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Ask HN: Where do I go from here?
73 points by juliusmcfly on May 31, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 83 comments
As a reader and lurker of HN, I've come to respect this community as a group of intelligent, high-achieving, commonsensical people

I decided to post this today as a last-ditch effort to receive some kind of useful counsel, fully realising that this is a highly impersonal, ridiculous, and most likely ineffective way to ask for advice. But what the heck.

My first experience with computing and programming came at a fairly young age, messing around with Q BASIC and GW-BASIC on my mother's 386 computer. I would devour library books on BASIC programming, and I would spend hours tinkering around writing little text-based adventure games, and drawing circles and squares on the screen.

My interest in computing continued into my early teenage years. I developed the habit of taking apart whatever our family computer happened to be at the time and figuring out how everything fit together. I learned some assembly language, some simple C programming, and wrote a few little games using whatever technologies I could get my hands on. I had dreams of growing up and writing software that everyone would use one day.

My dreams were never really reality-based, however, and I didn't ever do the hard work it takes to translate them into actuality. I just assumed that I would be brilliant and rich one day, and everything would be fine. I grew up in small towns where people didn't talk about college very much. I always felt pretty smart compared to my peers. I guess I wasn't as smart as I thought I was though, as I had no presumption that I should try hard in school, try to get into a good college, and surround myself with intelligent people.

So, I ended up goofing off in high school. I got caught up in the social drama, partied, and I don't recall cracking a book outside of class. I graduated with a 3.2 GPA and a 1500/1600 SAT. Until my senior year, I didn't sweat my GPA too much, I wasn't even sure I wanted to go to college. When I did realise I wanted to go, I didn't see any utility in applying to anywhere out of state since I didn't think I could afford it. I could only get into mediocre schools anyway with my miserable GPA, no AP courses, and no soft factors.

I ended up spending my first two years at Podunk Community College, surrounded by the same friends I'd had since elementary school. I was miserable. I finished my liberal arts requirements, with a reasonable gpa, but no desire to finish my bachelors. I started my spring semester, got depressed with my prospects, withdrew from all of my classes, and moved away to the mountains. I now work at a grocery store making $8/hour. The good news is, I'm only 20, and hopefully still have time to turn it all around.

I've recently rediscovered my love for computers and programming, and decided that if I ended up going back to school, I want to major in Mathematics, Electrical Engineering, or Computer Science. My only problem is that I don't even have the prerequisites done to start Calc 1 which is a prerequisite for just about everything else in those majors. I sort of want to go back to school, but at the same time, I think it will take a while to graduate when I'll have to fill up an entire semester with just a Trig class, so I can fill up another semester with just Calc 1 so I can get to Calc 2, just so I can get to the basic engineering/mathematics curriculum! I would be glad to take 20+ credit hours a semester to get myself back on track, but 20 credit hours of what? Besides that, will it even do me that much good to have a degree from an unknown state university? Is that really the best use of the next 2+ years of my life?

I have high aspirations. I want to found a start up. I'm sick of suburbia. I want to move to a city full of intelligence and ambition. I'm still young and idealistic - I want to change the world. I'm willing to work as hard as it takes, but as of right now I seem to be at a stand-still with my education. I've been working my way through SICP and I've recently learned the basics of Python, but I don't know if I can learn everything I need to know through self-study. Credentialism, like it or not, is still a huge factor when you have no work experience.

I wish I'd read Paul Graham's essay "What You'll Wish You'd Known" back in high school. I'm lacking sources of good advice here in Cherokee County, Georgia, so, as stupid as it sounds, I find my self asking, "What would PG[insert name of any other intelligent person] do in my situation?" On a whim, I decided to ask HN -- seems like the closest thing I'll ever get to an answer.

I was fifteen when I came to this country. I didn't speak English. I eventually graduated from high school but since at the time, Chinese was not taught in school, it was not considered a foreign language and therefore could not be used to satisfy the language requirement for getting into University.

