Photo by Jace Grandinetti on Unsplash

A Software Engineers guide to taking a year off and getting into AI while enjoying life

pascal.brokmeier
Dec 14, 2017 · 5 min read

So this is what I did: I studied computer science and worked as a software engineer / consultant for 5 years. Now I am in the middle of my 1-year-hard-cut-program and it’s going great.

If you want to learn a field like AI, there is only one way: All the way! But that doesn’t mean you need to have a stressful life!

Requirements

Let’s make a small list first so you know what you’re getting yourself into:

  • Sufficient financial backup to live a year abroad
  • Nothing tying you down where you are: girlfriend, family, fear of foreigners
  • An interest in a country of your choice
  • A computer
  • A passionate desire to study your field of choice

Okay, you got these? Perfect! Choose a country, a city and make sure you know this is what you want. Now comes the fun part: Quit your job, tell your family you’re leaving, make sure your health insurance is covering your trip abroad, get a visa, buy flight tickets and book a place for 2 weeks to get started.

The first month

At the beginning, it’s easy to jump into the ring too quickly. Don’t worry, you will have plenty of time to study what you want to study. But first, you got to get some things settled: Register with the local authorities (if necessary), figure out how you get around the city and most importantly: Get a place to live permanently! This can be easy or really really hard, depending on the city of your choice. I went to Naples, Italy, where it wasn’t as bad. I got a small 1 bedroom studio with enough space for everything I needed.

Different countries, different streets…

Extra credit for those that drive where they want to go. The road trip to your destination is often great. Of course that’s easy to say for me, I live in Europe, we have a higher density of culture than the US has fast-food restaurants. I drove from Cologne, Germany through Switzerland and Italy. That was fun!

The academic part

I brought my Hue lamps and a Google Home so I can play around with some side projects too.

Ok, you got an apartment, set up your desk, figured out where the supermarket is and your Internet connection is stable? Perfect! Step 2:

Find the sources you’ll need. I will summarize mine for the field of Data Science and AI, but if you study something else, the platforms and approaches can help. This is my list

  1. A big book: Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach by Stuart J. Russell and Peter Norvig. A great “this is the book” read to get a deep dive into the field and understand all the basics
  2. Podcasts to listen to while you run/clean/walk/shop: LinearDigressions, Partially Derivate, Data Skeptic, Data Science at Home are my favorites.
  3. Papers: Deepmind’s publications and OpenAI publications and many others. Use your university VPN (if you have one) or look at this reddit post for a good list of ways to get papers if you can’t get access to them
  4. Some “distracting” videos: Two Minute Papers Youtube Channel for inspiration and a quick run down of the latest releases. Plus it’s much better than surfing facebook
  5. Tutorials: Coursera Machine Learning by Andrew NG, Coursera Applied Data Science with Python. The benefit? There are thousands! of others studying the same as you. The perfect opportunity for remote meetups, discord sessions and so on.
  6. Everything else: Index of Tensorflow resources

Phew. That’s quiet a bit for now. Also I highly recommend this docker image by the tensorflow guys! It’s everything you need to play around with all the good things and if you run Linux (like me, yay) you even get to run it on a beefy GPU which makes things blazing fast (or at least not *wait two days* slow).

The human part

This is probably the point when you start thinking about distractions. Every time abroad should also include some fun. You can’t just study 18 hours a day. So, search facebook for some local meetups, language exchanges and exchange student associations. In Europe the “Erasmus Student Network (ESN)” usually has events in every city. There are many like them all over the world. Look for language exchanges, it’s where all the foreigners usually meet up. It’s the “I got settled” version of the hostel lobby. Everything else will work out itself from there on.

Meet people, have drinks, go on tours together, explore the countryside and enjoy the new culture. And of course, try all the local dishes! Neapolitans are especially crazy but I’m sure Asia, South America and many other places are just as mad.

Great, you’ve gained 10 kg? Perfect, time for fitness! There is no better time to get you on your path towards your goal fitness level than this year. You don’t work, you time your own schedule and you eat plenty of good food. So all it needs is some daily workout routine and you’ll reach your target in no time. Depending on where you went, you can even do some really fun extreme sports. I brought my diving and kitesurfing equipment, but everyone can do what they like most!

Why?

This question should have probably been at the start. But let’s recap: You’re young, you got some money set aside, looking to see the world and you aren’t willing to bet everything on one horse? Great! Then this is why:

  1. Life in other countries is often less expensive, making a student+ budget lifestyle really enjoyable
  2. You meet people from all sorts of places
  3. You get to eat crazy good food (just go towards the equator, it only gets better in that direction)
  4. You finally have time to learn the thing you’ve always wanted to learn
  5. Worst case: You come back without having learned anything. But that’s okay, you still have your degree and skillset no. 1
  6. Best case: You develop a unique combination of hard and soft skills and might actually make a name for yourself because you started blogging, contributing to Open Source or writing for a newspaper.

There’s many ways to improve yourself and not all of them need to be in the same old environment you’ve been the last 10 years. All you need is the Internet these days. What a time to be alive!

pascal.brokmeier

Written by

Software Developer, Tech enthusiast, student, board sports and food lover

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