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by SS at 5:27 pm on Friday 22nd August

Oddly enough, one of my greatest fears as we approached the end of the Master's was that I wouldn't know what to do with all the free time I was about to have. This was a strange fear, but, having worked harder on average for the preceding ten months at Berkeley than I remember working for the four years since my undergraduate, it was somewhat rational.

This fear was ungrounded, as it happens. While the first couple of weeks of work were fairly quiet - most of my colleagues being busy with an office move and/or conference, the work quickly came through, in quantity. An impending product launch and some very real ownership over part of that product has meant that while I'm now working hard - I'm enjoying it thoroughly and this is probably, so far, the best job I've had since my internship on the trading floor.

Most of my graduated colleagues seem to be enjoying work and learning plenty, although I was disheartened by the response of one who I ran into on the train. Me, "how's the new job?", him, "well, it's okay, I guess". Not what you should be saying a month into a new job, in my opinion!

Having an income now is rather nice. I've restocked on clothing - having persevered with multiple pairs of ripped jeans for the best part of the year and undergarments that had seen better days.

Sadly, I managed to rip one of my new pairs of jeans within two weeks of owning it. A couple of weeks ago, it rained in Berkeley for possibly the first or second time since February. Having not practiced my wet weather bike handling skills for some time, I managed to wash out on the corner on the way to the BART station. It must have been at some speed because my knee is still very slightly sore, a few weeks later and I had a surprisingly deep graze on both my right knee and elbow. Still, having to host a work day (essentially a day long interview where we work with a candidate), I limped to work and continued as normal.

On the way home that evening, some clown decided to disrupt the legion of Jay-zed fans who were on their way to his concert in the city by calling in a bomb threat at the West Oakland BART station. Since this is the last station before the under-bay tunnel (I do not know what the actual name of this crossing is), the train services across the bay were shut entirely for a few hours. While I admire the lengths this Jay-zed hater went to antagonise fans, I cursed his timing since I was in no state to cycle anywhere in comfort. Not wanting to drop my bike back to the office, I recruited a couple of bemused BART travellers who were also travelling to Berkeley to share (not split, since I obviously had the extra bike) the cost of an Uber back. Being peak hours (i.e. surge pricing) and requiring an Uber XL to carry my bike, the overall cost was near to $80 - even with the 30% summer discount. More pain.

Getting home at about 9:30, after a long day in the office, I then had to tackle the still notably large list of tasks to complete before leaving. While packing itself was fairly straightforward, I spent some time curating music for the plane journey. However, Cowon J3s (mp3 players) have this rather unique bug where if you remove them without ejecting cleanly from a Mac, they effectively temporarily brick themselves. The amusing thing is that the reason I was curating music was my Cowon had previously been bricked in the same fashion. Still, not remembering to test this before leaving home, I ended up discovering this as I boarded the BART to work the next day and spent the 11 hour flight musicless.

Over the weeks since, I've had great fun working remotely from such exotic locations as the coffee shop in San Francisco International Airport to the coffee shop in Vilnius Airport to the coffee shop in Google's Campus London co-working space. Working from home has been fun too, mainly since the discovery of my grandmother's Oreo stash. Lacking a bicycle, with a recovering knee injury and with plentiful delicious food, I'm definitely returning to the US fatter on Monday.

London has been a flood of nostalgia. This is not entirely unexpected since some of my favourite memories are from the times I've spent roaming around this city, whether on bicycle, foot or Tube. This time, like my last visit back at Christmas, I've added to the list of things I miss about the city - at the moment it's largely practical, including but not limited to: the superior hot chocolate, the expansive public transport network, readily available healthcare and lack of obvious social wealth inequality on every street corner.

Sadly, I realise that many of my closest friends here have now moved on, either physically or with their personal lives (marriages, etc.). This is to be expected, of course, but my social life isn't as rich as it once was. Not to say there's nothing attracting me back, but it certainly feels slightly emptier than it used to. Many of my friends are also working extremely hard now, having moved into positions of responsibility and just generally being successful in their careers. There's nothing different here, although it's worrying that I have a steady base of friends who work too much and are hence single. It's not clear what the solution is here, besides work a little less and get out a little more. That's not to say that I haven't fallen into the same trap.

A funny thing happens when I move between the US and the UK now. I refer to the other place as "home". Perhaps I now truly live between the two countries. Over time, the balance will shift more to the US I suspect, as I become more established there. It's surprising how natural a fit it was to live in California, at least given my interests - this is perhaps the reason most people flock to the Bay Area. That said, London (or Watford) will always remain home for me too, so perhaps home isn't one place but many.

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by SS at 7:45 am on Saturday 26th April

As a data collection (and, often, analysis) nerd, I've collected reasonably accurate data on the cost of the whole process of applying to and attending graduate school. Please don't take any of the below as a recommendation for what to do - it is merely an attempt to rationalise and explain my decision from a PURELY FINANCIAL point of view for others who may be considering a similar career move. Note that my motivation was not solely financial and yours probably shouldn't be - if you don't want to be completely miserable for a year or more! The numbers below are all deliberately imprecise - so make your own calculations if you need to. Note also that these figures are for software engineering jobs!

Let's start off with my salary in London before I started my Master's degree. My last position, at Last.fm, paid £37,000 a year. At Last.fm (a subsidiary of CBS Corporation), there was no salary progression and no bonus because they like employees to be dissatisfied with both leadership and their compensation ;-).

I lived with my parents and commuted into work - this meant my monthly disposable income, after taxes, healthcare, commute, food and student loan repayment costs was approximately £1,000. (Note that if I had been living in London and paying rent, my disposable income would have been considerably closer to 0. Also note that if I didn't have so much stuff wrong with me, I would have saved a fair chunk on healthcare.) For two years this money went straight into savings which I have since depleted to pay for tuition.

