Lessons from 2020: Seizing Opportunities in a Difficult Year

2020 has been a difficult year for many people. So, why would I write an article about seizing opportunities when right now there are fewer of them to go around? And the problem is exacerbated for folks who belong to one or more marginalized groups. Is it wrong to even be talking about this?

Well, that depends. For me, I’m defining opportunities as:
Being able to help / give back to others if you are in a position to do so. And, when life changes on you, adapt to new opportunities as they arise. The following are some lessons to help you take advantage of opportunities in the new year!

Lesson 5: Give yourself time to grieve.

2020 was a year of loss. Loss can come in many forms. For some, it was dealing with the loss of family members due to COVID. For others, it meant being out of work for an extended length of time. Loss also came in dealing with unprecedented changes, isolation, and generally missing out on a lot of things in your “old life”.

Playing Ms. Pacman was my jam

I’m generally biased towards action, but even I had to take a break every now and then & just acknowledge my losses, like not being able to enjoy playing arcade games at my local arcade bar, and not being able to sing in church choir. Only until you’ve given yourself time to grieve, will you be ready to take action for whatever might come next.

Lesson 4: If you are in a position to do so, donate money to causes you care about.

Not everyone is in a position to give back right now. And if you belong to one or more marginalized groups, it may be harder to find opportunities to give back when you have more systemic prejudices to overcome. Although I’ve experienced discrimination as a woman working in a male dominated field, and growing up as a minority even as a native born American, there are groups in the US suffering worse discrimination than me. So, if you don’t feel like you’re in a place to grab those opportunities, I encourage you to seek out communities that can support you and get involved with them (for example, in tech there are groups for black women, LGBQT, etc.). Otherwise, keep reading!

Given that I am fortunate enough to not only have a job right now when so many people have lost theirs, but also a job that I can work from home, I was ready to give back.

In 2020, my family of my husband and I have donated to the following organizations:
the Colorado Freedom Fund, a bail fund for #BLACKLIVESMATTER protestors; the New Georgia Project to protect the rights of voters in the state of Georgia; and being long time volunteers of our local animal shelter, we also donated to Foothills Animal Shelter.

Lesson 3: If you are in a position to do so, donate time to causes you care about.

I’ve volunteered for Women Who Code, in particular, the Mobile track and Colorado chapter, by supporting and mentoring members in the Slack groups; and helping to run events like an online game meetup, and speaking at the Women Who Code Connect Forward conference, and teaching an open source workshop.

Speaking at Women Who Code Connect Forward

Also, the 2020 Presidential election has become personal for me. As a child of Vietnamese refugees, I was fortunate that America took in all Vietnamese refugees at the end of the Vietnam war. In contrast, during the Trump era, the US drastically reduced the number of immigrants who were allowed to enter the country, including refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, where we had allies who fought alongside American troops. Had the Ford administration been similar to Trump’s, I might not have been born in the US and my life would have been completely different.

Had a blast playing games with WWCode Mobile!



Therefore, I wanted to help ensure that everyone who’s eligible to vote, can, and to make sure that the voting process is fair and accessible to all. To that end, I volunteered not once, but twice, as a poll watcher in Colorado for the Presidential election.




Protecting Voters’ Rights as a Poll Watcher

It was tragic that baseless claims of election fraud were thrown about (as they’ve led to the attempted coup on the US capital, which took multiple lives), but speaking as a poll watcher, it just didn’t happen. Poll watchers must be trained and certified by their respective political parties. Typically, at every polling place, you will have a poll watcher from each party there at all times. The job of the poll watcher is mostly to observe and make sure there are no problems and if any arise, (i.e. a polling place runs out of paper ballots, there’s a problem verifying someone’s eligibility to vote, etc.), to work directly with the election workers and judges to solve the problem on the spot. And if the problem isn’t resolved immediately, it gets escalated to the “boiler room” of the respective parties where they will continue to work on the problem until it’s fixed. When I was there, I mostly played games on my iPad. Oh, and shared pictures of our dogs with the other poll watcher on one particular shift. The polling place that I watched was so well run, there were no problems to resolve!

Lesson 2: When life changes on you, adapt to new opportunities as they arise: The Professional Edition.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at several conferences in 2020. One of them was for try!Swift New York, which turned into try!Swift World workshops, which I’ve talked about in a previous blog post, where I advised: When an opportunity comes along, even if doesn’t look exactly like what you were expecting, take it!

Another conference that I was invited to speak at was 360iDev. Although the conference was originally scheduled to be delivered in-person, just like it has been in years past, the ongoing pandemic forced the conference to switch to an online-only format (using the Hopin.com platform). Despite my nervousness about the change, I leaned into the opportunity anyway.

