My Story, Part 1: The Accidental Engineer

It turns out that if you make your university choices for reasons other than passionate interest and enrol in what can accurately be described as a hellishly difficult program while completely lacking any study skills or positive work habits whatsoever, then you will get your ass kicked, hard.

OK, not the most creative title.

Points for clarity.

[This is the second of a series of posts in which I explain my journey from a small town, through the University of Waterloo, to a career in technology marketing. Part one is Sharing my experiences with today’s students.]

Earlier, I mentioned that I’d spoken recently at the University of Waterloo, as part of a speaker series that brings alumni to campus to share their experiences with today’s students. In this post, I tell the story of how I came to attend the University of Waterloo in the first place. Where applicable, I also touch on what I was trying to achieve with each slide, as a storyteller.

I started the session with an “Introduction” slide and an “About Me” slide. The purpose of these slides was to show the audience where the story was going and create a curiosity gap; if they thought the content was relevant, then this would give them a reason to pay attention and stick around through any twists and turns, even after the free pizza was depleted.

The purpose of these slides was to show the audience where the story was going and create a curiosity gap; if they thought the content was relevant, then this would give them a reason to pay attention and stick around through any twists and turns, even after the free pizza was depleted.

My “Introduction” slide had an outdated corporate headshot and three bullets:

  • My story might be a bit different than others you’ve heard
  • I had a mixed experience at UW…but I donate every year
  • I don’t work in engineering, but I work in an engineering-focused company

I hoped that this opening slide would help the audience to connect a bit with me (and it certainly helped that Nino and I had already been chatting with many in the group before the session started). First, students hear from a lot of alumni, but the stories aren’t all that dissimilar, so I was trying to dispel that potential preconception immediately. Second, describing my experience at UW as “mixed” was me being polite – I did not, in general, enjoy myself. Many students in the room will be having similar thoughts, and their reactions when I explained the bullet in a bit of detail confirmed my suspicions. Why, then, do I donate a relatively sizeable amount each year? Stick around to find out! Third, I have a marketing title, but I was talking mainly to engineers (with some math and physics thrown in), so I needed them to see the link.

My “About Me” slide had similar motives: convey information but also pique some interest.

  • Computer Engineering grad
  • 32 years old
  • Married, with dog
  • Lead product marketing for a $500 M company
  • Claim to fame: Netflix stat
Yep, I'm the guy who discovered/revealed that Netflix is a big chunk of the Internet.

Yep, I’m the guy who discovered/revealed that Netflix is a big chunk of the Internet.

In other words: I can relate to your programs, I’m young enough to be mostly relevant to today’s students, I’ve attained moderate but not exceptionally rarefied and unattainable professional success, I have happiness and balance outside of work, and I’m not shy with my sense of humour.

If I’m doing my job well as a presenter, by this point the audience is thinking, “Hm, I’ll pay attention to what this guy’s gonna say”. No one had left yet, so I took that as a good sign.

If I’m doing my job well as a presenter, by this point the audience is thinking, “Hm, I’ll pay attention to what this guy’s gonna say”. No one had left yet, so I took that as a good sign.

Next, I moved on to my somewhat undirected path to the University of Waterloo.

Everyone has an origin story, but I kind’ve skipped over the first 18 years with a pair of slides. In a piece of misdirection that is hilarious to me and probably annoying to everyone else, I showed a picture of the New York skyline with a caption “I grew up near The Big Apple” before flipping to this slide:

Look at that big ol' grin.

Look at that big ol’ grin.

The Big Apple, just outside Colborne, Ontario, is a can’t-miss landmark on the South side of the 401 highway. Every single person who has ever driven East past Toronto for an hour has seen it and will remember it. There were quite a few chuckles in the audience from those who recognized the apple’s smiling face (it didn’t use to have that face, though).

For the purposes of my presentation, this was a sufficient back-story, but I’ll share a bit more here. I grew up on a road, outside a village (Smithfield), that was somewhat in-between a town (Brighton) and a a city (Trenton). I went to a small elementary school, Smithfield Public School, before moving on to Brighton’s East Northumberland Secondary School (ENSS). It was a wonderful small-town Canada upbringing.

