madpen's journal

“I’m Going to China to Get Out of China”

or: How an NYU Fellowship Changed My Life

or: Why I am Becoming a Software Engineer


I had a great job and was living in New York City. My lack of luxury (a closet-sized room at 107th street and non-profit salary that barely let me break even) was well worth the opportunity to live in one of the world’s greatest cities. But I was unsatisfied — I felt as though I wasn’t tapping into my true potential. I wanted change.

An opportunity to make that change came when I was offered a position as a Global Academic Fellow at NYU Shanghai. I had no desire to return to China — I had dropped out of a year long scholarship there in 2012 and returned home jobless because I couldn’t stand the pollution — but I knew the NYU Shanghai fellowship would be a ticket to not only gain work experience at a start-up university, but also to interact with a diverse and driven group of people from many different fields.

I accepted the offer and told friends and family that I would be leaving New York and “Going to China to get out of China”. This sounded counterintuitive to me the first time, too, but I soon convinced myself that yes, although my existing expertise lay in China (years of language/area experience), I wanted to diversify my skill set beyond the language and culture of a country I didn’t want to live in (at least as long as breathing there was hazardous to one’s health). The fellowship promised to give me time and space to figure that out. I was hungry to explore.

Once settled in Shanghai, I started networking and learning — we had access to courses, professors, students and guest lecturers. My boss organized special ‘career talk’ events for fellows with professionals in Shanghai. I, like many other fellows in the program, was still figuring myself out, determining what to do with my passions and skills. I was heading in the direction of becoming a writer — mostly of fiction, but also some non-fiction feature articles on China and the environment for magazines as well. I needed a creative outlet, and I wanted that to be part of my job, so writing was a good fit. But I was open to anything.

At some point, on a particularly pollution-free evening in Shanghai, I had a revelation. A bright, full moon shone down on me as I stood, jammed in a crowd of bouncing bodies at an outdoor electronic dance music festival on the banks of the Huangpu River that cuts Shanghai in half. I wasn’t paying too much attention to the frantic music or lights; instead, I was formulating a story about characters in futuristic Shanghai that I could turn into a short story or novel. Then it struck me. Why, instead of just imagining what people could do in the future, didn’t I try to turn those ideas into reality? I started seeing those fantasies that I so desperately wanted to write about in a different light — could they be brought to life? This excited me, but I had no idea what to do about it. NYU Shanghai would be a good start.

Over the course of the NYUSH fellowship, I had met several professionals through career talks or guest lectures: a founder of BCG in China, a well-known investor in early-stage startups, a very successful lawyer, professor and businessman, and a TED Talk Organizer and professor who worked closely with the Startup China business accelerator, among others. I reached out to several of them to schedule meetings to discuss my ambitions and ideas. Some of the most important points I took away from my conversations with them were:

* To be an entrepreneur, I would have to learn a thing or two about business

* There are many ways to learn about business — consulting is one, working at a startup is another, and starting a business is another

* To be on the exciting, cutting edge of entrepreneurship, I should learn a bit about the tech scene

* To be successful in tech, I would be wise to arm myself with some practical technical knowledge

* My Chinese reading/writing skills will come in handy

I started attending small eco- and tech- fairs and talking to small business owners around Shanghai. I then went on vacation to San Francisco with my girlfriend, Charishma, as part of my winter break. We saw several friends who were working at Bay-Area tech startups or starting their own businesses.

I started to see the Bay Area as a playground for entrepreneurs — so many innovative ideas floating around and so much money waiting to be thrown at those innovative ideas — a newer, cheaper, more convenient, more efficient solution for this or that being launched every other day it seemed. To be sure, this was a highly romantic reading of Silicon Valley, but it still held a real appeal to me.

Back in Shanghai, I requested a position as advisor to the Startup Shanghai student club at NYUSH, and I spoke with one of the NYUSH computer science professors about my desire to acquire some technical expertise. He let me audit his CS101 course.

The officers of Startup Shanghai turned out to be a bunch of ambitious, brilliant students who were tech-savvy but still building organizational and leadership skills. I looked forward to all my meetings with them. My proudest moment was hearing from other students how much fun they’d had at Startup Shanghai’s school-wide end-of-year hackathon, HackSH. The club had managed to organize and run a successful hackathon within a few weeks all while preparing for final exams.