Instead, I applied to the local city college and spend the first semester taking high school math, physics and chemistry. Then after two more years, my English improved well enough that I was able to transfer to a four-year school, majoring in engineering. I also worked part-time in a laundry at minimum wage to save enough money so that I can move away from home to finish my degree.

After my bachelor degree, I worked summer before returning to graduate school. Then after my master, I worked a few years before returning to get my Ph.D. Then I worked again and after a few years, took a teaching job at UCLA.

When I was forty years old, I left the comfort of academia to start my first company.

I just took life one step at a time and every step of the way, I didn't ask for any favor, except for a chance to prove myself.

Now after two companies, I am retired.

You can do anything you want in this country, even if you weren't born in this country and didn't even speak the language. Just don't take no for an answer and always accept responsibility for your own failure.

> You can do anything you want in this country, even if you weren't born in this country and didn't even speak the language. Just don't take no for an answer and always accept responsibility for your own failure.

Hot damn, I love the American dream, and I love hard working immigrants who show the rest of us, when we get lazy or self-pitying, how it's done.

Dennykmiu, it's great to have you here in the US. You're an inspiration. Thanks for being here, and thanks for posting!


Thanks for the reply. Really what I need to hear. I am always impressed with people who come here, adjust to the culture, work hard, and have such great success. Really inspiring.

> You can do anything you want in this country, even if you weren't born in this country and didn't even speak the language. Just don't take no for an answer and always accept responsibility for your own failure.

It is great that you have succeeded and that people with your background can succeed in the US. However I think it's likely you are blessed with some characteristics that others don't have such as

- High intelligence

- High motivation

- The capacity to master another language

- Reasonable mental and physical health

- Some degree of luck (or at least not too much bad luck)

When giving advice for others you should keep in mind that they may not have the same capabilities that you do (I'm not talking about juliusmcfly). The flip side if your attitude is that everyone who isn't successful is substantiatlly to blame for there situation.

@dejb, I was not being condescending and if my comment came across as such, I apologize deeply. I was merely saying that life is short and it is important not to take no for an answer. This is true if you are an immigrant or not. I just happen to be one.

Actually I saw your comments a being the exact opposite of condescending. You aren't speaking from an 'assumed position of superiority' you are actually speaking as if everyone has your capabilities. I'm just putting forward the theory that you are actually better than average in many respects. Maybe assuming everyone can do what you can isn't accurate.

> I was merely saying that life is short and it is important not to take no for an answer. This is true if you are an immigrant or not.

I still agree with your general attitude. Regardless of anyone's abilities an attitude like this is likely to get the best results.

This is true as well. The argument isn't so pretty when you take it to its logical extremes.

It is true, however, that someone with all of those aforementioned traits and opportunities has no excuse. I think people that consistently try hard enough will eventually be blessed with some degree of luck.

You can do anything you want in this country

In light of the other comments, I would like to add: not just in the US. You can do that in any civilised country.

The US, UK, Canada etc, yes - countries with long traditions of immigrants both assimilating and contributing to their culture. It's an order of magnitude more difficult in a country without that tradition. Most places in the world, immigrants with no ties to the country are an economic and social underclass, with just the occasional success. Try being Moroccan in France or Turkish in Germany. There're very few places where there's even close to a level playing field.

Try being an African American in the US? There's always history and other contingent circumstances to consider. In that light it is unfair to compare a Chinese immigrant in the US with a Moroccan immigrant in France. At least compare them to a Chinese immigrant in France.

BTW, I think Turks in Germany are actually doing very well.

> Try being an African American in the US

Yeah, you might end up as president.

Yeah, in gaius' words 'you might have occasional successes'. African Americans are as much 'an economic and social underclass' in the US as Moroccans are in France.

Honestly, could you point me to any substantial documentation of Af-Americans putting in the same amount of work but running into barriers? I realize they are largely at the bottom of the rung, but it is my perception that it is largely because of a culture of refusing to "sell out", ie: learn to speak proper english, drop the attitude, delay gratification, etc.

