19 September 2017

Why I Chose My Career Path

Today's blog challenge has me asking myself a question that I don't think has an obvious answer. It's a question that defies the single well rounded answer we see on TV: "It was always my dream to be a pilot since I was twelve". We are then treated to a montage of little John or Elizabeth as they grew up starring at the sky seeing planes pass overhead and saying to themselves, "One day that will be me" with a Hans Zimmer produced soundtrack in the background. But in order to answer the question why we have to look at the other question, how. 

Growing up I wished to be many things: a a lawyer, a writer, an artist, a priest. When I thought of possible career paths the only thing I was certain of was what I didn't want to be, a doctor - the sight of blood still makes me queasy to this day. But the truth of the matter is, as an African, there was another factor that came into my decision: what was the most profitable career path I could choose. Perhaps  was a coward; believing that I could never be a good enough writer to sustain myself on a successful writers salary or perhaps I was a realist? I don't know.

I do know though that I left the decision as late as possible; choosing Sciences for A-Level in order to give me the opportunity to choose any path I wanted later on. But then the end of A-Level came and I still hadn't chosen. Suddenly I was confronted with college applications and I didn't know what to do. So I applied for everything. By that time the country had begun its slow decline into the collapse of 2008 so I started for scholarships in the United States. I remember applying for a degree in Creative Writing at Ithaca College, a degree in Philosophy or something like that at Illinois Wesleyan and Computer Science at some other university whose name now escapes my memory. They all declined to have me.

107 500 dollars of school fees, NUST was on fire!
My heart broken, I applied at the local National University of Science & Technology in Bulawayo. I applied to be, in order of preference, an architect, an electrical engineer and a computer scientist. I really didn't care for the last two, at that point I was convinced that architecture was the creative outlet I needed and that I would design Zimbabwe's next great skyscraper, the signature tower that would be in every postcard of Harare. Several weeks later, NUST shattered my architect dream and offered me a place in their Computer Science course. Now remember, I had applied to be an architect, not really thinking I would be refused so this came as a huge shock to me. I remember at the time, my best friend once asked me to accompany him to his brothers office to collect a hard drive and I had looked at him and asked, 'what is a hard drive?' This was after I had been accepted into NUST!

To make matters worse I was under the assumption that Computer Science was basically sitting at Computers all day and figuring out how they worked. This sounds innocuous until you realise I mean, I thought we were going to be trained for four years on how to use Windows. Little did I know that Computer Science was the study of 'automating algorithmic processes that scale, the theory of computation and the design of computational systems'. This is the fundamental difference between the perceived definition of Computer Science and its actual definition that pisses off many a Scientist when asked to repair a broken printer and being mocked when they are not able to do so. Computers are not what we actually study, computation is. 

But then when I found out the difference I thought back to my time as a child. I had always been fascinated by how stuff worked and my parents had wasted their breath on shouting at me after discovering me taking apart the TV, the VCR and kitchen appliances. I remembered drawing designs of a calculator that would be all touch screen so it could draw graphs and speak to you (If only I had had the imagination to imagine the calculator making phone calls, I could have invented the iPhone!). And I remembered a long afternoon spent trying to figure out why a wire connected to a dish on one end and connected to our TV on the other wasn't acting as a satellite dish.

I shrugged my shoulders and made off to NUST to start off a brave new future as a future graduate of one of Zimbabwe's newest and best universities. If only the story ended there with a happy ending neh? I dropped out after two weeks (that's another story) but the vision I had had of my primitive satellite dish stayed with me and I ended up years later as an Embedded Software Engineer.

The end.

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