The Clonakilty-based Coder Dojo founder and IT entrepreneur talks to reporter Jackie Keogh about finding his purpose in life, his belief that pain is ‘a given’ and his admiration for the Dali Lama
‘WITH an Asian parent on one side and an academically successful mother on the other, being a high school drop-out was kind of unacceptable.’
Bill Liao has a way of getting your attention and holding it, and it is all down to the use of language.
This highly successful Australian-born IT specialist, entrepreneur, co-founder of the Coder Dojo movement and environmentalist, now lives in a beautiful cottage near Clonakilty, and has, by his own admission, ‘a purpose-driven life’ that ‘came from a decade of introspection.’
Bill’s dad, a journalist, is Chinese and his mother holds a PhD in Asian Literature. ‘To this day mum says I passed high school, but my higher school certificate does not say pass.’
High school was a miserable time for Bill because he was racially vilified so he ‘fully understands what it is like to be bullied and tormented.’
But one of the things he learned by being introspective and looking at different schools of thought, is that ‘compassion and forgiveness are really empowering when you are the victim.
‘When you develop your own compassion, when you are the underdog that actually empowers you – most victims don’t realise how empowering having compassion for your abuser can be.’
In conversation – a conversation that is at all times interesting, thought-provoking and funny – Bill referenced two people: the Dali Lama, whom he’s met, and Fr Gerry O’Rourke of the Parish of San Francisco.
He said Fr O’Rourke ‘constituted himself as a man of forgiveness whose very definition of forgiveness, which I use, is the willingness to give up your own suffering in the matter.
‘Pain is a given,’ he said. ‘Suffering is a choice. When you look at all the things you can preoccupy yourself with, you can get very quickly to the point where you can blame the universe for your circumstances.
‘But as soon as you shift the blame off your own shoulders – no matter how good that feels – you are disempowering yourself. What I came to – after doing self-development, wandering in the wildness and meeting my lovely wife, Kerrie – is that who you are really is given by the future that you choose to live into, more than the past that you need to transcend.’
Here (for me) is the killer line: ‘My future is a world that works for all living things. That is what gives me my purpose. That is how I have a purpose-driven life.
‘Whether that is from an investment perspective – where I work to have great companies start up with their own purpose – all the way through to working philanthropically with the poorest people on the planet through We Forest.’
We Forest is a tree planting charity that Bill started and will, by the end of the year, have planted 15 million trees and empowered thousands and thousands of the world’s poorest women to become permaculture food foresters.
The end goal is to put a halt to global warming while creating wealth and prosperity for the disempowered and the disenfranchised – in other words, having the world work for them.
Bill’s individualistic view, and his world view, comes down to this: ‘You are creating a set of conditions for yourself.’ The objective is to ‘consider what happens when you stand for something that is much bigger than you need. By taking on a much bigger challenge, your personal problems may seem very small indeed.’
A small example illustrates the point. Last week, Bill happened to be sitting in his car taking a conference call about putting a Coder Dojo programme together for hospitals, while waiting for his car to get unclamped.
The narrow view, of course, is to curse the clampers, but the broader view was to stay focused on the task at hand because, having been hospitalised as a kid, Bill believes programming computers is something children can do, even enjoy, in a sick bed.
‘Being clamped is just so small in comparison to getting thousands of hospitals to offer hundreds of thousands of kids the opportunity to learn something useful while they recover.’
Early in life, Bill had a near death experience. He was four and had severe asthma. The sensation of having the life suffocated out of him left him in hospital and in an oxygen tent.
He recovered. But it is something he is still dealing with. He doesn’t get asthma attacks here in Ireland, but in Australia he is ‘constantly medicated.’
It was over a Ventalin inhaler that he bonded with James Whelton, the Cork man with whom he founded the Coder Dojo programme. When they first met, James had to run because he was late and ended up having a bit of an asthma attack. Bill whipped out the Ventalin and the rest, as they say, is history.
As an aside, Bill said: ‘I don’t normally handle interviews this way.’ Maybe it is because the conversation has turned philosophical rather than focusing on the pounds, shillings and pence of his amazing success in the world of IT, and the alarming statistics and inconvenient truths of global warming.
When he meets people, Bill said: ‘I ignore the outer image and listen to them because everybody deserves that respect because we are all so amazingly complex and interesting.’
As he has already said, Bill has a purpose in life and it bears repeating: ‘My future is a world that works for all living things.’ But it would be true to say that his power comes from the quality of his listening. A friend of his, Dr Mark Goulston in LA, taught FBI hostage negotiators how to communicate.
And the Dali Lama once offered him this useful instruction: ‘Give people your presence.’ So, Bill says he listens so that ‘other people feel heard.
‘Listening,’ he said, ‘is a mark of respect that opens the opportunity for real communication. People mistake mindfulness as being a one-sided transaction, but actually the most powerful expression of mindfulness is being present for another. Being all Zen, all by yourself, is a valid thing, but it is not it,’ he says. ‘It is being present to others.’
If there is one theme in the several books that Bill Liao has written it is that ‘the world occurs in language – everything that happens in the world happens in language.’
Here he gives another small example: ‘Coder Dojo (an organisation that brings joy and a real sense of belonging to thousands and thousands of young people) would not exist if we had gone with the original name, the ‘Saturday Morning Programme Club For Kids’.
Coder means programmer and dojo means temple of learning. The dojo system of experiential learning is 800 years old and the perfect context for learning a language.
‘Image is a form of language as well, but when it becomes image for image’s sake, it stops communication. It becomes a barrier. Some people do wear their image as armour. I don’t.’
