Tool: Realtimeboard

I stumbled upon this tool while reading an article on TechCrunch. It’s an online collaboration tool with visual diagrams that users can use to generate ideas and present. Boards can be shared between multiple teammates; which I can will be pretty valuable if you love the power of collaboration and white boards as a brainstorming tool. At my company, the C-suite folks all have white boards inside their office to flesh out ideas. Some whiteboards are also placed in the hallways to keep everyone updated on the status of projects. However, physical white boards are physically limited and it can get tricky to engage multiple folks, especially from different offices.

Realtimeboard is your whiteboard without such limitations. The boards are infinitely large and can be zoomed in or out comfortably. The visual components are pretty straightforward and easy to use. Users can add links, comments and images at will. Furthermore, boards are accessible regardless of where members are.

Below is a board I am working on in a school project.

realtimeboard

As can be seen in the image, comments can be added in yellow boxes and links come with the logo of the website links. Nodes can be moved around or added easily. If you want to mimic the same map in, let’s say, PowerPoint, moving or adding nodes requires taxing extra work on moving the connection lines or arrows around. With Realtimeboard, such a requirement is unnecessary. Therefore, a lot of time is saved.

Export options are plenty: PDF, image, csv and so on:

realtimeboard_2

I am not an investor in this firm. Just a fan that wants to show some token of appreciation to a cool tool.

Official Transcripts and fees

I was having my coffee at a shop in Austin when I ran across this piece on the local newspapers that is really annoying.

Official_Transcript

On top of high tuition fees and textbook prices, students have to pay for a host of other fees that in some cases are truly outrageous. In this particular article, it’s just ludicrous when an official transcript costs $10 to $20. A few weeks ago, I had to pay $75 in total to receive my two official diplomas, something that was beyond me. Official diplomas should be automatically free for graduating students, instead of costing almost a week of food. Plus, students have to pay $100 to borrow a gown for 3 hours on our Graduation Day. Graduation Day is a glorious culmination of months of hard-work, supposedly so, at school. Yet, in order to taste the sweetness of our hard-work, students have to pay an outrageous amount of fees which can amount to a significant sum for low-income students and families. I just think that it’s not right.

Public Transit

Landing in Austin, I immediately went to Uber and Lyft apps to look for a ride to Austin Downtown. Each came back with an estimate of $20 for a ride. I thought, well, it is what it is. In my defense, it is kinda a trained reaction after living for a while in America, where public transportation can be disappointing in some cases. Anyway, I decided to give it a try and ask the Information Desk about buses to Austin downtown. It turned out that buses run every 15 mins, even on Saturdays and most Sundays from and to the airport. The charge? $1.25/person/ride. It took me only 25 mins to reach Austin downtown, not much different from the estimated time of an Uber/Lyft ride. But I saved $19.

Imagine how much money & time we could collectively save from using more public transportation and less personal vehicles. No more scrambling to find a parking slot, no more parking fees in your building, no more car insurance and safer transportation. A well-designed public transportation network will be a great investment of tax payers’ money and a spoon for low-income folks who should not be forced to buy a car for daily commute.

In Omaha, one of two biggest cities in Nebraska, if not the biggest, there are more bus routes from downtown than other parts of the city and on the weekdays. If you live reasonably far out, no matter the direction, from the city center, there is no bus at all. On the weekends, there is only one bus every half an hour or every hour. To popular places such as Social Security Administration or DMV, there is usually one bus every half an hour, even on the weekdays, and it usually involves transiting from another bus. Trust me, it’s hugely frustrating and unnecessarily time-consuming. On top of that, drivers in Omaha are terrible. I don’t know about drivers in other cities, but a busted car front is not an unusual sight there. If you are not an experienced driver, it can be dangerous and daunting. Oh and it is even worse in the winter. My boss told me on Friday, the first day of winter, that she had to turn around and come home after 2 miles because there were a lot of accidents and the roads were too slippery.

P/S: After telling me about the bus, the lady at Austin Airport’s Information Desk promptly gave me a quarter for my bus ride. Talk about first impression from a new city!

 

 

Gratitude

If you get to know me these days, I have a tendency to go on and on about how much I am struggling between two Capstones and a job. I am not good at programming, but I have been hustling to write line after line of Javascript, Python and HTML. Hours and hours of being glued to my desk and sometimes the code didn’t work. Imagine that monumental amount of frustration.

This weekend, I am on a quick getaway trip to see a good friend from Belgium, who is in the US right now for business. So while on the planes and during layover, I have some time away from all the coding, Slack messages and fear that the code won’t work. Time to reflect.

