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How Nicolas Cage Taught Me How to Code with Paul Chin Jr.
About Paul Chin Jr.
Paul Chin Jr. is a curious human who likes to work with new technologies. His day job is at Cloudreach as a cloud solutions architect, working with enterprises to modernize their applications in the cloud. On the side, he’s a prophet for Nicolas Cage and is called to spread his message.

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Announcer:  Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud, with your host, cloud economist, Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on this state of the technical world and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.

Corey:  Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I'm Corey Quinn. I'm joined this week by Paul Chin Jr, who's a lot of things. He's a curious human who likes to work with new technologies. He's a cloud solutions architect at Cloudreach, helping companies modernize their applications in the cloud. But most importantly, and the reason we're having this conversation is that he is a prophet for Nicolas Cage and has been called upon to spread his holy message. Paul, welcome to the show.


Paul:  Welcome. Thank you so much. I'm so, so happy to be here with all of your listeners, my brothers and sisters as I like to call them, in the church of Cage.


Corey:  So tell us a little bit more about this. To be clear, we are speaking on Nicolas Cage, the somewhat washed up actor who could never turn down a role, correct?


Paul:  That is correct. I wouldn't say he's washed up, but yes. I do fancy myself at a profit of Nicolas Cage. I started off uh where I had been doing a bunch of different startup things, not even remotely connected to technology. Um I've had restaurants and food trucks and T-shirt businesses and photography studios. And the whole time it was all converging into this singular point where I was being called in a different direction. Um and that point I knew I had to learn how to code, how to write it, um how software was actually made, instead of relying on somebody else to make it for me. Um and it's a pretty big, daunting task when you're just like, I don't really know how to code. I'm okay with computers. I've used spreadsheets a lot. Um the logic in it seemed to make sense. But as you're starting out, as I was starting out, I really needed something to guide me and I needed something to really focus on because you get lost in sort of the tutorial madness of building the same thing over and over again.


Paul:  And so when I looked almost jokingly deep down inside me, I needed to find like a muse or a source material and it was it's the internet that really has given me the superpower of learning how to code. So I said to myself, how am I going to really give back to the internet? And the best and the only answer was to worship Nicolas Cage as a God of the internet. So all of my projects focused on creating things or exploring Nicolas Cage as the one true God.


Paul:  So I started off building IOT projects in order to worship him, I started building react components to pull in and modify GIFs of him. I built all kinds of crazy things uh and they were all themed around Nicolas Cage. And as somebody starting off with no previous industry experience, it was the best way that I knew how to one, learn core concepts of programming really well, apply it in a way that kept me motivated and then gave me a really compelling reason to show other people, so that I can get myself in front of them to try to jump into a brand new industry.


Corey:  Got you. So can you give me an example of one of the talks you've given? Because if you just say an isolation "Yeah, I give a whole bunch of talks about Nicolas Cage." You sound insane. So having a story around, give an example how this might manifest so our listeners can visualize this as they are frantically trying to find any other podcast to listen but this one.


Paul:  Sure. So um one example being that this is a cloud podcast, uh cloud technologies are so new all the time, coming out with stuff, AWS just cranking all kinds of features and services out. And um whenever they come out, I have to play with them. One that came out at the time was Step Functions. And I had been using lambdas For a little bit and we knew that step functions was going to serve a very interesting spot in order to help orchestrate how the lambdas get run. And I thought to myself, well this is a perfect example of when you really need a to bring some extra control to a certain process. And I thought, what is a better process than stealing the Declaration of Independence? And so I started exploring this idea of breaking down the heist in terms of singular functions for each thing that Nicolas Cage has to do as he goes through the process of stealing uh the Declaration of Independence.


Paul:  In my step function, I have all the different states that he goes through in the movie. I compared each you know function to what he actually does. And then I gave a talk about step functions and where I teach people about the step functions, how they're supposed to work, how you move pass state around. But the thing that we're actually doing is calling to different parts of the movie, uh just in code. I thought that was a really a cool and fun way to show off one thing while still talking about our one true God, Nicolas Cage.


