, I realized this kid was totally mellow, and very quiet, so I had to try to get him more involved in activities. Thankfully by night time, he felt at home, and started participating in everything. He caused no problems at all, so I didn't understand why everyone was saying he was going to be a handful.
The next morning though, we discovered that he hardly got any sleep because he had a toothache. Turns out he was in need of a root canal, and his caregivers hadn't taken him the dentist. We would take him to the nurse station for oral numbing agents, or children's advil, but these were all bandage solutions unfortunately. On one of the nights, he threw up because the painkillers were too harsh on his system. I felt bad and powerless because there really wasn't anything I could do to help him.
Camp is a funny place when it comes to love. Kids and teenagers seem to always pair up and couples form at camp. I didn't realize that even older adults were pairing up. I was trying to figure out why one of my counselors was missing in action. Then one evening, I saw him exchanging phone numbers with an older lady, and everything became crystal clear.
There was another funny dynamic that happened in our cabin. Apparently all the ladies loved Fabian, but he wasn't interested at all. Darrian's sister also liked Fabian, so she was always dropping by to bug him. I guess Darrian was jealous that her sister was giving all her attention to this new kid. Darrian comes to the counselors complaining that his sister wasn't talking to him, and he was afraid he would lose his sister to Fabian. We tried explaining that it was a harmless crush, and his sister would revert to her normal self after camp. Darrian wasn't quite satisfied with our answer and began threatening to beat up Fabian, or he would just sit in corners and pout. We had a weird frenemy situation.
The frenemy situation changed when a bully from another cabin was introduced to the equation. Whenever the bully would hassle Fabian, Darrian would come to Fabian's aid and would stand up to the bully. Kind of funny that Darrian would defend his cabin mates regardless about how he felt. I personally wish I could have taught that bully a thing or two.
I remember a hilarious conversation that happened one morning at the breakfast table. The boys in my cabin were debating which girl counselor they would rather date.
Jesus: Fabian, would you ever date Kelly if she was your age?
Fabian: Ew no.
Jesus: Why not?
Fabian: Because she's vegetarian.
One of the counselors heard the answer, and asked if my bad influence was rubbing off on the kids. I had nothing to do with formulating that answer, but it was a hilarious answer.
The Gentleman's Haberdashery
Thursday was the big day at camp. The boys went out on a fishing trip, while the girls had an elaborate tea party. The gender roles are pretty funny for me because the men were out hunting while the women would be literally putting on dresses and makeup for their tea party. Every year, there are some girls that would much rather go fishing, and some boys would much rather sip tea. As a member of the British Commonwealth, I think every gentleman should know how to sip a fine tea.
I proposed that next year, the boys will have a Gentleman's Haberdashery. The boys will dress up in sports coats, wear top hats and monocles, and sip tea next to a roaring fireplace debating politics. You know, they do what real gentleman do. Who else would teach this generation about how to be a gentleman after all? The directors of the camp loved the idea, and I'll be very amused if they implemented the idea.
Darrian seemed to have some confidence issues. Whenever he tried a new activity and wasn't instantly good at it, he would pout, complain, and stop trying. He expected to be good at everything, but the reality is, you can't be good at everything. Darrian was always comparing himself with Fabian. I was constantly trying to get Darrian to think more positively, and put things in perspective. He was very good at archery compared to all of the other kids, so I told him to focus on his strengths.
On Thursday, all the boys went to the lake for a fishing trip. Last year when we went, the fish weren't really biting, and we might have caught 9 fish total in 3 hours. Fast forward to this year, and Fabian somehow manages to catch 9 fish in the first hour. I worked a bit with Jesus, and he manages to catch a fish as well. After the second hour, Darrian starts pouting and complaining because he hadn't caught any fish yet. He wanted to quit and go home. I had it with his negativity, so I told him, "if you don't put your hook in the water, you're never going to catch fish, so cast your fishing rod now." He takes a deep sigh of protest, and casts his rod and says, "this is pointless." Before he finished saying that, he gets a bite. He pulls in this little bass. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. He's pretty excited about his catch, and I begin imitating him about what he said before, "this is pointless, I want to go home, I'm never going to catch anything." I think he finally realized why it was important to try again even if he failed the first time. It was a great life lesson for the lad. I'm definitely not the nurturing type when it comes to teaching kids; I'm definitely the tough love kind of person.
By the end of the day, Fabian someone managed to catch 25 fish, Jesus took in 9 fish, and Darrian caught 5 fish. All of the boys got something.
The Petting Zoo
This year, the camp managed to get a petting zoo up to the campsite. The kids were greeted with turtles, rabbits, goats, llamas, ducks, and more. One of the funniest things that happened was the tortoise. The kids were gathered around the tortoise, and then the ground around it started turning yellow and wet. Oh my goodness, the tortoise was peeing! The kids didn't realize what was going on and they asked me what the tortoise was doing. I told them, "oh... the tortoise sprung a leak, move along children." The kids looked at me funny, took my answer at face value, and quietly dispersed. Did I mention I enjoy creating distorted realities for children?
Time Is Fleeting
While other cabins struggled to maintain peace and order with their kids, I always managed to have the most behaved kids ever. For crying out loud, every night the kids in my cabin wanted us to read them Bible stories, and they were always asleep by 9:30pm. That alone is a miracle and proves the existence of God.
One of the nights, the kids were talking about how much they loved this camp. Fabian asked us what the minimum age was to help volunteer at the camp. The minimum age was 16 years old. He then said something that took me aback. He said when he grows up to be 16, he wanted to come back to the camp and volunteer as a counselor. I don't think in all the years that I've served at camp that I've heard a kid think about giving back to the community; usually camp is just a fun summer thing that they enjoy. It then hit me that in 5 years, this kid would be old enough to come back to the camp and be like one of us. Here's a 11 year old kid, and in a blink of an eye, he'll be a full-grown teenager. That was a really strange profound thought for me.
