Reflections on Berlin: A Non-Resident Resident Exploring the Tech Scene

Berlin has been my home for almost 6 months of the past year. I was drawn to Berlin because of my fascination with Berlin’s history and culture, its reputation as a startup hub in Europe, and the low cost of living. While I am sure I will return to Berlin, locals have told me that the city is constantly changing and neighborhoods can be rapidly different in just a few short years.

To this end I wanted to write down my thoughts over what I have experienced in the city, having lived with various people in three trending districts in the city: Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg, and Neukölln.

General thoughts on the city:

  • Safe yet gritty: The city is quite safe even though a number of districts are neglected (some would say they look like a dump). You can find a lot of trash and dog poop on the streets as well as lots of graffiti (mainly tagging). This is particularly present in the up-and-coming areas.
  • Low cost of living for a capitol in Western Europe (but prices are rising): Food is particularly cheap. You can find a sandwich for 1-2 euros and lunch menus can be as low as 4-5 euros for a solid meal. Rent is quickly rising in the trending neighborhoods due to gentrification, though it is still quite cheap to live further out. Given the increase in prices and influx of immigrants, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next 5-10 years the cost of living in Berlin became comparable to most western European capitols.
  • Friendly, open, cosmopolitan residents: I have found most people to be very friendly and open, as well as coming from a diverse range of locales. It is easy to come in to the city knowing no one and develop a group of friends if you actively seek to meet people.
  • Plentiful and varied meet up events: Yoga? Take your pick of style. Beer tasting with a knowledgeable host? Got it. Language learning events? In droves.
  • German not required (but it definitely helps): Almost everyone who is under 40 speaks at least a basic level of English and many are quite fluent. There are also some areas where you’ll hear more English than German due to the large international presence.
  • Lots of green space: While Berlin is not as green as some other German cities such as Hamburg, you can find sizable and beautiful parks throughout the city, a massive park (Tiergarten), and the unique attraction of the abandoned Tempelhof airport that is available for public use. German laws allow alcohol in public, which makes it possible to have a picnic in and legally drink in a park.
  • Reliable, frequent, and affordable public transit: Driving and parking is a chaotic and best avoided in the trendy districts, but driving is not necessary for getting about the city.
  • German yet not German: Berlin is an interesting mix of stereotypical German culture with a counter-culture movement and foreign influences, similar to how Austin is to Texas. You still have German mentality on sustainability and local goods, as well as their hatred of credit cards (good luck finding a restaurant that accepts them), while there are a number of deviances from the German norm, such as people (sometimes) walking across an empty street without a walk sign.

Regarding the tech community:

  • Large and enthusiastic tech and startup community: There is a constant stream of tech meet ups and hackathons, neat co-working and hacker spaces, as well as workshops to learn various things. The city is full of startups but the community is quite young with no real presence of large tech companies and there is a lack of mentorship and senior personnel to be found here. Due to the city’s reputation, it attracts a number of well-known individuals in the tech community that visit or live in the city and will be present at events and conference.
  • Deflated tech salary: Due to the influx of tech workers from other regions, the average salary for tech workers is lower than other German cities (e.g. Munich, Hamburg) even when the cost of living is taken into account. However, I have met many people who have jobs in the city that are also working remotely, which is a terrific gig.
  • Startups lacking tech innovation: There are not many tech startups seeking to make new tech innovations. They have a number of interesting startups that are innovating through other means, but I have also noted a lot of startups with the goal of copying services provided by US companies to the US / English speaking market into the German / European market (some very successfully).
  • Healthier startup life: There is a healthier attitude towards startup life in Berlin as compared to Silicon Valley. Many startup employees are working hours more akin to a full-time job than a US startup life; they are willing to end their work-day in the evening and go out and enjoy the simpler things in life. On the other hand, I notice some startup founders seem to be less invested in their company and seem to be doing a startup only as a thing to do while they’re uncertain of what to do with their life, not because they believe in their idea.

Overall I find Berlin a wonderful place and am sad to be leaving this month. I would highly recommend it to anyone as a place to live or visit, particularly if you are a tech worker who can work remotely.

Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Outfitting your German Language Learning Toolbox

Learning a language is hard. Looking for tools to help shouldn’t add to the challenge. While your individual needs may vary, I have a few recommendations that can substantially change your learning when employed. These are:

  1. Going out and speaking the language with native speakers. Language meetups or tandem partners (remote or in-person) are two methods that can supplement forays into German social life, especially if you can’t travel. I see this as the most critical step toward conversational fluency, and think it affords the greatest learning.
  2. Reviewing and learning an abridged resource that covers the key points of German grammar, such as German for English Speakers.
  3. Using software with spaced repetition to rapidly learn vocabulary, such as Anki or Memrise. If you want to study vocabulary with professionally curated content, try out Colibri, an iPhone app I created.
  4. Get a browser plug-in such as Auto-Translate to automatically translate words you highlight on web pages. Supplement with using your computer’s text-to-speech to pronounce words in German.
  5. Find an activity you enjoy doing and perform it in German, such as playing video games, watching a TV series, or listening to music.

However, for those looking for more in depth information and options, this post covers:

Some content and strategies are geared towards different proficiency levels, and I’ve tried to note this when applicable. Additionally, systems that must be purchased are marked with a ($). If I’ve missed any key components that you find particularly helpful while learning languages, or if you have any other feedback, I’d love to hear about it!

Useful German Learning Websites and Applications

There are a number of websites and applications designed to help you learn German. For those with a basic understanding of the language or a background in foreign language learning, these resources can help you understand how German works and get you started on your path to fluency. If you have never learned a foreign language before it could be helpful to get some initial instruction to guide you through the basics.

Deutsche Welle  (Absolute beginner – Intermediate)
Deutsche Welle offers online courses to learn German up to an intermediate level. This series was highly recommended to me. The content quality is above average for a language series, though I’ve not used the site extensively beyond watching the language series videos.

German for English Speakers  (Absolute beginner – Intermediate)
Geared towards native English speakers, this website is a great (& free!) short summary of the German language.  It’s perfect for beginners who want essentials of German grammar, or as a review for more experienced learners.

Slow German  (Absolute beginner – Intermediate)
This website has podcasts for beginner or intermediate German learners on German cultural topics. Most of the material is targeted at intermediate learners, but a portion of the material is labeled and targeted to absolute beginners. You can download their iPhone app for $2. For your money, you’ll get to download and play the podcasts, in addition to seeing the transcripts for each podcast. My impression was of fewer newly produced podcasts, but the sizeable archive makes it a great value.

DuoLingo  (Beginner – Intermediate)
A very popular free language learning tool that I’ve used a lot, Duolingo has a lot of content in their gameified exercises that provide immediate feedback (with computer generated audio pronunciations). One caveat: I feel it is a difficult starting place for a newcomer as it tends to teach a variety of obscure vocabulary and phrases without covering the basics of the language. Additionally, in a number of cases I found their content to be incorrect, though it has been improving over time. While not the most efficient way to learn a language, it can be quite fun to use and may be more helpful for intermediate or advanced speakers who seek mastery. DuoLingo also offers mobile apps to study their content, currently on the iOS App Store and Google Play.

Some other sites people have recommended are Babbel and Busuu. Both of these sites offer courses and study materials for learning many languages. After a cursory perusal I felt that the quality of the products wasn’t very high, and that these websites weren’t right for me.

Any list would be incomplete without mentioning Rosetta Stone, the market leader for language learning software. While Rosetta has one of the largest collections of language learning content, I don’t find their style of instruction to be time efficient, and, when factoring in the cost (several hundred dollars), I find it difficult to recommend to a value-conscious learner.

Several websites and resources I’ve mentioned have mobile apps. These vary from offering nearly the same experience (DuoLingo) to having a reduced feature set (Rosetta Stone). There are also a variety of mobile-only apps that promote learning languages. Unfortunately, I found most of the mobile-only apps to be poor or average in quality. Beyond mobile apps that are dictionaries and a few high quality apps to seriously study vocabulary (both of these topics are discussed in their own sections), there is one particular app of note:

MindSnacks  ($) (Beginner)
MindSnacks makes a variety of apps for learning different languages. They employ mini-games to learn vocabulary in a casual and fun manner. While the app is not super-effective for learning, it is motivational and quite enjoyable.

Audio Lessons

Michel Thomas  ($) (Absolute beginner – Beginner)
These audio lessons feature Michel Thomas teaching two learners, so you hear both the lesson and the students’ attempts. This gets a mixed reaction from reviewers. Some people like the format because they can see the mistakes (and corrections) others are making (and receiving), while others, myself included, would prefer to hear correct materials only. Michel Thomas’s pronunciation in the different languages is not the same as a native speaker, but still quite good. I used these lessons to learn French with no French background and was shocked at how fast I was able to construct basic phrases. I recommend it for beginning stages. In addition, Thomas offers mobile apps available to play these audio lessons with flashcard exercises post lesson. With the mobile app you can buy the initial lessons by the hour ($5) and acquire all 8 hours for $30, which is less expensive than the audio CDs that sell the equivalent content for $60+.