The overall year cost of the degree was approximately $70,000. Less if you live frugally, more if you don't. I managed to save money on the estimated graduate student budget provided by the university which is excessive if you know how to cook a little and don't eat out all the time. (Prepare your own caffeine too - coffee shops are expensive and you WILL develop a coffee habit as a graduate student here!)

My burn rate here is approximately $2,000 a month - including rent at $800 a month, food, travel and a modest amount of social. I expect that as I start to have free time when starting to work, I'll be spending more a month - closer to $2,500 a month.

Typical salaries for new software engineers with a Master's degree in the Bay Area range between $100K and $125K, depending on your level of experience and the location. Factor in the cost of owning a car if you live in the South Bay, as well as higher rents. If you work in San Francisco, you can quite easily commute in from Berkeley and pay the same rent. If you wish to move to San Francisco though, expect to pay at least $2K a month in rent. Rents in the South Bay (i.e. Silicon Valley) are about $1500. Rent inflation is high though, so I'd advise checking the market rate closer to when you make your decision.

(A side note: Amazon's offer was comparable for the first year - they offer a $90K base salary with a $20K bonus. This is amusing because the immediate cash bonus is a huge incentive for hapless graduates to sign. While rent and tax is lower in Seattle than California, I feel that pegging your base salary at $20K lower than employers in this area is likely to have repercussions in the future if you do choose to move.)

(Another side note: I'm beginning to wonder if international students/hires are offered lower starting salaries than applicants with permanent residency (i.e. a green card) or citizenship. I have very little data to confirm this but it's a growing hunch.)

Assuming the worst case, which is a $100K starting salary and living in San Francisco and approximating tax to 40%, this works out to a rough monthly income of $5,000. Assuming $1,500 worth of living expenses plus $2,000 in rent, this leaves a disposable income of $1,500 a month. This is considerably better than the situation in London where disposable income was close to 0 when renting your own accommodation. However, there's the obvious $70K that has been spent. Assuming no interest rate, a constant income, constant expenses and a diligent saving regime, this will take 46.6 months, or about 4 years to pay off.

Taking the best case, which is a $125K starting salary and commuting in, that gives us a rough monthly income of $6,250. Expenses, as previously mentioned, of about $2,500 - which leaves a disposable income of $3,750. Again, under the same assumptions, we should be able to pay off the $70K in 18.6 months, or about a year and a half.

This figures are based on the assumption that you'll be attending a year long program and do not get any sort of financial aid. I appreciate that many Master's courses are longer - but the actual increase in cost isn't directly proportional to the length of the program since students often get well paid summer internships which offset the extra semester or quarter well. In addition, there's opportunity in courses greater than a year long to get research or teaching assistantships which offset the tuition cost significantly.

Finally, the obvious question is - why not apply for a job in the US directly and save yourself the $70K cost? The answer is: access to employers. The obvious geographic advantage of being able to interview with employers aside, the immigration situation is notoriously tight and, as a non-US citizen, getting work authorization is difficult. As a Master's student, you have the ability to work legally here for a year post-graduation under 'Optional Practical Training'. If you study a STEM subject, there is an optional 17 month extension which helps too. During this period, students can apply for a H1B visa under a separate category reserved for applicants with a Master's or higher level degree from a US university. (They may also apply under the normal category, I hear that it is variable whether this category is over or undersubscribed relative to the normal category.)

I firmly believe that moving to this area has been one of the best things I can do for my career, earning potential aside. Just about every large technology company in the world has an office or their headquarters within 60 miles of where I live. This element of choice means that I can acquire work experience in highly attractive technologies and don't need to compromise on employer. (This compromise happens all too often in London for computer science graduates who have to make the trade off between a high salary in financial services or interesting work in a pure technology company. Here, I think it's possible to have both.)

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by SS at 6:55 am on Saturday 26th April

I came to the MEng program having worked for three years and travelled for a year before then - essentially four years out of my undergraduate degree in Computer Science. Even then, the last time I studied maths seriously was in the first year of my undergraduate degree, so about seven years before starting the MEng. That being the case, there were a number of subjects I'd wish I'd brushed up on before starting my coursework at UC Berkeley.

The courses I took were Advanced Robotics, Computer Vision, Introduction to Machine Learning and Applications of Parallel Computing. I'll start with general advice and talk about specific tips for each course at the end. These are roughly in order of how important I think they are.

1) Linear Algebra: This is by far the most important area of maths to cover if you study any sort of graphics or AI course. It was heavily used in all four of my courses. There's a great tutorial online here which is actually written by a UC Berkeley professor. Know this well and you'll spend much less time looking up the basics.

2) Statistics: Know your basic probability and distribution rules. Most of AI is heavily statistics based - in particular, Machine Learning is a lot of statistics and most popular successful AI techniques now tend to be probabilistic. Sebastian Thrun has a great overview paper and is the author of the main text on this area.

3) Optimisation: Optimisation is heavily used in the Advanced Robotics course and appears to be crucial for a lot of cutting edge computer science. I had NO idea what this was before starting and this put me at a significant disadvantage. Learn how to formulate basic optimisation problems at the very least. This book by Stephen Boyd is the definitive text on the subject.

4) Matlab: Matlab is a programming language / development environment that is heavily used by academics. As a software engineer, I particularly dislike programming in it - however, most homeworks assume you will be using it and so most examples and starter code is written in Matlab. While you can submit assignments in Python or other languages, the path of least resistance is to use Matlab. Matlab offers a student license but the department should pay for a license for MEng students. In the meantime, you can use the open source Octave software, which is syntactically very similar.

5) C++: If you intend on taking the Applications of Parallel Computing class (highly recommended - it is excellent) or implementing any actual robotics code, you would do well to become familiar with writing and running C++ programs.

6) Linux: It's useful to have some basic ability with the Linux shell and to have a Linux virtual machine set up. You may or may not use this - depending on whether you take systems level classes or not. I recommend installing Linux Mint in Virtualbox.