For my talk, “Level Up Your Life and Career By Becoming a (Human and Programming Language) Polyglot” I made analogies between the languages I speak and the programming languages that I work with, shared within the context of my personal story. It was a culmination of my long tech career, unique to my experience, and only I could have delivered my presentation this way. I was proud of the way it turned out. I recorded the talk in advance, and it played in my time slot during the conference.

Barry attended 360iDev with me, as pictured in this WWCode highlight

Right away, what was different from the in-person conference speaking experience (as I have actually spoken at 360iDev in person in the past), was the audience’s connection with my talk.

With in-person conferences, you might get a few people come up to you right after your talk to ask questions or share their thoughts. But most folks are usually rushing off to the next talk. So you don’t get feedback except from individuals much later, scattered throughout the conference. Because my talk was recorded in advance, I got to interact directly with the audience as they were watching, in real time, in my talk’s conference Slack channel. And they were interacting not just with me, but also with one another, as if my talk was bringing everyone closer together.

Some folks really enjoyed the part about hearses & Hearsecon

You never know when you give a talk, which aspects of your topic will resonate with your audience the most and it can vary from audience to audience. But this group was really into Hearsecon, which turned out to be a surprise. 🙂 (How did Hearsecon end up in my talk, you ask? Well, watch the video and find out!)

But it also resonated with folks who spoke multiple languages and there was a lot of comments, like that’s how it is in my language too, ie one person said they use multiple words for “aunt” and “uncle” in their languages, Hindi and Urdu, as well.

Folks attending 360iDev who were raised in countries outside the US, who’ve felt “othered” because of their culture resonated with my thoughts on the need for better cultural understanding. And I could be my projecting here, but given the tumultuous history of the US during the past 4 years, my talk was perhaps a welcome relief from the racial strife and attacks on immigration that has been going on during that period.

I learned there were multiple words for “aunt” & “uncle” in many languages

Don’t get me wrong. I think and hope 360iDev will be in-person in 2021, or at least aspects of it. There’s nothing like the serendipity of meeting someone new at a conference, and bonding with them in person, that we would lose if we stopped having in-person events forever. But by being open to doing something differently, I allowed myself to experience speaking at 360iDev in a new & exciting way, even as a previous speaker of the 360iDev in-person conferences.

Lesson 1: When life changes on you, adapt to new opportunities as they arise: The Personal Edition.

So far, I talked a lot about taking advantage of opportunities in my career / professional life. But this can extend to your personal life as well, and why shouldn’t it?

In early 2020, before the pandemic started, my husband and I had planned to visit a nearby mountain town for a few days to do some spring fishing. We booked the hotel and even boarding for our dog during our trip. Then, late March, we were on lockdown for several weeks, and traveling other than for essentials (groceries, etc) was prohibited. Even though we scheduled our trip for May, our dog’s boarding called and canceled our reservation, not knowing at the time how long the lockdown would last. Devastated, we canceled our hotel reservation as well, which at the time the town we were going to visit, was not allowing out of town visitors, either.

Then, in early June, a series of fortunate events occurred. The lockdown had been lifted. And while there were still restrictions and a new, statewide mask mandate (while indoors) in place, people were allowed to travel again. I interviewed with, and landed a position as a senior iOS Engineer with Jack Henry and Associates, about to start in a few weeks! We got an email from Barry’s boarding saying that they were taking reservations again. At that point, we still haven’t taken our spring fishing trip yet.

This was the hearse for sale, but no longer!

Then, speaking of Hearsecon (see the Lesson above), Eric spotted an ad for a hearse for sale in Leadville, Colorado. That kind of sealed the deal for us! We decided right then and there to book a weekend trip to Leadville, for fishing (my favorite activity) and to look at the hearse for sale (admiring classic hearses is one of Eric’s favorite activities). Fortunately, both were outdoor activities, which made partaking in them less risky.

Caught a rainbow trout in Leadville

We booked and planned our trip within days of taking it. And we got to enjoy a weekend getaway right before I started my new job, partaking in activities that we both enjoyed (fishing and hearses!). This was not like us, and certainly not like me, as I’m very much the planning ahead type. But given that the pandemic upended our carefully laid out plans, by adapting to this new opportunity to travel to Leadville when it arose, allowed us to still have a vacation, perhaps even better than the one we had planned previously, with the bonus of looking at the hearse for sale for Eric.

And in case you’re wondering, no, we didn’t purchase that hearse. It wasn’t the right vehicle at the right time, but it was fun taking a road trip just to have a look!

Even during a difficult year like 2020, there are opportunities if you’re open to them. There are often chances to help or give back, if you’re in a position to do so. And even when life changes on you, new opportunities can present themselves to those willing to adapt. While I’ve taken a more agile approach to life for a number of years now, 2020 has forced me to do this even more so.

Please continue to stay safe, as it will be some months before the COVID vaccine is rolled out to everyone. But in the meantime, I hope that my article will inspire you to seize opportunities however you can in 2021! Wishing you all the blessings, hope and happiness in the new year!

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