Before this semester, I kept saying to whoever cared enough to ask: I can’t wait to graduate. 5 weeks from graduation, I am; however, often overwhelmed by the feeling of uncertainty. What will I do when I am no longer a student? Being an immigrant in the US these days is not easy or enjoyable. Finding a job and getting the paperwork to work is challenging, requiring quite a bit of luck. Even though I have a clean track record (I don’t even have speeding/parking ticket) and my employer indicates an intention of keeping me permanently, my fate rests entirely upon some stranger in the Department of Homeland Security. There is nothing else I can do, but to wait and pray.

There are things that I don’t like about the US. It’s normal. I don’t think there is anywhere I wholeheartedly like. But I have gained quite a lot here. I wouldn’t have learned about coding had I still stayed in Vietnam. Instead, I am able to write some code now to the point that I enjoy doing it. Who knows? Maybe it will lead me to a great opportunity one day.

My job teaches me a great deal about enterprise IT infrastructure. Without coming to the US, how could I have known about cloud computing, storage, next-generation firewalls, etc…? (sounds smart heh?). Trust me, I am a newbie with a mountain of knowledge to learn. It’s like Himalaya. It keeps rising higher and higher.

More importantly, I have met some incredible people while in the US. Some will still be my friends a few years from now. Three days ago, a friend from Germany that I met while in Omaha, texted me out of the blue on Whatsapp, saying: “Minh, how is it going? Closer to graduation? Just want to let you know that if you want to find a job in Germany, don’t hesitate to ask”. I made my day and days after that.

What I am trying to say is that I am grateful for what I have got during the last two and a half years. Has it all been perfect? No. But I am grateful for it.

I spent an illegal and unacceptable amount of time on debating with myself: if I could do it all over again, would I still come here? Trust me, such a debate could drain you. After all, I left behind everything I had up to August 2016 to come to the US. No friends, no family, all the professional credibility and network in Vietnam that would mean nothing , and a personal relationship that would be broken at some point.

But whenever I am not in a bad mood, at a low point, drunk or bone-tired because of work and school, I feel grateful to the US and all the people that I have come across. Really. Would I still do it? The answer is yes.

LinkedIn Learning

I have quite mixed feelings towards LinkedIn. The platform seems to be a pretty cool concept, a bridge that connects employers with employees, and companies with potential partners. Somewhere along the line; however, the content on LinkedIn has grown a bit out of control, with excessive quizzes or motivational quotes whose origin no one is certain about. My impression is that job-seeking users only use the platform when they are looking for opportunities and stop all interaction whenever there is no such need. Personally, there were times in the past when I didn’t visit the site for weeks and I believe that I am not alone. Consequently, I am never motivated to be a LinkedIn subscriber.

With that being said, I was excited to read about the latest news regarding LinkedIn Learning.

Per TechCrunch:

Now, with 13,000 courses on the platform, LinkedIn  is announcing two new developments to get more people using the service. It will now offer videos, tutorials and courses from third-parties such as Treehouse and the publishing division of Harvard Business School. And in a social twist, people who use LinkedIn Learning — the students and teachers — will now be able to ask and answer questions around LinkedIn Learning sessions, as well as follow instructors on LinkedIn, and see others’ feedback on courses.

Unlimited access to LinkedIn Learning comes when a person pays for LinkedIn’s Premium Career tier, which costs around $30/month…

The first group includes Harvard Business Publishing (e.g. leadership development courses from Harvard Business School’s publishing arm); getAbstract (a Blinkist-style service that provides 10,000+ non-fiction book summaries plus TED talks); Big Think: 500 short-form videos on topics of the day (these are not so much “courses” as they are “life lessons” — subjects include organizing activism and an explainer on how to end bi-partisan politics); Treehouse, with courses on coding and product design skills; and Creative Live, with courses and tutorials for professionals in the creative industries to improve their skills and business acumen.

In addition to Premium features such as InMail or “See you looked at your profile” or salary comparison, a LinkedIn Premium Career comes with content from other platforms that can be pricey on their own. For instance, Treehouse costs $25/month, getAbstract can go up to the same price as well. Throw in potential costs from other content providers and you’ll see how hard LinkedIn wants to attract users by offering much value. In the same way as Spotify offers students with a combo of Spotify Premium, Hulu and Showtime.

This reflects the importance that Microsoft placed on LinkedIn recently. It was reported that activity on LinkedIn would be one of the factors determining the pay of Microsoft’s CEO next year. Nonetheless, LinkedIn Premium Career subscription looks more intriguing to me now with the new added lineup of 3rd party content.

