Full-stack developers are coming into higher demand as businesses transition to the online sphere. Many companies are now realising the need for someone who knows just what they are doing in terms of their suite of web development, such as to their website or e-commerce system.

With micro-businesses and SMEs making the transition as well, the need for a single developer who can make sense of both the back-end and front-end development grows by the day.

SITEC speaks to Dr Lau Cher Han, freelance full-stack web developer and Chief Data Scientist at iStream, in order to get an insight into the life of a Data Scientist who also happens to be a full-stack developer!

The Good Doctor
Dr. Lau Cher Han hails from humble beginnings in Johor Bahru, Johor. An avid fan of board games and NBA matches, he developed a keen interest in web development during his youth.

“It was serendipitous, really. My interest went way back in the good old days of 14.4kbps modems, and where Netscape was used to surf the Internet”, he said.

As a Data Scientist, Dr. Lau chiefly deals with various forms of data, using scientific methods and processes to extract, identify, tabulate and interpret data in order to bring valuable insights to people who utilise them.

Separately, web development is something else on its own, and many data science presentations and visuals rely heavily on web development skills, as he has found out over the years.

“I’ve always found it amazing that I can click on a bit of text and it takes me to a whole new world. This fascination led me to learn how to build websites, visitor counters, and utilise scripting, among other skills.”, he quipped.

Recognising the usefulness of web development, he started dabbling in developing various websites from scratch since his earliest foray into the world of web development, and is now a highly experienced practitioner himself, on top of being a Data Scientist.

No 9-5 for Him
Similar to many others, Dr. Lau isn’t quite fond of repetitious, rigid, 9 – 5 jobs.

As an aside to his formal education up to the PhD level in Computer Sciences, Dr. Lau is also extensively trained as a practitioner of full stack development, which affords him the flexibility and challenge he requires to make his career a well-balanced and fruitful one.

Lepak-ing with the SITEC crew @ SDCC

Despite working for approximately 12 to 16 hours a day, Dr Lau loves what he’s doing, and deftly manages his working time into coding and non-coding tasks, with the rest of the day dedicated to his own personal pursuits.

Coding Best Left to Wee Hours
According to him, he finds working on code better in the early morning and late night due to fewer distractions.

During the day itself, he does what he calls “fragmented stuff”, such as checking the code of his colleagues and co-workers, as well as reading to stay up-to-date with industry trends.

“Back when I was a student, freelancing as a web developer was a good option as I could fit my work around my timetable, especially in areas like KL, where being able to avoid peak working hours is a boon. This is the type of freedom money cannot buy, but it requires a lot of discipline,” he added.

According to Dr Lau, achieving work-life balance as a freelancer is rather easy compared to a having a 9-to-5 job, and it affords him the luxury of time, which is wanting, for many of us.

“The immediate example I can think of is that I could go to the mall during the weekday off-peak hours, and stay at home during the weekends,”

This, however, comes with a warning:

“As long as the person is able to be self-disciplined and doesn’t bite off more than they can chew, such as by taking on too many projects or responsibilities at the same time, freelancing can be managed well enough”.

Dr Lau mentors hackathon startups at StartupQuest Selangor #SQSel


The Work of a Freelance Full-Stack Developer
Multiple projects are part of a full-stack developer’s life, and Dr Lau shared his own experiences.

Contrary to popular belief, working independently or freelance isn’t a feat requiring knowledge of the arcane. In fact, he finds it quite easy to optimise task efficiency.

“In the past, I relied on Excel and Google Sheets, as I billed clients based on the hours worked, rather than by project. This meant that it was important to keep track of the time spent, and allocate hours to critical tasks.

“Today, however, technology has greatly evolved, and there are many free tools available to give you the same or a better experience. In fact, they even come with nicer user interfaces (UI) now!”, he quipped excitedly, as he pointed to Trello and Workflowy, two online organisational tools for individuals and startups.

Obtaining Clients
One of the hardest things freelancers in web development deal with often are obtaining clients – not so much the process of getting clients per se, but getting the ones that are worth the time and effort.

Dr. Lau recommends freelancing sites such as freelancer.com and Upwork, praising their credibility and quality of leads, although he acknowledged that competition is tougher these days.

“To an extent, networking can be very useful – if you are able to smartly pinpoint where your potential audience lies. Also, to make your sourcing more effective, one should bear in mind that word of mouth and referrals are still the most effective forms of marketing, even today,” he shared.

Important Skills To Develop
Personally, Dr Lau believes that JavaScript and database skills are must-haves in any developer’s arsenal of skills.

“You hardly see any website these days that does not require JavaScript or does not involve storing or retrieving data,” he explained.

“Knowledge of good programming practices, source code versioning and DevOps (software development and information technology operations) are plus points too,” he added, noting that a developer has to embrace the attitude of constantly learning with firm discipline as well.

On Educating The Masses
If you thought his schedule was packed, you thought wrong.

Aside from personal and work time (which is sometimes spent travelling to and fro Australia and Malaysia for business), he also manages to teach web development to both young students and experienced professionals.

Teaching participants @ MaGIC

Dr. Lau is the founder of the League of Extraordinary Developers (LEAD), whose aim is to bring quality technology education to people.

In his educative role, he trains senior engineers from MNCs such as HP, Intel and Standard Chartered, as well as institutions of higher learning around Malaysia, such as UTM, UniMas and UiTM. He has also spoken at Google and Microsoft events, and served as a mentor for startups in various accelerator programmes.

Students Going Places
While a lot of his students stayed with their corporate jobs, they also have a new-found love and appreciation for what their work entailed. Some others even took on the decision to be full-time freelancers and are doing very well on their own!

Most interestingly, however, is that some of his other students have also gone on to become technical founders or Chief Technical Officers (CTOs) in other startups, while others have found work as web developers in major software houses.

When asked on what other advice, tips or tricks Dr Lau has for those considering a career or sub-career in web development, he shared:

“There are definitely trade secrets, tips, and tricks in every industry, be it finance, real estate, or sales. Web development is no exception.

“There are many resources available to help with learning the skills, but rarely, the best practices,” he advised.

An Experienced Mentor
As a highly experienced practitioner and educator, Dr. Lau is always keen on further sharing his extensive knowledge and best practices on all aspects of web development.

He is especially open to those who possess an interest in learning coding, but has also identified that there are segments of those who are considering a career change or a fresh new perspective on life.

Additionally, he also sees learning opportunities for those who wish to increase their employability, or who would like to supplement their suite of professional skills (e.g. due to lack of formal higher education), as well as those who are looking to improve their personal development.

For all these individuals, Dr Lau, together with Mices Technology and SITEC, have co-developed the Immersive Full-Stack Development course, a 10-day coding and full stack development bootcamp.

One of the key draws of this boot camp is that it’s specifically designed to accommodate both new and semi-experienced individuals, and teaches students a wide range of programming languages and elements of web development that would normally take others years to learn.

The team has managed to identify the core parts of web development — both front-end and back-end —  and have condensed the learning experience into only 10 days of immersive and intense learning sessions on alternate weekends.

While the course does take less time overall, the caveat is that it does require serious commitment by the learner and a dedication of complete alternate weekends, as classes start as early as 9 am and end at 6 pm.

With that said, however, it is a fantastic way for an individual to learn how to build their own website quickly and learn new coding languages – certainly a great opportunity for long term self-improvement.

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