Hail: A look back at my time in college

Everyone’s journey into IT is different.

Some people professionally studied for a role in IT, and some people just wound up in one. Circumstances differ, but if you work with computers I think one thing is clear: we’d all be screwed without Google and Stack Overflow.

Growing up, I was of the mind that going to college was something you just… did; without it, I felt like I was going to be at a disadvantage. Chalk it up to marketing, peer pressure, family pressure… whatever you want to call it. Clearly, that’s not the case these days. At my previous job, the COO didn’t attend a higher education institution (and loved pointing it to all the other subordinate professionals that did). Even within the SQL Server community, a lot of people didn’t set out in the careers to work with databases; for many, it just “kind of happened.” And to an extent, that’s what happened to me, too. Kind of.

I was going through some old documents and came across my college transcript, and it was fun to remember those four years. And having not blogged personally in a bit, I thought it’d be fun to reminisce. So let’s hop into the time machine, and take a trip back to the heady days of 1995, where you’d find me in my Structure sweatshirt sitting in my high school computer lab with a bunch of IBM PS/2 Model 25’s.

The High School Years

Before we get started with my undergraduate transcript, we need to look at the years I spent learning programming prior to college. From 1995 – 1998, I was part of an AP program through the University of Pittsburgh where I could earn credit for learning some programming languages. I knew I wanted to go to college to be a developer of some kind, so I figured this would give me pretty good head-start. Web-based programming hadn’t taken off yet, and we were in the heyday of C++ and Visual Basic.

Each one was worth 3 credits that (I hoped) would eventually transfer into whatever school I attended. These courses weren’t available to me as a freshman, but once I continued into the “computer math” classes my sophomore year, I was eligible. The first course was broken up into two parts: QuickBASIC and FORTRAN 77. You can see I nailed the BASIC part of the course, but I “only” earned a B in the FRTRN course. Prior to that class, I had only written in BASIC/QBasic so learning a new language and syntax was tricky. In my junior year we switched to Pascal and then in my senior year we did C++ (which was the same year the district bought some real, actual Windows-capable computers for our lab, but only just enough for the seniors in this program).

These classes were difficult, but the difficulty curve was purely a syntax-related one; in reality, it was the same course 3 times where we learned how to work with variables, do some match, simple data structures (arrays) and write conditional frameworks (while loops, for loops, etc). But the coolest part of this academic program was that once a year we got to head down to campus and spend time in an actual university computer lab with actual high-speed internet (I was still on 9600 baud back home, so I felt like I died and went to heaven on a university network).

Were these classes worth it? Maybe, but probably not. You’ll notice that the 0401 course shows a repeat, because, as you’ll see in a minute, I had to take it as an undergraduate as part of my degree program.

Freshman Year, 1998

Ah, Freshman year: aside from learning how to live on my own, it was time to learn what being a responsible student meant. The day I moved in, I wrote “you literally cannot afford to fail” on a note card, and tacked it to my desk. I figured if I was going to be in student debt, might as well make it worth it. Things started out perfectly okay-ish: straight B’s, except for an algebra course I had to take. You see, I’m terrible at math. Like, really really bad. When I took my placement tests prior to coming onto campus, I scored really high on the communication part, and really low on the math part. So it was off to remedial algebra with me! Everything else were required courses ALL freshman had to take. And yes, I passed orientation. And look, it’s CS 401 again! For actual credit this time.

But something strange happened on the way to that “B:” I found out I didn’t want to be a developer.

I barely made that B letter grade; I had expected it to function much like the AP courses I took, but it wasn’t anything like that. It was really hard, and the written tests were brutal. I had to study my ass off to earn that, and it was my hardest fall class, by far. In fact, I remember the exact moment I knew this wasn’t for me: we had to make a graphical clock to display the current system time, and we had to animate it. Remember how I said I was bad a math? Well, take graphical programming (which I had never done), and mix in trigonometry to find points on a circle for the three hands of the clock, and well… it wasn’t pretty. I wish I had saved the code, because I could laugh about it now: I could render the first frame of the clock face fine; every hand was where it needed to be. But once the second hand started moving, the exact second the hand passed 15 seconds, things got weird.

