Kiki (K): Hi welcome back to the Kartini Teknologi podcast.
Galuh (G): Hi! Welcome back to our show.
K: So this is our very first episode with a guest and we have a very special guest with us today, Amy Wibowo. Hi Amy, how are you doing?
Amy (A): Hi, thank you so much for having me.
G: Thank you so much for coming on our show. We’re both huge fans of your work so we’re so excited to have you here.
K: So Amy here is an MIT graduate and she previously worked as a web developer at Airbnb, also she worked as a machine learning researcher at Honda Research Institute in Japan, and NCI research at University of Tokyo, and now is full-time managing her zine business called Bubblesort Zines, zines that explain computer science concepts by drawings and stories. So we’re excited to have Amy here. Actually I firstly knew Amy through Twitter when some people in my timeline were, like, wearing bomber jacket called Git It Gurl and I was very curious about that. And found out that the creator is actually an Indonesian woman, so at that time I was like I totally should get Amy in this show one day, so I guess my dream came true today. So we’re excited to have you here.
K: And I knew Galuh is a huge fan of your side projects. Alright, would you tell us more about yourself, like where do you come from and what are you passionate about?
A: Sure, so currently I live in San Francisco but I was born in Jakarta. My family moved to the US when I was two years old. I’m passionate about biking and tea, and fashion, and computer science education and Indomie.
K: We’re all passionate about Indomie. Well, all right, so can you tell us a little bit more about your previous experiences as a web developer and also researcher, like what did you do back then and what makes you pivot to the zine business?
A: Sure, so when I was working at Airbnb I was on the Growth and Internationalization team. I was a founding member of that team. And the purpose of that team was Airbnb was trying to grow in different countries and markets cause everyone has a different culture and habits around traveling depending on what country they’re from. We wanted to make sure that Airbnb kind of like considered and accommodated those differences as it was growing in different markets. I feel like I got to learn a lot about how different people or different culture travel. So that was fascinating. When I was working at Honda I was working on the ASIMO team that makes the humanoid robot that was four feet tall, I was working on the reinforcement learning system that took in the video feed from ASIMO and would analyze the emotions of the person working with ASIMO and it would use that as a feedback so the robot could change what it was doing based on how the person looked like, whether the person was frustrated or happy, could change how it tried to accomplish its task. And then the University of Tokyo, I was working on an interface to design clothing that was motion-capture based, you could wrap it around a mannequin and it would capture it as a sewing model of clothes and you could return the model that you made into a pattern that you could sew, you just print that pattern and sew it together. What brought me to the zine business, I really like learning new and different things and I got bored really easily so I like to change what I’m doing every few years. And I have had a lot of ideas about improving computer science education that I wanted to try out. So after a couple years working at Airbnb, I left to start my business.
G: So you care a lot about education, and particularly in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). You also mentioned that you want to frame computer science in a way that is more accessible and inclusive to people who might think there is not a place for them in computer science. Can you tell us a bit more about where does that concern come from, and at what point did you exactly decide that this is something that I really want to work on?
A: I remember computer class when I was in high school whenever the computer crashed, the teacher would get upset at us for the computer crashing and a lot of people in my class, if the computer crashed and the teacher was upset at them, they would apologize and say I’m sorry I’m just not good at computers. But it’s the computer fault for crashing, and I felt that sad that people thought they weren’t good with computers because of that. I also feel like most computer science classes are kind of geared towards people who already know that they like programming and computers. Like, the AP Computer Science curriculum, so AP is like a standardized curriculum in the US, so their computer science curriculum immediately starts off with object oriented programming, and so if you’ve never done programming before or don’t know if you like programming or not, I feel like that’s a terrible place to start. I feel people could get interested in computer science through interesting projects, projects that incorporate art, music, photography, and kind of like show that computers are just a tool for creativity. And I feel like framing computer science that way might be able to get a lot more interest from students.
K: Let’s talk about your zine business. How was the creative process behind your zines and is there gonna be a new edition soon?
A: So the creative process vary by day but when you’re writing a book or zine it does help though that I share a creative studio space with four other people, some are programmers, some are illustrators. Everyone in the space is so creative that they make me feel inspired, so that helps me in getting my creative juices flowing. It also helps that because I illustrate and write the zines, if I feel stuck writing I can switch to working on illustrations or vice versa. And currently I’m working on a zine about operating systems. So it starts with an arithmetic logic unit and builds up to a very basic processor and then builds an operating system around that processor. And I want it to be understandable at a high school level and it’s important for me to make operating systems accessible because I remember when I was in college I was even too scared to take an operating systems class because I thought it was like too hardcore for me. And I think that there are some computer science subjects that just seem so unapproachable like compilers and operating systems and I want to change that.
G: I totally agree because I felt the same way with my operating systems class, and it was a required class for me but it was something that you know I didn’t think I would be good at simply because it seemed too complicated. It was later when I discovered that operating systems is something that’s very cool and totally approachable if only there was another way it was taught. Because in most education system in Indonesia you’re just taught that “hey this is something you have to memorize” without them giving the context of this is why it matters and this is how it fits in the real-world application. So I’m really excited to see how you’re going to tackle the topic and I’m super excited that even high school students can understand more about it.
