Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy New Year, back from the dead, and updates

Last year, I took an unplanned hiatus from blogging when life suddenly accelerated. But when I look back on the second half of 2008, I feel gratitude and joy about the things I was able to participate in, and the things I was able to accomplish. Some personal highlights:


Continued to take voice lessons.

Enrolled in the German Art Song class in the SF Conservatory Adult Extension program (the class I was interested in taking earlier). The focus this semester was on the songs of Schubert and Brahms. This class was an incredible opportunity for me - it stretched my brain in ways that engineers don't usually get to do, and helped me take my first big steps forward as an artist and performer.

Sang in two student recitals - my first as a solo performer. Another huge milestone. The first was a NATS student recital. The second recital was the culmination of the German Art Song class and was held at the beautiful recital salon at the conservatory. You can listen to clips here and here! There are also pics of this recital on Facebook.

Performed as soloist a couple of times with my choir. I don't think I'm at the same level yet as the best voices in the group, but I do think I am getting my foot in the door on the regular soloist roster.

Sang the A above the staff in public, by myself, more than once. This was during the recitals and concerts above. Not exactly an earth-shattering achievement for a soprano, but look, it is for me!!! We have to celebrate the small victories!!! B-flat, here I come!!!

Sang the Fauré requiem for a benefit concert and recruited a bunch of singers for same. The woman who organized the concert did it to celebrate her 50th birthday!

Sang some choral music at a concert at Stanford to commemorate the centennial birthday of Armenian-American author William Saroyan. Got a very fancy free catered dinner out of it, too. Mmmm, will sing for food...

Went to the Stanford Messiah Sing- and Play-Along for the umpteenth year. This is a favorite holiday tradition of mine. Each year, we try to go with a bunch of friends and get together beforehand for coffee/dinner. This year, we managed to assemble a bunch of Sugar Daddy's violin-playing friends to attend with us.

Watched and listened to more opera recordings!

Stravinsky - Rake's Progress
Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro
Bizet - Carmen
Puccini - Madama Butterfly
Wagner - Das Rheingold, Tristan und Isolde
Massenet - Werther


Started my own business doing freelance Drupal/PHP website development for nonprofits! Scared about whether this will be financially viable in the long run - but I have to try.

Took on the Diabetes Society in San Jose as a pro-bono client, to build my portfolio. Did tons of work to convert their website to Drupal - and learned a crapload about Drupal in the process. Successfully launched their new Drupal website a couple weeks ago! Hurrah!

Created a website for a book launch, also on a volunteer basis. The book is Your Money or Your Life. It's a personal finance book, but not of the get-rich-quick variety. Rather, it's about living within your means, asking yourself "how much is enough", and becoming financially liberated enough to do values-based work regardless of pay.

Found out through the grapevine that the nonprofit where I wanted to work so badly a couple of years ago is now in the midst of an identity crisis and organizational meltdown. When I couldn't get a job there, it was bitterly disappointing at the time. But now it looks like the universe is looking out for me in mysterious ways. Nevertheless, it's still a bit heartbreaking because they were doing fabulous work.

Met with a nonprofit in East Palo Alto that does youth technology training, to discuss how Drupal could fit into their program. Judging from our discussion, I think it will be ambitious for them, but I am willing to give them some mentorship and coaching so they can give it a shot. I'm going to have to be very careful to set boundaries with them. They are sending out a lot of neediness vibes (which is not uncommon with small nonprofits) and I am learning the hard way that boundaries are needed in order to work positively and productively with such groups without getting sucked dry.

Attended my first Bay Area Drupal Camp (BADCamp). This is an amazing event. It's shocking what a high-quality conference this is, considering that it's FREE and sustained entirely by volunteers and a few very-low-key sponsorships. I've been to conferences that charged good money and didn't hold a candle to BADCamp.

Also attended the Nonprofit Software Development Summit. This is another amazing event, conducted in "unconference" style. The emphasis is not on "keynote speakers" and other expert muck-a-mucks handing down their knowledge from the podium. It's more about assembling an amazing mix of attendees and then throwing them together in various small-group formats to talk about topics of common interest and share expertise among themselves. Everyone gets to be an expert (and schedule a session if they want), and everyone gets to be a learner. And the event organizers put a lot of effort into getting a good mix of participants - one of them even said "we keep the jerks out". Ha ha. Truly, the strength of this event is not so much the sessions as it is the people. This is the place to go to meet technologists who are doing brilliant things for the social good, and tap into their knowledge and professional networks.

