In Tech Mostly By Accident

March 20, 2019

I work as a software engineer in San Francisco, and most people assume I attended Carnegie Mellon University because I wanted to work in the tech industry. This is an incorrect assumption, though I am flattered these people have so much faith in my ability to have made coherent decisions as an 18-year-old. After all, CMU is a technical education powerhouse, and people who know that are hard-pressed to believe someone else could not.

The truth is, I decided to apply to the Information Systems (IS) major at Carnegie Mellon for five reasons:

  1. It was in the university’s humanities school, and I only applied to liberal arts colleges.
  2. I could take Game Theory and Information Warfare as electives at some point. Both of these courses had cool names.
  3. It was advertised as interdisciplinary (and still is!).
  4. Carnegie Mellon let me start with a major rather than choose later.
  5. I thought I could be an IS major without taking any computer science classes. (Advice to others: read all coursework commitments carefully!) I did not catch my mistake until after I accepted.

Today, #4 is the only one I’m actually proud of. As a high school senior, I realized that I was interested in way too many topics and was far too indecisive to be trusted to make any sort of lasting decision regarding the trajectory of my life. I would have been that student who changed majors every other semester and took seven years to graduate (not an affordable option). Information Systems outlined the expected order of classes I would take to graduate on time, and offered a bunch of wiggle room regarding electives, which sounded swell to me.

Juicy technical coming-of-age story

My understanding of technology was more sophisticated than my grandma’s is now, but not by much. I grew up in Northwest Washington, D.C. where lawyers, journalists and policy wonks abound, but nary a tech professional was to be found.

My first experience with a personal computer was in 1998, when my family purchased a Dell (I think) desktop running Windows 95. I immediately bonded with it, and by the age of 11 was proficient enough in C to request my parents purchase me my own computer. Just kidding. I learned what C was when I was 17, and have never programmed in it. Back to 1998: my parents eventually figured out how to connect the computer to the phone jack, and shortly thereafter I had my first taste of sweet validation.

You see, my grandparents were in town, and we had been arguing for the prior few days about whether a tomato was a fruit or a vegetable. I, the precocious five year-old that I was, had recently learned my fruits and vegetables, and I knew for a fact that a tomato was a fruit (this was before fake news and the widespread belief that no literature should be trusted, and I concur). The opposition, my grandparents, had regularly grown tomatoes in their vegetable garden and tried to convince me their experience with the so-called “vegetable” lent itself to a deeper understanding of the “vegetable”’s nature.

And so, with lights dimmed for effect, we chanted our query as the typist typed, our voices rising with each word and booming out in a final crescendo, Search. Engine. Is. A! Tomato! A! FRUIT! OR! A! VEGETABLE?!? (pardon the hyperbole). After some beeps and a bit of processing, the Internet replied that a tomato was, in fact, a fruit. My joy of using a computer peaked at five years old; I expect to never experience such a feeling of righteousness, validation and euphoria due to a machine ever again.

Now, some of you may be thinking, “Hold on, I just searched this myself because each time this question comes up I’m filled with existential dread that I don’t remember the answer to one of the universe’s greatest questions, and Encyclopedia Britannica Online says, ‘Tomatoes are fruits that are considered vegetables by nutritionists.’ So… the answer is both?” And I say no, for nutritionists are a social construct.

Your school mascot is plaid

In the summer of 2012 I joined the Facebook group for CMU’s incoming freshmen, and had the first glimpse of things to come. Scores of students were bragging about average starting salaries graduates in the major they wished to study could expect to earn. I was blown away by this. I had no idea anyone cared about the concept of salary enough to clique up about it and become online bullies bashing biology majors about their lab stipends. Sure, having a job is important, and incoming college freshman who are savvy enough about personal finance to understand their course of study impacts their ability to repay their student loans have a leg up on many other people. But I was shocked by the amount of pride so many incoming freshmen took in the unearned potential earnings they could earn should they perform well in school and the stars and markets align upon graduation four years later.

This overt goal of financial wellbeing contrasted sharply from what most of my high school classmates aspired to. At Georgetown Day School, the definition of success was to a) get into an Ivy League school, and; b) if “lucky”, help comprise the school’s disproportionately large presence in the (unpaid) White House internship pool. There was no thought of the future; everything was supposed to just fall into place (spoiler: it doesn’t).

I don’t think my fellow Information Systems majors were bullies about it, but there were certainly those among them who knew the average starting salaries of the program graduates at that time. And most definitely were there people who had positive experiences with programming in the past, unlike me.

In junior year of high school, I learned from my friend (who was one of the two people in my high school taking AP Computer Science) that there was this thing called Python that was interesting. I like challenges, so I decided to Learn Python the Hard Way. I failed to do this, mostly because I never actually learned how computers work beyond the GUI level. And so, a year later I was happy for a few months due to my misunderstanding of the Information Systems major requirements (see reason #5 above), since I already knew I didn’t like programming.

Do I belong here?

On my first day of orientation for Information Systems, I felt a bit out of place. Students were excitedly discussing which classes they hoped to take with which professor and what they hoped to learn, and I slowly began to realize I had performed significantly less research into my major than other people had. I also learned that geographic differences played into whether or not students had learned how computers work in high school, and that while I was struggle-bussing my way through Python in junior year, some of my future best friends were becoming amazing programmers just across the Potomac River in Northern Virginia.

Then the program director decided to stand up on a table and announce that, “You all are the elites of your respective high schools,” and I really didn’t know what to make of that (the standing on the table, the usage of “you all” instead of Pittsburgh’s famous second-person plural pronoun, the vicariously braggadocious statement, my observation that some students were nodding). He started listing off facts that were intended to be feel-good validations for the incoming class: 4-range average high school GPAs, the low acceptance rate of the Information System program, that Carnegie Mellon’s Information Systems program is the best in the country, and that graduates make good money.

