My Journey in the University of Waterloo’s Computer Engineering Program — 2nd Year
This is part 2 of my 4 part series where I reflect over each year of my undergraduate career over the last 6 years. If you haven’t already, you can check out my reflections on first year here:
My Journey at the University of Waterloo’s Computer Engineering Program — 1st Year
This is gonna be quite the long article. It was a really long journey. But with only two weeks left until I am…
With that said let’s talk about 2nd year.
2A: Survival of the Fittest (Jan — April 2018)
2A felt like the ECE department got together and collectively decided on how to make a semester as hellish as possible for its students. I am happy that they have gone to change the curriculum but it still astounds me that this semester was ever actually a thing. 6.5 core ECE courses. 3 of them with labs. And to add insult to injury some of the least empathetic professors at the University. If 1A made me wary about the ECE department, 2A was really the nail in the coffin.
Get an assignment, complete it and repeat
The beginning of the term started with me moving out of rez to rent an apartment with some friends on Lester Street. After living in MKV for a year, having the engineering buildings being 10 minutes closer was definitely really nice.
Classes started off and we hit the ground running. Although the pace was similar to previous semesters, the amount of courses made it feel overwhelming from the get go. To add to this, the difficulty of the courses also felt like it was a level higher compared to the ones we had in first year. Still I was excited to get into the material as it really felt like we were finally narrowing down into our degree focus rather than doing more general courses.
That excitement didn't last for long as by the end of the second week, I was already drowning in deliverables. The labs and weekly assignments were arduous making keeping up to date with the content seemingly impossible. With 7 courses with long weekly or biweekly deliverables, it essentially came down to learning enough to complete them in time.
The coop search had also started and this time I had decided that I wanted to explore options outside of Software Engineering. By the time main round came, I decided that those options would be focused around Product Management or Solutions Architecture. Since it was my third coop term, I also started filtering to only keep higher quality jobs.
It is amazing to me how even with all the work, me and my friends somehow crafted a social life for us. Turning 19 meant that we could start to fully enjoy all the joints that Waterloo had to offer. Phil’s, Chainsaw (RIP) and Pub on King were definitely our go to’s.
Given the lack of time we had to review content because of deliverables, two weeks prior to our midterms, I was not caught up with any of my courses. If this wasn’t bad enough before the semester started I made plans based around what I though reading week would. Because we never had a reading week, I had assumed that ours would be meant to study for midterms. I had assumed that our exams would be after reading week and because of that was also booked to fly to India for 3 days for my sister’s wedding. This ended up making for a very tricky predicament.
To add to this because the department’s scheduled midterms before reading week we also we had lectures, labs and tutorials happening the week before our exams. It was not a very good culmination of different factors.
I flew to India, came back and focused all my attention on learning enough of the material to scrape by on my midterms. I knew the midterms were going to be tough especially because of the stories I had heard about certain professors that I had this semester. I went through each course outline, put up my exam sticky note and headed out to EV3 to start grinding.
After much anticipation, we got our midterm marks back and, in the span of a day, our class’s morale was shattered. The class was already pretty exhausted from the constant onslaught of deliverables but these all time low midterm marks added a new level to our collective grief. Many including myself either barely passed or failed all of them.
From that sense, the reading week was a blessing. It was quite nice to have a week off to reset for the rest of the semester. A week break from deliverables and the stress of school helped a lot in preparing us for the second half of the semester.
The last half of 2A is the most close to breaking that I have ever got. But it started on a much more positive note first.
Every March, Waterloo infamously has hosted a massive street party on Ezra Street on St. Patrick’ Day. The whole city transforms as 10,000 people from around Ontario and even the US converge onto Waterloo for the day. It was a lot of fun and is something that is quite unique to the city.
After St. Patty’s the whole term becomes one big blur for me. I knew that failing the semester was a very real possibility for me and so my daily schedule for the month of April consisted of daily 9am — 11pm study sessions.
Wake up, go to a classroom, review content, sleep, repeat.
