I didn’t do very well in high school. My grade point average was around a 2.5 out of 4. I did well in some subjects that I was interested in, like math, computer science, and history, but everything else was a wash. The less homework a class required me to do, the better my grade in that class usually ended up being. In most classes I ended up counting down the minutes to them ending. I wasn’t particularly passionate about school, and I wasn’t one of those super driven high school students who always seem to be able to fit in homework, a social life, sports, and 10 clubs.
As a result of my own disinterest, the system seemed to write me off. When applying to summer internships, one teacher wrote an anti-recommendation for me, warning them not to select me. My parents had high expectations for colleges for me – Harvard, MIT or bust. To say this was unrealistic would be an underestimate. My guidance counselor told me that getting into college, period, would be a stretch.
My high school being torn down (via Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette)
I applied to around 15 colleges, and got into 2 – the University of Maryland (state school for me), and UC Irvine. I ended up going to Maryland as part of the class of 2008. I’m from an Indian-American family that puts a lot of stock in scholastic achievement, so this was a constant source of shame to me for years. I would tell people “no I got waitlisted to school X”, or “I actually chose Maryland because of low tuition”. In retrospect, it’s a silly attitude, but I was young, and put a lot of stock in appearances.
At Maryland, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in. My parents wanted me to become a doctor. I wasn’t very interested in it, but I took some pre-med classes anyways. I chose general studies as a major (the major for people who don’t know what they want to major in), and started fulfilling my basic requirements. College is really unstructured, and I lapsed into a mode where I didn’t go to class at all and didn’t do homework. Most classes were boring, and I can’t learn at all in a lecture setting. Whenever I did go to class, I just ended up counting the minutes until I could become free again. I figured that learning was just not something I was good at. I enjoyed a few classes, like microbiology, where we grew bacteria cultures in petri dishes, history, and math classes. I only discovered I liked multivariable calculus after I stopped going to lecture – I went to class every day for the first third, and got a 68% on the test. I switched to staying home and reading the book before tests, and started getting As.
UMD has a pretty nice campus
I never really found my passion in college, and college didn’t provide the tools to help me do it (or maybe it did, and I never looked for them). This meant that I drifted for a year in general studies, and then switched to american history when it became obvious that my grades would never let me get into a med school. It’s really easy to get depressed and think that there’s something wrong with you when you’re conditioned to think that grades are everything, and you have bad grades.
A couple of years into college, I decided that I needed to pursue my own destiny in life, and part of that was paying for college and my own living expenses. There aren’t many jobs out there for college students with low GPAs, but manual labor is always hiring. I went to work at UPS as a loader. My starting pay was around 8 dollars an hour. I always tell people “I threw boxes into trucks”. Boxes came down a conveyor belt really quickly, and we took them off the belt, scanned them, and stacked them up inside semi trailers that would go out to other UPS “hubs”.
This is a “wall”, and how you load trucks at UPS. This is a nice one – most look pretty bad.
I eventually was promoted to “part-time supervisor”, which meant that I was responsible for running an area, which consisted of a few loaders. I usually worked about 30 hours a week, and was really exhausted the rest of the time, so I went to class less that usual. On the plus side, UPS paid half my tuition with their reimbursement program, and I had enough money to pay my living expenses and even save a bit. I figured that since my grades were really bad, I’d just keep working at UPS after college.
The next two years went by in the same vein. I enjoyed a few of my history classes, notably my capstone where I got to study the reconstruction of Japan post-WW2. When I graduated in 2008, I had a 2.1 GPA. I was almost on academic probation a couple of times, but managed to skate out of it by putting in a bit more effort in a class.
My options were pretty bleak post-graduation. The higher-ups at UPS wanted me to stay, but they thought I had an attitude problem that I needed to fix before they were willing to promote me (most policies at UPS are really backward and inane, and resulted in people I was supervising getting shafted, so I got upset a lot).
The tragic thing about manual labor is that your peak earning potential is when you’re in your 20s. People who’d been working at UPS for more than 10 years had back and knee issues. I got injured a couple of times (banged my head on a pole and got dizzy for a while, later cut my knee really badly, supervisors pressured me not to report it), and my knees weren’t in great shape, so staying at UPS probably would have been a bad bet. I learned a lot there, about hard work, motivation, and managing other people, but it wasn’t a good long-term fit.
I ended up getting a job at Pepsi as an operations manager, thanks to a friend (one reason college is valuable!). Around when I started, I also applied to the US Foreign Service on a whim. There aren’t many jobs that will accept people with low college GPAs and no “hard” skills, but getting into the foreign service consists of passing tests, so it seemed like a good fit (plus I was interested in it from studying the Japanese reconstruction).
The inside of a pepsi warehouse looks something like this.
I ended up getting into the Foreign Service, although I eventually found that it also wasn’t a good long-term fit. I started learning coding towards the tail end of my foreign service life. You can read more about that experience here. I left in late 2011.