If you plan to subscribe to an online learning website anyway in the near future, this can be a cool option. I never use any of the added 3rd party platforms, but the perks of LinkedIn Premium Career , especially for graduates, may be valuable.

Vietnam GP in 2020

Well, it’s finally and officially here! Formula 1 Vietnam Grand Prix is officially the latest addition to the calendar in 2020. As a long-time F1 fanatic, I am thrilled by this news. Our country will have an international sport event that will attract tourists and increase our country’s brand awareness. It’s not surprising to me any more that many people don’t know much about Vietnam. Hopefully, this event and all the publicity that comes with it will help make Vietnam more known on the world stage.

Formula 1 put together a cool video that shows the streets in Hanoi, where the race will take place. Check it out:

This is the track circuit. I am not a fan of street circuits, except Baku with its magical long straight and turn 1. I hope this track will be just as exciting

 

Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj & the man himself

I was told to watch Hasan Minhaj’s new show on Netflix called Patriot Act. If you don’t have a Netflix account, rest easy. The first three episodes are available on YouTube.

I like the show and Hasan. For some reasons, I am not a big fan of most of the late night comedy shows any more, except Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Celebrity interviews or games or only “anti-Trump” rhetoric that sometimes comes with lame jokes don’t engage me. I prefer learning something new from a show or a funny take on the current issues. So far, John Oliver and now Hasan deliver that in my opinion. While John Oliver has a knack for choosing overlooked issues in our society, Hasan is a masterful story-teller. He just sucks you in the story he is telling whether it is a story on his family after 9/11, his take on that John McCain debate during 2008 presidential debate, or his being bullied in high school.

I was in the gym today, listening to his commencement speech at high school. He told the story of him being bullied, of being rejected from his dream of playing basketball in high school and of how that forced him to comedy. I recommend listening to his speech. In the end, he got real.

“It doesn’t always get better. The world doesn’t care one bit about your dream. But if you keep working, you’ll find something that you are meant to do. You’ll eventually find where you are supposed to be. If you can’t get into the front door. Go through the side. If you can’t go through the side, go through the backyard. If you can’t go through the backyard, go through the window. No matter what. Never stop fighting through the pick”.

Or something along that line. He has other great interviews on YouTube, but I’ll let you discover them.

 

Book: Bird by Bird Some Instructions on Writing and Life

If you love writing, but get stuck at not knowing how to write better, this book is for you. It’s a light-toned therapy session that consists of practical lessons on how to write better. I found it reassuring to learn about the struggles that even great writers faced. It was equally reassuring to know that writing is tough, but if you keep at it, eventually you’ll get something out of it.

The book can get dull as it drags on, if you are not that interested in the author’s personal anecdotes. The main take-aways for me include:

  • Just sit your ass down and force yourself to write. It’ll come
  • First drafts are always horrible, for everyone. Just let it all out at first
  • Little by little, just write. Or in the author’s father’s words: “bird by bird”!

Below are few great quotes from the book:

E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard

“Do it every day for a while”, my father kept saying. “Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things”

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird’.”

One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do—you can either type or kill yourself.”

This blog is my “tea ceremony”. I don’t know what I would get out of it. I just enjoy it.

Bonus: Below are the four blogs that inspire me to write as often as I can

 

SEO and Employability

I was tasked with improving the SEO of our website. While at it, I noticed a similarity between SEO and employment prospect in this age and day. Let me explain why.

What is SEO?

First, let’s talk about how SEO is related to a website

Untitled Diagram

If users can’t find your website on the search engine, it will be almost impossible to generate sales. Below is the conversion rate by ranking position:

Source: Smartinsights

The lower your website’s ranking position, the lower the conversion rate. Hence, SEO is about making your website as high as possible on search engine result pages in your targeted keywords.

Here is what I think is a successful SEO strategy:

DFD_Unroasted (1).png

It is a sweet spot of what you sell, the content you offer to audience and how well the website is built technically to allow indexing and crawling by Google. Let’s talk about keywords

Keywords

There are two types of keywords: long-tail and short-tail.

short vs long tail keywords benefits

Source: SEOpressor

As you can see, short-tail keywords are popular, but they are highly sought after and as a result, your conversion rate tends to be low. On the other hand, long-tail keywords have much less popularity, but much higher conversion rate as they are more targeted and specific.