Yes I fully realize this is a racist attitude, but I honestly haven't seen anything noteworthy to make me think otherwise.

(FWIW...I think a ridiculously large proportion of "whites" are incredibly unskilled and unintelligent as well....but it seems to me they don't put effort into it, they are just accidentally incompetent).

You made some interesting points here.. I think you are a man of science and being such a theory you hold based on seemingly limited facts is never published.

The statement made the US African Amerians are to Moraccans to France. The premise I can never agree upon. France has never had a Moraccan president. Until then I can't agree to your premise. An there being at Least 100 more reasons why the parrellal can never be drawn.. I would say that it was a reach.. My encouragement to you is to continue to live and seek and an understanding. Talk to people and, that is where books come from.. The experience of someone else. Enjoy some for yourself.. Believe me it enriches life..

JuliusMcfly, sought insight and understanding to his problem, its obvious that you and confusion lacks insight and understanding in other areas (expousing racist views) and are willing to speak without sound judgement,insight and substantial reference, how can julius or anyone else bank on your opinion in this forum or any other? Its obvious that your opinion will be misinformed,unreliable, deviates from the issue at hand and wrapped with distorted and arrogant views.

All of this is "obvious" to you?

Do you think, just maybe, that you're reading a bit too much into my question??

You admit to making racist comments, but seem to be very confident in your thoughts, and you seem to be a bright guy how can you be so certain of your self-admitted unintelligent views. Your perspective is a perspective taken by most who lacks understanding. I appreciate that. I even appreciate your opinion. I realize that you admit that they are limited to your world of perspective, by adopting racist views,understand that they lack perspective and significant thought. We are all limited by our perspective and to speak with limited perspective is to speak often time foolishly. I'm sure you have people that may listen to you and that may look up to you. Do the world a favor and simply state that what you say are based on your opinion and your perspective is limited.

That's your disclaimer.

I think maybe you missed my point....I was questioning the statement: "African Americans are as much 'an economic and social underclass' in the US as Moroccans are in France."

I think we can accept this as a general truth, correct? My question was related to why this is, as in, is this position deserved (as in, not earning a better position, in the aggregate), or is it due to being underrewarded for performing the same work as other classes.

I was hoping someone could point me in the direction of studies on this specific angle. As noted, I am fully aware that my current best guess on this is racist, that is not my question....my question is, is it correct (despite being racist). I know all "broad minded" people such as yourself "know" everyone is equal, but others, such as myself, prefer some study into it. All I have to go on from my perspective in life is what I see/encounter, and people's opinions (often based on only a theory).

There's always a STUPID comment made on every site, any given moment and at any given second of the day.. The prize goes to... "Confusion"... the name says it all..

Actually, you are incorrect. Chinese, on average, are massively disproportionately (as compared to other immigrants) economically successful wherever they migrate to.

Maybe you meant to say there is always an ironic comment made on every website?? lol

Are you even following the discussion? Are 'African Americans' such a touchy subject that your capacity to comprehend what is being said is failing you when someone mentions them as being 'a social and economic underclass'? That is not a judgment or moral statement about them: it is simply a factual statement about their predicament. It is about what is the state of affairs in the world.

Let me spell this exchange out for you:

- Several comments applaud the US for allowing immigrants to succeed.

- I point out that it's not the US, it's the OP. He could have succeeded in all of western civilization, as immigrants do.

- Gaius thinks only the US, UK and Canada are 'countries with long traditions of immigrants both assimilating and contributing to their culture'. He especially thinks Turks in Germany and Moroccans in France are 'an economic and social underclass'.

- I point out that this has to do with historical factors: there are many Moroccans in France, because it was a French colony for a long time. You could practically consider those Maroccans French. I point out that for those reasons, they are more comparable to African Americans, who also happen to be 'an economic and social underclass' (if that term applies to Moroccans in France, it applies to African Americans in the US. I'm going along with the discussion here, not arguing about a term I may not like). On the other hand, Algerians are well integrated in French society, as are Turks in Germany.

