Goodbye Uni!

Four years, eight months, and twenty-five days — 10 high distinctions, 10 distinctions, and 6 credits — physics, electronics, mathematics, computing, information systems, astronomy and engineering — that’s what stands between me and the first day of my university education. Not as much or as long as some other people who pursue their education, but for me – it feels like too long.

Now I’m finally at the threshold of my graduation, the end of a chapter of my life, with a handful of thoughts, memories and “life lessons learned” about the whole experience.

The beginning

万事开头难 – “The beginning of all things is difficult”

On the first day of university (Monday 22-02-2010) I went to an analogue electronics class, ELEC 170. I wrote this in my journal of that day:

Today I was lost for the first time in a long time…

I get the main meaning of everything which is said, but the maths and the formulae blew right over my head…

I met up with (some friends) briefly, but I couldn’t bear it, I had to go home and study, just try to get what’s going on…

I guess I ought to write down my feelings so that in some future day I can look back on myself and see my own progression, not only in “stress management” but in my knowledge regarding this field, electronics.

I really simply don’t get any of the formulae… and it’s not the most encouraging feeling in the world, I am not accustomed to not understanding what’s going on… this is a “not nice” feeling…

I think the sentence “I am not accustomed to not understanding what’s going on” describes one of the most important things that happened to me at university: I was exposed to knowledge that was far beyond my current level of understanding.

In the first tutorial of that subject (ELEC 170) they were talking about differentiation and the chain rule (basic calculus). I had no idea what any of that meant. The teacher got me to stand up in front of the class and asked me to do a chain rule calculation, he said “you can do it” encouragingly:

– no I couldn’t.

In hindsight I was completely ignorant, but, in a sense, brilliantly ignorant. As soon as that tutorial ended I walked over to the mathematics tutorial room available to all first year students and found a teacher. “I need to know what differentiation is” I said to the teacher, she drew a basic picture of an [latex]f(x) = {x^2}[/latex] graph and explained the tangent line and finding the slope at that given point. I got it. I didn’t know the chain rule, but I knew what differentiation is – and that was good enough for that moment.

I remember in the first week, after several difficult classes (Maths and Electronics), going for a walk with music to just calm down. I listened to Lovematic ft. Sharon May Linn — Send Me An Angel – I seriously thought I’d need an angel to come down and teach me electronics and mathematics because I just didn’t get it.

I landed up getting 87% for ELEC 170 (High Distinction). I was shocked, I wasn’t sure if I’d even pass. I remember writing the exam and being required to do a chain rule calculation; this time I could do it! I feel it really appropriate to give credit to my teacher (Levente Horvath) even though I barely understood half of what he said most of the time … well … he just kept talking with me until I did (understand a bit more than half…) — he was patient and diligent.

Uni… and work

I had the privilege of only studying full time for just one week – that first week that I was full of discouragement. On the Friday of that week I had a job interview for my first IT job. After the interview the head of IT asked: “so when can you start?”, my answer: “next week Monday” — and so in the second week I started my first IT support job, and I’ve never stopped working since. Throughout my full time studies I did 20 hours of work a week, and two years later switched to working full time (40 hours) and studying part time (2 subjects per semester).

On the first day of work I was introduced to our ticketing system. As soon as they left me alone I found a ticket logged by someone and gave him a phone call. “Based on your description it must be a problem with our server, I’ll go speak to the guy in charge of it and get back to you” – I didn’t even know who was in charge of the exchange server, in fact I didn’t even know it as called an exchange server (I thought “E-mail server”) – he helped me out, we sorted out the problem.

Working and studying at the same time has been one of the most rigorous and difficult aspects of my life, but I don’t regret it for a second. It’s taught me time management and the 20 mile march principle – for the most part I started uni assignments the day they were released to us. Why? Because I didn’t know how long it was going to take to complete work that I didn’t know how to do, and I didn’t have loads of disposable time to play around with. I would work consistently on the assignment throughout the term of the assignment and it would usually be neatly completed about a day or two before being due.

I was once asked by one of my colleagues at the time:

What’s the point of pursuing a university education? What is all of that electronics, physics and mathematics knowledge going to do for you working in an IT career?

My response:

The point is that I know what the point is.