There was this one awkward skinny little kid at camp that seemed a lot smaller than he should have been by his age. When I looked upon his face, it looked like he was deathly afraid of the world. The world was out to get him; he even got kicked by a goat at the petting zoo. I asked about this kid's backstory, and it was absolutely soul crushing. It turns out that the kid had night terrors, and had a really hard time sleeping.
For several nights, he would be in bed tossing around, only to wake up from his nightmares every five minutes. One of the counselors had to sleep on the floor next to this kid's bed because the kid was having such terrible dreams. I have to give my hats off to that counselor for sacrificing his comfort and sleep every night in order to give a sense of security to the kid. Clearly there was something terribly wrong with the kid. We were reading through some of the kid's writings, and he wrote that he was scared that his nightmares would come true in real life.
On the Thursday night, we had Pastor Art come in to pray for the kid before he went to bed. And then, something remarkable happened that night. The kid actually had a peaceful night of sleep and he didn't wake up once. In the morning the kid reported that he didn't have his night terrors. That report absolutely blew me away. As a man of science, it's one of those things where science and reason couldn't explain what was going on, and that is where faith begins.
Whenever people hear about abused and neglected children, they assume that the kids have huge problems and are broken individuals. With such low expectations, I'm always blown away by how resilient these kids are. Some of them possess huge potential that no one thought would be possible. One of the nights, we had a talent show which the kids would perform at. One of the girls performed a song that she wrote all by herself. Everyone was shocked that she had that creative potential.
Another evening, we had a reptile handler show up for some show-and-tell about reptiles and snakes. The handler asked the kids some scientific questions about reptiles. This one girl in the crowd single-handedly answered all the questions in precise detail and with a ton of depth. I remember one of the counselors being worried that this girl wasn't really hanging out with the other girls in the cabin, and it seemed like she preferred to hang out with adults instead. They were worried the girl might be socially isolated. I ended up telling that counselor that she didn't have to worry about her girl, she was just intellectually gifted and she's smarter than every other kid, and that was why she wasn't socializing with the other kids her age. I took it one step further, I told them next year, give me all the intellectually gifted children. I would create a league of extraordinary gifted children, much like what Dr. Xavier did with the X-Men.
At the end of every camp, we get the kids to fill out a card for the hope box. It basically encourages kids to think about the future, and write down what they would like to change in their life, and what they want to be in the future. The boys weren't really engaging with the task at hand, so the hope box coordinator asked me to get the kids interested in filling out the card. So I thought, hmmm, what do kids like? I know, dinosaurs! And..... dubstep? I proceeded drawing dinosaurs declaring their love of dubstep on the cards. The coordinator seemed bemused by my efforts. Regardless what she thought, my kids saw the drawings and started asking about my art, and ended up filling out the hope cards. Mission accomplished.
Missions Trip vs Kids Camp
One of the questions I got was, which experience was harder? Was my Ecuador missions trip harder? Or was Royal Family Kids Camp (RFKC) harder? I would have to say that RFKC was harder. It's very possible that I'm biased because RFKC came immediately after my Ecuador trip, so I wasn't fully recovered. The main difference is at RFKC, you're pretty much on-duty 24/7. There really isn't time each day to just sit back and relax for any extended amount of time. In Ecuador, every day we had at least 4-6 hours of down time where you could socialize with friends. At camp, you're pretty much watching the kids all the time, and when I'm on duty, I tend to focus on the task at hand and socializing really isn't a priority. On the rare night off at camp, you had only an hour or two off. Furthermore, as an introvert, I need me-time to feel recharged; Ecuador was good about that because if I wanted my own time, I could just lock myself in the hotel room. At camp, it was pretty much impossible to go anywhere away from people at night.
The end of camp always leads to sad departures. We walk down this one dusty road one last time to drop the kids off to their bus, and then the kids head home. The bus was surrounded by other teary eyed counselors waving goodbye to the kids. This song was going through my head, and rather than crying, I just saluted my kids.
I guess I just celebrate the fact that we all made it out of camp once more in one piece, and we were able to positively affect some of these kids. Yes the kids have sad stories, but hopefully we helped change some of their futures. Honestly for me, the hardest part of the last day of camp was seeing the parents picking up the kids. Some of these folks are pretty sketchy, and you know the kids are going back to suboptimal environments, but you pray that the kids are resilient enough to overcome their circumstances and somehow reach their full potentials in life. That's the best I can do.
Before leaving for camp, I was unsure if I had the endurance to do camp after coming back from Ecuador. Thankfully I was able to get through camp without a hitch, and it didn't exceed my limits. Back to the original idea of 'the right to lead', when times get rough, people look for leaders to inspire and motivate them. Camp has definitely built up my mental toughness, and I will be there to rally folks. In the coming weeks and months, I'm sure my team will be running into some rough patches, and people will be looking for inspiration. After this many weeks out in the field, life's problems suddenly seem very small, and I think I'll be able to endure whatever comes next. This was the second leg of the marathon, bring forth the third leg of the race.
Monday, August 20. 2012
The next day, we visited one of the operational schools that Jerry Smith had started in the late 80s. When we got out of the vans, kids starting flocking towards us and started following us around. I guess foreigners draw a lot of attention and curiosity. We felt like celebrities as the kids wanted photographs of us, and autographs. As we entered different classrooms, kids would be pressed up against the windows trying to get a glimpse of us.
As a technologist, I was particularly interested in seeing the science labs and the computer labs. When I got into the computer lab, I saw a kid discretely playing Quake on one of the computers. I will admit to secretly playing video games during computer class as well when I was a kid, but hey, I turned out okay. What struck me as surprising was that the occasional kid did have a laptop. When I asked about what technology usage was like in school, I was surprised that over 90% of the kids have email, and the most popular email client was Hotmail. A lot of the kids got access to the internet from internet cafes, or someone in their neighbourhood had an internet connection and rented out its usage. It dawned on me that their internet usage was like what it was in the late 90s. When I saw the kids learning at the computers, it dawned on me that the next Bill Gates could arise from a place like this.
