These are my old Personal Updates from 2013.
1/7/2013 Winter Personal Update
This has been a stressful semester, probably making it my least favorite at MIT. Why? A bunch of reasons.
I think the biggest difference is that I coveted more the things which others coveted. Whereas I was comfortable with the level of my coding ability and grades in prior semesters, I felt much more pressure this semester to improve my performance to be more like the other students. Whereas before I was happy to buck the trend and spurn the things most other students valued, I tried to join the pack this semester. For example, I had wanted to improve my academic performance, especially in CS classes. That made it particularly stressful.
I also spent a great deal of time worrying about what distinguishes top performers from average students at MIT. Are they inherently smarter? Or did they make certain choices earlier? Do they have a head start since they have previous knowledge/exposure? Or is it something else? I was obsessed with benchmarking myself versus other students this semester.
I was only taking 5 classes. But I did more "work" than last semester. As always, I tracked the amount of pens and paper I used. This semester I used 34 blue pens (for notetaking) and 8 black pens (for problem solving). Last semester, I took 7 classes but only used 27 blue pens and 2 black pens. That's a 44% increase in usage of pen ink! I used 36 inches of paper, versus 29 inches last semester. That includes both written and printed notes.
The grades focused paid off marginally; I ended up with a term GPA of 4.4, which did not budge my overall GPA which has been stuck on 4.3 for quite a few semesters. I ended up with an A in 6.858 Security, which was I was somewhat surprised by. I was doing ok on the exams, plus I didn't think our project was rigorous enough. But the professor really liked our project. I enjoyed the class, though I would replace the obscure research systems with more real life systems, like the ones from Security Now. I got a B- in 6.046 Advanced Algorithms which really presently surprised me. I've traditionally gotten straight Cs in math-style classes because it's not really my way of thinking. I was worried about even passing, but the B- made me pretty happy. I ended up with a point under the average on the final! STS.085 Technology Ethics was a great deal of fun, including the final copyright project. I ended up with an A-. 14.72 Capitalism and its Critics was a difficult, but intellectually stimulating exercise in philosophy. The class' material was not what I expected going in, but I had fun being in the class with my friend. I ended up with an A- as well. However, I ended up with a C in 7.012 Biology. I am super upset about this. It's not that I didn’t put time into it, I certainly did try. The concepts felt challenging at first; but I got help from my Bio friend, and things started making sense the more I studied them. It was a good intellectual challenge, that I thought I had mastered to a large extent. Much of the disappointment here is that I was competing with Freshmen. Plus, I had gotten Cs in all my freshmen classes. Had I learned nothing at MIT in meta/problem solving skills??? I feel much better at problem solving since freshmen years, but the data didn't seem to show it. Had I got a B, I would have a 4.6 GPA for the term, which would have been tied for my max term GPA. Plus, I would have had a monotonically increasing yearly GPA - though there is still time for that!
I noticed I ended up doing homework more on my own this semester. I remember writing the opposite last semester. I don’t fully know why the changed happened. I think the nature of the work was different. In addition, all of the people I lived next to this semester at Baker House have been super amazing. I don’t know how I can match living at Baker House from both a physical perspective and intellectual perspective ever in my life again!
Being Baker President was more stressful this semester, for a number of reasons. It seems like with everything we did, we ran into problems - way more than other semesters. I'm kinda glad my term is over at the end of IAP. Being President of Baker was still a great experience - in terms of building a team, supervising people, building connections, and engaging stakeholders. It was certainly worth the trouble for the experience. The Rooming Review, Security Plan, CPW, REX, and all our events were tons of fun. We had dodgeball, a magic show, a winter formal, a Poker Tournament, and Iron Chef, among others. I'm super proud of my core team - I could not have done it without the dedicated group of volunteers on Baker Exec. Plus we had some good results: Baker had the highest retention rate of any dorm during FYRE; a large improvement in our performance from prior years. In addition, students that lived in Baker rated their happiness the highest of any living group at MIT.