Had a meeting with World Centric, a sustainability organization in Palo Alto, to discuss a new position they are creating that will involve website development, content management, and writing. There are potentially a lot of good fits for me here. I also have to say that it is exciting to be approached about a job because the people hiring specifically have you in mind for the job. I am motivated to make this work - we'll see if we can hammer out the details and come to agreement on a work arrangement where I can put my special talents and strengths to work for them while still being able to maintain my own work/life balance.


Santa Barbara - spent time last summer with my best friend, her husband, and her two adorable terror-children!

Detroit - also last summer, we and the in-laws flew to Detroit to visit Sugar Daddy's aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandmother.

Tahoe National Forest - A Fourth-of-July camping trip with the in-laws. Lots of hiking and exploring. It's sooo nice on Fourth-of-July weekend to enjoy the beauty of the Sierras without the crowds!!!

Other Stuff

Took a tour of Far West Fungi's mushroom farm in Moss Landing, organized by Slow Food Santa Cruz in conjunction with MSSF. This was all-around fun. For a nominal tour fee of just $5/person, we got to see their fascinating mushroom farm operations, enjoy the beautiful coastal landscape of Moss Landing, and then eat a fabulous potluck lunch afterwards, to which the mushroom farmers contributed a generous amount of their harvest. I highly recommend any potluck that involves Slow Food people. Those people know how to cook! Sugar Daddy had to roll me out to the car afterwards.

Successfully crashed the San Francisco watershed mushroom foray. Signups filled up really early, but we just showed up on the day and were permitted to join. This foray is of particular interest because the area is so pristine and there are certain edible mushrooms known to be in the vicinity. I can't go into further detail or else I would have to kill you.

Went mushroom hunting at Salt Point for the first time. I have to say that six hours of driving and four hours of hiking yielded just a few spoonfuls of mushrooms! It's partly due to our lack of familiarity with the area and lack of experience hunting for boletes, but also the weather has been really poor this winter for mushrooms, with little rain. On a more positive note, we did get to try a few new mushrooms from this trip - slippery jacks, a Queen Bolete (delicious - never tasted anything like that before), and some oyster mushrooms (I've bought oysters and grown my own, but this is the first time I've gotten them from the wild).

Went to Calstar again in the fall - this was Sugar Daddy's first time at Calstar with his new astrophotography equipment. He was really excited and obsessed about it! You can see his photos here, and I've included one of the Dumbbell Nebula below. What's really impressive to me is that he gets these photos with low-budget equipment. Amateur astronomers can spend thousands and even tens of thousands on photography equipment and telescope equipment, but his setup is more in the hundreds range.

Well, that's the big update for now. I can't promise that future blogging won't be spotty or have more unplanned hiatuses - gotta go with the flow of life sometimes! Let's just keep our fingers crossed.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Opera at the Ballpark

One fun thing we did last month was attend Opera at the Ballpark. It was a LOT of fun, and scored high on the Fun Cheap Date scale. This is basically a simulcast of the live opera performance, on the Jumbotron in the SF ballpark. The opera being performed was Lucia di Lammermoor. The event is free, so all we paid for was the train tickets to get up to the city.

Thousands of people attend. We arrived early, and the throng, I mean line, was already wrapped around the ballpark. The afternoon was borderline scorching, too, but Sugar Daddy (a prince among men) fetched me an milkshake from the ice cream place down the street, while I held our place in line. Strangely, despite the massive crowds, we happened to run into a couple of friends, V. and M., while standing in line.

Even though the line was long, we scored a primo spot on the baseball field and spread out our picnic blanket. Dinner was a picnic of sandwiches (free, courtesy of a Panera Bread gift card), a salad of field greens, chips and dip, fresh strawberries, cherries, and chocolate. Yum.

The late-night weather was perfect - pleasantly mild, which is almost unheard of in that part of the city, even in summer.

