Dear Senior, from Freshman: Computer Science and Engineering

The last of the regretful series.

If you have read the remaining ones on this kind, you probably know how this goes — I reflect on how the time went in the last one year in the hopes of providing clarity for someone who wishes to learn from my hindsight.

However, this one is different — in the fact that the circle is completed and now it’s an open letter to those at the end of the path from those at the beginning. Just to clarify, by freshman I mean the ones who join college in their first year mainly — not to be mistaken with fresher which is the term for those who are entering the industry to work. I could write about that after work begins next week but for now, this would suffice I presume.

Through this write up, I intend to bring the light on the questions that arise from the clueless ones who enroll for a computer science and engineering course — especially in an institution like Govt. Model Engineering College.

I received this mail one fine morning during the summer internship of 2019. I was pleasantly surprised to see someone find the courage to ask me about pointers to keep in mind before beginning this journey.

I was however quite concerned about what I ought to say — and what I ought to let him discover. I took my time and responded back with this detailed mail.

It’s been a year and he hasn’t responded — so makes me wonder if I intimidated him. Maybe it is the fact that he doesn’t know what to ask because he doesn’t get the environment yet. And from personal experience, giving the answers before having the question asked tends to cause the seeker to devalue the content due to unrecognized significance.

So given what I experienced, this is what I would have asked my Seniors in my first year. Again, it might not make sense now but waiting to understand comes at the cost of loosing time so hopefully a mental simulation suffices.

Encourage us to ask questions

On the first day of my college, I ridiculed my (who would later turn out to be) good friend Devashish for asking questions during the professors lengthy monologue. From the experiences I had previously, inquisitiveness tends to be considered as a rude signal and to confront one is to disrespect the other.

However, what I did not know realize back then was that unanswered questions tend to result in disengaging learning experience and eventual disinterest to understand. Multiple instances afterwards, Devashish questioned our understandings and called out our BS explanations — well highlighting the need to speak up when at doubt.

Unfortunately, the majority in our class were confrontation averse like myself and over time he gave up his inquisitive spirit. Looking back, it perhaps costed him the ability to open new doors and avenues to explore in career. If I could go back in time, I’d punch myself in the face and pat Devashish on the back. Being so insecure at that stage makes the need to please your professors all the more important thus faking your understanding just to not annoy them of the trouble of re-explaining stuff.

Just ask those questions. Do your research efficiently — online and offline.

Show us who is who

When you join University, it takes time to understand who is the expert of what — thus a delay in finding the answers to the questions that you resist to ask. Perhaps I need to improve my public speaking skills and XYZ is good at it — if I knew it, I could reach out to him for a coffee break (assuming I am not afraid to ask questions) and get to know them better.

The solution many a times people tell me is to be involved in club activities. But clubs tend to not be functional for most part of the year. Probably because the people who were expected to lead are busy molding their personal careers. Most of the top performing Seniors prefer to be personally requested for help rather than to be obliged to provide unasked service through a window of a community. Generally, you need context to interact with someone which is my clubs help, but if Seniors create a safe space for us to reach out anytime without a reason (and without using that opportunity to become flirty), we can overcome the difference and establish the connect.

So show us who is who. Back it up with the encouragement to talk to them. Who knows, someone might agree to be your mentor!

Bridge the gap between academia and industry

When it comes to CSE, students will most likely dive super deep in data structures and algorithms because that is the base line expectation to sit for job interviews for SDE roles. However, most of the other subjects tend to remain theoretical or bare minimum practical effort in the labs — where even the understanding of the tutors is questionable as most of the times they lack industrial application side of this subject.

In fact, teaching doesn’t seem to be the primary aspiration for those who are quite excellent in the field — they would prefer to apply it and earn more in the industry. Thus due to lack of effective incentives, teaching tends to be the last option for most. Don’t get me wrong — they might really well understand the base concepts and can explain from first principles, but if that is all we keep as the base line, students will optimize for passing the exams by mugging up stuff blindly.