Through one of the professors I had met the previous term, I attended a mini startup consulting session at Tongji University’s Sino-Finnish Institute with his students and several Chinaccelerator startups. There, in their modern-concept office with an open kitchen, sitting pods, and a tree house of sorts, I heard founder pitches and participated in consultations for potential startup products. Through this class, I attended several other Chinaccelerator startup events. These experiences excited me — I could see myself hustling on a startup team and loving it.

I enjoyed CS101 a lot — programming was an intellectual challenge, a creative tool, and fun. For some reason, either because I had matured or realized that no matter what job I held, I would have to sit in front of a computer, I took to and understood computer science a whole lot better than I had during an intro course to it in high school.

What most excited me about coding was the ability for someone, equipped with enough knowledge, to create something functional, impactful, beautiful and engaging from almost nothing all. Programming seemed to open the doors to creation — one could turn an idea and into reality by harnessing the staggering power of a PC connected to the internet.

As far as technical skills went, I realized that computer science and coding would be one of the most powerful creative tools I could acquire. It would have to be in the Bay Area, I decided, the heart of it all. I needed immersion, and New York offered too many distractions.

I had been talking to a friend from Hong Kong about an NYC-based coding boot camp he had attended and enjoyed. After the boot camp, he had landed a position at a growing startup in the NYC area. After more research, I marked down the top rated boot camps in SF. I wanted to be prepared though, to ensure I got into the boot camp of my choosing. Some seemed pretty easy to get into, and others a little more challenging. I decided to shoot for the top, and worked hard, during my free time away from fellowship responsibilities, on CS101 problems and online courses.

The coding boot camps were generally three months long and had a hefty price tag ($12,000 — $17,000), and I wanted to make sure I would attend the best I could and get the most out of it. I was afraid I wouldn’t get into the top ones. So I looked for some courses around the Bay Area to continue my self-study, and eventually found CS61A, an undergraduate CS-major core requirement at UC Berkeley. The course advertised:

“There is no formal programming-related prerequisites for admission to 61A. However, most 61A students have had significant prior programming experience. There is no need for you to be familiar with any particular programming language. If you have taken the CS Advanced Placement AB course in C++ or Java, you are certainly ready for 61A.”

I decided to enroll.

My fellowship finished at the end of May, and I returned home with a good chunk of savings. Combined with previous money I had put away, I would have enough to be jobless (while attending class and paying rent) for around eight months before my situation got dire.

I began CS61A at Berkeley’s beautiful campus a couple days after landing in San Francisco. Over the course of the next two months, I got my ass kicked. In a great way. I spent almost all my time — on my 1-hour BART commute to Berkeley, in the library, and at home — working on problem sets, reviewing concepts, and doing mental summersaults trying to figure out things like tree recursion, abstract data types, functional programming, declarative programming and mutation. I made a couple good friends along the way and learned a ton.

I will start boot camp classes (6 days a week, 12 hours a day, for 13 weeks) at Hack Reactor on October 27th, and am currently doing about 20-hours-a-week worth of pre-course work before then.

I have been exploring the Bay Area start-up ecosystem through a bunch of free events: startup demo-days, Venture Capitalist fireside chats, and tech festivals. At SF’s NewCo Festival, I attended talks, panels, and discussions at the offices of: Imagine H2O, Nextdoor, HotelTonight, The VAULT, Lit Motors, Twitter, Adobe, Lemnos Labs, twofifteenmccann, Life of Two, Code for America, and Hampton Creek.

I have also been exploring the Bay Area by bike, foot and rail. San Francisco offers exactly what I want in a city — great access to the outdoors, urban hiking, laid-back attitudes, weather that is not too hot, beaches, lots of dogs, friendly people, and good food.

I’m excited to soon be equipped with the tools I need to bring my ideas to life. And don’t worry, I still want to write — there will be time for that later. But first, let me build a few things to make this world a better place. And as for China, I’m sure we’ll meet again very, very soon. ☺


2 comments on ““I’m Going to China to Get Out of China”

  1. Dae Ro Lee
    October 6, 2014

    Love the update!

    Good luck with achieving your goals! I know you will do well!

    I started my full time research analyst position at CBRE Korea today. Best of luck to both of us!

    Let’s catch up soon! Much love,

    Dae Ro

  2. Eunseon
    October 25, 2014

    Good to hear from you pursuing your dream tirelessly.
    Best of luck to your career and life!

    Take care,
    Kim sonsaengnim

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