I enjoyed the show. Sound quality was surprisingly good for an outdoor music event.

We headed home on the train. I broke out a pack of playing cards for a friendly game of rummy on the slow ride back. Strange coincidence #2: we ran into two more friends, J. and A., on the train. They were returning home from a different event.

All in all, an awesome date and I would do it again. Here is a fun YouTube video that someone posted that captures the Opera at the Ballpark experience quite nicely.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Jazz is not dead

We just went to the student performances for the Stanford Jazz Workshop and it was exciting. They had three different stages with various combos playing at different times. Ages varied from middle school to high school; skill levels varied too. Some kids were good for their age; many were just plain good.

Performances ranged from young'uns getting started playing basic riffs on a blues progression, to older ones delving into tunes with a high level of harmonic and melodic complexity. It's exciting to see the advanced students trying out a broader palette of tone colors, dynamics, phrasing, interaction with their fellow ensemble members, etc.

The rhythm sections were surprisingly strong across the board. I don't know if that was by design or because the slots for those instruments were especially competitive. But it worked out really well, because the rhythm sections served an important function in keeping everything together during those times when individual student soloists weren't totally secure. I saw teen and pre-teen bassists and drummers who were pretty damn solid, and I'd be glad to have them back me up. And some of the

Some of the workshop faculty are quite inspired and inventive. One of them brought a troop of 15 violinists and a cello onto the stage. I half-expected a group "Twinkle Twinkle" a la Suzuki, but instead, he led them in this jam in which all of the players simultaneously improvised at a level at which they were comfortable, yet the end result sounded fascinating.

The whole event reminded me that I've been doing too much left-brained stuff lately and need to do some more right-brained activities. Perhaps more music listening, exposing myself to genres I don't listen to often, more music playing.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Update on blogger position

Some sad news - I didn't get an interview for the blogger job. They had more than 1000 applicants and fewer than 50 interview slots! Thanks to all of my friends who supported me, though, especially those who wrote recommendations. Your support is greatly appreciated, and I will probably tap it again!

May and beginning of June have been a particularly busy time for me. I will be posting an update on my recent activities.

Conversations with a non-profit technology co-op member

I just spoke to T., a developer and project manager at a tech co-op that serves non-profit organizations. He was kind enough to chat with me on the phone and share a lot of helpful info about his own experiences and career path as an NP techie. They are a small org that does websites and web apps for NP's and do a lot with Drupal and CivicSpace. I have a fair amount interest in working in a similar setting and with those technologies, so I listened eagerly to his perspectives.

Background of T. and of co-op

Recent college grad; active in campus activism/volunteerism; changed tracks from for-profit to non-profit in final semester

Career path: NP web guy -> Americorps IT consulting -> met members of the co-op

Spent 1.5 years as freelancer/loosely affiliated w/co-op

Co-op decided to specialize in web apps/web presence (rather than any tech-related project under the sun)

Currently has 7 full-time employees, with insurance! W-2 instead of 1099 forms!

Only a few similarly-structured co-ops nationally. Hillsborough something on East Coast?

Work environment

Tight-knit team - like a web start-up - friends outside of work, too

True co-op style - they try to keep the organizational structure as horizontal as possible

Totally virtual - most are generally in the same area of the country, but a couple of them are far afield

However, this can make management and HR decisions difficult, esp. w.r.t. performance evaluation

Also can be tough to get decisions made, get things done w/this kind of structure

Members fall into different philosophical camps: 1) business-focused: emphasize the sustainability of the business when choosing clients/projects and making decisions, 2) Idealists/idealogues (two flavors: the open-source/tech idealists, and the cause/mission idealists)

The art of client selection: evaluate them for their mission (do you want to support it), organizational readiness

Resist the urge not to bill hours (in the heat of enthusiasm about a cause or project!)

Quality vs. price - ugly reality is that there's not always the time or budget to follow software best practices. Have to be strategic about designing and testing the software. More often than not, can't build the elegant/reusable software solution, and can't do a lot of testing.

