Designing My Apartment

I’m a Software Engineer during the day, but a keen student of interior design outside of that. If I had my way, and owned several houses, I would design one to look like a Moroccan Riad (intricate tile work, stained glass windows), another to look like a California beach surf shack (light wood, surf boards, big windows), and another inspired by Rajput palaces from Rajasthan, India (lots of pastel, marble, vividly colored artwork).

These would all be my “side” houses of course. My main haunt would be a homage to the Danish idea of “Hygge”. “Hygge” refers to a feeling of coziness, comfort and joy. It is the idea that a home must be designed to feel uplifting and comforting. Sounds kind of obvious, right? The question naturally, is how might one do this in practice?

When I moved into my current apartment in New York City last year, this was the main question on my mind. I wanted this to be a space that makes me want to come back to it after a long day at work. It should be a space that makes me feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. A space that I would genuinely enjoy being in. With this goal in mind, I set about designing it. Check it out!

Living Room

The living room is a corner spot with windows on two sides facing north and west. The room gets tons of light and the idea was to separate it into two spaces – one centered around a coffee table, facing the TV and the other a dining area with a bar. When you walk into the living room, the first one is what comes up right in front of you. It invites you to throw on a vinyl, grab a book, and settle in on the couch.

The entertainment area
Looking west, across the couch

Behind the couch, on the far side is the dining area. The back of the couch acts as a natural separation between the two spaces. The dining area is surrounded by warm, dimmable lighting that sets the mood for dinner and perhaps some drinks after that. A book case next to the dining table adds color to the space, and also holds a working polaroid camera. A tradition in this household is that every guest takes a polaroid photo with us and we collect them all in the orange bowl next to the polaroid.

The dining area, set up for Thanksgiving snacks last year (the turkey came later)

The bar was custom designed to fit this corner. It employs an industrial design, with walnut wood and metal pipes. The top shelf serves as a mixing area, with wine glasses hanging below it. Succulents add some color to it, and an art work completes the look.

The bar area – the wine rack usually contains actual wine
The bookcase with a polaroid camera. The rubber tree acts as another separator between the TV and dining areas
The studio lamp adds a warm glow to the room. A ZZ plant sits right behind it

Bed Room / Office

This is a Manhattan apartment, so space is limited. An extra bedroom is not common, which would have been ideal to convert into an office. Since that wasn’t a luxury available in this apartment, I decided to divide the bedroom into two spaces – the actual bed and the office space. Let’s look at the office first – the desk is designed to hide away all the nasty wiring underneath it. A bigger monitor and wireless accessories make it easy to simply plug a laptop in and start working. A vase, succulent and little poster add up to make the space more inviting. The Nelson clock adds another dash of color.

The command center

The bedroom space is separated from the office by a nightstand. The art pieces above the bed were chosen to be the sort that add to a sense of calm – a wave washing over the beach, clothes fluttering in the breeze, lampshades promising to deliver warm light after sunset. The deep teal color theme matches the front pillows with the ocean in the art above. Simple, straight lines complete the simple, Scandinavian feel of this space.

The bed and nightstands

Right across the bed is another book case. This one is less has horizontally stacked books, a big pothos plant, and an Edison lamp to add an industrial look. Eventually, I want the plant to wrap around the entire right side metal frame of the bookcase. The wall in the far corner has 4 blue picture frames taken at 4 different locations inside the same palace in Jaipur, India.

Bedroom bookcase

Kitchen / Coffee Bar

The kitchen had an empty area with no cabinets right by the window. This was where I decided to install a coffee bar. I went with an industrial look here and purchased shelves mounted on metal pipes. I added hooks below the shelves to hang cups from, and an ivy plant at the top to complete the look.

Coffee bar on the far side of the kitchen. I love pour overs

Bathroom

I’ll admit – this is the part of the apartment that I’ve spent the least energy on. It’s tiny, and there was only one wall that really had any space to work with. I decided that this wall needed some shelves, but they had to be minimal, not very deep, and provide space to put toiletries. I ended up installing these shelves that actually “float” about a quarter inch away from the wall. How did I do it? Magic ;).

Look at the shadows and notice that the shelves float off the wall. Some bamboo shoots and lavender complete the look

It’s a tough time for everyone these days, with an imminent lock down that might force us to be inside our apartment for a few weeks while we wait for the Covid-19 to pass by. Designing this space to be cozy and highly desirable will probably help make this process less painful. Perhaps I’ll use the time to write about the other cool spaces in this apartment that I didn’t cover in this post – we have a bike rack area, a huge art installation, and also some well organized closets. I’ll write about that one day!