Pimsleur Method  ($) (Absolute beginner – Beginner)
The Pimsleur Method’s lessons teach you language learning by playing back conversations in various contexts (e.g. talking with a coworker at the office). The method introduces you to words and phrases and then repeats them at regular intervals to solidify your memory and help you practice using them in different sentences. The audio series is useful for getting real-world vocabulary in varied contexts, but it lacks user feedback. Thus, you can’t direct the learning. If, for example, you want to learn vocabulary, the pacing can be quite slow. The Pimsleur Method runs several hundred dollars for their program, putting it on the expensive side for language learning software. To me, Pimsleur is not an ideal choice for value-conscious language learners. I found the Michel Thomas lessons to be more effective than the Pimsleur Method as well as a better value choice.

Vocabulary Learning Software

While learning, I found it necessary to have a way to solidify vocabulary knowledge and basic phrases. For those looking to move beyond index cards, there are a number of options to practice. Several software apps take advantage of spaced repetition, which is a more intelligent form of flash cards. With spaced repetition you input how well you know the word shown and the system then displays words less often as you master them, taking advantage of how our memory works to optimize learning. I have found spaced repetition to be highly effective, even with only studying 10 or 20 minutes a day. If you have a commute each morning on public transit or other general downtime (such as waiting for an appointment), these are ideal times to practice your vocabulary learning.

You can create your own content with vocabulary learning systems, such as memorizing the words and phrases around ordering food at a fine German bakery. Although I appreciate the flexibility possible with vocabulary learning software, many people (myself included!) are uncertain where to begin. The systems below also allow you to access content shared by other users. The shared content helps reduce barriers to getting started, but you also risk learning words incorrectly as the content varies in quality.

Memrise  (Beginner – Expert)
Memrise, a spaced repetition website, allows you to view content others have shared to learn vocabulary. Memrise seems to have the best shared content quality, perhaps due to the large user base coupled with their rating system. It is a great option, both in value and efficiency; the only downside is that mistakes are still present across many of the vocabulary lists.

Quizlet  (Beginner – Expert)
Quizlet is a free online and mobile tool designed for language teachers to create flashcards and share them with their students. Featuring mini-games as well as flashcards, Quizlet can be useful for a variety of learning preferences. If you have a teacher or can find a user whose content you trust to follow, this can be a terrific resource. If not, discerning quality can be a challenge. Quizlet is the only vocabulary learning software mentioned that does not utilize spaced repetition and you may notice reduced effectiveness in memorizing words.

Anki  (Beginner – Expert)
Anki is powerful – if complex – spaced repetition software for Windows, Mac, and Linux.  Anki can be a great option for someone delving into details of how to structure their vocabulary learning, who doesn’t mind fiddling with the interface (which can be complex and confusing at times). The software is free on the desktop and Android, but you must purchase the iOS version.

Mnemosyne  (Beginner – Expert)
Mnemosyne is a free flash card tool for Windows, Linux, OS X, and Android that enables creating and sharing cards. Less complex than Anki, it’s still great for making your own cards, though it has a smaller community of people sharing their card sets than the other systems.

While researching language learning software, I met Peter Lewis in Berlin who had developed Colibri, a web application with high quality content for learning German as a native English speaker. Because I found Colibri so helpful during my studies, I partnered with Peter and made an iOS app using the same content.

Colibri  ($) (Beginner – Intermediate)
Colibri is an iOS app designed to rapidly build vocabulary skills in German. The app uses spaced repetition to optimize learning speed and provides analytics to review your progress over time. It differs from other vocabulary learning software in that professionally curated word sets with example sentences can be bought for varying skill levels. Every word comes with an example sentence, and may include additional notes to provide extra knowledge or avoid areas of confusion. One such additional note is, “Don’t confuse schon (already) with the adjective schön (beautiful). I developed the iPhone version of Colibri after using the existing web app in closed beta. The app is free to download and try out while studying the 100 most commonly used words. You can buy all ~3000 professionally translated words with example sentences and pronunciation for $20, or buy individual language packs with ~1000 words for $8.99.