We got to meet some of the physical education coaches, and I was blown away by the calibre of talent that the school had attracted. One of the coaches used to be a soccer superstar; in his youth he was an athlete who used to showboat a lot, in his older age now, he regretted his attitude back then. The coaching staff brought in a lot of titles and trophies for the school.
We moved on to the principle's office, and Jerry was telling more about the calibre of talent they had brought in. The principle used to be one of the heads of education for the state. Jerry showed him the school that he was working on, a school that gave equal access to quality education for the poor. Eventually the head of education resigned his prestigious role to come work at Jerry's school. I was blown away by these repeated stories of highly skilled people leaving their perfectly good careers to come work with Jerry and his purpose and vision. The ultimate goal was to get kids graduated, because if they did, they could head to university for free and break the cycle of poverty.
In the office, there was a photo of a student assembly commemerating a story of AIDS. It was a sad story about a group of girls hanging out at a club, trying to see who could leave the club with a cute guy they knew. One of the girls "won" and spent a night with the guy. A couple months later, the girls found out that the guy had died of AIDS. The girl went in for a test and she was confirmed to have AIDS as well, and she didn't have much time to live. She told the principle what had happened. The principle asked her if she could speak at an assembly in the hopes of saving people from AIDS. She agreed. At the assembly, she started telling her story, and the kids weren't really paying attention. She finally got their attention when she said, she used to sit there in the assemblies like everyone else not paying attention, but this story was important because in a few months, she would be dead from AIDS. This was one of those stories that kind of caught me off guard. At least for me, I don't think I hear many AIDS stories in the first world. I even asked around my group, when was the last time anyone heard of someone they knew dying of AIDS, and no one could recall. I looked online, and it's estimated that around 16,500 American die every year of AIDS. To put that number in context, in 2005, 42,000 Americans died from car accidents. Car accidents kill more people than AIDS now in America.
After the school tour, we went to the slums to visit different families who had children in the school. This was where we left the main city, and things started looking like a third world country that I envisioned in my mind. As we were driving down a stretch of highway, I noticed some cargo trucks had passengers armed with shotguns. I inquired why there were armed passengers, and Kirk said that it was a dangerous stretch of road. This leg of the journey would be the most dangerous part. As we got near the slums, we entered a huge stretch of dirt road with open air markets. The streets were littered with garbage. The air was full of dust from passing cars, and open construction sites.
We finally reached the slums, and the first thing I noticed were burn marks on the sides of roads left from garbage burning. The air quality definitely was noticeable; the smoke certainly helped trap heat in the valley. The following are a set of photos of the slums. A lot of the houses were built from bamboo. It was interesting to see that as families saved up money, they would upgrade their houses to cinder blocks as their primary building material. Heading up to the slums, I definitely saw a couple yards selling cinder blocks. People would buy the cinder blocks and haul them back home.
We went into a number of homes, and most of them had dirt floors. Most homes had one room which acted as the living room, bedroom, and kitchen all-in-one. One thing I didn't expect was that a lot of the homes did have a television and refrigerator. A lot of them didn't have indoor lighting during the day. Most the homes did not have access to clean water. The people we visited were very hospitible, but it was awkward as guests having to refuse drinks from families just because it wasn't safe to drink the water.
I thought about how much families had to do to survive. The men would come back from their day jobs, and spend what extra time they had on building out their homes. The only way that I'm able to accel at my job in society is because I focus my talents on a very specific specialization. Things like obtaining clean water, building housing, and all those other tasks are offloaded to others in society so I can focus on my field. What a drain on human potential when people have to worry about the basic neccesities of living.
I initially was a bit hesitant in going to the slums because I didn't feel like I could do any good there. At least at the construction site, I was making some concrete contributions (pun not intended). We were out at the slums handing out food and praying people, but the pragmatist in me felt like it was merely a bandage solution. Building a school was at least a long-term fix to some of the society's problems. In hindsight I was glad that I got to see the slums first hand, and saw how people lived. It made me a lot more appreciative of the infrastructure we have and how it frees us up to focus on more important things. I certainly wouldn't be able to innovate if I was constantly focused on obtaining clean water or hauling cinder blocks. Visiting the slums also gave purpose to why the school building project was so important, it was a potential way of breaking people out of poverty.
One of the ironic things was, we were warned that the slums would be the most dangerous areas we would be visiting. I definitely felt safer in the slums than in the city or the airport. At least with the slums, we had wide open areas with clear lines of sight. It would be fairly difficult for someone to sneak up on us without anyone noticing. The city on the other hand had crowds of people which puts me at a much higher state of alertness.
A very cool thing that we got to do in the slums was play soccer with the local kids and teenagers. The first photo is of a kid playing soccer with a melon. I managed to hold my own on the soccer field, I used my hockey skills to at least get proper positioning. I managed to get two assists.
The teenagers that we played soccer with wanted to friend us on Facebook. It blew my mind that these folks had access to internet in the slums.
One thing I noticed in Ecuador was the geopolitical influence that China was trying to exert in the region. It was interesting to see a number of infrastructure projects in the area were being funded and built by the Chinese. Kirk mentioned that China was securing Ecuadorian oil in exchange for infrastructure. When we were walking through the Riverwalk, I heard the sound of mandarin music in the distance. It turned out that the Chinese navy had docked in port, and they were doing a cultural exchange by showcasing a Chinese orchestra. I saw a ton of Chinese sailors watching the show.
Another thing I noticed were the Chinese cars that were on the road; one of the brands was Cherry. The Chinese were definitely trying to compete for consumer dollars. From what I've been told, Toyotas and Hondas were stilled viewed as the premium brand.
