#2 - Community Contribution and Mentoring Junior Devs - Michael Cheng
“Rather than being passive about it, why don’t I take a proactive approach to try and find people who are like-minded, who share the same ideals and goals and let them come together and just share."
Michael Cheng has been a prominent community builder in Singapore, having created communities such as Engineers.SG, PHP User Group, iOS Dev Scouts, and recently JuniorDev.SG. There are many people who have benefited tremendously from his communities, and importantly, those communities have also helped to accelerate the growth of the tech and startup scenes in Singapore in the last few years.
In this episode, hear from Michael on why he created those communities and what made him started in the beginning, including the challenges he was trying to solve. Michael also shared the impact that his initiatives have brought both to the communities and to him professionally. We also discussed JuniorDev.SG and how some of its programmes have been helping junior developers towards the goal of dropping their “junior” title.
Listen out for:
- How Michael started his community contributions and why he started them? - [00:03:40]
- Michael’s strategy to ensure that his meetups have good traction - [00:06:35]
- Why Michael created Engineers.SG and the impact that it brings to the community - [00:08:00]
- How community contributions have impacted Michael’s professional career - [00:20:14]
- Why Michael created JuniorDev.SG and how it differs from the other groups he created before - [00:22:49]
- JuniorDev.SG activities, e.g. mentoring programme, developer’s gym - [00:27:31]
- Michael’s 3 Tech Lead Wisdom - [00:35:33]
Mentions & Links:
- Engineers.SG – https://engineers.sg/
- JuniorDev.SG – https://juniordev.sg/
- The Singapore PHP User Group Meetup – https://www.meetup.com/sgphpug/
- Singapore iOS Dev Scout Meetup – https://www.meetup.com/Singapore-iOS-Dev-Scout-Meetup/
- The Geek Path – https://thegeekpath.com/
- Geek Brunch SG – https://geekbrunch.sg/
- Confreaks – https://confreaks.tv/
On Community Contributions
Rather than being passive about it, why don’t I take a proactive approach to try and find people who are like-minded, who share the same ideals and goals and let them come together and just share.
With every single community initiative I started in the past, the core theme is to fill a gap in the community, to fill a gap for few underserved groups in the community.
Sharing provides more benefit for the whole.
Ideas can be born out of a skill that you normally don’t realize.
We wouldn’t have access to all these things, if in a way I haven’t taken the plunge to contribute so much in the community. To get that assurance, recognition, and the trust to let us do these things at such a scale, I’m very grateful for all the trust that people have in me and in the movements that I’ve started.
I always roll up my sleeves and just do it, do things that don’t scale until you really need to scale.
Maybe the problem is a marketing problem. We don’t tell people enough about our meetups. We don’t tell people enough about what we do and the things that we’re doing in the community.
I know the importance of recording good audio and how important good audio is for your attention span when you’re watching a video. If you hear a bad audio, you just switch off quite easily.
Our impact is really about helping the local tech scene and the local conference organizers make their videos a lot more accessible, and make it a bit more affordable for them because I know a lot of the local conference organizers are also not making money out of their conferences. For us, it was a way to contribute back to the community.
The goal is to make Engineers.SG a more of a self-help portal where volunteers and community organizers and speakers can just go into the portal and link up their talks to their own profile. Even for community organizers to even organize and publish their events on it easily.
On JuniorDev SG
The emphasis of JuniorDev SG is not just a safe environment for junior devs to come and learn things. It is also an opportunity for them to network and meet people in the community.
I think the problem that I had in my early days as a software engineer was isolation. I’m doing everything on my own, and I didn’t know there was a wider community out there.
Unlike my other previous events that I run in the past, which was more tech driven, this is more people driven. So, I wanted more time to be satisfied for networking people, to create connections with each other.
There needs to be more opportunities for coding and practice, because after the boot camps, they still need to continue the cadence of learning, hands-on writing code and practicing good code.
We have meetups that would cater to some networking needs of a community, hands-on coding workshops, developers' gym kids catered for their much more hands on and improving their craft. There’s also one other aspect of junior developers, which is the sense of things that are not just technical. It’s about the ability to work with their colleagues and the people.
A lot of the tech leaders that I met with, they’re very stretched. They have no time to mentor people. Their capacity and the ability to mentor people are limited.
We don’t become a mentor just like that. You can’t just flip a switch and just because you are technically good, doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher and mentor and guide for other people.
I want to help junior developers learn how to work with their senior developers, how they work with the people in their company, and learn how to adapt.
One of the goals that I have set for JuniorDev SG is for our junior developers to drop their junior title.
The explicit goals of the JuniorDev SG are to provide a safe environment for junior developers to learn from each other and to share about their learning journeys, mentoring opportunities for developers who might not have such resources available to them at their workplace and help each other level up to senior positions and eventually take up leadership positions.
