Thursday, May 31, 2007

Comparing notes with others on The Great Escape

A couple weeks back I had lunch with P. She is currently working, but is also devising an exit strategy for leaving corporate life behind and finding work that is more in tune with her environmental values.

Among other things, we discussed possible points of conflict between idealism and reality. Two potential areas that I see are personal finance/income (unsurprisingly) and internal politics/bureaucracy within a non-profit.

We also talked about a couple of annual events that might educate us further about the non-profit sector: CompassPoint Nonprofit Day on July 12 in San Francisco, and the Craigslist Foundation's Nonprofit Boot Camp on August 18 in Berkeley.

We also threw around the idea of making a field trip to the Ecology Center in Berkeley.

P. has already done some research into the non-profit sector as well as some informational interviews. I'd like to pick her brain in the future about what she learned and what kind of questions she asked.

One big benefit of broadcasting my plans to everyone I know is that I find other birds-of-a-feather who have similar plans, like P. Often, these people might be at a slightly different stage of the journey, and it's fun and informative to compare notes and give and receive advice about the lessons learned on the way. It's also reassuring to know that I'm not the only one travelling this road. It would be neat to start a Silicon Valley Escapees Directory for networking with people who have made or want to make the transition from corporate high-tech into whatever life/career path they find more meaningful and balanced. But I guess I'll put that project somewhere on my list of 10,000 Projects That Would Be Neat To Do :)

My current music playlist and reading list

Recordings checked out from the library:

Bach Magnificat. We are performing it this Christmas, and I want to learn all of the soprano solos so I can audition.

If You Love Me: 18th-century Italian Songs, Cecilia Bartoli. Has some of the songs from the Twenty Six Italian Songs and Arias book I'm using for voice lessons.

Rutter Requiem (performed by the Cambridge Singers and conducted by the composer). We're performing this in a week and a half!

The Ultimate Puccini Divas - a compilation of various women singing Puccini arias. Got curious about Puccini after hearing some at the SCU masterclasses, and am discovering how much I enjoy his writing.

I need to identify some good sopranos to listen to as role models. I have a couple of recordings of baritones that I like, but I need to find women. My previous teacher mentioned Joan Sutherland's early stuff, and Dawn Upshaw. I'm not really tapped into the opera or pro singing worlds, so I need to find out who are the world-class singers of the past and present who are well-respected not just by audiences by also by the ranks of professional singers and teachers.

On the reading pile:

Still working through The Choral Experience: Literature, Materials, and Methods. So far I find it to be an interesting survey text aimed at the beginning choral conductor (or morbidly curious choristers, like me).

I read through parts of A Jazz Improvisation Primer and also the first lesson at There is an awful lot of music theory to absorb and to try to put into practice. But both sites had essentially the same advice about what a beginner's first step should be: learn to play the ii-V-I chord progression in all twelve keys. Argh, that'll keep me busy for a while!!! I've added it to my practice routine, right after the scale-of-the-day.

(On a side note: I also read a bunch of plant field guides because I would like to be able to identify more plants when hiking in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But I didn't find any guides that I was entirely happy with. Also, I'm accompanying Sugar Daddy on a combination business/vacation trip to Australia in July, so we checked out some guidebooks to do trip planning.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Piano progress

I feel like my piano skills are gradually improving. I started with Schaum Book D (Orange Book) and book 3 of the Dozen a Day series. That’s about the skill level where I was when I quit piano at the age of 12. Here’s where I’ve gotten so far:

Schaum Book D: #9 “Two Military Heros” (easy medley arrangement of marches by Strauss and Berlioz)
Dozen a Day: Group I, Exercise #11 (yay! almost through the first dozen.)

It’s silly but fun to play from the kiddie books. Anyhow, no matter what you’re age, if you’re a beginner, you just have to start from where you are!

Voice lesson #4

I feel like I’ve overcome my first hurdle. At my last lesson on Tuesday, my teacher said that I had made a leap of progress since the previous lesson. Validation is always nice, especially after having felt a bit frustrated/stuck/lost for the first few lessons.

Better yet, I get to move on to a new song. (I was getting sick of the first one.) I can choose from “Sento nel core” by Scarlatti, “Come raggio di sol” by Caldara, and “O del mio dolce ardor” by Gluck. I’ll do the second one.

It seems like one challenging part of a voice teacher’s job is to be able to persuade a student to make technique changes that seem counterintuitive (at least to the student) but that are right on the money. The corresponding challenge for me as a student is to become more open-minded and willing to explore and try new things, even if I don’t sound good the first time I do them.

My choir is performing the Bach Magnificat this winter, along with other works by Bach & sons. I’d like to audition for all of the solos, so I’m going to start learning them and maybe run them by my teacher later on. Especially “Quia respexit” which he thought might be suitable for me.

