Letter to a Future Make School Student (Updated)

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8/31/20 — Put some final thoughts as I near graduation at the end

A bit of transparency first. This whole letter is actually part of a Make School assignment. However, I can foresee myself talking with new students and telling them this exact information so I don’t mind putting some effort into this letter and making it fun.

A little about me. Before coming to Make School I worked in the private investigations industry. I worked with companies such as Luxottica (think Oakley, Ray-Ban), Duracell, LVMH (Louis Vuitton, Hennessy), Rolex, etc. to help them find counterfeits of their products. My day-to-day consisted of making and maintaining web scrapers across sites like Craigslist, eBay, Letgo, OfferUp, etc. to create heatmaps of counterfeits being sold in the Southern California region. We would look for big importers/creators of counterfeits and send private investigators to see how big their operation was. If they were large enough they would be arrested and restitutions would have to be paid to the respective companies. Here’s a video where our case got national coverage on counterfeit Proctor & Gamble products:

My experience is definitely not going to be the same as yours will be. For example, one of the biggest stressors for many of my classmates — money — was not a concern for me as I came here completely on savings from my past work. That combined with a good touch of frugality meant that I didn’t feel the stress that would be associated with events like moving to a new place, first time budgeting, super high prices of San Francisco, emergencies, etc. The following is my best attempt to summarize resources, advice, and my thoughts — tips and tricks to Make School if you will.

With that out of the way let me first start off by saying this:

Make School is not a traditional school 🏫

They’re invested in your learning much more than any other university. Their livelihoods literally depend on it due to the way the ISA is structured. If you don’t get a high paying job in tech, they suffer. They take notice of your needs and are willing to help you on an individual level, even if that means flexing the specific criteria of an assignment. To illustrate this point I’m going to fill this section with photos of my dog Sugar. I guarantee I’ll still pass the class this assignment was a part of.

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Research the competition 🔬

While this letter is intended for students coming into the program there is a grace period where students can drop from the school without having to repay any ISA. Read the fine print on the contract you signed! If you have doubts on whether or not Make School is a good fit for you look for alternatives. Make School is not a special snowflake — other schools have the same no upfront cost/income share model. For me, Make School was the best fit when I did this research in April 2018 with Holberton being a very close second. However, competition is never static. It has been over a year since I’ve done that research and while I value my education at Make School, I’d still research everything all over again if I were in your shoes. Just remember that competition breeds excellence. There are going to be niches that other schools fill better than Make School or maybe there’s a better program overall for your needs. It’s CRITICAL that you do this step. I can’t emphasize this enough as the most precious resource — your time — is on the line. Several hours of research could save you from years of disappointment. On top of this I physically visited both Make School and Holberton and grilled the founders, students, and staff. You should do no less.

Here’s a non complete list of Make School’s competition. There could be more by the time you read this:

💵 The ISA is both a crux and a blessing 💵

Minor pet peeve: I’m going to call the $1500/$1650/whatever $$ that students get a month a living stipend because that’s what it is. For whatever reason it’s also called an ISA among Make School students and staff.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that overall the ISA and living stipend are great. It allows many people the opportunity to have an amazing education that they may not have been able to have otherwise. As a result, Make School’s campus is incredibly diverse with people from many different backgrounds, cultures, experiences, etc. It’s very atypical of the tech scene and quite a blessing. You’ll be able to work alongside people with different thought processes and gather many unique perspectives to life as you start your career.

However, the ISA is also a crux in two ways. The first is that there are people that will want to try to cruise along and take advantage of an essentially free-for-now education, especially when they feel there’s nothing on the line for them. This tends to produce classmates that aren’t motivated and have little to no discipline. On the other hand, the temptation to rush your education is there. The mindset is that the faster you finish and get a job, the less you have to pay in the long run. A good handful of students, especially in this cohort, are trying to get jobs as soon as possible. I personally don’t think it’s the right decision but that’s because there’s still so much for me to learn in the field of deep learning. At the time of this writing I can’t comment on whether or not this is the correct decision.

Be someone’s confidant

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Spoilers: the first several terms are going to be a brutal struggle. If this is your first exposure to any sort of coding then you’re going to have to learn a lot very quickly. Even if you have had some exposure you’ll be quickly pushed to your limits with topics that you hadn’t studied before. Realize that everyone will be having a similar struggle. I promise that it gets slightly easier as the terms go on. This compounded with the stresses of moving to a new place, being away from parents for the first time, financial woes, etc. will lead you to see your classmates pushed to the brink. You’ll see their stress responses and others will see yours.