From the American sphere of influence, I definitely saw a number of American brands such as General Motors, Ford Motors, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Coca Cola, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and The Marriot in the area. It was striking to see that a meal at Pizza Hut was considered a luxury. Two pizzas was about $20-$30 which was reasonable to us, but in the Ecuadorian context, that could be 10% of your monthly income.
I also noticed some Israeli influence in the area. One of the high-end hotels that we passed by had a guard sporting tactical equipment from the Israelis. Security is definitely an issue in the country, so I guess the Israelis are there to offer their security expertise and training to the locals.
The next couple of days the team was back on the construction site working. The tasks expanded to include:
As we got accustomed to the job site, it was incredible to know that almost everything on site was human powered. There were hardly any power tools. I was also surprised by some of the worker's footwear, I was expecting steel toed boots, but I saw tennis shoes with holes in them.
One of the highlights was when we linked up with team #2. Pastor Robert, Barry, and Pastor Malcom from Gilroy who arrived in Ecuador. They were in town to help teach leadership at the local church and some of the local business folks. They met us at the construction site to see how the school construction went:
The job site also had a number of iguanas just hanging around. The team managed to catch a couple iguanas. The most amusing picture is this one of Tori holding this iguana. She was terrified by the little beast, and moments after this picture was shot, she dropped the iguana screaming, and decided to flee the scene. Right before she fled, she managed to push me into a pile cinder blocks. I found it ironic that after working many days in a dangerous construction site, the only injury I sustain was from a girl fleeing in terror from an iguana.
On the very last day of construction, we blessed the workers by giving them all the equipment we had. We left them our shoes, jeans, t-shirts, gloves, and building materials. From what I've been told, denim is like currency down there, and very much appreciated.
We ended the day with a game of soccer on the roof of the school. It was a very cool venue to play at, and a very memorable moment. It was an epic match, our team vs the workers. The scenary around us was incredible. The score ended up being 3-5.
After the game, we took photos of the whole team, and shook hands with the workers. It was a strange feeling leaving all that work gear behind, it meant that we couldn't work anymore on the job site, and it concluded the service part of the trip.
We were moving on to the rest and relaxation part of the trip, and we headed over to Point Lopez via chartered bus.
The first thing we did was get on a boat at 9am and headed into the Pacific Ocean. We were enroute to Plata Island which is described as, "The Poor Man's Galapagos Islands." It was a national state park home to albatross and boobies. The boat ride was about 90 minutes long to get there, and we did come across some whales as well.
When we got onto the island, we embarked on a 4.3km hike around the island. The area was an ecologically sensitive area, so absolutely no food was allowed onto the island.
After the tour, we basically hung out around town, eating, and sipping on smoothies. The town was definitely a tourist town, we saw lots of Europeans on the streets. I have to say, our hotel was definitely not as nice as the one we were staying at in the city. The mattress was hard as rocks, and the bed sheets were paper thin. The walls were also paper thin. At least we had proper hot showers.
One of the most amusing stories I have to share is about Kirk's son, JJ who's autistic. In the afternoon, I stepped outside my room and started clapping my shoes trying to empty some sand. JJ happened to be in one of the hammocks in the courtyard and heard me. He proceeded to get up and started running towards me. I became alerted when he looked like he was going to try to tackle me from the feet. Before I could finish debating the ethical implications of fighting an autistic child, I found myself holding JJ down, and trying to prevent him from wrestling me to the ground. As I gained the upper hand, his sister turned the corner and saw me holding JJ down. Before I could say, "this isn't what it looks like," she ran away calling for her mom. Well.... this is going to be awkward. Her mom rushed over and got JJ off me, and apologized. Later that day, I met up with them, and the mother explained that JJ doesn't like shoelaces because he finds them restrictive. When JJ saw me hitting my shoes, he thought I was trying to free myself from the tyrrany of shoelaces as well, so he came over to "help." Hmmm, that makes perfect sense actually.
The Long Way Home
Tired from our travels, we were finally on the way to the airport to start our journey back to the United States. We arrived at the airport at 8:30pm to catch a 11:30pm flight. We wished Kirk a farewell, and we were off. When we got inside the airport, the check-in line was unusually long. After waiting in line for an hour, we found out that the flight was cancelled due to a mechanical failure. To our exhausted team's surprise, we would be spending an extra day out here in the field. We had to be in line for yet another hour to chart a flight out of here.
While we were at the airport waiting, this gem of a conversation emerged from our team:
Chan: If it's going to take multiple days to get back to California, I'm just going to rent a car and drive back.
Jared returns from the ticket counter and tells us that we would have to stay an additional night in Ecuador, then catch a flight to Miami the next day, stay a night in Miami, then catch a flight to Chicago, and then to San Francisco. Some people were definitely stretched to their mental limits when they heard the bad news. I now understand why some people go on the reality show, The Amazing Race to discover what their significant other is like; true character is definitely on display when you're stretched to your limits. Thankfully, I packed a ton of patience in one of my bags.
The airline put us up in a nice hotel in Ecuador. It was probably one of the nicest hotels I had ever stayed at in my life. The incredible thing was, the nightly rate for this fancy hotel was only $99/night. We ate a late dinner at the hotel, and the team dispersed for the night, and went to their respective rooms.
Unfortunately with the team's emotions running high over the delays, and everyone being mentally exhausted, we let our guard down a bit too early. I was up late on my computer signalling my work that I would be at least a day late. I got a knock on my door, and it's Jared saying that some unknown person was trying to enter one of the girl's rooms. Stupidly, we forgot to write down which room everyone was staying at. We rolled into high alert, and found the girls. Long story short, a maintenance guy was dispatched to fix a door, and due to a language barrier, the girls thought someone was trying to break in. Thankfully it was a simple misunderstanding, but it was a wake up call for us that we still couldn't let our guard down. We got sloppy. The other revelation was that I realized I was one of the grown-ups now. Normally on trips, when something happened, one of the adults would just simply take care of the problem. How did I become one of the adults?!