7) Git / GitHub: Source control will make your life a lot easier. Learn this well and it will make collaborating with peers on homeworks and your capstone project much, much better. Try the brief interactive tutorial on GitHub.

8) Advanced Robotics: Regardless of what it might imply, this course does not rely on the Introduction to Robotics course. Introduction to Robotics is more about robotic manipulators and 'traditional' robotics. Advanced Robotics is more about the theoretical underpinnings of the algorithms to allow planning, localisation and state estimation. It is not practical at all (much to my disappointment) and is very state of the art. I often struggled to understand the motivation for several techniques until the end of the course. However, you'll find that you know most cutting edge techniques by the end of the semester. It also assumes prior coursework similar to the undergraduate Introduction to AI course at UC Berkeley - so I advise taking Sebastian Thrun's Introduction to AI course on Udacity if you haven't taken anything similar before. This is a hard class but thoroughly satisfying once you complete it!

9) Computer Vision: This is a great course taught by a pair of very energetic, enthusiastic professors (Malik and Efros). Highly recommended.

10) Introduction to Machine Learning: Taught by the same professors as Computer Vision, this class suffers from it's large size - being primarily and undergraduate class. The work load is high but the skills learned are very practical. I'd recommend it but it requires a strong stats background.

11) Applications of Parallel Computing: While the course content itself focusses heavily on scientific computing, the homeworks assignments are very practical and very fun. One of my favourite courses so far.

12) Collaborating: Something I realised quickly was that it was very useful to work together on homeworks with my peer group. You'll often find that you can work together to fill in gaps in each other's background - which is essential when you're coming from another country with a different educational background and sometimes lacking pre-requisite coursework. I wasn't able to work with many people for the Advanced Robotics course and this made the experience almost intolerably difficult. On the other hand, working with motivated peers who were also taking Computer Vision made that class much more enjoyable.

I hope this advice helps - feel free to chime in in the comments below!

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by SS at 6:15 am on Saturday 26th April

A number of the incoming MEng students have asked for advice when making their decision to come to Berkeley and one question appeared repeatedly - is the MEng degree regarded any differently by employers to a conventional MS?

From my personal experience interviewing at ~ 14 tech. companies in the Bay Area and having spoken to recruiters and so on - no, it is not.

Generally the Master's degree will get you a slight hike in starting salary but the rest of the process will usually be the same as graduate applicants with a Bachelor's degree. Employers typically hire university graduates into the same entry level software engineer positions (unless you have prior experience - and even then, this will account for a neglible salary hike, since they'll anchor your salary to a 'new grad' salary).

To an employer, a Master's degree is a Master's degree - regardless of whether it is a Master of Engineering or a Master of Science. They may question why it is shorter than normal but the retort to this is that it is a professional program - and not intended to be preparation for a PhD.

The main caveat with getting the MEng degree appears to be its lack of preparation for a PhD program. It isn't the case that having a MEng from Berkeley will make it any easier to get into a PhD program since, aside from some graduate level coursework, you won't have additional research experience. (Although it may slightly upgrade your resume if you went to an unheard of school previously.)

I would also advise prospective applicants to take with a pinch of salt the claims that employers covet the 'Engineering Leadership' aspect of the courses. While these courses are valuable in their own right and may help alumni to advance up the management ladder faster, most employers aren't aware of this aspect of the program and look more for engineering talent than management promise in their new graduate hires.

At some point I will follow up this post with a more detailed one outlining my interview experience and suggestions for how to approach your job hunt. (Be warned, it involves creating a spreadsheet, so get rid of any prejudice against spreadsheets now.) Generally though, in the Bay Area, it is extremely easy to get interviews for CS positions and I don't see any reason why, with adequate preparation, any MEng graduate should be forced to accept an offer they aren't completely enthusiastic for. Indeed, I was able to get my role of choice at a very exciting startup.

(Note I mention CS positions. Product management positions are much harder to come by. Also, other majors sometimes struggle to find jobs.)

1 comment posted so far
wrote at 11:48 am on Sat 8th Aug -
Is the situation really that bad for operations research graduates in M eng as suggested by your text in the parenthesis at the end

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by SS at 7:37 am on Tuesday 22nd April

The end is quite clearly in sight. Although I wasn't looking out for it, it's come straight at us, like a hapless raft approaching Victoria Falls. Well, not quite like that, but whatever, I'm not great at analogies.

Another thing I recently didn't see approaching was the pothole just outside our flat's carport on Panoramic Hill. In a somewhat sleep deprived and annoyed state, I cycled up the hill and veered rapidly to the right as a careless SUV driver careened down the hill towards me. As it turns out, he decided to stop somewhere up the hill and I didn't need to evacuate my road position as quickly as I thought. It also turns out that the dark, water-marked road surface was hiding a rather unpleasant occupant - a small pothole about the depth of an American cup. (For my British readers, this is about 250% the height of a typical English tea cup.) Luckily, I fared better than my last brush with potholes - electing to fall comically to my side into a puddle rather than somersaulting multiple times over my handlebars at 60 kmph.

Either way, the point is - this Master's program is very nearly over. If last semester flew past at great speed, this semester has somehow flown past at an even greater speed. We have just under 4 weeks until graduation and the deadline for submitting my Master's thesis has since passed. Luckily it turns out the professors who have kindly agreed to read it don't need 4 weeks to read 15 pages of double spaced text. Phew. What this means though, is that while my colleagues are beginning to wind down (just a little), I still have this cloud hanging over me. Soon though, it will be gone!