When the conversation comes to the subject of energy, Bill said: ‘Energy comes from purpose. When you work for a purpose that is bigger than yourself it is selfless, but it is also much more empowering.
‘The trap that some people fall into is that the purpose becomes all about them, and people have to align with them 100%, which is difficult to manage and devastating when people reject you.’
In his life, Bill said: ‘Failure forced me to do something. I am an optimist. And when you are a failure and an optimist at the same time it doesn’t lead you to inaction, you have actually got to do something about it, because there is no use in complaining.’
After school, even without the equivalent of a Leaving Certificate, Bill got a job working as a computer technician with an Australian computer company. ‘I was their workshop manager: It meant I got to solder things together.’
Then he went to work for Canon as a computer repairman. Here, he said, he learned a lot about people because ‘the worst time to meet someone is when their computer is broken.’
After this reporter confessed to blind panic when the IT demons strike, Bill respectfully asked to give ‘a shout out’ to Ger O’Shea of Granite Consulting, who is also The Southern Star’s IT guru and a leading light in the Skibbereen Coder Dojo group.
‘One of the reasons I founded Coder Dojo,’ said Bill, ‘is that it eases this crazy fear. Computers are our willing slaves: Computer programming is a language skill and the best programmers are poets because they combine creativity and economy of expression in language.
‘In order to be a coder poet you need to learn the language young enough to be a native speaker, but even if you don’t learn it fully, you will learn that you have the power and not the machine.
‘Coder Dojo is about freeing up so the kids are fully empowered around the technology and don’t have that frustration … (the kind that makes you want to take a hammer to your expensive new smart phone and smash it to a million pieces).
The pivotal point in Bill’s life – following the ten years it took him to get over failing school and securing gainful employment in a computer company – came when his boss, Peter Ball, noticed that both he and Kerrie – who were working for his company, Exa, at the time – seemed stressed. Bill said they had their first child on the way, were in debt and were more than willing to take up Peter’s offer to do a self-development course called ‘The Forum’.
‘It was great,’ said Bill. ‘It was really simple and really clever and it reinforced what I had already been trying to figure out, and that is – the past does not exist anymore.’
Afterwards, Bill quit his job. Peter – it has to be said – wasn’t best pleased. But, on another level he understood, and Bill went on to become a shareholder in his company.
Bill’s next move was to teach himself how to sell because he realised, as a technical person, it is very difficult to make money without being able to sell.
‘The first golden rule,’ he said, ‘is to listen. The second golden rule in selling is to ask for the order. And the third – and this is a very important part – is to shut up and listen for them to say “yes” or “no”. You must wait for them to give you an answer.’
These golden rules somehow translated into a telecommunications business that went public and made Bill a lot of money, or, as he, in an understated way, said ‘did very well.’ It wasn’t the first time that a company ‘did very well’ for Bill Liao. When he ‘retired’ in his thirties, and went to live with his family in Switzerland, he did some fund management and took a big social networking company, Xing, public. There were others ....
Bill explains the family interlude in Switzerland as follows: ‘When I was seven, my dad got some funding to improve his Chinese for Radio Australia. He and my mother scraped enough for us to turn that into a world trip.
‘We did “Europe on 10 dollars a day”. We actually used that book.’ The trip did not include his brother Tristan (named after a firm TV favourite, All Creatures Great and Small) because he is 16 years Bill’s junior.
‘I fell in love with Switzerland, so I wanted to go back. But after eight years, Kerrie said we had to live in an English-speaking country, one where you could interact more with people.’
Kerrie did the research. Kerrie chose Clonakilty. Bill just wrote the cheque.
They bought it sight unseen and decided to give it a try mid-winter to see if they liked it. They most definitely like it.
A few words about Kerrie: Bill said he was originally going out with her best friend, Kim, who dumped him. Around that time, they had one date and one date only. Kerrie subsequently said it didn’t go well because Bill hadn’t gotten over Kim.
But when they met, a year later at a party, Kerrie learned that Bill was passionate about the environment and permaculture and, in her own words, decided: ‘He’s alright.’
They have three kids: Liam (20) and Riley (17) who are into computers; and Willow Rose (15), whom Bill, smilingly, describes as ‘the princess.’ He said: ‘She is an artist.’
In West Cork, Bill met Sean O’Sullivan, of Dragon’s Den fame, and owner of SOS Ventures, and now Bill runs investment for him in Ireland.
It happened around the same time Bill was starting up the Coder Dojo programme, and they have since launched an accelerator programme at University College Cork that aims to make Cork the centre of the BioTech universe.
Bill said: ‘The accelerator programme is where start-up companies go to thrive. Here, we run programmes for software, hardware and wetware. The nine, highly-inventive businesses that have been chosen to take part in the accelerator programme, are working very hard to make their businesses investable.’
A man in Bill’s position has some insights into business. He said: ‘Business is not a marathon, it is a sprint; making the business successful afterwards is the marathon.’
He said: ‘Money is never the object; if it is, you are going to fail. The object is your purpose.
‘The reason I don’t retire is that I have a purpose: Happiness does not come from money; it comes from achieving small and big goals. And there is incomparable satisfaction in getting someone to do it for themselves.
‘When we founded Coder Dojo, James and I thought about the context we were creating because learning can only really happen powerfully in the appropriate context. A key element of that context is that all kids are equal and the reason we don’t charge is the second you put a price on it, you create an inequality. Coder Dojo is free and philanthropic. It never will make money.’
But then, making money isn’t everything.