Sean Tan is one of the most unconventional girls you will ever meet. This computer whiz from Malaysia isn’t afraid to speak her mind and is a whole load of fun. A freelance programmer of over a decade, Sean was recently eating and drinking her way through Tokyo merrily, while even finding time to dress up and go Go-Karting. I wanted to get her thoughts on what life was like as a freelancer. Her life looked swell to me- she had her own schedule, she could work from anywhere and she was her own boss! On Facebook, it seemed like all she ever did was travel and eat good food. I was curious and needed to pick her brain!
The eldest child of her family, she had studied chemical engineering in Madison, Wisconsin.
“I was originally supposed to do Computer Science but I failed Java 101 twice.”
“You’re probably wondering what business a chemical engineer by academic training has with computers, haha. Funny story–I was originally supposed to do Computer Science but I failed Java 101 twice. I confess, I am the family shame! My parents, being Asian parents went with the whole, “You’re good with math and physics, why don’t do you study engineering instead?”
Now imagine that sentence delivered with slight hesitance, coupled with frowning disbelief they’re trying really hard to internalize as they process the fact that their daughter FAILED a subject. Not once, but twice. That conversation was hilariously awkward.
After sifting through a whole bunch of engineering subsets I was sure I didn’t want to do, I settled on chemical engineering.”
Where did the decision to work as a freelancer come from? Was it a decision she had made consciously or was it something that she fell into?
“I guess you could say it was something I fell into.
I started while I was in the U.S. and back then, it was really hard to stay and get a working visa if you didn’t actually work in the field you graduated in. After working in the U.S. for a year, I came back and just continued doing what I did.
While I didn’t actually stop freelancing at any given time, I did have a “day job” for a bit (startups, advertising, digital agencies) at my dad’s behest so I could experience “real office life”. I remember those days as the Dark Ages of Burnout, oh God why! Haha.
But it was great experience working in different environments, and learning from both the people and the businesses. The stuff I learned in that condensed amount of time was like, whoa! Knowledge on crack.”
I figured a freelancer doesn’t have a ‘typical’ day as every day varies, but I asked Sean to describe what a day in her life was like, or to pick any two extremes.
“A little down time is good, but being a freelancer means no actual time off.”
“I think both extremes are just as stressful for freelancers–too much work versus no work at all. When you’re swamped with work, you have to be “in the zone” way longer than originally anticipated. Be prepared to deal with unreasonable requests, insane deadlines, the inability to step out of whatever space you’re working at, and virtually no human contact.
On the other hand, when you have no work at all, it’s not like you have the luxury to sit around and bang balls hoping for clients to drop out of the sky. I mean, it’d be fucking fantastic if the universe were that generous with me every now and then. A little down time is good, but being a freelancer means no actual time off. If I’m not coding, I need to always be learning stuff, reading, keeping myself updated with the latest trends, and thinking about what kind of clients I want to get and how and where to get them. It sounds intense but down time just really means a lot of thinking, planning, and strategising.”
“I aim for a 5 hour work day that’s balanced off with exercise, proper nutrition and restful sleep.”
I used to do extremes, but not so much these days. I think old age enforces moderation and balance. Nowadays, I aim for a 5 hour “work” day that’s balanced off with exercise, proper nutrition, and restful sleep. OMG, that sounds like a line from the greatest startup clichés of all time haha! God, I’m so boring. Just talking about that routine makes me sound dull.”
Lest you think Sean is an old wizened woman, her ‘old age’ is actually the ripe old age of 33.
So what about the best parts about freelancing?
“The flexibility, barring deadlines, of course! For example, I don’t worry about traffic jams because I make it a point to almost never see clients or schedule appointments around rush hour. You can work from wherever you want–in your living room, the local cafe, out in the mountains, on a remote island somewhere as long as there’s internet connectivity, heck even in the bathroom if you really wanted to, but nobody actually has to know!”
“You’re not stuck trying to appease their child-sacificing ideas and meth-induced deadlines.”
Given that you are pretty much your own boss, you have massive control over your lifestyle. In the process of learning what it truly means to take full ownership and responsibility, you get to be as independent as you want. You’re only limited to your effort and the choices that you make.
Oh yeah, and you get to fire clients if you don’t like them. You’re not stuck trying to appease their child-sacrificing ideas and meth-induced deadlines.”
At this point, I entertain a brief fantasy of me firing all the people I don’t like, and sigh in envy. To make myself feel better, I ask her for what are the hardest parts of being a freelancer.
“Being your own boss, haha! And, the financial instability and discipline.
