From “Baller” to Computer Programmer: My Unconventional (Undergraduate) Journey

A reflection & 3 life lessons that I’ve learned throughout my 5 years at UBC

Note: If you are interested in the life lessons alone without my personal reflection, click here

“You should really write a blog or be a life-coach or something”.

These words, that a former student of mine put so eloquently, were ones that I had dismissed at the time as a student trying to sugarcoat their way to an easy lab marking, and as a TA for an undergraduate CS class, I had become accustomed to the routine.

But as I write this post, having completed my undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia with a combined major in Business & Computer Science, my prior student’s words resonate. On the verge of graduation, I have chosen to reflect on my journey up to this point in my life for reasons that are two-fold:

  1. I believe that through my unconventional journey, I learned invaluable lessons that are worth sharing, for they may help others.
  2. I believe through reflection comes personal enlightenment, self-growth, and if all else fails, a strong reminder of how to avoid past mistakes and self-correct.
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From left to right: Winning ‘Best Defensive Player’ & Island MVP in my senior year of high school, Presenting at my first undergraduate research conference, and Posing with my team on the last day of my internship at Microsoft

The last 5 years of my life have been tumultuous to say the least, and as expected, 18-year-old Alex would come to face adversity and change. I transitioned from being a full-time athlete, working extremely hard towards my goal of being the best basketball player I could be (coming relatively close), to having to set aside the sport I loved to focus on my academics, specifically on Computer Science as a field, to working several internships at various tech/financial companies, to receiving full-time offers in the field of my interest from some of the most innovative companies in the world.

Before I self-ratify what I believe to be valuable takeaways, I am obligated to preface it with the truth. My journey was not easy. While the last 5 years were extremely rewarding, they did not come without pain, sacrifice, and whatever basket of negative emotions someone can conjure. There were times when I felt hopeless, when the pressure to succeed was suffocating and the fear of failure was overwhelming. That being said, I was able to pull through for a few reasons. Most importantly, the amount of support in my life, from both family and (small) circle of friends, is next to none. I joke with my family that I sometimes feel like I have an on-call therapist 24/7, having on multiple occasions called my mother or sister at ungodly hours of the night, seeking advice. Without my circle, I wouldn’t have been able to make it to this point, so for everyone that I’ve spoken to and expressed my feelings of gratitude, I cannot thank you enough.

1. Sustained excellence, at times, can be lonely.

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One of my favourite books I read while playing basketball competitively was Relentless: From Good, to Great, to Unstoppable by Tim Grover. A quote from the book that stuck with me to this date is:

“Excellence is lonely. Everyone relates to the struggle at the bottom, but few will ever know what you went through to get to the top.”

I have my quarrels with the phrase “lone wolf”, as I take the perspective that in order to be in a perpetual state of learning, you must surround yourself with those that can teach you something (see Lesson #2), and that it is important to craft a foundation composed of individuals that genuinely care about and understand your journey (more on this later).

While I do not believe that you must always be in isolation in order to be able to focus and achieve a goal, be it graduating from university, finishing a personal project or otherwise, it is crucial to understand there will be times when sacrifice is necessary and that the sacrifice will often result in doing something that you consider sub-optimal. Depending on the person, this may mean giving up 3 hours of video games a night or going out “partying” and “hanging out” with friends multiple times a week.

One of my closest friends throughout university exemplified this. I had texted him, asking what he was up to and if he wanted to go for drinks, as it was a Friday night where I had elected to go out and rewarded myself for making it through a stressful midterm week. He replied “Can’t tonight. Busy working on something at [the library open 24/7 called] Irving.” I decided to stop by before going out to see what he was working on. Practically alone in the quiet study hall was my friend, watching Udemy videos on how to build simple iOS apps with Swift. We had then laughed that he was building a simple weather app by following along with the course.

Since, he had gone on to work with me at RBC, for Airbus in their Defence & Space program, and was one of the recipients of a scholarship for WWDC (Apple’s prestigious annual developer conference), which rewards people around the world for their creativity in building projects with the Swift Programming Language.

My key takeaway: “Sacrificing” these singular events that can be replaced with doing something self-beneficial may not seem like much in the short-term, but just like investing, it compounds. You might never know which personal project or extracurricular activity on your CV was the one that separated you from the rest and led you to getting that job interview. I know for my friend, it wasn’t the weather app that he was building that night. But his willingness to be conscious of what’s a waste of time was what, in the long-run, separated him from our peers, and led him to now working in the Valley for a prestigious startup as a software engineer.

2. You are a summation of the people you choose to spend time with.

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The ideal. Source:

We’ve all heard the expression “You are the average of the 5 closest people in your life”.

Well, yes and no.

Yes, I do believe that the people who you choose to surround yourself with greatly influence how you make decisions, what decisions you do make, and ultimately how you go about living your everyday life. But I do not believe it is just 5 people.

It’s everyone.

