Phase One, Done.
I just graduated college with a Bachelors of Science in Computer Engineering with a minor in Cognitive Science. It was a hell of a ride that I sometimes thought i'd never get off of, and now that I have, it’s clear that it’s only the end of the beginning. I psyched myself into finishing college by treating my career as product under development with a set of requirements to complete. This review serves as a means for my personal reflection, for explanation of unorthodox decisions that I take, and for the chance that I might inspire someone out there to take charge of their life and aim big with zero fucks given about society’s expectations of them. What follows is a brief account of how I initially struggled in school, how I discovered who I wanted to be, how I came up with a plan to achieve it, and lastly a performance review of Phase One of my life plan.
The Struggle Is Real
I remember my high school graduation like it was yesterday, however, it wasn’t yesterday, it was 6 years ago. I did really well in school, I had friends, I played a bit of football, got frozen yogurt at the local frozen yogurt place where all the cool kids hung out - though I’d always get there too early or too late, odd. Come time to apply for college, I simply applied to the big schools in Texas that I heard people talk about (You see, I missed the class where the teacher listed all the ivy league schools you should kill yourself to get into). Fortunately, I got accepted to every school that I applied to, so I had a decision to make. I'd end up committing to the University of Texas at Dallas, the closest school to my parents house, so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the paperwork of getting housing and a meal plan. A real genius, I was.
I entered college at the age of 17, a couple years younger than most, with no notion of who I wanted to be. I knew I liked technology and electronics in general, so with my parent’s guidance I majored in Electrical Engineering. Little did I know, EE was one of the hardest majors at UTD, and it was not what I expected it to be. I struggled to give a shit about my classes and skipped most of them. This lack of direction and discipline spread to other parts of my personality and gave me the overall appearance of a plastic bag floating in the wind on a Taylor Swift sad day. I got distracted by some really stupid things that took me to really bad places, and I almost grew up a screw up, because of it but THAT story gets long, so i'll save it for a different day. Anyways, a big factor that led me astray, was not knowing where I wanted to go.
Looking At The Man In The Mirror
After digging a big hole for myself academically and personally, I hit a low point and finally sat myself down and asked, “What am I doing here?” and “How did I find my way here”. Then a monumental question , “Who do I want to be remembered as?” It was the first time i’d really asked myself that question, and not having an answer scared the shit out of me. In my blog, Life and Deathbed regrets, I wrote about how avoiding ‘deathbed regrets’ has been one of my strong motivators. This big moment of self reflection put a familiar dense feeling in my stomach, one I once had as an 8 year old under an existential crisis. It took Time for me to come up with an answer - Time, as a concept. I thought about the greats, peoples whose names will live on for eternity. So after some deep introspection and a general study of the humbling size of the universe, I decided, "in my one existence, I want to be in a position to give as big a contribution to the human race as I possibly can."
Through time, there are different ways people have changed the world, for example Einstein through his scientific discoveries, Abraham Lincoln through his political action, and Susan B. Anthony with her social activism. I went back to my passion to get an idea of who I wanted to be and the means of change I was pulled towards was technology innovation. Technologies of all kinds have given us capabilities that we weren’t born with, like the ability to fly high or swim deep, the ability to build structures that are either gargantuan or microscopic, and the ability to stay connected to people, content, and commerce from around the globe.
The vehicle to achieving such innovation is business. Technology development is hard and expensive, that’s to say, it takes the right people in the right environment with the right resources and the right luck. To get those you need a compelling vision and the dozens of developed traits that make you the kind of person that can attract, inspire and lead. You have to start off with a real problem to solve. Tech people talk about vitamins versus painkillers, referring to solutions that are either nice to have or those that are solving a real pain for people. To know which problems to solve, one has to be highly observant of society and highly empathetic of their fellow men and women.
It turned out to be some captain leading efforts to win some big battle for the human race and change the world, the role I would need to aim for is that of Chief Executive Officer of a technology company. No big deal, right? Well yea, it’s a very big fucking deal, thank you very much. I figured that out by reading an assortment of books, articles, forums, and watching video on YouTube including every single episode of Foundation, the spectacular interview series by Kevin Rose.
"Whooooo are you?"
So I now knew that I didn't want to just work some cushy job or spend a lifetime hording money. The next step was to take a good look at myself, I mean truly analyze myself to see where I stood and how far away I was from the person I wanted to be. This exercise on perspective gave me two important mindsets: the humility to know that I'm a piece of shit, and the motivating arrogance to know I could do things to stop being said piece of shit. Looking back now, this new perspective that rewired my brain was indeed the engine that perpetuated my resolve - “I’m gonna do this or die trying.” For the first time in my life, I told myself that I’m going to be in charge of my own destiny - i’m going to wake up, see the choices that are before me, and make the right decisions. Instead of relying on ‘mysterious ways.’
Creating A Plan
This new me, knew I was up for a long road ahead of me, but I soon came to the realization that to become the person I wanted to be and do the the things I wanted to be known for, I wasn’t embarking on a journey, rather, I would be building a structure. I've previously written about how this structure needed to be built on a solid foundation of discipline and resolve, it needed to meet certain requirements and be as well defined on its internal layout as it was on its exterior faces. I started thinking of my career as a product under development with a set of requirements, and I was the project manager for delivery quality with a set of resources at my disposal.