Corey:  Excellent. So I tend to have a certain affinity for the ridiculous when it comes to conference talks, from using illustrative points to tell a story. A while back I started talking and evangelizing I suppose about my favorite database, Route 53. And that was hilarious in so only as far as that no one could quite tell if I was serious or not. Spoiler, I'm completely serious. And someone built an entire system in Ruby, on top of Route 53, so you could query it, you could update records, create tables, etc.


Corey:  And someone on Reddit wound up posting later in time that they weren't sure if I was serious or not and this actually sounded like a good idea, should they do it? At which point I started to realize, wow, people are actually listening to the nonsense that I say. That becomes something of a problem. I have spoken with some of the people on the Route 53 team who are in equal parts amused and horrified and it it turns out that it's not the worst idea in the world for some applications. So my question for you becomes, does at some point when building these talks, does the actually stealing the declaration of independence begin to seem like a good idea?


Paul:  All the time. Uh I've done another talk where it was all about ETL pipelines and I compared it to compared it to Gone in 60 Seconds when they have to steal all the cars. I map each of the AWS services to a different character in that movie and their role. And it's all about you know doing the pipelines and you know moving data from one warehouse to another, which is essentially just moving the cars from one warehouse to another.


Paul:  And yeah, after I give these talks, I really do feel like I have this extra super power to go achieve these outlandish things like stealing a hundred cars in a night or taking the Declaration of Independence. Or it just keeps going on forever. There's 103 different movies that Nicolas Cage has done uh and I only have six talks so far, so that's still at least another hundred talks I could probably give on these movies.


Corey:  He is closing in on the number of AWS services.


Paul:  Haha. I should do that. Yeah, that's definitely a good talk idea. All the different services as Nicolas Cage movies.


Corey:  There are so many opportunities in there too. You give a talk on systems manager, Nicolas Cage's manager.


Paul:  Haha. So people do come up after as the talks um to me and really questioned whether or not I believe in Nicolas Cage as a God. Um and I definitely feel like the performances that he puts out belong in the realm of this like higher level thing. He does so many different things that there is room in there for normal people to pull interpretation from it. That is art but that is also you know maybe part religion, it's up to you however you feel about it. But when people ask me about it, I've definitely seen ... uh I haven't seen all of them. It's very difficult to see them all. But I've seen many, many of them.


Corey:  No, I'm not wanting to mock other people's beliefs. Some belief there's a UFO trailing behind a comet and that ritual group suicide is the best way to catch it. Other people believe Nicolas Cage is a good actor and who am I to crap on anyone's religious beliefs regardless of how outlandish they may be.


Paul:  Exactly. Haha.


Corey:  So on a slightly more serious note, you don't have a background yourself as a developer, so you wound up picking up learning how to code as an outgrowth of your job and you went in a serverless direction with it. Can you talk to us a little bit about what that journey looked like?


Paul:  Sure. Um yeah, like I said before, my original upbringing was a lot of um small business. I grew up in a restaurant, my parents had a Chinese restaurant here in Norfolk, Virginia. And I learned at a very early age about business and making sure that you know you have people coming in the door and you do your operations and all that. So I got a very long crash course in how to run businesses. And then when I decided to learn how to code, I knew that software was going to be the way that I can scale any business, whether that's a restaurant or a T-shirt company, like I have to have some level of understanding with software development.


Paul:  And I came into serverless, it was very much a natural thing. Right like when I got started, I use a lot of different cloud services because like I didn't know how to start an actual server. I didn't have a computer to um build a local machine on. I never learned any of the networking stuff at first. It was all very much, uh what is the tool that's going to get me an application the fastest?


Paul:  And I started learning in 2015. And at that time, serverless really wasn't like a big name thing yet. It was almost about two years later, uh all the blog articles would come out about it and it was everywhere. But when I first started off, you know I used a lot of cloud native tooling. I didn't know that's what it was called at the time. I just knew that there was a free tier. I could use this to get up and running and I had an application. Right like I was able to host files without ever configuring anything. Um I was able to make APIs without uh worrying about Linux or installing it or running a shell command. Like I never had to deal with any of that.