Some argue that the genuine ones will find the connection between academia and industry but the inertia can be reduced if there is someone with a head start to share why he thinks ABC is an awesome subject. In fact, we should invite our alum to return and present case studies — how a custom made operating system helped scale up the efficiency of the system, how trees and maps help in designing google maps, etc.

So find the connect between theory and practical. Discuss about this with your Seniors. Ask the right questions and be persistent to get the answer — you might discover which problem statement to tackle.

Don’t let nepotism and favoritism skew the support graph

This is a mildly controversial one. I strongly believe that some of your peers are more likely to get the answers than the rest. There are usually 2 reasons:

  1. Genuine effort to connect the dots and establish networks due to the innate ability to network and mingle with people — possibly due to extroverted nature (PS: Introverts can network well too!).
  2. Plain luck of knowing a certain someone due to past acquaintance, maybe because of your good looks, societal status or general fame in the network.

I support the first — overcoming the fear of networking is critical to thrive in this era. One must overcome her insecurities to go beyond the comfort zone to ask the right questions to open the right doors — like Devashish. However, the second is something I strongly despise — just because circumstances that are beyond your control (the beauty of your parents, the financial well being of your family, the popularity of your surname), you are privilege to be in the radar of certain people who will open up new avenues for you.

One might argue that the blame should rely on the provider who gives into such unearned differentiating features. Yet I understand the plight at the other end of the table. You might be willing to help everyone equally but it is exhaustive — you can’t really sit with each and every junior to provide the unbiased support I aspire for. Hence you rely on mild differentiators. Hey, we all can agree looking at a symmetric face is very soothing for the cognitive mind that processes a lot of things. It is not an intentional discrimination — just something that benefits the provider internally to engage.

Also, the beneficiary doesn’t want to take the pain and effort to spread the information laterally because not everyone will thank you and you’ll end up feeling like an unpaid worker. Hence the whole argument about the importance of the first point. But then the juniors need to ask different seniors in order to ensure no overload of queries at the other end. It just would be awesome if information was evenly distributed AND digested — both ways.

So build systems for me to be detected in my seniors radars. Encourage us to ask questions to understand more. Reconnect us with more apt seniors if needed. Basically, we need more dealers among our seniors.

Once the map is made, let us toil

This is probably the least requested one — cause generally it doesn’t happen. But sometimes spoon feeding can result in over-information and inability to take action. For example, a certain junior of mine gave up aspiring for a top tier company because a pretty smart Senior was placed over there — automatically assuming its beyond her league. I personally believe had she not heard of the second part, she might have accidentally aspired and succeeded at achieving it. Over here, her robust network gave her extra data points to derive conclusions that may not be true. Blissful ignorance, on the other hand, might have made her naive to aim higher but would have protected her from self doubt.

Perhaps she is right to estimate what is and what is not within her reach now itself. Maybe it is indeed beyond her league. But wouldn’t it have been great if there was a Senior who shielded her from that kind of excess information to reduce cognitive load and to effectively focus on the task at hand? I’d like to believe it would have helped. But then why would a Senior take that much effort? This brings me to the last point.

Provide unconditionally

In a finite world, with finite resources and finite time, there is awe for those who go beyond their way to provide without expectations for returns. It might be clearing a doubt for the junior, or sharing a link, or even spending the time to hear them out. But in time, these tiny actions will add up to significant results that you enabled as a Senior — and I believe that is how systems arise from transactional ones. In fact, by not expecting returns, the beneficiary is obliged to return value — either directly (by being trust worthy mates to depend on at tough times) or indirectly (by unconditionally providing to their juniors). Either way, it is quite the win for the system.

So please take the extra mile to care for those who probably don’t realize they need it yet. Don’t be a creep in the process though.

Bonus: Give us a treat!

Celebrate good times with your juniors and in time, you will create memories worth reflecting on years later :)

There is probably a lot more but these are the top 7 I can think of at the moment. Hope it helps. Cheers.

Photo by Pang Yuhao on Unsplash

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

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