So I set out to create a plan to build this, but I remembered a famous quote from the ever-brilliant Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.” He was most likely referring directly to boxing, but I thought of that quote more abstractly. What he meant was that, going into a fight, a boxer might have a plan for how he’s going to overwhelm his opponent, but as soon as he gets hit in the face (assuming that wasn’t part of his grand plan), that plan goes out the window. At this point, his ability to win this engagement is dependent on how well he can adjust in real time. This told me, that instead of formulating some rigid plan, I needed a strategy - for every requirement I needed to complete, I had a list of tactics to achieve it, including things that could go wrong and the contingency plan to overcome them.
The Big Objectives
My mission statement, "I want to change the world by creating products and services that allows us to achieve more in our short lifespans," had a more concrete goal: Being a CEO of a successful technology company. My strategy to prepare myself for such an important role would be to become a great Product Manager, a mid-level role within a company that entails managing a product from all the same sides that a CEO would run his or her company: business goals, technology development, and most importantly human-centered design. The important distinction here was that a PM is a mini-CEO that manages a product (or line of products) within a larger company, despite having little authority over the engineers, designers, and business people she guides. This is a difficult role that takes time to be good at and requires the high-level, multi-disciplinary aptitudes and team leading attitudes that I felt I had a knack for.
I thought, before I get into such a diverse role that requires years of real world experience to be even mediocre at, I wanted to do two things. I wanted to gain a good understand of the way that computing technology works on both the hardware and software side, and I also wanted to know the way people think and understand the world around them on a cognitive level. At 2 years into my college journey, against my parents wishes and understanding, I would switch from Electrical Engineering to a double major of Computer Engineering and Cognitive Science. These degrees wouldn’t be easy to earn, but for the first time ever, I would be passionate about the applications of my education.
I knew upon graduating that I wouldn't be able to start off my career as a PM, and funny enough, I knew with my cross-disciplinary mindset, being a programmer would not be my best fit - I would hate having little to no say in the creative process that leads to the products i'd have to build. So I aimed to start my career as a Product Designer. They discover problems in the world and exercise the right processes and principles to become an expert on that problem so they can design the best solution for it. Doing this, product designers keep in mind human values, business needs, and the limits of current technology. For me, product design was the perfect foundation to build my career on.
As an undergraduate student, my big goal now had a respectable to-do list that included personal development, degree requirements, and extracurricular activities on and off-campus. I charted out this list of requirements on my wall to remind me every time I walked past it as well as to display my inner thought process to friends who would hang out in my room.
Computer Engineering at UT Dallas was essentially half Computer Science, half Electrical Engineering, two very different domains of thinking, each with their own set of challenges. Learning the material was very challenging especially since it took a while to figure out my learning style. Rather than be taught little bits and pieces of course material over a 16 week semester, I learn best by consuming large chunks of a subject at a time right before the time I actually needed to know it - in the realm of academia, that happened to be right before an exam. My grades significantly improved, and I can confidently say that as a cross-disciplinary student, I managed to out-engineer engineering students, out-design design students, and out-business business students. Learning entire subjects in one sitting allows me to relate all of their internal concepts as one looping, cohesive, multidimensional structures that they are, rather than a linear disclosure of compounding ideas that schools teach them to be. But that’s a rant for a different day.
I’ve gotta say, studying computer engineering without the intent of ever working as one, is like chewing glass while being expected to recite the pledge of allegiance at the threat of being waterboarded by the president of the United States himself. Needless to say, i’m glad it’s over now. Studying engineering instilled in me the sense that any issue humanity faces can be overcome. I learned to analyze any problem, decompose it into its smallest components, and solve each through practiced methods developed by long dead scientists, mathematicians, and other social outcasts.
Studying cognitive science taught me that the human mind is FUUUCKING complex, but there are methods to studying it, and although you’re having a hard time figuring out how your significant other felt about that joke at dinner, the human mind is actually quite predictable, and you can leverage its habits to do powerful things. My focus within cognitive science was Human-Computer Interaction: The design and analysis of the interaction between human beings and computers. Those were some of my favorite classes taught by one of my favorite professors, Dr. Ryan McMahan. He would later advise my senior design project in which my team would build a browser I designed for the Internet of Things; we'd later be granted a research grant from Google for the design.
Although I picked it for the wrong reasons, UT Dallas has been an excellent university. It ended up being the right school for someone like me; not too big, not too small, and displaying as much diversity in its programs as it did its student body. I must admit that I put about 70% of my effort on extra-curricular activities, the ones I expected to teach me the real world skills and give me the professional connections that i’d need to be the agent of change I aspired to be. Being a 4.0 student never interested me. Instead, I got to meet great people, do cool things, and go where I never thought I would. I engaged in conversations I never thought i’d be able to relate to another human being about, and gain a level of confidence I never thought I’d deserve. Being involved in so many avenues and getting pulled in so many directions didn’t come without its consequences, I feel I didn’t give some people the attention they deserved, I often over-committed to things that didn’t give me enough alone time, and honestly my overall health declined. No ragrets.
I'm glad to say with the biggest smile on my face, that I've completed Phase One of my life plan. The project manager in me knows I did so a bit behind schedule and a bit over budget, but i’d like to believe that I met my requirements and excelled on the quality that was expected. If I could go back and do it over, I wouldn’t change a goddamn thing. This B.S. took forever, but it’s just the end of the beginning. On to the next.
Thanks for reading my blog post! I say what I truly feel and I try to make it a bit entertaining with my sense of humor. Please let me know what you did and didn't like. You can also check out some of my others and share them with people you think could really benefit from it. I'm gonna try to get more regular with my postings so stay tuned for those :)