What triathlons taught me about building a career

Let’s gooooo!

I’ve been quiet on here for a while because my entire summer was spent heads down (literally) in preparing for the 3 triathlons I had lined up. First one was in June, the “Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon”, which starts off with a lovely swim through the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay, then takes you over and around several hills on the bike, followed by even more hills on the 8..5 mile run at the end. Second one was on the east coast in the NYC area, third one in Chicago where I got to bike through the “Batman tunnels” where they filmed The Dark Knight. It was an epic summer and I have now completed 6 triathlons. Next year, I have 4 more lined up so you could say that this has become a very serious hobby for me.

As I trained and competed in all these races, I noticed that a lot of age-groupers like myself were type-A competitive individuals who were mostly quite successful in other pursuits in their lives. What is it, I wondered, that causes driven and motivated professionals to partake in such masochism? Is it just the thirst for competition? Is it a desire to validate themselves as more well-rounded than just their careers? Or is it simply a desire to stay fit?

As it turned out, triathlons have a lot in common with how careers are built and those commonalities might explain why people that do well at work tend to be attracted to endurance racing.

Pacing yourself

This was the first parallel I saw between my career and a triathlon. Both are activities in which you are more likely succeed with consistent long-term effort rather than a short, quick sprint. In fact, short sprints might be counterproductive and lead to burn out well before you can achieve even a fraction of your goal. At work, I have been through periods of intense activity where I worked 14 hour days, 7 day weeks. Specifically, when I was working on Facebook Live, the product ended up growing very quickly and we stretched to keep up with its growth. Those were some very intense weeks and I definitely grew a lot just by going through that experience. However, it contributed to a very severe burn out that I had to deal with afterwards. I lost all will to work, and it took 3 months and a team change for me to feel excited about work again. Racing is no different – you can sprint, but you will burn out very soon. Anyone you passed on the sprint will likely pass you once you’ve run out of fuel. Lesson number 1: pace yourself.

Progressive overloading

Progressive overloading is a term I had never heard until I started training for my races seriously. It’s a concept that essentially says that if you want to get stronger/faster, then your workouts need to get progressively harder over time. It sounds very obvious, but in practice it’s less so. Randomized workouts that have no overarching strategy will not help you get far. You will plateau and stop improving as soon as your body adapts to the current difficulty. However, if you move forward with a solid strategy for slowly increasing the difficulty, then your body will be constantly challenged and forced to improve. The same principle applies at work – if you want to grow in your career, you must continue to challenge yourself. By not doing that, you risk a suffocating feeling of ennui that will almost certainly lead you to hate your job. Find challenges that help you grow, and don’t be afraid to take them on.

Recovery is key

In a typical training plan for a triathlon, there are a few hard workouts separated in time by lots of recovery workouts. A recovery workout is essentially something like a long, very easy bike ride that will keep your body moving, but also allow it the time to recover and prepare for the next hard workout. This is the time when muscles repair themselves and really grow from the harder workout that preceded this recovery workout. If you don’t recover enough, you will almost certainly get injured. It’s the same principle at work – balance work time with play time. Too much work with little play will eventually lead to mental injury. You might make more money in the short term (even that’s not guaranteed), but you won’t be in a good place to really enjoy it. Balance work with play, find a hobby. Maybe do triathlons ;).

Looking at the finish line up ahead…

Dealing with discomfort

The last 30-40 minutes of a race are usually the hardest. You’re tired, everything hurts, cramps are starting to appear in the legs, perhaps you are even questioning why you do this to yourself. Despite all this, you know that the finish line is not far away and that you must get to it. Typically I deal with it by not thinking of all the miles of running left but instead thinking of it like “I just need to run till that turn up ahead”. Once I get past that turn then “I just need to run to that next bend over there” and so on. There are two key lessons here that I adopted into my professional life. First is that it’s important to break apart a big problem into smaller ones. You have a hard project ahead of you (10k of running on legs that are already fried from biking), so you break that apart into smaller chunks and deal with them one at a time. The second lesson is persevering through discomfort. Yes, it is painful right now, but a little perseverance will get you to your goal.

Plan better to perform better

Carb loading, hydrating before and during the race, eating energy gels at strategic times, organizing all gear to allow for the fastest possible transition, creating a multi-month training plan to improve race fitness — all these are important to being able to hit the goal time. I’m in the middle of planning for training for next year and it’s a project in itself! I will still do it because all this planning will make my season more productive and I’ll be more likely to hit my goal times. It’s the same thing at work – planning for the next 6 months, having a solid sense of all the projects involved, the end goals for this effort. The similarities are obvious.