I was posted to Georgetown, Guyana in the foreign service.
Coding is my passion, and I only really discovered it by going through years of switching jobs and wondering if I would ever find something interesting. But in retrospect, there were signs. I spent every day riding the bus to school in middle school learning to program my ti-83 calculator, and then making a simple game where a monster chased you around the screen. I made scripts to automate certain tasks when I was doing summer internships. I played an online game at one point, and hacked together some simple scripts to help me manage things. But I didn’t realize that scripting could ever amount to anything more than a way to make a “real job” slightly quicker and simpler. My dad also learned programming, but he worked at big consulting firms, and did work that neither he or I found especially interesting. I thought that is what “real programming” was, and that all the fun scripts that I was making were sideshows.
Even when I left the Foreign Service, came back to the US, and kept learning to code, I didn’t have a clear end path. I just knew that I was doing something that deeply interested me, so I kept doing it. I wanted to predict the stock market, but didn’t really know how. I spent time reading up on C# and Ruby, and interfacing with stock price engines. I ended up making a terrible “algorithm” that would have hard-coded rules (if the stock went up for the past week, sell it today). I remember my excitement at discovering that I could write network code to have some machines be “workers” and one machine as a control.
The engines never amounted to anything, but my interest in stock price prediction led me to machine learning, which led me to Kaggle. Kaggle is a competition platform for machine learning. You get to make algorithms, which compete against algorithms made by other people around the world. It’s a great method for alternative credentialing – you can say “I don’t have a degree from MIT, but I did beat a couple of phds in a Kaggle competition”.
Kaggle was a perfect place for me at the time. I spent my days learning, coding algorithms, and competing. I ended up getting fifth place out of a hundred or so in a stock trading competition, and then I won a few competitions on bond trading and automated essay scoring. I still remember the feeling when I did well in my first competition, and think back on it when I’m down – the elation that I was actually good at something. The great thing about Kaggle is I suddenly had some validation in the field. I was able to leverage the automated essay scoring algorithms I made to eventually work as a machine learning engineer at edX, a Harvard/MIT/Berkley collaboration in online learning.
The edX office that I worked at.
Unsurprisingly, my experience with learning has made me deeply interested in improving the educational system, so I’m now working on Dataquest, a way to help people learn data science in their browser. I’m getting to do things I never imagined were possible, all because I pursued my passion instead of letting my preconceived notions of what a career “should” be define me.
In writing all of this out and recollecting, I’m startled by how easily something could have gone very differently. If the higher-ups at UPS had promoted me right after I graduated, I might have stuck there for years. If my friend hadn’t helped me get a job at Pepsi, I would have been stuck at UPS. If the arbitrary test process at the Foreign Service hadn’t accepted me, I may have ended up never coding. I wouldn’t change anything, as all of these experiences have shaped me, but it’s amazing how a life can hinge on seemingly simple moments.
It’s also interesting how much what happened at school still shapes and defines me. I’ve become better at this lately, but when I was first getting into coding, I felt that I constantly had to “prove myself”, and show that I belonged. I still struggle with feeling like an impostor because I don’t have the right credentials. Although the climate is getting better, some companies still share this viewpoint – a few finance companies were interested in interviewing me after I won the Kaggle competitions, but stopped responding after I sent my resume. “Falling through the cracks” of our system can have a negative impact, both in the way you see yourself, and the way the world sees you.
That said, it’s finding your passion and getting good at it that matter, not school. It’s never too late to discover or pursue what interests you. You can change your own path whenever you want. I think that if my story illustrates anything, it’s that anything is possible.
So what do I wish had been different? For starters, I wish I had been exposed to more viewpoints on life. Everything drilled into me from a young age was that you go to school, get good grades, and eventually become a doctor. Not getting good grades was never considered an option. Doing what you’re interested in instead of what seems like a “good career” was never considered an option. Ironically, only through discarding that notion did I actually end up at a good career.
I wish there had been a teacher or other authority figure who took more of an interest in me and helped encourage me to learn what I wanted to learn. My parents bought me books and tried, but coming from India, their mindset was very system-oriented (“learn what school makes you learn”). I had some great teachers that tried, but they never had the time to devote to individual students.
I would love to see some fixes for these issues. I think a great starting point is credentialing. How do we help people prove that they know something? Newer services like github, dribbble, and kaggle are great for this, but how do we extend it to teachers? Lawyers?
Ultimately, I would like to see college either become optional, or more of a free-form experience where you get to actually have more experiences instead of in-classroom time. Getting to intern at a few interesting companies in different fields would have been great. I’m already starting to see some really smart high schoolers skip college to get into the workforce because they know what they want, and good for them.
If you’re where I was, and you need someone to talk to, feel free to drop me a line. I know how hard it can be, and I know how valuable talking to someone with a different perspective can be. My contact info is here.