Antoine Buteau     About     Archive     Feed

Why I left my computer science degree

This is a long post. I don’t usually write and like writing about myself, but I feel it’s important, because it’s about the road to find who I am. Life is always chaotic, but in chaos there’s always some good ;)


I feel a bit emotional today. Knowing that you leave behind friends, family and experience behind you is always frightening. Why ? Because as time goes you start to create real connection, you start to create habit. It’s hard for humans to break habit. But, when you look back at what you have created, what you’ve learned and whom you met, you feel that you have done something right, that you have grown along the road. That’s how I feel today. I'm happy though, because of a possible better future, more opportunity and everything left to learn. Today, a new journey start for me as I move from my Software Engineering degree at Laval University (Quebec City) to the Desautels Faculty of Management (Major in finance) at McGill University (Montreal).

Why I have chose CS ?

Hmm well the fact is, I didn’t choose CS at first. I’ve hesitated between finance and something else in science. Why finance ? I’ve always had a fixation about money. When I was younger, I thought that money was freedom, that you could invest In what you like if you had a lot of money and I was pissed of by all the capital misallocation I saw around me. I started working at 12 and my teenage years was all about playing hockey, being with my high school girldfriend and reading finance books. Graham, Buffett, Taleb, Fischer, Lynch and Klarman. Seth Klarman is my idol and is book Margin Of Safety is a clear gem and really shaped my mind. I knew that my investing philosphy would be value investing. But I had other interest in science. One of my other main interest was how the brain works and how you could apply it to artificial intelligence. My dream was to start my own value investing hedge fund with the competitive advantage brought by artificial intelligence, because information in the financial market is now a commodity. How you process the information is not.

But along the way things happens and I started to have doubt about my future. The path from a french non target school to a multibillion dollar hedge fund is quite improbable. So I had to choose something else that I could leverage to be ahead of the herd. At that time, I saw a video from Pranav Mistry an Indian inventor and it completely blew my mind.

I understood the power of hardware and software, because it brings down the digital frontier between the real world and the virtual world. Also, the computer engineering program in Laval state that you can specialize in artifical intelligence. So I could be a tech inventor and leverage my computer science knowledge to work in High Frequency Trading. A much more probable path then starting my own hedge fund.

My University deception

I did one semester (Fall 2013) in Computer Engineering and it sucked so bad… The classes were too theoretical, didn’t make sense and I didn’t know where I was going. So far away from Pranav Mistry and is pratical genius. I had a mentor who had worked in HFT for bulge bracket banks and from what I learned from him I was not sure if I was technical enough to be a HFT programmer. HFT is not like analyzing company, but much more about be a match maker.

I was lost...

I really loved my CS introduction class so I decided to move to Software Engineering. The winter semester (2014) was my best semester at the University. I started to participate in RoboCup Laval University (Robots who play soccer) in the AI team trying to code the artificial intelligence. I also started participating with the Science Cup trying to get sponsors for the events, raising around $20 000. Furthermore, I was on the Supervisory Board of my local credit union (Desjardins). The best was that my classes were more pratical and we built things that I felt were useful.

My nightmare came back in my third semester (Fall 2014). I was no longer with my high school girlfriend, my classes were meaningless and I completly lost interest in school. It was such a disapointment for me. I have always love school, always love to learn and I’m a hardcore reader willing to learn pretty much anything. I’m just curious. I found that I was less technical than I thought because of the Robocup Project. I was now lower than I ever had been and lost. So I decided to apply to McGill and HEC Montreal to have some options. I have also try to focus more on building stuff and participate in my community. Then I had a surprising news. A Google interview. Wait.. What ? Me ? Why ? A student from a local non-target University with OK grades (3.5 GPA), no real work experience and a couple of side projects but nothing impressive. The recruiter was pretty damn good and she gave me a lot of clue about the interview. There would be a lot of question about data structures and algorithm. So I decided to dropout my shitty Algo class, bought Introduction to Algorithms and The Algorithm Design Manual and studied full time on this interview. There was way more upside getting this job at Google vs coding & writing non-ending documentation in an Algo class. Plus, I had to rush the algo books to read what we didn’t saw in class. For a first technical it went well. I didn’t make the cut and didn’t get the job, but I’ve learned so much. I’ve nailed the algo and OOP in the second part of the interview, but got destroyed on a low level question in the first part. If you have the chance to apply to Google, do it, it’s a truly amazing experience. After the interview, my moral was still low. I decided to leave school for the winter 2015 and to do an internship. I quickly got a job at Bell Canada in Quebec City. Much easier to find something in the winter, because there’s less competition. Meanwhile, I got an other interview at Morgan Stanley and Shopify for a summer internship. Didn’t get Shopify, because they focus A LOT on your side project and I didn’t have a lot of experience related to the position (Account Manager + Ruby programming). It went well for Morgan Stanley and I was invited to the second round. Finally, I got a summer internship at Coveo Quebec a market leader in enterprise search.

