Home Office

After two years of working from home, I finally put together an official office in my bedroom. During the pandemic, I just plopped my MacBook Pro on my ironing board, sat on a high stool, and worked. Last year, I broke the ironing board. I replaced the ironing board with a small glass table and the high stool with an Ikea’s stepping stool. I didn’t want to take up my entire bedroom with office desk and chair since I only work two days a week at home. I also want my bedroom to have as much space as possible.

Last week, my wife bought a used kitchen cabinet to replace another cabinet that looks like a table. The shorter sides of the the cabinet were narrow and the height is just right for a tall stool. I brought it up to my bed it flushed it right next to the dresser. Then I setup the Panasonic Home Sound System my next-door neighbor threw away last year before he moved.

I am using the sound system to play music and I am surprised how good it sounds. I like a bit of background music while I work and I also wanted some soothing jazz when I sleep. I have been listening to Bill Evan’s solo piano albums at a low volume at night. I was actually looking for a used CD player to play my CD collection and the sound system was just perfect.

I am now loving my simple office.

Work-Life Balance

I work Monday and Friday from home and Tuesday to Thursday at the office. On a typical day, I wake up at 7:00 am sharp to start my routine. Around 7:15 am, I wake up Đạo then head down the kitchen to prepare lunch for him and myself. We go out the door by 7:40 am.

On Monday and Friday, I drop Đạo off school then go back home to get Đán and Xuân ready for school. Then I take them to school as well. I then return home again to start my job. I work straight to noon then take Vương out to lunch and the playground during my lunch break. Then we return home. He takes a nap while I continue my work. Around 2:45 pm, I pick Đạo up from school then go back home to do more work until 4:30 pm or 5:00 pm.

On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, I drive to work after dropping Đạo off to school. I arrive at the office around 8:30 am. I drop my lunch off the fridge and make myself a cup of latte. I head into my office and work until noon. I heat up my food and head back to my desk. I have a quick lunch and watch some YouTube, mostly on figure skating or rollerblading tutorials. Then I get back to work to 2 pm. If the weather is warm and sunshine, I use my lunch break to go to the skatepark to rollerblade. If the weather is cold or rainy, I go to the ice skating rink. Both places are about five minutes from my office. I skate for an hour then head back into the office until 4:30 pm or 5:00 pm. That one hour of taking a break and getting some exercise has motivated me to come to work. It helps me stay healthy and rejuvenate my mind. I am grateful for that flexibility.

The best part of skating at 2:00 pm is that the skatepark or the ice skating rink is mostly empty. I get plenty of room to practice. Sometimes I skate with home-schooling kids. A while ago I met a mom who took her daughter to the skatepark to skateboard. After talking to her, I learned that her seven-year-old daughter snowboards and she has a big goal for her—like Chloe Kim. This afternoon I met another mom at the skating rink. Her kids had private hockey skating lessons. I asked her a few questions and learned that the private lesson cost $90 an hour. That’s not including ice time. The public session cost $15 per person and I thought it was already expensive. The money we spend on our kids is insane. We are spending the same amount each week for Đán and Xuân to take private piano lessons. Đán seems to be into it. He practices regularly. Xuân doesn’t practice that much. Last summer, I let Đạo and Xuân take private figure skating lessons. Unfortunately, they showed no effort or interest. I ended up dropping the lessons. Now they don’t even want to go ice skating for fun. I am debating whether I should take some private lessons for ice skating, but I don’t want to pay $90 an hour. I am learning to skate on my own because I am a cheapskate.

Work’s Going Well

My supervisor exited the building for two two weeks. I miss her every time I walk by her office, but my role hasn’t changed much. In retrospect, she had been hands off in the past few years and let me handle my business. My interim supervisor is one of my colleagues. She is super chill as well. I hope she will take over the role to lead the talented team that I am proud to be a part of.

One of my colleagues who works closely with me on a day-to-day basis is technical savvy, detail oriented, and reliable. She only started a few months ago, but she already knows the ropes and how we operate. She handles most of the tasks on her own, unless she has questions for me. I am so happy that she has come on board and I hope that she will stay. We work so well together.

So far my role and responsibilities seem to work out well. I am not sure about the future, but I am treating my job as a job. Everything happens for a reason. I can’t control what I don’t have the power to control. I am just going with the flow to see where life takes me.

