Ep 35 - Hiroko Nishimura Technical Instructor and AWS Hero
Once again, welcome to the Talking Serverless Podcast. I am your host, Ryan Jones, and I am joined today by Hiroko Nishimura. Hiroko is an AWS Hero who started as a special education teacher, turned systems administrator, turned technical instructor. She is the founder of AWS newbies, cloud newbies, and of 24 villages. She is also an AWS and Cloud Instructor at LinkedIn and has excellent writing skills. She helps individuals with nontraditional technical backgrounds learn about Cloud Computing and Amazon Web Services by creating understandable and straightforward resources.
Ryan Jones Q: Where and how did your journey begin? How did you reach today's position?
Hiroko Nishimura: With special education as majors in my college, I was a special education teacher. As I was not interested in teaching, I moved to New York, looking for a job, and had sent 400 applications for half a year. Later on, I got a job as a junior IT Helpdesk engineer. At that time, I had no technical background, and I was not sure whether to move forward with the job or not. Later, it turned out that their client was looking for a bilingual helpdesk engineer. As I am fluent in Japanese and English, the company was ready to teach me the help desk stuff and want my language skills. So, I started working as a helpdesk engineer. And after about ten months, I moved on to an IT support analyst role, and after a little over a year there, I moved on to a technical service engineer role at a tech startup. There I first began encountering the cloud and SAS products and other similar stuff.
We were using Okta, G Suite, Slack, and everything on the cloud. It was difficult for me to fit myself in a sysadmin role as I didn't have technical knowledge. But with SAS products, I felt that I could work with my other coworkers' team because it was a lot more intuitive for me to use growing up with social media. So, I was working there for about two years a year. Later, I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my career and where I wanted to go because I knew I didn't want to do the helpdesk role forever; And one of the things that I came across was Amazon Web Services. I didn't know what AWS was, what it did, or why it was impressive. But I just knew that in our company, we used AWS.
At that time, one of my friends had taken the solutions architect associate exam. He passed in; got a cool job with excellent salaries and superior benefits. So, I began learning and signed up to take the cloud practitioner exam as per my manager's opinion. I didn't understand any of the resources or the courses or blogs trying to explain the AWS services and any content related to the cloud practitioner exam. It took me a while to figure out. Even though the resources are created for people who don't work in cloud computing, they still take for granted as you have legacy IT infrastructure, background, and knowledge. The explanations they were using didn't mean anything to me because I didn't have that IT infrastructure background. I had two weeks left before my exam, but I didn't know any of these things.
Thinking about a better way to study reminded me of my old teaching profession. I decided to make myself a study sheet and do it like I'm teaching someone else. Hence, I created AWS newbies.com, a resource website, which is actually just my study sheet to pass the certification exam. I made it within nine days, and then studied for a few days and passed a certification exam, and I was all ready to just forget about it. After two months, I was contacted by a Content Manager at LinkedIn learning, asking if I'd be interested in creating an introduction to AWS courses, catered explicitly towards people with non-technical backgrounds. Then, I started getting many people from different companies reaching out asking if I'd be interested in working as a technical writer for their company. It was a mind-blowing thing to realize that this job I do for fun as a hobby could be a career. I had no idea that technical writing was a job you got paid a decent amount of money for. Moreover, the whole course thing was incredible too.
I asked them whether I am the right person to be teaching such a course. And what they said to me was, there's a lot of great people who teach in intermediate and advanced level courses. These people have been in the teaching industry for many years, and they are good at teaching at the higher levels. As they've been a part of this industry for a long time, they don't have the beginner's mind. That's the entry point for me because I have the beginner's mind. I also have enough technical expertise to understand it and then break it down for people using my educational background.
After I started my tech career, the door was wide open, and certain people taught me how my skills could be useful for the newbies. So that's around when I started working as a technical writer, technical instructor, and creating LinkedIn courses. After a while, I quit my full-time job to do more technical writing and content creation full time. I know I have been doing many very different strange things since then, but I always want to help deconstruct jargon and technical concepts so that anyone can access them and start careers, people can start learning new things. I have been working as a consultant for about a year and a half now. Apart from the four courses I have at LinkedIn learning, I also have been teaching CSS lessons and classes. I've again been doing technical writing for different startups for documentations.
Ryan Jones Q: Cool journey. How did you manage to learn Serverless as you had less programmable background? What is the lesson you learned in the process?