I’ve also been looking at “Non so piu cosa son” from Le nozze di Figaro, but purely for fun, it’s not something I’m actually ready for.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The big three-oh is here

Well, here I am, on the other side of three-oh as of Monday.

We had a nice celebration over the weekend. We headed up to Oakland on Sunday and Sugar Daddy took me to dinner at New World Vegetarian and a show at Yoshi's with jazz violinist Regina Carter. I've always wanted to go to Yoshi's, and my experience did not disappoint.

Monday night, I got outed at choir rehearsal and was treated to a big choral rendition of "Happy Birthday". When I got home from rehearsal, the Dark Chocolate Curl Torte from Margaret's French Bakery, pictured at left, was waiting for me. YUM!!!

The first thirty years of my life have been good ones, and I hope that the next thirty years will be just as good.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Advice from others on software contracting: setting rates, getting started

Following up on my earlier post, I asked around about how to get set up as a software contractor and what hourly rate to charge my non-profit customer. Here's a summary of what people have told me so far.

  • Non-profit tech salaries seem to range from 1/2-3/4 of corporate salaries; not sure if this also applies to contractor rates?
  • Check out local professional organizations in the field
  • Try calling other contractors or checking their websites for rate quotes
  • Get a contract that states work terms, including terms for invoicing and payment
  • Not all companies require contractors to be incorporated or hold general insurance; may depend on industry
  • If contracting for the long term, outline an informal business plan - target market, competition, how you fit in
  • Keep expense records for Schedule C, including mileage and home-office expenses
  • Need to pay quarterly estimated taxes
  • Your city may require a business license if you work in your home (rented/owned)
  • May be helpful to consult a lawyer/accountant about permits, licenses, insurance, planning/setting up books

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Happy, healthy attitudes about prioritizing your time and life

For people who share my weakness of overcommitting and cluttering up my schedule (even if it's with activities I love) - here are some brief bits of inspiration to help stay focused on the important stuff, without becoming too rigid/narrow/single-minded:

Jeri's Organizing & Decluttering News: Doing What I Should Be Doing

Voice lesson #3

Ok, the voice lesson thing is turning out harder than I expected. I’m having trouble getting the kind of sound my teacher is asking for. Sometimes I get it, but 1) I don’t know what I’m doing to get that sound, and 2) I can’t hear a heck of a lot of difference between the desired sound and my usual sound.

I think I need to stop being so Type A and expecting instant results after only three lessons. I will just relax, continue practicing diligently, enjoy the process, and approach it as an exploration of how my voice works. In time we will discover how to get there! Hopefully before I get entirely sick of “Lasciatemi morire”! :-)

Recent music-related reading/listening, plus a postscript from Africa

Stuff I've finished:
  • Conducting Choral Music (Robert L. Garretson) - interestingly, this covers not only the basic artistic aspects of choral conducting, but also has some chapters that read like a survival guide for choral directors in the primary/secondary school system
  • Choral Music: History, Style, and Performance Practice (Robert L. Garretson) - a decent survey of the history and musical interpretation of choral music
  • The Modern Conductor (Elizabeth A. Green and Mark Gibson) - mostly skimmed this out of curiosity; if I do any detailed reading/study on conducting, I'll save it for later
  • A couple of recordings of works by Stravinsky and John Corigliano
Stuff I'm reading/listening to now:
  • Recording + score of The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)
  • Recording of Don Giovanni (Mozart)
    An opera guide book about The Magic Flute
  • The Choral Experience: Literature, Materials, and Methods (Ray Robinson and Allen Winold)
Listening to the students in the SCU Art Song Festival inspired me to check out the Mozart operas. I'm going to try to get familiar with some of the arias that the students sang.

Concerts I've been to lately:
  • The Stanford Invitational Choral Festival last Friday. For anyone who is into choral music, this is an amazing event to attend. The groups range from high school to pro, and many of them will knock your socks off. And it's free!!!
And now the postscript from Africa: I caught a couple of NPR stories last week that I could relate to, a little bit: Surviving on about $1 a day and Being 'rich' in a poor land. The second story especially resonated with my Ghana experience. It's about the reporter's culture shock and discomfort when he temporarily relocated to Mali and suddenly became a member of the ultra-rich class, after living a middle-class life in L.A. The eye-catching title of the second story exemplifies (to me) how media coverage of Africa can be somewhat distorted and not tell the whole story. $1/day seems horrifyingly pathetic to us Americans, but the cost of living there is drastically lower - where I was stationed, a school lunch costs 10 cents, as does a big bag of fresh, hot bofrot (they're like donut holes). A van ride is 30 cents and will take you pretty far (although the van is most likely falling apart). A steak dinner at a four-star hotel with all the fixings runs about $8.

