This is a bit of a departure from my usual newsletter. Every time I write, there is a personal lens of my experiences, conversations, and discoveries that I bring to these essays. But today is my birthday and there are some things not in the usual vein of tech trends, engineering principles, developer culture, coding practices, and organizational efficiency that I hope you will indulge me in sharing.
I have to state that this year was not hard for me in the way it was for many others. I was very fortune and blessed to not be touched by the pandemic in any significant way, but that blessing does weigh in on my thinking. So many passed away or lost jobs or closed businesses over the past year. I hope and pray that we recover soon though as vaccines start to turn the course of the pandemic and we can come to a place where we can confidently explore, build, and grow again.
Thinking back to this month, March, a year ago, the world looked just as it always did. The warning signs were there that a full scale pandemic was about to hit the US, but it looked like something that was happening elsewhere far away. I remember being in a CVS the morning of DevOpsDays NYC 2020 to pick up some supplies and a security guard was mocking the lady at the register for wearing a blue surgical mask. Though the DevOpsDays team had plenty of hand sanitizer and put in place other precautions, the event proceeded as it always had with lots of people congregating, greeting each other, and with conversations flowing in small and large groups. It was a successful event, but we could not help but wonder if this might be the last DevOpsDays for awhile as organizers around the world were cancelling their events.
I hopped on a plane to Singapore right after DevOpsDays. I had already left Stack Overflow, had launched a company in Singapore called DEVBIZOPS, and was also actively interviewing at AWS for a role in Singapore. What I did not realize was just how fast the pandemic had spread. Soon after landing in Singapore, COVID was dominating the news, and the reports out of NYC were increasingly terrifying. NYC and soon the entire tri-state area were in lockdowns, as were cities like San Francisco and Seattle.
Singapore appeared to be an oasis of calm where life proceeded as it had always done. I vividly remember running in the Botanic Gardens one weekend morning, noting how many people were out and how busy the restaurants were serving the brunch crowd. My plan was to secure the offer from AWS and as quickly as possible move my family to what seemed like the only non-chaotic spot in a world overtaken by the grip of a massively contagious virus.
Life in Singapore was definitely not normal however. Social distancing was becoming the norm, as were temperature checks at every building. Everyone was working from home and very few in person meetings were happening. My whole interview loop was done remotely and I never had a single meeting in the Singapore office. I spent most of my time in my hotel lounge doing video calls, catching up on reading, and going over to BLOCK71 to help a startup I was advising. It also gave me a chance to catch up with some dear friends who were kind enough to throw a birthday celebration for me.
When I finally received received the offer from AWS on March 23, I was relieved. The start date was set for late April. This meant quickly scrambling to get things sorted out with immigration between now and then so I could bring my family over. I considered staying in Singapore, but by that week, the situation in the US was even more dire. That week news hit that all entertainment venues would be shutdown. Venues were taping off areas to enforce social distancing. I had a sense that the peaceful sense of control and calm in Singapore was about to abruptly end. It did a week later with the circuit breaker and a complete lockdown of the country for two months.
I swapped my flight originally booked for April for a flight on March 26th to head back to the US. Little did I know that it would be last flight United would operate between Singapore and the US. The flight was full of United crew being transported back to the US to ride out the pandemic.
I arrived back in the US to a ghost town. No one was out. Where I live in NJ, there were almost no cars on the road. Everything except basic services like supermarkets and pharmacies were shut. Still I was glad to be back home with my family and that they were all safe and healthy.
Eventually the job at AWS was sorted out and I started a couple of months later. I was especially thankful for Matt Fitzgerald and Mackenzie Kosut for pulling all the strings inside AWS to make that happen, not an easy feat with a massive organization that was transitioning to all remote. So the plan was to start my career at AWS in the US and doing the best I could to support my colleagues in Asia-Pacific.
So what do I do at AWS? I get that question quite a bit, especially since I have mostly been in sales roles when I am not wearing my entrepreneur hat on to start crazy ventures. I am not in sales this time though, but I’m in a role that works very closely with sales and business development under the marketing organization in a realm of field marketing called advocacy.
I am a Principal Startup Advocate so I work with startup founders, investors, and folks in the startup ecosystem throughout Asia-Pacific & Japan. I speak at events as well as build and support programs to help startup founders understand how AWS helps them build and scale. Some recent programs I have worked on include the B2B Growth Bootcamp with HubSpot, a blog series on B2B Sales for Startup Founders, and talks about startup and developer related topics like my developer community talk at STACK 2020. My next event in fact is coming up March 24th, a panel discussion on customer engagement tech stacks at GROWTHAsia 2021.
Speaking of programs, I’ve been busy on a few side projects. I published a book called Community-in-a-Box about building communities, drawing on my work at Stack Overflow, building the Enterprise Sales Forum, and helping folks start communities of their own. I am also experimenting with Clubhouse and launched the AWS Startups club (let me know if you want an invite). I am also an active LinkedIn user, so I built a tool to improve engagement of posts called LinkedIn Hashtags.
In the year since my last birthday, what does the future hold? I see a lot of hope as the world emerges from COVID. Startups did not die en masse. Companies by and large did not crumble. Many systems were tested, but did not fold. Even in the worst of the pandemic, the world continued to move ahead and even innovate in ways not expected before the pandemic.
From my vantage point of startups, it was incredible to see the pace of innovation. Being forced to work remotely was a forcing function that taught us to rethink how we work and to build solutions for thriving in a virtual world. The conversation about community accelerated as people sought other ways to connect, build relationships, and collaborate. The speed of adoption of AI and machine learning also quickened as more of the complexity of the technology is made available as ready made AI services offered by cloud providers like AWS.
These trends are happening globally as well. The expansion and growth of thriving and self-sustaining startup ecosystems in places like Vietnam and Indonesia is what led me to first explore the region a few years back when I was at Stack Overflow. In fact, every industry sector and type of organization from enterprise to government, are accelerating their transformation to become faster, more customer focused, and more efficient in the process. COVID simply accelerated that trend.
As optimistic for the future as I am, it is also important to acknowledge that not everyone will emerge better off post-COVID. Many jobs and businesses lost will not come back. The emotional and financial toil are not so easily wiped clean. For those of us left relatively unscarred, it is important that we help those that were and continue to be affected. This means we dig down into that well of empathy and help with jobs opportunities, mentoring, and support. Even a listening and empathic ear can help those overwhelmed by the emotional and mental weariness that has built over the past year. And if that is you, please do let me know and I will do what I can to help.
So what does all this mean for me and my journey as I look ahead to another turn around the sun? Well, my birthday is March 18th, so first up is a quiet celebration with family. I am continuing to publish my weekly newsletters, the Enterprise Sales Forum for B2B sales professionals and DEVBIZOPS for engineering leadership & culture topics. And in some very exciting news, I learned that my work visa for Singapore has been approved and I can officially move to Singapore, targeting late April ✈️, to dig into the work I set out to do as the Startup Advocate for the region!
I would love to hear from you and how you are doing. Feel free to send me a note with a time to chat and catch up. Also let’s connect over LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or Clubhouse if we are not yet connected there.
Thanks as always for reading and do stay in touch!
Mark Birch, Editor & Founder of DEV.BIZ.OPS
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