I Did Not Do Well In College

I was going through some papers the other day and came across my undergraduate transcript, something I haven't laid eyes on in probably a decade. Reading through it was a humbling trip down memory lane. In the 12 years since I've graduated, I clearly remember (more like mis-remember) doing better in some courses than I actually did. Also, I have no excuse for my sub-par performance in some classes. But I have no regrets, as this is absolutely a part of what brought me to where I am today. Want to see what I mean? Read below and I'll take you through my transcript.

Want to see the whole thing in it's unabridged glory? Here you go!

(click to download)

To make things a little more digestible, I'll break it down by semester from here on out.

First Semester – Great Beginnings!

I started in Fall 2001 with a boatload of credit from Advanced Placement courses in high school. And I had a pretty good semester, especially considering that I was also adjusting to being away at school. I got A's in band (you'll see a recurring theme there). I loved my engineering graphics class, which used AutoCAD and AutoDesk Inventor, and have no clue how I only got a B+ in it because I was really good with that software by the end. My biggest regret here is that C+ in Physics. I loved Physics, still do, but was slow to pick up on their teaching method.

Semester 2 – Let's Try Again!

With one semester down, I'm now a pro at this college stuff, right? Time for my first computer science course! It was the very basics of CS, all taught in Java. I regret that B, but I got a B in that class because I got an A in ECE 110, Intro to Electrical and Computer Engineering. That A is what got me into the Computer Engineering program. I lived at the lab for that class. B's in history and calculus, which were okay I guess, and then a C- in Physics. I may love Physics, but it clearly didn't love me back.

Semester 3 – Not A Freshman Anymore!

Geography was a blow-off/sleeper gen ed class, I have no clue how I got a C+ in that. Probably because I was busy killing myself trying to do better in Physics, which you can see was a rather fruitless endeavor. That discrete math class was not fun either.

Semester 4 – Punch Harder.

Yeah, punching harder didn't work for me either. The computer science class this semester was the 2nd course in the engineering CS curriculum. We learned all about data structures and how to build them: linked lists, binary trees, red/black trees, etc. Oh, and it was in C++. The problem here is that most people didn't know C++ or understand pointers as the prerequisite course was taught in Java. And the literal one day lecture on "This is C++. It's just like Java, but now you have pointers. Here's 2 examples, now let's go on with class" really was not enough.

Semester 5 – Architecture!

At this point, I needed to take a bunch of general education classes, which wasn't a terrible thing. This actually ended up being my 2nd best semester.

Yes, ice skating really was a class. The most notable thing this semester, however, is that I started taking architecture courses. I LOVE old buildings and how they reflect the period of which they were built. Architectural history was a sanity break for me, at a time when I really needed it. I generally hated writing, but I could crank out 20 page papers for that class in under a week – the words just kept flowing. These classes were never work to me.

Semester 6 – The Wall.

This would have been a great semester, except for that class I failed. This was especially traumatic because it was the first class I had ever failed in my life. I thought I had failed a class in 5th grade and was in tears, until the teacher realized she wrote the wrong student's grade on my report card. But nope, this one was all mine.

ECE 340: Solid State Electronic Devices. The name is a bit misleading, but this was semiconductor physics. If you have a material of this shape and structure which has been doped with X amount of dopant Y, and then you run an electrical current between two points, what happens? I could do the math, but the physics and the meaning was all lost on me. This was my wall.

Semester 7 – Let's Try Again.

This semester, I of course re-took ECE 340, except it's number was changed so it's now listed as ECE 440. I was determined to do better this time around, and I did. I got a D. It was good enough to graduate with, but I still wasn't happy.

Also that C- you see in statistics there? That was totally out of pity. This was an actuarial statistics course, and while I loved statistics, I was completely lost. I was at that professor's office hours every single day. I did terribly, but she knew I was trying so hard. I am convinced she gave me that C- based on effort, because my grades sure didn't warrant it.

This second bout with semiconductors was about the time that I started to dislike the hardware aspects of my major. Computer science was much more interesting to me, and I started reflecting that preference in my coursework, at least to the extent that was allowed by my major. I stuck it out and graduated with a degree in computer engineering, but almost immediately began graduate work in computer science.

Semester 8 – My Best Ever.

