When you were 17, what did you want to be?
Before high school, I was a child actor – I did a small local TV show for three or four seasons. I don’t have the direct translation but the title basically meant, “Grandson, Father & Grandfather,” and I was the grandson. I had so much fun. When I was that phase, I thought, “I’m going to go to Hollywood, I’m going to be a big movie star.” But then my mom said, “Stop, study, go to school.” It was just taking too much time. My mom was basically chauffeuring me everywhere, and I was not doing great in school.
At 12, my uncle bought me a computer and I would just mess around on the Internet. I was already building websites when I was 12 or 13, so I wanted to do something around technology. I got really fascinated by the hacking field very early on. I started buying sites and flipping them, hiring writers and designers to refresh the site, and then selling them back. I was actually good at writing, so I started ghostwriting for other people. And people would pay me to advertise their products, to blog about them on my site, so I started making money off that very early on.
I just built websites and got good at it.
How did you decide to attend Islamic International College?
I was making good money for a high schooler. Every week, I would get a hotel with my friends and go party. And then my mom wanted me to go to college, and I said, “No, I’m making good money.” And she said, “Let’s make a goal. If you can give me $5000 a month, then you can do whatever you want,” and she gave me one year to figure it out. That didn’t really work out.
My mom got my uncle to come and see me and bring me to the International Islamic College, a very small college. I was in my t-shirt and short pants, I wasn’t ready for it. We went to see a counselor to figure out what I was actually good at. I’m good at math and English, and I also like computers, so they said, “Why don’t you go into computer science?” So I did computer science diploma - not a bachelor’s degree. You don’t need it; it’s basically just a ticket to get interviews. If you don’t know what you’re doing, no one’s going to hire you.
After that, my mom wanted me to get a bachelor’s degree; she went to college, but then she got married and she got pregnant with me, and she did not finish her studies and she really wanted me to. I said fine, but I didn’t want to study too long. There are a couple of universities that have a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and I kept looking at who would get me to graduate the fastest and it was this school called Sunway University. I also got a scholarship.
I did well in college. Everything was so easy to me, I was leading every group project because I’d already done it. I met a bunch of cool people there, I finished my bachelor’s degree in computer science but it wasn’t something significant in my life.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
In 2007, right after high school, I wanted to get my site visible to everyone, so I found this method called Search Engine Optimization (SEO). It was pretty new back then, so I searched on various articles and eBooks and I found this guy, Aaron Wall, who created an SEO book. I think it was $99, and back then I was still a student, so I didn’t want to spend that kind of money for a book. I sent him and email, and said, “Hey, I’m a student, I’m interested in this field, can you give me a free copy?” And he just gave it to me. So that’s how it all started. I started reading about it and thought, “This is simple, I can do this.”
I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, something technology related. I wanted to open a business like an Internet café, because people my age were obsessed with games and the Internet. But then I did an internship at an SEO agency. I didn’t think SEO would be something I could make money off of, but it was something to do in the interim until I figured things out.
After the internship, I continued working for them for almost two months as an SEO analyst and that went well. I looked at their business process and it wasn’t efficient, so I overhauled their entire business. I overhauled the development checklist because it hadn’t been updated in years. I left when Monster.com recruited me.
The way [Monster] found me is I always had an online presence; I always updated my LinkedIn account, I always had my personal site up, I had my profiles on all theses job boards updated, even though I wasn’t actively looking for a job. I kept everything updated just in case. So Monster called me up, and I did an interview. I didn’t know I was going to get the job, but I had a disagreement with my CEO – we’re good now – but I resigned and I was jobless for about 2 months.
In those two months, I joined my residential association partly because, while my English was good, my Malay language was terrible, even though it was the local language. I come from a mixed background; my mom is Chinese, my dad was Malay, and my mom always spoke to me in English. For me, English is important because of the Internet and Google - that’s how I learned to build sites.
So I joined the [residential] association to improve my Malay language and get to know the people. They were starting to build a security system in the neighborhood, building fences and a guardhouse, so I was involved with that. I worked with the local city council, the police, I was reviewing contracts, I got all these skills that you wouldn’t be able to get in a normal company. And after the project was done, I got the offer to work at Monster.
I started at Monster as an SEO analyst. I was the first SEO hire in Malaysia, so before that the SEO manager was based in Boston and he was the only SEO person. Within two or three months I became the technical lead. My manager would come up with all the strategies, but you need to have someone translate all this high level strategy to create a technical spec, something that developers can understand, and work with them and make sure it’s executed correctly. I already had a developer background, I did coding, I built sites, so I could do both of those.
Six months in I hired someone to work for me, and by the end of the year, I was advising multiple software engineering teams in Malaysia and Prague, and talking to product managers in the Netherlands and the US. I worked there for almost 2 years.
In May, I took two weeks off for [my first] trip to Europe. We went to 12 countries in 10 days, and when I came back I was already planning my next trip. I also had all these other travel opportunities, like Monster flew me out to Seattle for a conference, and then out to San Francisco for another conference. While I was working for Monster, I made a deal to work from home 2 or 3 days a week, so I was already working remotely mostly, but I couldn’t convince them to go fully remote. It just wasn’t their company culture. But I was happy, I got to travel, and I got a visa to the US; that was all Monster.
Monster was getting acquired by another company, and right around that time my current boss from Zapier DM’ed me on Twitter. I hadn’t heard of this company before; I didn’t really know anything about them. I didn’t really think about it, but a week later I looked on the site and applied for the SEO and Growth Manager job. I had three interviews with the CEO, with someone from marketing, with the CTO, and my boss. I wasn’t expecting anything,
[I started in] November last year. It is awesome. They’re fully remote, I can travel anywhere I want, and if I need to go to a retreat or a conference, they’ll just buy me a ticket from wherever I am. The minute I knew I was going to be working for them, I started planning my travels, looking at companies like We Roam. In April I joined Hacker Paradise for three weeks in Peru, and then I joined We Roam [in May].
I like my job. Everything is remote, so I can travel. I definitely don’t want to go back to working in an office. And part of it is, I want to make all these connections, meet all these people. Maybe I’ll meet someone and then we can create a startup. All this travel is building connections, meeting people.
That’s how I work. When I was with Monster, I would go out for lunch and just hang out with different people from different departments every day. I would get to know them, and then I knew all these people, and I could do my job really well. It’s a win-win. I learned that on the city council. It’s all about who you know, so that’s just how I operate.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
Don’t worry too much, do good things, be kind to people, be friends with everyone. Life will just set you up. Find out what you really like and just do it as a hobby. For me I didn’t realize I was going to do SEO, but I just did it as a side job and I was good at it and I liked it. And now that’s my job. It’s cliché, but follow your passion. And in the meantime, do what you gotta do, find a job, but don’t forget to keep up the things that you actually love to do. Keep the side hustle going, make sure that you’re sharp enough when the right job comes in.
I love this quote from the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, when Will Smith is interviewing, and he said, “I'm the type of person that if you ask me a question and I don't know the answer, I'm gonna tell you that I don't know. But I bet you what, I know how to find the answer and I will find the answer.” I used that in my interview with Monster and Zapier. Even with my skills, I wasn’t sure I was the person they were looking for. I just said, “Let me know what skills I lack, and I’ll figure it out. I’ll work on it. I’ll get better at that.” You don’t know what you don’t know. Make sure they know that you know how to figure it out.