Michael’s 3 Tech Lead Wisdom
Don’t panic. You’ve gotten you to where you are because of your years of experience, because of your years of learning. Everything you’ve learned in the past has prepared you for this time and this moment in your life. So you can do this, don’t panic.
Silence can be a good thing. Don’t be afraid of silence, because it’s in silence that you can actually think.
It’s okay to say I don’t know. But it’s not okay to stay ignorant, so do find out if you can, take your time and find out and learn.
Episode Introduction [00:00:44]
Henry Suryawirawan: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of the Tech Lead Journal with me your host Henry Suryawirawan. Following the first episode, which was released last week, I received a lot of words of encouragement, comments and feedback from many of you my listeners, both personally and also on social media, which I have to say, I am extremely humbled by your kind words and support. I will do my best to continuously bring high quality contents and conversations with great thought leaders for this podcast. For those of you, new listeners. Welcome and I hope you enjoy the show contents and subscribe to the podcast to get updates when I release new episodes.
So in this episode, I have the pleasure to have a conversation with a guest who I admire a lot for all his contributions to the Singapore tech and startup communities, and also for mentoring and coaching junior developers. His name is Michael Cheng. In the past before COVID, when meetups used to be happening a lot, I used to see Michael frequently sitting at the back of the meetup, doing recording with all his awesome gears. And initially I thought he was just a guy hired by the meetup organizers to do the recording. Little that I know that Michael is doing it all for the community and for free. He uploads all those recordings to a YouTube channel and make them organized on a portal called Engineers.SG, which at this moment has more than 3,700 videos uploaded, which is pretty awesome. Michael also runs the Singapore PHP User Group, co-founded the iOS Dev Scouts and is also the organizer of PHPConf.Asia. His latest passion project, which is JuniorDev.SG, is another community group specifically created for junior developers in Singapore, in which I personally have the opportunity to participate by joining the mentoring programme as one of the selected mentors. And I must say that it is a personally rewarding experience for me and I strongly believe that such initiative will be tremendously beneficial in rapidly building Singapore tech communities.
And without further ado, please enjoy this episode with Michael Cheng.
Michael Cheng: [00:03:07] Hi Henry.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:03:09] First of all, I would like to acknowledge your contributions, your hard work in the tech and startup community in Singapore. And also , I think it brings a lot of impact and, benefits for a lot of people. And I would like to appreciate for that.
Michael Cheng: [00:03:23] Thanks. Thanks. Appreciate it. Appreciate you as well. Cause when I first started the JuniorDev.SG mentoring programme. I mean, you were one of the first who also come forward, which I think has been a blessing to us as well.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:03:36] Yeah, no worries. I’m also happy to do mentoring, so I hope it helps.
On Community Contributions [00:03:40]
Henry Suryawirawan: So, first of all, I would like to ask a question about your community involvement. So actually what made you start doing this kind of activities in the beginning? Was it something that you found a challenge that you don’t know how to solve and that’s why you started?
Michael Cheng: [00:03:55] So, the first community I ever started was a Singapore PHP user group. This was in, 2008, I think. So there was quite a while ago. I kind of started it because I was feeling lonely in my journey as a software engineer. The time I was running my own startup, I was doing, programming, building websites for people. I just felt lonely cause I was away doing all alone. I don’t really have many peers in my company. Plus that was again when I was running my own business, right. So I was like I’m the boss. And even when I hire, it’s like, you know, junior people. But yeah, I wanted a community where I can turn to for help and for like support.
I think it also came out of my previous experience as a evangelical Christian. So as a evangelical Christian, I was in a church where they practice cell groups. So having a cell group , I found was quite a formative for me, as in helped me strengthen my faith and also it’s good to have people who are like minded around you to kind of give you the support and give you words of encouragement, and even guide you along, right?
I kinda like missed that in the secular world, in a sense that I don’t really have that mentorship and I felt that since I am facing this problem, I’m sure there’ll be other people who are facing this problem as well. So I thought rather than being passive about it, why don’t I take a proactive approach and try and find people who are like-minded, who share the same ideals and goals and let them come together and just share.
So that’s the sharing part of it. The other part of it is the open source movement, the idea that the more you share, the more you give, the more you get back, right. So the whole open source ethos really kind of drove me to that understanding that sharing provides more benefit for the whole.
So these two come together like that need for support group and all that, and the other need for sharing knowledge, because I know I also learned a lot in my life that I want to share back to the community. So that’s how I started the PHP user group, and also much later on the JuniorDev and iOS Dev Scout.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:05:52] Right, right. So I guess also during that time, there is probably no other similar, community groups or initiatives in Singapore?
