To School and Back Again: An Unexpected Journey
“Promise me that you will get your Master’s degree,” my mother would request of me, again, after I told her how my day at high school had been.
“Education is a life-long process; you will never stop learning,” my father would remind me after he finished reviewing my nightly homework in elementary school.
My parents had made a concentrated effort to instill within my sister and me the value and importance of higher education from a very early age.
Growing up, my sister and I always heard stories about how our mother was this close to finishing the Italian equivalent of her Master’s degree, but ultimately let one final exam stop her from completing her graduate curriculum. She wanted to make sure that never happened to us because, like many great parents, she longed for us to have even more opportunities in life than she’d had.
“Promise me that you’ll get your Master’s, and then you’ll be able to do anything you want with your life.”
That was the bargain she had struck with me, and I accepted those terms, over and over again, throughout the years of my childhood and adolescence. This is the story of how I broke those countless promises that I made to my mother.
While I was a freshman Computer Engineering major at the University of Maryland I discovered my department’s Combined BS/MS program. This appealed to me greatly because 1) It was advertised as a five-year program, 2) acceptance was sometimes coupled with tuition remission, a half graduate teaching assistantship, and a scholarship stipend, and 3) I was raised knowing I would get my MS before starting work full-time! I looked up the requirements for the program, made a note on my calendar to apply in 2 years, and placed it in the back of my mind. After I finished my fall semester of junior year I would be ready, but for now I had to study for that Calculus III midterm…
Fast-forward about 2 years, 32 classes, and 90 credits, and there I was, a junior in my spring semester. I had often worked myself ragged, but it seemed to be paying off — I had an exciting internship lined up for the summer and I had been accepted into the Combined BS/MS program! My offer had even included the half teaching assistantship and scholarship stipend! All of those countless hours spent on (occasionally frustrating) problem sets, all of those sessions spent designing solutions to (sometimes unclear) Comp. Sci. projects, all of those nights and evenings spent studying for (periodically cruel) exams…they were all worth it! I felt like I had finally secured my end of the bargain that I had made with my parents as a kid. After this, I would be able to do anything I wanted.
But then summer arrived, and I spent 12 weeks interning at an exciting software startup in New York City. I got just a taste for what it was like to actually be a software engineer, and I completely fell in love with it. This is what I want, I decided…but not necessarily in this city… You see, I fell in love with that company and the people who had made me feel so welcome and so valued there, but I wanted a job closer to home, somewhere my future fiancée and I could both live. As I returned to school for my final year as an undergraduate, I doubled down on my classes and started looking for another internship, this time in the DC area. But first I had to survive my senior year, which had a graduate class thrown in for good measure.
Take a ton of work, add two handfuls of stress, sprinkle in some late nights, several successes, a few missteps (hey, that’s life!), maybe even a couple drops of tears, and voila! You have a recipe for my senior year! Bake on 425 for two semesters.
Honestly, it was May before I knew it. I had struggled with some very challenging classes, but ultimately I had succeeded. I was officially an engineer, which had been my dream since I was seven years old! That was one of the best feelings in my life so far — that recognition of receiving my Bachelor’s in Computer Engineering — after what was mostly a very stressful four years. My family and I were ecstatic, and there was a lot of excitement about the future. For me that excitement was centered squarely on my next journey, the new internship I had lined up! After a fantastic introduction to software engineering in that small company in New York City, I was ready for round two with a mid-sized company in Reston, VA. I was on my way to work for Appian!
No matter what I write, it couldn’t possibly do Appian’s internship program justice. It made me fall in love with software engineering all over again, while simultaneously showing me countless facets of the job that I hadn’t experienced the previous summer. I loved the interns and full-time engineers I worked with, I loved the Agile process we operated in, and I loved the company culture we were a part of. I loved the intern events that recruiting had organized for us, I loved the project I had worked on, and I loved the camaraderie I had experienced. I loved the sprint planning sessions, the sprint retrospectives, and the 1-on-1s with my Chapter Lead. I loved feeling like my fellow interns and I were contributing to the product in a big way, and growing rapidly as engineers because of it. I loved the excitement of waking up every morning knowing that I was going to spend 8 solid hours of work having a blast. In short, I knew this was what I wanted to do with life. By the end of the summer my team had completed a minimally viable version of our feature, and I was fortunate to receive a return offer with start date TBD — that meant that Appian was willing to let me finish my MS and then return to work full-time, no matter when that might be! Now I had a new goal sitting beyond my graduate degree.
