It's been a few months since I left my job at Perka and I'm finally coming to terms with why I did it. The most obvious reason is that I found something else to do which I hope will be at least as rewarding --- working on a PhD. Rather than working right up until the program started, I decided to try doing something radically different. These were painful decisions to make but it was no coincidence that I made them. Somehow, I was compelled to.
Working at Perka was awesome. I was writing a bunch of Java with a talented team of software engineers with diverse programming backgrounds. A number of my coworkers were Recurse Center (formerly known as Hacker School) alumn which made for an especially pleasant and rewarding environment. I had nice stuff: a standing desk, a sweet keyboard, and of course, one of those top of the line MacBook Pros. I was living in Brooklyn, NY, not far from the office, nor from my parents and childhood home. I was even getting one of those cushy software engineering salaries with benefits.
Leaving Perka was hard. My life was just too good. This is what I had been encouraged to look for coming out of the Recurse Center: a place where it's good to be a programmer. I had my friends and family. I was pursuing all sorts of hobbies that brought me joy: singing, dancing, and martial arts. I finally managed to leave because I realized that I didn't believe in what I was building. I felt loyal to my coworkers and to Perka's customers. I also cared deeply about creating high quality software. Unfortunately, I just couldn't bring myself to believe that Perka's product was something that the world needed. What was even more unfortunate was that this bothered me. My best intentions were to be satisfied with writing software just for the pleasure of it.
I've had three (or four depending on how you count) jobs since college and in each one I've had the same realization: what I really care about, at least right now, is my own personal learning. I am extremely selfish in this way. When I was finally accepted and had to make a decision, I realized that doing research might satisfy my desire to tickle my own brain and work on my own projects.
In July, I'll be joining the Computational Biology PhD program at Cornell University. Hopefully, I'll read a few books on Machine Learning, learn some biology, and start building my own machine learning models. Hopefully, I'll write a lot of software too.
I wonder how excited I'll be about all this after five (or more!) years as I will be approaching the end of my thesis project. Five years is a long of time. It's a clausterphobically long amount of time. I had to try something radically different before the beginning of this journey. A friend advised me to look for opportunities to work with refugees in the Middle East. I wound up finding an incredible nonprofit in Israel that works with primarily with African refugees in Israel. Despite my lack of experience, I was graciously accepted to their intern program and committed to spending the next six months in Israel helping refugees apply for refugee status in Israel.
I've been in Israel doing this unpaid internship for a few months now. I've started using parts of my personality that I forgot I had. Graduate school still looms in the distance but I can say with certainty that this is experience is something that will stay will me for the rest of my life. I don't think that working as a software engineer for six more months would have given me anything nearly as valuable as this experience.