Michael Cheng: [00:06:01] I guess there were, there were a lot of like student groups. There were also a few like technical tech user groups, but they were not really in the tech stack that I was in. But at the time, there was already a Ruby meetup. There was a Java user group. Yeah, that was about it that I see, I think. Before I started my own group, I actually did some research and I was just trying to find whether there were similar groups already formed out there. Turns out there were two. They were registered, but then they were like defunct, not active. So because of that, okay, since the last two group has been inactive for a while. So why not I just start a new one lah?
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:06:35] When you started, did you already know what you wanted to do? How do you structure this user group? How do you make your contribution?
Michael Cheng: [00:06:44] Well, for one thing I knew I needed to have sharing. People who guide, who can share ideas. So, I just use meetup.com. This is in 2008. I think it was still very new. It turns out there were not many people using it. I organized a meetup. First PHP user group meetup was at Brewerkz at Clarke Quay, four or five of us just sitting there having drinks and there wasn’t much technologies sharing, it was more like networking kind of thing. So that was a first meetup. So I felt there was a problem of reach, how do you reach people, right. So there were a few things I knew I wanted to have, I need to have speakers. I also need a venue. And also in my previous life as a grassroot leader, I also knew that successful grassroots event must have two things. They are food and lucky draw prizes.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:07:29] Wow. Okay.
Michael Cheng: [00:07:30] If I have this two, I probably can get people. So like food will get you at least to the midway point and lucky draw prizes will keep you all the way to the end, right. Because of that, my past life and experience in doing that, I thought, okay, maybe I could do something similar. So I wanted my meetups to have good talks. I wanted to have food and then I wanted to have lucky draw prizes. So I kind of like started looking around for sponsors, sponsors not just for the venue but also for the lucky draw prizes. So I got people who donate books and stuff like that. So it was quite interesting.
How Engineers.SG Was Created [00:08:00]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:08:00] Right. So what brought you then to Engineers.SG? Is it something that, again like, you see a need from running this user group and then you spark an idea, oh maybe people need to consume video?
Michael Cheng: [00:08:13] Yeah. For Engineers.SG it was more of a frustration. I attended a panel discussion. Supposedly on the panelists, they were like industry leaders in the tech industry, right. So one of the panelists was like bemoaning and groaning about, oh yeah, I can’t find engineers. I can’t hire engineers. So where are the engineers, right. So for me, I was a bit curious. I mean, I am surrounded by good engineers. People who I knew from meetup groups , my personal friends. I know I’m surrounded by good engineers in Singapore. I mean, there’s no shortage of engineers. So why is this person saying that there’s not enough engineers in Singapore? So like it got me thinking about why is there a difference in perception, right? My perception is there’s abundance. There are people around . That person’s perception was that there were not enough.
So I thought maybe the problem is a marketing problem. So we don’t tell people enough about our meetups. We don’t tell people enough about what we do and the things that we’re doing in the community. Right. So I thought, okay, maybe one good way to improve the marketing is to try and find a way to record the meetups, because at the time in church, I was the sound tech. I knew how to operate a sound board and we do audio recording and video recording. I thought maybe I should bring all these interests together. I felt if I can record the meetup, I can put them online, then people can find them. Once people can find them, they can probably link back to the meetup group. And then from there they can discover the different meetup groups and they can then, you know, either attend the future meetups or even learn from the videos that are being published, right. There were a lot good content being shared in the different meetup groups. Yeah. So that was the genesis of the Engineers.SG.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:09:51] Yeah, just for our listeners here, as of today I can see there are like 3,759 videos online. So that’s really a lot. I think it started from like 2013 or something?
Michael Cheng: [00:10:04] Yeah. Around there.
On Prioritizing Time [00:10:05]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:10:05] Right. So, this is one question that I always have in mind when I see you like all over the places in meetups, you know, recording. Obviously now you’ve got, some help from few people, volunteers as well, but how do you prioritize your time?
Michael Cheng: [00:10:18] Well, first of all, I do have a day job. Some people see me in community meetups and they are like, they will ask me, so what do you do? I was like, yeah, I don’t really tell people what I do, but I do have a day job. So my, my day job does take a lot of my time, because I have to be at work by nine-ish and in advance six o’clock. I think I’m very thankful in my last few jobs that they were quite strict about not doing overtime. So in a way that frees up my time in the evenings to actually organize meet ups, go for meetups and to attend meetups. So I’m fortunate to have employers in the past, at least, employers in my last at least three jobs who give me the freedom to continue to do things for the community. So in terms of prioritizing my time, I guess I can schedule my time around the meetup events . So in a way, kind of like my evenings are kind of booked up by, oh, this meetup or that meetup. In the past, I think before COVID-19, we have like, wow, about two to three meetups a week. And as you notice, I’m fortunate enough to have volunteers to help me, but in the past I would like at six o’clock sharp, I’ll just leave work with my recording gear, rush down to the meetup group, meetup venue and kind of setup my gear, you know, kind of do recording. So yeah, so they can be tiring.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:11:34] Also especially after you record, you still have to do the editing, uploading, and putting it on the website. I think that’s a lot of work as well, right?