What I was referring to by this statement is this: You see in the urgency and anxiety that we have for every little bit of knowledge we acquire to have direct relevancy in our life as it is right now today, we tend to lose focus on the big picture of the value of flexing our brain and acquiring vast amounts of knowledge generally relevant to our industry. At a deeper level, learning “just for the sake of learning” (because we deeply love it) lies at the heart of mankind’s rapid technological progression. What if Einstein had never discovered the photoelectric effect just because it was not relevant to earning a living at that time in his life? We’d have no solar panels today!

And besides, I actually left IT 4 years later for online marketing.

Front row seat, never missed a class, almost never studied for exams

Working as I did part time, and later on full time, I never had time for failure or reviewing old classes. I only really had time to get something once. I just didn’t have time to fall behind. Furthermore I personally contributed somewhat to the finances of my university education – which means I was going to squeeze out every last ounce of value. I almost always was on time for classes, and almost always sat right in the front of the class.

As a result, by the time the exam would come I’d have already put in loads of effort throughout the course of the semester. I almost never studied for exams (with one exception: Maths exams) – if I didn’t get something by the end of the semester’s work then I wouldn’t get it.

I was pragmatic about exams, especially in hard subjects. I knew I wouldn’t get everything right all the time, so several times I would skip questions in the exams if I had no clue, and refocus my effort on questions I knew I could score well in. I never failed a subject or exam so it worked out OK.

Teachers

There have only been a few teachers who were truly outstanding. Many teachers in the university are too busy talking about the subject matter to realise that 90% of the class doesn’t understand what they’re going on about – and so they just continue on anyway. For them, whether or not there is a classroom full of people present doesn’t make the slightest difference – they’re on a monologue and they’ll emerge 2 hours later. This is ironic because if a university has any competitive advantage it’s through the teachers.

I don’t care about your beautiful campus with a fountain – every other uni and their dog has one. I don’t care about the clubs and societies – every other uni and their dog have some. I don’t care about raves, parties, get-togethers, and all of that unnecessary and wasteful stuff – just get fantastic teachers and pay them well enough so they stay and are motivated! — Invest time in creating a culture of brilliant teaching in your university, set the bar high and prune out teachers who are mediocre. But I think universities are too dispersed and scattered in their focus to understand this simple concept.

I can list out exhaustively all of the incredible teachers I’ve encountered at Macquarie University – yes, I remember all of their names, because they were so good.

Mike Johnson – absolutely incredible guy. When he’s not teaching computing like a gun he’s busy helping students figure out where they want to take their life and careers and helping them find their strengths. Fascinating history, he studied psychology and became a computer scientist kind of guy – I think through self study. I’ve had several personal meetings with him and found them incredible. One hour, one on one with this guy, would make your entire degree worthwhile.

I actually intentionally avoided one subject with Mike, the only reason: At that particular time in my life I simply didn’t have the time to go through the rigour of one of his courses. I wish I had the time, because I know I would have learned heaps, but I didn’t. One has to make choices.

Dominic Verity – I only took one subject with this guy and found him incredible. Man I love the British accent. He is one of the most articulate teachers I’ve ever known. He just had a brilliant conceptual mental faculty (the ability to understand and convey concepts) – and as a person he is very congenial – with a great sense of humour.

Funny, he taught us Java programming. Apparently it was his “weak area” if I recall correctly. Let’s just say his “weak area” is ten times stronger than our strong areas.

Chris Gordon – Chris had an incredible ability to unfold linear algebra. I took linear algebra with him for two semesters; I loved and looked forward to his classes. In the beginning I didn’t even know what linear algebra was, at the end I was deeply entrenched in it. He had a lot of patience with his students (especially me), sometimes I would say “I know I am right about this” and he would proceed to prove me wrong 🙂 — but he wouldn’t criticise me, he would just enjoy teaching and enjoy the learning process with all of us. Great guy with a great sense of humour. Because of him I performed very well in maths.

Levente Horvath – I really appreciated Levente’s patience with his students and the genuine care factor. He wanted the best for each one of us and had a great sense of humour. This guy is so smart – I genuinely didn’t understand what he was saying half the time, but in the other half I was happy since I was just learning so much. I enjoyed his quirky English grammar too: it’s strange to hear someone speak knowingly about special relativity, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and follow it up with “Is this make sense?”