In the end, I wound up using a lot of the teaching assistant’s time to get it right, but I felt defeated. Was this what is going to be like to be a developer? If this was just the beginning and I was struggling this much, the rest might not work out. I wasn’t alone in feeling this way, either: a friend down the hall in the dorm had similar reservations, and told me decided to pursue a different degree: Information Science. I looked into it, and on paper it sounded cool: instead of a pure development focus, it was concentrated on human-computer interaction, information storage and retrieval, and even GIS studies. There was still some programming, and I’d still need to pass a calculus course, but hell, it sounded pretty cool. So going into the spring term, I switched.

I spent spring term in classes that were all requirements of the InfoSci degree program, except for my first elective: Judo. Business Calculus was hard, but I worked at it. My biggest struggle came from Introduction to logic, where if I’m honest, all I remember is the word “syllogism.” We were even allowed “cheat sheets” during the exam, which barely helped. While I was disappointed with the grade, I thought the class was super interesting and I’d love to take it again, if I’m honest.

The other interesting thing about my spring term was that I started working part time for Computing and Information Services as a computer lab assistant in David A. Lawrence Hall. This mostly meant grabbing printouts from the lab printers and helping students save things on 3.5″ floppies (or running Norton Disk Doctor to help them repair them because they flopped around unprotected in book bags). I had the midnight – 4 AM shift on Fridays, and the 10 PM – 2 AM shift on Saturday nights. Hey, it sucked, but the money was great and I had an actual excuse as to why I couldn’t go out on weekends (other than just not wanting to). But, I left that freshman year confident that I had college all figured out. But “pride goeth before the fall” (of 1999).

Sophomore Year, 1999

It’s the Willennium ya’ll! Well, not just yet. Welcome to my very real sophomore slump, punctuated by almost failing both my Intro to Economics class (that I made up through extra credit) and then withdrawing from my Intro to Psychology class. I made some pretty critical errors here: first, I upped my hours in the computer lab a lot, which cut into my study time, and I also took not one but two 8 AM classes (thinking I’d have more time to work in the afternoon). Guess which two they were? I still wake up in cold sweats sometimes thinking I’m missing an exam. I did manage to ace the classes I did care about (more Judo and a Piano class, again, both electives). My political class was pretty easy too, because the professor just didn’t care. Like, at all. And it showed.

After surviving the computer apocalypse a terrible hangover, the spring of 2000 I got back to brass tacks and buckled up. I focused on more core course requirements for my degree, and even took another Astronomy course with the same professor I had for my previous one way back in freshman year. I was much smarter with my scheduling this time.

The other big thing I did that doesn’t show on this transcript is that I applied for (and obtained) a second job as a Resident Assistant for Student Life at Pitt. That meant free room and board, and as I was footing the bills for my college tuition, every little bit helped.

This was also the year they tore down Panther Stadium, and with it a lot of fond memories of going to games with my Dad and friends. They moved all the games to Heinz Field and had busses to take students down to the game, but it just wasn’t the same as having the stadium within walking distance on game days.

Junior Year, 2000

Junior year is when shit got real.

To level-set: I was working two jobs: I was promoted over the summer to Lab Supervisor of the G27/G62 lab in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning, which was cool because I was in charge of the schedule (and, by association, my schedule which was “whenever I felt like showing up” or covering for someone). I was also an RA, working for an awesome Resident Director in one of the nicest dorms on campus that was both co-ed and mostly engineering students in their second and third years.

I was busy enough already, but then I loaded up in the fall with every required course I could stuff into my schedule. With the exception of the physics course, the other three were all tough course on things like computer networking, working with advanced data structures (and my first exposure to databases on time-shared mainframes… I don’t miss VMS much), and statistics. Again, not being great at math I struggled a lot, but thanks to making some friends at my lab job, I wound up in a lot of same courses so it was easy to study together.