Michael Cheng: [00:11:42] Yeah. It used to be, I think it used to be that in at least in the early days, I would actually stay up to like one, two o’clock in the morning just editing the videos. Well, of course, with technology, we have actually improved our workflow. So, I’ve built up my simple, like upload site for my volunteers and for myself. So as long as the video is ready and I can just upload to this upload site and it will be published onto the Engineers.SG website, I think within an hour.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:12:08] Wow. That’s, that’s pretty cool.
Michael Cheng: [00:12:10] Yeah. I mean, there’s a reason why we lug around so much gear because we want to capture everything properly. And because, we use a laptop and we use a software called OBS, which does the recording and it records everything from screen to video the audio, into one file. So it makes it a lot easier for my volunteers that we don’t need to do so much post-production.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:12:30] Yeah, I’ve seen once a volunteer having to set up all the gears. It looks pretty complicated for me. There are a lot of moving parts, but it’s pretty nice set up, you know, like the quality, I think is also one thing that you want to ensure for the people so that they can listen to the speakers and be able to see the screen at the same time, which is pretty nice.
Michael Cheng: [00:12:50] Yeah, in a way you can consider it as a occupational hazard because as I said in the past I was like a sound engineer, so I know the importance of recording good audio and how important good audio is for your attention span when you’re watching a video. If you hear a bad audio, you just switch off quite easily. So you have good audio capture and good quality screen recording. It makes a more compelling content. And I think, it shows in the videos that we recorded.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:13:18] Yeah. I guess this is also a lesson for all the listeners here is that sometimes we have these skills that we don’t realize is actually pretty useful, like for example in your case, you are pretty good in doing soundboarding, editing and how to record a good quality sound. And then after that, you mix that with Engineers.SG. Actually it benefits a lot of people. So I think this is also a good example of how ideas can be born out of a skill that you normally don’t realize.
Michael Cheng: [00:13:45] Yeah. Precisely.
Engineers.SG Impact [00:13:46]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:13:46] So very curious about these Engineers.SG, right? So what kind of impact , maybe you can throw some highlights that you realize you have made out of this Engineers.SG? Maybe there are people telling you, or maybe you just see something that you think engineers SG contribute a lot?
Michael Cheng: [00:14:02] There was once when I was still working in a consulting agency. It was called Neo Innovation. So in the consultancy we build apps and built stuff for clients. And there was one time I was in office during lunch time and I heard behind me there was a video playing. It was a familiar voice on the video. But turns out it was one of our colleagues, who presented something at PyCon, probably in 2013, 2014. So he presented at PyCon about the topic of pytest, which is a testing framework for Python. And my colleague was actually watching the video, and I looked at him, wow, that’s pretty cool. The fact that the video was only like, maybe a few days old. It was done over the weekend and it was recorded, the conference was over the weekend. We recorded it. And on Monday or Tuesday, he was like watching the video during lunchtime was like, wow, I mean, for me, I felt like it has served a purpose that I originally created this movement for, which was to provide a resource for people around me.
The other impact we have will be local conference scene. In the past, a lot of the Singapore based conferences, when they needed to record video for their conference, usually takes about half a year for the video to be published. Like they will get big boys, like Confreaks. They’ll basically fly people in to Singapore with their equipment, and then in the case of another provider, you have to actually record into VHS and then, send the VHS, data tapes and then send the whole tape to US for them to do the post production and editing. So I felt that, there’s a lot of costs involved there, and it’s a lot of time lag between your content being recorded in Singapore based conference, and then we publish.
So I decided that we should just make this, our recording capabilities available to conference organizers as well. So like things like GopherCon, Ruby conference, PHP conference, which I personally run, and so many other conferences that we cover, right. So it’s like for us, it is a community service because as Engineers.SG , it’s a not for profit kind of initiative, as in, we don’t make money out of it. We earn a little bit just to cover our hardware costs and our repair costs and a hosting fee for our website. When we cover conferences, it really helps us in expanding our capability. So we can now record more tracks a day. So last count we have got about six or seven sets of recording gear, which you can deploy at any moment. I think our impact is really, really about helping the local tech scene and the local conference organizers make their videos a lot more accessible, and make it a bit more affordable for them because I know a lot of the local conference organizers are also not making money out of their conferences, right. For us, it was a way to contribute back to the community. And to help these organizers who lot of them are my personal friends. Yeah. So for me it’s like by way helping them and for them to make their content accessible to everyone around us. Yeah.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:17:00] Cool. So, what is your next plan for Engineers.SG? I know that it’s non profit community initiative, right. But is there any like roadmap? How do you want to bring Engineers.SG going forward?