Unfortunately, I did not have a great return to school. By signing up for the Combined BS/MS program, I had locked myself down to the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, which offered a graduate concentration in Computer Engineering that was different from the undergraduate major in Computer Engineering in one big way — I no longer had priority access to register for classes within the Computer Science department. In simple terms, my double major in software and hardware classes turned into a major in hardware classes only. As a future software engineer, I was devastated. My plans to take advanced classes in artificial intelligence and machine learning were dashed. There were only four classes in the Computer Engineering concentration, so all I could do was sign up for six electives in other electrical engineering concentrations, like microelectronics…
So I found myself awake at 1am one September evening, stressing out and hopelessly trying to solve a problem set for my class on Electrical Circuit Network Theory, and if that sounds like it has nothing to do with software engineering to you, that’s because it has nothing to do with software engineering. As I realized that I did not have the requisite foundational knowledge I needed to succeed in graduate classes in the microelectronics concentration, a ball of ice formed in my chest. How was I going to do this for 3 semesters? Did I mention they stopped advertising this as a 5 year program, and made it impossible to finish the MS in just one additional year? All I could do was think about the warmth that I had felt two months ago, and juxtapose that with how awful I felt now.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, Mom…”
“I love TA’ing, and my students are a lot of fun…”
“My one Computer Engineering class is fine, I guess…”
“But my other classes just make me feel so incompetent…”
“I don’t know what’s going on…I don’t know what I’m doing…”
“I’m just…I feel so frustrated and bitter…”
“There is no way I can succeed this semester, Mom. Much less in only 40 hours of work a week. At least last summer when I worked for 40 hours I felt good about it. Now that’s just the beginning…I need to work so hard just to…”
“Stop!” my mother told me over the phone. “You have already succeeded. If this program isn’t right for you then you don’t need to finish it. Do you have a full-time offer or not?”
“I do but…”
“Then work! Maronna mia, Matteo! Dai! You don’t need to do this! Your father and I already know that you can do anything you want, you have already succeeded, and walking away from this degree can’t take that away from you!” she yelled, exasperated.
And so a tension I had been carrying around in my chest for four weeks started to lessen. My crazy Italian mother had shown me a way out of our bargain. She changed the terms: “You already can do what you want in your life.”
So I sat down and drafted an email to Julia, my fantastic and kind Appian recruiter, explaining my situation. I poured my heart out, all of my emotions, in a 974-word email that probably went into entirely too much detail but felt incredibly cathartic and necessary at the time, nonetheless. I explained all of my frustrations with my graduate program and all of my fondness for my memories with Appian. I asked if I could start earlier than we had originally planned…Possibly as early as October/November of this year or as late as January/February of 2017?
And what did she say in response? Well, it started with 11 fateful words: “Hey Mathew! So, in short, the answer is a strong YES!” (no emphasis added!) I was so incredibly happy to read those words. I felt unshackled, like I was free to do exactly what I wanted to do with my life, and — if I may be so cheesy as to say it — what I was meant to do with my life! I scheduled some hard talks with one of the heads of my department, switched all of my classes to audit, and finished TA’ing my students that semester with a lightened heart and a rush of optimism for my future.
On January 23rd, 2017, I returned to Appian. And I have been absolutely adoring every day of it since! Every single day I feel so fortunate that I have found my passion, and that I can pursue it and be supported by it at the same time. Appian has been a fantastic place to work and grow as a brand new software engineer. For how excited I was to come here this year, I’m even more excited to see what my future here holds. From the bottom of my heart, thank you!