A long overdue reflections post

Dec 31, 2007

A friend asked me several months ago...

you should do a big old long blog post about your change of life
what was as exected, what wasn't, what is better, what is worse etc...
I'm just curious ... you're doing what many people want to do but dont dare to do ...
what's been easier than expected, more difficult than expected, what's most different what isn't different... etc

I put off the post for several months for two reasons. One is that I simply had no time to physically sit down and write it up. The other, more important one was that I wanted to be more into the semester, so that I would have more insight and time to contemplate about this. But lo and behold, the semester came to end :) and with the end of year approaching fast, it's actually a good time to wrap up the past semester.

There's clearly a tradeoff with putting off writing up the post. Some of the earlier things I thought about are not as salient as they used to be. But I guess this just gives more space to the stuff that's really worth remembering from the semester.

I don't really know what's the best way to organize this. I'll just put down some themes and elaborate on them.

There's a pattern when resettling

I've resettled a few times now. And it becomes easier with every new move. When you go to live some place new, there's always this initial period of panic when you don't know where things are and how to get around and about and where to buy food and other stuff. Just give it time and explore the neighborhood and everything falls into its right place. The initial panic is easy to get over once you know a few locals you can ask for help -- even your landlord if you don't have any other contacts, but also your colleagues and such.

Studying and context switching is hard work

This goes into the "what was as expected" category. I expected this program to be difficult, and it indeed is. Then again, I got everything done that I wanted to, and I am happy about my results so far. I didn't expect this to be a walk in the park, but I'm not sure if I expected it to be this much work. It's definitely more work than I have ever done in any other situation, be it work or school or otherwise. The hardest part for me was context switching -- you have several courses with equal importance you have to work on, with each course having their own papers, projects and other stuff, and you have to balance both your time and your mental capacity so that it all gets done. It's one thing if you have to write one paper a week, but it's quite something else if you have to do five in completely different courses.

The most useful remedy that I found is old, tried and true: planning. You know most deadlines way in advance, so it helps to space things out when doing projects. Another useful method is to do projects in iterations. I know people who can sit down and write a paper from scratch in one night, and I did it myself on a few occasions, but in many cases, it does not yield the best result. Instead, you get a good result if you start out way in advance and sleep over it many times and do bits and pieces as you go, building up the project in stages. This helps to avoid the panic when the deadline approaches and it also lets you go over the stages of your work several times. I believe the latter is important because in my experience, great results are produced not by great writing, but by great rewriting and editing. Starting in advance and doing things in pieces lets you edit all parts several times.

Working in groups is hard, but fun

Groupwork was a new experience for me. I can't say I haven't done any groupwork at all, but a lot of my schoolwork and professional work so far has been individual. This semester has given me new exposure to groupwork and shown its challenges, but also benefits. The challenges revolve around practical things like planning and scheduling meetings and also making sure that everyone understands all terms, concepts and assignments the same way. A surprising thing we discovered with our whole class/program was that even though everyone had the same groupwork assignments about the same material that was covered in the same class for everyone, different groups came to different results and interpretations. It's worth spending time resolving those and achieving a common platform for team efficiency.

The up sides of groupwork are of course that you get different viewpoints. It is empirically proven, e.g in case of Heuristic Evaluation, that different people find different problems in interfaces. At the same time, in the case of HE, having more than four or five people has greatly diminishing returns, i.e with four or five people you will cover most of the ground you need to cover without the extra overhead of the extra people. Plus if you're lucky, you'll be in a group who can have fun while doing their work. I was lucky this semester with my groups, and I'm thankful for that. :)

Recycling class material helps

This was expected. It often helps to take a step back and take a holistic look at your project and material, considering not only the class at hand, but other classes that you're taking. A lot of the HCI material is shared between classes -- not surprising, really. They all approach the same research from a different angle. Knowing the different angles helps you to produce a more coherent result in all of them. One of my favourite projects this semester was one where I submitted the software deliverable into one class, a paper based on that software to another class (of course with the approval of both instructors), and heavily utilized usability inspection methods that I just learned in another, third class. I'll write more about this project at some point when the results become available for the public.

You don't get to see the area and interact with the community

One of the expected things (but still a downer) about hard programs is that you'll be really focused on work -- so much so that you won't really get to go around as much as you'd like. There are many places in Pittsburgh that I'd like to go but still haven't, and I am not really following the local news. I watch Estonian news over the Internet, but not US or Pittsburgh news. I am much more aware of what's happening on another continent than what's happening downtown. I guess it's one property of being such a nomad. I could get in closer touch with the community if I wanted to, but I chose to not do too much of that this semester. I'm anticipating to have a bit more time for this in 2008, as my class load will be a wee bit lighter.

You need downtime for uptime

I like this recent quote from Jon Schwartz.

Remember, the difference between humans and computers is that our uptime is a function of our downtime.

Oh so true always, and even more so when maintaining a continued sustained effort such as I had to do through this whole semester. There's no big secret here: to function well, you simply need food, sleep and exercise. There were several people who said that they have work periods of 36 hours or so. I don't know how that is possible. A human body is simply built so that your efficiency moves in cycles throughout the day, and drops dramatically if you haven't had any rest for a long time. Getting enough sleep dramatically changes your efficiency. I was able to maintain a fairly regular sleep cycle -- anything between 5 and 7 hours on weekdays, and 9 to 10 hours per day on weekends to catch up. There were some exceptional nights when I had to stay up until 3 or 4 am, but these weren't really the rule.

Exercise really helps -- if nothing more, then simply to restore your blood circulation and maintain a decent energy level. I found that during hard study times when I was doing full days on weekends, it was highly useful to walk downstairs (I'm lucky to have an exercise room downstairs where I'm renting an apartment) and take a break by spending some time on the treadmill or bicycle.

You need to be able to make your own decisions

There's a highly universal pattern of life that has helped me in many situations, and this semester was no exception.

You can reach out to other people for help, advice and support, but you need to set your own direction and make your own decisions (and stick to them).

You often don't know what to do, such as what way to walk on the street when you're not sure where to go. You can ask other people, and they may have different levels of insight into the matter at hand, but you need to eventually make up your own mind. Throughout school and to some point in undergrad studies, you could often refer to someone else, such as your parents or teachers. By grad school, you can no longer have other people make your decisions for you. I've been making my own decisions and been fairly independent for a while already, so for me this wasn't really anything new.

Both certainty and uncertainty increase

Comparing to the kind of work that I did before, grad school has both higher levels of certainty and uncertainty.

There's greater certainty because you have a strict class and project schedule for the semester. My experience with work so far has been with fairly short-term perspectives, sometimes not even more than just a few weeks, as priorities and projects keep changing. Grad school, or more specifically my professional Master's program, is different because you generally know your work for the whole semester ahead and can plan accordingly. Some dates fluctuated a bit, but classes generally followed their posted schedules.

On the other hand, there is greater uncertainty because my program will be over soon and what happens after that is a great mystery at this time. I have some ideas, but no commitments yet. At work, on the other hand, if you don't screw up bigtime and keep developing yourself and being super good at what you do, you can at least in theory expect to stay with the same company indefinitely and you don't have to make big life changes unless you want to do so yourself.