All posts in 2024
  • How to Build Something

    Wobe’s founder on the basics for technical success

    “Jakarta Panorama” by Gunawan Kartapranata CC BY-SA 3.0Jakarta Panorama” by Gunawan Kartapranata [CC BY-SA 3.0]

    If you’re a founder too, technical or not, you’ll know all about the struggle.

    The struggle: late nights, being poor, having everything go well and then not, the very same minute.

    For me as a non-technical founder, and I’m sure for many others, the struggle is also: how do you build things? and other assorted questions.

    If you build it, will they come? (Customers)

    How will you build it? (Teams, product, culture)

    What, indeed, do you build?

    I’m always perplexed by founders who want to only move fast and break things without knowing themselves what they’re moving or breaking. If you ran a furniture company, had aspirations for it to be the best in the world, wouldn’t you want to at least know how to wield a hammer?

    This post documents the who, what, why, how of our year-long journey building technology in the emergi-est of emerging markets: Indonesia.

    Wobe works to improve access to payments and utilities at the last mile: our unique application and its surrounding ecosystems of microservices and tools let us offer regular people the opportunity of running their own business. They can sell recharge (of phone airtime, data, electricity, water and other vouchers); their communities benefit from cheaper and more efficient ways of topping up, without having to travel. We work with grassroots organisations to bring about greater benefits for low income women who come into our networks.

    Who we build for

    More than how you build or what you build, is the question: who do you build. This is tied to the mission of the company, and resonates through the company. It also has to do with what the founding team, not just founders, cares deeply about.

    I had the amazing opportunity to spend a year in Myanmar, right about the time it was ‘opening up’.

    Despite the $1500 SIM cards and the bureaucracy, Myanmar helped me fall in love not just with a country or a region, but with the idea of very hard problems. How will Southeast Asia go from our cash-only economies to online, digital payments? Will women and minorities be left behind? Wobe seeks to answer these questions through the tech we build, via the business relationships we build, and within our team.

    We build for them:

    (Above, Wobe growth activities in Sumbawa, eastern Indonesia.)

    How We Build

    Nothing is constant in emerging markets, except for how things change all the time.

    Our community anchors us:

    • Empathise: we carry out internal and external research activity to help us make product and business decisions and know our customers
    • Understand: we do not assume everyone has a fast internet connection. We know from our research that our customers are price-sensitive, and cautious about data consumption. For this reason, our product (a) has a tiny footprint (b) performs better than most other apps in lower connectivity
    • Prioritise: it would be far simpler to use established payment gateways and accept credit cards in-app. Our customers do not have credit cards. It would not make sense to make product decisions that work for only a small percentage of our total addressable market.

    Setting the Foundation

    Here’s a sneak peek at some of the building blocks at Wobe:

    Building the Team

    For every founder, the quality of technical team and your technical decisions has a ripple effect. I can’t emphasise this enough. Even when you’re a one-person team, what you decide on this front will have long-lasting impact.

    Your main options, pre-funding, are to either find a technical co-founder (a unicorn; stop searching, but more on this later), outsource, or to do it yourself.

    Unless you’ve already built products at great scale, and / or run a team to do that, doing it yourself may not be the best use of your time.

    For many, the likely choice will be to outsource. All types of dev shops and individuals will be happy to build you an MVP for anything from US$500 to US$100 000. Your mileage will vary greatly. Whatever decision you make on this, do not establish mediocrity as a standard. The quality of your future incoming team, if there is one, will be pegged to the ones who came before. Nobody wants to work with a Z team. Nobody wants to clean up Z-team level excretion.

    Wobe’s technical journey was a long one. In the next few posts, I will be happy to share what that was like, how we built a product with very little money, how we thought about technical hiring, how non-technical founders can improve their technical hiring pipeline.

    It has a lot to do with first acknowledging you don’t know all the answers. Even if you are a technical cofounder yourself, you don’t know all the answers. Then assemble the best* people who care deeply about your mission.

    Our mission is to build tech that works for the people who need to rely on us. We succeed when they are able to increase their family’s income level by a dollar, or a few hundred, because of what we do.