Gaurav Gupta – probably the best first year computer science teacher. He would take a class of thirty people and make them all do well in programming. He had a great ability to connect with students and a brilliant teaching style. He gave me a PI mug once for answering a question about the meaning of the word “verbatim” – awesome guy and great character. I’m definitely not surprised by the number of positive reviews of him in Linkedin.

Sincere thanks to all of those teachers and others I didn’t mention. You guys lie at the heart of a great university experience.

Synergise with teammates

One of the major lessons I learned in university life is to synergise with your teammates. No one of us will be skilled at everything, and so we need to be really good at something and work with someone who is good in other areas.

One of the greatest synergies I developed was with my good friend Shirajul Islam Sagar. He is probably the only close friend I have whose name I still can’t pronounce.  He is exceptionally talented in mathematics and physics. He was the analogue, and I was the digital. Out of the 26 subjects in my degree I took 10 together with him. No matter what subject it was, either I was strong in it or he was.

When we worked together in the lab, at the beginning of the three hour block we’d both have no clue, at the end we’d be teaching the tutors! (And we’d always “save the data!”) We had completely different backgrounds but university brought us together and taught us both so much.

I made several semester / subject choices based purely on either the teacher or classmates, with no regard to what the subject itself was. That’s just how the real world works – it’s all about the people. I’d look at the unit guide and see who the teacher was. I’d ask my mates if they were good. If not – skip that unit, or do it later when someone else teaches it – or someone else does it with me. That’s just the way it is. Another major factor in my unit decisions was simply the time of the classes, for many semesters of my life I was just trying to pick subjects that intruded less on my working time (especially choosing evening classes).

An affinity with Linear Algebra

I don’t think I am a natural mathematician, but I sure grew a love and affinity for linear algebra. Again this was definitely partly due to Chris Gordon as a teacher – and his amazing ability to unfold the subject line by line. As I had and have been studying Chinese on the side throughout my university career, I spent a lot of time thinking about the connections between linear algebra and linguistics; I wrote about this in this blog article, this one and this one – at one point I was even writing a book about this but decided instead to condense this into a few blog articles.

The principles of linear algebra as a mathematical field have been the most applicable to me throughout my real life career. I now work in SEO (search engine optimisation) and I really like the term “crawl space” which could be defined as the “set of all webpages a crawler can crawl and index on a website” – the principles have also been particularly applicable in redirect mapping (creating a map of 301 redirects from one website to another) including the concepts of surjectivity, bijectivity and injectivity.

Statistics classes

Or the lack thereof! If I were to offer any major criticism to the structure of the engineering degrees at my university it would be this: why on earth did you not teach us statistics?

I think the assumption is that statistics is “easy maths” compared to the “real maths” that subjects like MATH 135, 136 and 235 provide — and so somehow once we’ve done calculus and linear algebra we automatically understand statistics. In fact I once approached on of my first year teachers and asked him about STAT classes:

“Too easy for you guys” he said, “If you can do this maths then statistics is a piece of cake”

Maybe so — but now I’m graduating and I still don’t know much about statistics, which is arguably one of the most valuable areas to have skills in.

I’m not the only person who’s expressed this sentiment, Arthur Benjamin gave a talk at TED wherein he expressed the same thoughts: “Teach statistics before calculus”

Healthy stress

Ever since the first day of uni I would stress. Especially whenever there was something going on that I didn’t understand, I would stress about it until I understood it. It always bothered me to not understand what’s going on. At times the stress levels of my university education have been just a bit too much. I learned that each of us has our own inherent limits and the world doesn’t know or care what they are — so you must manage them yourself.

In hindsight healthy levels of stress have been very beneficial helpful to motivate me to do better. Assignments and deadlines drive personal progress.

Textbooks and the library

There were two things that I avoided like the plague at university: textbooks and the library.

Firstly textbooks; really, what’s the difference between the 7th and 8th edition of a book? “We rotated two or three questions in chapter ten, and fixed a single grammar mistake. Now we’re chopping down a heap of new trees and republishing this new edition. Make sure you buy it though, because as of right now the old edition is no longer valid. In fact, it’s totally wrong. No, we’re not asking you to buy new copies because we want to make heaps of money and over time the sales of the old edition have decreased. Of course not!”

When I first started uni I was a bit nooby, I still bought the textbooks for all subjects. Later on I realised that some subjects have “cosmetic textbooks” I.E they tell you in the beginning of the semester that you should have it, and if you don’t you’re “naughty naughty”, but then never use it. And other subjects actually use the textbook throughout the course. For those subjects, if you can loan it from someone else — do it. You’ll never open the thing again after the semester is over.

