How does one fulfill the left side of the brain, which governs logic and reasoning, along with the right side, which controls aesthetic and creative pursuits? Countless artists have day jobs in cubicles to make ends meet. Allen Chen does both, challenging himself every day and still managing to stay balanced.
Gifted in his technical work as a designer of the microchips that make laptops and cell phones function properly, Chen’s creative side thrives through his leadership as the editor-in-chief of Austinist, one of the city’s go-to websites for arts criticism, local news and politics reporting.
Chen is a relationship builder and a champion of Austin’s ever-expanding creative class. With his work at Austinist, which connects artists across disciplines and trains a critical eye on the local arts scene, and his daytime gig as an analog design and systems engineer at Texas Instruments, Chen is something of a Renaissance man. He’s also a dog lover, quick to show me a snapshot of his whippet, Alfie. Chen adopted him as a puppy three years ago from a family in south Austin. “He was skittish and in such a fragile state at the time, but he’s really come a long way,” Chen said. “He’s adorable. He’s my baby, you know.”
Chatting over coffee one afternoon, Chen is modest about his status in the city and forthright about the importance of his family in shaping the man he’s become. The past year has been a challenging one for him on a personal level, although he seems to have taken most of it in stride.
In April of last year, Chen’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Chen’s father had died in 2000 after an excruciating battle with a particularly aggressive form of cancer, so the news hit him hard. His mother returned to Taiwan for treatments–including dozens of rounds of biweekly chemotherapy, daily radiation and major surgery–because of its nationalized health care system and the support of her friends and siblings living in Taiwan.
“She’s a strong-willed person and she believed that she would beat it,” Chen said. “During the chemo treatments, to take her mind off the poisons that were coursing through her body, she’d tell us dirty jokes, and the group of us gathered around her would end up doubled over, tears in our eyes from laughing.”
The family dynamic also shifted; Chen had to grow up fast and his relationship with his mother, which had always been close, grew even stronger. When she moved to Austin in early 2006, they spent more time together. Chen said that his mother had been nothing but brave throughout the process of chemotherapy and recuperation. Although she’s currently still in Taiwan recovering and rebuilding her life, Chen emails with her all the time and said that she’s rediscovered roots that she hasn’t had since leaving Taiwan 30 years ago.
His mother’s illness enhanced their bond. “She recently sent me this wonderful email saying ‘I hope that I never did anything to make you feel uncomfortable.’ ”
Austinist interviewed Rue McClanahan, a breast cancer survivor, who said that you have to believe you’re going to win the battle against the disease. Those are the messages that Chen carried to his mom, who recently received a clean bill of health. In the midst of writing this piece, McClanahan died after suffering from a stroke at the age of 76.
“We’ve always been really close. She’s progressive and open-minded, so talking to her is just naturally easier,” Chen said. “This whole experience, though, has been a strong reminder to us all that our time together, as a family, is shorter than a lot of us would like to believe–and it’s important to enjoy those moments when they’re here.”
Striking A Balance
Following his internship at Freescale Semiconductor in the summer of 2004, the company made him an offer. Although Chen didn’t know anyone in Austin at first, he had sensed that the Capital City was the place for him; he’d fallen in love with the city’s vibrant arts and culture scene and creative energy. He read Gothamist while attending Columbia University for graduate school in order to keep abreast of everything happening in New York City.
He received his master’s degree in electrical engineering with a specialty in analog circuit design. Chen’s forte is circuit design and systems engineering. He described his year-and-a-half stint as a graduate student at Columbia University as the perfect length of time in the Big Apple. He attended the University of California at Berkeley and received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering/computer science and business.
In late 2007, he was recruited by a headhunter who asked if he wanted to work for Texas Instruments, which, among other things, produces the chips that protect a laptop’s batteries in 80 percent of the laptops in the world.
His current full-time job as an analog design and systems engineer with Texas instruments is highly technical and works the left side of his brain, forcing him to be analytical. Chen, who loves doing Sudoku puzzles and played piano growing up, believes that his work at Austinist enables him to not only contribute artistically but be exposed to people who are involved in creative innovation. How does he make time for all of it? Chen’s always enjoyed having his hands in different pots.
Chen is driven by an intense desire to connect people to the arts, grow Austin’s arts community and push the envelope by getting residents to broaden their cultural perspectives. “Looking longer term, I’d like to work toward giving the city’s creative community a bigger presence on the national stage,” Chen said. “There’s no question that Austin is the most promising city in America when it comes to cultural and physical growth.”
