Pearl Chen

Pearl Chen

Pearl is a technologist and educator with a creative approach to tech. She is a seasoned developer, writer, speaker, and runs tech workshops through her studio, Karma Laboratory. Her recent project, Code Huddle, combines her passion for tech, open source and education.

An interview with Ivonne Karamoy

What was growing up like and how did you get interested in technology?

My parents immigrated when I was ten months old to Regina, Saskatchewan. I grew up with three older brothers and all of us ended up in technology, despite neither of our parents being computer literate. I was the youngest so I had to fight for the things I wanted. That’s probably why I’m good at working in this male-dominated field, because if you want something you have to fight for it.

I was fairly tomboyish; I played sports all through elementary and high school. I played basketball on a co-ed team. I learned that when you want to do something, it shouldn’t matter who you’re doing it with. Just do what you want to do.

We were a stereotypical prairie Chinese family [The Canadian prairies stretch over Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.] We owned a Chinese restaurant. I worked there from when I was twelve. When it wasn’t busy I would read. We had a library half a block away, and if I was interested in something I would clear out that section and read whatever was there. I remember getting a book on BASIC and typing out programs from it. Doing those exercises early on made me realize technology is something you can actually control; you can have it do anything, or make something out of nothing. That was probably the first time I started programming.

Did your family read a lot when you were growing up?

My parents actually wanted me to watch more TV and read less, but I found it pretty good to ignore what they told me to do. I had a great teacher in Grade 6, Mr. Smith. He had a creative writing and reading curriculum that was atypical of most other Grade 6 programs. We read and did creative writing exercises every day with him. Up until that point, it seemed predestined that I was going to be some kind of doctor or scientist, like every typical, Chinese immigrant's dream! The thought of having a creative career didn’t cross my mind until I realized that I was actually a pretty good writer, a creative writer.

I saw in my research you contributed to an Android programming book. How did you come to combine your interests in writing with computing?

I left Regina to go to the University of Ottawa. I started out in marketing but I didn’t like it, so I switched to computer science. Although I loved those classes, I didn’t see myself becoming a computer scientist. So I applied to a Fine Arts program at Ryerson University in Toronto called New Media which was, at that time, part of a department called “Image Arts” and it had a mix of film and photography, along with new media. It focused on interactive art installations, which were fairly new at the time. That meant learning how to use electronics to sense when people were in rooms or to react to people. It was so different from anything else that I knew.

My electronics teacher at that time, Norman White (Ryerson got him to come out of retirement to come and teach), was awesome because he was so good at encouraging people, and he listened. He took my class to the engineering department where they actually had a 3D printer, before 3D printers were all the rage. It was an eye opener to see that this kind of technology existed.

What did you do after you graduated?

I really liked the creative aspect of mixing technology and people, but it was difficult to find a job as an interactive art installation-ist. I had the opportunity to work with a startup that was doing large, Flash web applications. There were only eight people there when I started, so I was doing everything from HTML and CSS to writing content. I once sewed curtains for them [laughs]. If you had some sort of ability and could fill in the gaps, you did.

That was really good for me as a learning experience because I didn’t get pushed into a narrow job description. At night I would still do physical art installations or other projects like that.

You spent some time at the CFC (Canadian Film Centre) Media Lab. How did that come about?

After working at the startup I was looking for a change. And an opportunity came up to go to CFC Media Lab on a full scholarship for a five month intensive post-graduate program. The program brought in experts to teach day or one week sessions with a couple key faculty members. Within two and a half months you were supposed to form a group and execute a prototype.

After that I did a bit of freelance work, and then I returned to the CFC to work full-time as the research and technology manager. I was the point person for technical questions and resources. Students might come to me and say, “I want to make an interactive project with brain reading technology, where do I start?” Then I would help them research it and learn how to build it themselves. If they weren't technically savvy enough to want to do it on their own, or if time was short, then I would either work on their project or hire a contractor and manage them.

Pearl Chen New Media
While at the CFC Media Lab, Pearl was technical lead on several new media installations including this one, entitled Alone Together, which was projected onto the front of the Bata Shoe Museum in downtown Toronto.
You’ve recently started a project called Code Huddle. Tell us about that.

For every new course I want to teach, I have to make the curriculum from scratch. I thought that seemed really stupid. The idea behind Code Huddle is that I can make curriculum material that someone else can remix, or if I have a new course to teach I can remix other people’s material.

It’s a platform for sharing materials and getting analysis and feedback, more or less like GitHub for educators, specifically for technology educators. I’m envisioning Code Huddle as an open source project, so I don’t have an amazing business model around it, but I think people really need it, so I’m going to build it — put it out in the wild and hopefully a lot of people will use it, and something will come of it. I was hoping to have a beta out for people to try early this year, but I started working full-time so I haven’t had a lot of time to focus on side projects.