Secondly the library; the library is the biggest time waster ever. 

Think about it, you wake up in the morning and want to study. You drive to the uni, and find a free parking spot and a place in the congested library to study. This trip has taken you about an hour. Great, you found a quiet place to study, now you’ll probably start procrastinating and sitting on Facebook. For me: I just wake up, switch on my computer, and get on with it. I almost never studied in the library, I just don’t have the time to get there and back to wherever I had to go in the day. Set yourself up at home in such a way that you can study.

And references? Simple, write whatever you want in your essay, and use Google Scholar to find relevant references. Google scholar is ten times better than any bloated library system.

Why I pursued a university education

If you’d asked me right in the beginning of my university education – “why are you here?” – I’d likely have given you a very generic answer: to get a job, to get an education, whatever – some wishy washy answer.

In hindsight I went to uni because that’s what everyone does – they go to university and get a standard education. I was one of the normal factory outputs from high school, packaged and ready for being average. It’s only through the process of studying at uni that I’ve come to understand why I was there:

  1. To get general (background) knowledge (The kind of knowledge that you’ll likely never apply directly into your career but which makes you better rounded)
  2. To get specific skills and knowledge (The kind of knowledge you tend to apply more directly into your work)
  3. To “learn how to learn”
  4. To get a piece of paper (My formal qualification)

By the time I had been in uni for 4 years, I was in it only for #4. That’s not to say that I wasn’t acquiring any more general knowledge or specific knowledge at that stage, but I had reached a point of diminishing returns.

Switching degrees: a difficult decision

That’s why in the middle of my fifth year (mid 2014) I made a very difficult decision; I decided to modify my degree in the interests of graduating much sooner.

You see I had just completed a unit which was about preparing to do our undergraduate thesis. A thesis is a 12 credit point unit (equivalent to four units full time) – I just didn’t have that kind of time lying around. I spoke with the unit convenor and he offered that I could complete the course over a two year period part-time. After four and a half years of uni, the prospect of not having another weekend or evening for me or my family for another two years was the lead pipe that broke the camel’s back. After thinking about it for a long time I concluded that the time had come to get out of uni.

After being bounced around the university’s departments six times, I eventually managed to find a way; change from a bachelor of engineering, majoring in computer engineering, to a bachelor of science majoring in software technology. By the end of it I sacrificed several units (I had actually done too many units for this degree) – but if uni is about acquiring knowledge then that doesn’t matter anyway. I took the capstone unit for this degree (which was generally easier than the other subjects I’d taken in the past) and now I’m done!

Yes — this was a downgrade. If I’d known it’d end this way I might have done that degree in the first instance, however in retrospect I’m still glad for the specific / general knowledge I acquired around computer engineering.

I am a computer engineer

When I made the choice to switch to a bachelor of science, that didn’t change the fact that I’d completed 95% of my computer engineering degree. So I made the personal choice that whenever I met someone and they asked me about my education I’d say “I’m a computer engineer” – this is for several reasons, but there was one particular story that was very meaningful to me which is why I do this.

In ENGG460, the thesis preparation unit, I was required to give a presentation at the end of the semester on what my thesis would be. Being “prepared” as I was, I brought my personal laptop in case their built in computer didn’t work. While my unit convenor was struggling to set it up, he called their IT guy to come over and help. They concluded that their computer was not working for “some reason”, so they asked me for mine and they couldn’t get it to work either. This was the moment for me to step up to the plate. I went to the front of the room and did some troubleshooting: “It looks like the VGA cable is not providing the feedback to my computer, which makes it not aware that it is plugged in. Perhaps if I force it to output a signal through the VGA adapter it will project correctly”

It worked. I had fixed something the uni’s internal IT support team and an engineering unit convenor couldn’t fix. In that moment he said something very significant and personal to me, someone else had just walked into the room and was asking if it was fixed, Eryk Dutkiewicz said:

Don’t worry, an engineer fixed it

He knew I was changing my degree and he was aware of my circumstances. Maybe he said that as a personal encouragement, maybe not, either way it meant the world to me. In that moment a certain realisation of mine came to consummation:

Being an engineer is not about holding a piece of paper, it’s about being able to apply knowledge of science and technology to fix real world problems. An engineer who can’t solve real world problems is not an engineer. We are innately practical problem solvers – and whether or not I had the exact piece of paper at that given point in time, I was and am still an engineer.

