16 June 2015

1 year in on this CS thing

I’ve been thinking about (and working on!) this post for the past few weeks, particularly after I started seeing the graduation photos of friends who walked this year. 1 year (and 1 day) ago I walked across the stage at the Bren Events Center at UC Irvine, recognizing my having earned a B.A. in Anthropology. It meant a lot more for me than 4 years of hard work, though.

It represented the payoff of spending the better part of 5 years at a community college not knowing what I really wanted to do with myself before I even got to UC Irvine. It represented the about-face of going from being a C and D-student in high school to becoming a student worthy of a few accolades and graduate school.

Maybe most worryingly, it represented the last time I would get recognized for work as an Anthropologist, and the beginning of a transition to Computer Science, a field in which I admittedly didn’t see myself 10 years ago. Although truth be told, I didn’t have much vision for the future 10 years ago, so maybe my surprise is not all that meaningful.

The frustrating details surrounding why I couldn’t walk for my B.S. (it was nothing I had really done wrong, except for getting two degrees at the same time) and other weird dramas seem pretty trivial with hindsight. It’s the people I miss, not the events. Or to be more specific, the events were just excuses to see some of those people one more time. Perhaps one last time, but I won’t count out my luck just yet. Weirder things have happened than bumping into people I never expected to see again.

The morning after my ceremonies, I packed everything I had into a rented SUV and drove a couple hundred miles north to the Bay Area, where two days later I met with my PhD advisor and started work as a researcher at Stanford. In two days I had gone from basking in the accolades of a successful undergraduate career in Anthropology to grinding away as a (de facto) graduate student in Computer Science.

As hyperbolic as the word is, “surreal” doesn’t even seem adequate in describing this past year. Getting into Stanford’s CS program coming out of a stellar undergrad career in CS would be kind of surreal. People write about the transition from math to data science like that’s worthy of discussion. To many people, the threshold for surreal is moving from one quantitative field to another.

But that’s not what happened; I studied Anthropology. My application to Stanford was a complete shot in the dark - a moonshot if you will. I submitted it because I saw good fit with a few people and figured I’d never get over not trying, but certainly not expecting anything to come of it.

I’m being really careful and deliberate about my wording here because I want to make it clear that this is not “impostor syndrome”. If you’ve never heard of it, go read about it. I know that - as implausible as it may seem - I’m a unique character in the space of HCI, coming from Anthropology first and heading into CS (rather than the other way around). This isn’t commutative; doing A and then B yields a different emphasis of skills compared to doing B and then A. I can write so much more on this because I’ve logic’ed impostor syndrome to death but I’ll spare the world that for a while.

I digress. The point is that I didn’t see this coming, but here I am a year in on this whole CS thing, writing this post at a late night coffee shop in Seattle in my off time from my internship at Microsoft Research. In this year alone I’ve co-authored a paper that got accepted and honorable mention for “best paper” at CHI, explored the idea of cooperative labor markets on Mechanical Turk, trudged through terabytes of Quantified Self data made exclusively available to us at Stanford, and run linguistic analyses on some 960,000 doctoral dissertations. Oh, and I’ve had my butt kicked by a few classes, which (let’s face it) was to be expected.

Oh, and this happened. I can’t even communicate how cool that is to someone not into Anthropology and digital cultures. It’s a small niche, but in that niche this is like a rock star tweeting at you out of the blue.

If you have something to say about this, contact me