My love of travel (and London)

For a blog that is supposed to be about coding, cake and travel, there has been zero talk of travel so far. Mostly because it’s hard to distill something so complex and meaningful to me down to a series of words. 

I love travelling because you experience new things. You decide when you want that experience, and how much you’re comfortable spending on it, which means that a destination that’s two hours away by car can be just as meaningful as somewhere halfway across the world. New people, new foods, new vistas, new neighbourhoods and new languages present a different life that someone else gets the chance to live – and you could have it too. Change is good. 

I love travelling because it helps you realise your true personality by challenging you. When you’re dropped in the middle of a foreign city, you don’t speak the language, you’re lost, and you’re trying desperately to do something before a deadline, it’s amazing to realise how resourceful you can be, and how you handle stressful situations.

I love travelling because it’s freeing. There’s no schedule, except for how much you choose to put on there – whether it’s 14 hours of sightseeing, soaking up a neighbourhood by living local, or taking six months out to explore at your own pace. Nobody knows you, so nobody has any expectations of how you behave. You’re free to do whatever you’d like to, whenever you’d like to. 

Travel gave me my second home.

I visited London on a trip in my early twenties, and fell in love with it. 

One year later, I decided to move halfway across the world and settled there. It was the best decision of my life. I loved the culture, people, buildings, history, transport system, and the variety and pace of life, and I let it all soak in to my skin.

Most importantly, living in such close proximity to so many different countries in Europe was an amazing opportunity for someone who grew up in Australia. Every long weekend in the British calendar was eagerly planned in advance – will it be France, Iceland or Norway this time? Hiking, sightseeing, or wine country? No matter the destination, everything seemed just two hours away, and so easy to do straight after work on a Friday evening.

I gorged myself silly on it, visiting around 20 countries while I lived there, and some – like France – over a dozen times in an 8 year period. I’d kick off spring in Munich, cycling through gardens, drinking steins and eating giant pretzels. Then head to Croatia in summer, cruising from island to stunning island, devouring gelato and lazing in the sunshine. Then Switzerland in autumn, hiking through the riot of foliage colours and breathing in the crisp air. Winter would be France, boarding down a mountain of snow. 

I loved all of it, but I also enjoyed just being in London – the cozy pubs, delicious cheeses, Georgian houses and self-deprecating humour. And of course, the queuing. Living there was one giant, extended holiday where I grew up and learned things. 

Travel gave me a chance to learn who I am. 

I’ve taken three life breaks from my career to go travelling, without knowing when I would settle down and start working again. They add up to over two years of my life, and were completely worth it. 

Those breaks have shaped my existence. They’ve given me time to think about what’s important to me, and to take steps to make sure I can pursue them. They’ve let me experience things that enrich me as a person, and make me eager to come back and learn more.

I realise that I like learning things – whether astronomy, technology, experimenting with startups, or how to make giant food. I know how few possessions I actually need, since I’ve managed out of a suitcase for 6 months. I know that beautiful landscapes rejuvenate me more than the bustle of a new city. And I am grateful for the fact that I can afford to travel, both with money and time. 

Travel has given me some fantastic memories.

There’s an incredible list of things I’ve had the opportunity to do in the past ten years: driving over giant salt plains in Bolivia, visiting art galleries in Italy, tasting wine in Argentina, exploring Iceland with a car and a paper map, swimming with sea turtles in the Galapagos, gorging on pastries in France, staying in tree houses in Laos, sleeping under the desert stars in Jordan, hiking around glaciers in Chile, racing a dog-sled in Sweden, hiking the Inca Trail in Peru, exploring the amazing temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, photographing the wilderness of Scotland, partying until dawn in Barcelona, partying (slightly differently) in Amersterdam, marvelling at the opulence of the Moscow Metro, cooking up a storm in Vietnam, riding camels in Egypt, snowboarding powder in Japan, jumping around the USA like a kid in a candy store, and soaking up everything I possibly could in my surrogate hometown of London. 

Moving overseas was the best thing I’ve ever done. It made me realise that anything you want to do is possible, if you decide to do it. It also made me realise how adaptable human beings are, and that generally things will work out okay if you are flexible and recognise opportunities when they appear. And you’ll have loads of fun in the meantime. 

I found the draft of this post on my laptop, a year after I started it. I finished it on various planes and trains zipping around Europe, which I thought was apt. I miss you, London. x

Running Women Who Code

I’ve helped to run Women Who Code Sydney for about a year (along with Lucy Bain and Peggy Kuo), and it’s been a blast. We organise practical hands-on workshops for a variety of technology like Arduino, Golang, Sass, Scala and Swift.

Participants spend about 1.5-2 hours working through a tutorial or problem set on their laptops, and can ask volunteers for help if needed, so it’s slightly different to a typical user group: the attendees are expected to code at every event.  I know that I personally learn more when I’m forced to do something, as opposed to listening to someone’s experience, and after you’ve done the workshop, everything’s installed on your laptop ready to experiment more at home.

A typical event might be:

  • 6:00pm: Arrive and dinner, chat to others
  • 6:30pm: Announcements and introductions
  • 6:40pm: Speaker topic for the night (e.g. introduction to Reactive Extensions)
  • 7:00pm: Commence hacking
  • 8:45pm: Feedback forms
  • 9:00pm: Finish

Things I’ve learned while running a hands-on user group:

Have a target that people can aim for
Inviting people to “learn some javascript” where there’s no specific learning material makes for a confusing meetup, because there’s no target to aim for. People will ask a variety of questions from all different angles (e.g. “what does var mean?”, “what do you think of angular vs react?”, “can you explain promises?”). If you provide a tutorial or set of exercises, there’s a defined path that is supposed to be followed to learn something, which cuts down lines of questioning and also provides people with a goal.

Designing a tutorial from scratch takes a lot of work (and rework).
You’re not likely to get it right on the first go, so unless you’re aiming for something you can re-use, you are better off going with already published material.

Utilise existing interactive online tutorials
They’re a big win. The tutorials have already been tested by hundreds of people before you, and someone has put a lot of effort into designing them. They explain concepts step-by-step probably better than you will first time.

Always try out the tutorial first
It’s important to gauge difficulty and identify what prerequisites are required. Also, sometimes the instructions change and it’s not the same tutorial any more!

Give people the answers upfront
If you are writing a custom set of exercises or tutorial, give everyone access to the answers. When people start with a working solution, it’s a lot easier to break various bits to see what they do, rather than having broken code and trying to diagnose what needs fixing.

Have some helpers available to answer questions
This is the thing that people don’t have access to at home. It really helps.

Aim to maximise everyone’s learning experience
You won’t actually cover that much material in a two hour window, so try to pick content that people can try at their own pace – that way everyone learns something.

Select an audience for your meetup
Choose either beginners, or people who are already familiar with programming. It is very difficult to cater for both at the same meetup.

Clarify prerequisites
State whether people need to understand simple if/else statements, or something more involved like recursion. If people turn up to an advanced tutorial but only know basic programming, they might start feeling like they don’t know anything and get discouraged – that’s the last thing you want!

Limit the speaker’s time in chunks
A 10 or 15 minute window is a good amount of time to keep people’s attention (especially after they’ve done a full day of work). Talk for a bit, let people experiment and try what you talked about. Repeat. This is difficult to keep in balance with a self-paced set of exercises, because some people will be ready for the next section before others, but it keeps people focused.