Next year’s going to be fun – I’m planning to plan my holidays around races. One of them will be in the French Alps where I’ll be biking up the Alpe d’Huez. I’d better start training for that!

Made it!

Morocco – A Story In Pictures

I just got back from an incredible 15-day trip to Morocco. I was initially a bit worried about traveling to Morocco after the disturbing news that came out of there in December. Thankfully, the trip turned out the exceed all my expectations. I never felt unsafe. The Moroccan people were extremely welcoming, and eager to show us their country. Here are some of my favorite photos from the trip, each one with its own story.

Random street corner, Fes

December 22, 2018: Our first stop in Morocco was Casablanca. We had been told that there isn’t too much to see over here, so we had only one evening. Our hotel was just a block away from the Grande Mosquée Hassan II – the largest mosque in Africa. It was around 5pm, and we had to stay awake for a few more hours to get over the jet-lag, so we walked over to check out the mosque. People were there with their kids, just hanging around and enjoying the sunshine. As we got to the mosque, the sun had settled down over the city and was shining directly through the series of arches that surround the mosque:

December 23, 2018: Fes is the cultural capital of Morocco. If you want to buy leather goods, carpets, shoes, the iconic Moroccan “Fes” hat, this is where you should do that. We got into Fes after a three hour train ride from Casablanca. After settling in, we walked into our first medina of this trip. A “medina” is a traditional old, Arab area that is characteristic of cities throughout Northern Africa. A typical medina will have maze-like tiny streets with stores everywhere. Tourists and locals will be squeezing through the tiny streets, often sharing the already restricted space with donkeys, street vendors, carts, and sometimes, even scooters. It’s not something that most westerners have ever seen, and this was the case with my girlfriend, who was instantly on the edge as we walked through the tiny alley ways. After the initial fear went away, she was a bit more relaxed:

December 24, 2018: Fes is known for its tanneries. The interesting mix of colors on display is offset by the horrible stench of decaying organic matter. Often times, the store owners of shops next to the tanneries will offer to let you go upstairs through their shops and view the tanneries next door in exchange for a little money. Make sure you haggle it down to nothing more than 5 dirham (50 US cents). They will likely offer you some mint to help you deal with the smell. Keep that mint close to your nose as much as possible, except for a picture I guess:

December 24, 2018: We stayed at a riad in Fes. A “riad” is a traditional Moroccan house with a central courtyard/garden, often characterized by intricate designs and patterns on the walls and windows. If you ever visit Morocco, I would recommend staying at a riad (you can book them using Expedia, for example). Our room at Riad Andalib in Fes had a very nice window with colored panels, that just happened to look over the courtyard. The skylight over the courtyard shone through the colored panels, illuminating the opposite wall inside our room in multiple colors. Sensing some photographic potential, I asked my girlfriend to stand in front of the window. It took a few attempts before she stopped laughing and posed seriously:

December 25, 2018: After a 3.5 hour taxi ride from Fes, we arrived in Chefchaouen, a quaint little mountain town where everything is painted blue – the houses, stairs, walls, doors, you name it. Shortly after arriving, we walked through the tiny old town alleyways in search for Chez Hicham, a restaurant that we had heard had a nice rooftop. We took our time getting to it, because literally everything around us was begging to be photographed. A few stores had bags of colored powder lined up outside, which stood out even more given all the blue surrounding us:

December 25, 2018: My girlfriend posed for the camera somewhere among the blue alleys of Chefchaouen, and got photobombed by a little kid playing football (soccer, if you’re American):

December 26, 2018: It was our last night in Chefchaouen before heading back down to Fes and catching the train to Marrakech. As we walked to Lala Mesouda for dinner, we discovered a little art gallery close by and learned that there would be live music there later at night. After dinner, we walked back to it and sat down to watch a local band play. With traditional Morrocan tea in our hands, a rather romantic, candle-lit ambience, and good music to listen to, we couldn’t have asked for a better ending to our visit:

December 28, 2018: As a visitor to Morocco, you’re very likely to end up in Marrakech. It has the biggest, and most intense medina that we saw during our entire trip. There was a lot more heckling, lots of unwanted attention, lots of scooters and animals squeezing through the crowds, and just a lot more chaos in general. It is a lot to take in, especially after coming from a quaint little town like Chefchaouen. We had spent all of the previous day traveling down to Marrakech and were eager to explore. Marrakech has an interesting juxtaposition of really upscale restaurants with rooftops sitting right alongside the stores, and people living in poverty. We spent two days walking through the souks, and then popping into one of these restaurants to take a break from the chaos. One of the restaurants recommended to us was Nomad. After losing our way a few times, we got to it and went up to the terrace right around sunset. As we waited for our food, I walked around the terrace, politely asking patrons to let me take photos of the view over their heads. Luckily, no one objected:

December 28, 2018: Shopping in Marrakech is quite the endeavor. Between all the store owners trying to get you to buy from them, and the hecklers trying to help you get to wherever you want (or don’t want) to go, you have to also remember to haggle over the price. Me and my girlfriend walked into a store to buy her some shoes. The owner was a chatty, young Moroccan man. Right after he had haggled and negotiated prices with us, he started giving us advice on how to avoid getting scammed in Morocco. The situation was a tad ironical, but I don’t think he felt that way :). As he was packing up the shoes for us, he noticed that I was taking photos of some shoes. He asked me if I would take a photo of him and his friend, as a memory of our shopping adventure in Marrakech:

December 29th, 2018: The Bahia Palace is one of the main attractions in Marrakech. If you want to see this, I’d highly recommend getting there early, as opposed to rolling in at noon like we did. The line to buy a ticket was 30 minutes long, and local guides would keep cutting it to get their tickets first. Anyway, once you do get inside, the palace is quite nice. Lots of patterned walls, arches, skylights, and windows with colored panels. At one point, I asked my girlfriend to stop for a picture. I leaned back against a wall behind me to take the shot. Suddenly, she raised her phone and took a photo of me taking a photo of her:

December 30, 2018: Our next destination after Marrakech was Dades Valley, which is sort of like the Grand Canyon of Morocco. After a 5AM wakeup, and a 6AM departure, we eventually arrived at the valley around 2PM. The road snaked up and down the cliff face as it made its way through the valley, overlooking the river that cut through it. We stopped at some point on this road, and our guide, Adil, asked us to follow him off the road, and down to the river. We had no idea what to expect and we started hiking down over the rocks. When we got down to the river, we discovered that a nomad and his family were staying there, and had agreed to host us for lunch! Carpets had been laid out for us, and the smell of warm food filled the air. We saw our hosts cooking over a little fire, and sat down on the carpet to wait. While we waited, one of them poured out some traditional Moroccan tea to warm us up:

December 31, 2018: Our next stop, after a good night’s sleep at Dades Valley was the Sahara Desert. After yet another early wake up, we started our drive just as the sky started turning blue, then purple, then pink, and orange. Our shuttle driver pulled into a gas station by the highway just as the sun peeked over the hills in the distance. We got out to stretch our legs. It was really cold, and my body was absolutely not ready to face the near-freezing temperature. At this point, someone had the brilliant idea to do an early morning hip-hop dance session. Someone else suddenly produced a bluetooth speaker and four people started performing a little choreographed routine. I quickly grabbed my camera and sat down on the ground to catch the sunlight shining through their legs. After getting this shot, I promptly put the camera away, and joined the party, along with about 20 other people. It was a great way to beat the cold:

December 31, 2018: After a whole day of driving, we arrived in Mhamid, the last town before paved road ends, and the desert officially begins. To go further, we got into 4x4s, and started making our way over sand and shrubs into the Sahara. After 1.5 hours, we saw what looked like a mountain range, but was actually a bunch of sand dunes. Our camp site was right next to one of the dunes. We arrived just before sunset, and promptly started walking up to the highest sand dune in sight. The last sunset of the year was happening right before us, as we made our way up. It is hard to describe how I felt in that moment, but suffice to say that it was a pretty nice way to close out 2018:

January 1, 2019: After a lovely feast and just after midnight, we walked out of the dinner tent to look at the sky. The Milky Way was clearly visible – a band of stars stretching all the way across the sky. Our campsite was still producing a bit too much ambient light, so we walked over the adjacent sand dune, and then another one for good measure. Just as we stopped walking and looked up, a shooting star went across the sky leading to a collective “Ooooooh” from the entire group. Everyone lay down quietly. No one spoke a word – they simply looked up at the stars. I set up my tripod, and attempted to get a long exposure photo of the sky. After a couple of less-than-satisfying attempts, I moved the camera to point in a different direction, hoping to get something better. As I opened the shutter for another 25-second exposure, someone turned on a red headlamp behind me, pointing in the opposite direction. They quickly turned it back off, but I was worried that it might have ruined the shot. I waited for the shutter to close and looked at my camera screen. The sand in my photo had an eerie red glow that made it look as if it was taken on Mars. There was also a weird orange glow in the distance that turned out to be light from our campsite, reflected off of the clouds above it. It was going to be hard to out-do this one:

January 1, 2019: It was time to head out of the desert, and back into civilization. We made our way back to Mhamid, and got into out shuttles. Our next stop was a little village called Amazraou, just next to Zagora. We walked down a tiny street, past a mosque that was over 500 years old, around the corner and past a synagogue, also 500 years old, down another alley, through an antique store, and out into another alley. Just as we came around a corner, I saw a woman sitting with her child in the doorway of her house. They looked at me, and she smiled, almost anticipating that I would take a photo:

January 1, 2019: Still in Amazraou, we walked into a local jewelry store that sold assorted pieces of silver jewelry. While explaining the meaning of certain symbols on a trinket, the owner offered to show us how it was made. We first walked into a foundry, where two men were making molds that would eventually be used to shape molten silver. Next, we walked over to another room where one man was actually melting silver over a small fire. There was a white-hot container sitting in the fire, presumably containing the silver that would soon be in a liquid state. The owner sat down, and took over. He cranked up the fire a notch. Sparks flew into the air. Everyone looked at the glowing container that turned brighter, and whiter. I sat down, and raised my camera:

January 2, 2019: We got to a Aït Benhaddou, the site of an old fortified village, that also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage site. Right by the village is a hill that overlooks the whole town. We decided to climb this hill right before sunrise. It was pretty dark when we set out and the moon was shining brightly over us. We got to the top of the hill after a quick 20 minute hike, and waited. Slowly, the horizon turned pink. The glow intensified, reflected down from the clouds, then again off of the river down below us. The early morning wake-up was worth it:

January 3, 2019: As we were checking out from our hostel in Aït Benhaddou, I noticed a little courtyard that looked cute. I decided it was time to hand someone the camera and get a photograph for myself. Pity that the fountain wasn’t on:

January 3, 2019: As we drove out towards Agadir to surf for the next two days, we went past (what looked like) an abandoned gas station on the highway. It looked strangely non-Moroccan, perhaps even American. Naturally, we pulled over. Out guide informed us that this was actually a set for the movie “The Hills Have Eyes”, which is a horror movie. Everyone instantly went about taking pictures of all the scary objects and mannequins that were still lying around the gas station. Four of us decided that the middle of the highway would make for a much better photograph, especially if we all were airborne. The tank tops read “You were born to do more than just pay bills and die”:

January 6, 2019: The adventure was over, for the time being. I had a broken phone screen, a cracked camera screen, and a sprained finger from surfing (and falling). On the upside, I got to explore a new country, eat its food, meet its people, learn about its culture, and re-discover my love for traveling that had been overshadowed by work for the last few months. It was time to head back to New York City’s winter, but also to start thinking of travels up ahead:

Photo by @deshoots

Anatomy of a Photoshoot

A few weeks ago, one of girlfriend’s friends asked if I would be willing to do a maternity photoshoot for her. Apparently word of my upcoming photography skills had made its way around New York City. I had never done a serious photoshoot before so I offered to do it for free in exchange for low expectations around the quality of the final product. Fair deal, right?

The Mood Board

The first step in this process, was to put together a mood board. What in the devil, you might ask, is a mood board? The dictionary definition is “an arrangement of images, materials, pieces of text, etc., intended to evoke or project a particular style or concept”. The practical implication is that a mood board is essentially a powerful tool for an artist to convey what they have in mind, and to understand what someone else has on their mind. Let me give you an example.

Two years ago, I was trying to come up with ideas for a wall art project for my apartment. I spent multiple hours browsing around Pinterest, Instagram, and Google images to look at random pictures of wall art and seeing which ones I liked most. Anything I found interesting, I pinned into a special Pinterest board that  I had set up. Here’s a screenshot of what I had:

This is basically a mood board that is supposed to convey my artistic vision. If you spend even 5 seconds looking at this, you won’t be surprised that I ended up making this:

Pinterest is basically a mood board for millennials. It’s a way to put together a bunch of images that convey artistic ideas. As such, the first step to preparing for this photoshoot was to ask the couple for a mood board that showed what images resonated with them the most. Here’s a sample of what they sent me. Take a look and think of the first few words that come to your mind. I’ll tell you mine once you’ve had a chance to think of yours:

These are the words that came to my mind when I saw this: nature, golden hour, shoes, bokeh, romance. The point though, is that words were not enough to help me understand their vision, but this mood board gave me a pretty good idea of what the photos should look like.

Ideation, location, timing

Next step was to do the same exercise myself, and crawl the internet for images that seemed to match this mood board, but were interesting enough to draw inspiration from. An hour of searching for “maternity photoshoot” on Google, Instagram, and Pinterest was enough to give me some inspiration and ideas to try out.