Paul:   That gave me a both a good advantage and disadvantage. Um when I look at customer situations now, I have to be empathetic and mindful of previous technologies, you know what they call "legacy systems". They did the best that they could at the time, but I had to go back and relearn all these challenges that they faced so that they could build the solutions that they needed. Now that you know I come in and try to help them modernize that stack, um it's both looking at it with fresh, fresh eyes, as the possibilities never end in cloud technologies, but also knowing how much they had to pull and push to make that application work you know 15 years ago.


Corey:  It's interesting to hear you say this, where you don't come from a background of operation central focus. For example, I was a grumpy CIS admin for years, so running the Linux box was always the easiest part of everything else involved. Writing code that worked was a whole separate story and that was something of a challenge.


Corey:  The part of the story that resonates though is the idea of having a larger goal that isn't getting the baseline stuff up and running and just being able to move past that directly into doing the thing that you actually want to do/need to do for whatever the outcome you're chasing is. So what's fascinating to me about the whole serverless ecosystem is that you have people coming from such a wide variety of different places when they start, and they wind up all gathering around over a shared goal of getting something done without uh I guess the ideological purity of having to spend four years getting a CS degree first.


Paul:  Yeah, totally. Um I'm constantly trying to back myself into a CS degree. Every time I dip into the theoretical waters of computational sciences, uh I ended up questioning reality again, like is this real? Is this bit real, where does it exist? Uh I fall down this hole that doesn't ... it's very cool. Like it's very, very cool that we can learn how the code gets executed on a machine. And for some workloads, it's very essential that you know how performant your stuff is. But in business, 90% of the time uh it's not going to affect most systems I would say. Um what's really affecting the bottom line is how quickly you can get this feature out uh and get it validated in the marketplace.


Paul:  And so I thankfully got to leave behind a lot of the grumpy CIS admin stuff uh and just focus purely on writing this code that's going to let me do uh what I need to. I truly believe that making this technology more accessible to more people so that other folks like me who grew up not like never thinking that they could make a computer program, to make to to really empower other folks to say, "You know what? I can do this. Um I can build a computer program. I can make the computer do what I want and use it as a true tool."


Paul:  Um it's something that I'm really passionate about. I really look out for tools that have little to no configuration. I look for tools that are going to have very clean interfaces. Whether that's programmatically with an API or you know with a browser based GUI. Um I believe in this so, so, so much. I I help volunteer for local Great Computer Challenge that's been running for a really long time and we actually give kids, uh like first and second graders, iPads with Scratch on it. They create these amazing stories and amazing interactive art pieces using nothing but drag and drop tools. And they understand the logic that goes into it, that's freaking amazing. I do the same thing with my little four year old daughter and anybody I meet on the street really, I tell them you know you could learn how to control a computer. I don't tell them code because that may or may not be too scary for them. But I tell them, you can learn how to control a computer that is not outside of the possible.


Corey:  What also interests me is that you mentioned you grew up with your parents owning a restaurant and being able to, I guess see the logistic side of that, of being steeped in a business that historically has always had to focus on things like making payroll and being able to handle like this silly, outmoded concept that here in tech we don't care about anymore, but legacy businesses do, known as profit, and being able to make sure that you can stay afoot every month. It it feels like it gives you a grounding in reality that you don't always have when you're coming at this from a more theoretical point of view. Is that an accurate assessment?


Paul:  Definitely. Um so the big leaping block from doing like I guess more main street brick and mortar businesses into understanding the importance of software, was this small window of time here in Norfolk where like the startup scene was really buzzing and everyone wanted to be a part of an incubator or have that you know million dollar Facebook idea and everyone's got an app idea. That whole ecosystem started cropping up around that time and I knew that um the business people who were able to understand the technology we're going to you know make themselves be able to perform better.