Tandem Exchange

Tandem exchanges involve two people teaching each other languages they each want to learn. I found having a tandem partner where I learn German and help them with their English to be quite useful once I found a good match. I met my tandem partners on, though is a more modern and growing tandem website. While I used these sites to set up in-person meetings while living in Germany, you can also find people to chat with online.

A particularly helpful aspect of the tandem exchange was engaging with people with similar interests. For example, if you’re into craft beer you can meet a fellow beer enthusiast. That way, you can square up on your German beer vocabulary while learning about the culture.

To maximize the usefulness of the tandem exchanges it is helpful to prepare by bringing questions, small snippets of text you need help translating, or otherwise having a few specific things you want to get out of the meeting.

Language Meet Ups and offer a number of language meet-up events. Plentiful in German cities, meetups are also available in the U.S., (especially through local university listings). The meetups offer casual environments (such as cafés or bars) that seem to lessen the discomfort of making mistakes as you practice speaking and listening.

I’ve attended meet-ups in Germany and in other countries and find them to be of varying quality, depending on the group and proportion of native speakers. I worry about unwittingly picking up bad habits from other learners, so I prefer when there are native speakers present.

TV Series for Learning German

A number of TV series target learners, featuring a reduced vocabulary set, slower speaking, and some even offer subtitles. While the stories can be a bit contrived and corny, they are great for beginners as the stories are easy to follow. Below are a few options, arranged by ease of vocabulary used.

Extr@ – TV Series made in German and other languages in the style of “Friends”. You should be able to find it on YouTube with German subtitles.

Deutsche Welle produced several shows, available at their site for free. These have practice activities available to go along with the episodes. Some selections below that I’ve watched and have better production quality than Extr@ are:

Jojo sucht das Glück – A Brazilian woman visits Germany for the first time and deals with various problems along the way.

Ticket nach Berlin – A game show style adventure follows two teams of foreigners around Berlin.

Das Bandtagebuch – A show following EINSHOCH6, a hip-hop band from Munich, as they travel around Germany touring.

While these shows were great for learning, once I reached an intermediate proficiency I preferred watching familiar dubbed TV shows. As an example, South Park offers all their episodes online for free. While I cringe at how they butchered Cartman’s voice in German, re-watching the episodes I knew when I was younger really improved my vocabulary and comprehension. If you want to check it out, you need to use the appropriate site for the country you are residing in (US Site, German Site) and ensure you change the audio to German on the episode.


Music is one of the most approachable ways I’ve found to learn a language, as you can enjoy the sound while you learn to understand the underlying meaning. However, for beginnings, this understanding does not happen purely by osmosis (at least not at any useful speed!).

To better interpret the songs, you can find translations for songs with German and English text side by side at Googling the song name with “English lyrics” added also does the trick, but in most cases the first result and best translation is on LyricsTranslate.

Video Games in German  ($)

I learned a lot of German by playing The Book of Unwritten Tales – an adventure game for Windows and OS X made by a German publisher. I searched Steam, an online store for games, and looked for adventure games that had German audio and text (the page in Steam displays what is offered in each language). This was the best-rated adventure game I found for $20 or less.

I learned a tremendous amount of vocabulary through playing the game, as I had to understand what was happening and choose the appropriate phrases to advance. Additionally, it was an amusing game, which only motivated me further to want to understand the language. I was emotionally invested in playing and finishing the game, and each dialogue option meant that my decisions were based on my understanding of the language! In The Book of Unwritten Tales you couldn’t die or mess up permanently, which encouraged experimentation. I turned the subtitles on to benefit from spoken words and subtitles. Unlike many movies, their subtitles always matched the words!

Another game I enjoyed playing and learned German from was Witcher 2, a roleplaying game with German audio and subtitles. This is a full-fledged high-quality game and can be difficult (both the gameplay and the language), so this is a great choice for gamers who have at least intermediate language skills.


Even with great language learning tools available, a quality dictionary fills in gaps in knowledge and provides a reference source when you’re out practicing the language. I find the most important features in a dictionary are quality and large word base. Added bonus: audio pronunciation and dictionary lookup that works offline on a mobile device.

On the web, is my favorite German / English dictionary. It houses a huge database of translations and many spoken pronunciations by native speakers (with computer generated for the rest).

For iOS there is iTranslate, a free app to translate words if you have access to the internet.

