All posts in 2024
  • We Built This

    Photo by Jack Finnigan on Unsplash Photo by Jack Finnigan on Unsplash

    Growing up in Singapore, I thought I would one day live in San Francisco. It seemed like the things I liked a lot — music, writing, technology — converged in this town. Last year, I made the move here with my wife and dog. We immediately adopted a huge cat, which seemed to show that this was going to be home.

    My diverse career has so far seen me either run companies, or work in startups. I love shipping products with remarkable user experience.

    The Current Million People

    I have spent the last five years working in developing markets, focused on Next Billion User products. I now turn to Current Million People software for my adopted city of San Francisco.

    I see people left behind everyday where I live in the Tenderloin. It is heartbreaking to see such disparity in one of the richest cities in the world.

    This is why I jumped at the opportunity to join the team when I (1) found out they existed, and (2) that they were hiring.

    Agile in the City

    The idea of gov tech is not new. Neither is the concept of using agile methodology in government. As a tech and politics geek, I have observed governments like Estonia and Singapore use technology to improve public services.

    The work we do here differs from those countries in several ways, as my boss Carrie Bishop points out. For one, it’s far from “top-down”. I have not been here as long as Carrie has, but I am learning not having centralized control is a feature, not a bug.

    The challenge for any product manager is to corral people and resources towards a goal. This goal should preferably overlap with a shared vision for all the people and organizations involved.

    All large organizations by definition have some chaos and inertia. Big tech companies and small city governments have more in common with each other than it seems.

    Climb Every Mountain

    Despite significant challenges ahead, I am excited to be part of the team. How do you design for many languages, reflecting our city’s incredible diversity? How do you make sure services are accessible for people regardless of what they have (or do not)?

    For many of us, our interaction with gov tech is frustrating. I am a recent immigrant, and I had to use local and national government software to set up my life here.

    A people-centered approach like ours is essential. My coworkers Persis and Anita craft readable content for all San Franciscans. Lauren ensures our city website reflects our diversity and progressive values. Others keep an eye on accessibility.

    I now commute daily on foot, bicycle or skates past the San Francisco City Hall. It is usually lit up with different colors for the myriad events we celebrate together. It feels like I have a part to play in this city.

    Spotlight on Critical Issues

    I have spent the past week learning about our work. DAHLIA makes it easier to apply to rent and buy affordable housing. The Office of Cannabis works to enhance fair access to the cannabis business. Accessory Dwelling Units may be one way to increase our housing supply. California as a whole is taking this approach. We are working on tools to support these programs.

    Finally, our team led a redesign of the city’s official website. Read more about this ongoing effort.

    Join The Team

    Our team is growing. We are looking for content designers and strategists for the growing body of work. Drupal, full stack engineers, and senior product managers to help shape our products.

    If you are keen to help make an impact with your skills, check out our openings. We would love to hear from you.

  • Fresh Off The Boat

    When I first moved to America nine months ago, I was perplexed by a never-ending list of things. They were not the 'big' ones, like having to learn a scary new language. We already spoke English. We'd seen enough movies. Our accents, we were told, were non-existent! You sound Californian!!! You have no accent! (Didn't that mean we had a Californian accent?) But the little things started to add up.

    Nowhere was this clearer than when my wife and I stood in a Bed Bath & Beyond, overwhelmed by nearly everything. Not because we were from developing countries (we were not) and all of this was shiny and new and amazing, but because we just didn't get it. First, we gawked at the escalator that was purpose-built for one's shopping cart to ride up at the same time as you, the person, riding the other escalators. Then, we found ourselves in surrounded by bed-linen, utterly and completely lost.

    "What are comforters? What are duvet covers? What is a quilt? What is a flat sheet? Do people in this country really need so many pillows?"

    I ran to the nearest human who was not my wife, saying, "Hey I need to buy a bolster, you know the type you cuddle between your body, and I have no idea what it's called in this country." He scratched his head, then his beard, before finally saying, "well I'm from the UK and I just moved here…"

    I still don't understand bed-linen in this country. Across our studio (I very nearly said 'flat'), we are treated to full-glass windows into our neighbors' bedrooms. Every last one of them has a bed that looks like a hotel bed; like it would take twenty minutes to peel the multiple layers of ribbons, throws, miscellaneous sheets, and other types of softness, before one could have a good night's sleep. I felt anxious looking at them. I felt more anxious thinking about having to make up such a bed.

    Voicemail is another American practice that strikes fear in my heart. Perhaps it's because I have never lived in a society where voicemail was actively used (and I have lived in many countries), or maybe it's due to my general levels of social anxiety relating to being on the autism spectrum, but hearing a chirpy person say "hey leave me a voicemail" makes me want to hang up, even if I originally had something to say.

    I came to America after four years in Indonesia. My conversations in Indonesia inevitably ended with "hey, add me on LINE, Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, what else do you use?" This was true when I hung out mostly with rural housewives for work; this was also true when female teenagers would come up to me to ask me for my Instagram account because "I want to know a woman who has tattoos". This was true of every motorcycle taxi driver I met, who sent me "what's your closest landmark" in Indonesian short form internet slang to multiple apps and also SMS, in just four or five letters small caps no spaces, even though the pickup location was always on the damned app.

    In America, there are just three texting camps. Blue, green, and don't-text. Leave me a voicemail… nope, no, never.

    You have no accent, has both been a blessing and a curse. It's certainly perplexing, for everyone around me, when I forget which words are British and which words are American.

    It's hard for me to say "restroom", when "toilet" has sufficed in every other context I've lived in. Concepts that exist for me in one English don't seem to exist here. Prepaid-anything, like in phones, are 'pay as you gos', which seem so inefficient. A Clipper card is to be reloaded, or have value added to it, not recharged or topped up. Telling someone you don't know know how to drive, have never driven in your life, is like telling them you're from a different galaxy (I was indeed, from a galaxy with good public infrastructure).

    Mostly, I'm so fresh off the boat I don't even know that it's an insult. I'm so far-removed from the pains of the Asian-American community: their pains are not my pains, I have not been a minority for long enough; and nope, I have absolutely no qualms bringing my own chilli sauce to restaurants because I cannot abide sriracha. Team spicy forever, no sour.

    I'm still figuring out what it means to be here. Mostly, I like that nobody ever asks where I'm from, because everybody is from somewhere else.

    Until I tell them I still don't know how to drive.

    Then they exclaim, "you're from Manhattan!"

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