Tag Archives: computer science

My background and what Korea means to me

This is probably going to be my most personal blog post in quite a bit. I’m going to explain why I am the way I am, and what made the way I am today. People who know me, know me to be a shy, quiet person, with very strong opinions on some subjects, and a love of Korean culture.
Let me give you a bit about my background… (btw I’m not worried about privacy here).

I was born in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, China in 1988, the year of the dragon. I’m not full Chinese – my mother is Manchu, and my dad is full Han Chinese, thus I consider myself a “mix” even though Manchu’s look like Chinese and speak Mandarin Chinese.
My hometown is Manchuria, an area invaded by the Japanese during WWII around the same time they occupied Korea.

When I was four years old, in 1992, China was still very poor, and only started to become more capitalist. My family was poor, and we immigrated to Canada to seek a better life. My dad was already there attending Queen’s University, so we settled in Kingston, ON at first.

After my dad graduated, we moved to Orillia, ON, a small city in central Ontario about 2 hours north of Toronto (why my parents chose to move there remains a mystery to me). Even there, my dad had to work long hours to make ends meet for our family (my brother was born in Orillia). We started out in a small apartment, and then gradually saved up enough money to purchase our own home.

I grew up in Orillia, Canada

I grew up in Orillia, Canada

I lived in Orillia for 12 years, until I was 18. Orillia is a small, quiet waterfront city of 30,000 people, and there were no Asian people there, so it was always hard for me to make friends. Being shy and introverted, I was always a loner with a few close group of friends in elementary and high school. I tried to fit in more in high school by playing on the local football team and hockey teams, but it just wasn’t meant for me. An anecdote of just how shy I was back then; I would often hide in the bathrooms before classes started just so I wouldn’t have to mingle with students in the hallway. I hated making small talk (and still do) with people.

Plus, high school was too easy. My high school life consisted of: playing guitar, playing Magic cards, and playing video games. My mom often tried to hide my guitar and my computer away from me and forced me to study math books instead, thinking that I didn’t do any homework (I actually finished all my homework in class). During high school, I worked several menial jobs like being a dishwasher, cashier, YMCA supervisor, skating arena cleaner, waiter, etc. It was tedious but it taught me the value of money. I had only a small group of friends in high school, all white (no Asian kids in my city), and all male (I was terrible with girls back then).

When I was 18, I decided to move to the big city in Canada, which was Toronto, to attend university at the University of Toronto, the biggest and most prestigious university in Canada. I majored in Computer Science because I had been designing websites and hacking games a lot in my high school days, and it was a natural fit.

In my first year, I stayed at a dorm roomed with a Korean roommate. He introduced me to Korean culture and to Korean church where I attended for a year and made some Korean friends. This was my first introduction to Korea. After only half a semester, I moved out to live with my dad. My parents you see, work in different places. For some odd reason my parents chose to stay in the small city of Orillia, and my Mom works there, but my Dad has a job in Toronto, and thus my Mom essentially lives by herself during the weekdays, and my Dad commutes back and forth between Orillia and Toronto (a 1.5hr drive) every weekend. They have been doing this for the past 15 years, and they are too secure in their jobs to think about moving. Anyways, since my Dad owns a place in Toronto, I mostly lived there during my university years.

University College was my resident college

University College was my resident college

UofT is one of the top schools in computer science, but it was absolutely brutal in marking assignments. How good a lecture was completely depended on the professor teaching it, and some courses I passed based on luck and last minute classmate help only. Even though I felt more at home with more Asians (UofT is roughly 40% Asian), every night I had to study in the library or in the computer lab to finish programming assignments, and thus had no spare time to socialize.

In addition, I was still quite introverted and it was still hard for me to make friends outside of my computer science classmates. One incident happening during university which changed my personality forever. I met a girl in my FLC (first year learning community) which was quite helpful to me to make friends in freshman year given my shy personality. Basically all my friends in Toronto I met during frosh week and my time in FLC. Anyways, that girl was friendly at first, but then after a few months she started getting really annoyed with me for some reason, and I had no idea why, and ultimately my pestering caused her to become quite rude and hostile to me. She was ultimately a bitch, but at the time I was a pretty innocent guy, so it changed my views on how people react to me. From then on, I didn’t care as much about the reactions people have towards me, whereas before I was trying to make everyone happy with me. I never did reconcile with that girl, but its fine because it taught me a lesson. Life isn’t all roses.

I originally wanted to do a double major in commerce and computer science (this was also when I did Commerce Toastmasters which improved my public speaking), but ended up doing a double major in Economics when some of the CS courses became way too unforgiving. I was quite good at Economics and my 80s/90s in those courses helped bring up my GPA. During this time I worked as a caller for the UofT Alumni and some co-op jobs to help pay for my tuition. Also, I took a full semester of Chinese and practiced on QQ and made some Chinese friends on there in order to raise my Chinese level back up from years of growing up in a non Chinese environment.

After I took a great internship opportunity (called PEY) for engineers and worked for the Canadian government for one year, I realized that I had to move to the United States in order to escape the cold boredom of Canada and also the high taxes and low wages. I became more politically conservative and also started investing in stocks around this time. And Silicon Valley was where I wanted to be. So I applied for a bunch of California jobs before I graduated.