For offline word lookup on iOS I use Ultralingua. I purchased their largest dictionary of words (~$20) and it’s my go to resource when I’m out and about.

Translation in Your Browser

While reading German websites, I’d often stumble over words and have to look them up (or give up and switch to the English version in frustration) for comprehension. To get over this obstacle, I started using Auto-Translate, a free plugin for the Chrome browser that translates parts of websites using the Google Translate system.

Though the plug-in is not 100% accurate, since it uses automated translation, it is a tremendously helpful supplement (akin to a speedy, fairly accurate dictionary). I set it up to auto-detect the language and translate to either German or English whenever I select words on the screen. It does have a bug that sometimes requires me to select the words on the screen twice before displaying a translation, but it works most of the time and is a huge aid. Be sure to disable the plug-in from displaying ads through the options menu, otherwise some pages become disorienting.

Other plug-ins for Chrome and other browsers are available, and I’d recommend checking out alternatives if Auto-Translate doesn’t meet your needs.


While being able to define words quickly is helpful, readings on your computer can be augmented by utilizing text-to-speech capabilities. With OS X, you can configure your “Dictation & Speech” settings (in System Preferences) to use a German voice (Windows offers similar text-to-speech settings). Then, you can assign a key to playback any words or sentences you have highlighted. To help learners further, you can adjust the speech rate. The pronunciation sounds pretty good, if a bit robotic.

This feature definitely helps me in conjunction with the Auto-Translate web plugin. Between the two, wading through pages you can’t fully comprehend or feel uncertain about becomes much easier. I feel more proficient and less frustrated highlighting words for translation and/or pronunciation instead of copying and pasting the words into another site.

Good luck on your language learning endeavors! If you have any questions or additional suggestions for this list I’d love to hear from you!

2013 in Review

This year I have been documenting my exploits and it is my first attempt at doing a formal reflection and write-up on the past year.

2013 in Review


This past year was a monumental shift for me:

I finished my PhD.

I officially graduated in May. I transitioned my work to a research associate position, meaning I continue doing the same work I did for my PhD but working fewer hours (no school requirements!) and making more money (no school costs!). My time was mainly spent on research and development work around Zydeco, though I began to do side projects through my company, Elastic Focus.


Zydeco was a project I developed during my PhD that investigates how to bridge formal and informal environments (e.g. classrooms and museums) using a mobile app and accompanying website to help middle school students engage in science inquiry investigations. In March, we were able to (finally) release Zydeco to the iOS App Store as a free download. This was a tremendous struggle, not only to prepare the software and the help pages for the release, but also to deal with the process of releasing through the University of Michigan. That endeavor took 12 weeks; Apple approved the release in 5 days. Zydeco was released in a closed beta, where users must request to have more than a demo account. And though it was not advertised, we’ve had account requests from over a hundred organizations, teachers, and researchers across the world and it has been terrific to get positive feedback from these people.

With Zydeco being publicly available, we were able to oversee and run research trials in even more locations than before: more Michigan schools, the Field Museum in Chicago, Seattle Public Schools through the University of Washington, and with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education located in Toronto. I also managed to sneak in a Kidsteam design session, a partnership of children and adult researchers that work together to co-design children’s technologies at the University of Maryland, getting feedback on how to better design Zydeco for a younger audience.

I worked with Michelle Lui from Toronto to publish a long paper on research that combined Zydeco with EvoRoom, an immersive, room-sized simulation of a rainforest. The paper was accepted to the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference that takes place in Toronto next April. Michelle and I also submitted a CHI Interactivity to demo the combination of Zydeco and EvoRoom at the conference, though we are still waiting to find out if it is accepted.

Elastic Focus

In a move to align my research work and my company, I submitted a grant proposal for expanding Zydeco that I was co-principal investigator on through my company (a first!). This grant partnered with The Field Museum and Steven McGee at The Learning Partnership. If we receive the grant, it would provide 3 million in funding for the project over 4 years. My portion of the grant would be used almost entirely to hire software developers to work for me, as well as paying a portion of my salary (it will be SO nice to work regularly with other developers on the project).

In September, I released Big Presentation Timer (it does about what you’d expect) to the App Store, working with Brenna McNally. This app fulfills a frustration I had as an instructor trying to help students finish presentations on time with gentle warnings (do NOT make me stay late!). While the market is flooded with presentation timer apps, none of the existing apps met my needs for giving warnings and I hope others find this app useful.