University education is extortionate…

… Especially for international students. Macquarie University is not the most expensive university in Sydney (I think) – and it costs ~$4 000 per subject in a semester. That means the average full-time semester’s cost is $16 000 for an international student — extortionate for what we get out of it. This is the quintessence of milking people.

I once sat down in a tutorial and did a little thought exercise with some of my university mates. Our tutorial had about 20 people in it, a vast majority were international students so we just approximated international student rates. A semester has 13 weeks in it and a tutorial in every week, this particular subject was a very “self-learning” oriented subject (seems ironic to pay to read a textbook by yourself) so it only had tutorials. They were three hours each.

So 13 X 3 = 39 hours of class, for $4 000 per student, with 20 students. That means each student was paying about $102 per hour of class, so times 20 that is $2040 per hour of us sitting in the tutorial room. Of course this is just an approximation, there are exam costs too.

So we turned to our tutor and said “the university is taking about $2000 from this group of people for every hour we are in here. Considering that you and the whiteboard are all we are really getting out of this, and you and your knowledge are the main service rendered to us, assuming a 75% overhead cost, are you getting paid $500 per hour?”

Well, you can guess the rest, he just laughed and said: “I wish, try less than a tenth of that”

… No no no no, of course not… A vast majority of the money we put into university goes into their ridiculous overheads (from that rough calculation over 97.5%). In this list quite a few are named, Macquarie University just happened to build a hospital, a new library with mechanical robot arms to manage the books (one wonders if they’ve actually heard of Google scholar…?) and a large partnership with Cochlear during my five year tenure there. (Not really mentioning details about the vast clubs and societies structure, the spaghetti of internal departments, etc.)

And yet in these five years I heard of teachers leaving because they can’t get decent contracts or job security at the university, and tutors being hired on a casual basis because it’s cheaper for the uni. They are milking us like an overseas livestock farm — so don’t you forget that first and foremost a university is a business.

What uni is… and is not

Sir Ken Robinson once said: “I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it?” – too true.

University education is, in general, far too focused on academic knowledge and fails to deliver on practical knowledge. In truth both academic and practical knowledge can synergise with each other quite nicely. But considering most people pursue a university education for the sake of one day getting a job; it does shockingly little to teach people the practical elements of the job seeking and work process. To name a few off the top of my head:

  1. How to go about job interviews
  2. The immense value of integrity (delivering on your promises on-time, being on time for meetings, interviews, etc.)
  3. How to actually add value in an organisation, what does and does not really add value
  4. Uni does not actually directly teach us how to learn. Have you ever taken a university subject that was entitled “how to learn”? – yet that is one of the most valuable takeaways from university – some students get it indirectly from the experience, others don’t.
  5. Creativity and lateral thinking, because most of the time the answers are somewhere in the text book right?

A great book I read on this topic was the education of millionairs by Michael Ellsberg. He basically points out that universities are quite inadequate at preparing students for the real world. With a pinch of salt – I generally agree with his sentiments. If universities could find a way to introduce more practical knowledge into their curriculum they would go a long way to improving the value their education actually provides.

What uni is: A great way to acquire a lot of knowledge about a certain subject area, and a formally recognised way to be “accredited” in a certain area. Unfortunately I also believe the low degree of which differentiation (differentiating between mediocre and star students) occurs is also counter-productive and dilutes the value of the formal qualification — you have people who are absolutely brilliant getting a degree, and people who barely scraped through getting the same degree.

What uni is not: A guaranteed pathway to getting a job, or even very practical assistance to getting a job. Really, the help comes down to that valued piece of paper. For the most part, after that piece of paper, you are on your own.

Saying goodbye

It’s always hard to say goodbye to a chapter in your life, especially one that’s been five years. I’m sure in the future I will always look back fondly at this period of time. I’ve learned an immense amount and made many good friends along the way. I definitely feel like I’ve met some of the smartest people in the world and been privileged to receive tutelage off them.

I have no regrets about any decisions I’ve made in these five years with regards to my university studies. It’s been incredible.

I’m deeply grateful for the entire experience…

… and that it’s over.

Shawn

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