Challenges and Computer Science

I write this tonight as I take a break from writing code for Computer Science 61A, or Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, taught through the programming language of Python. This course is the first class for computer science majors, and known for being a notoriously difficult class. As I’m interested in technical recruiting, I wanted to give it a shot this summer, while simultaneously taking on a part-time job (I think of it as a paid internship) in San Francisco, updating the blog, and figuring out a better way to represent my personal website. And boy is this tough. (This relates to Haas! Keep reading!)

Now, I’m not super technically inclined. I’ve excelled in academia from sheer hard work and repetition, but I’m a slow thinker. If I’ve learned anything throughout 18 years of official schooling, I’m someone who needs to stare at material for a while to digest and fully understand it before being able to apply it towards a new concept. I’m good with patterns and understanding the logic behind what it does what it does; but it’s hard for me to do something with it. Thus, CS is not something I’m particularly good at (implementing). It doesn’t help that I’ve never programmed before.

I’m struggling. Yes, I’ll admit it. It’s been three weeks, and already I’ve spent 60+ hours last week working on a crap ton of assignments and studying for a midterm. Below is a record of June 26 – July 5. (Siderant: reading James Maa’s Productivity Hacking Guide changed the way I looked at planning, and I’ve been recording my days on Google Calendar ever since December 2012. I know, it’s crazy, but it works for me! You get a sneak peak at my crazy records, note not scheduling.) The sea green represents sleep, blue is the time I spent in lecture, section, and office hours, red is the time I spent on CS myself, while other bigger things exist like my internship (darker green, it was 4th of July so I had an extra day to dedicate to CS), eating / walking / showering (yellow), and hanging out with others (a minuscule baby blue).

My Calendar

My productivity percentage for that week was 49.55%. I have never gotten that high before. At the same time, I’ve never been to office hours for a class every single day, never studied for 60+ hours a week, and never studied more than I slept, which in this case was 20 more hours. I’ve already spent more hours on CS in two weeks than I have in English R1A in 16. It’s recommended by the instructors to spend 25-35 hours in this class, so clearly something is wrong with the amount of time I’m dedicating to this class.

CS is one of those subjects in which if you don’t get it, you’re screwed over. If you get one thing wrong that doesn’t pass the doctests, you will fail the question. It’s not something you can get 100% by yourself. And this is motivation for going to so many office hours: I don’t want to be wrong and fail. I want to get the right answer, and learn.

Despite the challenges of CS 61A, the class has been such an eye-opener on so many levels. As a business major, you don’t tend to talk with people outside your sphere. Taking a class that’s totally different from what you’re studying (and being in the summer), you get to talk with all sorts of people who don’t just care about getting into Haas. Getting different perspectives and being aware of everyone around you is so important, and it’s a privilege you aren’t able to get very often as time goes on.

I mentioned earlier not going to office hours. I would not spend time to understand the material fully, and I didn’t ask the right questions; I trusted in myself, that I would “get it eventually when the time comes”. I would BS. And you know what, what’s the point? Why don’t just ask when stuck? Everyone is here to help you, not sabotage you. All the instructors, teaching assistants, readers, and lab assistants here have been so helpful, and I know those in 61A aren’t the only ones who are supportive; it’s the whole Berkeley staff.

Support, understanding, and gaining different perspectives are all so important for your learning and growth. If you get this early on, you’re already ahead of the game.

And that’s where Haas comes in.

The path to Haas is going to challenging, but in a different way. You will be busy on campus, meeting a lot of different students and professors, memorizing information in class, and making your mark. You will be searching for internships and other opportunities to learn, you will be participating in many clubs (I know some will be for networking and…Haas purposes): holding events, managing people, leading clubs. Eventually, everything will seem overwhelming. Let these thoughts challenge your original beliefs, and allow yourself to hold a different perception and perspective towards them. Let yourself change.

I want you to explore while you’re at Berkeley, and gain different ways of learning, of thinking, and of living from people of all disciplines, ages, and backgrounds. I want you to struggle and gain positive experiences from your struggles. There is always something to be learned in every experience.

As strange as it sounds, I think of CS as a positive experience. I have been challenged in the way I haven’t been in a long time, and for once, I am forcing myself to rely on and trust in others outside of my own hard work. I’m enjoying feeling challenged; being wrong and being right. Because I know I’m learning, I know I’m improving, and I know I’m growing. CS isn’t a passion of mine, and while I’m really not good at it, it’s definitely worth experiencing.

I want you to spend time on your passions and on your new experiences as an undergrad. Even if you’re struggling, it’s just another page to add to your book, and you will appreciate it later on. Let your struggles contribute to your own growth. I want you to succeed. And you will.

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