Security was definitely mentally taxing. The best way I could describe it is, as you went to different places in Ecuador, you had to mentally change to different security contexts. Dangerous areas, you had to crank up your situational awareness to maximum. It meant a lot of looking over your shoulders, checking pockets to ensure nothing had been stolen, spotting potential threats, and keeping track of the team's whereabouts. You had some areas that were semi-safe, and then you had safe zones where you could mentally let down your guard.
Back In The USA
We got into Miami at around 9pm the next day. Unfortunately I got held up at immigrations for an hour as I needed some papers filled out before I could leave. On the plus side, in immigrations, there was an old lady from a French speaking African country who asked me in French if I could get one of the guards to help her to the bathroom. I was able to bridge the communication gap.
As I exited the airport terminal, I was hit with this humid wall of hot sticky air, and it was disgusting. I didn't understand the appeal of Miami anymore. It was hotter than anything I encounted in Ecuador. We stayed at another hotel, which was not nearly as nice as the one we stayed at before. We were also ripped off in the meal we got with airline vouchers. The quote the came to mind was, "in America, people rob you with a smile." In either case, the next day we managed to complete the Miami -> Chicago -> San Francisco flights with no problems.
I've heard from a lot of people who come back from missions trips that they encounter reverse culture shock when they get back to their home country. These were some of my feelings when I got home.
One of the concerns people had about me going on this trip was around burnout. After a pretty high intensity period of war at work, shouldn't I be taking a relaxing holiday somewhere instead of a working trip? One of my advisors said this, "as you bless other people, you will be blessed." I definitely feel blessed and rejuvinated from the trip. This was a spiritual journey to figure out what the next steps are, and to test my limits and see what I'm made of. Out there on the field, free from distractions, there's a lot of time to reflect and ponder. As I was floating out there in the Pacific Ocean, I got the impression that it was time to let some old dreams die in order to make new dreams a reality. God definitely seeded some new dreams. I have to admit being somewhat scared about the prospect of some of these dreams becoming real, while change is good, new realities are often disorientating, foreign, and uncomfortable. Is it strange being more worried about succeeding than failing? I guess it's a high quality problem to have.
I jokingly refer to this person that was out there in the field as "Chan Prime." He is a humanitarian, a world traveler, a gentlemen, the ladies love him, and he has a beard. The funny thing is, when I got back to the office, the product managers were afraid of me and my beard. They said I looked really serious with the beard. In the future, I may summon Chan Prime again.
Call To Action
If you've enjoyed these writings and derived some value from it, please consider making a donation to support the children of Ecuador. Ecuadorchildren.org is the non-profit organization that's building the school in Ecuador. They're currently trying to raise $750,000 for school construction because the government has reduced classroom sizes from 60 kids to 40 kids. They need additional capacity to take on more students. All donations are tax-deducatible as this is a registered 501(c) charity. Any amount helps especially if you consider the average household in Ecuador makes $300-$500/month.
Thank you for your consideration.
Sunday, August 5. 2012
To pickup from last episode, our team had just arrived in Ecuador and got picked up by our host Kirk. This brings us to Sunday which was our day of rest. We took one day to get the team acclimated to the new time zone and environment. Monday (Day 3) would be the first day of work in Ecuador.
We got up Sunday morning, and the first thing I do is look out our hotel window. It was the first glimpse of Ecuador in daylight. It's hard to describe, but looking out into this foreign landscape, the world felt very strange. I'm reminded of that scene in the movie Inception when Cobb is describing dreams, and how in a dream you don't remember how you got here in the first place. Was I dreaming? Nope, I remember how I got here.
While we're discussing movie analogies, I had a Fight Club moment.
"You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet." -Tyler Durden
As I went through my wallet and pockets, I realized all of the material things that we lean on for security, confidence, etc are all completely and utterly useless out here in Ecuador. All of the firepower in my bank accounts were inaccessible. The car key I had in my pocket didn't matter. That company badge had absolutely no influence. That Canadian passport which represented all the rights and protections bestowed amongst its citizens did not apply out here. It was a humbling reality being a couple thousand miles from any given safety net.
We got down to the hotel restaurant for a quick team meeting, devotion, and breakfast. I had been warned by other people who have come to Ecuador before that breakfast tended to be lackluster, usually just bread and eggs. When I got through the breakfast line, I was ecstatic that they had ceviche (shrimp, octopus, cilantro, citrus)! This was my plate:
I had a funny conversation with Cameron at breakfast. He was drinking some of the orange juice and he mentioned how it tasted funny. I tried some of the orange juice, and it tasted fine. In fact, it was better than fine, the orange juice was fresh squeezed. I then asked Cameron if he usually drank Sunny Delight at home, and sure enough, the answer was yes. He was used to orange juice that was loaded with sugar (or high fructose corn syrup). It was a reminder to me how we manufacture somewhat fake food in America. It was a sad realization when real food tastes foreign, especially when we're drinking an honest glass of orange juice. More on this later.
Once everyone was ready, we were picked up by a van, and headed to church. I'm quite glad that everyone on the team was prompt and on-time. I like being on-time.
As we're driving through the streets, the lazy Sunday morning traffic seemed more mellow and less aggressive. The first thing I noticed was how every storefront had iron bars are something protecting its windows. The occasional store had a guard standing outside. I guess this was a reflection of the security situation on the ground. It struck me as how expensive it would be as a business owner to have to provide for your own security like that, it's like a tax on doing business.