I learned some facts for the first time in that moment:

  1. My high school GPA was half a letter grade below the average of my peers.
  2. The average class rank (which I suppose is based on GPA) was around 5%. I don’t know what my class rank was, but I do have a lot of anecdotal evidence that supports my belief that I was the dumbest kid in the top quartile of my high school class.
  3. My college counselor overestimated the acceptance rate of the program by about 20%, so up to that point I had assumed I was attending a middle-tier school relative to where I applied (which did not include Ivy league schools; I didn’t apply to those since I knew the spots would go to my brighter quartile-companions, and the Ivies were certainly flush with them).
  4. Carnegie Mellon’s Information Systems program is the best in the country, and that there are ratings for such things.
  5. Graduates make “good money” which was defined as a preferable five-digit number.

I maybe belong here?

I almost transferred out of Carnegie Mellon during my fall semester of freshman year. I hated it. I hated giant lectures, I hated the tedious required course material, I hated the information-regurgitation-expectations of many of my professors, I hated my programming class, and I was terrible at time management. By some fluke I passed my intro to CS course with a B despite getting a 0 on every coding portion of each exam (I praised the curve gods that be when my 35% midterm score turned into a 70%). And that was considered “easy” by CMU CS standards; most of the freshman studying a technical major placed out based on classes they took in high school.

I never finished that transfer application, and come spring of freshman year I decided to prioritize my sleep and physical health above my grades. It turned out that was all I needed to do in the first place, and I saw my GPA jump by 0.7 points that semester. I also prioritized liberal arts over the school’s technology bent, and that helped my mental health as well. While my friends struggled with proofs, I read poems; while my peers participated in hackathons, I got to know the artists and designers who help keep the school interesting.

I became more interested in technology that semester. Though I did not fall for the cult of personality that surrounds one of Carnegie Mellon’s more venerable computer science professors, I learned to appreciate the challenge of computer science rather than just resent it. I also began to develop an idea of how I wanted my college experience to go. I decided there were three important things I wanted out of college: 1) to get good grades; 2) to not spend too much time getting those good grades unless I was particularly interested in the course work, and; 3) to take whatever the hell classes I wanted.

Though I certainly have some regrets about classes I feel I should have taken or concerns I wish I didn’t have in college, I think for the most part I was pretty successful in this endeavor. To achieve goals 1 and 2, I took advantage of CMU’s grading model: there are no pluses or minuses. I wanted to get A’s, and in numeric terms I knew I could reasonably achieve in the ballpark of A-minuses, so that’s what I did. Unless I was particularly interested in the course work (which was certainly true for many of my classes), I didn’t spend enough time to get more than around a 92%, tops (this allowed for a margin of error).

I think it’s important to call out this strategy because it represents a wholesale rejection of the stress culture I had participated in as a freshman and learned to despise. Many of my peers (especially in computer science) participated in a Stockholm Syndrome-fueled self-destructive rat race to spend the most time working on homework problems and the least time sleeping, possible. I still felt a lot of stress throughout college, but I like to think that it was more on my own terms, and that being willing and able to throw my hands up in the air and say, “Fuck it! I’m going to sleep!” served me well when amortized across college.

I also took advantage of my position as a humanities student and the relative sparseness of required Information Systems classes to those of other majors. I was still able to pursue my varied interests, but instead of flying off the rails and never graduating, I had to contend with the bureaucratic overhead of convincing my advisor that whatever class I had decided to sign up for that semester was somehow tangentially related to Information Systems, a type of argument I became quite proficient at. I did have one failure, however. When I tried to pass off the psychology course Human Memory as fulfilling a history requirement, I was directed toward a different humanities advisor with a finer-tuned bullshit monitor. She saw right through my meta argument that, “Learning how humans develop memories will help me understand how they process history,” and that was that. To continue this tangent a bit longer, the psychology professor had an excellent “why are you like this?” face, and my favorite moment of the course was when she shot it at the guy who asked, “Is human memory an array?”

You and Serendipity are now connected on LinkedIn

My interest in technology was furthered when I got into Human-Computer Interaction, which blends psychology, design and computer science to devise thoughtful technical solutions to people’s problems. The last purely computer science class I took was in the fall of sophomore year, but after that I tried to take one to two HCI electives per semester. I also took the opportunity to spend both semesters of senior year on a self-directed research project into accessibility, aided by an excellent advisor.

By senior year I had very much drank the CMU Kool-Aid of which companies were “cool” to work for, where “cool” is defined as, “In the Bay Area and providing an earning potential the incoming freshmen would be pleased to brag about vicariously.” Though I did not go to work for a “cool” company, I didn’t need to wear a suit for 2.5 years until two of my friends got married, so that’s a plus.

Honestly, I became a software engineer mostly due to inertia. I applied to a bunch of different tech jobs as was the norm at Carnegie Mellon, was offered some software engineering ones, and I took one of them. I followed in the footsteps of two TAs I respected, went to work in the DC area for a year, and, sufficiently rinsed of any residual Kool-Aid, moved to San Francisco where I proceeded to stay with the same company.

I get weird looks when I tell people I’m not passionate about computer science or software engineering, that I might try out a different role in technology, or that I may leave the tech industry altogether in the future and do something else. I think this is due to the generally self-selected type of people who transplant to San Francisco and who I happen to interact with on a day-to-day basis. When I think back on all of the happy accidents that led me to where I am today, I don’t find my sentiment particularly surprising. And who knows, maybe someday I’ll rebel against my parents’ wishes and disobey the most frequent semi-inspirational comment they mentioned to me as a child: “You can be anything you want in life… but no becoming a lawyer!”

© 2022 Duncan McIsaac