This month, it was announced that UC Berkeley had gained two more Nobel laureates. In conjunction, I thought it would be a good time to blog about my time at Berkeley. The standard Malaysian disclaimer is that Berkeley is not the same as Berklee College of Music, the music school in the US east coast. Berkeley is in the US west coast, and is considered to be the best public university in the US, famous for its Electrical Engineering programs.
Why Electrical Engineering? It's funny because I was actually interested in business and business leadership, but I read the book Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World's Greatest Company and it inspired me to be like them, so I decided to go for a technical foundation first.
After high school in Malaysia, I had my guns set on an elite US education. After two years of A-Levels in Singapore, I applied to my dream US schools. I applied to only five schools: MIT, Stanford, Princeton, UC Berkeley, and Cornell (kinda in that order of preference). Five is a rather low number, but I think I felt confident. My ultimate dream schools were MIT and Stanford. In my mind, Berkeley and Cornell were safety schools. Thankfully, I actually got into Berkeley and Cornell.
The decision between the two wasn't that difficult. Berkeley was nearer to Silicon Valley, and had better weather.
I flew to California on my own with a crazy amount of luggage, two bags of 40kg? I didn't let my parents come along, and they didn't insist anyway. It wasn't too much of a culture shock. Half of Californians are Asian, and American culture was something you have been watching on TV for a long time.
I opted to live in Bowles my freshman year, an all-male dormitory. My roommates were all white: American, Jewish-American, and German (it's the oddest combination, looking back). The ambitious freshman that I was, I took 5 courses of 4-units each. Little did I know that wasn't a thing that people do there. Everyone thought I was crazy. And indeed it was not the best decision. I almost bombed my Computer Science CS61A class with a C+. The semester ended with an A, a B, two B+s, and a C+, with a GPA of 3.18.
As for CS61A, it was an intro CS class conducted in Scheme with MIT's SICP book. Three lectures and one lab a week. I frequently fell asleep in these lectures. I didn't understand much, it was baffling that many actually understood anything from these lectures. Clearly there were a lot of smarter people around me, something that I wasn't accustomed to since I was consistently performing at the top in my high school academically. I remember calling home crying at 3AM in the morning because I didn't know how to code my homework in the lab.
If I were on a Singaporean government scholarship, I would have been in trouble. But the Malaysian government scholarship which I was on didn't care much, which was great.
If the Singaporeans had my GPA after the first semester, they would have panicked big time. However, they were all so risk averse to begin with. They always took the easiest classes, with the professors who are known to be easy on the grading. In my second semester (Spring 2009), instead of following their footsteps, I actually decided to take all the hard classes, while reducing my course load from 5 to a more manageable 4. One of them was a Rhetoric R1A writing class, known to be the hardest class to fulfil the Engineering writing requirement. Singaporeans would flock to the easier variants of this requirement.
I actually took with me a valuable lesson after going through Rhetoric R1A. In high school, when you write an essay, you planned an introduction, your three points, and your conclusion way in advance. I had to undo that learning in Rhetoric R1A. In Rhetoric class, when I write, I write with a supposed hyphothesis. In the course of the many pages to come, I will try to unpack and examine the hyphothesis, whether or not it is true, and may actually end the essay with an opposing view. In other words, I do not start writing with a forgone conclusion.
Thankfully for me, I got an A in Rhetoric R1A. I also took CS61CL, a lab version of CS61C, another required CS lower-division class. The lab version of the class was three labs and one lecture per week. This version of the class worked so much better in my favor. My second semester ended with an A+, A, A-, and a B+. But the thing with GPA is that it is a cumulative average. My CGPA became 3.43, much better, but still very damaged.