Freelancing gets a bad reputation but in all honesty, you need to possess a certain degree of tenacity to be able to make it as a freelancer. You do EVERYTHING, and I mean EVERYTHING yourself. From looking for work to playing the occasional bounty hunter with clients who dawdle when it comes to payment, and everything else in between.”
“Apparently, if you’re a successful freelancer, you got it easy because ‘God loves you’. If you’re unsuccessful, you’re lazy.”
“Before you get to the stage of giving zero fucks at all, judgment was also an iffy part of freelancing. You hear the worst things from people, friends and strangers alike. Some days, it’s just not something you have the emotional energy for. I think the meanest thing I’ve had said to me about my freelancing was how God wasn’t fair to reward a slacker like myself with ease to so much wealth while he, the dude who was making the remark, worked his ass off and got nothing at all. I was flabbergasted. What?! Where the hell is that even from?
So apparently, if you’re a successful freelancer, you got it easy because ‘God loves you’. If you’re unsuccessful, you’re lazy.
Do they not realize that they’re looking at the final product of countless, tireless hours poured into a part of my life that didn’t just decide to build itself overnight. Holy shit, the hate.”
I’m really surprised at this comment. I honestly feel that freelancing is an incredibly tough job because you’re really dependent on yourself, and you are the key factor in whether you’re successful or not.
What would her advice be to freelancers, or those looking to venture out into freelancing?
“It’s not for everyone. And that’s okay. Don’t be discouraged by some of the horrible things I’ve said about freelancing, but have no delusions about how tough it’s going to be when you start. It’s going to suck all nine circles of hell, but at the end of the day, you get to decide for the rest of your life what kind of level of suck you’re willing to tolerate.
Freelancing won’t start off glamorous but it does breed independence, and a sense of achievement for ‘handlin’ yo shit’ in all aspects of your life. It’s also a bit of a journey towards self-discovery albeit it being a little forced—kind of like a train you hop on and don’t really get to get off prematurely. Ultimately, you do find out what you’re truly made of when shit hits the fan and it’s not just a matter of reacting, but how you respond to the situation.
And of course, it does get better!”
As Sean makes her living off programming and coding, I wanted to know when she started learning it.
“I started coding when I got internet access back when I was 13. I know, I was such a nasty nerd-geek hybrid from the get go. I mean, just to be clear, it wasn’t like something I purposefully looked up. It just happened! I was in one of the older Geocities HTML chat rooms and I saw someone write in big, garish, colorful text. I clearly remember being stoked and totally all over it. How do I do fun things like that? I harassed everyone in that room to teach me how to do that before they sent me on my merry way to experiment with this thing called a ‘website’.
I like coding because I see it as both a method to creation and problem solving. I love solving problems! That eureka moment is like a drug you can’t get enough of.”
I wonder what she has to say about people who are of the opinion that programming and coding aren’t a traditional female career.
“Come on! It’s 2016. What on earth is a ‘traditional female career’? Prostitution? That’s ridiculous. Even with men. I don’t understand why there is still bias towards gender specific careers. Arguably, certain career paths are more sexist than others but that’s a story for a different time.”
“We’re living in the day and age where the limit to what you want, can, and, or will do is only capped by your imagination.
So what if it’s not a traditional’ gender career choice? Does it matter? Why does it matter to you? Is your life severely affected if a woman decides to write code as opposed to doing something more ‘traditiona'”? Does it offend your sensibilities or threaten your sense of self worth? In instances like that, maybe it’s not the woman’s career choice you have issues with but some deep-seated problems you have within yourself that you need to take a long, hard look at instead.”
“You are great, you are enough, and you should be doing the things you want to do.”
“Man or woman, you don’t owe anyone anything to subject yourself to their ideals or crazy ass fantasies of what and how the world should be like. You are great, you are enough, and you should be doing things you want to do.
Unless you’re harboring a meth lab and peddling illegally, then I take it all back and you really shouldn’t be doing the things you want to do. Not at this junction in life anyway.”
Now, didn’t I tell you Sean wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and was a ball of fun?
And finally, my favourite question of all time. If she had no constraints in time or money, what would her ideal life look like?
“Damn, this is tough. It’s really not something I think about. I want to say I’m pretty happy with my life right now. But, I’d probably travel a little more! Maybe splurge on a few vacation homes across the continents. Maybe a plot of land on Mars. You know, right next to that water stream of promised land fertility. I’m not sure if yearly trips to Mars would be any fun. I suppose I’d build a language school somewhere. Free language classes for all! Since I know absolutely squat about teaching, I’d probably start them all off with the vulgarities and curse words. It’s called being street smart, okay? I’m probably going to end up as a student in my own school. Or, run an animal shelter, haha!”
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