The last 5 weeks of so have given me a rather interesting taste of life in the Bay Area. On the BART into San Francisco, I struck up conversation with a chap sitting next to me. He seemed normal enough - at least for this area, working as a freelance graphic designer and having tattoos on his hands, arms and a rather disturbing bandage on his neck. He mentioned he had been mugged earlier in Oakland and was struggling to figoure out how to get home to north of San Francisco - having lost his laptop, wallet and phone and having been unable to get hold of his friends using the numbers he knew. Long story short, I decided to give him some money to get home and he promised to PayPal it back to me. I didn't hear back from him.

A couple of days later, Gita and I performed some actual work in Oakland using our unmanned aerial vehicles. While I was waiting for Gita to arrive, I noticed a guy walking away on the pavement with a unique bandage on his neck. Looking closer, I realised it was the same chap who I'd lent money too. I didn't manage to catch him up but at least I know the Oakland part of his story was probably true. Oh well, there's a small chance my act of charitable giving might have made someone's day a little better and I'll take what I can get.

Gita and I spent most of the rest of the day performing an aerial survey for a local architecture firm who are designing an extension to the Bay Trail that will connect it to Lake Merritt, a lake in Oakland. This is a bicycle and walking/running trail that will eventually encircle the entire Bay Area. Details of safely operating a robot in public aside, the photographs taken by the borrowed GoPro we used were somewhat unique and I'm somewhat proud of them. You can see a sample of these here on our lab's webpage.

That weekend, in San Francisco, I wandered out to pick up some takeaway food. 15 minutes after I reached my friend's apartment there was a drive-by shooting just a block away. I found this somewhat fascinating but my more rational friend was visibly shaken by the incident.

The final, more amusing incident, was that in the course of organising a singing telegram for my friend's birthday (a gift that my friend had apparently wanted for years: Americans are odd), I submitted a quote request online. This quote request was miscategorised as a request for a clown and over two days I received about 15 phone calls from local Bay Area clowns soliciting for business. In the end a singing gorilla was actually organised and was received very well.

While there's still a steady pipeline of work to finish, I can already taste the sweet freedom that I'm sure to get bored of eventually. (The grass is always greener, right?) I'm looking forward to being able to sleep consistently, exercise consistently and to having time to cook for myself. I'm also looking forward to having an income and feeling less anxious everytime I pay for food and drink! See you on the warmer, greener other side.

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by SS at 9:34 pm on Wednesday 12th March

Having been relatively underwater for the last seven weeks or so, I'm relieved, now, to finally have some time to sit and reflect under the breathtakingly blue sky above me, in my favourite concrete patio outside the Civil Engineering building on campus.

February and March have been whirlwinds of romance, logistical coordination, gaining some clarity about my future and, as always, assignments. Very many assignments.

The week immediately after my birthday, I was pleased to receive an offer from Mesosphere, the startup who I interviewed with on my birthday. After some negotiation (negotiating equity in a startup is an unorthodox affair to me, having always worked for large corporates), I signed my offer at the begining of February. Out of the places I'd looked at working when I first came to Berkeley, they seemed like one of the most interesting: fast growing, fascinating technology and somewhere, close to my interests, where I could learn plenty. Plus, they're in San Francisco!

In parallel with this, I withdrew from the startup, UnmannedData, I've been helping build, in varying capacities, since June last year. The plan is help them out as much as possible until graduation but it looked like our funding situation wasn't going to align in a way that would help me support myself after that. Being a international Master's student will leave me with almost nothing in the bank when I finish this program and, having recently started their second business, I can't rely on my immediate family for financial support. This was somewhat emotional - I had invested a not insignificant amount of my time (to the detriment of my health and social life) into the project. Still, a worthy experience and I wish them all the best going forwards.

Around the same time, I kicked off the application process for my California driving license. Having procrastinated hard, I spent just 30 minutes preparing hurriedly for the written test. Luckily, having driven for nearly 9 years back home and being capable of rational thought helped me get through the 36 questions with just 4 wrong. (6 wrong and I would have failed.) The process of visiting the DMV was, as popular opinion suggests, somewhat painful. Despite arriving on time with everything listed on the website, I was told I needed my I-94 admission number - this is an electronic record of entry to the country.

This was easy enough to fetch online on my smartphone. I wrote it down, went back into the office and was told that I needed a printed copy. It was then necessary to hunt down an internet cafe or similar. My first thought was to check out the El Cerrito public library. This opened at noon, and wanting to minimise disruption to my day, I had booked my appointment for 8:30am. Oops.

The next step was then to look for an internet cafe on Yelp. I went to the closest one to discover that it opened at 10. This was not a viable solution. Resigned to wait until then and despairing a little, I looked around. Success! I spotted a Copy Central opposite and cycled safely across the dual carriageway. Arriving in the store, I was happy to see a small cluster of computers with 17" CRT monitors running Windows XP. Sadly, they had a $2 dollar minimum charge for 10 minutes of usage and printing cost 10c per page. Opening up a private browsing session, so as not to accidentally 'auto remember' my passport number, I printed the I94 receipt.

The person before me had decided to print something in landscape and Chrome had handily saved these settings. This meant that my single page receipt printed on two sheets, with one line of text at the top of the second page. Total damage, including tax was ~ $2.31 to print this receipt. Oh well, I returned to the DMV and queued up again.

When I eventually made it to the correct counter, the lady took my paper receipt and typed the long number into their system. She gave the page back to me. It took some self restraint to avoid bringing my palm up to my face.

A few weeks later and after a brief practice run driving a pickup truck around the city of San Francisco (to help a friend move a couch or, as they call them here, a 'love seat'), I went for my 'behind the wheel' test. I had booked a Toyota Yaris (the first car that I owned, loved and eventually drove into the ground back in England) but, rental car agencies basically randomly assign you to the smallest free vehicle they have at the time. In my case, this was a Chrysler 200. This is a mid size sedan, which was actually rather nice to drive, with the usual underwhelming interior but a solid sound system.

