It may have only been a poker game, but it was the most important hand of cards that Preston Ma would ever face.
Preston, vice president of technology at Hawaii Information Service, was playing against his girlfriend, Julianna. She was the real poker fan, and she was holding an ace and king of hearts. Preston had two aces. He knew her well, and went all in, confident that she would follow suit.
She hesitated, but as expected, she also went all in. On the flop, Julianna found herself with a royal flush. It was the highest possible hand, and an improbable stroke of luck.
Her affirmative response to a message Preston had written on the cards, in a game that he’d carefully architected from the start, brought him good fortune as well. The message read, “Will you marry me?”
That was over four years ago, and today, Preston and Julianna are the proud parents of two boys. And his proven creativity and ability to design and build things has continued to serve him well as he leads the team of software developers at HIS.
Preston’s parents came to Hawaii from Asia, his dad from Hong Kong, and his mom from China. His father built a successful accounting practice, while his mother spent most of her life as a special education teacher. But Preston notes that his mother’s first job was on the pineapple production line at Dole Cannery, the same building where he works today.
They lived in Pearl City, where Preston attended Manana and Pearl City Highlands elementary school. When it came time for high school, his parents decided to enroll him at St. Louis School, an all-boys private Catholic school in Kaimuki.
He was a shy teen, but an athletic one, participating in the school’s wrestling and cross country programs. Preston excelled at science, spending two years on the R&D team. The team’s work with a mountain bike design won both state and national recognition, affording Preston a chance to travel. He and his classmates represented Hawaii at the international competition in Kentucky, then presenting at a science fair in Brazil.
The oldest of three brothers, Preston’s father had hoped he might someday take over his accounting business. But it didn’t take many accounting classes for Preston to realize that he was on a different path.
“It wasn’t for me – too boring, just memorizing stuff and following the order of things,” he recalls. “My mom suggested computers, and that was the next step.”
He had developed an affection for computers, starting with an Apple II machine that his father had bought for his business. So after graduating from high school, Preston enrolled in the Information & Computer Science Program at UH Manoa. At his mother’s suggestion, he also earned an associates degree in Computing, Electronics & Networking Technologies (CENT) at Hawaii Community College.
ICS degree in hand, he started looking for a job, and volunteered at the Life Foundation in the meantime. The non-profit group, dedicated to AIDS prevention and education, had its offices in the Gold Bond Building in Kakaako.
“HIS was in the same building, same floor, right next door, across the stairs,” Preston says. “A lot of people were looking for experience, and that was hard; but HIS was more open, willing to hire people as long as they were committed.”
As a programmer that knew both the database side and the website side of technology, Preston joined HIS in September 2003. It was his first “real” job, and it’s one that he’s now held for nearly a decade.
Six months after his poker proposal, Preston and Julianna were married, followed by a honeymoon in Paris. Nine months later, his son Kingston arrived, and about fourteen months after that, Kingston met his younger brother, Knighton. Preston acknowledges that they’re unusual names.
“It started with my dad, Peter, naming all of us with Ps… Preston, Philip and Patrick,” he explains. “I didn’t want to do Ps again, so I went with names ending with ‘ton.'”
The second name was harder to pick than the first, which was already relatively popular. Gwen Stefani’s son is named Kingston, Preston notes, adding that his older son’s preschool class actually has two of them. But for his second boy, Preston confesses to first spotting “Knighton” in the credits of a movie – albeit as someone’s last name.
“It’s kind of medieval,” he adds. “Though I don’t know what’s left if we have any more kids.”
Raising his own family has brought many changes. He has less time to go running, although he and his wife had twice done the Honolulu Marathon. He no longer participates in a Chinese lion dancing troupe, one of the ways he kept in touch with his family’s culture.
But he’s now an avid gardener, raising flowers as well as growing things like kale and lilikoi. And his wife, once on her way to a career in teaching, is now a happy homebody, focusing on raising and developing their kids.
They both have rediscovered their faith as well.
“I grew up in my family’s church, Calvary Assembly of God in the Palama area, and Julianna joined as well,” he says. “Now, if anything, her faith is stronger than mine.”
Preston says he’s even considering going on a missions trip, perhaps to China, Brazil, or India.
He also credits his mother for making him the man he is today.
“I guess you could say I was a mama’s boy, and she guided me much of my life, including encouraging me to get into computers,” he says. “She was a patient person, a strong person, and I mean physically strong: she worked with physically disabled students at Waipahu High, and often had to move them.”
Preston’s mother died in 2007 after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It was a hardship, losing her,” he recalls. “But it showed me that life is short, and that you always have to focus on the people that you love.”
Indeed, Preston had proposed to his wife only a few hours after they had taken his father out to dinner to mark his second wedding anniversary without her. The conversation had revolved around how Preston’s parents has met, and how they fell in love, only strengthening his resolve to be a good husband.
Preston is also proud of the family that he’s found at HIS.
“In the time I’ve been here, it’s felt more and more like a family, an ‘ohana,” he says. “We know everyone well, we’re more close to each other, and you know that everyone’s going to support everyone else, especially in the difficult times.”
While he’s moved from programming to management, he still jumps in to code now and then. And he speaks warmly of his development team.
“In a way, I grew up here, so I learned lots of new things along the way, and now they’re getting the same opportunity,” he says. “I’m proud of my team, what they’ve gone through, and what they’ve been able to do.”
Preston says that he’s learned that his job is more than making applications or websites.
“It’s not just the work we do on our computers, but the work we do on ourselves,” he concludes. “It’s not just professional growth, but all-around growth that matters.”
You can ask Preston about his favorite sci-fi movies (or suggest some) by emailing him email@example.com. Make sure you didn’t miss our profiles of Richard, Faith, Sam, Victor, Jerry, Gay, and Novena.