This semester was my best ever, though I spent it satisfying a lot of general education requirements. I was able to squeeze in two architecture classes (yay) as well as severe weather, which was lots of fun. (We got to watch videos of tornadoes destroying stuff at a time when YouTube didn't have much to offer in that genre…) I also took a class on database systems which, honestly, was pretty useless compared to what I've actually done as a DBA and data architect in the more than decade since.

Semester 9 – My Worst Ever.

Since I had decided to pursue a minor in mathematics, I had taken a few extra math classes earlier on that pushed back some others which were required for graduation. The solution was a 5th year. While semester 8 was my best ever, semester 9 was my worst ever. Ouch. Definitely bit off more than I could chew there.

Communication Networks was an awful class. I thought I was going to learn networking, things like routing and VLANs, and that's what the syllabus said. Instead, it was entirely centered around writing a network stack and getting it to compile into a linux kernel. Not only was this difficult and tedious work, but it took several hours to compile the kernel each time, only to find yet another bug, and then you get to do it again. Most of us were constantly in the lab if for not other reason to try and implement a quick bug fix before kicking off another compile job.

I also tried taking ECE 440 yet again, because I was absolutely convinced that I could do better a third time and get some personal redemption. Nope. Another D. That class did nothing but break me.

After this dismal performance, I actually wound up on academic probation. Only like 25% of students on probation actually end up graduating. I told nobody. Not even my parents. But now they know because they read this blog. (Hi Mom!)

Semester 10 – Graduation.

Thankfully I didn't need a whole lot of credit to graduate at this point. A load of only 4 classes and 8 hours may look like I was coasting, but in reality I was busting my tail trying to finish strong and making sure I graduated. Which I did.

I won't say that job hunting was easy. All the super-smart people in my major had jobs locked down at the beginning of the year with companies like Intel and AMD. (And in my department, if you didn't get a job with a CPU/GPU design shop you were basically written off as a failure.) I even had a job offer rescinded by a company that made me an offer before checking my GPA. In the end, things turned out okay. I accepted a job offer prior to graduation with a company that believed in me even though I wasn't at the top of my class. I stayed there nearly 4 years, learned way more about computing than I ever did in college or grad school, and was mentored by the best people I ever could have asked for.

Looking Back

As with any transcript, this only tells part of my story. It shows how I did in my coursework, and that's it. I was also very involved with a lot of different activities and organizations:

  • I played in numerous bands: marching band, basketball band, concert bands, and other smaller ensembles. Some were for credit, and others weren't. Spending at least 20 hours per week practicing or performing was absolutely the norm for me.
  • I was a campus tour guide for 4 of my 5 years. This was one of the ways I got comfortable speaking in front of groups.
  • I wrote and maintained a database application for the Admissions & Records department that managed reservations for campus tours. I actually was able to submit this as my final project for that database class I took.
  • I was a member of the Physics Van, a group that took a traveling science show to schools around central Illinois. This was another way I learned to love public speaking.
  • I was a regular contributor to Footnotes, the marching band's official unofficial satire newsletter. (Think of Mad Magazine, but full of nothing but marching band jokes.)
  • I was part of a group that was trusted by Admissions & Records to host prospective students if they needed to stay overnight or wanted to shadow a student. I would take them with me to class, to dinner, to whatever we were doing that evening. Some students wanted more of a taste of college life and I was happy to show them whatever I could.
  • I was in Inline Insomniacs, a club that did weekly late-night roller skating around campus.
  • I was a member of ACM. We had a very active student chapter, and not only did I make a lot of connections through this, but also got to work on some pretty interesting projects.

And yes, I probably could have dialed back from all my activities and gotten better grades, but I wouldn't trade my undergrad experience for anything, including a better GPA. College is so much more than classes and grades: it's learning about life in general, and seeing how the world works outside of the bubble you grew up in. Even though I often feel like I was the embodiment of "D is for Diploma", I'm proud of what I did and how I did it, and I think I turned out just fine. I also feel like I redeemed myself in graduate school when I earned a MS in Computer Science with a perfect 4.0 GPA.

So that's my transcript. If you made it here, thank you for reading all this! Finally, if you are a potential employer who has stumbled across this at some point in the future and are horrified by what you see – that's okay. If these five years are more important to you than everything I have done professionally and for the data community in all the years since, then I have no desire to work for you.