Hiroko Nishimura: After a year or so, I was trying to analyze why exactly this happened. One of the biggest things was that the cloud practitioner exam was new for me. You need to know about the services, billing, and concepts. The solutions architect has the same content. I guess people just went and reused the exact content they use for Solutions Architect, and it is scoped to the cloud practitioner exam. But the problem was that one Solutions Architect associate exam is catered towards the people who've been working in IT infrastructure. So, the cloud practitioner exam was marketed towards people who aren't working in the tech field. Indeed, you can't have the same resources and the same content, and then expect these newbies to understand like the engineers have been working in it for five years. And I think that was kind of like the gap that I was falling into.
Many people were also falling into that gap because as soon as I created AWS newbies.com, I was getting over 10,000 hits per month to that blog. It was bizarre and unbelievable for me, and many people were struggling. Yes, I definitely struggled a lot with it, which is why I created it. Bringing together all these resources and information and then combing through them to try to understand helps me. So, the fact that it helps other people also is kind of a bonus for me. With my teaching experience, it helped with learning how to deconstruct concepts because I needed to understand them, which means many other people will understand them. I was kind of the caliber for myself like if I read this, I got this. And if that's not the case, I have to go back still and kind of research so that I knew what I was talking about.
So that's kind of the way that I was writing the content. I started with like, what is the cloud? Cloud is just the internet. But, no one tells you that instead of deconstructing the definitions. I use many metaphors, and I try to use metaphors where people can relate to them, and it's in their daily lives. Hence, AWS seems really big. Moreover, cloud computing looks big and nebulous. While you're already using the cloud, you have used Google Drive, that's cloud computing, you're uploading your files onto Google Drive, and then you can retrieve them later. You can do the same thing with AWS s3, you upload files, and then you can retrieve them. By linking things that you're already using to other stuff that we're trying to teach them, it helps people make the connection and not think that cloud computing AWS is as scary as many people tend to try to make it seem.
Impact of AWSnewbies.com
Ryan Jones Q: Sounds cool and impressive. What is the impact of releasing AWS newbies.com? How it affected the community?
Hiroko Nishimura: The website doesn’t get many hits these days. I think maybe a couple of 1000 a month. But it has become a brand on its own. I created a public portfolio, on which I have a lot of people coming to me asking if I’d be interested in writing their documentations. In my opinion, that’s like the most significant learning poll for the public. Whatever, it could be a blog, it could be a YouTube; it could be just tweeting content, anything you create is there as your public portfolio. You have no idea the reach that your blog post can potentially have. That is precisely what happened with the LinkedIn learning courses. A Content Manager found my AWS newbies.com blog, and they reached out to me because they liked how I have explained things. The next question was, “Would you be interested in creating courses with us?” This changed my life. But because I had this blog up, and people saw it, it created all these opportunities for me, and I had no idea this was a career that I can have. The impact was very much huge. People still reach out to me about AWS newbies. Furthermore, many people who take my courses reach out to me all the time and say how it’s helped them pass their certification exams.
Book on Freelancing
Ryan Jones Q: How do the technical documentation and LinkedIn courses for newbies help you write a book? I saw that you had to publish a book on freelance finances.
Hiroko Nishimura: Yes, I'm still in the process of writing that book because my life got disordered. One of the things I've been creating and doing even with blog posts is OBS and YouTube. I do so much research, and I asked so many people for advice or resources. I dig more on how I can help other people. Hence, my blog posts usually compile information that I learned that I wish I could Google and learn from a blog post. I was sharing more details on the tools, loved to know about the things before I started, how you do the OBS, and more. It took me days to figure out something. So here it is for you. You can read it in two minutes.
The freelance finance 101 book is in the same vein. Because one of the things I found out when I left corporate was freelance, and self-employment is actually shrouded in many mysteries. And a lot of people don't like talking about it, especially the finance part of it. I have been struggling for a year and a half now, trying to learn things like how do I start and make a bank account for my business? How do I even get an LLC? What kind of company should I make? One of the most prominent poles of going freelance was to pursue a lifestyle that I can feel comfortable in, but I need to make enough money to live off. So, retirement is pretty big in my mind. I think like if you're self-employed, how do you do retirement? There's a lot of technical documentation and pretty good websites.