A Letter to My Leader

Dear Deborah,

According to my LinkedIn profile, I have been working at the law school for 10 years and 4 months. In the web industry, a decade is eternity, but my work here feels just like yesterday because of you and your leadership. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you have done, not just for me, but for all of us at the Law Library.

When I applied for the position of web services developer at the Law Library, I was desperate to get out of a hostile, stressful environment at my previous job. During the interview process, I didn’t think I could handle the server administration part of the job and I was being completely honest with you about it in our conversation, but you took a chance on me. Through training and learning on the job, I picked up a new set of backend skills I would never have learned on my own. Thank you for placing your trust in me.

From day one, you gave me the flexibility I needed to achieve my professional goals as well as my personal life. When I wanted to pursue the graduate program in graphic design at Mason’s School of Art, you gave me support and motivation. As a result, I was able to apply my design skills to my job by offering print design services to the law school. When I took on this position, my wife and I had one son. In seven years, we grew to four. Raising young children while working was challenging, but your understanding and accommodating made it less stressful. I could take the time I needed, especially when one of our kids got sick, to tend to my family. In return, I always made sure that I was on top of my responsibility and productivity at work.

Your management style has made my time here enjoyable. By allowing me to take responsibility for my own work, I put my time and effort into areas that met the law school expectations and improved our user experience. I prioritized projects that needed the most attention as well as tasks that weren’t urgent but necessary. When it was my time to manage others, I treated them the same way you have treated me: trust, respect, and compassion.

Through your caring nature and fostering guidance, you have put together a diverse, dedicated, and talented team. I have had the pleasure of collaborating with and learning from my wonderful, friendly colleagues. We appreciated each other’s area of expertise and worked together to come up with the best solutions for our projects. When I needed help, I could reach out to any of my colleagues—not just work-related, but also personal development. The fact that our team feels more like an extended family than just a group of co-workers and the low turnover speaks volume about your leadership skills and your accomplishments. We stick around because we have an amazing leader. It will be hard without you at the helm.

While I am sad to see you go, I am happy for your retirement. Your dedication to this job and to all of us is deeply appreciated. You deserve the time off to focus on your life and your family. Your presence and influence will truly be missed, but I wish the next chapter of your life filled with joy, relaxation, and great health. Please stay in touch.

Sincerely yours,

Donny Truong

LinkedIn Recommendation for Matthew Krishnan

Matthew Krishnan joined George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School as Backend Web Developer in February 2017 and quickly became an essential member of our team. With his technical knowledge, including PHP, MySQL, HTML, and CSS, he played an important role in maintaining and managing our content management systems: MODX and WordPress Multisite.

His skills in communication were even more impressive. He worked well with everyone around him in a professional manner. He went out of his way to support any law school member who needed web-related help. He even offered WordPress training to faculty, staff, and students who would like to update their own website content.

As someone who had been working closely with Matthew in the past four and a half years, I appreciated his patience, independence, and reliability. These qualities were so crucial in a remote environment; therefore, we were able to work in an effective, sufficient collaboration during the pandemic.

In addition to his work for the law school, Matthew studied tirelessly to earn his BS, with Magna Cum Laude, in information technology from George Mason University Volgenau School of Engineering. I admire his hard work and educational dedication. I have tremendous respect for him not only as a colleague but also as a friend.

Ten Years at Scalia Law School

This October will mark my 10th year working at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School as Director of Design and Web Services. A decade in the web-industry timeline is eternity, but it still feels like yesterday when I took on this position.

In my first three months on the job, I single-handedly re-coded the entire website from scratch. I ripped out all of the HTML markups and CSS presentations and rebuilt everything from scratch. Our site was one of the first higher education websites that went responsive. In retrospect, I am glad I took that approach right from the get-go. In the past nine and a half years, our website has gone through many iterations instead of major redesigns. Because of the solid foundation I built from the beginning, our website stands the test of time.

In the last few weeks, we conducted a handful of user studies, in which we asked current students to share their experience using our website. We gave them a few tasks and asked them to do as we watched their browsers. They found our website easy to navigate and they could find what they needed. They provided us suggestions we can improve, but the feedback had been positive.

As CSS grid has become stable, I wanted to go back to replace complicated floats with grids, but the task seemed overwhelming. In the past five years, I have taken on new roles beyond the web, which included marketing designs and email newsletter. I could not dedicate my time to make the transition. Every time I looked at my SCSS file, I wanted to just throw it away and start from scratch. Unfortunately the site had grown so much in the last decade.