What are you working on now?

I’m working with Nascent Digital to help TELUS change their corporate culture to more of a startup culture. They created a lab to redesign all of their web properties and this was almost exactly what I was looking for – web development and programming but also team building. From a technology standpoint, I’ve implemented some Lean methodologies, somewhat based on an Agile workflow, and we’re training the other employees to think like a startup and execute on ideas really quickly.

How did you start teaching and why do you do it?

In 2008, Shawn Pucknell who runs FITC events reached out to me and asked if I wanted to teach electronics workshops. I thought, I don’t know what to teach! He said to just pick a project then work on that during the class, so I agreed. My first class was making LED solar lanterns, and I had six people turn up. It was basic electronics. I actually hired one of those students a year later.

I see a lot of companies nowadays searching for skilled programmers. I think it’s okay to look for someone junior-ish as long as they’re willing to learn. It should really be up to the company to figure out what their educational program is, whether that means sending them to conferences or classes or having internal classes like lunch n' learns. Companies have to have a good infrastructure for on-boarding people and helping mentor and train them.

That's why I do a lot of this public speaking and training. If three years from now I wanted to start a company doing interactive projects, I'll have a fleet of people that I've worked with or taught in my classes who I know are eager to learn and who I can reach out to. It's an investment versus something that I do for fun.

I also like doing in-person workshops because the reaction I get from people who are trying to learn is so wonderful. I like converting people who think they couldn't do something into people who now think they can.

A lot of technologists focus on one area, be it front-end development or hardware, but you seem to know and do a lot of things. How do you manage all of that?

Yeah, I'm into a lot of things. Part of that may be that a lot of technology doesn't exist for very long. When I was programming with Flash – and everyone kind of knows what the story is with Flash – I realized that the web was moving away from it and that I really should get back to see what was happening with JavaScript.

For some time, Flash was building robust things and JavaScript was learning what it was and what people can do with it. Flash ActionScript 2 and JavaScript have similar backgrounds but the way people use it is different. It wasn't until a few people discovered key things about JavaScript that the language became powerful. That made me focus on web front-end dev – HTML, CSS and JavaScript – instead of Flash.

I did some PHP and database programming too because when you want to execute an idea, and it's not too complex, you can do everything from the front-end to the back-end. It's nice to be a full-stack developer. Nowadays it's easier because you can actually create a database with JavaScript using MongoDB, and then the backend or the server can be Node.js. It's becoming easier to do it all just knowing Javascript.

I know Java. I know nothing about Ruby, and I know only slightly more than nothing about Python. People think I have a lot more experience because I have this other hardware background, but it comes down to hands-on experience. Anyone could have the experience if they spent a weekend to learn some of these things, but most people are busy. Maybe having the time to learn these new tools is what seems impressive.

Do you have much mobile development experience?

I have very niche knowledge of Android from the external hardware integration side. That includes NFC [Near Field Communication], which is about interacting with things in the real world, and Arduino, which combines my previous electronics background. I can only do some specific things with Android development. For example, I could integrate a web app with Android, or I could tell you best practices about working with NFC.

It comes down to the project. Mobile makes sense for certain things that are fully immersive, like games, but I think the web has more to offer than native mobile development. Most apps are opened once or twice and never opened ever again, so why put that time in? That's probably why I don't do a lot of mobile development.

Pearl’s home studio is filled with knick-knacks and hardware from Arduino kits to LED lights and circuit boards to Android Robots.
Your Google+ account, where you are pretty active, says you are an Android enthusiast. Do you have a conscious preference toward open products as opposed to proprietary?

When Android started off I liked it because it was the first open source mobile operating that had mass appeal. Each application can execute what they call an Android intent, and that’s how apps message each other, internally or externally. For example, if I have a twitter application and there is a post I want to share via email, there would be a popup that would ask me where I wanted to share this tweet to. The Android intent can route my share request to multiple places, not just my email, like my favourite todo app, Dropbox, Evernote, or another app I have installed. The way apps behave with each other is very open.

iPhone is like a walled garden; you go into an app, do your thing, and you leave. Android is very much a powerhouse tool. When I don't have time to read a post from Twitter, I just hit share, I put it in Pocket, then Pocket does its thing. On iOS, this is only possible if the app developer explicitly builds in that Pocket integration. With Android, it's just seamless how all these apps talk to each other.