Michael Cheng: [00:17:11] I’m not too sure because right now because of the COVID-19 is, I think in a way COVID-19 is a bit of a good thing, cause now a lot more people know how to actually do video recording and recording of like talks and all that stuff. Which is great. That means, it has almost made Engineers.SG a bit redundant. Because right now the capability to publish videos and meetup videos and all that is, is now in everyone’s hands. You use Zoom, you use StreamYard. You use some, so many, there’s so many tools available out there that makes it so easy for you to do that. So you don’t really need heavy and expensive equipment that we do, that we carry around with us everywhere. So all you need is your laptop, a good speaker or good microphone, and then that’s it. That’s all you need. Right. So I think it’s a, it’s a good thing. And even right now, during this COVID-19 period, Engineers.SG, we have also decided to just, help the community as well and providing like free hosting. So we’re hosting the Zoom calls for a lot of the community organizers, because I think there’s a cost involved in getting a Zoom account, and I don’t think everyone wants to pay for that monthly costs. So in a way I’m kind of like helping them by, you know, hosting their calls and then helping to upload the videos from their meetup.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:18:25] Maybe also, like, it will be also a nice place to aggregate all these meetups happening, right. Because I think one challenge just like previously we have all these meetups, but again, if it’s not consolidated, we can’t probably also make sense what is happening around the community? Who are the speakers there? And how do we engage with the local tech scene, right?
Michael Cheng: [00:18:44] It’s true. So I guess in a way I want to try and make the content a bit more discoverable. I think was, probably last year or the year before that Engineers.SG kind of merge or acquired WeBuild.SG. They’re also aggregator of sorts, of like local tech events. So we basically got their content for the events calendar, and we have actually merged that into our Engineers.SG events calendar.
So in a way, I want to try and find a way to make the content be a bit more discoverable, events more discoverable, and also make it easier for people to link up with the speaker, find out more about the speaker and the community that the speaker is speaking in. So, my time is also quite limited. For example, Engineers.SG website, I actually had like v2, version 2 kind of thing going on. There was some community volunteers who wanted to push for a Vue.js kind of a thing. And then at the same time I was like building some microservices as a way of learning how to use microservices. Now we’re using Engineers.SG as a platform for me to learn these things. So it’s like yeah, figuring out how to improve the service. I mean, I think of the goal at the end of the day is to make Engineers.SG a little bit like, more of a self-help, kind of a portal where volunteers and community organizers and speakers can just go into the portal and kind of like self-help, link up their talks to their own profile. Even for community organizers to even organize and publish their events on it easily. So that’s some of the goals that I’m aiming for. And also to boost viewership of the videos on Engineers.SG.
Impact of Community Contributions [00:20:14]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:20:14] Right. So, again, out of curiosity after you are doing this community contributions over a number of years now, how has that helped you professionally? Maybe in terms of career or maybe new job opportunity, or maybe you just become more popular that people know you when they see you.
Michael Cheng: [00:20:33] I guess being out there and doing all these things, you just create a profile, you’re a bit more recognizable, which to me, honestly, I’m not very comfortable with that celebrity status. Yeah. I mean, I’m also fairly private person in a way, but then again, I post a lot of thing on my Facebook, so I don’t know. So, I guess you can say because of my community involvement, I was able to land a job with SP Digital, which is a digital transformation division of SP Group. He was like, let’s bring together all the people that he knows and turns out I’m one of those guys that he wanted on his team. And it was pretty nice therefore, for me to kind of like work in the company where I find a lot of my community friends, people who run meet ups, people who run the conferences. We know each other, like, as friends, as core organizers as whatever, but first time working with them professionally is, is quite interesting experience. So for me, it was eye opener and also in a way, because of my community profile, they wanted me to help them as well with like helping with the community things that they have there. So for example, they wanted a space where they could also hold meet ups at their office. So I helped with setting up like the Engineers.SG gear there so that we can make that the de facto place. If you have no place you can go to, you can use our venue at SP Digital. The equipment’s already there. You can record, as long as you want to be there, we record the event for you. Also in our JuniorDev.SG, where we did our mentoring programme, we also used the SP Digital office at Keppel Towers at the time. So in a way, we wouldn’t have access all these things, if in a way I haven’t take the plunge into the, to contribute so much in the community. And to get that assurance and recognition to let us and the trust to let us do these things at such a scale. So, I’m very grateful for all the, the trust that people have in me and also in the, in the movements that I’ve started.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:22:31] Yeah. That’s pretty cool. I think because like, obviously when you do community contribution, right, more people will be aware of you. And I think it also builds some kind of like personal brand, and from there, I think like opportunities will be in abundant, right. So you’ll probably land a cool job, meet new people, do networking, and things like that, right.