A: Thank you, maybe I’ll send it to you to be a test reader.
K: So I think we all know that the tech world is dominated by masculine vibe, and Amy you challenge this stereotype with your creativity which I think look more feminine with lots of pastel, and I see more people using creative way to introduce complicated tech concept, for example in MDN Web Docs Lin Clark introduces how something works using cartoon. I also see children book as well. How do you see your work contribute in that movement and how do you think the future will be?
A: First of all I want to say I love Lin Clark’s works and cartoons, they’re easy to understand. I love all of the recent creative attempts to teach people about technology either through cartoons or I don’t know if you’ve seen Kano put out a kit to teach programming via a wand, so there’s a wand that you can program, kinda like Harry Potter style, and I feel excited there are many different efforts to introduce technology in a creative way. And to me it tells me that it’s the right time to be doing the work that I’m doing. So many people are doing it with different approaches and I think that the future of technology and technology has more pastel, glitter, pastel… holographic, graphics and I hope that it’ll be more decolonized and highlight more contributions of people of color. And I think it’ll be more immersive and hands-on and maybe literally hands-on through virtual reality.
K: Do you have any plan to use maybe like virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) in the future?
A: I don’t have specific plans for VR or AR in the near future but I have ideas for videos, video series or like interactive websites, I think it’d be cool to work with VR or AR in some way but I don’t want to do it just to do it so if something comes up where I feel like it will be a good match for AR I’ll try that out.
K: Let’s talk about your business model. I’ve seen that you started a business with a Kickstarter page. I was wondering how did you build your audience initially and how you managed the business model that made it possible for you to do it full-time?
A: So I accidentally got lucky before I did the Kickstarter I had spent the year or two before giving a lot of conference talks about a project I had done with hacking a knitting machine at a hackathon and so I built up Twitter and social media friends I met through conferences, so that definitely helped once I did the Kickstarter and started the business. For the business model, the Kickstarter definitely helped with the initial plans and I also saved some money when I had been working full-time. Once I started, one thing that I ran into was, if you’re making an education-based business, a lot of times your market is students and teachers, and those two groups of people that don’t get much funding. Most students don’t have that much money and I don’t know how it is in Indonesia but in the US teachers are severely underfunded, they’re not paid very well and some teachers even have to pay for the classroom supplies out of their own pocket which is terrible. That’s the kind of audience for educational materials. I found that I have to supplement the business with making apparel because most people who bought the apparel are people who are already working full-time as software engineers and have money to buy the apparel, and the apparel helps the educational side of the business which is kind of harder to get the funding for.
K: Wow I was actually quite surprised that’s what’s happening in the US because I thought it only happens here in Indonesia. Let’s talk about your recent innovation, the Clipper Card ring that I think Galuh is interested to know about. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea?
A: Sure, so I am like a really forgetful person, I’m always losing things so when I’m walking into or out of the subway station I’m usually trying to find like oh where did I put the card, I know it’s just in my purse, so sometimes I would hold up the line, people would be waiting behind me, and I thought it’s easier if I just have something on my hand that’s with me all the time and I tap on to the gate to get to the subway. So when I talked to my friend Sam who’s an engineer at Etsy and who’s made RFID jewelry before and written tutorials on the Internet. Because the transit card is plastic, you can melt it with a nail polish remover, and you can get access to the RFID and antenna inside. You can change the shape of the antenna and make it smaller, it has a slightly less range that way, but it can still be read by a reader. And I put that inside a resin ring.
G: Did you face any particular challenge when creating the ring, did you stumble upon issue, and if you did how you overcome it?
A: The first ring I made didn’t work, it was frustrating because I got an NFC reader and it was working up until the very last step. So it’s hard to know what happened, and in my frustration I tweeted about my process and feeling discouraged that at the last step it didn’t work, and wanting to be honest about my process because sometimes things don’t work on the first try, most often it doesn’t work on the first time. A lot of people on Twitter chimed in with ideas, a lot of the ideas ended up being really helpful, so my friend Sam suggested that the because the wires of the antenna are so delicate, to try to protecting them with tape, when I did that and tried again, the ring worked that time. So, even though it was kind of like a little scary to be vulnerable and show my failures on the Internet, I feel like it was worth it for the way that everyone chimed in with helpful suggestions.
G: Did you already have any response from the Bay Area transit providers, like were they OK with you modifying the Clipper card, or do they have some sort of regulation about it?
A: It was something that I was a little worried about because I know different countries have different regulations, and some people have to pay huge fines for modifying their transit cards, but when I posted about this project, the Bay Area Rapid Transit—the subway system—they re-shared the project on Twitter. So I was really surprised and happy to see that. Then a couple minutes later they followed up by saying that “but we don’t actually endorse this”, and after some back and forth conversation with them… it was also funny to see that, as they were tweeting with me, they were also talking in person to the head of the fare checking to really decide that as long as the ring was scannable, just like a card, they would consider it valid. So that was exciting.