Here's a pic of East Northumberland Secondary School (ENSS) that I found online. Go Blue Dragons!

Here’s a pic of East Northumberland Secondary School (ENSS) that I found online. Go Blue Dragons!

…and back to the presentation. When I went through high school, we still had the Ontario Academic Credit (OAC) level (which had supplanted grade 13). You needed six OAC courses to get your Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD). It seemed that most of my classmates knew what they did (or didn’t) want to do with post-secondary, but I had no clue; I had the grades to get into any program at any university, but was quite aimless. In an attempt to find out what I wanted to pursue post high-school, I ended up taking 12 OACs (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Finite Mathematics, Calculus, Algebra, English, French, another French, Economics, Law, and World Issues Geography) in the hope that one would grab me and become my calling. None of them did.

My problem, fundamentally, was that I liked everything equally. I’ve always been this way: I just like learning. Take a look at my reading list if you don’t believe me.

Sorry, I couldn't find an image of the 2000 edition. Fun fact: all the covers I saw, covering a range of years, showed an attractive female on the cover. Marketing much???

Sorry, I couldn’t find an image of the 2000 edition. Fun fact: all the covers I saw, covering a range of years, showed an attractive female on the cover. Marketing much???

Faced with an impending deadline to apply to universities, I did what any somewhat clueless student would do: I cracked open the Maclean’s Canadian university rankings and picked the top three:

  • University of Waterloo (nevermind that I don’t know where that is)
  • Queen’s University, in Kingston
  • University of Toronto (only on the list because they offered me money…I’m not a city guy)

So now all I had to do was choose my programs. When I filled out the paper OUAC form (the crowd of students chuckled at that, apparently everything’s all “on the line” now) I paid the extra fee to apply to the maximum of six programs. If I’m remembering correctly, they were:

  1. Bioinformatics (UW)
  2. Engineering (Q)
  3. Life Sciences (U of T)
  4. Pure Math (UW)
  5. Science (Q)
  6. Architecture Systems Design Engineering (UW)

Why the strike-out text? Well, I was sitting next to my buddy Mark while we were completing our applications, and my sixth spot was really a throw-away. I had (and still do have) an interest in architecture, so I had that pencilled in. Then Mark said, “Why not apply to Systems Design Engineering at UW? It’s the hardest program in the country to get into.”…and in a display of arrogant jack-assery motivated only by ego, I did so.

Then Mark said, “Why not apply to Systems Design Engineering at UW? It’s the hardest program in the country to get into.”…and in a display of arrogant jack-assery motivated only by ego, I did so.

However, it turns out that UW has a big disclaimer about SYSE, that basically says “We only want people who are super-dedicated, so unless it’s your top choice on the application form you won’t get accepted.” (I found this out later).

As the acceptances came in, I opened the UW one to find that instead of SYSE they were offering me Computer Engineering. It’s perhaps relevant that neither did I know what Computer Engineering was, nor did I know where Waterloo was.

The next day, I was talking to Mr. Cunningham (a math and computing teacher at ENSS), who himself was a Waterloo math grad:

Me: “I got my acceptances.”

Mr. Cunningham: “Great! What did you get at UW?”

Me: “Bioinformatics and Pure Math…but instead of Systems Design they offered me Computer.”

Mr. Cunningham: “You’re taking it, right?!?!?”

Me: “Should I?”

Mr. Cunningham: “Of course, it’s one of the best programs in the country!!!!!”

Me: “OK.”

And so the decision was made, I was taking my talents to Waterloo…wherever that turned out to be. I take some comfort in knowing that a small part of me did realize that computing was probably a fairly future-friendly field, so there couldn’t be much downside to this decision. I should also point out that I had not yet by this point ever used the Internet, nor did I have an email address (seriously…the first email address I ever had was my UW one).

Since I had precisely no computing experience (beyond using them), I had to rejig my schedule a bit to take a couple of programming courses in my last term. Fortunately, it turned out that I really digged programming. My mother claims that at some point I said “I think I want to work with computers”; if true, then great, because that’s the domain into which I was headed.