On JuniorDev.SG [00:22:49]
Henry Suryawirawan: You mentioned about JuniorDev.SG, right? Let’s switch to that topic for now. What makes you interested in bringing up this new community?
Michael Cheng: [00:22:58] So I noticed, there were a lot of young and new developers entering the market, maybe like three, four years ago. I think it was because of there were a proliferation of bootcamps in Singapore. I think the first, the first in our mind will be…
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:23:13] General Assembly
Michael Cheng: [00:23:15] General Assembly. Then there was also ALPHA Camp who is from Taiwan, and so many others that are now in Singapore right now. And each of these boot camps are churning out a lot of young junior developers entering the market, either fresh graduates or people who are mid-career switchers . So when I interact with some of these people, they were like, they are really hungry for knowledge. And, in a way they also feel a bit intimidated coming into a meetup groups, mainly because they feel that the content being shared and the level of skill that is required to basically understand what’s happening in the meetup, tend to be a little bit above their head. I mean, it’s very hard to, in three months, like pick up all the jargons and understand everything about technology and to come to this meetup groups, tends to be a bit intimidating for some of these people.
So for me, it was that desire to help them, right, as in. I think it’s with every single community initiative I started in the past is always about, the core theme is to fill a gap, fill a gap in the community, to fill a gap that has been, there’s a few an underserved group in the community. Right. And then this JuniorDev is basically one of those groups that are growing in numbers and you also want them to succeed in what they do. You also want them to progress beyond that point where they are starting. So, yeah, so I felt that there should be also a support group for this group of people.
And it just so happened I stumbled on one of my friends Twitter feed, and he was like attending a JuniorDev meetup in Melbourne. So I was like, wow, this is a pretty interesting thing. What’s this? What’s this going on there? So I checked out JuniorDev.IO ,sounds pretty cool thing. And they were doing quite a lot of things, where junior dev friendly right. So and as I got in touch with the founders of the JuniorDev.IO in Melbourne, I got to know more about their objectives. So what are you trying to do? Like they really wanted to have equal diversity representation in, as in all their talks have, all their events should have good diversity ratio that is kept at 50%. So I see as in, there’ll be 50% women and 50% men. And I felt that was a pretty good thing because it’s like you’re making it, you’re helping create a conscious effort. And that I feel is a very good thing.
Yeah. So I really agree with what they’re trying to do and really want to help them. And I thought I asked whether I could start a chapter in Singapore because I heard they were already starting one in Sydney and New Zealand. So I thought I should also start one in Singapore. And I asked her about it. They gave me some materials and some of their conditions for running events under their brand name. And I thought, okay, I’m agreeable with this, let’s do this. And, yeah, basically I used all my networking capabilities and there’s network effect in the things I do. As I share this on my Facebook, share this on my social medias, there are people who agree with this, find it quite interesting. They would just come for it. And I always roll up my sleeves and just do it, just you know, do things that don’t scale until you really need to scale.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:26:10] Yup. Yup.
Michael Cheng: [00:26:11] Kinda like Engineers.SG, do everything myself first, until I can’t scale, and get volunteers and all that. So I think for JuniorDev it was like, I just do it myself first, let’s see what happens. I’m thankful that I do have a core team helping me right now. So there’s a team of about 7 people on the team. So they are really helping to organize the monthly meetups, developers' gym as well as our mentoring programme. So, the emphasis of JuniorDev.SG is not just a, a safe environment for junior devs to come and learn things. This is also a opportunity for them to network and meet people in the community, which they otherwise won’t be able to see.
I think the problem that I had in my early days as an software engineer was isolation, I’m doing everything on my own, and I need to have, I didn’t know there was that there was a wider community out there. I think back in the day there wasn’t things like Stack Overflow and Google really wasn’t that, you can’t find out stuff in there. There are a lot of blog posts, but that’s about it. Right? So I really wanted help them have the sense of community, meet people, people that could become potentially their colleagues. People that could potentially become their bosses, people that could potentially become even people that they can work with. So unlike my other previous events that I run in the past, which was more tech driven, this is more people driven. So, I wanted more time to be satisfied for networking people, to create connections with each other.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:27:31] For those junior developer listeners here, how can they participate in some of your activities? Like your monthly meetups, your developers' gym, and your mentoring programme.
Michael Cheng: [00:27:41] So you can go to our meetup group. We post all our events there, meetup.com. Just look for JuniorDev Singapore, you will find it. Or you can just go to juniordev.sg. If you go to juniordev.sg, you can find the links to all our social media.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:27:55] Hmm. So what is actually developers' gym, for those people who don’t know about it?
