Computer Science Engineering : Dear Freshman, from Sophomore

This is an introspection over my 2nd year in Computer Science Engineering (CSE), where I make an attempt to find the ups and down in time, and hopefully, provide insights for the next batch of sophomores of CSE to take a few tips to class.

As the famous clinical psychiatrist Jordan Peterson says, University is the time for you to think of what you wish to be, and work towards it in incremental steps. My first year of Engineering was quite introductory and basic, with courses on the fundamentals of programming and several basic science subjects that are an extension to what we learned at School. It was in my first year that I heard sophisticated words such as “Web-Development”, “Mobile App-Development”, and the famous “Machine Learning”. The summer break that followed that was spent mostly for my driving license test, and trying to learn a little of these new-buzzword-skills, with not much progress though.

Since you have completed your first year, I won’t be spending much time expanding further on that. It mostly must have been the initial hesitation in making friends, gradually understanding how the engineering life works, and finding your way, just escaping assignment deadlines and exams. Well, relax every bit this summer, because the year that follows is quite a mightier ride.

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

An Overview

The second year on the other hand, especially for Computer Science students, takes a step closer to the core fundamental concepts of the stream. In fact, the university that I belong to (KTU) shaped the syllabus to cover most of the crucial topics of CSE in this year, unlike most other universities which does so in the 3rd-4th year.

The Third Semester

Semester 3 had the following subjects:

  1. Linear Algebra and Complex Analysis (LCA)
  2. Discrete Computational Structures (DCS)
  3. Switching Theory and Logic Design (SLD)
  4. Data Structures (DS)
  5. Electronic Device and Circuits (EDC)
  6. Life Skills (LS)

The subjects that I found simple to digest were LCA, DS (though it took some time) and LS, while the challenging ones were DCS, SLD, EDC.

LCA, the math of this semester required practice, practice and practice. A math subject to work upon your linear algebra knowledge, this time with a touch of imaginary numbers ( root(-1) ).

About DCS, remember relations and all those matter that you studied back in school? This subject takes a step forward, and might at times make you wonder why does it matter (I still sometimes do, as a matter of fact. Just google it). But if you stay firm, in time you will find several applications of it. It may initially seem easy but only with practice will you get a hang of how the subject works.

When it comes to understanding how computers work at the grass root level, SLD is the subject that everyone might despise, but is a subject that must be understood if you study in a very logical stream like CSE. It starts off with basic binary, decimal, octal, hexadecimal number facts, moving on to techniques like K-maps, and understanding how addition of numbers happen using IC’s. If all this sounds like alien to you, don’t worry. If you learn progressively and clear doubts immediately, roadblocks should not be an issue.

Data Structures is a beautiful subject once you get to understand how it works. I did not do well for the first series exam, but after watching few online tutorials, and gaining a deep interest for understanding how various algorithms (eg: Binary Search, merge sort, heap sort, trees etc.) work by actually programming on computer, I enjoyed it thoroughly, to the extend where I started making videos explaining concepts for classmates. I wish you to find the beauty in DS as well.

Electronic Devices and Circuits is a subject that many would find it very difficult, mostly due to the exponentially growing difficulty of understanding the technicality. I admit this is indeed a difficult subject for me, and the final exam was hard. But reflecting back, I realize that the subject was challenging only to understand the logic and working of various circuits. Take an hour patiently to understand the working thoroughly, and try to solve questions. You will be surprised to see how well you would perform then! The only issue is that the subject gets into a lot of important details towards the end, and is difficult to learn in a short time span. So I recommend you try to stay ahead of the class by reading suitable books (can download from internet) and ask as many doubts as you can when the teacher is around.

There are a lot of good resources for SLD and EDC on YouTube . If you find yourself in deep waters, ask your seniors for help. Chances are they went through the same issues as you did.