But when you are thrown out, thinking about which way to turn and what to do, there are not many resources that can help you. These are ways you create a bank account, get a business credit card, make a solo 401k. It's all the stuff that I wish to hear from a mentor when I first started instead of me kind of going almost in the dark, trying to feel my way into figuring these things out. Therefore, the book freelance finances 101 that I'm hoping to publish this year is all about how you can get all the knowledge that I have after feeling my way through.
I have been spending the past week or two dealing with taxes. I am still in the process of dealing with the tax stuff. Now, I finally think that I got an accountant. I'm very excited because I've been looking for one for so long. How does everyone do their accounting? Still, I don't know about that 1000$ month retainer. I was looking for people who are like, maybe a couple of years into freelancing. But it turned out a lot of them are kind of barely keeping afloat, too. I feel like I'm finally kind of floating after a year and a half. So, I'm hoping to cut everyone else's drowning period by a couple of years once I published this book.
Ryan Jones Q: What does the beginning of various ventures like starting your businesses and facing things alone tell you about yourself?
Hiroko Nishimura: The primary thing with starting your own business or going out on your own is you're suddenly every part of a company. When I was working in corporate, I was there to do a job. If there was a big project, I had a project manager; Some salespeople have to worry about bringing money. And I didn't have to worry about accounting or HR, not what the CEO had to worry about. But I'm suddenly finding myself being every single one of them. If I didn't figure out the finances, I'm not getting paid. But if I'm focusing too much on figuring taxes and all those other things out, I cannot put my time into actually getting the money to have these problems. It was a strange move from a salaried employee to a technically kind of like a gig economy employee where you only get paid with what you work. Moreover, if you're not doing something, then you don't get money.
One of the biggest things that I was trying to figure out was how to get passive income to have cash flow, regardless of what I did. I never had to think about stuff like that. Suppose you are putting that 40 hours a week in, but you can take time off, get sick, and do certain things. And as long as you're working a salary job and not an hourly job, you get the same paycheck. But then things changed. Suddenly, I wondered how I kept on having this financial, like flow of money coming in? That hits a baseline of a particular point without scrambling around to find new clients if I have to drop one or one contract ends or something like that. I've never worried about stuff like that before.
I've been impressed that you learn so quickly when you just have to do it. I never thought I had these kinds of skill sets of project management and negotiations, and money management. Basically, I am an anxious person and can have a semi-functional company. It shocked me about my ability to pivot, as every new client is asking for something else. Being able to offer what they are looking for has been really interesting. So, I don't plan to go back to corporate. If I feel like if I ever do, all this stuff that I'm learning help get me the job that I want, as this is not something you can readily get in the corporate field. Hence, I kind of recommend that everyone try it out as it'll have excellent benefits to their day job.
Ryan Jones Q: When you encounter a negotiation or get into these conversations, or when you are talking to a founder or head of engineering or at a client, do you face imposter syndrome? Have you found any strategies to overcome it or to combat it?
Hiroko Nishimura: To be frank, I'm just a ball of imposter syndrome. I've been giving talks, and I think writing or doing podcast interviews about this a lot recently. I don't have a technical background, but I was working in it, which in itself is a very imposter syndrome. I did not take many things into grave account, with which I had a lot of negative experiences.
But over the past couple of years, I call myself a professional beginner. Still, I don't understand why my clients hire me. They want that beginner's mind, and they want me as someone who creates the content that will teach other people who don't understand specific topics. So, I have been able to turn my imposter syndrome on its head, and it's benefiting me a lot. I took almost five to six years of working in tech. I think many people take a lot longer to get to the point where you can say.
One thing that I found out is a form of self-confidence. That is, you need a certain level of self-confidence to acknowledge that you don't know these things. I really had no idea, and I had to admit it because I did spend a couple of years trying to mold myself into the tech bro, wearing sweaters and 15 years of sysadmin experience. How do I become that? I think it's impossible. So, I found myself where my skill sets and my impostorism quote-unquote are valued. I think I'm pretty much running at full speed on the content side;
But on the business side, I am a beginner like I had no idea. I've never done project management even. But now, I am trying to negotiate with potential clients. One thing I think I've gotten a lot better at in the past two years is decoupling what people are saying and doing, like emotion. So, I think previously, if someone said they didn't like what I did, or something I've created, or they disagree with me, it was like an attack on me. I wasn't confident enough to decouple. But now I'm like, it's just a misunderstanding here, and this is going to make it better. These clients are paying me money to create something that they want. I am here to make that happen. But we don't have to agree on everything.