After our latest redesign under the new dean direction, I decided I need to tackle this issue. Now that I have a designer to help me with graphics and a developer to help me with day-to-day requests, I could focus on refactoring the CSS elements as well as cleaning up the HTML markups. Simply replacing float layouts with grid layouts make the CSS file much more cleaner and manageable. In addition to simplifying the CSS elements, I was able to get rid of tons of unused styles.

Although the work was entirely behind the hood, it made me feel great. I had accomplished something that I had wanted to do for quite a while. The overall visuals haven’t changed much, but the details have been hammered out. Because I have invested my time, energy, and effort into our website, I take great pride in my work and I treat it with tender, love, and care as if it is my own baby. I take the responsibility and the ownership of it. I expect my developer to do the same. I wanted him to put his care into it instead of just dashing off to complete the requests. Every piece of markup needs to be clean and no inline styles unless absolutely necessary.

I understand that we have to do things quickly, but doing so carelessly will come back and bite us in the long run. Our website has come a long way. The day of hosting it on a GoDaddy dedicated server is long gone. I am so glad that we had migrated to MODX Cloud with the help of the incredible MODX team. From the server side, our site is now fast, secured, stable, and in good hands. From the frontend side, the HTML markups and CSS presentations are streamlined. The design is still fresh and modern with exceptional typography.

If everything goes well, I will stay with the law school until my retirement. I only have about 20 odd years to go. I don’t know if I will be able to keep up with the web industry in my 60s. That’s a scary thought. Then again, I have not kept up on the latest trend a decade ago. I am still doing fine thus far. I can’t see myself doing anything else besides web design and development, but I never know what the future will hold.

The MODX Disaster

After watching the final U.S. presidential debate on Thursday, I checked my RSS reader instead of going straight to bed. I saw a notification from MODX releasing 2.8.1. I was a bit surprised because I just upgraded to 2.8.0 only a few weeks ago. MODX usually takes at least 6 months to put out a minor release. It must be some security issue that they needed to patch.

MODX is the content management system that powered the Scalia Law website. Since it was midnight so no one would be logging into the CMS to make any updates; therefore, it was a good time to do the upgrade. It would only take me about 15 minutes to complete. I followed the procedure like I had always done in the past. Something didn’t go right when the files which were supposed to be merged had prompted me to replace. When I allowed the files to be replaced, the website went down. The files that used to take 15 minutes to merge were now estimated about 55 minutes.

I started to panic, stopped the upload, and tried to figure out what went wrong. I went into our daily backups and re-uploaded the directories I had made the upgrade. The process alone took about half an hour. The website was still down. At this point, I re-upload the entire site as well as the database from two days before. This process took a couple of hours. It was already three in the morning and nothing worked. I called GoDaddy, our hosting provider, to see if there’s anything they could do. The first time I called, the technician recommended that I try to re-upload the site from a week old. If that would also fail, I could request a disaster recovery.

I went on Twitter and tweeted for help from the MODX community. I received no response. Its community is way too small. Around six in the morning I started to get messages from colleagues telling me that the site had been down. I explained the situation to my supervisor and her supervisor. They completely understood. Since I could not get any help the last resort was to ask GoDaddy to perform a disaster recovery. The site remained down until around 4:45 pm on Friday. The site went down for 16 hours and I feel horrible. It was all my responsibility alone to bear. I did not sleep that night and kept checking my phone for a miracle to happen.

Although the website is now backed up working, we are set back 3 weeks. GoDaddy only keeps a snapshot every two to three weeks. Now I have to restore what was missing and it is a pain. I am also causing other people to redo some of their work as well.

After this incident, I now determine that we will need to get off MODX. This CMS is dying. It could never get beyond a couple of thousand enthusiasts. I should have called the shot a long time ago, but I held on the hope for it. Now it has become cleared that I need to make an exit strategy. It’s time to migrate to WordPress.

Eight Years at the Law School

When accepting the offer from George Mason University, I thought I would only stay for a year or two. Eight years later, I am still with the Law School. It has been a long, challenging, rewarding journey for both my professional career and personal life.

I joined the Law School after leaving a stressful job. At first, I hesitated to take on a new role as Web Services Developer, which included server administration as part of the job. I didn’t know anything about Linux. I had never used the command line. I never heard of the content management system called MODX. I spent my first week googling how to set up RSA and SSH to access the servers. I read online documentation just to add my own admin account in MODX. It was a huge hurdle to get through in the first six months. I almost quit.