Next step was to figure out a time and place. Since this was late October in New York City, I naturally gravitated towards Central Park and its fall colors. That would give me the outdoor setting I wanted. Combine that with a golden hour timing and I could see this turning out fairly well!

Equipment

I took my trusty Sony A7Riii camera for the shoot. Given the desire to get a bokeh effect in these photos, it was important to pick a lens that had a low enough f-number to allow that. Noobs – a bokeh effect is simply a photography effect that focusses on one thing and blurs out stuff that is closer or further away from the camera than the thing in focus. Here’s an example:

To get this sort of effect, I would need a lens with a big aperture, which corresponds to a small f-number. Next, since I was going for a composition that needed to show a good amount of background and wasn’t intended to have a tight frame, I would need a low focal length. Something in the range of 24-35mm. Given this criteria, I chose the Sony GM 24-70 f/2.8 lens.

Finally for the camera setting, I usually shoot on aperture priority, with a slightly warmer white balance, spot metering and linking that to the focus point. If you use a Sony, you might be familiar with these terms. If not, basically I set things up so that the exposure is metered to the same spot that I’m focussed on. It’s a setting that has worked out quite well for me, so I tend to stick with it :).

The Photoshoot

We arrived at Central Park with an hour to sunset, and got down to business. The key is to try things out, and err on the side of taking lots of pictures. You’ll likely take a bunch of not-so-great photos, but they will give you instant feedback on how to adjust things to get something better on the next shot. For example, here’s the first shot I took:

I like the background, although it could be less blurry. Lighting looks great. Maybe there’s something here.

Looking good! But – lighting is not the best, shoes are a bit too high, the hand is a little too dominant. Easy fixes – lower the hand, adjust composition, add some exposure compensation, emphasis on the shoes. And voilà, behold the final product:

Post processed using Snapseed to selectively add brightness to the shoes

Lighting came out well, the background is blurred, but you can easily make out the baby bump. The golden light is pretty solid. Success!

At this point, we kept going, and tried a bunch of things. Below is a selection of the best ones. I’ll emphasize once again that each of these took 10-20 attempts with quick micro-adjustments of composition, exposure and focus. I’d recommend following this process. Pick a rough composition and take a few test shots with the subjects in the photo. Then, make micro-adjustments of all kinds and take several more shots. Perhaps even try going vertical (mobile friendly!) with your framing. Taking multiple shots in one composition will also help improve your chances of ending up with images that are properly focussed.

Processed with VSCO with a4 preset
Processed with VSCO with c3 preset
Processed with VSCO with e2 preset

Post-processing

You’ll notice that the photos above are annotated with the presets I applied to them during post processing. If you have a solid camera like the Sony A7Riii, the photos will come out looking pretty amazing right out of the camera. A little post processing helps add that final icing to the cake, so to speak. It helps bring out the lighting, and allows you to add emphasis on certain objects (like the baby-size converse shoes). I usually just do the post processing using VSCO and Snapseed. Some people swear by Lightroom, so feel free to pick your poison!

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed doing my first maternity photoshoot as much as the lucky couple enjoyed seeing these photos. I learned a lot in this process, and hopefully this note will help you navigate your first shoot as well!

A primer on H1B visas for my American friends

Photo Dec 19, 10 46 51 PM.jpg

Let’s face it, the real reason I want a visa is to pose in front of Manhattan

At the moment I started writing this post, I was sitting in my parent’s house somewhere in northern India, waiting for my passport to come back from the US Embassy in New Delhi. If things went well, it would contain a renewed H1B visa which would allow me to head back to New York City (the place I like to call home). While much maligned in American public discourse by both sides of the political divide, no one really seems to understand how the visa actually works, or have any idea about how difficult it is to get. Not to mention any idea about how it affects the lifestyle of people who do manage to get it.

But fear not, my American friends. Today, right here, you are about to get an introduction to the H1B visa from an immigrant who has had the pleasure(?) of receiving it. If you manage to emerge with your sanity from under the pile of laws and regulation I’m about to throw at you, then you’re either an immigration lawyer or you didn’t actually read this post, or you might actually be the right person to affect some change. Alrighty, let’s get started!

What the f*** is a visa?

Ah right, you’re American. Chances are you don’t really know what an actual visa looks like. Wait, what’s that you said? You’ve been to Europe and they put a visa in your passport at the airport? Yeah, that’s just an arrival stamp. Wait, you’ve been to Canada and Mexico as well? Nope, still just an arrival stamp. Woah, woah, woah. You’ve been to China and Brazil? Look at you, globetrotter. In that case, you have seen a real visa and you may safely skip to the next section.