K: Do you have any plan to sell it or is it just your side project and you’ll open it to everyone so they can make a DIY themselves?
A: Yeah so my plan is to share instructions on how to make their own and have it open like that.
G: If possible I can probably do it with my commuter line card for the train but I’m not sure if they’ll allow it so we’ll have to see. But I really want to try it so I’m really looking forward to the tutorial.
A: Can’t wait to see what you make.
K: I think what I see from your work is that you’re being super intentional and authentic in everything you do. I was curious how did you come up with such courage and honesty? I think I myself might be hard to move from the cozy tech industry, how did you find the courage to move into another thing to do?
A: First of all thank you so much that means so much to hear. I think the courage to be fully myself was partly about being tired of pretending to not be my full self, and also partly from the privilege of having accumulated enough experience and credentials to take that risk. As an example, the morning that I interviewed for my last job… I had picked a sensible practical outfit that I thought looked like a professional engineer. And when I was looking at myself in the mirror, I was really unhappy with how it looked. So I made a last-minute decision to change outfit completely, I wore a furry sweater with a bunch of rabbits on it, and I thought to myself in that moment that, if my interviewer judges me for wearing this outfit, then it’s not someone I wanna work with anyway. But I think that I couldn’t have done that earlier in my career, that I wouldn’t feel like I could take that risk, so I think it came with more experience and privilege to get to that point. And I feel like the community I found on social media helps me to be authentic. Like whenever I shared vulnerable things or personal things or times that I failed or times that I was wrong, I’m always worried about posting it at first, and then I get so many responses back that are really encouraging and supportive and I always end up being glad that I was vulnerable and true to myself.
K: Yeah I think I also experience it with myself like I always think that being in the tech industry I need to blend with the other men so I can hang out with them. But at some point I realize that I want to be myself, that I don’t want to look like the male engineers, so it’s encouraging to hear from someone else that we need to stand up for ourselves and be authentic.
K: You mentioned about privilege and access, as we know opportunities are not distributed equally, so what do you think about what people with limited access should do to climb up the ladder, is there any suggestion or recommendation?
A: I guess most people with limited access that I know they’re already working so hard and trying their hardest. If they have difficulty climbing the ladder I don’t think it’s their fault, it’s more of the society’s fault and just kind of society and capitalism and… it’s systemic. I feel like instead of advice for those who I think are already trying their hardest, I have more advice for everyone else who has more power and privilege, that if you’re already more established in your career, I would encourage you to volunteer, mentor, or contribute to organizations that are doing work to provide more opportunities for marginalized people, and I think it’s our responsibility to make tech more accessible for those people.
K: I think that’s so true, and that’s why we started this podcast in the first place, because we want to point out to people that there are a lot of opportunities here in the tech industry so you don’t have to be afraid to get into the tech world, and also we would like to get advice from people like you so that other people who might have just started can get encouraged to hear from your experience. So thank you so much for sharing your story.
K: Alright. So, let’s talk about Kartini. What do you think the women nowadays can do extend Kartini’s fight for women, particularly in Indonesia?
A: I guess my answer is going to be kinda similar to my last answer. Most women I know are doing so much, all women I know in my life are so amazing and so amazing and so hardworking, so instead I want to call on men to do more cause women are already doing enough. Men should work harder to support and promote the women that they know, they should believe women and listen to them if they talk about sexism that they face, and men should also do more to call out other men if they hear them say sexist things.
K: What I can summarize from our conversation is, one, it’s not impossible to combine creativity with tech, because sometimes when we think about tech, one thing that automatically come up is that we have to be very logical. But actually creativity helps too, like what you do with the zines that you’ve created, I think it will be so much helpful for those people who might not be interested in technology in the first place, but after seeing your explanation on how tech works, they might be more encouraged and curious to learn more about tech. And the second thing is it’s important to surround ourselves with positive and likeminded people that can help us to be more authentic and intentional in our work, and also I think we have to be very intentional and find a way to do something we want to do in a realistic way. I think I learned it from you that you have to gain more experience and credibility before you do your zine business. It’s so inspiring to hear that. One more thing, it’s important to share our vulnerabilities and be really authentic to other people like what you did with your Clipper Card ring process, you open the process to other people so they can also see what are the problems you encounter during the process so I think it’s very important for more people to see that we face problems as well, like all of us. So yeah I think it’s important to be authentic and show our vulnerability.
K: So thank you so much Amy for sharing your story and I think we learned a lot too. Any last words for our listeners?
A: I would be glad to be more involved in the tech community in Indonesia and tech diversity efforts in Indonesia. I visit about once a year so let me know if there are any communities or events.
K: Of course, so all right I think that’s a wrap. Thank you so much Amy for sharing your inspiration with us today and it means a lot for the show. So see you around on the Internet.