Michael Cheng: [00:27:59] So our monthly meetups usually have a split of networking and tech talks. So as we go through this, as we were organizing the meetups, we felt that there still wasn’t enough impact, as in, yeah, the junior devs, they were there, they really were really hungry for knowledge and they want to really get, better at their craft. At that time when we were running the meetups, ThoughtWorks also started their jumpstart program, and an instructor there started the jumpstart program, his name is Gordon. So Gordon was, he approached me and said, hey, you know, yeah, the meetups are great if you have like content being shared. But he also realized that there needs to be more opportunities for coding and practice, because after the boot camps, they still need to continue the cadence of learning and hands on and writing code and practicing a good code, right. So he felt that we should probably try and organize some things on the weekends, and so that people can come and kind of like work together and learn how to code, so Gordon was spearheading that. So he helped us to spearhead the developer’s gym. It is essentially a coding dojo, like a coding dojo and hands on workshop for like two, three hours. They come together, you do like hands on coding, you practice, you also learn about new technologies, like we did a bit sometime last year was the Kubernetes workshop. We walked people through how to use, how to start up a Kubernetes cluster, use Minikube and all that stuff to setup their own Kubernetes thing, right. And it was really well attended. We have about 90 over people in the class. Wow. Pretty big. And the only place that will accommodate us was the Google Developer space. So it was quite cool. But because of COVID-19, we’re required to put a stop to this for now until such time where we get back to the point where we can gather, we can probably restart this whole thing.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:29:37] Although now people are working from home, so I guess in a way it’s also a skill that we have to practice, right. To be able to do either like pair programming, communicate with colleagues over the internet or through chats, probably it’s something that you can explore.
How about the mentoring programme itself? So probably you can mention a little bit what it is all about so that maybe people who are interested to become a mentor or a mentee can also participate.
Michael Cheng: [00:30:01] Yeah, so we have meetups that would cater to some networking needs of a community, hands-on coding workshops, developers' gym kids catered for their much more hands on and improving their craft. But there’s also one other aspect of junior developers, which is the sense of things that are not just technical. There are things that are not just about technical capability, it’s also about the ability to work with their colleagues and the people. And the profile of junior developers I saw in the time when I was running this, they were mid-career switchers, fresh graduates, generally people who have never worked in a tech company before. Their prior experience, maybe if they’re mid-career switcher, there are some working experience and coming to the tech company, there’s some dynamics that just don’t work the same way. There are some things that are very specific to the tech industry, like how you need more, a bit more guidance to get started, more empathy and understanding from your colleagues so that you can get up to speed in your coding capabilities. And there’s also the other part of it, which is for very long time I think in our industry that we value a CS degree more than anything else. So as a mid-career switcher, there’s always this nagging feeling that I’m not good enough. And I find that a lot of the tech leaders that I met with, they’re very stretched. They have no time to really mentor people. Think about a startup, a senior person in a startup usually he’s the only senior guy taking care of like five, six different junior developers in the team, right. So, their capacity and the ability to mentor people is very limited. And the other thing about our industry is that we don’t become a mentor just like that, right. You can’t just flip a switch and just because you are technically good, you know your, your craft very well, doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher and mentor and guide for other people, right. In fact, if you are very good and strong technically, you may feel very annoyed with somebody just keeps bugging you about questions. So in a way I want to help junior developers learn how to work with their senior developers, how they work with the people in their company, and learn how to adapt.
For example, one advice I gave a junior developer once was, he said he needed a way to talk to his senior. He doesn’t know how to go about engaging them. So I gave him some tips. Number one will be to help manage senior developers time, in a sense, help manage their distraction. Because as a senior developer in the company, you probably have a lot of things you need to work on. So, having the empathy for you to ask, can I book half an hour of your time, so that you can help them manage their distraction and disruption, right. So that they won’t bug them until that alloted time. He told me much later on that it really helped him a lot. That’s just a simple advice. He was able to get a more productive time with his senior developer. Once you allocate a time, you have a hundred percent focus of that person.
And of course, on the part of the developer, he also needs to do his own due diligence, learn about how to try and solve the problem on his own and then figure out different ways of doing it. Only when he really have no way of solving it, then approach a senior, or get a senior allocate some time to help them, right.
So this simple advice, things like this that doesn’t come naturally to people, and the senior developers, sometimes we don’t know how to also tell junior developers. So skills like this, I felt that having a mentoring programme will be helpful, as in we get together, the senior developers, who have experienced mentoring and to help impart some of this knowledge. One of the junior developers that come to our programme, they feel they don’t have enough mentoring in their own company because of the problem I told you about. There’s only one senior developer, and you have so many junior developers around you. And I hope the mentoring programme will help create that mentoring and nurturing environment that can help this junior developers in their own journey.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:33:31] I think there are actually a lot of so-called mentors out there, who wants to contribute and nurture junior developers as well. Probably not in their companies, but it could be other companies or maybe students who are still studying, right. And this platform I find it’s very unique in a sense that you mix and match people, the mentors and the mentees to come together so that they have a blend, a mix of a knowledge transfer. And also you can ask questions and discuss about certain topics. So just to share the listeners, few other topics that obviously as a junior, which I also had during my early careers, things like imposter syndrome, how do you know that you are good enough? How do you make contribution to the work? Managing your bosses, managing your work and projects, dealing with difficult people to work with. So all these obviously are good topics, for the mentees to learn from the mentors from the industry.
