Why online advice is dangerous

laptop with screen showing medium website with a lot of online advice
Medium is becoming a major source of online advice for me and I’m getting worried

It’s 8:00am in the morning on a weekday and I’m sitting in my living room mindlessly having breakfast. My attention is being given to the Medium posts appearing on my feed this morning. In this particular week, I’m occupied by thoughts about careers, so I tap into posts that discuss the topic.

As far as I can tell, this has happened for many weeks or months, even. Since a lot of them sound flat-out like advice, I’ve basically become habituated to fishing for online advice every morning regarding important areas of life like career, relationships, personal growth, and more.

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Adapt and forget

sapling
Photo by Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash

The air conditioner in my office is really loud but I just realised this: I hadn’t noticed it at all!

Today when the air conditioner stopped suddenly, the office felt almost pin-drop silent, except I could still hear the ringing in my ears. The machine had been bellowing like a Ferrari – unnecessarily loud, but without the sexy to make it at least slightly palatable.

While my damaged ears were still ringing, I scribbled this in my notebook: we adapt and forget that we adapted.

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Getting good and getting a dream job

dream job depicted by a laptop with a code editor open
Photo by Christopher Gower on Unsplash

Now that we’re coming close to the end of 2017, I’ve been thinking about my career and careers in general. Having begun my career as a software engineer about a year ago, I thought it’d be timely and useful to do some reflection.

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Irritability overseas versus at home

singapore roads viewed from overhead bridge
At Beach Road in Singapore

We recently went to Bali again. It was our 6th trip there this time. I guess you could say we’re a little obsessed with the place.

We really like the affordable and good food, cheap motorbike rental, friendly locals, long beach with people from all over the world vacationing in their own, differentiated ways…

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Getting my ear pierced

bali kuta beach sunset
Sunset at Kuta beach in Bali

The build-up was a full two days. And then I went and did it.

I’ve never thought about getting any piercings before. Always thought that I had too much of a little boy face to look good with one. (Not that I really thought about it much at all in the first place.)

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Fierce and original in our work

hand reaching towards the sun in a jungle
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a wonderful quote with my friend Kai over a bathroom conversation:

“Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.” (Gustave Flaubert, French author in the late 1800s)

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The family photo effect

Everyone takes photos with their family, but only those who have their priorities straightened pin them up in their cubicles at work. And with that act comes a family photo effect.

Earlier today I visited a car workshop. I was there to get my vehicle fixed and make an insurance claim after a minor road incident. As you might imagine, it was hard to be chirpy on the way there. I think I made an attempt at being above it deserving of a cookie though.

When I arrived at the workshop, things got better. A lot better. There, I spoke to one of the most pleasant men I’ve met in a while. In Singapore, as it probably is with many cities, an auto workshop is one of the least likely places to meet good people. Most of them are either driven to desperation by poor business or too much business. And the ones in between are often out to make an extra buck off their customers. But not Ah Wah the mechanic manager.

Aside from a conscientious effort to speak in proper English (a sign of learnedness in Singapore), he did something few people, let alone a mechanic, will do. Ah Wah pinned 3 photos of him with his wife and young son on the cubicle wall to his left. These photos were inadvertently on display, which was how I got an open glimpse of them.

These photos made me immediately trust him.

What bad things can a man do when his family–his wife and his child!–are up on the walls of his workplace? Mild ones at most. That’s how I think I reasoned it in my head.

So this is what I’ve learned from Ah Wah: if you want to gain people’s trust, one good way is to show that you care about your family. My logical induction goes something like this:

  1. Displays photos of family proudly at work
  2. Must know what family means, and cares deeply about his/her family
  3. Must therefore understand that everyone has a family
  4. Is significantly less likely to do things at the expense of a member of any family

That sounds about right to me.

Basically, if you can show me, without being coerced or influenced by fashion, that you are willing to let people know your family is important to you by enshrining their photos at your workplace, you’d have gained my trust.

It’s weird when analysed like this, but it’s part analysis, part instincts.

Why programmers make visually ugly projects

people laughing and talking with one another general assembly wdi singapore

As a user, it used to be hard for a website to impress me. I see certain features here and others there, and after a while, I get a good idea of what is possible and is usually practiced, and that guides my behaviour on the web. I’d expect that hitting ‘enter’ will submit a login form.

Now, I’m much more easily impressed. Why? Because I now know how much thinking and coding goes on behind the scenes to make simple things such as updating a user profile work. Here’s an illustration with editing a profile:

  1. user clicks ‘edit profile’ button
  2. client-side sends a GET request to server-side (to fetch the edit profile page with the form to edit)
  3. server-side finds the exact match of GET request, gets a lot of different info from database, sends data that makes up the edit page to client-side
  4. client-side continues to run…
  5. client-side receives data, manipulates data, and refreshes the webpage with form (pre-populating the form with existing info)
  6. user makes edits, hits ‘save’
  7. client-side makes POST request to server-side with user’s data input
  8. server-side receives data
  9. server-side manipulates data, updates database
  10. server-side redirects within itself to the GET request (a la step 3)
  11. server-side sends response to client-side via GET
  12. user’s browser refreshes to profile page

What used to be intuitive is not so intuitive. For the first iPhone to feel intuitive, a lot of work was put in by Steve Jobs and the Apple team behind the scenes. As internet users, things feel intuitive when they behave in ways that are consistent with how things normally behave in reality.

But the internet is completely virtual—you can never hold it in your hands and get a feel for its texture—and that makes it a big challenge for programmers and engineers and designers to to make things feel right. So far though, I think they have done a great job (hat-tip to the people working on the first iPhone, which changed everything with a large, multi-touch touchscreen with gesture controls and more).

I found myself wow-ing a lot in class today alongside my classmates. That said, I bet you would never guess what we were looking at. Steve, our instructor, showed us this:

screenshot of simple website mockup of Best Buy

Yep, an extremely simple rendition of Best Buy’s website with admin controls to create, edit, and delete product pages. Having only just learned how to set up a (locally-hosted) server using Node.js, this was a big leap forward in technicality for us, and I stopped to wonder just how complex some programmes out there really are.

Here’s one last observation from today: programmers are so busy making sure that the code works (ie. doesn’t break) that styling a webpage is one of the last priorities for them. It’s true – I almost always leave CSS for last now. I think of it as a veneer that is important, yes, but my job is to ensure that the product functions as it is intended – and that is a full-time job in itself.