I don’t think there was a more depressing period in my life than that brutal month of April.
It seems extreme but there were so many exams covering such a large amount of content that there was no other way of getting a passing mark. This pressure, stress and anxiety was getting to everyone in the cohort.
We went into PAC, wrote our exams, and finally the nightmare that was 2A ended. We said our goodbyes, not knowing if we would see each other next semester and went our separate ways.
Two weeks later, I remember getting my first two course marks back and being certain that I had failed the semester. I had failed one of them and had barely passed the other. It became pretty certain to me that I would be repeating 2A again.
Another week passed and we got another three more marks back. Those courses went a lot better for me but were still not enough to stop me from failing the semester. The last two marks were make or break.
Finally one week later, I got my full mark breakdown and got the news. By the skin of my teeth, I had passed my ECE 2A semester. I would be going into my 2B semester in the fall.
I know I got unbelievably lucky at the end of 2A. I know many people who were not. A lot of students petitioned hard and stayed for a couple of extra weeks to get the ECE department to have some type of leeway for them. I don’t think any of them were successful. I had passed the semester but was still in a pretty bad place by the end of it. 2A definitely took a heavy toll on me.
Rant about ECE Profs, Courses and the Department
- 2A really reiterated that the content of the course does not matter if the profs want to make the course hell. Here are some of the things I observed through the semester that made things a lot more difficult than they should’ve been.
- A lot of courses had a marking scheme so if you get below a certain percentage on the final or midterm, all your other deliverables would be worth less and your examination mark would be worth more. So all the effort you made throughout the semester doing your deliverables could be worth nothing. This is pretty disheartening especially considering that some of these labs and projects could take 10–20 hours to complete. It really felt like it devalued the effort we put in and added additional stress for no reason.
- The most brutal final for the semester had two questions that were worth 30% and had no part marks. They weren’t multiple choice questions either, the answers were found doing multi-page calculations. One small mistake in your numbers and all that work could be worth 0.
- It became apparent that every prof thought their class was the most important and some refused to give us any extensions even when things got tough
- Picking kids to answer questions on the spot during lectures might be a good tool for keeping them engaged but can be really nerve wracking for a lot of introverted kids. I knew multiple people who stopped attending the prof’s lectures because of it.
- 46 hours of lectures, tutorials and labs per week is way too much to be in one semester
- If everyone in the class has done poorly on an exam, the blame cannot only be passed onto the students to be better prepared. The instructor and teaching staff should also be held accountable as there has been some type of failure in teaching or evaluation here.
- Claiming that the department cares about it student’s well being while still doing some of the practices listed above does not facilitate a great relationship of trust between both parties
I can keep going but for now I’ll conclude my rant here.
- Deliverables are good mark boosters but can take away from actually learning the content. Especially when they are a lot of them constantly in a short span.
- Sometimes the textbook is your best friend especially when a profs notes or course material is garbage. Just make sure you practice their old exams if you can
- If you are in ECE, I pray that you do not get some of the brutal profs I got. I am sure that you can figure them out with a google search. The stories you have heard about marks are most definitely true.
- I don’t feel like I learned anything in 2A besides what I needed to know in order to pass. I didn’t feel any closer to the material just more jaded it. I believe that overloading students with content is pretty detrimental to learning and leads to many being disinterested or disengaged
- I give 2A credit for this. After going through it I really feel like I can do anything. The fact that I got through so much content in such a short time span does give me a lot of confidence that I can take on any task.
- When things are tough, it becomes even more important to make sure you keep your wellbeing in check. Even with the stress, during my study sessions in April I made sure to at least have an hour lunch break to make sure I didn’t go insane.
- When you are overloaded, don’t waste time worrying. Start working on the tasks you need to do and move on to the next one.
- I definitely saw how much your mental health can affect your body. By the end of the semester everything felt way off.
2A was a brutal semester that encapsulated many of the issues I have with the ECE department. It had the worst month of my life and really left me in a bad place at the end of it. Still I learned a lot and it’s an experience I wouldn’t ever trade. The personal growth and bonds I formed this semester in the face of adversity really changed my life.