Next term will be my last term at MIT. I have 4 required classes left, plus a paper. For my management degree, I have to take either 15.053 or 15.058 Linear Programming/Optimization, as well as 15.075 Statistical Thinking and Data Analysis. For Course 6, I need to take one more AUS or CS Lab class; I am looking at 6.170 Software Studio most closely, with 6.814 Databases as an option. I also need to do an AUP. I am planning on working on something relating to Penopticlick with Prof. Hal Abelson. I also need to take one more HASS-D. I am looking at 4.605, the History of Architecture, with 21H.142 The Age of Reason as a fallback. I also want to take a Harvard class, but I am unsure which one and if I can get the logistics to work.
In part this semester was stressful was because I was looking for a job in Silicon Valley/Bay Area. This turned out to be much more difficult than I was anticipating, and took far longer than I had planned. I was looking for something more unique than a standard developer role. But, I also didn't know exactly what I wanted. Some of my most favorite internships have been from jobs that were custom crafted - they certainly weren't posted externally. This necessitated an expansive search, which took a great deal of time. Also, I focused on Silicon Valley, which was more difficult because I had no experience there, since I had taken a more circular route, thinking it would provide a valuable perspective. I thought this would ultimately add more value, but I think most didn’t see it that way, since that was not their own background. Also leaving MIT for interviews, for even one day during the semester, was very hard since I had to squeeze the weeks' work into 4 days. I visited San Francisco once, twice, and Bozeman, MT.
In addition, full-time recruiting was different since things felt so much more permanent. Companies has much longer interview cycles, and companies are less willing to take a chance. For me, making a decision to specialize somewhere was much more difficult thank picking an internship, where I valued diversity. I spent a lot of time thinking and rethinking which route I wanted to take. Even after 6 internships at a variety of places from state-owned to self-owned, 250,000 employees to 10 employees, Fortune 100s to startups, tech to banking, etc, I'm not 100% confident of the way I want to go. I wrote this long paper What Drives Me and What I Want to Do at the start of my search, but it was of little practical help.
What standard do you use to judge an opportunity? Do you go to the place that matches your strengths or that you have the most to learn from? Do you go where you can learn the most or where you can add the most value? Do you care about the long term path that each position puts you on? If someone offers to let you skip the usual prerequisites is that as a good offer, or do the prereqs provide valuable perspective? What parts of the job do you value? Responsibility? Ability to problem solve? What aspects matter the most? One opportunity looks better under one metric than another.
I'm almost certain I want a PM role over a development role - having experienced both. I'm still happy I did both a technical and business path. While the problem solving of engineering is fun - it's not what really excites me. However, it's important that I keep my tech skills to notch. But what gets you more experience? A strategy role at a 10 person firm, a 100 person firm, or a 100,000 person firm? They both offer a different experience and put you on a different long-term path. One can always switch paths, though it’s more difficult.
In the end, I looked at where I had chosen to naturally spend my time at MIT. What did I reach for when I had a spare moment? What decisions felt right for me at the time - when I was not obsessing over every pro and con? Ultimately I ended up taking a role as a Product Strategy Manager at Oracle in their Cloud Customer Experience apps department. Why Oracle. At Oracle I can help companies develop great customer experiences. I think I have a lot to learn from Oracle - how to develop strategy, how to build valuations, etc.
I think part of the reason Oracle chose me was because of the unique perspective I can add. A good manager must balance fitting in and standing out. I'm not there to accept at face value the way Oracle has always done things. Many existing conventions are valuable, but leader must also know where to push the envelope and establish thought leadership. Plus, I don't intent on becoming complacent. Even if it is just on the side, it's very important to keep my spark alive and to continue to keep up my skills in tech and product management on the cutting edge.
I am not 100% confident that I made the right choice. I've had a few people try to talk me out of my decision. It's probably 80% of what I want. It's the riskiest approach: it could either be super great or super lame. I think I have the most to learn here, which I could not learn elsewhere. My perspective on all this changes day by day, though I'm trying to avoid the recency bias.
