Allen Wang

Popping Bubbles

Parent article: Lessons from Undergrad

Our values are shaped by our surronding enviroment. It’s a cliche, but I underestimated how much it had applied to me.

I went to an academically focused high school where students aimed for the most competitive programs in Canada or top schools in the US. Before then, I had come from Japan, where college admission was a huge deal. With these baggages in hand, I was determined to go to the “best” place, whatever it meant, and at the time the Software Engineering (SE) program at the University of Waterloo was considered the most competitive program in Canada for computer science and engineering. I felt relieved when I got accepted, and chose the program partially to justify my effort. This itself wasn’t a bad decision; I got to know some really talented classmates - whom I’m now proud to call dear friends - who could get stellar grades, have thoughtful conversations, start a business while in school, and sometimes do dumb things together.

But I let myself get blinded by competition. The program includes 6 internships (or “co-ops”) in between academic terms, and landing impressive internships became the main measure of success in the cohort. People raced to get to Sillicon Valley for the fame and the pay, and I passtionately took part in the race. I learned web frameworks and worked on side projects to fill resume; and with some luck, I became one of the first in the class to get there. Recognition from peers felt great, and I naively thought that being ahead in one of the most competititve classes in Canada meant I was winning the universal career race.

It took me some time to grow out of the illusion. Soon later, I grew interests in more theoretical topics and transferred to the computer science (CS) program. The CS program was considered less prestigious because it had more spots, and when it came to getting internships, the more career-focused SE students generally had an edge. Leaving the SE program was seen as forfeiting competition; after two years in university, I had barely become self-assured enough to make the decision. Then, I realized that I had been in a bubble. The CS program was part of the math faculty, and the students followed a different value system. They were more curiosity-driven, often less well-rounded, and had different skillsets. For instance, math classes that were considered difficult in the SE program were trivial “engineering math” in their eyes, and advanced technical topics that SE students would name-drop as bluffs were actually discussed out of genuine interest[1]. The CS program was by no means better in all ways, but the prestige of the SE program started to seem absurd. The experience was refreshing, and it revealed how narrow-minded I had been. For a period of time it became diffcult connecting with my peers in SE because we were no longer in the same bubble.

That wasn’t the only bubble I was in. Fast forward a year: I was visiting back Japan, where I had grown up until 14. At this point I had immensed myself in tech, seen lucrative industry oppotunities, and developped the sense that I was in one of the best occupations, if not the best. When I met friends from middle school, although I had no intention to brag, I expected respect without explanation. But the reaction was different; in Japan, suprisingly enough, software engineering was considered one of the lower-end jobs[2]. In this case one could say Japan was an exception, where the software industry was simply behind. But this occurence pushed me to question what I knew. I realized that I had little understanding of other industries, and that a part of my ego had been pampered by the fact that I was in tech. I was in the tech bubble.

Just when I thought I had broken enough bubbles, I painfully felt my ignorance yet again. Not many people around me had considered graduate school seriously since they had been focusing on industry internships, and I also had the naive idea that good grades paired with flashy internships would impress professors. In reality, graduate school is all about research[3] - and when I finally started thinking about it during the final year, I had no research experience. As it turns out, people who worked as research assistants on minimum wage were far more ahead in the research game. This may seem obivios to those that have iteracted with academia, but it was a hard fact to swallow after being conditioned to chase after prestigious internships.

And I found that the best research students come from a variety of undergraduate programs and schools - many of which I had dismissed solely because they didn’t have high entrance bars. But of course, entrace bar simply measures the level of competition and doesn’t determine how well the program prepares you for future careers. I began reflecting on my education at Waterloo, and took a sober look at its strengths and weaknesses in comparison to other schools in the world. It reminded me that what drove me in the Waterloo enviroment was far from universal - I was playing one game, and people from other schools were playing theirs.

What’s interesting is that now as I reflect back, my mistakes seem all too obvious. In fact, this story may seem odd to those unfamiliar with the undergrad community at Waterloo. But I think it’s highly relevant to those who are familiar, and other competitive communities probably have cult-like aspects of their own. That’s the nature of bubbles - the experience is local.

I got trapped in bubbles because I let immediate external signals carry me away. To some extent it’s inevitable; humans are social animals, and we compete within our community to raise our status. But I should have been more aware of the system I was in, and perhaps challenged it sooner.

The world is made of bubbles, seperated by communities and cultures. As I write this, I’m stepping into the machine learning research bubble. Sometimes, we just have to the play the game and win. But to be indepedent means to be able to define our own values. I learned that to get far, I need my own compass.

  1. Not everyone in CS was like this. But you could find some that were very academically oriented because it was more diverse
  2. There are some high paying roles, but in the public eye it’s a blue collar job
  3. Might be different for other fields. Also different for course-based programs.

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