Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

Hidden Depths

11 Sep 2007

This is going to be one heck of a long post, so hold on to your socks tight as you read carefully. There's much to be learnt about what an egotistic, self-centered narcissist I really am.

I've been pretty impressed with the way things have been working out for me over the last five months. By the end of April this year, as I was wrapping up my co-op term at Safe Software, I was telling myself: "Alright Rajesh, you really need to get your bearings straight." So I promised myself to not make any more blog posts until the first week of September. Not until I had meticulously executed every single facet of my master plan with such clinical precision capable of capturing even an expert surgeon's admiration.

It all happened during those twenty-five minutes spent sitting on Dr. Braverman's chair, my dentist. Trust me, when you're sitting on that chair and having all four of your wisdoms pulled out one after the other in succession with nothing but a local anesthetic to keep you going, you find yourself making promises you wouldn't dare stray away from…

One week later, I took my driver's test and passed on the first attempt even though it had snowed so heavily that morning, at least by Vancouver standards. Check.

A few days after, I enrolled myself in two extra courses even though I was well aware that I would barely be able to manage the five courses I was already enrolled in. Check.

A couple of weeks into the study term, Professor Miguel Anjos from the department of management sciences contacted me a second time to ask if I was interested in pursuing research under his supervision in the area of combinatorial optimization. I gladly accepted the offer. Check.

Soon enough it was time to find a job for the eight-month co-op term that was to follow. I was fortunate to hear about one of the most challenging projects I would ever see during my entire undergraduate career. Professor Ken McKay, also from the management sciences department, is championing the initiative to completely transform the co-op process at the University of Waterloo. The process aims to change the way technology and information systems are exploited to ease the whole match-making process. I was fortunate enough to be selected to be part of the project and was consequently employed for the next eight months. Check.

Perhaps a week or two later, I had firmly decided it was high-time I took a break and visited India. This was to be my first real vacation in five solid years. I'll be leaving in December and will be there for three weeks. I was last there in July 2002, such a long time ago, and have heard that things have changed quite drastically since. We'll have to see. India trip finalized. Check.

The month of August was frantic. A set of seven examinations, one of them worth as much as 80% of the course. No big deal. A lot of science courses at Waterloo are so watered down that you could pretty much crunch-up everything during the last few days before the exam and still manage a 95% without having paid so much an ant's attention to the course during the term. That's basically what I ended up doing to three of my seven courses. Eventually though, all the toil during the term had paid off: I managed to get my ninety average. Check.

A lot of people ask me if I'm "crazy" taking seven courses a term. The answer is of course, not really. You see, the way engineering works at Waterloo, we don't get to pick the courses we really want to take. I'm in nanotech, but I only really enjoy at most two nano-specific courses each term in addition to the calculus courses. The rest of the courses I find are kinda boring, some even bogus, and are being taken solely for lack of alternative. So the only way I can take the courses I really want is by adding them as extras and options. But even that is subject to so many rules, conditions and much form-filling fanfare.

I guess the real question is why can't I just take the courses I want to and be done with it so long as I'm fulfilling the necessary prereqs? Why I can't take a variational calculus course, an English rhetoric course, an astronomy course, a sociology course, a proteins course, a hard-core compilers course, and a drama course, all in one single term? Why am I so constrained? Why are people making decisions, bad decisions, for me? Cohort systems are great, but only if I have the option of stepping out of them when I want to.

I dream of a day when University for an undergrad will be nothing but a pool of about 500 courses, a day when I'm free to mix and match any course combination I want from this pool. The minute I fulfill certain credit requirements, I get a degree and I leave. The way it's being done now, I feel like a lemming, graduating with the same academic skill-set as the remaining 70 people in my class. The same courses, the same professors, the same assignments, the same exams, the same everything.

I find that taking seven courses, at a time when most others are only taking four, and more importantly at a time when motivation levels are at an all time low, simply reduces to a trivial problem of time management. It now becomes a game of monopoly — except you're no longer trading property. You're trading time instead. And you may collect £200 each time you pass Go.

Sometime last week I set seven courses to be the bare minimum hereafter. Nothing less than that. Eight perhaps some day when I have the guts, but never five. Never six. I used to tell myself in the mirror before: "Rajesh, set yourself high standards, then go implement them." I have set myself a standard. Now I just have to go away and implement it. Check.

When exams got over, I was exhausted beyond imagination. I had made it through the hundred-day marathon, but on the 13th, I couldn't stay at Waterloo one day longer. I caught a flight to Vancouver the very evening my exams got over. It was time to rest for a good two weeks — only to start all over again after.

You know in software development, you'll often hear people talking about the "Iceberg Model". Sometimes I like to think of myself as an iceberg.

Harmless and timid from the outside.

Tall, strong and powerful from the inside.

Addendum: The title for this post comes from this Google Image search.

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