Go with a smile!

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Other stuff

The other night, I was trying to negotiate the last few hours before a Skype conversation with the professor and a “senior grad student”. Those last few hours, if I were to keep on working, might not result in anything useful. But as I lay there trying to grab a nap, I found myself not being able to fall asleep on command. It could have been the coffee that I drunk a few hours prior.

And there I was, I was lying down in my bed, trying to get to sleep. I think, maybe in those hours, I was not in front of an internet connection, and I was not surrounded by a cacophony of things that always distracted me: sports news, expanding my CD collection, Singapore politics, that bloody master’s project.

I thought about what my life amounted to after 1.5 years overseas. It was a little strange saying goodbye. I had been part of the landscape for so long that people didn’t really think that I was going to leave. I wasn’t like ghost, who had told everybody loudly and for a long time that he was going to leave, and then did. In a way I didn’t really intend to leave. In another way, I had already decided a long time ago that my master’s degree would be computer science, and I had laid some groundwork for that.

People tell me I have this tendency to drift through my life. In a way that is true. But at the same time, there are many things that don’t change. A lot of my goals don’t change from year to year – probably because I’m so tardy about achieving those goals! I don’t strive for any one thing single-mindedly, and I don’t usually work fast. I usually make small steps from day to day, and pick up things bit by bit which might become useful in the future but where there’s no immediate real use for it.

I started to think about what my life really was like, now that it was about to be transformed. I remember that when I broke the news of my departure to my colleagues, it was in the form of a remark, “maybe I’m going to live in the desert now”. Then I knew from their reaction that they found it really surprising.

But what have I really achieved? When I went through my long journey, there were various phases. There was the first phase, the dreaming phase, where I imagined that I was back in school studying, and reliving my Snowy Hill days. To be sure, they were not totally wonderful periods of time. But I had learnt a tremendous amount of stuff and I hoped to repeat that. Then there was a lot of procrastination. Then there were the first tentative steps towards postgrad studies, because I realised that if I got too old, then this goal of mine was just going to get tougher. After that, there were a few frantic episodes and a few bouts of panicking, but I passed through and I was able to get into a grad program.

For a while, being able to wave bye bye to your old boss and your old job was a tremendously liberating experience. As always, there were things that you loved and things that you hated about your job and on balance it was a positive experience. For the first few months it felt great – there was the “oh my god I’m finally on the other side, I’m going back to school. I’m learning so many new things!” But after those first few months, all the worrying and panicking began again. Chiefly, it came down to this: now that I was in school, how do I get back to the security of an employed existence?

Because this liberated existence was not something I completely enjoyed. I didn’t feel like I was on dry ground. I was crossing a large body of water – a river, or a large lake, or a strait. I wasn’t on the other side yet. I still am not, even though I can say that land has been sighted.

For the most part, there are the essentials. The curriculum, the classes, the requirements to pass, the job seeking, the skills to learn. These things have taken up much of my time. The fact that I didn’t do this at the undergraduate level just made things more difficult. But there was also a lot of procrastination, a lot of bewilderment, and possibly a lot of missed opportunities.

There was the other stuff – the meeting new people, the looking around at life and opportunities in a new country, and the out of class learning. There wasn’t so much of that for me that I would have liked – because there was too much of my keeping my head above the water. Sometimes I wonder if this program was more stressful that I would have liked. To a large extent, University of Mexico has done a lot to reduce the stress. There is a lot of grade inflation in graduate school. A grades are pretty common, but then again, if you put in the same amount of effort that would earn you an A in an undergrad course, you would get an A.

My mind is no longer as quick to learn as it had been 10 years ago. In some part, this is because it has slowed down. But there are other reasons. I’ve always been more of an arts and sciences guy, and I take longer to learn engineering material. When you are learning deeper stuff, it is more difficult to learn things. Material at the undergraduate level is always easier to grasp immediately. When you are learning things at the undergraduate level, things are always presented to you on a plate. You learn the classics. At the grad level, you pick and choose what you want to learn. At undergrad level, you always walk through the gates that other people have walked through. At the grad level, there has to be some sort of business acumen where you’re assessing how important or useful what you’re about to learn. You are no longer coasting on a massive interstate highway, but you’re on a country highway, or maybe if you’re a doctoral student involved in research, you are in a jungle bashing away at the undergrowth with a parang.