    Given the many questions we’ve had to ask, and impossible mountains we’ve had to scale, I want to set a clear path for us as a company. Wobe will be an open company, right down to our core: our code.

    In the coming months, my team and I will share how we write Go, how we hire; how we work cross-culturally from Mexico to India and Indonesia; how open source will be a pillar in our company. What is culture?

    Culture is not free beer and beer pong. I doubt that anybody really knows what it is.

    Let’s find out here together, shall we?

  • On The Spectrum

    What's it like to be on the spectrum?

    It is to be able to do wonderfully complex and abstract things, at the speed of light, yet to be stumped at how to give straightforward directions to others.

    To be diagnosed after the age of 30 is to learn quite resolutely: the weirdest feature in my being is not who I am, but what I do not understand. I do not understand what is easily understood by most. But I have done a good job pretending I do.

    People expect me to understand because I manage to pass for somebody I am not: well put together. In charge of my mind and body. Able to hold a conversation, fill rooms with hundreds of people. Capable of making inferences and deductions based on fact and feeling. Able to pass for 'neurotypical'.

    In recent conversations like the ones I've had to pay a lot of money to have some obvious things pointed out to me, I've had to dig into the recesses of my psyche. Things I thought I'd scrubbed out of my brain and consciousness. I did not have to go back very far:

    I live in my head, suspended between my thoughts and reality. In my head, I have already raced through the day's tasks elegantly, solving one interesting problem after another. In reality, I struggle to put on my shoes. Five year old me's daily problem: no matter how hard I try, I cannot will my fingers to arrange my shoelaces and straps in a manner that makes sense. This still happens to me. In my head, I may have made spreadsheets upon spreadsheets to address every question I have thought of while showering in the morning. In reality, I cannot will an arrangement of words and numbers to show up without brute force. This tires me.

    At social events it would be nice, of course, to finally understand how to moderate my speech or behaviour to match what is expected of polite company. But I am interested only in a very tiny set of topics. It helps then to not know what it feels like to pass for social; I have only ever managed to wager a guess. Since I do not know how that feels like, I do not know how to want those things, which is often mistaken for apathy.

    It was to have made mathematical calculations of my romantic odds instead of caring for people on an individual level. For that, I am sorry. All of those times people asked me on OkCupid or Tinder what I was looking for and I said 'an algorithmic match', I thought it was the only thing to say. And if we actually dated, I was still looking for the algorithms and my mainframe was out of date.

    Being on the spectrum means I grapple with simple questions: the one which terrifies me most, even to this day is — how are you? There is a five second delay in which I think, how, am, wait, what does that mean and who am I? Am I good today? Is that the truth? Am I more good than the last time I was asked this weird question? It feels like an infinite loop. Asking me how I am or how I feel, is no different from being asked to reach into the bottom of my soul and finding no difference between one abyss and another. How am I? How do I feel? I don't know.

    In place of feelings, there are patterns.

    There is the pattern of 'everybody is smiling am I more convincing at making eye contact now or am I still failing'. This sometimes looks like I have too many feelings, or that I have none.

    There are the patterns of 'this looks like something which has happened before which leads me to conclude... Something' and 'oh shit I got it terribly wrong'. There are few patterns in-between.

    I have been lucky to find my feet in a career that skews unfairly towards people on the spectrum, but the parts of it: the speaking at conferences, the socializing and networking, the parties, the world of people talking to and understanding each other, that I shudder at.

    To be on the spectrum is to have few tools for anger and other emotional processes. How is someone else feeling? I can only wager a guess. It is to disproportionately over-emphathise (because it seems like that's what people do), or to do too little of it. For me, it is also to be completely incapacitated in the in-betweens: what is not said. Even then, what is said can also have the same effect when it is said in a different way — that matches another pattern.

    It feels like living in a bad torrent. It is a blockbuster movie to everyone else who somehow always finds a way to watch the IMAX version. But yours resembles a pirated movie torrent with an audio track that is 10 seconds out of sync — ahead. It all sounds like gibberish, and there are somehow no subs of the right language and container size and codec. You have to watch it anyway.