My friend and I took the Chrysler up into Marin County and to the beach - making full use of the day rental to go sample the countryside. She, being wary of my rather aggressive driving style, was a little cautious and then a litle carsick as we took the curves back down. On the other hand, we didn't roll off the edge of the cliffs, so I count that as a successful roadtrip.

The next morning I drove up to El Cerrito for my test itself. My instructor, a middle aged man with an odd (read: twisted) sense of humour told me immediately not to drive any differently to normal. Also immediately, I disregarded this advice and drove far more cautiously than I would normally. This test was free of any notable issues - my only minor point being when I gave the incorrect hand signal for stopping a car before we had even begun. (I blame years of cycling where hand up means stop, versus hand down in a car. I may also have been doing this wrong for years.) The test was graded 'excellent' which is possibly the highest score I'm going to receive in any examination this year ;-).

The other significant logistical issue was to apply for OPT - essentially an extension of my F1 student visa which will let me work in the US for 12 months. Since this is a commitment of a few hundred dollars, I wanted to make absolutely sure I had filled out the documentation correctly. This required two visits to my bank, two visits to a photography shop (apparently a light-coloured shirt on a white background may be rejected for being low contrast?) and several visits to the international office. In the end, it was all submitted quickly and receipt was acknowledged by the USCIS. Fingers crossed that the application is accepted and I'll be able to start work in early to mid June.

The courses this semester are going well. The work load is about as high as last year but is more evenly distributed amongst my courses. Our parallel computing course is great fun and I'm enjoying writing c++ code (*gasp*), and, especially, having access to a NERSC supercomputer. My favourite email of the last few weeks was being told that a watch command I had kicked off and forgotten to terminate was slowing down the job scheduler. Oops.

The other CS course I'm taking is the 'Introduction to Machine Learning' course. This is a crosslisted graduate and undergraduate course and I feel the pain of the undergraduates at Berkeley. The sheer number of them in this class is huge and the scale at which teaching happens here makes it very hard for undergraduates to necessarily get the support that I used to back at Cambridge. There are about 300 students in this class and many students were rejected arbitrarily, based on their performance in another course. Many didn't know about this requirement and so I can see how they might feel aggrieved - paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and majoring in computer science, yet unable to take a fairly pivotal class. The system is broken.

It's now mid March. In very slightly over two months, this course will be finished. My parents, aunt and cousin will arrive for a long weekend to see graduation and with any luck, Phil and I will be cycling from San Francisco to either Yosemite or San Diego. The next two months are going to be a rollercoaster and will probably violate my caffeine consumption tolerance by some and then some more. It's been a fun adventure so far and it doesn't look likely to stop soon.

3 comments posted so far
Wayne Woodward wrote at 10:05 pm on Wed 12th Mar -
Sounds like business as usual for you Sunil. Hope all continues to go well for you.
Karen Reilly wrote at 10:03 pm on Tue 20th May -
Sunil, congratulations on your recent graduation and I wish you all the best for the future in the states. Don't neglect your photography because when you are my age you will look back on all of your travel memories and experiences with great fondness. I always check 500px and appreciate your eye for composition.
Franz wrote at 1:39 am on Wed 9th Jul -
My dear fellow Geek...and cyclist.

I thought you would be interested in this new invention, a bicyle radar, that gives cyclists a sixth sense! (http://crowd.backtracker.io)

Would love to know what you think!

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by SS at 4:23 am on Monday 27th January

The official beginning of another (and my final) semester at UC Berkeley coincided almost exactly with my 26th birthday, starting the day before - a Tuesday, since Monday was a public holiday (Martin Luther King day). I say the official beginning because, as an Master of Engineering student, our 'Engineering Leadership' course (i.e., the more MBA-esque portion of our program) began a week earlier, on the 13th of January.

My winter plans kept me rather busy (although not necessarily in the most productive sense). A flight back to London was followed by a flight to Enfidha, Tunisia and a short coach ride to the Hammamet Beach Resort. My sister, cousin and I were the youngest guests in the 'adult only' beach resort. Tunisia, being in the northern hemisphere, some distance from the equator and adjacent to the Mediterranean sea, was cool. As a beach resort, this rendered the main attraction of the hotel mostly uncomfortable, although still somewhat scenic.

We spent our energies instead on eating well and plenty (as our family holidays always tend to focus on, much to my horror). Taking advantage of the comfy beds, I decided to simultaneously avoid adjusting to the time zone (GMT + 1, 9 hours to the east of Berkeley) and to kick the caffeine habit I picked up in my first four months in America. This went moderately successfully for a few days, sleeping during the day and working a small amount at night. The cold I had picked up in Seattle (through my attempt to 'man up' and 'brave the weather') was on its way out and I was being moderately productive.

Eventually though, my self confidence overtook me and I decided to try one of the local beer bottles in the minifridge - included in our all-inclusive package. This was a foolish move and I quickly regretted it, as I spent half of the next day nautious and the rest of it with a temperate fever. Logical reasoning suggests that most guests were not all-inclusive and as such that bottle had been in the fridge for a very long time. While the contents may have been perfectly safe, it's unclear what unfortunate pathogens had taken up residence on its exterior.

I mostly recovered though, by the time the New Year's Eve celebrations rolled around. The hotel celebrations were predictably underwhelming (running at 40% occupancy, they had neither the guests nor the staff to throw a truly exciting party) but it was very pleasant to spent it with my parents, sister, cousin, aunt and uncle. A local Tunisian band took turns with the hotel activities coordinator and/or DJ to play music. Sadly, their music was less danceable (to the point where all the guests sat down) and they had somehow negotiated the right to play the slot leading up to and including the countdown. It was a very sedentary change of the year.

Later we hung out with some acquaintances of my sister's until the small hours of the morning. You know it's a small world when you run into a Dutch friend in Tunisia who you first met at a hot springs in New Zealand, in your summer holiday from university in Australia while back for Christmas in London. Aside from a potentially embarassing encounter with a belly dancer (avoided by grouping together and collectively bearing the embarassment of dancing with this terrifyingly woman), the hotel 'club' was notable. It was notable because of the installation of UV lights combined with unclean seats. I stood for the short time we spent there. (Interestingly, gin and tonics grow green under UV.)