I've been super busy over the past two weeks, since school ended. I've been wrapping up my work for the semester, studying programming, and preparing MBA school applications. Some MBA schools let one apply now, and then, if accepted, you have an option to attend starting in two years. This ended up being much harder than I thought, but I ended up thinking a good deal more about my future plans, writing and rewriting the essays.
Stanford asked me "What Matters to You and Why" and "What Do You Want To Do - Really!" I wrote that I enjoy building manufactured experiences - building well-engineered experiences that surprise and delight users, and have a natural business case. The two flanks of that which I also enjoy are problem solving/engineering and the technocratic aspects of management. I think this is a good metric to keep in mind. I still think my decision would be the same, regardless. I also wrote What Did You Do Well and What Is Something You WIsh You Did Better for HBS.
My goal for this IAP is to get much better at programming. MIT Computer Science teaches you about the big concepts, but less of the more practical aspects of it. Plus, I spent a good deal of time at MIT focusing on the management side of my education both at MIT and in internships. I ended up getting an externship at CardSpring, a San Francisco start-up that helps companies set call backs on the use of credit cards.
I am staying at this Hacker Hostel in the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco. It's a great neighborhood. The people the first day were ok, but the people now are much better. There are plenty of interesting conversations. Living with others in the same room turned out to be not quite as bad as I thought. However, the place is a bit dirty and cold - which detracts from the experience .
I'm also concertedly trying to live differently than I do at MIT. At MIT my life is all about productivity. I feel bad about not spending time checking things off my to-do list. My goal for IAP is to engage in more intellectual conversations than just crunch through a stack of work. I am certainly more of a planner than a spontaneous person. I've already noticed my personality changing - being less time pressured and gravitating more to valuable experiences. Being spontaneous is kinda fun..! I've noticed most others at MIT are more spontaneous. Would it help me improve my skills more than my aggressively trying to crunch through work? (Thinking about benchmarking again…) I settled into that work-drive drive through Learning to Learn and Working Out a System - and I've been afraid I'll end up even worse by switching. It would probably be better for me to pick up the hard topics, but time is just the problem at MIT! Will my personality change back with the pressures of MIT?
At MIT, I've just never hung out much with the programming community. I always ascribed this due to not having time - I always wanted to be more connected with the folks in SIPB - I just subconsciously ended up making other choices at MIT. I never really get into that community really. Was that the right choice? Should I have lived in EC? I think my perspective would have been very different - because I would have had different friends… But on the other hand I said coming into MIT that I had no interest in inventing a 5% improvement in compression. Other MIT students would have loved to use some obscure math principle to make an incremental improvement in an existing technology.
I had a great first week at CardSpring. I'm really happy they are giving me a shot this IAP. I've worked there three days and it's been fun to listen in with what is going on. Everyone is super smart - on both the tech and business sides. Everything is leaner - things get done. Though tech challenges are mostly around scaling up the system, edge cases, etc. However, everything seems to be about engineering prowess - which is intellectually challenging. It’s also very interesting just to sit in the office and watch them work - from an anthropological perspective. There is a lot to learn, but I think I am learning the material and fitting in better than I expected. I think I undersold my coding ability over the last semester - I just needed a 2 week refresher and update on the latest material. It is interesting to reenter this world I have not focused on, but I still think I prefer PM over software engineering.
There really is this feeling of scrappiness and problem-solving here - that is missing in many other organizations. On one hand it just seem to fit my culture more. I hope to be able to bring some of that spirit to my future experiences. I wish I could be more like that.
Still I'm really enjoying my time here in San Francisco. I'm meeting new cool people everyday - at a rate far higher than anywhere else that I have lived! Plus, I am meeting up with my existing friends - I have something planned with a friend pretty much every day this week! I'm super glad I chose to come to San Francisco after MIT!
I'm trying to find an apartment with someone else from the tech community, not just since it's cheaper, but to keep me from becoming isolated. Originally this turned out more difficult than I was expecting, since way fewer of my friends are going to San Francisco, than I imagined. But in the past few days I now have 2-3 serious possibilities, but no slam dunk.
