My time at Berkeley, working full time as an engineer, and finding fulfillment through work
I graduated from UC Berkeley in May of 2018 with a major in Cognitive Science and a minor in Computer Science. Upon graduating, I was fortunate to have an offer as a software engineer from a large tech company. As a first generation college student and first generation American, my parents were more than proud of me for having graduated from a reputable university, and relieved that I would have a well-paying job. I was relieved too. My mom had always told me growing up, “I never want you to worry about money. I want you to be a strong, financially independent woman.”
Coming into my first full-time software engineering role, I had so many doubts in my mind regarding my competency working as a professional software engineer, and whether I “belonged” in tech.
I think these doubts arose from the fact that coding was something I had in some way, “floated” into in college. While I had grown up in the tech-centric Bay Area, I never had any exposure to software engineering nor the tech industry prior to college. My father is a self-employed repairman working primarily with restaurants and supermarkets. My mom does administrative work for a Japanese tour company. The thought of working in tech never crossed my mind.
Yet, at Berkeley, I found myself on a path to become a software engineer.
How I ended up in Computer Science
I took my first computer science class my freshman year out of pure necessity. My major required me to take an intro to programming class (CS61A). Computer science was new and strange to me. This class was challenging for me but with each understanding of a new concept, and completion of a project, there was an immense sense of satisfaction unlike anything I felt before. Oddly, I kinda enjoyed it. I felt inclined to take the next set of classes with a group of close friends. I did not know what I wanted to do and whether these classes would tie into a future career, but I figured that having computer science knowledge wouldn’t hurt in the Bay Area where I hoped to be.
The following semester, I took CS61B (Data Structures and Algorithms) and CS70 (Discrete Mathematics and Probability). This was an extremely rough semester for me coupled with my intensifying club commitment and part time job. I struggled hard through CS70, but found myself loving CS61B. At this point, I only needed a handful of classes to complete a minor. At this point, I thought, maybe I should just take on a minor?
My First Internship
I was in my second year of college with no clear career goals. While I enjoyed my studies in Cognitive Science, it was difficult to connect my interests in Cog Sci to a direct career path. A few months into fall semester, people around me started discussing finding summer internships.
I was quite new to this idea of “internships”. Frankly, I didn’t know how job searching really worked in the US, let alone how working for a company worked. However, this restlessness around me served as a cue for me to start looking into finding something for the summer too. I tagged along my friends and started attending various career fairs and info-sessions.
After hearing from an upperclassmen friend about her experience as a UX design intern at a Japanese startup, I looked into interning abroad. Having family in Japan, and having lived in Japan for a part of high school, interning in Japan sounded exciting to me.
As I had some coding skills, I looked into finding software development opportunities. To my luck, I landed an iOS Development internship at a UI/UX design agency in Tokyo. Out of California and off to Tokyo I went!
Coincidentally, the engineer who was assigned to be my mentor was a Berkeley alum. My project was to design and develop an iOS app that would address a problem that the employees were facing. During this internship, I had the chance to interview and interact with incredibly passionate designers and engineers. It fascinated me how cross-functional teams at this startup worked together to build beautiful products. By the end of my internship, I had designed and developed two iOS apps on my own with guidance from my supportive mentor and other employees. I felt proud of what I was able to achieve, and was drawn into the collaborative atmosphere. I began to consider software engineering seriously as a career path. This incredibly positive internship experience convinced me to push through my computer science classes.
Making it through my classes at Berkeley
The CS classes at Berkeley continued to be very difficult for me. While I enjoyed the projects, I found myself constantly struggling on the exams. At some point, my goal became to just try to pass. I felt accomplished when I would score average on the exam.
Was it really okay that I was struggling this much to try to pass these classes? I carried strong feelings of incompetence. I also began to notice how few women there were, especially in the upper div CS classes. Women being a minority in tech is pretty common knowledge. In my head I knew that it should not bother me. Yet I think being in a male-dominated environment further exacerbated my imposter syndrome.
My Second Internship
Recruiting season rolled around again. Restlessness and career fairs took over Berkeley. Like thousands of other Berkeley students, I lined up at these crowded career fairs with piles of resumes in hand. I didn’t know what half the companies did but I went anyways and made effort to talk to as many people as I could. Growing up, my parents never pressured me with regards to where I should work nor what I should be doing with my life. Rather, at Berkeley, seeing others around me, I think I put pressure on myself. I thought that if I couldn’t find an opportunity for the summer, I would not be able to find a “good job” by the time graduation rolled around.
I received an internship offer working on an enterprise security product. To be honest, I did not care much for enterprise security. Looking back, I wish that I had taken the time to slow down and think deeply about where my true interests lie. However, I know then, I was a busy student juggling multiple responsibilities, and I felt like I had no time. Especially as a first generation college student and child of immigrants, my priority was to find a “good”, stable job so that I wouldn’t worry about money. I was not capable of considering other important aspects of a career like enjoyment and fulfillment.