Also, where I was an undergrad, I approached things with the notion of – I’m building a foundation for my further education. Now, I know that this is my life. Most of what will be written about me when I die will be based on the things that take place right now. Everything is about now. So there’s a lot more about living in the real world.

When I was dreaming about being a grad student, professors were icons. They were the teachers from whom you wish to absorb real knowledge. They were the stars of the university. When you see a star up close, it becomes an oppressive sun instead. You see them with their foibles. They become more mortal. They are people with a million and one things to do, and you have to do whatever it takes to grab their attention and hold on to it. If you ask them a question about a course they are teaching, they answer you with almost perfect certainty and in the even that you have raised something truly novel, it will be a bonus. Now, it is more or less taken for granted that you will be raising something novel. And they may like what you said, or not.

And let’s go beyond scholarly and academic knowledge here. What I want is to make another breakthrough, learn skills that will bring me towards a new life, a new trade. To what extent will I succeed? With a grad degree in computer science, I’m supposed to be able to found companies, become a technopreneur, be a great innovator, solve the problems of the world. But the academic knowledge is only one of three main components. The second component is the street knowledge, the practical understanding of technology that get things done. The third component is the connections that I have with people that would help me if I were to set up a business. The thing is this: knowledge begets knowledge, so it is worthwhile to come with a lot of expertise already, so that you don't feel too embarrassed to ask people lest they think that you are stupid. So the first part of the learning process is usually a fairly lonely one, where you're looking up things online. Later on, it gets easier when you're talking with people and you're chatting about stuff with people you feel comfortable exchanging information with.

I’ve seen people out there who are thinking about setting up life-coaching businesses. Frankly I’m pretty adverse to getting into this myself. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in this sort of thing, and more than 50% of this is about ensuring that you have a great customer experience – for the duration of the learning anyway. After the course is over and you find that you may not have changed your life, you may not feel that great, but that’s your problem. Well there’s an obvious paradox in this: all of what I just said could apply equally to the experience of earning a master’s degree!

But I will still incline towards earning a degree in the hard sciences. I will incline towards learning intellectual principles, rather than more “marketable” applied stuff. It’s how my brain works. It’s the reason why, in spite of the similarities, I will go for a liberal arts education rather than a business degree. Why I started out in science before moving closer towards engineering. Why, among the engineering disciplines, I chose the one that most resembled hard science.

I will still choose work that is more about solving real hard problems. I will still reject certain types of work on the basis that it is not wonky enough, or geeky enough.

There was a lot of enthusiasm in the beginning. I wanted to learn about almost everything that I missed out on learning by not taking computer science. Unfortunately being able to cram a bachelor’s degree worth of material into your head for the duration of a master’s degree might be a little too much. And it’s too unfocused. On top of all the basic stuff – computer systems, algorithms – I wanted to learn artificial intelligence, machine learning. On top of that – cognitive science, linguistics, graph theory, mathematics. I did get myself into a muddle. Maybe I should have just more tightly focused myself, and grabbed a bunch of books that I could learn after I left with that master’s degree. Maybe I should have gone for something more applied, where being surrounded with university people was a real asset.

Being involved with IT is a lifelong journey of learning. Unfortunately much of that journey has yet to be run. People don’t teach a lot of software engineering in school. That’s something you have to learn in real life. There are a lot of other skills, like web design. Right now, there is such a thing as a major called “computer science”. I don’t know about what it’d be like in the future. A lot of computer science departments started off as small little branches of some math department or science department. Then later on they get transferred to the engineering faculty. Then in some cases, they become entire “schools” or “colleges” or “departments” in their own right. Saying that you are doing “computer science” will soon be like saying you’re doing “applied mathematics” or “applied reading and writing”. It will be something so all-encompassing that it could embrace anything.

What would I be doing if I were to be starting this master’s degree again? Why would I do if I didn’t have to worry about subsistence? What if I came here already with all the computer knowledge in hand, without the need to pick up those skills separately?

Well maybe I should worry about these questions next, when the last obstacle to me graduating is out of the way.


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