Centro Cristiano de Guayaquil
We pulled up to the church, and first thing I noticed were the armed guards flagging the van in. As we pulled through the parking lot, I saw a lot of young people outside dressed pretty modernly and hip. As we exited the van, you can hear that the place was alive with activity. We started on a walking tour with Kirk and his mom Janice. The church service takes 8,000 people every Sunday. You could tell that the church buildings were heavily utilized. Even the parking lots had large tents for youth services to take place.
Janice took us through the children's ministry wing of the church. I was surprised by how much this church invested in children. They used new teaching curriculum every month to keep the lessons fresh. Drama was a big part of how they taught kids, so a lot of the classrooms we walked by had a stage. I could also spot sound systems here and there. Janice also mentioned how she hired professionals to help with the children; typically people who worked with children in the private sector. It was a very impressive display because a lot of churches I've been to, children's ministry is either an after thought, or it's inadequately staffed and funded.
After the tour, we sat in one of the church services where Pastor Jerry (Kirk's dad) spoke (with Kirk doing live translation for us). At the end of the service, they showed a video highlighting a new capital campaign. The government had mandated that classroom sizes be reduced from 60 students to 40 students. It meant that their existing school would be over capacity, so the new school would have to be finished ahead of schedule. They needed to raise $750,000 in 8 months. I asked Kirk what the average monthly income was for a family in Ecuador, and he told me $300-$500. The video was fairly impressive because it featured a pop singer who was an alumni of the school. The local church technology team had shot the entire video, and it was beautifully produced. I was quite impressed by the quality of work, it looked very professional. After church, we had the pleasure of having lunch with Pastor Jerry and his family.
Our next stop was to the artisan market in Guayaquil. It was a public market that featured a lot of textiles and crafts which were made by the locals who lived in the hills. The first thing I noticed was how many westerners there were wandering at the market. My assumption was that this was a relatively safe zone. My assumptions were validated after we passed a couple armed guards.
Another place we visited was the River Walk which was a beautified area of town. The story was that some travel show insulted the city by saying there Guayaquil was the armpit of Ecuador, and there was no reason to visit the city. The area was fairly dangerous, and literally had a black market in operation. The city invested and gentrifying the area and they cleaned the whole place up. Funny thing though, as our got dropped off, I saw a pimp showing off his wares. I quickly ferried some team members away, and I told the boy Cameron to keep his eyes forward, nothing to see here. Hilarious.
The River Walk featured this monument which celebrated the defeat of the Spanish. The monument showcases the men who decided to start many South American countries, and made a conscious decision to create democratic nations rather than monarchies.
First Day of Construction
Monday morning hit, and it was time to do what we came here for, school construction. The team got together for breakfast and devotions. I was very thankful that everyone left the hotel on time, I've heard of horror stories about tardy people on other trips. We pulled up to the construction site and it dawned on me how big this project was when I saw this large five story building.
We met up with the foreman, Jose (aka The Maestro), divided up the teams and away we went. Jared, Justin, and I got put onto concrete duty. Little did I know that was the most physically demanding of the jobs.
The job required:
It was indeed a very dirty job. I'm also not the biggest guy either, so sheer brute force tasks aren't my forte, but I will try my hardest. At first the workers were kind of making fun of my inability to lift buckets of concrete up over my head. I thought, oh no, if the whole week is going to be this, I'm not sure how I can physically do this. Thankfully as the workers warmed up to the team, they started sharing their secrets and techniques. I started getting the hang of it.
That night when I got back to the hotel, I had to hand wash all my clothes because they were caked with concrete and dirt. I also ate a fourth meal that night to keep up with my energy needs. My metabolism had kicked into high gear from all the physical labour.
On the plane I was reading a book entitled, "The Information Diet", and the book goes at length to compare food diets with information diets. In either case, they spend quite a bit of time talking about modern diets and how a lot of the foods we eat are bad for us, and how a lot of food is very artificial and processed. A lot of the foods we're drawn to (fatty, sugary, salty) are very bad for us if we're sitting around all day. The talk of healthy diets caused me to consciously choose healthier and more moderate portions during breakfast, and that was a very bad idea. By 11am, I felt an energy crash, my body was completely out of fuel and I needed more food. That was one of those funny first world vs third world problems. Out in the third world, when I was labouring, I needed a lot more energy, so all those fatty delicious foods were actually energy abundant foods which are very necessary. I even started drinking more Coke just to get more calories into my system each day.
The other thing I wanted to contrast was the idea of natural foods versus manufactured foods. The Information Diet talks states that America's food system is focused on producing calories as cheaply as possible. As a result, a lot of the manufactured food is very bad for us in the long-term. In Ecuador, we had locally grown food, but it was sometimes dangerous to eat because of pathogens. The food in Ecuador did seem a lot more honest though, most the juice we had was fresh squeezed. The coffee I bought had been packed a week before from someone local. I pondered what food system was doing more good. Is it ethical to have a food system that produced local honest food, but was sometimes too expensive for everyone to be fed? Or is it more ethical to have a food system that produced abundant cheap manufactured food but did not necessarily nourish people, and caused long-term problems like obesity, diabetes, etc.
We ate most meals at the church, and Kirk told us it was fine to eat as much as you wanted, but not to waste food. Some of the kitchen staff had family who didn't have enough to eat, so wasting food is kind of offensive.
Stay tuned for part 3. (Pardon any grammar/spelling mistakes. I had to get this article out fast, and I'm writing while at Kids Camp).
Monday, July 30. 2012
This post outlines my quasi-spontaneous trip down to Ecuador. It was definitely something I didn't foresee doing this year, but hey, everything worked out.
Last month, I was visiting a sister church in Gilroy where my friend is employed as a pastor. He was organizing a missions trip down to Ecuador; the primary objective was helping build a school. He mentioned that a couple people had dropped out of the trip last minute, so he was looking for people to go. Without really thinking it through, I said, I'll go.