Another flight back to London's Gatwick and 2014 had truly begun. Within the space of a week I met with approximately 40 odd friends and family, packed up my bike, computer and tried to avoid feeling too homesick. The reality of living away from home in somewhere that is as busy as Berkeley is that home is out of sight and truly out of mind - as there is minimal spare mental capacity. While I still am very happy with life in the Bay Area, being back home made me realise that there were elements of my 'old' life, in England, that hadn't made it with me to California. Most notably, family, but also just the comfort of the house I grew up in, the extent to which I knew parts of London extremely comprehensively and really, the hot chocolate in Europe which is so much better than here in California.

A lot had changed over the preceding few months, my little cousins had grown at least 10% each. At the same, much hadn't changed. Many of my university and school friends hadn't really changed too much. They may have gone on yet another interesting middle class holiday, picked up a new car, or become engaged to their long time girlfriends but otherwise, nothing really interesting had happened. Where's the adventure, friends? :)

My flight back to San Francisco was made wonderfully enjoyable again by the kind Virgin Atlantic staff. When my seat reservation was lost on check-in, I brought this up and they graciously offered me an exit row seat as compensation. I mentioned while doing so that I'd always wanted to sit in the economy cabin on the upper deck. Apparently the timing of this comment was just about right because two hours later, I was sitting in the exit row on the upper deck of a Boeing 747, chatting to a ballet director about his work and enjoying the 4 feet of leg room in front of me!

Landing in San Francisco, my experience collecting and moving my possessions was less intense than the first time I came to Berkeley - primarily because they fit on one trolley. Renting a car worked out cheaper than a taxi (and taking my luggage on the BART was not an option) and, feeling very American, I filled a Jeep Patriot with my luggage and drove into the traffic on the Bay Bridge.

The jetlag and tiredness from the week of running around London caught up to me the next week and combined with my hypothyroidism and newly implemented caffeine-free principle to make it a truly lethargic one. Eventually, I went to the doctor to get my thyroid levels checked. The test results came back 'OK' (although they checked just one level, how's that for a lack of comprehensiveness) but I took the opportunity to ask if it would be better to take my medication in the evening. The substitude physician at the Tang Center mentioned that there was no harm in doing so but she was not aware of any increased efficacy. Three words into Google later, I found two papers (2007 and 2010) suggesting a statistically significant benefit in doing so. Sigh.

The day after returning to Berkeley, I had the pleasure of interviewing at a startup whom I first contacted last semester and who told me to get back in touch with them in the new year. As soon as January rolled around, I sent them an email and they duly set up a first 'interview'. Being just 9 employees, they have a wonderful office which is a converted 'loft' - essentially a three story house in San Francisco where the bedrooms house engineers working, rather than sleeping. This went well and, mentioning my expiring offer, they quickly booked another interview. Sadly, the only day I had free from class happened to be my birthday.

The chronological boundaries of my birthday was somewhat blurred, as my sister wished me as it hit midnight in Australia (19 hours ahead of Berkeley) and then my cousin mistakenly wished me 'Happy Birthday' on Facebook. A few friends panicked and wished me a happy birthday by which time Facebook's News Feed algorithm had picked up that people were wishing me a happy birthday in volume and started advertising that fact to my other friends. This only accelerated the process.

On my birthday itself though, I woke up after just a few hours sleep (caused by work, not the onslaught of birthday notifications) and pedalled down to the BART station. At the roundabout or 'traffic circle' near our house, I narrowly avoided a rather ironic death on my birthday when a moronic driver decided that he wouldn't yield at the roundabout and took it at full speed (~ 40 mph). Thank god I'd readjusted my brakes the previous weekend else the roundabout would be bearing rather more visible marks of that encounter than just rubber on the road.

The final interview went badly, at first, and then better. My favourite portion was talking about Canadian folk rock bands with their UX designer - aren't startups cool? Lunch was a sampling of deli meats, cheese and some warm bread. This was pure class.

After a stressful session at the lab, where an important meeting we had been waiting for apparently materialised sooner than expected (and threatened to derail my evening plans). Thankfully, we were able to reschedule it and I wandered off downtown to have dinner with my two awesome flatmates at Saturn, a vegetarian restaurant, that services "chicken" burgers. Note the quotation marks.

Arriving home, a number of packages ordered by my parents were present - including an entire cookie cake which, sadly but deliciously, no longer exists.

On Friday, I had a rather excellent birthday party at the Albatross Pub, not far from the North Berkeley BART station. At first there were just three of us holding a large table to ourselves. Some more people soon arrived and then some more. Eventually we took over nearly the entirety of the back room of the bar and it was great fun catching up with everyone, albeit too brief. My friend Amy amusingly summarised it best when she said, 'I'm amazed that you have so many friends here.' I am too, and rather glad for it.

2 comments posted so far
m wrote at 8:31 am on Mon 27th Jan -
it's Martin LUTHER King
SS wrote at 4:10 am on Tue 4th Feb -
Whoops! Sorry!

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by SS at 6:39 pm on Tuesday 17th December

I'm taking the week off. Or at least, taking it a little easier than the last few weeks. Semester is pretty much over. I have an extra credit assignment that I'm supposed to be working on for robotics (it's the difference between an A- and an A grade: my American friends tell me an A is desirable) but it's proving difficult to get started on. I have today to do as much as I can on it - tomorrow I fly out to Seattle for a couple of nights to interview with Amazon.

Soon after I last wrote, 3 weeks ago, I flew to Miami for Thanksgiving (and was trapped there for an extra day when US Airways couldn't handle a blown tyre with any sort of speed). That was wonderful, considerably less productive than I had hoped but it was great to see my family and to experience the Floridian climate.