LS is by far one of the most under estimated subjects in engineering may I say. Why have a subject about manners and team working? For the obvious reason that many people forget that when they step into the industry. In any corporate, people are bound to find people who are excellent at technical knowledge, but fail to communicate with the rest of the team, thus being left behind and struggle to climb up the ladder. In fact, this issue has reached such extend that college placements even check to see if candidates have these basic manners. The subject is indeed simple, but it requires your genuine interest to master the various skills, such as group discussion, team working, body posture, leadership skills, etc. Master this subject, and you will have an edge in the future, irrespective of the kind of field you choose.

So this is all that 3rd semester offers. I got a GPA of 7.9, my all time low score. In fact, it was this semester that made me realize my poor attitude towards academics, which I tried to rectified moving forward.

The Fourth Semester

Semester 4 has the following subjects:

  1. Probability Distributions, Numeric Techniques, and Transform Methods (PNM)
  2. Computer Organization and Architecture (COA)
  3. Operating Systems (OS)
  4. Object Oriented Designing and Programming (OODP)
  5. Principles of Database Design (PDD)
  6. Business Economics (BE)

Understanding the mistakes of last semester, I made an effort to be better this semester. But a month later I started slacking off.

PNM, the math subject of 4th semester, is all about practice, practice and practice again. It is simple compared to what you learned in your first semester, but it requires practice.

COA, the continuation of last semesters SLD, takes a step forward by dwelling into the details of how the computer actually works, and we are introduced into a lot of technical details. If not learned at a consistent pace, the amount of portion to surmount becomes excessive. I barely made it through series test, but struggled for the finals. I recommend you read the textbooks and watch tutorials

OS is an interesting subject, and has quite a number of things that overlap with COA. I found it interesting and worthwhile learning. You get to learn how computers manage multiple requests (like playing music, writing a text file, etc simultaneously), and begin to appreciate the extend of though work that was put in to make this so smart. Do read textbook and watch tutorials.

OODP involves the programming langauge called Java to understand the Object Oriented Programming Concepts. This subject teaches the fundamentals of Java, how it can be used to make sense of class diagrams, and how advanced concepts work. I recommend you try programming various examples shown in textbook. I initially found it hard, but gradually came to appreciate it.

PDD is a wonderful subject to appreciate the smart thought work of engineers who wanted to making storing information more comfortable for everyone. Here you learn how to design databases efficiently, and how to make it as optimized as possible. This is a wonderful subject, and I got to understand a lot of it from college and this tutorial.

BE is a wonderful subject to empower the entrepreneur hidden within us. We learn several valuable lessons about profit and demand, and how to understand market cues to ensure your product is safe. Like LS, this subject too covers a lot of important lessons to remember lifelong.

My exams are not yet over, at the time of writing of this article due to the unfortunate occurrence of the Henipah virus in the state I belong to, which forced the university to indefinitely postpone the exams. I was moderately prepared for the exams initially, but the additional time has given me the scope to improve.

Overall, the second year of Engineering, in terms of academics

Let me be frank. I found couple of these subjects boring because I was not attentive in class, kept falling asleep and did not bother to clear the doubts. All of my teachers were very helpful by repetitively asking if we had doubts and patiently explaining those who asked. But the vast majority (including me) took it for granted that studying before the exam would suffice, if given the right notes and online tutorials. But the one detail that our naive minds kept forgetting is that when we try to learn on our own just before the exams, tons of doubts get cluttered in the mind, and finding the right help may not always help. This will result in unnecessary loss of marks, sometimes even failure at exams.

Remember, the root problem happened in the class, when we all thought we were the smartest students in the college, with top notch rank to get prestigious stream as CSE. In fact, if you dig a bit, you can find students who studied at colleges with lesser facilities but due to hard work score good marks. Ironic, isn’t it?