This past year, I've been unable to leave the U.S. due to a change in my work visa situation. It's kind of unnerving knowing you can't leave the country, especially if there was a family emergency back in Canada or something. In either case, a week before, I had finally received an updated work visa status, and I could leave the country again. I had also hit my vacation cap at work, so I thought, what better way to celebrate my new found traveling freedom than to go to Ecuador. I double checked with my immigration lawyers, and they green lit everything. I talked with my parents about it, expecting hesitant concern, but was met with excitement that I was going. Everything seemed to line up, so I signed a cheque, and that sealed the deal, I was going on my first missions trip to South America.
The missions team had a couple of meetings previously, probably to get people to bond and to get to know each other. I knew a handful of people, but the rest were totally foreign. My first impression of the team was shaped by this one statement in one of the meetings:
I heard it's currently winter time in Ecuador, so it's going to be cold. I looked at the forecast and it says it's going to be 30 degrees, that's going to be really cold.
I casually asked if the forecast was in Celsius, but the lady didn't back down from her assertion. Oh well, funny is worth points.
I've had some people ask me if I was going to burn out if I did a building trip after a very high-tempo couple of months at work. The strange thing about me is, the more I accomplish, the younger and reinvigorated I feel. Just give me a war worth fighting for. This year has been a year of proving to myself that I've still got it. A lifehack that I have been using to increase the sense of urgency in my life is pretending the world is going to end in 2012, what would I do if this was the last year on this earth. An overseas missions trip has always been on my to-do list, so what better time than now?
The second inspiration was that I've been having lunch with a co-worker debating philosophy. Lately we had been asking a challenging question, what are we doing to help change the world? When the opportunity came to build a school in Ecuador, I found my answer. I look back at what I have accomplished in my career, and the foundation of all that is education. That was my ticket to success. I envisioned the idea as literally building the foundations of a nation, and this was a critical way of breaking people free from poverty. Education is one of those areas I'm passionate about, so this mission was a good match.
SFO -> MIA -> GYE
We had to catch the first flight out of San Francisco, so the plan was, the Gilroy convoy would leave at 2:30am (designated Fireteam Charlie), head to San Jose to pick up additional team members (designated Fireteam Alpha), then head to San Francisco and be there by 4:30am.
Eleven brave souls linked up at the San Francisco International Airport, and we were on our way to Miami then Guayaquil, Ecuador.
At the airport, the men (and the boy Cameron) made a pact that we would not shave on this trip.
When we approached Miami, we actually ran into some weather. The pilot was trying to avoid giant columns of clouds so we took a huge detour and ended up flying over Key West. This was a bit of a problem because there was only a 45 minute window to catch out connecting flight. When we finally landed, we had about 20 minutes to catch our connecting flight. We made a mad dash to the gate, and thankfully got on-board on time.
On the Miami to Ecuador flight, I did notice quite a number of Americans on the flight. I later found out that the flight had two other mission teams which were helping with other build projects across the country. I guess Ecuador was a popular destination for humanitarians. The guy sitting next to me on the flight was an Ecuadorian, and he asked what I was doing heading to Ecuador. I was telling him about the school that we were helping construct, and he asked if I was a missionary. I hesitated to answer because I realize I'm playing toy soldier at this point, I'm just a tourist on a very short-term mission. In either case, he expressed his thanks to me and the church for helping his country.
That exchange with the gentleman on the flight made me think a bit about the church and society. On the internet, I read comments from people who are fairly mad at the church, and believe society would be better off without it.I think the American media also overplays the idea of a culture war going on between religion and secular society. From talking to the guy sitting next to me, I sensed no hostility at all against the church. It made me consider that the hot button topics that are discussed are essentially wedge issues meant to drive people apart, and a lot of it is manufactured rage on both sides. I do think there's a lot of common ground, such as education being very important. If you look at history, the original universities in the West were seeded by the church. In either case, it made me think about the idea that the church would do better in building bridges of understanding if we promote what we are for. I think there's a lot of common ground with the secular world in the fight against poverty, improving education, access to healthcare and AIDS prevention.
Touching Down In Ecuador
After about 11 hours in flight, we finally touched down in Ecuador. Everyone cleared through immigration/customs pretty quick except me. The immigrations officer looked at the photo in my passport, then looked up at me, and started gesturing that I was not the same person as the person shown in the passport.
He asked, "Spanish?"
I responded, "Anglais", not realizing that I had just started using Canadian French as my default language.
The guy looked displeased, and started flipping through my passport. After a couple minutes of him looking through stuff on his computer, he finally let me pass. As I rejoined my team, I realized I wasn't the last person out. Tori allegedly brought fresh apples into the country, and she got written up at customs.
Fun fact: The Americans on the team were looking at my passport, and they asked why I looked so serious and angry in the photo. I told them that Canadian passports require you to not smile in the photo. American passports on the other hand, I guess you're supposed to smile. Smiling makes computer facial recognition more difficult, so that's probably why in Canada, they want no smiling for passport photos.
As we exited customs/immigration, we met up with our handler, Kirk. He took us out to the parking lot to load our stuff into the van. My first observation as I walked out of the airport was, the air wasn't as humid as I was anticipating. My other senses then took over, the smell of the place, and the distant sound of traffic, the city felt alive. It then finally hit me, and the reality set in, I was now in a third world country. As we were loading the vans with one of Kirk's henchmen, we realized that there was a random guy lurking amongst the group and the van. The guy was trying to steal luggage when we weren't looking. We quickly put everyone into the vehicles and left quickly.
While driving out of the airport, we started seeing the traffic and noticed how noisy it was because everyone seemed to honk their horns. It seemed like traffic lights were more like suggestions as traffic kept flowing even when there's a red light. I couldn't see lane dividers on the roads. People seemed to cut people off quite closely. One thing I was impressed by was how modern the cars on the road were, but that might be because we were in a richer area of town. I was expecting junky old cars in the streets.