A small redemption : Give before you get

One of the best move I have made in my life was to co-organize a Startup Weekend in Quebec City in the Fall 2014. I came across Startup Weekend in 2013, watching the streaming of Startup Weekend Montreal. I’m not really thinking that you can build a successful business in 54 hours (some did though !), but I think it’s a great event to demystify entrepreneurship and for this reason it can be a life changing events. So, I emailed Simon and Fatima, the main organizer, to know if I could help them. We built the events with my other co-organizer. We had a fantastic team. Simon and Fatima did the most important task and we did various but meaningful task. The event was a a success. This event was a game changer for me. I realized that when you put energy in your community, you give to other, you meet new people with different background, you learn a lot and you create new relationship. Finally, it creates a lot of opportunities and the Kaufmann Foundation network is huge, so you can go pretty much everywhere you want. At that point I didn’t internalize everything and still felt a bit crappy. I was confuse, do I continue in software engineering or I dropout and transfer to an other school. I didn’t want to live the same experience at the University again and I had some fear, what will people think, what will my parents think, what if I transfer, make the wrong choice, choose the wrong path and don’t get a job when I will have finish school. CS is one of the fastest growing field after all. Anyway, I did my internship at Bell Canada and completly loved it. I had the chance to do what I really wanted: build meaningfull stuff and create impact in real life. First thing I did was an upgrade to a VOIP where we made a report generation platform in Java with Wicket, Hibernate, SQL. The second project I worked was on the next generation platform of Bell IPTV. I did mostly some webservices in Java. Problem was, I still got a bad taste in my mouth and going back to Laval University was less and less an option in my head. I wanted to be more on the business side, talk with clients and see where my work could go. I had the chance to get an internship at Coveo as an IT Consultant. If you don’t know the story of Louis Tetu, the CEO of Coveo, it’s pretty amazing what he did in a small tech ecosystem like Quebec city. I had a wonderful summer at Coveo. They are growing really fast, there was a lot of HR moves (vacation, job resignation, parental, etc.), so I got a lot of responsibility and I was working on key projects.

Finding who you are

With Startup Weekend we had the chance to go to the UP Summit in Las Vegas. It’s a this event that I finally internalize everything that I have been living for a year. We had an amazing panel of speaker (Eze Vidra, Steve Case, Brad Feld), awesome people from all around the world and a great organizing team. I had a lot of times to self reflect, to talk with others and to ask question.

First thing I ditched was to stop chasing money. Most jobs today are tournament like, so if you want to go to the top you will need: luck, time and politics. After a certain threshold, every hour you work to get more money give you incrementally less benefits. Sure, you could found a startup and get rich quick but odds are against you and it usuallly takes between 5-10 years to have a liquidity events. No way, you could get rich alone with the stock market with all the players (big banks, HFT, hedge funds) trying to front-end and undercut you. Chasing money is like a dog chasing is own tail. He will be tired before he can catch it. Second thing I ditched was to stop trying to be happy. What’s happiness after all ? We always change, so it’s hard to be happy without any rock solid core values ? I did better. I found what my core values were. What defines me ? What will satisfy me and will make me a better human a better person ?

In my case, it was learning. So I have defined a small framework to make decision : Learn about the world, Learn about yourself and Learn about other. This way it satisfies my intellectual curiosity, I feel well this way and my moral is good. I owe to Brad Feld a lot of good lessons that you can check in my previous post (Give before you get, Put energy in the system, Take time to self reflect, Take time to get the energy back). I think human relationship should also be your #1 priority. I don’t talk about binge drinking with your friends every night. It’s when I’ve met new people that I’ve learn the most. Also, I think it’s important to live, eat and sleep well, because feelings and your image to the world will show what you do with your life. I also ditched fear, because bad fear will always hold you back and you will always second guess yourself if you fear.

Does it means I don't want to start a business or a hedge fund. Nop ! But my focus won't be ONLY on money, but on learning and creating a successful and lasting business.

Conclusion

You may ask, but if you love computer science and you have still a lot to learn, why you don’t continue your degree. I have 2 and a half years left in Software Engineering. I still have a bad taste in my mouth. In my degree I had the feeling that I was losing my time, that I was not progressing enough as a human being. I have tried what I can to love my University degree (a lot of extra-curricular activity), but in the end, i’m at the University to learn and get a degree. I don’t want to waste my time. We have the chance to live in an amazing time and I don’t think any living years should be wasted. You have to live now, not tomorrow, not in the past. That’s why I made the decision to transfer to an other University. I want to live a fulfilling life, not a life where I have the feeling to be hold back by an institution. I got 2 and a half year left and with my credit transfer It'll be almost the same. I will have the chance to be fully bilingual, be in a school with an international reputation and meet smart people from around the world. Look at the downside, but focus on the upside and looks how you can leverage what you will learn. New challenges mean new opportunities.

Finally, I want to thanks every people I met in Laval University and in my extra-curricular activities because without everyone of you I would not be where I am today.