Update: One semester at Berkeley

Posted on December 22, 2015

It is now December and it has been four months since I last wrote here. It’s not that I haven’t had any thoughts worth sharing. To the contrary, the recent period has been among the most stimulating for me in years. It has also been one of the busiest.

For me, starting a company was filled with weeks without weekends, and nights without sleep. Scaling the Tagged infrastructure was particularly challenging as things could break at any time, and consequently, I rarely got to set my own schedule.

Now that I’m in school, pursuing an MS in Computer Science at Berkeley, the stakes are lower—if I perform poorly I miss out on a learning opportunity, or perhaps a grade, nothing like bringing business to a standstill and interrupting service to millions of members. Still, somewhat surprisingly, I have found myself working harder than I have in years, and with less control over my schedule. The courses I chose required reading in detail 8 to 10 research papers each week, presenting research papers every few weeks, developing a research contribution in the area of big data systems, and implementing, in several different ways, a virtual machine runtime for a simple language. My guess is that for the 18 weeks my output adds up to about 2,500 lines of Scala, 4,300 lines of C, 600 lines of x86 assembly, and perhaps 2,300 lines of English. In all I met over 50 deadlines, dates that I signed up for but that I didn’t get to set.

Still, I’m happy to say that this first semester back in school has been thoroughly rewarding. Below I reflect on how my experience compares to what I might have anticipated when I last wrote here.

Expectations confirmed:

  • Berkeley is a community of amazingly welcoming, friendly, smart, and curious people.
  • The faculty are the world’s best, and spending time with them is the surest route to expert insights, be that in class, collaborating on research, or during talks or meetings.

Reassuring realization:

  • I’m able to fit in with the rest of the students remarkably well. While most are coming straight from college and with strong computer science education, I have no formal training but ample industry experience. Somehow we end up at a similar level, and we’re all here to learn.

Biggest surprises:

  • While at if(we) I almost always found myself to be the most technically versed person in the room, especially in the context of the infrastructure that we spent 10 years building. I have found it refreshing to be surrounded routinely by people who have greater technical expertise than I do, as well as to have the chance to be the “business person” in the room.
  • Computer science probably more about writing in English than it is about writing in code. The main currency of the field is ideas, and the ability to communicate them is paramount.

After one semester, would I recommend graduate school to other entrepreneurs? When the chance presents itself, I enthusiastically recommend taking a step back, finding a stimulating environment, and investing in yourself. Whether that means heading back school, joining a VC firm as an entrepreneur in residence, taking on consulting projects, traveling the world, or just disconnecting will depend on you and your situation. For me, the MS program in Berkeley’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department is turning out to be just the right thing.

Looking ahead to the spring I’m planning on a little less intense schedule, which may mean more posts here.