Of course, all brands want high conversion rate, but at the same time, it’s not possible to avoid short-tail keywords altogether. Brands need to be in the conversation to be heard. However, the competition is fierce. Generic or short-tail keywords like cars, pizza or laptop etc… are highly competitive. Therefore, it requires patience. It takes relentless and consistent SEO effort to yield favorable results. It requires regularly useful content to audience and consistent fine-tuning of the website over a long time to succeed. If all it took were money, it would be impossible to compete with deep-pocketed firms. I have encountered a few brands while working in advertising agencies and marketing in Vietnam that demanded over-night SEO success. It’s just not possible.

How is it related to employability nowadays?

As access to knowledge and information is easier than ever, the competition for well-paid jobs is increasingly competitive. Whether it’s in Venture Capital, Investment Banking, Medicine, Software Development or Data Science, there are a score of other candidates with more or less the same portfolio and qualifications as you or I do. Hence, it takes patience. It takes consistent delivery of useful content online to stand out. It takes finding out your “long-tail keywords” to increase your employment conversion rate. 

Well, of course, if you are lucky enough to know the right folks, it will be easier. But at the same time, others can get to know those right folks too. Nonetheless, the older I am, the more I realize the importance of patience. It’s not easy, especially to an impatient one like myself. At least, it’s better late than never.

 

Midterms and why you should vote

I do discuss politics, but with my friends only or those who are open-minded enough to do it without engaging in a shouting match or escalating it to another level. I don’t want to talk politics on this blog because it’s a black hole. But today I want to.

Midterm ads

As the midterms are coming around the corner, I have seen more ads on YouTube. Mostly attack ads that are sponsored by  a candidate to attack his or her opponents. That’s pitiful. A lot of money is spent on attacking opponents. Instead, such money should have been spent in a more meaningful way.

Politics in America is about the extreme. It’s either one end of the stick or the other end. Nothing in between. It’s common to advance by attacking others. Meanwhile, plenty of important issues in our life go unnoticed or misunderstood by the public. Issues such as foreign policies, trade or healthcare are highly complicated and most of us don’t quite get them. Even if we understand, the compartmentalization and secrecy born out of how governments work in general, not just the US government, make information inaccessible and misunderstanding more palpable.

Call me an idealist, but if public servants as these politicians all claim to be want to serve the public, wouldn’t it benefit the public if they spent their money on educating their constituents on important issues, instead of attacking their opponents? I am not talking about last-minute vids when campaigns start. I am talking about a year-long constant effort on trying to help constituents understand issues more. It’s likely that they wouldn’t understand some highly highly complex issues anyway, but at least they would understand more what is going on. And that is the essence of serving the public.

In business, the surest way to attract users/customers is to be helpful/useful to them. It should be the same here. Politicians wouldn’t need to be helpful for the public. They could do it for themselves. By making themselves a reliable source of information and knowledge on what matters in constituents’ lives, I believe politicians would find it easier to earn trust. Even if things go wrong, they could always say: hey, I have been telling you that we have to compromise in politics and things are not straightforward 9 out of 10 cases. That’s the truth, provided that these politicians are forthcoming and transparent.

Sadly, it is not the case.

The importance of voting

I have talked to a few folks in Nebraska. Some didn’t vote in 2016 because they didn’t like either candidate. Low turnout is not really that uncommon here. But I’d like to talk about what happens on tonight’s episode of Madam Secretary, a show I talked about in the past.

On this episode, the Secretary had to find a way to work with a dictator in Philippines to retrieve the bodies of dead American soldiers who died in, probably, WW2 (I don’t remember the show mentioning it clearly but it was 1945, so WW2 was my guess). The dictator refused to endorse the request to retrieve the bodies, unless America gave him money that would be used to buy weapons and suppress his citizens in the future. Some compromise would be required here.

Meanwhile, her daughter worked for a candidate who pledged to campaign on student loans as one of his principles. But he left it out of his agenda. Her daughter quit the campaign because of that. Listen to this clip to see how the Secretary taught her daughter on the importance of voting.

I was about to go to bed and like I said, politics is not what I like to talk about on this blog. Nonetheless, I figured I had to do this because it mattered. If you read this and are eligible to vote in a few days, do vote. Like the Secretary said, many died for you to be able to vote. And why wouldn’t you? It will affect your life for years to come. It will also affect the world for years to come. If your representative is a decisive vote on a bill that will affect other countries, imagine that.

Do a quick research on your representatives, senators, attorney generals or governors. Any position that is on the ballot. Chances are you won’t agree with everything a candidate has to offer, but it’s life and it may be because some compromise had been made and you don’t know about it. Nonetheless, do vote.