So, is there any vision on what you would bring this JuniorDev.SG next?
Michael Cheng: [00:34:27] I guess as long as we can touch lives of junior developers, I think one of the goals that I have set for us is for our junior developers to drop their junior title.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:34:37] That’s nice.
Michael Cheng: [00:34:39] So the explicit goals of the JuniorDev.SG, right, is to provide a safe environment for junior developers to learn from each other and to share about their learning journeys, mentoring opportunities for developers who might not have such resources available to them at their workplace and help each other level up into senior positions and eventually take up leadership positions. So these are three explicit goals.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:35:00] Nice, I think it’s pretty kind for you to start ]up these initiatives and I’m sure more and more junior developers can benefit from this initiative. The only thing is like how to scale this to reach out more and more people, right?
Michael Cheng: [00:35:13] Yeah. I mean, as I said, sometimes I, I tend to do the Uber way, which is do things that can’t scale. See how it goes.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:35:23] Yeah, maybe some of you, the listeners who find this opportunity interesting, you can also contact Michael to be involved in the initiative, trying to help in whatever way that we can.
3 Tech Lead Wisdom [00:35:33]
Henry Suryawirawan: So, before we wrap up , normally I would ask all my guests to answer one question that I have, which is, what are the three tech lead wisdom that you have for the listeners to know?
Michael Cheng: [00:35:43] Right. So I’m, I’m actually a pretty new tech lead myself, cause I only took up the role of a tech lead, last year when I joined GovTech. So for me , it has also been a learning experience to figure out how to actually lead a team and how to manage a team and even the first time in my life having direct reports, people who would report to me. So, suddenly you have another life you need to take care of, and it’s not just somebody that you care for, like the mentoring programme like once a week kind of thing, right. This is somebody that you need to help in their personal growth, like five days a week, right.
So yeah, I would say the three wisdom I wish I had known when I first started this is, number one. Don’t panic.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:36:19] What do you mean by don’t panic?
Michael Cheng: [00:36:22] It’s like, sometimes I was like, Oh wow, ughh, this is too much for me, how the hell am I going to do this? And first thing, I would think is don’t panic, you’ve got this. So don’t panic. You’ve gotten you to where you are because of your years of experience, because of your years of learning. Everything you’ve learned in the past has prepared you for this time and this moment in your life. So you can do this, don’t panic.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:36:44] Right.
Michael Cheng: [00:36:45] The second tech wisdom I would share to anyone who was taking up tech lead for the first time is, silence can be a good thing. Don’t be afraid of silence, because it’s in silence that you can actually think. To reframe for this is don’t rush into things, right. When everything is like pushing for you to get things done and everything is like, yeah, let’s take a moment here. What’s going on? Yeah, let’s try to figure this out. Take your time, even silence is good because then you can really think about the next steps. And don’t be afraid of it. Use silence as a way of taking a breather, taking a pause before you take the next steps.
And the third tech wisdom I will give to anyone who is going to take up the tech lead role for the first time is, it’s okay to say I don’t know. It’s okay to say you don’t know because, you really don’t know.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:37:32] Yeah I find like, especially these days technology landscape keeps changing in a rapid, fast manner, right. Obviously there’s no one person who is able to grasp everything, right.
Michael Cheng: [00:37:42] Precisely.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:37:43] And I think that is a very important point for those tech leads out there. It’s okay to don’t know about something, right.
Michael Cheng: [00:37:50] Yeah, but it’s not okay to stay ignorant, so do find out if you can, take your time and find out and learn . In my one year journey being a tech lead, it’s like, I’m also learning a lot about myself and learning about developing the awareness for what my strengths are and what my weaknesses are, recognizing them, and then try and find ways to compensate for my weaknesses. So, I feel that I’m not the best encourager, as in , I can’t be the guy who would be giving you warm encouragements every moment of the day. But I try my best to make sure that, the spirits are high in the, in the team that I’m working with, try to inject some humor, smile a bit more, and help the team get through this difficult times, which is, yeah, something you have to do, as tech lead.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:38:40] All right. So how can people find and connect with you online?
I’m on Twitter, coderkungfu, C O D E R K U N G F U, coderkungfu. I’m on Twitter as well as on Instagram.
Thanks Michael again for your time. Hope to see you again.
Michael Cheng: [00:38:55] Right. See ya.
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