Math 215 — Ryan Trelford
ECE 204A — Catherine Gebotys
ECE 205— Graeme Turner
ECE 222 — Andrew Morton
ECE 240 — Peter Levine
ECE 250 — Douglas Harder
ECE 290 — Dwight Apelvich
Favorites during the term:
Favorite Course: ECE 250 (I liked the content)
Favorite Professor: Ryan Trelford
Favorite Study Spot: Environment 3, Third Floor or Hagey Hall 138
Favorite Place for Food: Pre Exam: Foodie Fruitie Post Exam: Taco Bell
Favorite Song: Strawberry Swing (Cover) — Frank Ocean
Favorite Memory: Despite all the work, the semester did have a lot of great times. Outside of my sister’s wedding, in Waterloo, my favorite memory was probably St. Patty’s Day. We started to party at 10am and went till 1am the next day. It was a wild wild day.
Coop Term 3: Recovering on Familiar Ground (May — Aug 2018)
For my third coop, I got a role as a Solutions Architect at Shaw Communications. I was pretty excited as I got to go home for the summer and try a new role with client facing work.
My initial goal for the semester was to try shaking off the remnants of 2A. So starting off, I ended up going out to party for 5 weekends straight. It was pretty extreme but it helped a lot in having me reset. I also got a chance to reconnect with a lot of old friends as well as meet a lot of cool new people.
I have little complaints about this coop term and it was really great for me both professionally and personally. Being able to do solutions architecture made me realize how much I enjoy roles that are people facing. Although I enjoyed Software Engineering as well something about being able to sit behind my computer with minimal communication didn’t sit right with me. The coop term helped me realize that Product Management or Solutions Architecture could be something an interesting path for me to pursue. Shaw itself was also a cool company and had a really nice office alongside other cool interns to talk with.
The good times of that summer was some of the most fun I have ever had. Being able to meet so many people outside of the Waterloo bubble was especially refreshing. Being home for the summer also led to me starting to eat better and live a healthier lifestyle.
By the end of the semester, I was in a really good place and ready to come back east for the start of my 2B semester. It really seemed like the worst of the degree was behind me.
- Solutions Architecture is a cool position where you act as a pseudo-technical consultant for internal clients.
- Perks at work are nice. A nice office, coffee machine and location are really nice to have.
- I can take work hard and play hard to an extreme and sometimes it is necessary
- It’s really important to talk with people outside of your predominant bubble. It is refreshing and can have unsung benefits that you realize later as well
Like many of my previous coop terms, this was exactly what I needed after 2A. Staying home, reconnecting with old friends and properly enjoying the summer was really nice.
Favorites during the term:
Favorite Spot: Lake Louise
Favorite Place for Food: Village Ice Cream
Favorite Song: My Love — Justin Timberlake
Favorite Memory: There are so many good memories from this semester that it is really hard to choose one in particular. Probably either one of the nights I went clubbing, seeing Kevin Hart or going to Village Ice Cream.
2B: Loosening of the Grip (Sept — Dec 2018)
After 2A, it really felt like you got over the hump in ECE. After 2A,In the old curriculum, your course load reduces to 4 core ECE courses and your choice of an elective! This made 2B and subsequent terms fairly light, though there are still some courses mixed in there.
By the time 2B rolled around I was really prepared for anything. Luckily there wasn’t too many surprises this time around. The first two weeks of 2B were spent grinding away on my work term report and playing a bunch of FIFA with my roommates. A work term report, for those who many not be familiar, was a 30 page report related to the work you did over a coop term. You had to do at least 3 of these in your degree. It was really tedious and I am really glad the ECE department opted to have smaller page reflections instead for the new cohort.
Coming back for the fall term was also pretty nice as we got to see experience welcome week again after our initial 1A term.