    Slowly, the other movie is coming into focus.

    Maybe I'll never be able to see all of it in high fidelity, but — I'm told it is up to people like us to find new standards of definition.

  • Wordpress to Jekyll

    If this looks bare to you, it's supposed to be.

    I've just finished archiving all of my old posts and giving them some new life as something else they're not: cool.

    By using Jekyll and Github Pages, this setup lets me edit the site in a way I must prefer now: with a text editor and git.

    Most things are still here, and I'll add to it shortly.

    But sometimes less is more.

    If you're into that sort of thing, check out my repo!

  • What 31 Feels Like

    Wonderful but sometimes a downer.

    Comfortable but invigorating.

    Stable but enervating.

    Fun but sometimes mild.

    Energetic and delicious.

    World-changing and domestic, depending on the day.

    Upwards trajectory but sometimes down.

    31 is about being happy in my own skin: that it's really okay to have greasy hair and over-sized T-shirts, when you have your dog and your friends by your side.

    Thank you for the most wonderful year, to everyone who has played a role in it. I am lucky and grateful to have all of you by my side.

  • My article on Indonesia in Brink, last month

    I've started writing articles for Brink, a new media publication by the same people behind the Atlantic. My first piece is on Tech’s Role in Reaching Indonesia’s Rising Middle Class.

  • Panic at the Disco

    Gay clubs were for flowers.

    Update: I wrote this piece before we learned more about what happened. I'm sorry about misgendering or mis-identifying the victims.

    I'm 31 in a few months. Not old, but old enough to remember how coming out was not on Tumblr, it was at Taboo.

    I would go with my best friends, all of us so drawn to each other (boys and girls) because we saw a spark of — what was it? We thought it was weirdness at the time — in each other. It was a badge nobody gave us, but we saw on ourselves anyway.

    If only someone could have told us: this badge, it is a badge of queerness. Use it well, do not sleep with worthless people, and you'll be okay. One day.

    Why did the Orlando shootings reverberate across the world as I knew it — on the walls, timelines, of every queer person I know, and their allies?

    The idea of safe spaces, and sanctity, kept coming up. Weird, perhaps to consider something like a sweaty, sweltering gay club sacred. But it was. And will always be.

    Even if I never felt like I was of the scene (there was literally nothing for me there), being a woman, outnumbered with my persuasions out-persuaded, it was, in so many ways, where I found myself.

    I'm a terrible dancer, but some alcohol with the encouragement of men who don't care about sleeping with me, made gay clubs the only place I felt safe. I didn't have to worry about men, even if I went alone. And most times, I did. In Singapore, in Bangkok, in Helsinki, in every place I have called home or visited for longer than a day. A gay club had always found itself on my itinerary. It was my window into the pulse of the rebels, the misfits, the mostly straight but didn't want to be fag hags I could sometimes persuade.

    Most of all, the complete sense of belonging and the unadulterated self. There, I could be myself, long before I could be that person at school, at home, in my places of worship.

    When Omar Mateen went into a gay club halfway across the world, spraying bullets and quite literally hunting down gay people, my memories merged into one, as it did for many queer people everywhere. He didn't kill 50 gays in one club, he reached into, placed himself in, and ripped up the safe space we have all found.

    But how to explain a safe space to people who have never needed one?

    18, venturing out timidly with my best friends. Seeing educators; kissing each other (of the opposite gender) to pretend, badly, that we were all straight.

    20, between life milestones, trembling and swooning every time an older women picked me (hahaha, I was very young and very hot; they should have been swooning instead).

    More recently in life, being protected and cared for by wonderful gay men in cities all over the world. From Istanbul to Helsinki and San Francisco.

    It was not just 50 gay men that Omar Mateen killed.