Paul:  And I saw way too many people who think that it's the technology that drives the business. Um and I saw a lot of folks who are very, very talented engineers, fully capable of creating anything their minds imagined but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to work well in the marketplace or that you know that idea was going to be able to scale to be able to support themselves, their family, employees and all that stuff.


Paul:  So depending on what a business' goal is, I've actually, side note, I think some of these businesses that come out and list as technology unicorns, I don't think their actual goal is to make money. I'm not sure what their goal is. Uh I'm not really playing at that level yet, but you know my essential upbringing is how many egg rolls can I sell? What did it cost me to to put into that egg roll and how many can I move an hour? And then I know how much money I can make, every day that's what I think about. What is the situation? What are my inputs? What is my output? Then I have what I have at the end of the day.


Corey:  How do you think that this is going to shape what, for example, you alluded to teaching kids how these things work and having a daughter yourself, who's a couple of years older than my daughter. What world do you think they're going to grow up in? How is this going to shape what education looks like?


Corey:  I mean from my perspective, when I learned this stuff in school, uh in seventh grade I had a typing class and I was always getting poor grades in that for two reasons. One, I skipped ahead and got the entire assignment finished in the first five minutes. And secondly, my typing form wasn't perfect because for me, at least at that era, I had a mental map of the keyboard, so I didn't hit anything from the appropriate fingers or whatnot. I just put my hands on the keyboard and then words came out correctly and that was the end of it. So it's it's weird that typing is the least interesting part of any of all of this, but that was as far as computer science education went back when I was in school. I don't think that's the case now, but I'm curious as to what it's going to look like, especially with the advance of things like serverless technologies in the education space. Thoughts?


Paul:  Yeah, uh man, Stem is such a buzz word, just like startup. There's tons of initiatives and very passionate people about making Stem happen. Um and I feel like we have to come back just a little bit more fundamental of regular problem solving. And in education, I really want to see these serverless and cloud technologies enable people to control a computer, build a program without ever realizing that they're doing it. To them it's just like making a game or creating some outcome that they want to have happen.


Paul:  And you know I show my kids, they're very little, they're one and four, how to use an Alexa. And they can communicate with it. They can utter things, add it. I joke that my second daughter, her first word was going to be Alexa you know because we use it to do everything. All of that is powered by, obviously AWS and serverless technologies. And now on my iPhone I can build, drag and drop integrations with the Alexa without ever having to write any code. I had built Alexa skills, you know writing JavaScript. But now I can also do it with my fingers. So for education, I think that we have to take a different look at what it means to be using technology as a tool and what it means to look at computer science as a discipline, as a different craft that underlies the implementation of the tool.


Corey:  That really resonates. It hadn't occurred to me that the idea of voice first was going to be an issue. But you're right. When my daughter was a couple months old or damn near it seems, she wasn't verbal yet, but whenever we spoke to Alexa, there would be an immediate, she would look exactly at the speaker and wait for it to respond, which was, oh, she's smart. It didn't occur to us this was a real first interaction with technology.


Corey:  I think the world that she's going to grow up in is going to be radically different to the one that we're living in today, just from how pervasive technology can be. And that is a double edged sword. I'm not one of those stars in my eyes idealists who's convinced that this is nothing but a net positive. I think that there are serious questions about that, but the fact that it's more accessible, that it's no longer going to be a bunch of ivory tower types who are the keepers of the flame when it comes to working with technology is going to be transformative and I do believe that serverless is a step along the way towards whatever comes next. Now what that is, I don't know, I'm not a futurist. I don't consider myself a digital prophet, but there is clearly something brewing. I just don't know what it is yet.


Paul:  It's funny, you mention your daughter understanding that she has to look at the device. Right my daughter would also just sort of look at it. She knows that it's a focus point for control. And I am not one of those parents that really regulate screen time very hard. What I regulate is their intention on it. Um I tell my daughter like, "You can be on this device as long as you want, as long as you're creating, as long as you're trying to solve a problem, you can be there. Um but if you're going to be passively watching a cartoon or something, then yeah, there's going to be some time to take a break, exercise your mind a little bit, let it wander on its own."