So what is the solution? many of you might (rightfully) call me a nerd for saying this, but if we did the “self-study” during college class days instead of the eve of the exam, you would perform tremendously better. Why does it matter? In second year, the subjects are core importance, and having a good grasp will help you very well in the future technical interviews. For example, a good grasp of Database Design can help you get a fine well paid job at Oracle. Let’s be frank once again, why did you take CSE? Is it not for the air conditioned rooms, sleek computers and good pay? Not to forget the prestigious livelihood that your parents get to tell their neighbors about? So trust me when I say this, spend this year in learning with full dedication, and you shall be duly rewarded in due time. After all, good things come at a price :)

But at the same time, I believe beyond the high paying job features, Computer Science is much more, covering wonderful concepts and thought worthy ways of logical thinking. I don’t wish to elaborate further, hoping you would get it in time, the immense research possibilities in the field.

I hope to learn from these mistakes and become better in the next year. But more importantly, I hope you don’t make the same mistakes as I did. Make your own mistakes, understand why it happened, and move on with a better mind.

by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash

Also, another important point you must note is that you must learn how to read from the textbook without loosing interest. This is another problem that people face when exams are near. The authors do not write in any quirky manner, and you are left to figure out what each sentence means. But if you make a conscious effort to read, it will help you in the long run, because the years to come will require you to read manuscripts and huge reference books. Do I sound like your parent? Maybe. But facts are facts, and I am just trying to give a heads up. Of course, you could probably just read the summary that someone made based on the textbook, and that might suffice to help you get marks (I used this technique myself, trust me). But nothing beats the consistency and accuracy that you get by learning from the actual textbook, be it hard or soft copy.

Note: If at any point you do not understand a point that the professor makes, search on the Internet, talk about it to friends who try to study like you, or just ask the faculty. After all, you came to learn and become a better person, might as well take the full effort.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Beyond Academics

This year, I decided to spend my weekends volunteering at Make A Difference, a wonderful NPO committed to empower children from poor backgrounds so as to enable them to reach greater heights and find better opportunities in the future. Their 3 core principles, which I believe everyone should appreciate are: Leadership Through Ownership, Cause above Self, and Sense of Family.

As an Ed Support Volunteer, I had the opportunity to interact with these children at Shelter homes on a weekly basis, and provide them academic support. The Cochin family of MAD had volunteers from all walks of life, and as a collective we were able to provide them with resources and fun experiences to remember. It would be a challenge to be able to balance between college work and MAD commitments, but it was definitely rewarding to see the students grow in time.

But as a result, at times I found it difficult to balance it all, and was unavailable for MAD at times when they needed help the most. My lack of full participation had an impact on the children, especially during their final exam times. Do note, that you probably could have done a better task in my shoes at managing things (which is an important skill to be mastered in life, because the industry that awaits us all would be quite the same), so do not assume that my results would happen to everyone. In fact, I know MADsters who are doing a fantastic work in the organization, while managing their personal matters quite well. You will never know until you try ;)

I also was part of the Content Team and Marketing Team of Excel 2017 (our college technical festival), and we had lot of works related to that to handle as well. Content work involved writing articles, letters, blog posts etc, while Marketing work involved pitching our fest to potential sponsors. Both of these improved my personality of improving my presentation and word phrasing skills. I would recommend any Junior of mine at MEC to consider working in any team of Excel, and try to develop some of those extra-curricular skills as well

For a very brief period of time, I was part of the core team of FOSSMEC, an open source club of our college, as a content writer. It was a wonderful experience to collaborate and establish the club in the institute, with several projects and means to empower the students in their technical wellbeing. As I was having too much on my plate at the moment, I decided to drop out and focus on the rest of my commitment.

I took part in MECMUN, a Model United Nations conference hosted by our college, and had the opportunity to see several students take on the role as delegates of various nations, and as a collective coming at conclusions on how to tackle a common impediment. Also later in 4th semester, by taking part in a bigger MUN such as MACEMUN, I had the honor of watching excellent delegates debate and come to common ground for the best solution on how to proceed forth in overcoming the issue, over the span of 3 days.

As it may seem, I took part in a lot of co-curricular activities, and this had a direct/indirect impact on my academics. At the positive end of the spectrum, I was able to explore in available options and try to find my strengths in the non-technical attributes, but it came at the cost of not being able to manage well, and a drop in my academic wellbeing. As stated above, maybe someone else would have managed all this, and much more quite well, and perhaps gain recognition and opportunities to shoulder greater responsibilities. After all, personalities are shaped over time, and this might simply be my growing phase, which might take time to master. Hope you get a quicker grasp in handling matters efficiently in your 2nd year than how well I did.