Through my 5 years at UBC, I’ve categorized (broadly and for my own purposes) the types of people I’ve met into 3 groups.

  1. The Divergent — The divergent is someone, whom for likely no fault of their own, do not relate or understand why you do the things you do, and are unwilling to change or accept anything different than their own personal motivations. The divergent in my experience, can be found in larger groups of other divergents and often don’t stray far from the status-quo. I’ve learned to identify divergents fairly quickly, having tried to keep my interactions with them minimal, which is fairly easy, hence the name. The reason for this is because I’ve found other groups of people from whom I have more to learn.
  2. The Pretender — The most common of the three, the pretender is the individual that attempts to understand who you are at your core because they are intrigued by someone who is different from the status-quo (the divergents). Personally, I’ve found the pretender to be the most difficult to identify, as they appear in both relationships & friendships, and they often will either a) tell you what you want to hear or b) confirm your thoughts and beliefs through approval, passing off your thoughts as their own. Pretenders will reveal themselves when “the going gets tough”, as their true self is one that didn’t fundamentally understand your purpose from the get-go, and masked it well enough to get by the “every-day” scenarios in your life. Genuineness is a scarcity and this is where pretenders lack; the telltale sign is to flee when there is discomfort — this has proved true to me in both my relationships and within my friend circle. While I’ve had difficult and emotionally turbulent experiences with pretenders, I argue that there is a great deal of learning to be had through these experiences; revealing the deficiencies that the last type of person addresses.
  3. The “Perfect” Friend — Now, I say “perfect” with a grain of salt. While we would all love to have the infinite support and redeeming qualities that Snoopy illustrates in the graphic above, this is not reality. The truth is, no friendship or relationship will be perfect. Each will have their flaws and nagging qualities — c’est la vie— but the difference is the “perfect” friend will tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear. Ultimately, what separates a “perfect” friend from a pretender is that with each character-testing dispute, the bond between you and the “perfect” friend is solidified, whereas it is those same disputes that decays the relationship with a pretender.

Having had experiences with each category of person along my undergraduate journey at UBC, I’ve realized that having an awareness into those you surround yourself with does not stop here. Through experience comes understanding, and I believe it is necessary to meet enough individuals to see what doesn’t feel right in order to truly appreciate those relationships that do.

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True friendship comes rarely; I suggest you cherish it when it does.

Many people have come and gone from my life, but my family and my life-long friends (you know who you are), have endured every step of my journey.

I encourage those reading to seek out their inner circle based on how you aspire to be and to be relentless in your pursuit of finding the individuals that spending time with will ultimately shape your future.

3. The quality of your decisions reflects the overall quality of your life.

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While there is no “perfect” path, some are better than others. Credit:

There was no doubt in my mind that I would need to circumnavigate my degree at UBC by making decisions. Who to spend time with, how to be most productive in my evenings after a long day of classes, and what I needed to be doing to achieve my short-term goals were all questions I would ask myself on a daily basis, and have to decide on a course of action accordingly.

Through introspection, I’ve come to the conclusion that our lives resemble a network of rivers, much like the one above, and the quality of our lives is determined by a microcosm of the singular decisions we make every day.

I don’t believe that every decision we make results in an inherently binary outcome, where we are destined to live with the result, good or bad, with no recourse. Navigating the last 5 years of my life could have been done in a number of different ways, or should I say by making different decisions at different “checkpoints”. But it goes without saying that I could have avoided certain pitfalls by opting for another route when I was faced with each subsequent fork and crossroad.

Whoever is accredited with coining the phrase “The definition of insanity to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result” (Einstein, Mark Twain, or otherwise), the underlying message has held true for me.

Naturally, as a student going through university is expected to, mistakes were made. But the more interesting lesson that I took away for these mistakes was that each time I would make a mistake and evidently not learn from it, either by refusing to alter my decision-making criteria or simply ignoring the outcome and carrying on, I would surely come face-to-face with another scenario that mirrored the one prior, being forced to make the decision once again.

Through multiple iterations of this learning process, my takeaway is this: in order to progress, be it intellectually, emotionally or otherwise, you must reflect on past mistakes, learn the lesson that unveiled itself, and change the way you address the situation that led to the sub-optimal state when faced again. Otherwise, stagnation will rear its ugly head, trapping you in the cycle of making the same mistakes over and over, each with more consequential results than its predecessor.

There is hope. I believe through meditation and healthy amounts of retrospection comes enlightenment on what went wrong and how to prevent or break out of this cycle. My inner circle has been especially helpful when it comes to this, and I am far from perfect. I want to encourage those reading to see the beauty in deciphering different scenarios and how to respond (through decisions) accordingly.

I hope these words proved useful, I know putting my thoughts down has benefited me immensely and I plan on continuing to do so. The last 5 years has been everything I could have asked for from an undergraduate program and I’m beyond excited for the adventures ahead.

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UBC CS/Business Graduate — Previous SWE Intern @Microsoft @RBC @VisionCritical

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