For the ones who are still here, Americans can go to 186 countries with no visa / visa on arrival. That means that for most countries in the world, you can show up at the airport and you’ll be let in. That’s a lot of freedom of movement. An Indian passport holder for example, gets access to only 59 countries without a visa. That means that as an Indian citizen, you can’t just decide to go to Paris for the weekend. You’ll have to decide weeks in advance, and then make a trip to the nearest French Consulate (which might be in another city), and submit your passport with a pile of documents proving that:

  1. You have money to spend in France.
  2. You have a place to stay.
  3. You won’t create any trouble in France.
  4. You will definitely leave after your stay. I’m sure you’re a nice person, but they’d rather you leave after spending your money.

If the French deem you worthy, you will be granted what is known as a Schengen visa. This is what it looks like:

Schengen sample

Not my photo. Credit: The Internet

With this, you can finally visit Paris, and even go to other European countries that are included in the Schengen Area. Notice that the UK isn’t in it. No, they didn’t Brexit from the Schengen agreement. They just never Brought themselves into it in the first place. What that means is that you, Indian citizen, cannot simply pop over across the channel to London. You’ll need a UK visa for that, and this is the sort of madness you are in for. You poor soul. On the other hand, you, American citizen, can easily head over to London for a quick shopping trip during your weekend in Paris. You lucky fuck.

Alright, I think we all understand what a visa is. Yes? Good.

The H1B visa and how to get it

Here is what an H1B visa looks like:

Sample-US-H1B-Visa.png

Credit: The Internet

The H1B is technically a work visa. Notice that it contains the name of the company you work for. This means that if you change jobs, you will need an updated visa which usually means a visit to the US consulate any time you leave the US after changing jobs. If you’re thinking, “well, that sounds like a pain in the ass”, you’re damned well right it is! I’ll get into this more later. Let’s first start from the beginning.

You’re a bright young non-American who has just been offered a killer job at your dream American company. There are of course, multiple types of visa that would allow you to come to the US (depending on your skill set and type of job), but let’s say you are a highly-skilled college graduate in a science/technology field. Most likely, you’ll need an H1B visa, which is designed for “highly skilled workers”. The US government only grants 85,000 H1B visas each year, out of which 20,000 are reserved for people who hold at least a Masters degree. In 2018, however, the US government received 190,000 applications. That’s more than twice the number of visas they will grant. In fact, the number of applications was even higher in the years before.

So how do they decide who gets in and who doesn’t? They organize a lottery on April 1st every year. That’s right – all 190,000 of these people had to submit their application on April 1st 2018. A day later than April 1st, and you’re screwed until next year. To make things even more interesting, you yourself can’t put your name in the lottery. The company that offered you a job will have to do it for you. Let’s assume that you got the job offer around December of your senior year. Since your company is going to have to file your H1B petition on April 1st, they will need to prepare in advance to have all the papers ready. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things they’ll need to do:

  • Fill out an H1B petition (also known as Form I-129). Depending on your circumstances, this could be several tens of pages long.
  • Prove that you meet the government’s definition of “highly skilled”.
  • Prove that by hiring you they aren’t displacing an equally qualified American worker.
  • Fees for the petition.
  • More money if they want it to be processed faster IF you clear the lottery.

Alright, it’s April 1st. You’re about to graduate from college and are super optimistic about your future (lol). The company submits your documents and you begin an agonizing wait where you pray to your favorite god of your favorite religion that you get picked by the random number picker algorithm running on some shitty computer in a USCIS office. In the meantime, you try to prepare back up job offers in case you don’t get selected for the lottery. Over the next few weeks, you might receive an acceptance or a rejection based on the effectiveness of your prayers. Let’s say that you got lucky and made it past the lottery.

Now begins the fun part. AFTER making it past the lottery, USCIS will start actually reviewing your entire application to decide whether to approve your petition or not. This could take anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months, based on whether your company paid more for premium processing or not. Let’s say that things worked out and your petition is approved.

Pop the champagne, and start appreciating the fine sport of Baseball. You’re going to America! Fuck yeah!

Of course, the rules state that you cannot actually go the US without a literal visa in your passport. You don’t really have that yet. In reality, you’ve only made it past stage one of the process. Now comes stage two. The approval of your H1B petition is sent to you by your company. It’s called a “Form I-797A” which will grant you the ability to work in the US for a period of 3 years. Even if you get this form, USCIS does not allow you to actually start working in the US before October 1st. Why? ¯\_()_/¯

Your company has done its job, and it’s time for you to do some work. You’ll take the I-797A, and go to the website of your local US embassy/consulate. There, you will have to fill out another multiple page form called the DS-160. This form will ask you (among other things):

  • Every place you’ve traveled to in the last 5 years.
  • The exact dates of your 5 previous visit to the US, and length of stay in each instance. If you don’t remember the exact dates like most normal people, well, screw you. I personally have a text file where I keep a list of every single date where I’ve entered and exited the US, where I went, and for how long.
  • A 5-page yes/no questionnaire where you get to answer fun questions like “Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities?”, and “Have you ever ordered, incited, committed, assisted, or otherwise participated in genocide?”. I’m not making this up – these are actual questions on the form.