I spent time participating in a lot of other minute events. All these helped me improve my thinking, and I was able to think of bizarre project ideas such as an app that converts a musical notation sheet (by scanning) into music, an app to help students in academics, etc. I am lucky to have friends like Akshay Balakrishnan who would patiently listen and help me understand better.

Towards the end of the semester, I gained interest in Competitive Programming, Data Structures and Algorithms, and Machine Learning, and wish to invest time in the future to further improve in these.

Conclusion

If your first year was about finding ways to grow academically and beyond, second year is about exploring them. My major regret was not investing my time to improve my technical skills (eg: Web-Dev, App-Dev etc) while great classmates of mine grew exponentially, for example, one fantastic guy made his way to Singapore to take seminar on Natural Language Processing using Machine Learning (at the age of just 19). Part of this has to do with my lack of time availability to work upon them, while another part fell for the impostor syndrome of not even trying to start because others were succeeding very well. Due to this, I was technically unprepared for any internship opportunities in the summer break. Also, had I spent more time on academics, I could have developed my core knowledge on these topics, thus better preparing myself for the future placement interviews that await us.

Well, not everything was a bad, as I did indeed develop my co-curricular skills quite well. Being in MAD taught me the value of happiness in the small things we take for granted, being part of Excel taught me responsibility among many other things. As someone once said, growth of a student happens along several parameters, and the intensity of each, with the passion you have shapes the person you become.

Before we wind up, take these few advices:

  1. Start investing in your technical knowledge, and make a good profile on LinkedIn and Internshala
  2. Google and Stackoverflow will always be the CSE students best buddies.

I can say I have started to become more independent, and aware of how things work. Only because I tried to become better. So can you.

So what are the take aways from this article?

  1. Spend time exploring options. Pursue the ones that interest you. Dodge the impostor syndrome when you face it, and try to enhance your technical knowledge in any field that interests you.
  2. Be cautious of your time, it is known to fly when you least expect. Spend it for the things that you truly care for, and need to.
  3. Get your priorities straight, be responsive to whatever you do, and participate whole heartedly.
  4. Enjoy! Yes, despite reading through this torturous long article, understand that all work and no play makes anyone dull.

There could be hard times like having to cram in last minute probably because you were not productive when you had time, there could be times when you feel so low that you don’t feel like doing anything, and there might be times when you get swayed by the things your friends say that would make you look foolish one day. But if you take out 5 minutes everyday, to recollect and analyze how you were the last 24 hours, you can work to at least by 1% better in the next 24 hours. Hit and Trial, mistakes and lessons, these are how we become better than yesterday, all for a better tomorrow.

It is easy to give up and say its too hard. But maybe that was the whole point isn’t it? Only few climb up the ladder, because they were persistent. So trust me when I say this, it is never to late for you to try again. I have seen this in so many hard working people at college, who try beyond their comfort zone like Mufeeda CK, and emerge as victors to help others. So try, and keep trying to learn and become a better person.

“A man with a hat on, standing in a field in the countryside with his arms stretched out” by Alex Woods on Unsplash

So there you have it. If you need any help of sorts, you can reach me out at joelvzach@gmail.com and I shall try to be as responsive as possible. I have a lot of resources for 2nd year, ranging from notes, to video lessons, so do send a mail if you need any, and I can share the same with you. Hope bright and dull times await you in the year to come, all so to make you a better person.

Final tip: While exploring, try to find your sweet spot of balance between academics, interest and passion. The boat won’t sink, but rather, with consistency would sail forward smoothly to greater realms. The procrastinators mind is my final gift for reaching the end.

Hopefully the next introspection will be out next year. Until then, farewell.

Uncovering value in testing times | joelvzach.co | Reach me at howdy@joelvzach.co

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