This semester my self confidence was at an all time low. MIT is hard. It's especially hard since you are competing with the best. Plus, one tends to comparing themselves against the best of others - taking the very best aspect of each person and combining it into this mythical person. However, San Francisco has brought back some my perspective. Things still ended up pretty good! My term GPA ended up pretty good. By many measures, I ended up with a very good job, even if it was not exactly what I had in mind at the start of the term. --ThePlaz 02:21, 8 January 2013 (EST)
2/7/2013 IAP Personal Update
IAP is about trying something different. After a string of management internships, I felt I was losing touch with my Course 6 side. Could I still program? Since I took a lot of course 6 classes this past semester, I had spent a lot of time benchmarking my course 6 skills. Course 15 naturally left me with less time to hack on code. I was lucky to be selected to extern at CardSpring, a company that powers loyalty apps by letting them place webhooks on when a credit card is used at a business. It was a great opportunity to join a bunch of hard-core backend-programmers. The CTO ran cryptography at Netscape during the SSL days. It was my first exposure to more modern tools like Git, Ruby, and Cassandra and working predominately on the backend (it's an API company). I studied hard the week before the job to catch up on the latest tools.
As a programmer I built a complete set of integration tests using rspec. The tests were designed to simulate the use of the API by publishers - both normal, expected uses and unexpected, error conditions. It was a good way to learn the insides and outs of the API. The team was really, really helpful to me and the other interns and helped us get up to speed with Ruby and the code base.
Continuing my benchmarking obsession from last semester I thought a lot about: How much are you expected to know going in? What are you expected to learn on the job? There are so many different subsets of programming that it is impossible to be an expert in all of them. How much should a new grad know about specific tools already? And more generally, how can you measure and compare smartness/aptitude: how fast should you be able to figure something out? How many times do you need to be helped with something before you can do it on your own? How much should you try on your own, before asking for help? Should you lean more towards asking if it is a risky operation?
In the end, I left with a positive review. The team was "sorry to see me go," "happy with my work product," and "thought I learned fast." This made me very, very happy - I was still able to code! I was able to catch up and learn up to their expectations as a MIT Course 6-er. I think this helped restore some of my self confidence I talked about lacking from the past semester.
However, in the end I also found that I personally like product management more than development. It is a completely different style of working - At Disney I lived in Outlook; here I didn't touch calendar invites once the whole trip. But I think product management fits my aspirations more closely. It's fun to read up on a system and then be able to understand it. It's exciting to think critically about a problem and come up with a way to crack it! Often the reward cycle is much smaller, as you are making visible progress every day. However, you are still stuck to your desk, doing work assigned to you. Ultimately, that type of work is not as fulfilling.
Living in San Francisco was super amazing. I am super glad I am moving there after school. So much of the field is in the Bay Area - so I have so many interesting friends in the area! Plus, the city is really nice. There are lots of shops and restaurants all within walking distance. I think the public transit is actually pretty good, despite what the locals say. I enjoyed exploring the different areas of the city; in part to look for housing: Sunset, the Presidio, Berkeley, SOMA, Pacific Heights and the Marina, and South Beach
This semester, my last at MIT, I have 4 required classes left, plus a paper. For my management degree, I have to take 15.053 Linear Programming/Optimization, as well as 15.075 Statistical Thinking and Data Analysis. For Course 6, I need to take one more AUS or CS Lab class; I taking 6.170 Software Studio . I also need to do an AUP. I am planning on working on something relating to Penopticlick with Prof. Hal Abelson. I also need to take one more HASS-D, 4.605, the History of Architecture. I am also taking 6.933 Founders Journey where entrepreneurs come in and talk about their startups. For example, in the first class, Paul English, one of the cofounders of Kayak shared his story. I am also "shopping" a number of other interesting-looking classes. --ThePlaz (talk) 00:57, 7 February 2013 (EST)