Luckily, one company gave me an offer! If it wasn’t for them, I would have been in Taiwan on an AIESEC internship (AIESEC was another club I joined in my last year of university). So I ended up in the heart of San Francisco, where I’ve always wanted to be. This was one of the highlights of my life as I could finally tell my family I was going to be making good salary, especially since my dad didn’t think I was going to amount to anything, as my parents didn’t have high expectations for me (my brother was always the favorite), but I proved them wrong. Why did my father always look down on me? Especially since my Dad was also a programmer, and I had been doing websites since I was 12 proved that I had engineer blood in me, you would think he would have had more trust in me.

My office was beside the Transamerica Pyramid

My office was beside the Transamerica Pyramid

I was the youngest engineer in the company I joined, so I only had one other friend who was slightly older than me but still Chinese American, but we got along well due to our similar personalities and interests. He remains a good friend to this day.

San Francisco had much better weather, much better technology, and even more diverse people than Toronto, but it was no easier for me to make friends. People here were just too quirky for me, and I found myself wanting to be more and more Asian, towards my roots. Although I had some Chinese friends in university, here in SF, there were more Koreans than Chinese, so most of my friends ended up being Korean. And I really accepted Korean culture, since my college roommate was Korean, I had attended Korean church with him before, and Korea is very close to my birthplace in Manchuria.

I had also found that I enjoyed Korean food more than Chinese food, and that I was more attracted to Korean girls than Chinese girls. This must be some kind of genetic thing, as I can’t really explain it. When I went to Korea last year, the culture was completely different, everyone was more conformist and hung out in groups, it was more about being together than being individual kind of thinking, and I felt much more at ease, like I belonged more there.

Seoul's massive metropolis was completely different than America

Seoul’s massive metropolis was completely different than America

So where to next? It seems that my thinking has become more and more Asian, and less and less American, so it seems inevitable that my next step be to move to Korea (where most of my friends are) and live there a year or two, just to confirm my suspicions that where I belonged all along was… back where I came from. But this isn’t easy, as I didn’t want to be an English teacher, nor do I want to work as an engineer in Korea for long hours and low salary. But I hope that there is a way I can be happy and find what I’m looking for over there. I’m 26 years old now, and it’s about time I finally find a place to settle down.

Busking in Hongdae

Busking in Hongdae

Hiking up In-wang mountain

Hiking up In-wang mountain

Gangnam nightscape

Gangnam nightscape

At Lotte World

At Lotte World

To be sure about my love for Korea, here’s a video I recorded while in Seoul for submission to the 3 minute Korea video contest:

httpv://youtu.be/mkA6p2vV0nY

…and some good news!! My Korean language learning website has been converted to WordPress mainly because of WP’s built in sorting/searching functionality and support for plugins for SEO and Facebook commenting. Check it out here: http://tmk.blueisme.com

Conferences in San Francisco

I went to San Francisco a few days ago to attend two conferences, mainly the Tedx Presidio and Richard Tapia Diversity in Computing. I will talk about my experiences, but first the location.

San Francisco

In front of Golden Gate Bridge

Me in San Francisco

This city is probably the most beautiful and unique city I’ve been to. Climate is a world away from Toronto. Always sunny, and moderate. The city has a unique architectural design that incorporates Art Deco and avante garde with unique gardens and parks coexisting with skyscrapers. The city has an amazing amount of rolling hills and valleys, which can be a pain to walk on, but looks fantastic as scenery. There exists some of the most romantic places I’ve ever been, including the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park. In any case, San Francisco really left a deep impression on me, and is definitely more fitting to me than Toronto.

Tedx Presidio

At the Palace of Fine Arts

At the Palace of Fine Arts

A very cool conference. Located at the Palace of fine arts which has an amazing Roman-inspired palace on the grounds, this inspiring conference included speakers ranging from the San Francisco municipal government to Autodesk corporation to two young entrepreneurs (who started a business to grow mushrooms from coffee grounds) from Berkeley.  Each of them brought something amazing to talk about, and how technology fuses with businesses, and green energy / sustainability in particular. Attendees were mostly from around the Bay Area, Oakland, San Jose, etc.

Richard Tapia

 

At Google San Francisco

At Google San Francisco

The first night, I got to meet with a lot of great students from UC Berkeley, Rice, Stanford, Georgia Tech, University of Virginia and University of Illinois. It really amazes me how diverse computer science can be. I also got to meet with industry executives from Amazon, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Cisco, Lawrence Berkeley Labs, Intel, US Department of Energy, Netapp, and Symantec.

Second night, got to hear some great speakers from Rice, Intel, Microsoft (Bing), Georgia Tech, and got to visit Google San Francisco (they have it all btw, the buffets, mini cafes, pool tables, and even a slide I got to ride!). I also got to hear a lot of great project ideas from over 60 students, from across various universities in the U.S. Made friends with people from Chicago to Nashville. Although we are all from different places, near and far, we are all bound together by our common interests (computer science), and our similar language (C++/Java).