It's not about the open source label but about working in public. Having more people working on something is the benefit of open source. You just get so much more out of a project by having a network effect, rather than just working alone on something. It’s nice when collaboration makes something better.

How do you keep up in the industry?

I'm actually okay with not staying up-to-date. I used to feel compelled to read everyone's tweets on Twitter but now I just use it to broadcast my news.

There is one guy who I follow in the web community, Addy Osmani. He is an expert in terms of web development so anything he says is more or less gold. When he says, "Oh we should try this" or "Have you considered this?" – you listen. He cuts through all the crap, and he is a really good teacher. He's a developer advocate, so he's very good at explaining technology. I find that if you have to stay up-to-date with one source for web development, just follow Addy and everything he says.

You do quite a bit of teaching through your Karma Laboratory workshops, at conferences and with non-profits like Maker Kids. Is code literacy important to you?

We’re moving into an age where everything is technology-enabled and everything’s gotta run on code. There may be a point where everyone needs to know enough code to put up their own web page or to fix something. So much of our future is going to be around computers, so I think knowing how to code will be an advantage for people.

How did you start speaking at events?

I got involved with FITC (a big creative technology conference that originated in Toronto) as a volunteer, then a stage manager, then volunteer coordinator. I had a professional relationship with the organizers since the conference began.

A couple of years ago they asked if I wanted to do a talk for SCREENS [a conference held by FITC with a focus on mobile, tablet and device development]. I submitted a talk but it was a little too avant-garde for them. I don’t remember what it was about but it was something weird, and I didn’t get in. The following year for FITC Toronto, I came to them with some topics I could talk about and they said sure. My relationships with the organizers made the submission process very easy. It wasn’t like a submission process.

I have submitted to other events and have been rejected from some, invited to others. I think speaking at conferences comes from being in the community and being out there. People sometimes have my name in the top of their mind for certain topics, so they’ll invite me to their events.

Do you notice a lack of women speaking at conferences?

I didn’t notice it so much at conferences, but I have noticed through Ladies Learning Code, who spend a lot of time trying to get half the instructors to be female. I remember when Heather was trying to collect names for lead instructors it was the guys who would say, “Yeah, for sure, I’ll be a lead instructor,” and the women would say, “Maybe after mentoring a class.” Rarely will women jump in to lead a class or talk at a conference without having attended first. I do notice sometimes when I’m at an evening event, I look around and there are not that many females. I try to speak at more conferences, knowing that fact. I don’t want to be the token woman speaking at a conference, but I do want to be a woman speaking at a conference to show other women it’s not scary.

Any advice for women looking to start speaking?

If you feel uncomfortable standing and talking for an hour, there are various speaking formats you can do at conferences. You can present a topic yourself or maybe moderate a panel. Ana Serrano, who was my director at the CFC Media Lab, flies to conferences all over the place and one thing that I’ve seen her do is instead of talking for an hour, she’ll talk for ten minutes and then do break-out sessions.

What are your favorite tools for development, design, process, etc.?

It used to be Flash because it was a really good tool set; all the things you wanted were more or less there. Now there are so many little places that you have to go to to get a simple web page up.

Addy Osmani worked on a tool called Yeoman. It’s a very streamlined way to do web development. It’s all based on command line tools, but it makes making a web application take 15 seconds essentially. You make a folder and initialize the Yeoman project and you can have a web application with a little local server already set up and ready to go. That’s by far my favorite tool.

My favorite web framework is AngularJS because it makes making web applications amazingly simple. It gives you an opinionated way to work with web applications, in the sense that there is a “right” way of doing things. The more you work with it, you can do more advanced things and make your code really clean. That’s my second favorite tool.

I use Sublime Text for my text editor. It’s just so clean and easy to use. It’s like a lifesaver after using Dreamweaver for so many years. My computer, a really good keyboard, a good trackpad – and I’m good to go.

Are you satisfied in the work that you’re doing now?

Even times when I didn’t think I would be a programmer, I still came back to programming. It seems like this thing kept pulling me back, so this is actually where I belong. I think the tension right now is whether to become a manager or continue as a developer. At this point I’m much happier being a team lead where I’m developing as well as leading a team, versus being very hands-off. So far I’m really happy with where I am. I don’t have any complaints.

In our last interview Martha Ladly asked, “If you were able to think about a technology that does not yet exist and you were going to particularly as a woman design/develop it for other women, what might it be?”

Hmm... Probably wearables. The reason I like wearables is because they’re about personal space and communication, communicating not through words but through clothing or touch or heat. We shouldn’t fixate on technology as a thing, but we should think about how we use technology. Technology should be more of something that augments us, not controls us.

with love from the Women&&Tech team