On Thursday, after napping a little and eating a lot, we went out to experience the Black Friday sales. I picked up a rather nice red sweater and was amused at the frenzy of commercial activity. The next day, my two cousins and I drove down to Key West for a night. I was both bemused and horrified by the attempts of local shopowners to capitalise on being located at the southernmost part of the continental United States.

Key West itself was a nice enough place, being both expensive and somewhat superficial. However, after you acclimatise to that, it has a decent assortment of bars with live music, good food (sadly mostly seafood) and giant cookies being sold every other block.

After returning from Key West, we went for a brief expedition down to Miami Beach. We didn't manage to go to any of the clubs or bars but it was an interesting walk down Ocean Drive. There's something about live music on/near the beach which gets me every time - my favourite 'night out' was New Year's Eve in Mombasa, where a giant rave is hosted by DJ group 6AM on the beach. Miami Beach was similar, the calm of the sea is adjacent to several huge clubs and separated only by the road. Plus, everyone in Miami Beach is beautiful (perhaps correlated with their income levels - there were a LOT of nice cars around).

On Sunday I slept, worked a little and ate some more. My aunt had generously bought a bottle of Amarula and none of my family there wanted it. I had to oblige and finish as much of the bottle as possible.

The journey back was somewhat tedious - after boarding the plane on Monday, we were taxi-ing out to the runway when one of the tyres blew. I had booked a connecting flight from Charlotte to San Francisco which left an hour after we arrived. They estimated that it would take 90 minutes to change the tyre. Being Thanksgiving, there were no flights available that day to San Francisco and eventually they were able to rebook me on a flight with Delta the following day. After waiting for my luggage to be offloaded for 3 hours, I took a taxi back to my aunt's house and slept a little more.

On the eventual flight back to San Francisco, I loaded up on caffeine and coded a state machine for our automated quadcopter landing class project. This was interesting because I've never written any C++ before and without access to internet on the plane, I was reliant on a couple of PDF textbooks I'd 'acquired' beforehand. By the time I landed, I had some semblence of a working controller - albeit with just shy of a hundred compile errors.

The next couple of weeks were spend trying to get this controller integrated with my colleagues' computer vision pose estimation code. Just as we did get it all working together, the day before our final project presentation, the weather gods decided to throw a fork in the works and the wind was gusting 35 miles per hour. Our unoptimised controller had no chance.

Still, we had a mildly entertaining presentation and had plenty to write about in our report. On Friday, my flatmates and I hosted a Christmas 'house warming' party which was excellent fun. My fondest memory of the evening is when a guest of ours decided to bring his beer bottle up to the roof and then promptly dropped it. It slid down our roof and came to a resounding crash on the ground below. The next day it took about 25 minutes to pick all the microscopic shards of glass off of the pathway in between our house and the next.

On Saturday I went to see Handel's Messiah for free with a friend of mine (having entered and won a raffle hosted by Cal Startups). This was a little out of my usual comfort zone - I primarily enjoy modern instrumental classical music and this was baroque choral music. It was entertaining for the first hour or so but quickly grew tiring (perhaps compounding the 5 hours sleep post Christmas party).

This Sunday I spent preparing for my accounting final. The material wasn't difficult but was some of the most boring material I've ever revised: I had three times as many naps as a typical Sunday. After this finished on Monday, I came home and slept for 3 hours. This week is definitely going to be all about taking it easy.

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by SS at 8:06 pm on Tuesday 26th November

In a stunning return to form (or at least to adhering to my weekly recurring task on Wunderlist), I'm blogging just a week after my last post! The past week has been a series of frustrations, minor successes and occasionally causes for major introspection.

On Monday, shortly after I posted my last entry, I met with one of the companies whose offer I had turned down. My major qualms were not the nature of the work but more the culture of the company. This is a hard thing to say without appearing shallow but having worked in both a large corporate and a small tech company (within a larger corporate) - I know how much of a difference that makes. When I went in to visit their office, I was reminded very acutely of Dilbert's office. My attempt to express my reservations about working there seemed to fall on deaf ears. When I mentioned the proximity to San Francisco that was desirable to me, as well as living in a place with the cultural backdrop of Berkeley, they dismissed my concerns and suggested that San Jose might be comparable...

Moving on, Tuesday was an equally unfulfilling day - my co-founders (slight shudder at using such a cliched term but I suppose there's no accurate other way to describe people I'm hoping to start a business with) and I had a series of meetings to scope out our project. This is a turbulent process that, if it is getting us to an end point, seems to be going painfully slowly. Discontent seems to be amplified by a failure to communicate between a couple of members of my team. It's not clear how the best way to deal with this is - both make valid points but just can't seem to work together without ending up arguing over an irrelevant detail. So far I've been trying to act as interpreter but that isn't a sustainable process.

That day was redeemed by meeting David (a university friend and former colleague at BarCap) and his co-founder Chris - who had just interviewed for YCombinator's Winter 2014 class (and been accepted!). They stayed over in Berkeley and it was great to hear about their entrepreneurial journey so far. I'm looking forward to seeing them again in January while they work on growing their startup, Sketch Deck.

On Wednesday I had an interesting set of discussions with my capstone project team as we tried to assess the scope of our project. With nearly all of semester over now, we're pretty far behind on our project. Given the FAA roadmap for UAS integration that was published recently - our project's ambition, to come up with a commercial application for UAS technology, was called into question. We've now decided to pivot the idea to something more likely to be (legally) permitted but, wow, that was a tough discussion.

That evening, three of us went to the Global Social Venture Competition's mixer at the Hub in San Francisco. GSVC is a business plan competition with a $25,000 prize for ventures that have a strong social or environmental impact. They don't necessarily have to be non-profit organisations. We weren't planning to pitch but about 70% of the people who signed up to pitch didn't show up - so with 3 minutes notice, I scribed a few sentences on my phone and put my hand up. Evidently I was outwardly more nervous in appearance than I felt because both of my colleagues mentioned that I looked visibly shaken as I spoke. Still, this was a good hit of adrenaline and hopefully good practice for future events.