Third night had speakers from UCLA, Berkeley, IBM and Google. I got to have lunch with an interesting PhD researcher from UT San Antonio who worked on web security. Met Dan Garcia from UC Berkeley, who was one of the top CS education researchers, and he gave me feedback on my own project, which was great. I also met a cool student from UC Irvine who designed a poster that won the Tapia award that night, who was interested in Chinese culture, and Canadian culture.

Interview
I had an interview with a small startup company on the last day I was there, and they gave me a really good impression with the company culture. First met with the HR manager, which was the standard behavioral questions. Second, I met the engineering manager who asked me to draw UML diagrams about the travel industry. This was fine because I was familiar with class diagrams but not that knowledgeable about travel websites. Third I met a senior software engineer, where I explained to her my development cycle at Environment Canada. I think this part went well because I knew my stuff from my previous internship. Fourth I met a senior web developer, which I struggled with, because I wasn’t a front end developer, but I did my best explaining MVC, Design patterns, RESTful interfaces, and Semantic HTML. Fifth, I had a pair programming session with the previous two developers. This was my first time pair programming, and I got a good feel for it, but made several amateur mistakes throughout. In the end, I felt that I could have done better on this part if I wasn’t so nervous, and the IntelliJ IDE which I wasn’t familiar with, and I didn’t get time to start on the second test class. Overall, I think I did alright, and while coding on the white board was familiar to me, programming while two people staring at you was not, and I think it was partly because I was nervous and hadn’t done that before. However, I tried my best, and hope that I will be able to get an offer (cross your fingers for me >.<).

Edit: Got the job!!! =]

Additional Comments

At the Fairmont San Francisco

At the Fairmont San Francisco

I’ve mentioned before how fitting California was to me, and how it was my ‘calling’ and, after visiting there, I believe that my hunch was right. There was no other place as fitting, no other place in the world which had the perfect combination of culture, diversity, technology, music/entertainment, business, and innovation for me as the Bay Area. I felt an almost instant connection to this place which seemed so new yet familiar to me. I’m also pleasantly surprised by the fact that about half the attendees to the Tapia conference were female, which is great because females generally constitute about 20% of the IT workforce. Most of the attendees were African American or Hispanic American, which was great since it’s very rare to see that diversity in computer science.
I was the only conference attendee from Canada. I asked my colleagues from UofT if they wanted to attend but no one responded. I’m really disappointed that out of my whole Facebook list of 500 friends, that not even one expressed any interest, because it was a great conference and you really have to keep searching for these opportunities if you want to network. It was my first time going to such a far place by myself, and I enjoyed the freedom =].

Computer Science education

The only CS course I’m taking this semester is a Capstone Design project. This semester’s theme is CS education. There’s about 6 students in total including me in the course, and each week we write a summary about a research paper that a group of CS professors have done, and discuss them. Our assignments are all CS-education related; having to write an assignment or comparing algorithm visualization tools. We also have to do a project proposal, carry out the research, and present it.

I chose to study how internships really affect how we learn. At UofT, we have an internship program called PEY, so its a 16 month internship program. I want to sample students who are graduating this year, those who have done PEY vs. those who haven’t. It’s not obvious whether or not an internship year would have a huge effect on what students know, after all. So my plan is to interview a few students, and give them some technical questions, Amazon/Google style. One set of questions is broad and general but rather basic. This tests the general knowledge of the student. The other set is more in depth and the student will do a think aloud and walk me through what they are thinking – this part is going to be suited to the student’s knowledge domain. The main internship knowledge domains are Software Dev, Database, Networks, System/Low level design, Graphics/UI design, Web Dev, and Testing. Depending on what the student did, I’m going to ask them these type of questions. If they didn’t do PEY, then most likely I will ask Software Dev/Algorithmic related questions as the other ones we don’t quite focus on at UofT. Then I will compare the different sets of students to see if the way they answered the questions is statistically significant, and make my conclusions.

I’m having a hard time starting out gathering the data though – mostly because I have a hard time approaching people. It’s strange that I can be so open online yet when it comes to in person, the worst thought I have is of disturbing someone or having them ignore me. I have to overcome this fear and do what’s needed to start this project! This entire month is pretty much dedicated to this course – project has to be done by the end of this month, writing up a sample assignment, and doing the weekly summaries. For a half credit course, the workload seems like two courses. There’s also a test after this month, but it’s right after I come back from San Francisco, so I basically have to study for that this month because I have no time next month. Good news is there isn’t a final exam for this course, though the test could be thought of as one. Oh well… this month is looking to go by pretty fast, as usual.

Edit: I’ve decided to do a questionnaire instead because it’s more portable, but still having trouble with people answering the technical questions. They have very little incentive to do them, most are busy with midterms, and it takes close to an hour to write out the algorithms and everything. I’ve made all the questions not too easy (it would defeat the purpose of the project) and not too hard (no one would do it). But it still seems people are shying away from doing those questions. I’ll have to think of a better incentive than to just say its good job practice, but having a hard time doing so.