- Someone completely misses the point, because he mentions something that gaius himself had already covered as not being a good argument. (Perhaps it was only a joke?)

- I rehash the original point

Now if you would please care to explain what is stupid about that?

Turks born in Germany weren't even legal citizens until 2000. "Well integrated" is not accurate. Algerians aren't well integrated into French society, either. Your points are stupid because they are off topic and aren't correct. You're just making shit up.

If someone is making shit up, it's you. For instance, foreigners born in Germany have always been legal citizens, if they chose to accept the German citizenship offered to them.

Here are the issues with your points

1) Perhaps it was only a joke

If you want to be taken seriously this doesn't work when addressing an often times sensitive topic .. Communication 101.

2) You stated ... I point out that this has to do with historical factors: there are many Moroccans in France, because it was a French colony for a long time. You could practically consider those Maroccans French.

A Moroccan would never consider themselves french. (if your interested in references no problem) Thats calling an Assyrian and Iraqi or white or jewish..

3) You quoted.. African Americans are as much 'an economic and social underclass' in the US as Moroccans are in France.

This is where you quoted Gaius then added the note above.. Don't hide behind a quote from someone else then add your own statement and then attempt to pass it off as the original statement.

4) You stated.. It is about what is the state of affairs in the world

How does this beginning comment and the subsequent comments thereafter address the question of the original author? I see a point possibly that he can make it regardless of his socio-economic status and that others has.. just say it.. keep it simple your going into dangerous territory otherwise... you message gets vague.. and losses its point and got clouded with your own statement which was pass off as a quote by Gaius..

That's not right. Many countries have a very unlevel playing field.

It's stories like this that sometimes make me wish I had moved to the US.

The American Dream is truly a wonderful concept.

What you should really do is make a complete system and put it out there for people to use. A web service, an iPhone application, a desktop application, whatever. There are no educational prerequisites which prevent you from doing this. This will give you something to put on a resume, experience getting something done from start to finish, more general programming experience, and possibly the foundations of your own startup. It will also let you know if this sort of life is something you even want to do. If you didn't enjoy the process or you couldn't get anything out the door, chances are you might be better suited for something else. This website is hacker and startup oriented, but truth be told that sort of thing isn't the best fit for everyone and there are many other paths to success. It's better to figure this out when you're 20 and then adjust accordingly.

Yes. Making stuff is the way to learn, the way to meet smart people, and the way to increase your morale.

Remember, too, that 20 is still way young. It feels old to you, because it's the oldest you've ever been, but you haven't really cut off any options yet.

I may be seeing an imaginary distinction, but it would be great if you'd put down your thoughts

menloparkbum said (emphasis mine) "What you should really do is make a complete system and put it out there for people to use. A web service, an iPhone application, a desktop application, whatever. "

pg replied "Yes. Making stuff is the way to learn, the way to meet smart people, and the way to increase your morale."

If the OP were to build a significant library or subsystem for an existing language/ecosystem, say a natural language processing library in Erlang (I know some people who need something like this today), or create a version of Django with SQLAlchemy, that also worked well with django-admin (I know people who need this too) that would count (I think) as "making stuff" (pg) but not necessarily "make a complete system" (menloparkbum).

So is it necessary to build a complete system (a webapp that uses the NLP library), or is significantly enhancing an existing system (just writing an NLP library, with just enough usecases to drive the library design) enough (to make progress)?

I was indeed trying to make a distinction between a library and a full application or web site. From an entrepreneurial perspective I think it's important to focus on products rather than libraries. It's far easier to monetize a twitter client than it is a twitter library.

If you want to get a programming job it's a good idea to publish a lot of stuff to github. Personally I find it more satisfying to build applications vs. libraries. Others find the opposite to be true.