On Thursday, Last.fm released their new radio player which now sources tracks directly from YouTube. This decision makes perfect sense from a business point of view - they've been at the mercy of record labels since they started operating a streaming music business. Deferring that responsibility away to YouTube/Google (who have a much stronger bargaining position) simplifies operations considerably. The 20+ expensive servers that ran our streaming service can be retired, as well as the five or so machines that we used for ingesting content. Sadly, however, this means that the majority of the work I did on the ingestion system over the past two years is now redundant.

It's a morose feeling but this sort of churn is normal in the tech community. My first internship at BarCap was with a team that wrote software for the mortgage backed securities loans team around about the time (in 2008) when that whole industry was going under. It's a depressing feeling knowing that the work you've done is essentially going to be thrown away. On the other hand, the fact that this can be done so easily perhaps explains why the software industry is able to be continually innovative. I'm glad I was able to leave when I did - having to decommission the ingestion system would be partially like saying a permanent goodbye to a loved one.

While contemplating my role in building redundant technology, I journeyed to the UCSF Parnassus campus to see an ophthamologist for a follow-up to my eye surgery in April. It feels as if the acuity of my eyesight has declined considerably since arriving in Berkeley but unexpectedly he mentioned that, while my prescription has changed, it is neither better nor for the worse. There's a cruel irony in the location of the Beckman Eye Center at UCSF - it's on a hill overlooking San Francisco and has one of the grandest views I've seen through these eyes of mine. I hope that all their patients eventually get to admire the view.

With eyes dilated, I journeyed back to Berkeley (almost missing my stop, for lack of being able to see) to continue more project work.

On Friday evening, we had a 'masked' ball, organised by the wonderful CS grad social association. It was an interesting evening but finished in a way that led me to reconsider my notions of gentlemanness, perhaps unduly so. Some wine was drunk, perhaps not enough to sway a hardened alcoholic like myself (I jest) but enough to make a friend very ill. It was decided that someone should accompany that friend home, and given the insobrietry of the majority of the group that was accompanying my friend, I decided to tag along, for extra support (literally) mainly.

On the way there, walking down an unlit residential street at the darkest hour of the night, I managed to not see that a Berkeley denizen had lined the front of his lawn with multiple large rocks. Tripping over the first, I landed face first onto a further rock, striking my left knee and left cheek with the sharp features of a couple of rocks. Ouch. I'll recover of course, much worse has happened to me.

Limping home, I started to question the point of such quaint chivalry. It's likely that had I not been there, their journey home would probably have been just fine. I would have reached my home quicker and uninjured. Was accompanying them the proper thing to do? Sure. But it clearly wasn't the most optimal decision for me. I'll think more carefully in the future.

The week concluded with an early morning attempt on Saturday to fetch groceries from Berkeley Bowl, including the ingredients to make the paleo (gluten free, artifical sugar free) cookies I enjoy so much. Everything was on track to make some beautifully soft and tasty cookies with peanut butter chips and matcha inside when I decided to pop them in the oven for a little longer to 'harden' up. Meanwhile, my freshly dried laundry was calling to be folded and I went to fold my 21 odd colourful Threadless t-shirts. Not more than 5 minutes later, I returned to the disappointing smell of burned cookies. The next hour was spent cutting carbon out of the cookies and I concluded that perhaps I should try and do a little less concurrently in the future.

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by SS at 12:22 am on Tuesday 19th November

Three weeks have again flown by since my last update. Currently (to give you some context, since life is all about context) I'm sitting in a coffee shop come bakery - "Speciality's" - in Santa Clara. This afternoon was a final round interview at a great startup. Running through my head for the last few weeks has been a series of elaborate decision making processes as I try to determine what job offer to accept and which to reject.

As I've mentioned earlier, I knew job offers would come more easily to a software engineer in Silicon Valley. In particular, my strategy of selecting employers whose product I know and love and primarily applying to smaller employers has paid off.

As a brief segue, current students looking for graduate entry jobs seem to apply to the big name companies. This makes their job hunt harder since these employers have their pick of graduates and can be more selective. Additionally, I'm skeptical that new engineers in these companies have much leeway to work on projects that interest them.

My friends who know me well know that I have been planning to come study a Master's (in the US) since my last year at Cambridge. While the decisions that I've made since regarding employment, living arrangements and significant others have been made to this objective, I now face a growing amount of uncertainty. There is no obvious next goal and I have several potential routes to achieving the various things that are high up on my list of life ambitions.

My options are: work for an established company, work for a startup, start my own company. The latter of which is the riskiest and brings with it the most financial uncertainty. It is also the most exciting. Within the first two categories, I need to pin down several decisions: whether to work for a consumer or enterprise technology company, whether to work on a product or a service, and whether to work in South Bay or in San Francisco.

Overwhelmingly it feels as if the more exciting consumer focussed companies are in San Francisco - while the enterprise companies are based in South Bay (i.e. Silicon Valley). I love living in Berkeley and working in San Francisco would make it possible to commute in from Berkeley. Working in South Bay would mean I would have to live in South Bay (or commute in from San Francisco). Besides rent being cheaper in Berkeley, it is surrounded by beautiful scenery, I have many friends there and, despite being fairly city-like, it remains very peaceful.

On the other hand, the harder computer science problems seem to be with those companies in South Bay. Working on an actual tech product/problems is something that I've often tried to do in a professional context in the past but struggled to find. Building services in Java often felt like virtual plumbing - taking one library and piping its output into another library or database.

There are a number of sub-decisions to be made here and I need to pick carefully since it's going to affect my life for the near to medium term!

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