While the technical challenges stressed me out, the people I worked with were awesome, especially my kind, understanding supervisor. I simply could not let her down. She gave me the support and the flexibility I needed to balance my work and life. It is extremely important to me to have the flexible schedule because I young kids. I cannot put all the burden on my wife. Getting them to daycare and school in the morning is a challenge. Taking days off when they got sick is a must. Chaperoning them to field trips is part of being a parent. In eight years, my boss never expressed any negative vibe when I requested time off, came to work a bit late, or left a bit early. To reciprocate her generosity, I never hesitated to work on weekends or late-hours when I had to.

What has been so great about this job is the trust she placed in me. Without micro-management, I thrived on my own. She didn’t have to tell me what needed to be done. I took on projects that needed attention and look for projects that would benefit the school. In the past eight years, I expanded from three sites to thirty sites. In addition to MODX, I implemented WordPress Multisites to offer anyone in the Law School a web presence and still manageable. Even though my responsibilities were strictly web services, I offered graphic design solutions and created a unified brand for the school. It saved the school tons of money from hiring outside design agencies.

Several years ago, I was promoted to Director of Design and Web Services. In the new role, I am supervising a junior web developer to help me out with daily requests and web support for the thirty sites we’re maintaining. I am giving him the flexible and the trust that my boss has given me. At the moment, everything seems to go well.

I don’t know what the future will be like as we’re the process of hiring a new President for the University and a new Dean for the Law School. I am not sure how the new changes will have an effect on me. I do not want to think too much about things that I cannot control. I do hope that my supervisor won’t be retiring anytime soon. That will change everything.

More Vietnamese Leaders

During our family reunion, we had an intriguing discussion about our profession while enjoying a bottle of Don Julio. My wife’s aunt said that she had worked for her company over 30 years and that she would never take on the lead role. As a minority woman who is in her 50s and isn’t fluent in English, she rather stayed in the technical position than being a leader. My cousins agreed with her perspective. To them, a leader has to have perfect English and the ability to bullshit. As Vietnamese, we were not trained for those leadership roles. She went as far as criticizing the way we raise our kids different than the way white people raise their kids to prepare them to be future leaders.

I completely disagree that leaders have to have perfect English. For example, Ángel Cabrera is the president of George Mason University and he speaks with an accent. I am director of design and web services at Scalia Law School and I don’t speak perfect English either. As leaders, the way you communicate is more important than your accent. Yes, I have seen leaders who bullshitted their way through, but you can smell them miles away. I have no respect for those leaders. For me, leaders don’t have to have in-depth technical skills, but they need to have a vision and enough technical knowledge to understand what is possible and what’s not. Because I have technical background the people who answer to me can’t bullshit me. I understand what’s possible and how to accomplish it. Likewise, the people above me respect not just my leadership skills, but also my technical skills.

As for parenting skills, I did not understand the comparison between my cousin whose wife is Jewish and us (two Vietnamese parents). They have one boy. We have four. Of course, we can’t spend all of our time on one kid. I found her reasoning to be laughable and somewhat offensive. I don’t mind her criticizing our parenting skills, but putting down our son is hurtful.

It is time for us Vietnamese to stop using our language barrier as a clutch. We need to get over it. In fact, we should use it to our advantage. We can speak both languages. We bring a diverse perspective into the team. Let’s take on more leadership roles than simple be led.

Skill Assessments

My current title at Scalia Law School is Director of Design and Web Services. I supervise a part-time employee who helps me out with updating content, managing MODX and WordPress, and putting together HTML newsletters. As for my role, I am still involved hands-on with design and development.

For design, I am still kicking ass in Illustrator, Photoshop, and typography—I wrote two books on it. I still work with the Dean’s office, admissions, alumni, and various centers to design print materials ranging from magazine ads to invitations to conference’s programs.

For the web, I am still kicking ass in HTML and CSS. I design in the browser and have not touched Sketch, Figma, InVision, or any UX tool. I write a bit of JavaScript and PHP. I can develop sites with content management system including MODX, WordPress, and Kirby. I have not touched any design or JavaScript frameworks.

I am not in the market to look for a new job, but I wonder if my skillsets will still be useful. My current director role isn’t conventional because most design and creative directors aren’t hands-on. By keeping my hands in the technical side, I understand exactly what designers and developers are doing. I know about performance, accessibility and usability.