Being able to decouple my work and the quality of my work has helped a lot. When something comes up, I don't understand what they're thinking and why they would do certain things or say things that could be hurtful. Indeed, I don't have to understand what exactly they're thinking. But these could be the mitigating circumstances that made them act this way or say these things. I feel like this is just a business thing. So, let's talk about it, or let's figure out what's going on. Being able to think that way has changed the way I work and my anxiousness.
I've been kind of getting a little better slowly at being able to sort of tamper down my initial take. Yeah, there's been a lot of personal growth. I'm no longer the lowest rung employee who can rely on a higher-level employee or manager. Finally, I have to deal with everything. So that's been a notable change.
Ryan Jones Q: Do you feel like that's also been like a therapeutic approach helping you? Do you think further along in terms of imposter syndrome or anxiety when you first started?
Hiroko Nishimura: My first job was priced at $14 an hour. When I started consulting, I threw out a number or hired me for a higher number. It was like the most validating kind of experience. Yes, these people value my work. In the corporate field, I didn't feel like my work or my skills were being respected. But when you work freelance, you are somewhere where you're excelling. And for me, that's like the intersection of technical instruction and technical writing. Finding this niche has allowed me to take everything that I've had and make me feel that it's okay to be me. In the corporate world, you get hired a lot of times to do a specific job. The job description is there; they have an idea of who they want. That is probably not me, as I have to try to mold myself into that person. When clients are consulting with me and want my help, they want my whole package; they want my expertise, background, and thought process. So that has helped with my imposter syndrome because I'm being hired to do exactly what I am and who I am.
Notable Moments in Freelancer Life
Ryan Jones Q: Have you had euphoric moments of entrepreneurship in your freelancer life?
Hiroko Nishimura: I've had a lot of moments like that. When you start from zero, you get many moments because every client and every paycheck is inspiring. I think my most recent one was when I got my last royalty payment for LinkedIn learning, and it was more than my salary working in it in New York. That was a crucial validating moment for me to have made this leap. Many people are using what I've created, and even without money attached to it, I think that is like a really validating thing that makes you feel like. I'm doing something that's helping people. That's what I wanted to do. I think it's a cool experience to have.
Ryan Jones Q: Have you learned to say "No" to more things? When people would ask me to do 100 different things, I would say yes to 100 of them. Then I would get so stressed out because it wasn't what I wanted to do or wasn't related to my focus. Have you run into that kind of moment?
Hiroko Nishimura: Yeah, that was a huge problem, and it's still a huge problem. After a while, I realized that your manager is a gatekeeper for you not to get overwhelmed when working in the corporate world. One day, I'm the one that has to say yes or no. I will say yes to everything. Because when you're starting, you have the feeling you have to do this. I need to make money, and I need to have clients. All these flash through your minds, but then you get so burnt out so quickly. This year, I'm actually supposed to be not doing any work.
I quit my corporate job because I was burnt out. And now I'm getting burnt out because I'm doing too much freelance work. This is not why I quit my stable job. So, I was like, in 2021, I'm just going to focus on my physical health and mental health. But I'm still ending up saying yes to many things, but they're kind of more short-term projects, which I find fun. I have also been trying to figure out what to focus on because people ask you to do many different things. All things are not exciting. So, I'm trying to figure out what I enjoy doing and what I excel at doing. Hence, I do not want to divide my attention into many little things because it's effortless to get caught up in a bit of things. But it's quite hard to raise your rates to get really good at something. Suppose you keep on getting, having your time sucked up by the little stuff that pays you like $10 an hour. It is a work in progress.
Ryan Jones Q: How do you stay focused as an entrepreneur? How do you set up the schedule and make sure that people are getting messaged?
Hiroko Nishimura: Yeah, I'm awful at that because I have executive function disorder. So, I have hyper-focus. When I was making awsnewbies.com, I was hyper-focused. That's why I was able to create it in like nine days. There were days when nothing was done except Twittering. So, one thing I've started is that I am using an app called tick tick. It's like a calendar, task management to-do list, and a habit tracker all in one that has helped me kind of schedule things. It has helped me to set up a time limit for a particular job. I'm not going to do anything else, and I don't have to worry about anything else. Because I think a lot of times, I get so distracted worrying about other things that I can't focus on the work at hand. I think that has helped just scheduling the time in and then doing it. Checking in has gotten to be a bit of a struggle because every client will show us something different. Some people like Slack, some discord, some email, some Twitter. I am still in the process of trying to consolidate that and also not letting them invade into all of your time.