In that case I ask you to be good to your fellow human. Be a good listener when people are opening themselves up to you and being vulnerable. Be willing to help them with their struggles in any way you feel comfortable. You won’t be facing exactly the same struggles but empathy goes a long way.

Make School has many outlets for feedback, some of which go directly to the highest levels of decision making power, but you and your classmates may not see it implemented immediately. That’s fine. Keep it in your mind and, more importantly, keep that conversation going. Only then will you see improvements to Make School, however small a step it may be.

What separates you from others?

I’ll admit it. I’m definitely not the best student at Make School. There are people that intrinsically understand concepts much better than I do and have more implementations of said concepts under their belt. There are people that came in that were practically software engineers already. They could have been at an internship or had a junior position at Company X. Overall they may be better software engineers than I am. However, I feel I can still stand out amongst the crowd — even if that meant interviewing for the same position as my classmates. Advice that I was given by my seniors was to specialize and specialize I did. I am the one that intrinsically understands many deep learning concepts with many implementations, especially in the field of machine vision.

You have to ask yourself what your proprietary blend of herbs and spices are. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Maybe you’re not the best at designing a backend but you’re much better at communicating complex ideas in an easy-to-understand way than your peers. Maybe your niche skills or knowledge help you stand out more. Maybe you’re a JOATMON. Just learn what the story you want to tell is and learn to tell it well. Make decisions that will strengthen that story’s narrative and you’ll find your place.

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Nearing Graduation (Added 8/31/20)

Now that I’m several weeks away from graduating I thought I’d provide my thoughts regarding the quality of education that I received. It must be pointed out that as I exit school and get ready to enter the work force again that there is still a pandemic going on. These are definitely not normal times for a new grad and there are many new challenges with the job hunt. That said I’d like to focus on what I believe Make School has prepared me for and what it hasn’t. For starters, I feel that I’ve been given a top class education in applied computer science. During my internship I’ve found it much easier to ramp up to a large codebase and figure out avenues or methods to unblock myself. I’ve been able to take the initiative on organizing some parts within the team such as the kanban board or the documentation. My mentor at Uber has stated that those are some of my stand out qualities. He has also stated that I’m at an appropriate stage for an entry level position. However, while my current work is related to data science (specifically I’m working on a data visualization library called Kepler.gl), it does not involve machine learning at all.

That’s where the pitfalls of the education I received lie. Having applied to many jobs and seen what other Bachelors level students are learning I’d say that Make School has ill prepared me for a career in machine learning. Keep in mind that I’ve taken most if not all the courses Make School has to offer on data science. There are several issues that I have seen. The first is that much of the competition for jobs require a higher education — usually a Masters or PhD. Reasonable considering the complexity of some tasks. However, I’m doubtful I’d be able to get into a Master’s program based on what I know currently. The second and most glaring issue is the pace at which Make School’s data science program runs at. If I were to sum it up I’d describe our learning as the breadth of an ocean with the depth of a puddle. I would consider it one small step above a bootcamp, which is not what I signed up for. After all, Make School is a 2 year program, not a 2 month one like bootcamps. We could literally be learning about GANs one class and recommender systems the next.

To verify this pacing and audit the quality of the data science education I received I visited 3 bootcamps that offered data science curriculums (Flatiron, Galvanize, and Insight) as well as a similar 2 year program (Holberton) and talked with students, faculty, as well as looked at their curriculum. To my surprise Make School’s data science pacing was most similar to the bootcamps. Students got one lecture to learn an entire subject and spent the rest of the day implementing it afterwards. There was little to no depth in knowledge if I grilled the bootcamp students regarding, say, what a maxpool layer did. I imagine the same would apply to Make School students. I’m similar in many ways. I certainly don’t feel equipped to handle novel problems at a startup or large company. Heck, we never even really learned how to maintain or improve a model since we were covering a different topic every class. I’m definitely not at a level where I can read academic papers and implement them as is sometimes expected in this rapidly changing field.

However, all is not doom and gloom. I’m still determined to break into the field of machine learning in a different way. I’m actively seeking a software engineering position where I can transition into machine learning internally after a year or two. I’ve talked with recruiters, current professionals in the field, and people with similar backgrounds and they’ve verified that that’s a valid path. In the meantime I’ve carved out weekends to catch up on what I’ve missed out on!

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