Also, I dislike how the media sometimes portrays the entire African populace as a mob of constantly-warring, disease-afflicted, rag-clad beggars. This is an affront to their dignity. I met a lot of people during my short visit, including some hostile/shady/pathetic characters, but I also met people who were intelligent, caring, generous, funny, and hardworking. People like them live their lives as best they can, difficult as those lives are, and still maintain their sense of dignity, kindness, and joy.

This is not to romanticize conditions there - not in the least. The standard of living is drastically lower, and there is real hardship and need, especially in the areas of health care, public infrastructure, economic security, and education (based on my brief first-hand observations). I saw people who could not afford the 10-cent lunch for their child.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Non-profit position at World Centric

Noted for future reference - a job listing for a local non-profit.

Job Opening - Customer Service & Outreach

World Centric has an immediate opening for a Customer Service & Outreach Associate. We are looking for someone who shares our values and is committed to environmental and social change and feels passionate about making a difference in the world.

The person will be the customer face of World Centric and have a strong customer focus together with a strong awareness of environmental and social issues. The person will handle incoming calls/emails and reach out to potential users of the biodegradable products and provide a broad environmental and social context in their interactions.

Duties include:
  • Interact with customers answer incoming calls and email inquiries, determine requirements and fulfill requests in a enthusiastic, courteous, accurate and knowledgeable manner
  • Reach out to potential users of biodegradable products, follow up on leads, send samples and other required information
  • Interact with various city, county and waste agencies for determining existing and future efforts in place for collecting food waste and compostable products.
  • Maintain and monitor customer call database and follow up as needed.
  • Liaise regularly with existing customers about their ongoing needs.
  • Take orders on phone/email/fax, monitor shopping cart orders and work closely with office manager to create invoices, calculate shipping options and send them to shipping dept. for fulfillment.
  • Monitor fulfillment of orders via UPS, FedEx, USPS and other freight companies

Knowledge and skills:
  • Excellent customer service skills with ability to use judgment and tact with customers
  • Professional and at ease interacting with large customer accounts and stakeholders.
  • Excellent telephone, verbal and written skills
  • Familiarity with Quick Books, MS Office Word and Excel
    Well organized and able to work independently
  • Ability to multitask and work in a fast paced and changing environment.
  • Strong interpersonal skills, flexible, enthusiastic and easy to get along with.
  • Good computer skills and at ease with learning new software systems as required.

Compensation is $30,000-$36,000/yr, based on experience with 3 weeks of combined vacation/sick leave. We hope to be able to have a benefits package soon. The job currently requires a 40 hr per week time commitment. The position is currently in Palo Alto, but we are looking for new office space and job location may change in the near future.

Please send a cover letter, resume and references to

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Talked to New Dream's IT guy; things are looking good

I just got off the call with J., New Dream's IT guy, and things are looking positive and promising. I made some notes on the call below. My general impression was that they appreciate and value what I've done for them so far as a member/volunteer, and they think I have a lot to offer them, so it's just a matter of putting together a plan and hammering out the details of what exactly I would work on and what kind of a work arrangement they can offer.