So when spring term rolled around, I kept the momentum going. I tried to load up on every required course I could get into, and knocked them all out. The hardest course I took was “Human Information Processing” which, while very interesting (how humans process information presented on computers), it was rough. It was a lot of research and studying, and I’m still not sure how I eked out with a B+. Oh, and I finally retook that psychology course. The ENGCMP 400 course, even though it doesn’t say it, was SPECIFICALLY for Information Science majors, and they only offered two classes each semester, so I was lucky to get in when I did.

I ended my Junior year with almost all my required courses fulfilled. I had just a few more left. Now, I just needed those and some credit hours and I was home free. I also landed my first internship that summer, too. All in all, it was a great year.

Senior Year, 2001

I came into my senior year just like my junior one by working two jobs. I didn’t have many required courses left, but I needed credits. Oh and look, my first, actual database course… 6 semesters of college later. Yup, the course probably most related to my current career I didn’t get to take until my senior year of college. Now to be fair, I did learn some things, like how an E-R diagram works and how to make a database in Access. But this is where I wrote my first honest-to-goodness SQL query, too. As for the rest of my fall term, it was all the electives I could get to get over the finish line. Drawing, sculpture, boxing, and even some body sculpting.

And my final spring term was more of the same, except I was hurting for more credits. I couldn’t take any more true electives; I needed courses related to my degree of study for them to count. Which is why you see that MATH 0025 on there. I thought my freshman year algebra was a remedial course, well, this was… something else. I think I went to class 4 times: first day, the mid term, the final, and one day when I had to meet someone to tutor them. Folks, I’m talking “order of operations” basic here. I’m terrible at math, and I was cruising. I don’t think we ever made it to solving for variables.

But of all the classes I took, two from my senior year stand out: I took an Intro To Journalism class taught by a reporter from the Post Gazette, and I learned how data gets to and from storage subsystems too. I did have to finish with another computer science course where we had to program in Java, but once I learned the syntax it was just like being in those AP courses again.

The final tally?

Not bad at all.

“So what, Drew?”

You might have read this and felt like this was a really weird flex on my part. Maybe it is; I felt like I did pretty well in college, but it didn’t come easy. The reason I’ve been wanting to write something like this was because there’s always a discussion of “can you make it in IT without a degree?” And you know what? You can, and I know lots of very successful people that didn’t. But if I could go back in time, would I convince 18 year-old Drew not to go to school? Well, I’m not so sure. In fact, I’d probably tell him to still go.

See, for me, going to Pitt was more than just the classes and education. My dad attended Pitt for a bit, so I felt a bit of legacy wanting to go there. In fact, Pitt was the only school I applied to; I’m really not sure where I would have wound up otherwise.

Going to college didn’t teach me how to be a DBA, but what going to college *did* do was teach me discipline, and how to work hard to get what I want. It taught me how to balance my schedule, and how to support myself. It forced me to step outside my social comfort zones at time, and I made and lost friends, girlfriends, as well as mentors and bosses. It was my living my life, and the experiences alone helped shape me into who I am today, for better or worse.

Was it worth the expense? That’s debatable, and student debt is no joke to someone trying to get their life started after school.

When I graduated, I marched in the Civic Arena (which doesn’t exist anymore, either). Four days later, I loaded up my Subaru and moved to Ohio to start a job… as a help desk technician at the same company I had interned for. I lugged printers and IBM terminals around for a few years until I got my shot as an in-house developer, and, well, the rest is history.

In the end, everyone gets into the workforce differently, and what works (or worked) for me might not be the same for you. Maybe you’re mentoring someone, or maybe you have kids of your own who are considering higher education. Rarely, if ever, are answers always black and white. I think the best we can do is share our experiences. Hope you enjoyed this romp down memory lane with me. Hail to Pitt!