Co-op bills at $75/hour

It's an unusual niche that has its challenges. They want to be able to continue serving small orgs; however, they also want to be competitive for larger projects, especially when they're bidding against for-profit firms that charge 3x but also have 3x the resources (and can thus do 3x the work, or do the same work 3x as fast)

Co-op is transitioning into more of a sustainable business venture rather than a network of loose affiliates. Has been evolving in this direction for the past couple years. Have hired full-time staff and seem to be at the take-off point.


Non-profit sector mythbusters:

Myth: "People in NP will all be working for good, all the time. People in the corporate are all about the money."
Reality: There are people in NP for whom it's just a job they do for $$$. Conversely there do exist corporate folks who care (as my own experience bears out).

Myth: "NP budgets may be smaller, but their timelines are more flexible, so I will have more opportunity to write good software."
Reality: Budgets are definitely smaller, but timelines are not very flexible!

Put foot down for including testing as part of the dev cycle for large projects (well above & beyond a McWebsite). Been burned before.

McWebsites: Basic web presence for $1500-$5000. Includes informal/free support (fortunately this is not abused because they have a good, informal, open relationship w/clients and can turn around and say "hey, that's more support than we can offer w/o doing a new engagement".)

Advice on freelancing, work-life balance

Have a contract! This is a no-brainer, but T. has been burned before!

Beware of having too little or too much motivation. Need to bill enough hours to eat! But, since your home IS your office, it's also possible to be "at work" 24/7! E.g. T. sometimes bills 60-80 hours on busiest weeks, translates to 80-100 hours actually in front of the computer!

On a related note, myth of billable hours: if you are billing 40-50 hours/week, you are actually working more hours than that! Maintaining your business and dealing w/the business side of things, finding new clients, etc.

Many freelancers/co-op members also still volunteer for their causes of choice. This can keep you very busy! - good tool for tracking hours

Desirable skills for NP techies

If you already have tech skills, look to building project management skills. There are a lot of code jockeys out there for the NP sector to draw on. What's in short supply is people with management/PM skills who can serve the NP sector. Problem is the pay and also the career advancement (you top out in a couple years). People with these skills are desperately needed.

Soft skills

Ability to work on the NP's organization processes

T.'s co-op looks for these skills when evaluating candidates for hire.

Project management

Kitchen-sink RFPs for <$5K "champagne on a beer budget" - these are common!

Response: Do a needs assessment engagement. Deliverables are a project spec and a brief. Client is under no obligation to engage the co-op for the development stage - they are invited to shop it around. The brief is written with a target audience of grantmakers - often, the briefs are dropped straight into the grant proposal. This is valuable because often the RFP authors are not that tech-savvy and benefit from having someone with technical knowledge write the brief for their grant proposal. The client may receive the grant and often they come back to the co-op work for the dev work too.

Walk the client through the website process. Use mock-ups (easy w/Drupal). Repeat back to them what they just said.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Frugal green blogs; blogger position

Well, after much typing and sweat, I've submitted my application for the blogger position. It was a good excuse to update my resume, which I've been meaning to do for a while.

While drafting the application, I decided to do some reconnaissance on blogs that are green and frugal, since that's what I'm proposing to There are not as many blogs on that topic as there are on, say, politics or the general green movement. But still, there is quite a community of bloggers on the subject:

A more green and simple life: saving money
Budget Hippies
Cheap and Green
Consciously Frugal
Cranberryfrog: Simple Living
Crunchy Chicken
Frugal and Green
Frugal Fu
Frugal Nuts are Green
Going Green
Green Boot Camp
Green Living | Wise Bread
Green Minded Wallet
Green Simple Frugal
Healthy, Green and Frugal
Living Cheap and Green
Living Green Below Your Means - v 1.0
Living Green Below Your Means - v 2.0
No Impact Man
Organically Inclined: The how-to journal for simpler, greener and cheaper living
Simple - Green - Frugal
The Greening of Gavin
The Greening Tree
The Lean Green Family

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Green career counselors

Met P. for dinner at Hobee's last Thursday - yum. She recommended two green career counselors:

Marie Kerpan - founder of Green Careers - based in Marin

Three Month Visa Coaching and Consulting - based in SF
Life and Career Coaching - Life Sabbaticals - Long-term Travel