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Futures and Options III: Economics, Journalism, or Computer Science

I realise it's been a year since my previous post on this blog, and I've found myself having very little time to do another "brain dump" on the subject of my early choices in life. With that in mind (and as I'll be traveling again soon) I get to think a little more and reflect on a few of the things that have happened.

Much like the previous post, this one's set in high school -- where I was part of the swimming team, in a band, had been programming with Turbo Pascal, Java, and then C++ later on, and was about to make a choice that would literally change the course of my life. This one is about the choices I made, and the ones that were made for me.

Note: This is part 3 of a series about my early choices in life which have gotten me to where I am today. I would greatly appreciate your feedback and thoughts, as well as for your reading through this series!


I'm a computer science undergraduate from the University of the Philippines in Los Baños (in the province of Laguna, in the Philippines). This wasn't my only choice of courses to take, but I did only apply for admission into the University of the Philippines. I would have much preferred to have studied in Metro Manila due to my wanderlust as a child (which I still have now, don't get me wrong -- I love traveling!) and when I got a chance to get away, the choice was made for me -- UP would not let me go to Diliman (in Metro Manila), but rather keep me in my home province of Laguna.

So what choices did I have? Let me take you on a detour.

Economics


I had a lot of fun in a few subjects I had taken in my junior and senior years in high school. The grind back then was unreal -- up by 6am, at school by 8am then out at 5pm, then I had to fit in things like band practice, swimming training, catching up with friends, and at one point my girlfriend and studying. I remember wanting to not ever do that back then for a living when I was done with high school and college. Yes, I know, I was young and foolish to think that I can get away from the grind!

Economics was my favourite of all the subjects. I had been fascinated with how money worked (or didn't work), how businesses set prices, the struggle between suppliers, the middlemen, and the consumers, and in general how the whole system hung together (or barely does, knowing what I know now). Supply and demand, market clearing price, opportunity costs, and various factors affecting macro-economics, micro-economics, and even just cash flow in general. I went into it thinking that I could somehow learn how banks made money, how people got rich, and how governments could actually affect the whole system.

Idealistic young man (me) learning about complex systems (economics) that seemed to have some sort of logical and rational explanation. I (and frankly nor did my teachers) didn't know it then but economic activity apparently is driven by irrational behaviour of people. I would have thought, because of the classical economic theories (simplified, to a great degree) I was learning back then, saying that rational actors would behave rationally that it would just be a matter of time until governments and regulators would figure it out and "fix" or "hack" it to their advantage for the good of the people.

There was the naïve thought of the government actually acting for the good of the people. I learned this through social studies and unlearned it as soon as I got into pseudo-politics. Then I remembered that there should be something that people can actually do about this.

Journalism

One of the subjects I had been lucky to take is Advanced English. I remember English being drilled into my brain when I was a child growing up to the point that I actually think in English and have had to translate my thoughts into Filipino. It didn't help that the Filipino subject when I was growing up was concerned about grammar and form rather than the history and the interesting things about my mother tongue. I grew up on Sesame Street, Looney Toons, WWE (called WWF back then), and Doogie Houser MD all on TV. I wasn't allowed to watch Filipino movies growing up and I almost exclusively watched documentaries when we finally got cable TV.

My fascination with journalism grew when I got the chance to start writing for and editing the school paper in high school. I loved the thought of being able to present information as well as craft the sentences that influence people's thoughts. I wasn't much of a fiction writer, but I remember writing opinion pieces that were well received. For a couple of reasons, I had a chance to write a column called "Lolo's Rockin' Chair" -- the name was because "Lolo" is "Grandpa" in Filipino (due to me having white hair early in life), Rockin' because I played the bass in an alternative/pop rock band. Classmates and even those in the higher classes, and even teachers gave me compliments on the content and the form.

These early encouragements and minor successes in writing led me to think about potentially becoming a journalist. I thought back then that being in the media, part of the press, would allow me to affect change and maybe make people's lives easier and the world a little better. This again was the naïve teenage kid thinking that justice could be achieved through the pen as opposed to the sword (or the screen).