We got to our hotel, and Kirk gave us a quick briefing:
Fun Fact: Ecuador uses US Dollars for their currency. Previous governments used to print cash which caused inflationary problems. They settled on using the US Dollar for more economic stability.
After the briefing, we went up to our rooms. The rooms were okay. One interesting thing was, they try to conserve energy as much as possible, so you need to put a keycard in this card reading in order to turn on the electricity in the room.
Our team was pretty hungry, and thankfully the hotel's restaurant featured "Night Sandwiches." It became a nice evening tradition for the team. This is the Sanduches De Pollo.
The funny thing is, Kirk had just finished telling us to avoid things like lettuce and tomatoes because they might not be cleaned properly, and here we were eating sandwiches with lettuce and tomatoes on it. Turned out the hotel restaurant's food was safe to eat.
Stay tuned for part 2.
Wednesday, July 18. 2012
Before leaving for the long-weekend vacation (July 4th), I got contacted about potentially presenting at the next Yahoo! Demos and Drinks event. They wanted to showcase my latest Hack Day win from Q2. I sent in a short abstract and didn't hear back any details so I went on vacation. When I got back, I see this email saying they wanted me to present to 800 people. Awesome, just got back from vacation and I had about a day to put together a presentation and supporting materials. In about two days, I put together a one-pager summary of my Hack Day idea complete with screenshots, and also a 10 minute presentation.
Yahoo! Demos and Drinks is an event that showcases the latest and greatest from Yahoo! The event has five stages, and talks would be going on simultaneously. Presentations would repeat every 15 minutes so employees can make their rounds stage-to-stage.
After rehearsing my presentation a couple times, I headed over to the event to setup. The funny thing was, they handed me a wireless mic, and I had some troubles getting it on. As a sound guy, I'm used to handing wireless mics to speakers; the roles were reversed this time around which was unfamiliar. I met up with Eric Rowell (founder of KinectJS), another Hack Day winner who was presenting and thankfully he felt as ill-prepared as I did. Before the event started, we were whisked away to the media folks for an interview.
Begin The Demos and Drinks
The clock read 4pm, and it was time for our first presentation cycle. Eric started, then I went next. The crowd in front of our stage wasn't big at all, so I was wondering if we weren't interesting. My first presentation went okay, but I definitely forgot some key points. When I got to the punchline of my presentation, I didn't get a single laugh from the crowd. Not a great start. 4:15pm hits, and we presented again and I'm seeing some higher level folks in our crowd, some VPs and SVPs. After my presentation, I see my partner showing our demo on a smartphone to an SVP and making some small talk. Great. The VP of Engineering from my division comes up to me and asks, how come we can't ship this thing now? I had another fellow come up asking why feature X didn't exist. My answer was that we only had 24 hours to build this thing for Hack Day. The guy hinted with he didn't believe we built this thing in only 24 hours. I guess it's a good sign that we had done something magical, but I was adamant that we built everything in 24 hours.
Hello Mr. CEO
By 4:30, all the presenters were told to stop because the interim CEO, Ross Levinsohn was going to make a speech on the main stage. I see the CEO wandering over to our booth, and he starts reading our posters. I whisper to my team mates, oh my goodness, that's Ross Levinsohn, the CEO, act cool. He comes up to me and asks, "so what is all this about?" while gesturing at my poster. I respond, "I can give you a demo after your speech". He replies, "That can wait, lets see what you've got." Alright, making a pitch to the CEO sitting in the front row, no pressure. Eric takes the stage, and the crowd is starting to grow around the CEO. I take the stage after Eric, and the crowd keeps growing, and all I see is the CEO standing there with his magnificent hair. It was my third time to do the presentation, so I think I finally found my groove and hit all the key points. I hit the climax and the punch line, and the audience laughs. Oh thank goodness. I finish my presentation and walk off stage to the sound of glorious applause. I was relieved. The first thing I did after was to meet up with my team, and I held out my hand showing them that it was shaking because of all the adrenaline coursing through my veins.
Before we could take a victory lap, the SVP of our division came up to us and congratulated us on a great demo, and he told us to setup a meeting with him to discuss the future of this product. My eyes widened at the possibility of another one of my ideas getting off the ground and funded. When I walked back to the office with my team, we were giddy with excitement. At the same time, we realized, wow we're going to be busy, we're already working on one of our funded hack day projects. I was also about to go on vacation, so I really didn't have the time to try to close a round of funding.
Here are some of the photos from the Yahoo! Demos and Drinks event:
Another Funding Round?
We managed to setup a meeting with the SVP before I left on vacation. We sit down and the first thing he asks was, how do you envision this product moving forward. I told him a bit about the business strategy I had for it and such. After I finished, he pitched to me his business idea which was complementary and made a lot of sense. I was relieved that the exchange was much more collaborative and respectful than what I had experienced earlier with another higher-up. The million dollar question he asked was, how fast can we get this to market. I explained to him that I was already working on a funded Hack Day project, and he kind of smirked because it's a good problem to have. I told him I basically needed resources to help so I can delegate tasks which would enable me to take on multiple projects simultaneously. 10 minutes into the meeting, we basically had a gentleman's agreement on how we would proceed.
I walked out of the meeting with my co-founder, and he goes, oh my goodness, that was so easy compared to the first time we tried to raise funding. Last time we spent a good two months working on a winning funding pitch. I was absolutely relieved, I had no idea how the meeting would go because there was no agenda.
Hopefully the second time around with the explicit support from an SVP, a lot of the blockades will be cleared. Hopefully it'll silence the critics because I have proven that I'm not a one-hit wonder, and not just a simple lowly engineer. There's no more hiding in shadows. There's a lot of people watching now. We'll have to strike while the iron is hot. It's going to get really busy.
We'll see if we close another round of funding. Stay tuned.
"A year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God."
--Alan J. Perlis (1922-1990), Prominent American Computer Scientist
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