Paul:  And um I think that that's a really powerful thing to think about as we continue to integrate with technology, in our lives. For so much of it, it is about consumer technology is about making things easier for yourself, about turning your mind off. Well, now I truly believe that the tools, the serverless tools um and the new abstractions that other people are building um can give us the ability to really flex our minds now with technology, not just consume.


Corey:  I think that's an excellent point and one that people tend to skip over far too frequently. Now, before we go, I do have one more question for you. Uh out of however many movies he's been in now, I think you said 103.


Paul:   Yeah.


Corey:  Which is your favorite Nicolas Cage movie?


Paul:  Oh, everybody always asked this and I feel like I should be better prepared for it, but every single time I try to sit down and think of of the best answer, it's so difficult because it's like if someone asks you what's your favorite anything. You have different answers for the different moods. So I'm going to take a cheat out and say that the movie that I like watching over and over again, is probably Raising Arizona. Uh I feel like that's just a great film, regardless of uh Nicolas Cage being in it or not. Him being in it is even better.


Paul:  Uh I think that he has of course an amazing track record of being that quintessential 90s action star, so I really love Con Air. I'm trying to work it into another talk. I am not quite sure exactly how I'm going to do it. I kind of want to do the new AWS event, um event [inaudible 00:26:31] with Con Air somehow, not quite sure about that yet. Um but yeah, between Raising Arizona and Conair, I just think those are timeless movies. Then he's in some really great brand new ones like Mandy and his voice acting in Into the Spider Verse. It was it was so great.


Corey:  He's a very versatile actor.


Paul:  Yes.


Corey:  Can't take him to an Italian restaurant though because he gains 80 pounds cause he can't turn down a role. But other than that ...


Paul:  Haha. I'm going to make a believer out of you yet. I can still hear a little bit of skepticism, but I believe that you will come around to it.


Corey:  So where can people find more of you, your antics, etc, if they wished to learn more, both about your philosophy to serverless, your journey you're on and of course our one true prophet, Nicolas Cage?


Paul:  Yes, uh they can definitely follow me on Twitter. That's where I'm the most active. Paul Chin Jr, all spelled out. J-R at the end, P-A-U-L C-H-I-N J-R, Twitter. Um I use an awesome hashtag called #praisecage when I give my talks and different concepts that I'm working on. They can also check out my GitHub. The GitHub handle is P-C-H-I-N-J-R, so P Chin Jr. I release a lot of the example code that I have out on GitHub.


Paul:  Uh and what's fun on Twitter is when you use that hashtag I can can see when other developers are also working on Nicolas Cage projects. In fact, I have one pinned uh where another fellow node botanist uh created a Nicolas Cage face that follows you around the room like on a servo, with face detection technology. So definitely some Face/Off nods there, but yeah, we'd love to have more followers and more folks coming into the Church of Cage.


Corey:  Excellent. It it sounds like something that's well worth having a I guess a following built around.


Paul:  Yes.


Corey:   Paul, thank you so much for spending the time to speak with me today. I appreciate your being so generous with your time.


Paul:   No problem. This was a ton of fun and I want to give one last shout out to all my uh mentors and community members here in in the Norfolk, Virginia area, Linda Nichols and Travis Webb and Kevin, and all the folks uh who have helped me and welcomed me into the technology space, so thanks.


Corey:  And of course, oh wait, you can never thank Nicolas Cage enough either.


Paul:  Also our one true God, Nicolas Cage. Praise be to him. Look up the three cats of Cage, so that you knew how to fight our devil, John Travolta. Thank you.


Corey:  Paul Chin Jr, evangelist for Nicolas Cage and all around decent person. I'm Corey Quinn. This is Screaming in the Cloud. If you've enjoyed this episode, please leave us five stars on iTunes. If you've hated this episode, please leave us five stars on iTunes.


Announcer:  This has been this week's episode of Screaming in the Cloud. You can also find more Corey at screaminginthecloud.com, or wherever fine snark is sold.


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