When working in the corporate field, I was contracted to work from eight to five. As I was working in helpdesk, I was always supposed to check my email all the time, because there might be tickets in there. I had to check my Slack. The same process was done for 24 hours on all seven days. Because it's like, freelance. I'm not even maintaining people's infrastructure as I'm writing documentation for them. They do not need your response. my brain is still in the IT Helpdesk mode, even after two seconds, he sent the email. It's like they are locked out, and they need help now. So, it's been a process.
Ryan Jones Q: How have you gone about setting boundaries in your work? Do you turn everything off at a specific time of day, or what does that look like?
Hiroko Nishimura: When I worked in the corporate world, I turned most of my notifications off, except those critical things my manager wouldn't let me turn off. So, after I quit, now I don't get any notifications except for Facebook messages and text messages because those are usually friends or family. I think that has helped a lot. I took off stuff like slack from my phone. I am happy that I don't have anything that beeps at me now. I'm not going to check my mails every time it flashes on my screen. In the beginning, I was very much anxious about that, because I was like, what would happen if I miss it. I'm always so stuck on computers and the phone anyways that I'm not going to go that long without checking my email.
Another thing that I try to do is I didn't have weekends for like a year. So actually, I never had weekends or holidays because when I had weekends and holidays on, during my corporate time, I was using them to do my side hustles. So, when I quit my corporate job, that just kind of bled through, even though I theoretically don't have that much work to do. My brain was never off from work. Hence, I've been trying to give myself weekends and time not to touch the computer, not think about work, and only work on things that I want to work on. I think that's schedule helped me. Sometimes, when your clients are also freelancers or self-employed, they also don't have weekends, and they even message on the weekends, and then you guys end up communicating on the weekends, as you're both freelancers. So, setting the boundary for yourself helps a lot with the clients also feeling okay with having their limits.
Ryan Jones Q: What would be your advice to other people in the space, thinking about entrepreneurship, or thinking about getting into Cloud about five or ten years ago?
Hiroko Nishimura: So, five or ten years ago, I was in school, I had no idea any of this was even possible. Hence, I think the most significant recommendation is to go out of your own space and your immediate area of expertise and see what people are doing. Because I had no idea, these kinds of careers that we're leading are possible. I had never imagined them because I didn't know about them. But now I'm surrounded by so many people doing so many cool things.
At the beginning of your career, you're so overwhelmed with becoming who your employer hires to be because you're like an entry-level employee. It's hard to take a look around. But I think finding mentors or finding people who are experienced, seeing what they're doing, and finding something that speaks to you as a person and your skill sets is significant. This is because I spent a couple of years trying to become this person that works as a sysadmin and a tech startup. I had to kill a lot of parts of myself to try to become that person. I was depressed, and I couldn't sleep on Sunday nights because I didn't want to work on Mondays. I wish someone could advise that there are careers now with the whole revolution of technology, there's probably something that's catered for you. You want to search for it and find it. You don't necessarily have to become a caricature of something to be accepted and do well and find that dream career. So, I had no idea what I'll be doing in five years. But I've stopped trying to speculate because real life has become a lot more exciting.
Ryan Jones Q: Are there any things that you want to promote? How can people reach out to you?
Hiroko Nishimura: I think most of my links are at Hiroko nishimura.com, my full name. My Twitter account also has my full name, and I'm always available on Twitter. I'm on LinkedIn, and there are my LinkedIn learning courses. You can find that intro to aws.com and AWS newbies.com too. And I email@example.com. As you know, this year, I guess working on a freelance finance 101 book. I am available on YouTube also in my full name. Now, I'm learning how to do video editing, and those are like new skills that I haven't tried out yet. So, those are the kind of places I am at, but generally, I think all of my links are at Hiroko nishimura.com.
Ryan Jones: Thank You so much for coming. To those listening, this has been the Talking Circles podcast with Ryan Jones. If you like our show and want to learn more, check out talking serverless.io. Please leave us a review on iTunes, Spotify, or Google Podcasts, and join us next time as we sit down with another fantastic Serverless guest!