Every site in the Gothamist family, which publishes Austinist and covers a total of 11 cities, is run autonomously. With the multitude of events happening every weekend, indeed every night, in Austin, it’s one way for residents to sift through and find what suits them. Austinist averages about 350,000 page views per month, and the site sponsors a range of different events through- out the year, including the Austin Film Festival, the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival and the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival.
When Austinist launched and he heard that they were looking for contributors, Chen immediately headed to the Hilton downtown for their open call; about 30 eager people showed up. Even though he had a background in technology, he was an avid reader and ended up writing about his experiences in Austin with a wide-eyed enthusiasm. The process grew organically from there. He also met Matthew Odam, who worked closely with him as coeditor of the site when the site’s original editor decided to relinquish his role. “Everyone was welcome to go and write about things and the site was trying to find its own voice,” Chen said. “That night was the turning point of my experience in Austin.”
The following year, Chen and Odam established section editors and divided the site into core areas.
The site is powered by the strength of people’s connection to, and love for, Austin. Chen empowers his section editors to work autonomously and gives them the tools to do so.
“It was really a symbiotic relationship–we seemed to share a brain for a time, which I am sure is a scary thought for him,” said Matthew Odam, a blogger and writer for Austin360.com, the Statesman’s arts and entertainment site. “Allen is a tireless worker with a brilliant mind. Everything he has done at Austinist over the past five years has been about creating a dialogue about what this city is and what it can be. he is one of the kindest and most thoughtful people I’ve met in my life.”
By the end of 2005, Chen was coeditor, and by the end of 2006 he was running the site, which celebrated its fifth anniversary in March, by himself. Although there was plenty of on-the- job training, Chen said the process of becoming good at the type of writing that Austinist is known for was relatively easy. The site’s contributors are a mixture of journalism majors and folks whose passion lies in a certain aspect of local culture–whether it’s the city’s burgeoning film scene or contemporary arts.
Chen oversees a team of eight section editors, each of whom develops content under given topics (food, music, film, politics). The site has about 10 photographers and up to 50 writers spread throughout Austin. All of the work is contributor based and volunteer. He holds semi-regular meetings with his section editors at his condo off south Lamar.
With Chen receiving an average of 300 emails per day about a range of cultural events, sifting through those to find the two dozen or so that are locally relevant is time-consuming. Beyond managing his section editors, Chen sometimes runs certain sections himself, such as politics, which he’s running now. Like any dedicated editor-in-chief, he tries to inspire and motivate his colleagues, which can be tricky when your writers aren’t being paid.
Chen was raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and his parents owned a little computer store in the days before Best Buy. In that way, his affinity for all things technical was hard-wired into his genes. He grew up playing with computers and their components. Chen’s engineer father instilled a love of technology in him.
Because his parents are eco-conscious, Chen is aware of his environment and gets frustrated by the concept of greenwashing, wherein companies spin their products or services as environmentally friendly when in fact they aren’t. “I think being aware of how you’re affecting your environment is important,” he said. “My dad and I would gather all of the cans we used and take them to the grocery store before everyone recycled.”
Chen’s design work with microchips is similar to what an architect does with a building. Although it’s at a billionth of that scale, it still involves a lot of math and making blueprints. All the components need to make sense structurally, of course, but also at the level of physics and how electrons flow. We’ve all seen examples of that in architecture, whether it’s the latest condo tower downtown or a mansion that seems to hang off a cliff above lake Travis. With his work, the end product is so tiny that no one notices it unless it fails. “It’s kind of a small miracle that some- thing which is smaller than the width of a human hair comes back to us and performs these functions,” said Chen.
He’s been with Dallas-based Texas instruments for two and a half years; all of his work there is graphical, as opposed to with coding. It’s also PC-based and Chen described the process with an almost child-like awe that everything ultimately works properly. “There’s a little bit of a black magic to it,” he said. “It’s sometimes like, this works but we don’t really know why. So there is a little mystery to it.”
As an engineer, Chen has lately been working one-on-one with customers to define future technologies and spearhead projects. “Some of the things we’re doing may actually make the world a better place, if in a small way- it’s exhilarating to be able to say that.”