Without getting too much into how my internship experience was that summer, my takeaway was that I wanted to work on something more user-facing like I had in my previous internship. While I received a full-time offer back, I mentioned to my recruiter that I hoped to work on something more user facing. To my surprise, he came back to me a few weeks later letting me know that a front-end developer position opened up in a different office for a different product. YES! I accepted this offer.
My first year as an engineer
This month marks the end of my full year as a full-time software engineer. Throughout college, I had so many doubts about my competency as an engineer.
I’m happy to say that lot of this doubt and extreme imposter syndrome I felt before has diminished tremendously in this past year. That’s not to say I feel like I know everything— in fact, quite the opposite. But I’ve become comfortable with this idea that I won’t ever know everything and that’s okay. Technology is always changing. As long as I remain a software engineer, I will always have to self study and be flexible.
I’ve become confident in my ability to learn what I need to learn, communicate well with my team members, follow good coding guidelines, and manage my time to complete time-sensitive tasks. I attribute this new confidence in myself to the incredible support and mentorship I received from my team at work. I think my team and manager believed in me and gave me positive feedback when I completed a job well. Having people believe in you is incredibly powerful. I felt valued. Working alongside talented, smart engineers inspired and motivated me to want to “be better”.
In addition, for the first time ever, I had a female role-model engineer figure! Throughout college, I did not have any female professors nor TA’s in my computer science classes. Yet finally in this team, I had the chance to work alongside an experienced female engineer. She was incredibly smart and always seemed to have her shit together, yet a team player who others always leaned on. She, along with the other experienced members of my team, served to be engineers I aspired to be like.
Outside of work, I started to attend some technology and career-related events hosted by groups such as ReactJS SF, Women4Good, and Women Who Code (WWC). These meet-up events turned out to be a great way to connect with others in the field, and gain exposure to a variety of topics one may otherwise be unaware of. For example, Diversity and Inclusion was a topic that often came up at these events— this was of natural interest to me.
In my first full-time software engineering role, I was extremely fortunate to receive the support I needed to grow as an engineer. Yet I still had feelings of uncertainty in this role.
As a student, it felt like I had absolutely no time. If I was not in class, I was studying. If I wasn’t studying, I was working. If I wasn’t working, I was tending to my club commitments. I never had much time to be alone with my thoughts.
Once I started working full-time, I found myself with a lot of time.
I had time to think by myself. And time to question what I was doing, And time to question why I was doing what I was doing.
With all these questions circling my mind, I experienced a full-blown post-grad, quarter-life crisis. A quarter-life crisis seems to be a common phenomenon amongst new grads… Up until this point, a lot of us have an idea of what we are supposed to do. However, after graduation, we come to realize that how we wanted to live our life, and what we make of our lives is entirely up to us. I liked the people I worked with. I was learning a lot. I made sure to put my all into whatever task was at hand. Yet I would come home, sit by myself, and ask myself “What am I doing this for?”
I began to ask myself:
- What is it I want to accomplish in my life?
- What is it I hope to accomplish as an engineer?
- What is meaningful work to me?
- What do I care about?
- What impact am I making right now?
- Is work a means to make a living, or is it something I should seek fulfillment from?
I acknowledge that having this time to think and question my career is an enormous privilege that comes with having a stable source of income and having no other responsibilities like a family to care of. All my life, I worked towards getting into college, and finding a job. I finally had what I and my parents had hoped for. Yet I felt like something was missing.
When I spoke to my mom about seeking fulfillment from work, she could not grasp what I meant. “You have a well paying job, you have a place to live, and you have food to eat. What more could you possibly want?” I understand where my mom was coming from. It was difficult to justify feeling what I felt.
Trying to figure things out
In an attempt to find answers, I began attending a number of tech and career related events, connected with others in the field, and researched software engineering opportunities that were out there that aligned closely to the causes I cared about. I reached out to my peers and friends of peers in the field. I even met up with a stranger for career advice.
As I began to expand my horizon, I saw that there was a lot more to tech and software engineering than what people might traditionally think about. At the career fairs I attended as a student, companies showed off their “sexiness” by flaunting various perks like free food, flashy office space, ping pong tables, and status. I admit, perks like free food are super enticing, and there is nothing wrong with prioritizing these. I came to realize that there was a whole other world of opportunities within tech that I never knew about. Through forums like TechJobs4Good, I found numerous companies and groups of people who sought to make a direct impact in civic tech, healthcare, and education. I came to see that tech was simply a means to an end. As I discovered these opportunities and discovered this different side of tech, I felt SO excited. It started to become more clear to me what I wanted to accomplish as a software engineer. My world opened up.
To sum it up…
This past year has been a roller coaster. I still haven’t quite figured out adulting, nor what it is I should be doing. But if I compare myself to where I was a year ago, I feel a lot more confident in my abilities and my place as an engineer. I attribute this to the work experience I’ve gained, the people I’ve encountered, and the communities I have found. I’ve been able to set clear career goals that I can feel excited about and work towards.
Now, I am excited to be transitioning to a new role in the ed-tech sector. I strive to continue learning and growing as an engineer.
As I continue to go on in life, I have no doubt that I will encounter a few crises here and there, as well as many WTF am I doing moments. But I think that’s normal. For now, I’m happy where I am.