Overall, the fall term is probably my second favorite term just behind spring. Other than the fact that we had to sign a 12 month lease because of no sublets, the warm weather at the beginning the term and energy from frosh makes it a lot of fun.
Midterm hell week was also a step down compared to earlier in the degree. Depending on what you choose, an elective can really help alleviate some pressure during this time. This semester the profs also seemed to be taking it a lot easier and I got lucky as I missed out on some of the tougher ones this time.
The content of the courses was also more interesting as we started to dive deep into some interesting content. Even with all of these positives, there were some key reminders that this was ECE. Some of the labs were killer this semester as well where practically the whole class was stuck in the lab the night before (I do remember one in 224). There were some other bad marking schemes and typical issues but but overall it was a much better experience academically.
Where the pressure from academics subsided, I think it pressure for coop started to take its place. With 3 coop terms under our belt, it felt like the next couple of coop terms is where the fruits of our labor would pay of. With my experience from previous coops, I was determined to try landing a Product Manager role. I changed my resume and then started to apply to PM and SWE roles on WaterlooWorks.
A couple of weeks passed and I actually got a couple of PM interviews. However by the end of the interview I kept hearing the same thing over again.
We think you are great but unfortunately because of your lack of Product Management experience we can not move forward.
It is a tough situation as without Product Management experience you cannot get a PM positions but without a PM position it is hard to get Product Management Experience.
I tried endlessly but eventually ended up taking a Software Engineering job at IBM back in Calgary for my next coop term. It was pretty disappointing for me as I had really set out to get a Product Management job or at least go to the US this term. With this positions in Calgary I didn’t accomplish either and this ended up really affecting me later once coop started.
In 2B, my friend group decided to step it up a notch and do excursions around Southern Ontario. Seeing a Shakespeare play in Stratford, the Weeknd at Rebel, KD drop 51 and FOCO at Western are some examples of that. Being in Waterloo, I think can become easy to forget how much cool stuff is happening in Southern Ontario and what you can check out.
To wrap up the semester, we ended up having to go on our usual grind at the end to pass and awaited our results after giving our finals. This time was different and, as in 1B, I didn’t really feel the pressure of passing as much.I got the passing grade a couple of weeks later and went on to my next coop term.
- 2A was the peak for difficulty and life is pretty good afterwards
- Breaking into product management is really hard. You need to find a way of getting product management experience without having a product management role
- After your third coop, the pressure of securing positions you have been aspiring for starts to mount.
- Southern Ontario is sick! There is a lot of stuff to do.
- You shouldn't dive straight into the deep end of certain things.
- Interventions work sometimes but sometimes it can produce the opposite effect as you intended. Sometimes people need time to absorb things.
All in all, 2B was a great follow up term to 2A and signalled a shift of tone in my degree. With less stress in school, I started to enjoy all the benefits that being in Waterloo offers. I also started to focus more on the coop grind aiming to make a true effort to get the positions I wanted.
MSCI 311 — Ayman Alzayat
ECE 207 — Mohamed Yahia Dabba
ECE 224 — Bill Bishop
ECE 242 — Derek Wright
ECE 254 — Jeff Zarnett
Favorites during the term:
Favorite Course: ECE 254
Favorite Professor: Bill Bishop
Favorite Study Spot: QNC Hallway
Favorite Place for Food: Shinwa ( I cannot tell you how happy I was when this place opened)
Favorite Song: No Stylist — French Montana
Favourite Memory: My favourite memory for this term is probably going to the Weeknd concert. By far the best concert I have ever been too. But if it has to be in Waterloo, it would probably be the time of my birthday. We celebrated it properly in Waterloo fashion first and then drove up to Toronto the next weekend to do it again.
Coop Term 4: A Life Changing Experience (Jan — April 2019)
As I mentioned earlier, I ended up working as a Software Engineering Intern at IBM for this coop term. Although, I was happy to go back to Calgary for my previous coop, this time I was not happy at all.
To go once was fine but otherwise I was pretty set about going to the US and had assumed that by my 4th internship I would be able to do so. To add to this I was also quite disappointed that I was going back into a Software Engineering position even when I was determined to go into Product Management.