    It was all of us on the dance floor. The veteran gays who go to see friends and dance with them. The young man peeking out from his closet, having to hide his queer clothes in his bag. His career as a hot young stud, vanished. The fag hags who love the gay men they cannot have. The old couples who go because they want to believe they still got it. The amazing dancers. The not so good ones. The long lines for the men's toilets; the lack of one, of the lack of a toilet, for women. The bad vodka. The cheap rum. The smell of leather and sweat. The promise of darkness and kink — but is it really that dark or kinky if you were the one getting it? The camaraderie. The cliquey lesbians who think anyone talking to their girlfriends is infidelity, even when gay men do it. The stolen kisses once outside. The sobering effect of a greasy meal early in the morning when you didn't meet someone interesting or you made the right choices in life. Kebabs and Chinese food. Drunk friends you send home vowing to never let them drink again. The sullen faces that sometimes harbour disgust the moment you walk out of the door knowing you will not be accepted outside.

    That's where Omar Mateen took us all. He sprayed his evil bullets into our sanctuary, hiding his last minutes in the toilet of a gay club. Let that sink in for a minute. Possibly the worst homophobe the world has seen since the Holocaust. And he hides out in a gay club toilet before he dies?

    All across the world violent acts are performed on minorities every day. Queer people are persecuted. Women are beaten. Trans people are murdered. Immigrants are hunted. Other ethnic and religious groups including atheists are tortured, hated, cussed at. What you think is casual racism, homophobia, transphobia, funny jokes that won't hurt anyone, magnifies with a weapon in its hands.

    So if you've ever stopped to say, why are you people demanding your rights? It's a playbook from Western activists wanting to erode our culture! What next, marriage?

    Yes. We are demanding to not be massacred. To not be spat on and beaten in Albania. To be not pistol-whipped and left to die on a fence in Wyoming. To be not raped — correctively and incorrectly — in South Africa. To not be kidnapped by your parents and sent to pray the gay away camps, all over the world where evangelical Christians have found money and warped theology. We are here and we are queer. Do not kill us like deer.

  • Kolkata Kalling

    12 years ago I came to Kolkata for the same time. At the time it was still mostly referred to as Calcutta.

    The city doesn't change; but you do.

    Every picture I have of it from 12 years ago still looks like it could have been from December, when I last visited. Perhaps even today. When I land at midnight later, there will not be the crisp, muddled air of the winters I love in that city, just the night time counterpart to the heat that I know will pound on my face, and the ground, sometime in the morning.

    All that I know, all that I do, I owe it to this city, even if it will never know it.

    When my school friends were road-tripping across European cities for summer breaks, or perhaps even the big cities of China and America for work and school, I found solace here. It can be hard to see, but Kolkata is a hard act to beat. It's the ultimate summer. Followed by monsoon. And the sounds of:

    It's a monsoon and the rain lifts lids off cars / Spinning buses like toys, stripping them to chrome / Across the bay, the waves are turning into something else / Picking up fishing boats and spewing them on the shore — James, Sometimes (which somehow always comes to mind when I think of this place

    How to beat it?

    The start, really, of empire. The fall, or rather the fading away, of one. The majesty of India's cricketing hopes and dreams, and occasionally the dashing of, projected unto Eden Gardens even when the matches aren't in season. The death of Marxism, available for the world to see at every adda and every failing piece of infrastructure. Tagore's poetry. Indian Coffee House. The children of Tollygunge, who taught me so much, 12 years ago. Sandesh.

    On hot afternoons when the sun hits the ground and meets engine oil, the smell reminds me of my first love among the many other putrid Asian cities I have come to love:

    “So in the streets of Calcutta I sometimes imagine myself a foreigner, and only then do I discover how much is to be seen, which is lost so long as its full value in attention is not paid. It is the hunger to really see which drives people to travel to strange places.” — Tagore, My Reminiscences

    This foreigner is not done discovering.

  • In Small Rooms with Betawi Women

    Not for the first time, I found myself in a tiny room on a hot day, the youngest among old women. Each with a different thing to say to me, also the only person not from around these parts.

    You're so old now! And unmarried!

    Your hair is too white! Eat more soy beans!

    One woman rubbed my tattoos, making a screechy sound with her teeth, before announcing to all the other old women around her: these are real.

    No judgement, no scorn – I was local enough to be in a place like that, but not local enough to be judged.

