philipp's blog

Not a Straight Line

This is how I tried to evade Computer Science (and failed).

Somewhere in tenth grade (out of 13 at that time in Germany), when it felt like everyone around me had already figured out what to do with their lives, I merely sensed a significant fork in the road ahead. I had no idea at this point what to do professionally, but I could see myself going into one of two general directions: tech or people.

I loved tech ever since I got my first C64. I was “that kid” people called when they had a computer problem, and I spent more nights online than I’d like to admit. Going into that direction professionally seemed obvious to me.

But I also liked working with people. I loved the theater and considered becoming an actor or a director. I could also see myself working with people as a social worker or something similar - a path my older brother has just recently started to take, ditching his plans to become a lawyer.

So which path should I take?

An Internship Settled it

There’s a 2-week mandatory internship every student must do at some point in Germany, and thanks to my wonderful teacher I had the opportunity to intern at the GWDG1, the data center for Göttingen‘s university.

I thoroughly enjoyed the internship. For the first time in my life I was allowed, even required, to work on a top-notch PC 8 hours a day, and I loved every second of it. The task was challenging, but doable, the people were nice and our contact person went out of his way to integrate us into the daily life at GWDG.

I made a decision then: this line of work is not for me. I loved it, I enjoyed every second of it, but I also realized that the men there (and they were all men) were sitting in their offices all alone, for hours, only occasionally interrupted by a meeting2. I don’t mean this condescend, I genuinely looked up to these men - but I just couldn’t see myself working mostly alone for 40 hours per week, multiple decades of my life. So I took the People Path.

Thoroughly Preparing for the People Path

I don’t know how universal this is, but admission to university works roughly like this in Germany: students are ranked by the German equivalent of a GPA (with some variations: people who’ve been waiting to be admitted move up the list, for example. The longer the wait, the higher they move). They admit everyone in this order until the capacity is reached. Then the lowest grade that was admitted serves as the Numerus Clausus (NC) and helps people to judge their chances of getting a spot in the upcoming rounds of admission.

For acting school, one of my potential career paths, this obviously didn’t apply. And for most of the other people jobs which I considered, the corresponding studies always had more spots than applicants, so the NC was only a formality. I needn’t worry about that and could continue being lazy at school.

And lazy I was. I decided against acting eventually3, I almost failed due to a technicality4 and left school with quite a bad grade. Not horrible, but certainly not great. (2.7 to be precise5). I remember going out of math class for the last time, exclaiming “Thank Goodness I never need to do this again!”, and then I was free to enter university.

Oh, how the Turntables

Before I could start studying, though, three things happened.

Firstly, I needed to do a mandatory year of civil service. This meant that I arranged for my studies as best as I could - decided on the When and the Where - and then paused my life for a year.

Secondly, universities across Germany started introducing tuition fees6.

And thirdly, the institution I chose for social work decided as the only institution in the greater area to postpone tuition fees by a semester, and then introduce them gradually over the upcoming semesters instead of asking for the full amount right from the start.

This meant that after I made my arrangements and while my life was on pause, everyone and their dog applied for a spot at my (MY!) institute. And the NC skyrocketed from a formality to 1.0, the best possible grade, meaning that I didn’t get in. I had spent my last funds moving to this town and could not afford moving elsewhere, where I would be accepted with my grade being what it was. So I needed to wait.

Fine, then I’ll Wait

Waiting was my best option, since it was clear from the circumstances that the NC would come back down eventually, and even if it didn’t, every year I waited would move me further up the list (as explained above). There was only one problem: I could not afford to wait. My funds were empty. My parents weren’t funding me. I had no job in a city full of freshmen looking for jobs that needed no qualification.

I qualified for government funding, but for that I needed to actually study something7. So of all the limited paths open to me I chose the one that appealed to me the most: Computer Science. Besides maths, CS required something like an expanded minor, so I chose the one that sounded like the least effort: Biology, despite having had zero interest in it.

No Expectations, All of them Exceeded

So I skipped most of the intro sessions. I didn’t bother making friends, and I avoided mentioning my dark little secret to anyone. I joined my first few classes almost completely unprepared, expecting to do the bare minimum that qualifies as “studying”.

Then it happened. My first class was Analytics (Maths!) held by the awesome Christopher Deninger, who announced that this class would change the way we think forever. Hoo Boy was he right. Computer Science was held by the equally awesome Achim Clausing, whose lectures revolved around philosophy, music, art and yes, also a bit of programming. As a pony-tailed overweight male wearing black metal shirts I felt strangely at home among the crowd, who essentially all looked like me. Biology also quickly turned out to be awesome, with a lecture on Bioethics shattering my philosophical and ethical beliefs forever.

Not a Straight Line

Less than a month after I started, I quietly abandoned my original plans. I failed my first math exam and learned to actually learn (thanks to my now-wife who taught me). I got my degree with a grade I am proud of, and I paid back the government funding within a couple of years. I never, not once, looked back.

If you connect the dots on my CV, they make a nice, straight line. The trajectory goes from a C64 in the 90s straight to a degree in Computer Science and then into a typical career in the industry.

Why I keep telling the story, though, and why I am writing it down right now, is because beyond the CV timestamps, the road to where I am now was crooked and bent, I sometimes merely stumbled into a direction that only in hindsight was “forward” and benefited from a healthy amount of luck. I mostly tell this story to people on the verge of leaving school with no concrete plan about what to do next, because it often feels that if you don’t have your life figured out at that stage already, there’s something really wrong. Based on my own anecdotal experience (now enriched by countless of hiring interviews I have conducted), I assure them it’s not8.

  1. Gesellschaft für Wissenschaftliche Datenverarbeitung Göttingen - organization for scientific data processing in Göttingen. I knew the GWDG from the list of SuSE download mirrors and it blew my mind when I found out they were located right around the corner.

  2. The irony that I’m describing utopia for many engineers here doesn’t escape me.

  3. I like to think that I would have gotten a place at acting school - I certainly trained for it. But fact is, I never applied and I certainly was afraid to. So I’ll never know.

  4. In short: I narrowly evaded getting the lowest grade in a mandatory subject, which would have been counted as “subject not taken”. Due to some bizarre circumstances I managed to get the second-lowest grade and could graduate.

  5. On a scale from 1 being best to 6 being worst, and 4 being the threshold between passing and failing graduation.

  6. They abandoned the fees shortly after.

  7. The hitch was, of course, that if I chose something I didn’t intend to finish, I would have a bridge to gap towards the end of my actual studies - I tried not to think too hard about this.

  8. While this is a nice and uplifting note to end this post with, I feel compelled to add the following: thanks to how awesome Germany’s social system was and still (despite its many flaws) is, it allows for a few twists and turns along your respective journey until you settle on a direction. Even when you’re broke, like I was, there is a cushion designed to catch you and help you back on your feet so that you can pay it back later. Depending on where you are in the world things are likely very different for you and you absolutely have to have everything figured out early in your life. Sorry. And even in Germany there are limits on how much you can YOLO it.

#career #personal