I didn't start college at all until I was about 20. I'm shocked that anyone thinks it might be "too late to turn it around". When I was 20 I hadn't even settled on a direction yet, much less decided I wanted to turn it around.

I started college at 20 too - when I was 18, I was absolutely certain that I would never go to college. (Strangely, at 15 I was absolutely certain I would never work for anyone else, which is exactly what I did in my gap year between 19 and 20. And all through college, I was absolutely certain I'd never work for a big company, which I'm doing now.)

I hate to be the cynic here but I think you need to really change your attitude if you want to succeed in life. To me your post seems to be "I sort of like computers and my life isn’t working out the way I want so I now want to pursue computers because it looks like my best chance out of the life I’m living"

Well, sorry to say, that isn’t how it works. Don’t get me wrong, if you really work at it I’m sure you can do it but you are WAY behind the curve if you’re 20 years old and have done nothing but tinker with BASIC and C. That said here's my advice...

First, accept you need to work day and night to accomplish your goal. Again, you’re already way behind so you have a lot of catch up to do just to be competent. You should be looking at 70 to 80 hour weeks of pure hard work (including your grocery job).

Second, learn Python (or some other language) backwards and forwards before you even start anything else. Tinkering doesn’t prove anything. Anyone can write a "hello world" app but true programmers have to think in a very specific, logical fashion. You might not have the aptitude for that and there’s no point wasting time pursuing this goal if you’ll never be able to get good at it. You can learn everything you need to know with a search engine these days so there’s no excuse here.

Third, stop thinking in generalizations. No one succeeds by saying "I want to found a start up." You need to latch on to an actual idea and you need to start working on it as soon as you are able. From where you live and the experience you have I figure you’ll need to create a whole product just to interest anyone.

Again, I apologize for the harsh tone but I think it’s justified. As rude as it sounds someone who gets in your position usually doesn’t get out. Getting out will not only be the hardest thing you ever do it will be close to the hardest thing anyone’s ever done. You literally have to remake yourself at a time when many of your instincts have already been formed. It’s not easy, it’s not fun and it will be tons of work and tons of time before you see even a little bit of results.

But if you want to succeed you have to commit yourself to that reality.

I don't understand a lot of this.

How do you learn Python backwards and forwards without using it to do something first? I may be the odd man out here (?), but for me, computers and programming have always been a tool to accomplish something, rather than an end in and of themselves. In my case it was laziness--I couldn't stand the thought of repetitive, redundant data entry and so I set about creating a database app. I had zero background in programming but I did have a) friends to ask questions ("Can you tell me about Alan Turing again?") and b) a compelling interest (said data entry). The logic and the programmer's mental place will come with time.

Also, how is he behind the curve at 20? Don't most people alternate between periods of coasting and advancement? 1500 on the SATs isn't shabby, and if he could pull that off without preparation, his ability multiplier on those 70-80 hour weeks ahead should be enough to get him "caught up" after a few years, if not to expert level then at least middlebrow.

Completely agree re: "I want to found a startup". That may work for some people ("I want to be rich"), but it has always failed to motivate me. If he has something he wants to do and a startup is the best vehicle in which to do it, then yes, found a startup.

You may be right about "the hardest thing". That has the ring of truth.

> Don’t get me wrong, if you really work at it I’m sure you can do it but you are WAY behind the curve if you’re 20 years old and have done nothing but tinker with BASIC and C.

FWIW, many of my coworkers at Google had never written a line of code before they got to college.

How do they compare to those who have?

As good or better, generally. For entry-level hires (which many of my coworkers were - like many big companies, Google likes to hire straight out of college), Google usually hires for smarts, and once you've been there a year or two, you can pick up all the solid engineering practices and company-specific knowledge. They have nothing to unlearn, which is unfortunately often the case with people who've come from more spaghetti-like codebases.