    Can you bring me some white chocolate next time you come, girl? I had them once and only in your country (Singapore). I've never had them since. She rubbed my back some more.

    At places like these old women collectively talk, soothe each other's tired or injured muscles, and together not give a damn about anything outside of those doors. At least for an hour.

    I went often to places like these, my severe back pains often needing urgent attention from anything that would give them rest. In Jakarta, I am a frequent visitor to Haji Naim – a group of famed healers in the Betawi community. I figured that if it didn't work there was at least delicious soto Betawi to be had next door. Now that I come here so often, a massage almost always precedes a lovely bowl of soup and beef.

    I've always been glad to have the ability and opportunity to bond with old women anywhere in the world – their wisdom and unlikely sorority is what I look forward to, whether in Yemen or India or Singapore. Here, the Betawi women took turns rubbing my tattoos, shrieking when they discovered (repeatedly) that they were real.

    Most of my time in this city has been about discovering, for the first time, scenes that played such a large part in my youth. Hot afternoons with old Indonesian women. Dusk on the street with teenagers singing with their guitars. Children begging. Families living under bridges. The Indonesian movies that used to play so often in my tiny, hot Singaporean shoebox apartment, now alive in parts of the city.

    And yet the other parts of it are real, too. Large gleaming buildings. New shiny things. Cocktails as expensive as Singapore's. Malls full of only imported things. My feet in both worlds: one in the village and one in Pacific Place. One in meetings with fancy people, another under the firm thumbing of extremely old women.

    It's a difficult balance to keep up, but I enjoy each moment. White chocolate in Betawi houses; going home to my $5 room after a day out in $5 coffee houses. Improbable things and inevitable places. As I chug along at work and in life, I'm relieved to have the opportunity to make things work again.

  • When I Was Young

    I'm seated now by the side of an old vending machine in Jakarta airport, with power sockets so dirty and old I had to think twice about plugging my cables in. Yet in all of Terminal 1, one of the oldest airport terminals in a country not known for modern aviation facilities, there was only this one socket free. Confined to my fate of temporarily sharing power with a giant Teh Botol (not Coke!) machine with no seat within range of my Macbook charger, I am, obviously, on the floor yet again.

    Sitting on floors: a practice cultivated in many countries across the world. Sometimes involuntary, most of the time because my inner hippie wants me to. The difference between now and then — I am now at the kind of age where you would, if you did not know me, expect some kind of manners from me. Wear proper clothes, wear proper shoes. Sit on proper surfaces. I imagined I would too! That one day, I would finally learn how to be proper. How wrong I was on that, and many other fronts! I am happy to still-sitting-on-dirty-floors. No — I am overjoyed. Overjoyed to be still a chapalang, anyhow and anyhowly chapalang person.

    So much has happened since the last real post of any substance here. Mid, early 2014 perhaps. I started a company. It still lives. I have teams, collaborators, all across my different endeavours. The foundation I started in 2012 is still alive, too. I am relieved and grateful for all of the opportunities thrown my way, all of the paths revealed and then some.

    Why did I not write? I did not write, because life overwhelmed me and kept me away and sometimes light-headed. I did not write, because I forgot how to. It isn't like riding a bicycle — it's more of riding a unicycle where you know eventually you'll find your balance but only after falling flat on your face anyway, no matter how many times you've ridden one. In my pursuit of achievements, exceptional or otherwise, prizes, awards, Silicon Valley-style work yourself to the bone for some big undefined payoff (emotional or otherwise); I lost myself in the race. I lost myself, too, in the unclear idea of what it meant to be an adult.

    An adult, I was told, lived in a proper house with a proper bed with a proper pillow (for all of the neck pains you're bound to have). I have neck pains, indeed, but realise I can do without all of the rest. I haven't sat on dirty airport floors for years. I haven't gone somewhere with nothing in my bag other than the clothes currently on me, in years. I haven't gone somewhere without a plan, without a place to stay, without any idea of what i was going to do. I don't know how else to live, and forcing myself into being the opposite of those things brought me further and further away from who I really was.

