Lessons I Learned As a Computer Science Major in 2017
Thinking back to the beginning of 2017, I made a lot of New Year’s resolutions that fell along the lines of getting As in all of my classes, getting a software internship in a city outside my hometown, and having a better mindset towards school. I made these resolutions after a difficult first semester of school, where I had to get adjusted to college and learned how to code for the very first time. Now that I have two more semesters under my belt, my path has changed quite a bit, and I’ve picked up a few things along the way.
There’s an entire world outside the classroom.
Here’s the thing. I’m new to this, but I can tell already that school doesn’t tell the whole story about tech. A career in tech comes in many different forms. You could be a frontend developer, a backend developer, user experience (UX), a data scientist, a PM, a manager, an architect, you name it… and a computer science degree can get you there. So how do you start to figure out what you want to do? Since I wasn’t getting any frontend experience at school, I decided to try it out by building my own portfolio. I found out that I really enjoyed it. After that, I decided I wanted to try out UX, game development, and mobile development, so I found a couple of tutorials online that I’m going through right now. If there’s something you think might fancy you, just Google it, and you’ll be able to read up on it and maybe even do a little project with it. I’ve found Udemy to be a great resource, and there are tons of free resources out there too.
But the world outside the classroom, and sometimes even inside the classroom, can be harsh. Especially for minorities. So while learning how to code, I learned that I can be a social activist too. In efforts to help close the gender gap in technology, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which is the largest gathering of female technologists in the United States so I could learn about how to bring diversity initiatives back to my campus. That was also around the time I started volunteering with Girls Who Code, an organization aimed to bring young girls into computer science by creating sisterhood and a community of empowerment that I could be a part of too. I found that I’m really motivated when I do work that impacts people, and that’s made this year even better.
Failure isn’t just for startups.
Someone told me one time that being a computer science is a career in making (and fixing) mistakes. It’s true. It’s an anomaly to write perfect code in the first go, and oftentimes you’ll run into bug after bug before you finally get it perfect. And even then, what you thought was perfect might not actually be perfect. Making mistakes is a regular part of the process, and there’s fulfillment in smoothing out the bugs.
Your health is more important than _________.
This isn’t really specific to computer science majors, but college is a breeding ground for mental health issues like stress, anxiety, and depression, which leads to neglect and deterioration of physical health. A 2013 study from the American Psychological Association noted that “anxiety is the top pressing concern among college students (41.6%)”. I saw this happen when my classmates spent lots of time playing catch-up, debugging computer science assignments, and making up for the time wasted worrying about completing work to a quality level. Like lots of college students, this manifested itself in not eating enough and not getting enough sleep. The reality is that after college, you won’t have that class that you spend 30 hours a week studying for, but you will have your body and mind, and it’s your job to take care of it.
“Anxiety is the top pressing concern among college students (41.6%)” — American Psychological Association, 2013
So what can you do? Well, first, take a break. For real. Especially if you’ve been trying to debug something for hours and the only thing that’s making progress is you towards the end of your temper. Chances are that with a clear mind, you’ll be able to think through problems much more clearly. In this break, do things that help you be a person, not a slaving student. Go on Reddit, read a few pages of that book you started months ago, write a journal entry, go for a walk around campus, call up a friend from high school. Second, talk about it. Everyone is stressed out, and it always feels better to know that you’re not the only one struggling. Sometimes the best friends come out of mutual commiseration over that class you’re all stressing out about. Third, make sure you make time for yourself. That means different things to different people.
Success comes in many shapes and sizes.
This is a hard lesson to learn, especially for my Type A friends. I felt like standing at my school was split into “the people who have a 4.0” and the “people who lost their 4.0”. After a while, I realized that not having a perfect GPA doesn’t mean you’re less smart than the student who does. It doesn’t mean you didn’t learn the material in your classes, it doesn’t mean you’re less qualified to help out the person who has a better grade in your Computer Science I class. It also doesn’t mean you’re much less likely to be successful in the job market — after speaking with many connections in the tech community, I’ve found that many will value experience, communication skills, motivation, and problem-solving ability before they even glance at your GPA. The score you get in a class, especially in college where you have fewer opportunities to showcase your work, is a snapshot of a volatile series of events, and sometimes your performance is just a matter of luck.
It also doesn’t mean you’re not motivated. In many cases, following this paradigm of thinking means that you’re motivated by something that isn’t extrinsic. Personally, I am motivated by the idea of collecting knowledge and using it to help people. College is about finding what makes you tick, and for one person, that might mean going through that game development tutorial instead of studying an extra hour for the test you want to get a 100% on.
This isn’t to say that grades don’t matter. They definitely do, especially in the context of scholarships and graduate school admissions. Grades are one of many ways to measure your success. It is not a way to define your success. The way to determine if you should use mental resources on this is by clearly defining your goals, and asking yourself how important these four bits of information are to attaining these goals.
What Did I Learn
I had my first tech internship last summer where I got to learn all kinds of things about how processes work in a company. Especially in a large corporation, there’s a lot of method to the madness that comes with having so many people to build software for. It’s definitely a lot different than the logic puzzles you code in school. I also got to meet a lot of new people and make a ton of new friends. Companies with established summer internship programs are nice because you get lots of networking opportunities and fun opportunities to bond. Over the course of the summer, I got to attend a presentation given by someone from LinkedIn who taught us how to make a dazzling profile. I went to Worlds of Fun in Kansas City and ride rollercoasters with my fellow interns. I also got the opportunity to meet the CIO and CTO of the company I was interning for and learn how they made it to top-level management. It was a great learning experience, and definitely a lot more valuable than sitting around at home all day!
It’s a wild ride, but it’s fun.
It’s been a fun year and I’ve learned a lot throughout my time in college. 2018 is about to be even bigger, and I’m excited to come back in a year and share any new revelations I may have encountered. Happy New Year, friends!