One observation though - and this is a gross generalization, and obviously doesn't apply to everyone. The people who never studied CS before college and never worked on outside projects tend to be less innovative, less willing to think outside the box. So they're more dependable engineers and often write cleaner code, but they're less likely to come up with a crazy idea or go beyond their established job description.

There are exceptions, of course. Wonder Wheel was done by someone who didn't program until he was a couple years into college, and was initially interested in being a filmmaker (and he's only a year or so out of college, so that's only 3-4 years total experience).

I don't think he's behind.

I didn't write my first real program until I was almost 20. I had written some HTML and BAT scripts for MSDOS as a teen but little else.

Then I started really programming a few months before my 24th birthday. It took me less than a year and a half to get to the point where I was confident in applying for nearly any programming job, regardless of the language or skills required. So I would say if you decide to dedicate yourself to it and you are smart(which it seems you are), you could be fairly advanced in <1 year. Definitely not far behind.

My piece of advice: move to the Bay Area!

It is 10x easier to become a better programmer by working with other programmers face to face while getting paid. The job opportunities out here for programmers are probably 50x better than Georgia. So if you could do one thing, that would be it. (Unless you are attached to living in GA, which it doesn't seem like you are).

I found myself thinking the same thing while reading the post. Maybe my cynicism around this issue stems from the fact that I'm 27, have been doing this 10 years, and still have not had a significant exit. (But I've have had a blast on the ride.) I admire the idealism in this post, and reading it makes me almost wish I could rewind and repeat the last 5 but only because retrospect is 20/20.

However, to Tom's point... I think he has many. I picked up on the same tone and think you should carefully evaluate what Tom mentioned in regard to your situation. You're young and have a lot of time so try to remove that pressure from your shoulders, but you really need to get focused on obtaining a basic set of tools before you build a <insert startup here>. Whether it's through college, or sticking your face in front of a monitor for ~40+ hours a week and self teaching yourself X,Y, and Z.

I would say good luck but real entrepreneurs win because of perseverance.

Not too harsh at all. This is actually the most realistic piece of advice so far. I fully realise that I am not where I need to be, and that "tinkering around" isn't nearly good enough. I did not mean to imply that.

I disagree that it will be close to the hardest thing anyone has ever done. Come on now.

It will be extremely hard though, harder than most things, and I am up for the challenge.

Whatever you do, don't waste time learning Python backwards and forwards before you even start doing anything else. Focus on making stuff. I've seen far too many smart people fail miserably because they had the attitude of "as soon as I become an EXPERT in python/machine learning/whatever I can start on my startup." This is a recipe for failure. Build something and learn the details as you go.

It doesn't even have to be your best idea, it just has to be AN IDEA. Just get one full idea implemented and put it out there. Do not get distracted by people who tell you how hard everything is or how it's not fun or how you need to be an expert in something before you can start executing. Just get something done. It's almost the only thing that matters.

This really can't be emphasized enough. I repeatedly fell into this trap of thinking, "If I just master this one more discipline, I'll finally know enough to build what I want". What you end up with is a daunting pile of textbooks to read and no real progress. It's a very insidious form of procrastination because it seems like a good and worthwhile thing to do. Of course, it IS good and worthwhile to learn new things, but learning alone doesn't produce any tangible results.

In the end, you can get a lot further than you think by just puzzling things out for yourself. Try something, see where it fails and adjust as necessary. You'll learn as you go and you'll have the advantage of knowing that what you learned is actually useful knowledge, because it solved a real life problem you encountered.

Along with that: Iterate, release often, refactor, don't be afraid to throw things out, listen to your customers, etc.

But yes, just do it. There's also a lot of value in collaborating with others - see if you can find some person/people to at least bounce ideas if not code off of.

"disagree that it will be close to the hardest thing anyone has ever done. Come on now."

Well, you could be right. I think inherent in the advice I gave above is the idea that it might be too harsh but people who prepare for the worst sail through situations that are easier than the one's they were prepared for.