    Maybe this year, after learning to like myself again, I'll finally get my groove back again. I'm proud to be an anyhowly person. I'm proud to extreme and spontaneous. I will no longer knead the image of who I truly am into the uninspiring ideas of what some people had wanted me to become. I don't want to achieve things for the sake of doing that — I want to learn to be alive, again. Let's see how we go on this journey, I'm excited but also shit-scared about it.

    But as I once believed (when I was much younger) — if it doesn't scare me like hell, it probably isn't worth doing.

  • Is the Self-Hosted Blog Dead?

    Fuck Medium. Seriously.

    I have had enough of their terrible user interface, narrow writing experience, and the empty platitudes of ‘recs' and comments from people looking to improve their lives by reading inspiring content from people they don't care about. Worst of all? I hate people whining about Millennials more than Millennials themselves.

    I started this site precisely so that I could tinker around under the hood, and that's what I've missed — tinkering. Writing. Slapping together bits of random code you find on the internet (now forking random folks' code on Github) and hoping it would work. I know a lot more about code and development processes now, but I still gain a huge amount of happiness from tinkering with things I don't know.

    My archives are in a mess. I stopped writing here some time circa 2010. I don't know why. Life took over. I got lazy. I got fed up trying to do everything at once.

    It might take some time to gather the things I posted on different parts of the web. But it should be worth it 🙂

  • Tan Boon Chye

    When I came home (to Singapore) a couple of days ago, I instructed the taxi driver to go to the Caltex station at East Coast. Most cabbies know this place, but he didn't. He's 74 years old, so he only knew this spot as "Tan Boon Chye & Co" (brain GPS never update firmware). Tan Boon Chye & Co was the 3rd Caltex station in Singapore, and that was its original name — in 1961.

    Growing up in Singapore and spending most of my childhood (and teen-hood) around grandparents who spoke mostly Teochew (and more Malay than Mandarin, really), I'd always felt intimately connected to their brain GPS. If I was to tell them where I had spent all my time (and money — they can't believe anything costs more than 50 cents in Singapore), I'd have to cross-reference the 1940s street directory that exists only in our minds, among the people of a certain stripe.

    If I went to the jazz club at SouthBridge (way back when there was a jazz club), I'd have to tell them I was in 大坡大马路 in Teochew, dua pou dua beh lou (or tua po tua beh lou depending on your romanization preference, or if you said it with a Hokkien inflection). If I had to change money for my travels, I'd have gone to "ang teng" reminiscent of the red lights that once lit up Collyer Quay from Johnston's lighthouse. My fave — instead of going to Cecil Street to work in the CBD, I've have gone to the "opium company", where opium dens once stood instead of buttoned up, stuffy suits. Because corporate life is a different kind of opiate of the masses. Years after the passing of the two people I'd spent so much time with, existing in a different language and setting, I find myself grasping at anything that lets me learn a little bit more about the lives of people I loved but did not know fully. In part because I never had the language of their lives in full — I could order food, talk to them, talk to old people, even give speeches in this language they bestowed on me, but I could never have had the tools to create legends for their maps, their history, their worlds filled with poverty, civil war and world war.

    I'm learning as much of their language as I can. Instead of being merely conversational, wet market level conversant, I've started to learn how to write it, read it, romanize it, and exist in this other plane of my life I've always inhabited but never occupied.

    The taxi driver took me to Tan Boon Chye. From the way he pronounced the Tan, the same one that is present in my own name (pretty much like a surprised sound effect), I switched to it for the rest of the ride.

    "Where did you return from?"

    I don't say Jakarta, as in 雅加达 (ya jia da).

    I say I've just returned from 巴斜, pah sia, and he knew it. I wonder what destinations my grand dad saw at the port. 巴斜 (Jakarta), 金塔 (ghim tahp, Phnom Penh), or 坤甸 (khun diang, Pontianak)? Yet somehow he ended up here, the land of red lights and big horse carriage roads and small ones, so that when I go off into the world I feel I'm merely following the same sense of adventure (and need) from more than 80 years ago.

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