Status of their web development projects:
  • Responsible Purchasing Network: almost done
  • Alternative Gift Registry: contracted out; almost done
  • Conscious Consumer: In planning/progress. New content will be added, including a major section on climate and New Dream's carbon initiative. There will be information about institutional purchasing as well as for individual consumers. The institutional part will mostly redirect to RPN, but Conscious Consumer will host some additional supporting information. Also, Conscious Consumer will be more interactive/crowdsourced, with users posting product reviews and info on where to find products locally. (I think this dovetails well with their Local Buying Guides initiative.)
  • Main website: Reorganization of site content/navigation plus new UI skin are in progress, due to be completed in the near-term. Enhancements to the interactive My New Dream section will be an ongoing work-in-progress, with an eye to making the tools more useful to local organizers (better forums, ability to create geographical-/interest-based user groups, etc.).
Questions I asked:
  • What web technologies are used on the website? Mainly PHP, MySQL, XML (drives some of the interactive features), Blueprint, HTML, CSS. Dreamweaver is used, but mainly as an IDE for PHP, not really for WYSIWYG. (I also noted from their website that they use Movable Type for Living Green Below Your Means, some Project Seven stuff, and the Democracy in Action service for the action alerts.)
  • What kinds of web development projects are done in-house? Which are contracted out? Most work is in-house, but time-sensitive projects as well as projects tied to a specific initiative (and specific grant/funding) are often contracted out to firms like EchoDitto and Akti Technologies.
  • Are volunteers ever utilized for website development? Not in the past, since they haven't had volunteers with the appropriate skill set. But they always have plenty of work and would be open to using volunteers in the future. (Note: I prefer to get paid for my work, especially if I will be devoting a significant amount of time to it. But I could see the usefulness/possibility of trying to recruit volunteer web developers on an as-needed basis for large projects. But at the same time, I don't want to undercut myself :)
  • What is the timeline for the web projects? A couple of the project are already almost complete. The main website reorg is due for completion in July, but enhancements to My New Dream will be ongoing, without a set deadline.
  • Who authors most of the website content? Mainly the program staff; J. also contributes some content.
  • Now that you know about my skills/background/interest, what kind of role/position do you see me in, with relation to New Dream? (subtext: what kind of position can you give me and will I get paid? :) Part-time is less likely, it will probably be a contracting arrangement - J. will follow up with me after discussing with the administrative staff.
Questions I answered (although my answers on the phone were not as well put together as below):
  • What kind of position are you looking for, and what is your availability? In the coming year, I am open to arrangements that do not require a full-time time commitment, e.g. part-time, contracting, freelancing. I will be available for full-time work a year from now.
  • Are you planning to get into web development? My goal is to work for New Dream. After talking with others on the staff, web development is the area where I can most easily transition into a role that is of value to the Center, given my background and interests.
  • Do you have a plan for learning the tools/skills needed for website development? Not in detail yet, but tell me more about which tools and technologies your website uses, so I can ramp up on them.
  • Are you interested in working on content, infrastructure, back-end, ...? I'm interested in all of the above.
Other stuff we discussed:
  • I proposed that I could take on a small, limited-scope piece of the current website reorg project (since it will be completed soon), and could also work on the My New Dream part of the website
  • J. felt that with my background, it shouldn't be too hard for me to learn PHP
Follow-up steps:
  • Send a thank-you email to J.
  • J. will follow up with me on Monday
  • J. will send me a draft of their new sitemap - send feedback on it
  • Figure out what hourly rate to charge. Also, find out how to get set up as a software contractor. I'm clueless on these two points; need to do some research and ask around!!!
  • Make a game plan for acquiring the skill set I need
  • Think about when I would want to start and how many hours I would want to work. I want to get my foot in the door, but it is important for me to balance this with my personal projects in the coming year.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Marketing myself to New Dream: the hybrid transitional résumé

In a burst of activity this past weekend, I finished updating my résumé and emailed it to New Dream. I decided to restructure it to appeal more strongly to the non-profit sector and New Dream in particular. So, in addition to updating the technical/professional work experience section, I also added a section describing my activism and volunteer experience. I'm calling it a hybrid transitional résumé because its purpose is to help me change career tracks, and because it combines elements of formal work experience with relevant non-professional experience in the new field.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I need my résumé to play up my strengths enough to overcome my shortcomings (a lack of professional non-profit experience and a skill gap for serious website development). Consequently, here are some thing I tried to highlight in the résumé:
  • Activism/volunteer work:
    • On behalf of New Dream (this has its own section)
    • For other organizations, especially ones working on similar issues
    • Projects/actions that I have started on my own (to demonstrate creativity and ability to take the initiative)
  • Websites I have created or contributed to: Resources for Sustainable Weddings, World Centric, and my Alternative Wish List. (Oops, I noticed that I accidentally left the last one out of my résumé.) I think these will be a real asset on my résumé because the second website is related to New Dream's mission, while the first and third are directly relevant to the Alternative Gift Registry they will be developing this year (hopefully, with my help).
  • I would like the technical part of the résumé to convey a sense of intelligence, competence, commitment, dependability, experience with large/complex/challenging projects, and an ability to learn on the job.
Here is what my updated résumé looks like. I welcome any constructive comments on it.

I have a follow-up call with New Dream's IT guy on Thursday. I have to walk a fine: while I want to present myself as being really eager for this job, and I definitely would take a full-time job with this organization after my year off, I don't want to have my year off completely cut short. My personal projects are important to me and I don't want to be forced to jump back into the full-time workforce prematurely. I think in the near term I am open to a paid contract job of fixed scope. As a last-resort fallback position, I may be willing to work on their web projects on a temporary volunteer basis, if that would sufficient limit my time commitment, or if they really don't think I have the skill set for a paid gig but would let me acquire it as a volunteer. I need to figure out how to get my foot in the door without shooting my year off in the foot, and then negotiate the terms accordingly.

Steps to prepare for the call:
  • Review the Alternative Gift Registry proposal that M. emailed me
  • Look at New Dream's website and try to figure out what software/tools they are using
Questions to ask during the call:
  • What web technologies do you use for the website?
  • What kind of web development projects do you do in-house? What kind of projects do you contract out?
  • Do you ever utilize volunteers for website development?
  • What is the timeline for the Alternative Gift Registry and Conscious Consumer projects?