To try salvaging the term, I decided to try my luck and see if there was someway I could get some PM experience. So on the first day of the term, I went up to the Project Manager on the team and asked him if I could get some Product Management work fully prepared to hear I could not. To my surprise, he said that he was happy to throw some work my way as long as I could also handle my responsibilities as a SWE. Although trivial. my decision to ask the Project Manager turned out to be a pivotal moment in my career. Finally getting Product Management experience was huge for me and opened the floodgates for my later terms. This experience as well as an introduction to Data Science were major highlights for me.
Unfortunately beyond this, the positives end for me in this coop term. Although I enjoyed the work itself, I had major issues with the work environment. I did not mesh at all with the culture that upper management established at the office as they seemed to be quite arrogant and have a superiority complex. This was a complaint shared by not only me, but the other coops who were with me as well. There was also a clear motivation to establish an oil and gas culture at the office as well which does not really bode well for Software Engineering. There was also clear miscommunications in terms of performance and expectations. This made me check out of the coop term pretty quickly.
Luckily another decision I have made started to pay off dividends for me. At the beginning of the semester, I decided to take a leap of fate and start to write articles on Linkedin and Medium. This ended up being one of the best decisions I have ever made. Writing articles let me connect with a brand new community and flesh out many of the ideas I had on paper. Throughout the term, I kept writing and ended up publishing 10 by the end of it. My first article ever is linked below:
Thoughts on the Current State of Buzzwords in Tech
Preface: This article is a collection of thoughts given my experiences in Technology. It does not necessarily describe…
I also decided to take my friends offer up this semester and go visit them while they were on their coop term. So I ended up making a trip to Seattle and LA , which ended up being really memorable. If you haven’t done trips with friends I highly encourage doing so.
With a couple months of work, articles written and trips taken, I was finally done another coop term. I was also leaving my second year behind and moving onto 3A!
- A manager makes a HUGE difference in how your coop term goes. My manager’s attitude completely changed the culture in the office and my overall motivation at work
- I could finally validate that work as a Product Manager was something that I truly enjoyed and could see myself doing long term.
- A big lesson I learned is to not be afraid of asking to be put in projects or go into a field that you want. Unless the company has a specific project that they need you to do, a lot of them will be willing to work with you to make sure you get the most you can out of your time there.
- Data Science is a really interesting field and has a lot of applications. Starting from this term I started to explore some of the ways it could still be utilized.
- Writing articles and sharing content is a lot of fun once you decide to do it
- Trips and travelling are very important parts of my life
- I definitely want to move to the US eventually
- My next coop term I needed to at least hit on one of the goals I set out for myself. Going through this again would be pretty disheartening for me.
This coop term was a life changing experience for me because of the steps I took to make the best of it. Starting to create content was a big step in me pushing myself past my comfort zone. Finally doing product management work helped solidify it as a career path I wanted to pursue. Taking trips allowed me to create memories that I will remember forever. Overall this term is a pretty good reminder that it is important to take steps by yourself to make the best out of any situation.
Favorites during the term:
Favorite Spot: Venice Beach
Favorite Place for Food: Jerusalem Shawarma
Favorite Song: Someday — The Strokes
Favorite Memory: Driving on the Pacific Highway with the top down in our yellow convertible Mustang. That moment with the ocean glistening during Sunset is going to be something I remember forever.
With that my second year was over! Second Year was another huge year for my own professional and personal development. It opened my eyes to my breaking point is, opened my eyes to new opportunities and what I want in a workplace. I appreciate everything that happened this year.
Now onto third year! Third year gets weird because of the pandemic and some decisions I made in the middle of it but still has some worthwhile takeaways. You can check it out below:
My Journey at the University of Waterloo’s Computer Engineering Program — 3rd Year
This is part 3 of my 4 part series where I reflect over each year of my undergraduate career over the last 6 years. If…
Thanks for reading,