Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

Turning Hobby Into Profession

28 Mar 2009

For the longest time, except for perhaps a very few memorable exceptions, I've always found it extraordinarily arduous to get up from my bed each morning. It would always require a huge amount of effort on my part, and even after I'd managed to get myself up, I'd go through the chores of the morning with such great distaste, boredom, and utter mundaneness. Fall 2008 was a sheer disaster because of this.

I tried all sorts of techniques and advices from my #2, but to not much avail. It was a boring life honestly. I had all this energy in me, but no motivation to use it. I clearly wasn't being as effective as I could be with my day job (i.e. school) and there was no way I could excel at what I did best by working in this manner.

Things changed when I moved to San Francisco for an 8-month co-op term. I've never had any problems waking up in the last 85 or so days of my stay here. And I've completely gotten rid of my alarm clock. Don't have a need for it anymore.

The change obviously didn't have much to do with the city I was in. The change happened because I had started doing what I liked for once instead of what others would like me to do. This, trivially obvious as it may seem, was all that was needed to make me automatically wake up early feeling refreshed and energized.

The lesson was crystal clear: I had to start doing more of what I liked. And the stuff I liked, I was already doing as hobbies. So I had to convert my hobby into my profession. And that's what I did.

It all began back when I was in Grade 10 in Dubai and I wanted to create an online archive of all the back-issues of Young Times, the most popular teen magazine in the Middle East. They were already publishing reduced versions of their magazine online each week. The solution was incredibly simple: all I had to do was download their entire website every Wednesday and put it online on my own website which was hosted on Geocities, the only free web hosting service I knew of at the time.

My brother soon caught wind of what I was doing and thought I was wasting a lot of time doing things manually each week. He introduced me to the concept of a "cron job" which is essentially the UNIX term for a scheduled task, and "wget", which allows you to download an entire website, as opposed to just a page, using a single command. I was now "crawling" Young Times' website every Wednesday automatically without my intervention.

Remember, this was all in Grade 9/10, when I didn't know anything about computers except for how to surf the net, check my hotmail, and play games. This was all super high-tech for me. I didn't even know what Linux was. At this point, everything was still a hobby to scratch an itch and nothing more.

After a few months, my brother thought my "YT History" website was crap and re-wrote his own using a strange and esoteric programming language known as PHP. This beast needed a "web server" and what not. It was all too confusing to me. All the programming I had done until then was in BASIC at elementary school and that was it. Man, I didn't get PHP at all.

Time passed by, we moved to Canada, I got caught up in a culture shock, and the Young Times website, as you can imagine, quickly became outdated. My dad bought me my own desktop computer and that was my first break. I was now free to do whatever I wanted. I took a second look at all the PHP code my brother had written and none of it made any sense. I still couldn't understand seemingly complex ideas as arrays and functions.

I read a couple of articles online. But none of them helped. Out of disgust and frustration, I used the then popular P2P software Kazaa to download the first book I could find on the topic. I was very fortunate to pick up a really good book on the first try itself. I now had an illegal version of Build your own Database Driven Website using PHP & MySQL in PDF format.

The author, an Australian, Kevin Yank, was one of the best and most prolific writers on the topic. This was all in Oct 2002. I was fifteen and in Grade 10. The only things I were good at, at that point, were arguing and solving high-school textbook math problems. I'm still good at both ;)

Turns out Kevin and Kevin's co-worker Matt are good friends with my current neighbor who moved to San Francisco from Melbourne a year or so ago. Kevin's book was monumental to my core understanding of the PHP language. I probably wouldn't have landed the job I'm currently enjoying if it weren't for his book 7 years ago.

Since I couldn't print out this e-book, I had to read it on-screen. Reading 300 pages of black text on a white background off of a LG CRT screen was incredibly difficult, especially since I hadn't done anything like that before. I was done reading the book in a little under 10 days. I still remember the day I read with watering eyes and tears running all over my cheeks. My eyes were permanently red for a certain duration in Grade 10. But I kept reading. I couldn't get enough. I was ruining my eyes yes, but I was faced with this insatiable thirst for learning new things. And I couldn't get over it. I talk more about this in my other post on screen reading.

At the end of reading the book, I wrote my own blog in PHP and MySQL when everyone else was using pre-built solutions by the then popular blogging engine MovableType. My brother was using this too. But I wrote my own. I was too cool to use somebody else's software ;)

That summer, in 2003, I wrote a web forum from scratch at Atomicbobs.com. It's a forum that is still actively used by hundreds of people even today. I didn't get paid for this project, but about 85% of my current PHP knowledge comes from working on this project.

Fast forward 6 years and numerous hobby projects, free-lance projects, and experiments including this very website you're viewing, I landed a pure PHP/Javascript job at Tagged Inc. What had so far been simply a hobby is now making me hot cash in a pretty messed up economy.

Today, I can read and write PHP just as easily, if not more, as I can read and write English. I can write facebook's wall complete with authentication and session management in bare-bones PHP, i.e. no framework or library, in under 30 minutes. That's really saying something. Anyone can write PHP. But very few people can write PHP fast. Speed is my only strategic advantage and I intend to exploit it fully.

If I was a parent and I were raising a 15-year old kid, I'd be very concerned about my kid's hobbies. Concerned enough to stop myself from pushing the hobby I think is right for him. Because if my kid can convert his hobby into his profession, I doubt I'd have much reason to worry about his future. Every hobby can be turned into a profession. I just wish more people would do that.

If nothing else, at least they'd find it easier to rise from their beds every morning.

« Living FrugallyManaging Interruptions »

[ about | all posts | subscribe | resume | contact ]