Working with Mauricio Gomes, I made a fill-in puzzle iPad app called Crazy Crossword that was meant to be a fun little side project done in an intense weekend burst. However, generating decent New York Times style crossword puzzles turned out to be a little more complicated than expected for a weekend project, forcing us to put it on hold until we have time to finish this up.

My favorite side project this year has been Colibri, a German vocabulary learning software for iOS. This project was initiated through meeting Peter Lewis while I was living in Berlin and trying out his web prototype of the system. I found the web prototype so useful for learning German that I offered to adapt it to the iOS version so it could be used offline on my commutes. I’ve been happily using the app for a few months to learn over a thousand new words and it is in the final polishing stages and will soon be available on the App Store.

As I love learning languages to interact with people while traveling, I’ve been quite interested in the overall language learning technology scene (spoiler alert: it is quite lacking). Beyond working with Peter on Colibri, I began collaborating with several people to explore this area, including Brenna McNally and Emer Corrigan. While I’m still in the learning phase, I began to survey and interview people on their language learning needs, as well as recording my own experiences.


I was fortunate to be able to attend a number of exciting conferences this year. These events have always been one of the highlights of my academic career, as they are a chance to learn new things, meet old friends in the field, explore new places, and make new friends all while having fun. This year was no exception!

I attended two research conferences that I’ve been a regular at for a number of years: the Computer-Human Interaction Conference in Paris and the Interaction Design and Children Conference in New York City. Both were fantastic, keeping up the tradition of being a high quality experience! In between these two conferences I had the opportunity to take part in an EduCoder retreat at a cottage in Wisconsin. This was put on by Tom Moher’s and Jim Slotta’s labs from University of Chicago and University of Toronto and was a great opportunity for sharing lessons learned and getting feedback from other educational technology researchers and developers.

I also was a last minute participant in the LinguaCamp BarCamp in Berlin. This was an interesting un-conference-style event with the goal of discussing learning and teaching languages and, to that theme, was run in English, German, and French. I went to this event shortly after my arrival in Berlin, and it was here that I met Peter Lewis with whom I later collaborated with on Colibri.

Near Misses

A number of things I attempted did not work out as desired this year- much of which involved being rejected on grants or positions I applied for. I applied for a Stanford Design School Fellowship and an internship under Seth Godin, but was rejected for both. I was part of two different research grant submissions that were also rejected.

However, these rejections don’t overly bother me, as the act of submitting and putting in a solid effort is redeeming in itself (though I’d love to have received any of them!).

Unfortunately, there were a few cases where things were unable to be submitted. I attempted to write a Small Business Innovative Research Grant, partnering with a learning technologies startup, though this failed to come together before the deadline and the project was scrapped. I also was working on a grant between the University of Michigan and the University of Toronto for combining and extending Zydeco and EvoRoom to make a next generation augmented learning environment, though this was not completed before the deadline and delayed until a later grant cycle.

The most frustrating experience was when bureaucracy killed a funded project that could have helped a lot of people. Working with a therapist, we applied and received a grant to make a mobile app and an accompanying website to help adolescents with anxiety, particularly those that were working with a therapist. An important part of the children’s treatment is performing exercises outside of therapy, and a personal mobile device could streamline this process and provide reminders for the user to complete the exercises. However, due to the bureaucracy of an establishment I’m choosing not to name, the project became a time-sink trying to get access to the funds. In the end we were unable to use the money.


The biggest change in my personal life was restoring a sense of work/life balance after the previous unrelenting cacophonous hell that was my life while I finished my PhD.

This year I had the opportunity to travel extensively and also live for several months in Berlin as well spend several months with my cousin Aaron and his partner Michelle. All of these opportunities combined for a terrific personal growth and helping me better discover how I want to live my life and spend my time going forward.


Getting to travel and experiencing different cultures is always a personal highlight, and I strive to spend at least 20% of my time each year doing so. This year I well exceeded my goal, having a great mix of work and personal travel that amounted to 155 days away from my home in Michigan.

The big highlight of this was living in Berlin for 70 days. I went there to experience the growing startup community, learn German, and get a taste for life in such a transformative city. While in Berlin, I attended a variety of different meet-ups (primarily through and met a variety of interesting and unique people.

The experience of living in Berlin was quite profound to me, as I got to experience quickly integrating into a new location and making many friends and having a diverse range of experiences in my short stay. Between the meet-up websites and Airbnb, a website to facilitate renting a room or apartment from someone else, my conception of how travel can be done has shifted greatly. The ease of being able to integrate in a new location is far easier than ever before, and I look forward to having similar trips like this in the future.