Another instance where I decided to go diabolical on myself was taking CS61B with Paul Hilfinger. His medians on his mid-term exams were 2 out of 20. It was also partly why I took CS61CL the semester before. I planned to take CS61B with Hilfinger the following semester. I think I failed almost all the mid-terms in CS61B, but pulled a decent score in the final. But there was a surprise element that few people realized. If you put in a lot of hours in the final project to make it work, and achieved all the bonus sections of that project, you were rewarded with huge bonus points toward your grade. I spent an inordinate amount of time on my chess program for the final project, and also qualified for a lot of bonus points, which more than made up for the terrible exam grades. I got an A in CS61B. It's the grade I am most proud of throughout my time at Berkeley.
My lack of risk-aversion also led me to think, "Since I'm sponsored here, I could take language classes for free!" And so I took four semesters of Chinese courses, to a point where I could speak and write Chinese essays.
I also interned in Professor Ali Javey's nanotech lab in the EECS department as an undergrad research assistant. Unfortunately, I eventually decided that working with silicon was extremely difficult and very challenging. What also struck me was, at this top tier research university, the professor's lab was organized very informally. It was, contrary to my expectations, not exactly a world class operation with high formality and high barriers. Research was very collaborative, very down to earth, very agile, and very flexible. It was eye-opening.
When junior year came, I knew that Electrical Engineering wasn't quite my thing. Everything in EE was about transistors and silicon, and it was just boring. To do anything, you had to get a Masters in EE! And so I basically switched to focus more on CS from junior year onwards. At the same time, I decided to fulfil my childhood interest in Physics, and realized that I could actually complete the requirements of the Physics major and the EECS major both at the same time, on time. So I also embarked on a Physics major.
Because of my late switch to CS, I felt uncompetitive in applying to any Silicon Valley software internships. This would lead to me also being uncompetitive when applying for jobs in my senior year. And my double major meant that I also had to do summer school (which was also paid for). I managed to get A/A-/A+ in most of my Physics classes. The Physics subject I almost flunked was General Relativity. I just didn't understand any of it, and the entire semester in that class was a drag also due to other personal issues. I just kept to myself in that class, without talking to anybody. In fact, I didn't attend the Physics Department graduation ceremony because I thought I failed the General Relativity exam. I should have, because not only can you walk despite failing, you could also redo another course? Anyway, I barely passed with a D and made it out of Berkeley as a Physics major.
As for CS, I managed to do enough upper-division CS classes to make it out with an EECS degree. I even did a Ruby-on-Rails course in my final semester, which was actually instrumental in helping me find a job back in Malaysia. But it also meant I would be set on a startup software stack trajectory, instead of a Java/.NET enterprise trajectory. Coolness has a price. Also, my laser focus on completing course work meant that I had little time to apply and interview for jobs in my last semester. To continue the pattern of doing hard things, I even took a Dostoevsky class in my final semester. Somehow, I passed the class despite not having read all the required reading.
Another fun class I took was Gospel Chorus. You basically rehearse with a like-minded group and perform Gospel music to an audience a couple of times to pass the class. It was actually fun and memorable.
I had an opportunity to be an EE40 teaching assistant the summer before my senior year (because I got an A in EE40). I actually did the job and got paid a lot of money for it. Somehow I managed to fake it till I made it in that TA job. Felt like an impostor. Thankfully no one complained about me being an impostor.
Berkeley has the effect of humbling you, especially if you came out top in your high school. It was my reckoning and positioning correction in life. I ended my time at Berkeley with a CGPA of 3.65. Alas, not a 3.8 but I didn't really care for some reason. I have ZERO regrets about not getting a higher CGPA in Berkeley, with my policy of doing hard things. I was there to challenge myself, and I did.
All this is very academic. Another large part of my Berkeley life was my involvement in Gracepoint Church. I shall write about that in another post. I can count the number of times I headed to SF for fun with one hand or two hands. Most of my Berkeley life was academic, and church (for better or worse).
Overall, Berkeley is very public school feel. The buildings are old, the classrooms and lecture halls are a bit dated. MIT and Stanford would feel more polished. But the brains are definitely there. I haven't stepped onto Berkeley since I left in 2012, and I would love to go there again soon.