Chen is Chinese; his grandparents fled to Taiwan during the Communist Revolution. Chen’s parents, born in Taiwan, came to America for graduate school and met at the state University of New York in Buffalo. Chen attended Troy high school in Fullerton, CA, which was known for its Troy Tech program and is a highly ranked magnet school with a science and technology focus. Chen described himself as a “good kid” except for a very brief stint at a more rigid Christian grammar school, where his grades suffered.
Visiting Taiwan over the holidays last year was a culturally meaningful experience for Chen. All of his relatives live there, and he enjoyed himself but feels Austin is his home. Chen grew up learning Chinese from his parents and considers himself bilingual but noted that he doesn’t know slang terminology.
The technological breakthroughs that he witnessed while visiting places such as Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen for the first time in January was awe-inspiring. One innovation being adopted by the Chinese are supercapacitors, which are high- density electricity storage devices that are ideally suited for quick but intense-power applications such as hybrid buses. Even Shanghai’s exploding skyline, so often depicted in reports about China’s rise to global superpower status, took Chen aback.
“The hotel we stayed at in Shenzhen is the most amazing hotel I’ve stayed at my entire life,” he said. The hotel was a newly opened Westin, with the type of modern, open-air design, floor-to-ceiling windows and stunning views that have become typical in Chinese architecture. “My windows overlooked this especially amazing theme park of miniaturized world monuments– every night, they’d set off fireworks against an unlikely backdrop of a fake Eiffel tower and a fake Louvre. It was pretty surreal.”
Coming into his own
“Eventually, I’ll convince him to move to Austin,” said Chen.
He was referring to his boyfriend, Travis Troyer, who lives in Dallas and works as an accountant for an electronics firm. They’ve been together for a year and a half after meeting online. Now they see each other three or four times per month. “He comes here more often than I go up there, for good reason,” Chen said, smiling. “This is a better city than Dallas.”
“That first weekend that he came here we just clicked,” Chen said. “I’m a total advocate for online dating if you have the right kind of personality and you’re honest about what your expectations are.”
In retrospect, Chen knew he was gay in junior high. A crush on a male classmate led him to ask himself: what’s wrong with me? Even though he had dated girls in college, and he emphasized that he was still happy in those relationships, deep down he knew that wasn’t him.
“Everyone knows that I’m gay at Austinist,” he said, noting that it’s no big deal. “Last year, a homophobic rapper was in town to open for Ice Cube. It was booked as a package deal and after the fact everyone was like, this guy’s a total asshole. We do what we can to make things known and make people aware.”
Austin is the city that prompted Chen to officially come out to his friends and the experience was uniformly positive. At his day job at Texas Instruments, he’s not publicly out and he said it’s not relevant to what he does, although he noted that the company as a whole has a strong nondiscrimination policy.
“I’ve never hidden it from anyone, but nobody’s ever asked,” he said.
Thoughts of what his next step might be are always on Chen’s mind. “It’s hard to find many overlaps between my technical and cultural passions, but I’m still holding out hope that somewhere down the line I can focus my efforts in the convergence of the two.” On average, Chen is attending events–screenings, premieres, lectures, performances from local and national acts, you name it–three or four nights per week. The Austinist brand was built from the ground up, with Chen and his team working hard to increase its credibility in the eyes of artists and the overall community. It took a good two years for people to understand that it was a consistent voice. And thanks to Chen’s techie side, his writers are empowered by an easy-to-use web-based publishing system.
In addition to his day job at Texas Instruments, his work over- seeing Austinist, and being a man-about-town, Chen also makes time to serve on the Austin Arts Commission. He was appointed in August of last year and the commission functions as a liaison between the arts community and the city council. “It really is a congratulatory town when it comes to arts and part of what we do is try to be a little more critical about things,” Chen said. “If something is great, we tell them; if something has flies, we tell them.”
Chen has always believed in giving back and said that he feels blessed at this point in his life. “You can go to your job and that’s it, but it’s never been good enough for me,” he said. “i always feel like there’s more that you can do. You have this obligation to do what you can to better the people around you and your city. There are lots of like-minded individuals who feel that way.”
Although he’s done his share of traveling for work and plea- sure, having backpacked through Australia and trekked around India, Chen would love to see the pyramids and visit Madagascar, among other places. “I’d like to do a marathon before I turn 30,” he said.
His mother always told him he could achieve whatever he wanted to and part of Chen’s success has been truly believing that. At Berkeley, Chen taught SAT classes for underprivileged children to help pay his tuition. “Those were the classes that I loved!” Chen said. “I really tried to give that kind of message to those kids.”