My period in Berlin was a wonderful experiment in exploring language learning. Through regularly going out and forcing myself to speak German, it helped me get over my fears of fumbling in a foreign language and embrace the uncertainty inherent to the learning phase. This was a big issue I faced when I previously studied abroad in Germany seven years before, where my fear of speaking German was quite a limiting factor in being able to go out and interact with people, as well as my ability to improve my speaking skills.

My language learning endeavors were not limited to the practice I had in Germany this year.  Through my travels to Costa Rica and Paris, I also had an opportunity to improve my (poor) Spanish and also begin to learn French. These experiences contributed to making me more carefree in practicing, particularly in the struggle to conduct basic tasks in French when I have such a rudimentary knowledge of the language.

Beyond the language learning, I had a lot of amazing new experiences this year. One of my favorites was getting to spend a few weeks in Alaska, where I got to explore Denali National Park, sea kayaked off the Kenai Peninsula, and got side-tracked on many other adventures along the way. The untouched natural environment of Alaska was astounding, and I plan to return again in the future to further experience it.

I also helped facilitate an environmental biology service-learning trip in Costa Rica for students at Madonna University. This was a diverse range of experience condensed into one intense week, where we worked on different organic farms, patrolled the beaches at a turtle station to protect eggs from poachers, and helped maintain nature conservation centers.  While I had traveled to Costa Rica before on a vacation, getting to work alongside students at these tasks was both tremendously fun and educational, and was an entirely new way to experience the country.

While I only mentioned a handful of my trips this year, it embodies the range of travels I hope to have more of in the future.

Habits and Systems

Implementing effective routines has been an area I’ve struggled with for years and is an ongoing area for improvement. This year I made headway into several areas that have had a noticeable impact on my life.

One of the most important things was starting a daily journal. This was done using a modified form of the Five-Minute Journal that I write up in Evernote. By writing out things I am grateful for each day and having a time of reflection at the start and end of the day, I’ve noticed a substantial improvement in my happiness and productivity.

One of my favorite things to do before grad school was reading books for fun, and I’ve been able to restart that practice. This past year I’ve read ~40 new books (a combination of fiction and non-fiction) that were not directly related to work, as well as revisiting many of my favorites.

On the language learning theme I’ve explored this year, I also began a number of practices to continue studying German. While my motivation has decreased as to when I was living in Germany (and needed it for survival!), I have been trying various methods to keep my knowledge fresh. This has involved changing the default language on my web browser to German, as well as regular exposure through German videos and music.

Health and Wellness

While I managed to generate a number of beneficial habits, those around my health have been more mixed. This past year has been fraught with inconsistent exercise patterns due in large part to the constant relocation and travel. I’ve maintained weekly or twice weekly (brief) weightlifting and/or kettle bell exercise through the year. At periods I started running, though these habits stopped when traveling. While living in Berlin I cut back on working out (no equipment) but walked a lot (averaging ~4 miles a day). While I desire to take part in a consistent sport or activity, I couldn’t get any routine in and my fitness declined when it started getting cold in November.

My eating habits are one area that have held up well and improved this year. I’ve continued to reduce my meat consumption after my mother’s heart attack and resulting surgery, and restricted myself to only eat chicken, turkey, and seafood. This has continued unabated beyond a handful of exceptions and confusions during my travels. I’ve been pleased with this development and found the process of restricting my diet far easier than expected, barring a few areas where red meats reign supreme and finding alternatives can be tricky.


I’ve been happy with how this year has turned out and hope to continue on a similar vein in the year to come. While my plans are quite fluid as I like to be open to new opportunities, continuing to travel and grow is my top priority. I hope to return to Europe for a substantial amount of time as well as explore new places, and in the process I’d like to become conversationally fluent in German (returning to Germany should do this!).

Professionally, I’m hoping to continue iterating on Zydeco and attempt to receive additional funding. I also want to continue exploring and pursuing projects in the area of language learning, as this is a great intersection of personal and professional interests.

Beyond the software development, a big goal is to start writing more. I’m planning to start blogging on topics of interest and as a means to refine my interests organically as well as expand my knowledge.

Overall, the year has been great and I’m supremely grateful for the family and friends that experienced it with me and also helped me through the rough times. I’m excited to see how the future develops through the uncertain times ahead.