And with that ridiculously naïve, stupendously ignorant, and frighteningly egotistical back-story, in September of 2000 I packed up far too much stuff and moved into residence at the University of Waterloo.

It turns out that if you make your university choices for reasons other than passionate interest and enrol in what can accurately be described as a hellishly difficult program (perhaps the most difficult in the country) while completely lacking any study skills or positive work habits whatsoever, then you will get your ass kicked, hard.

It turns out that if you make your university choices for reasons other than passionate interest and enrol in what can accurately be described as a hellishly difficult program (perhaps the most difficult in the country) while completely lacking any study skills or positive work habits whatsoever, then you will get your ass kicked, hard.

I distinctly remember my first mid-term at UW. It was calculus, and I answered 20% of the exam. But I aced that 20%!

I scraped through my first term (1A) with something like a 68% average (only about 30 points lower than that to which I was accustomed). If I’m being completely honest, there are a few reasons for my brutal performance:

  • I hated my courses: after going all general through education so far, I think I was ready to focus on a subject…but it’s a general first year so you’re doing Chemistry, Physics, etc. rather than just zooming in on fun computers
  • I was quite, if not clinically, depressed: in one move I lost all of my friends from growing up (from their perspective I left town and disappeared), I was failing at things for the first time, and I lacked motivation…I remember having no energy at all, and being disturbingly lethargic
  • I had no well-developed study habits, so I was figuring things out on the fly
  • I hadn’t taken any math or physics courses in a couple of years, since I’d done my OAC ones in grade 11 and 12, so I had to re-learn or re-member (that should be a word!) that stuff
  • Honestly, the exams bore little resemblance to the course-work…this took some adjustment and generated a fair bit of spite

During my presentation on campus, probably nothing got the audience of first-, second-, and third-year engineering, math, and physics students to pay attention quite like the statement “So I failed my 1B term”.

During my presentation on campus, probably nothing got the audience of first-, second-, and third-year engineering, math, and physics students to pay attention quite like the statement “So I failed my 1B term”.

“You’re struggling and failing for the first time ever and it’s frustrating and confusing and distressing and horrible and you’re wondering if you should switch to a different program and university? I went through that!”

Presentation-wise, the stage was now set: I’d come to the University of Waterloo for the wrong reasons, with no preparation, and had failed epically…so how did I turn things around?

To find out, head on over to Part 2: Challenge Accepted.

I leave you readers with an image from my presentation that sums up what most every UW student feels at some point. I can’t remember exactly when this happened, but I think it was around second-year. I don’t know who did it, but my goodness I wish I’d thought of it.

The University of Waterloo's Dana Porter Library, at night, during exams. Squint a little bit if you don't get why this is funny as hell.

The University of Waterloo’s Dana Porter Library, at night, during exams. Squint a little bit if you don’t get why this is funny as hell.

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Posted in Everything
4 comments on “My Story, Part 1: The Accidental Engineer
  1. Ashton Deroy says:

    Its funny when I was a customer service worker for Rogers. Netflix was a lot of the reason for our customers bill overages.

  2. Ashton Deroy says:

    Lol I love how small town we are. Two things, I live in Smithfield it is where I operate http://www.Digi-Connex.com ! Secondly I just ran a post on http://www.QuinteCommunityMatters.com about ENSS. A little on the emotional side but I used it to maybe shed light on all of the drop outs in Quinte West. I basically said even though I didn’t drop out I was tempted everyday.

    Mr. Marshall was my business teacher. If it wasn’t for him I don’t think I would of went in to Marketing. Now I am a Public Relations rep running my own business. Which is how I found this blog. It was cool to come across this. Good job in Engineering. I hope you will contact me sometime at Ashtonderoy@gmail.com

  3. […] [This is the third of a series of posts in which I explain my journey from a small town, through the University of Waterloo, to a career in technology marketing. Part one is Sharing my experiences with today’s students; part two is My Story, Part 1: The Accidental Engineer.] […]

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