Had I taken journalism, I honestly couldn't imagine my life now. I would probably be living hand-to-mouth, nurturing my ideologies, and hoping I win the lottery.

Computer Science

I've written about how I got into computers and programming early in my life and I wouldn't rehash that here. But for a little background into why I ended up in computer science, let me explain how the application form was structured. Keep in mind that my motivations were to 1) get away from home 2) study in the University of the Philippines, and 3) get a degree in something I'd like to actually be an "expert" in.

The UPCAT (University of the Philippines College Admission Test) form has a few fields regarding which campus you'd like to study in, and what courses you'd like to take in these campuses. You had exactly two choices for the campus, out of say 5 (I can't remember how many exactly now). Then there are a hundred or so different courses you could take, from a BA (Bachelor of Arts) to a BS (Bachelor of Science), and even some interesting ones that allowed you to do accelerated medicine studies in 5 years instead of the usual 8 or 9. You had only two choices per campus, ordered by preference. So thats:

2 campus choices x 2 course choices

Here's how I set it up:

Campus Choice 1: UP Diliman
1st Choice Course: BS Computer Science
2nd Choice Course: BA Journalism

Campus Choice 2: UP Los Baños
1st Choice Course: BS Computer Science
2nd Choice Course: BS Economics

Why I structured it this way could be explained by the following issues: 1) BS Computer Science is a "quota course", meaning there was only a number of slots available with a very high grade requirement to get in 2) BA Journalism and BS Economics are non-quota courses, meaning anybody that's above the grade bar had a good chance of getting an offer for admission and 3) I wanted to get into UP Diliman so bad that I would have taken BA Journalism if I was offered a chance to do so.

I hedged my bets, and for some reason I still do not understand (it could be that I didn't actually meet the UP Diliman bar), I landed in BS Computer Science in UPLB.

At first I actually wasn't too keen on taking BS Computer Science. I chose the course because it seemed interesting to me since I already knew how to program and thought I could learn a lot more if I stuck to it. I thought I'd enjoy it enough that if I made it in, that I could excel and maybe have a really bright future ahead of me when I graduate. It seemed like a good idea to me at the time.

Fast forward a few years into BS Computer Science I ended up slightly regretting the choice. I thought I would have enjoyed a lot more had I taken something like Economics (my first love), or maybe even something related to Business (my mistress, so to speak). I stuck through the BS Computer Science course, got a few good grades, and then I burnt out -- I got impatient and started work early. Don't take me wrong, I had a lot of fun while in UPLB -- forged great friendships, learned a lot of life lessons, partied so hard so many times I can't even say I remember some of those parties, and got me so much experience that I'm very grateful for it. But the computer science part didn't quite hold my interest long enough for me to finish it.

To this day I still have 6 units to go -- 3 units on my thesis manuscript, which I never published, and 3 units on a subject regarding numerical analysis and methods that I've flunked 3 times already due to not really being interested in it.

There were other distractions too, not related to the course choice -- my epic love story that never was and never became, happened in my second and third year. I'll probably write about it at some point too.

Conclusion

Having said all these, I found that I've learned enough and found my passion in problem solving soon after I entered the work-force that I can say all those hard years I've put in have paid off. Now I'm working in Sydney, Australia with Google, Inc. and I'm much happier about my life. I can actually say I wouldn't be here had I chosen any other course in those formative high school years.

I realise that my passion for understanding systems and my wanting to affect change in people's lives or make the world a slightly better place could be achieved through computer science. Working on systems that allow others to build amazing applications, storing vast amounts of data and accessing it really quickly, and building tools to make other engineers more productive allows me to stay hungry and passionate about the work I do.

As for understanding how money works, and crafting the sentences that shape people's thoughts -- I think I've gotten a handle on both of those too. :)

Thanks for reading. Next time, I'll probably write about the mushier side of things. The next one's going to be about the heart.

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