Once you’ve filled this form out and submitted it online, you will be asked to schedule an in-person interview at your nearest US embassy/consulate. Depending on where you live, there might not be any available appointment in the next few weeks, or even anywhere close by. Let’s say you get an appointment date and make it over to wherever the US embassy/consulate is. You have to take with you a proof of DS-160 submission, and the I-797A you received from your company. You will be interviewed by an official who will ask about your intentions in the US – Where will you work? Where will you stay? What kind of work will you do? Etc.

At this point, three things can happen:

  • You said something bad, or something in your profile was not right and your visa is denied. Yes, this is possible even with an I-797A approval in your hand.
  • Something in the official’s computer said something to them and they decided to put you in “administrative processing”.
  • You actually get approved for a visa and they take your passport.

If the first outcome befalls you, well, too bad my friend. You almost made it.

It it’s the second one, they will hand you a pink colored paper called a Form 221G, which basically says that they need to do some “administrative processing” and get a “security clearance” before you can get a visa. This process can take anywhere from 3 weeks to over 3 months. In all this time, you pretty much have to sit, wait, and pray to your favorite god of your favorite religion. If things go well, they will finish their stuff faster and grant you an actual visa.

If you get lucky enough to end up with outcome #3, they will take your passport right after the interview and return it within a few days with the visa in it.

From the initial I-129 filing, to the I-797A approval, to the DS-160, the interview, the possible 221G, and finally an actual H1B visa, this process can take multiple months. Of course, there is very little guarantee that you will actually get to the end.

Still with me?

Good!

Notice that the visa is actually valid for 3 years. After that, you can renew it. At that point, you will repeat THE ENTIRE process above EXCEPT for the lottery. Yes, your company will file an I-129 and you will get an I-797A. You can continue working with an I-797A if you’re already in the US before your old H1B visa expired, but if you leave at any point after that (to say, go visit your home country), then you’ll be stuck there until you fill out a DS-160, go in for an interview to the US embassy there, and get a renewed H1B visa stamped in your passport. Of course, if they hand you a 221G on this trip, you’ll be stuck outside the US for an unknown amount of time that could range up to multiple months.

At any point, if you change jobs, or companies, you will (again) repeat THE ENTIRE process above EXCEPT for the lottery.

Getting an H1B is a major pain the butt. I’ve actually left out some intricacies in this post to keep it relatively simple. Things can get significantly more complicated than noted here.

How companies could abuse the H1B

At this point (if you’ve made it this far), I hope you appreciate how difficult the process already is. As a foreigner, you can’t just waltz your way into the US with an H1B in your hand. It takes a lot of work and persistence to make it through this process, and to do it every 3 years, and every time you change jobs.

That doesn’t mean, however, that this process is free of abuse. Notice above that I talked about how a company needs to prove that you meet the government’s definition of “highly skilled”, and that by hiring you they aren’t displacing an equally qualified American worker. This is where things get shady. Some companies act as “staffing/outsourcing” agencies where they bring in foreign workers on H1B visas, ostensibly paying them much less than equally qualified American workers. Accusations of this kind are often laid out against outsourcing firms in India. This is the sort of stuff that politicians love to talk about when they make campaign promises. The H1B visa process is incredibly intricate and bureaucratic, but it still doesn’t do enough to meet the needs to American companies while preventing abuse by bad actors. The process needs lots of simplification, but at the same time, it needs a lot more tightening up so that it lives up to its original purpose. It needs to spin a lot of plates, but sadly, no one has figured out how to do that yet.

You might ask – well, what should we do about this then? Maybe you could put a salary minimum on H1B visa workers and keep the minimum high enough to discourage foreign hires that undercut American workers. Perhaps you could create a different type of visa for outsourcing/staffing jobs and make different rules for it. Perhaps both of these are terrible ideas, and we need something completely different. I don’t know, and being non-American, I can’t really do much about this either way.

My hope, American friends, is that at the very least this post helped create empathy around what a typical H1B visa holder has to go through and why it isn’t quite what you might have thought it was like. Perhaps with this new knowledge, you can help affect change in a way that benefits everyone. I hope and pray to my favorite god of my favorite religion _/\_.