That said in my observations of the world I've found changing yourself is the hardest thing anyone ever has to do. That's why the astronaut who was successful enough to beat out everyone else in the country can't seem to kick his smoking habit. Or how a guy who managed to become President of the United States TWICE, which is not easy to do, can risk it all for a brief liason with an intern.

Bottom line: Our own vices are generally the hardest opponents to beat

Agreed. Much appreciated. On second thought, you were pretty close to the truth. I'm my worst own enemy in some ways, but I'm changing and maturing every day.

You seem to bend your will to the opinion of others very quickly.

It's not so much that I bend my will easily to the opinions of others. I do believe that there is at least a grain of truth in most well thought out advice, and I do try to be flexible when considering others' opinions. Once I read the comment through a different lens, I saw the truth in what it was saying.

Alternatively, I could just refuse to acknowledge the accuracy of any of this and bicker over minutiae and semantics, but I choose not to.

>>You literally have to remake yourself at a time when many of your instincts have already been formed. It’s not easy, it’s not fun and it will be tons of work and tons of time before you see even a little bit of results.

Julius, if you move somewhere new, you may find the process of metamorphosis becomes easier.

This is the beauty of college: the total newness and change of scenery allows one to change and improve oneself. One's reputation at home no longer matters. One remakes oneself and begins spending time with other motivated people.

You can create a similar situation for yourself by moving. With determination, you will be able to shed the bad parts of yourself and develop the good parts. Moving somewhere new could be a great help. I highly recommend it.

Get yourself into Georgia Tech, which has an excellent (read: world class) CS department. If you don't have residency in Georgia, get it before you apply. You need a job, a drivers licenses, and a residence for X amount of time. Check the local laws. Figure out which of your courses transfer. Figure out how to work the system so you can graduate in two years. You'll be 23 or 24 and have a degree from a top 10 computer science department. Sounds like a pretty damn good life to me.

Now let's talk some more specifics. You'll probably need another year to establish residency in Georgia. In that time, you need to make yourself a more attractive candidate so you can get in. If you can, get yourself down to Georgia Tech and get a job around there. A system admin job in the school's IT department would be ideal. Sit in on classes, conference with admissions officers, and call in any favors you have to get a good recommendation from someone in high school. Study for the ACT (or SAT if GT doesn't take the ACT). Honestly with half a year of preparation you can raise your score a ton. A strong standardized test would improve your application a lot. Take classes at a community college for a semester near GT. Get at least two kick ass recommendations from professors there and make sure you get a 3.5 GPA or higher. Note, getting good recommendations is an easy process. Just let your enthusiasm for computer science show, go in to the professors office hours to ask questions, and work on an independent project with them. Honestly, since GT is a public school, there are probably incentives in place to take a certain number of community college students per year and that can help you.

Some people here might advise you to teach yourself what you need and try to make it on your own. Let's be realistic. You don't even know if you are capable of working hard yet on highly technical projects. School will teach you that, and give you the ability to get a job if starting a company doesn't work out.

To give you a bottom line, you need an associates degree, at least a 3.5 GPA (> 3.7 is much better) in your community college classes, and at least two excellent recommendations from professors there. You also need a kick ass essay, which you should spend a lot of time writing and sharing with people. Any personal connection you can establish with people at the school before you apply is just an added bonus. You can make it happen, and three years from now the world will look completely different.

I graduated from Georgia Tech's CS program in December, so I can hopefully give you a few useful pointers.

First of all, while GT is definitely your top (and really only) choice in the state for any of those three departments, you don't necessarily have to start out there. Look up Southern Polytechnic State University - it's in Marietta, just a short ways outside Atlanta, and it has a few serious perks for your situation: - It's a whole lot cheaper (about $10k less) than GT is, particularly for students who are not in-state. - It is an engineering-focused university that will get you up to speed reasonably quickly and let you start taking some classes that will transfer well to GT (but not as well or smoothly as you might expect, so be careful). - Transfering from Southern Poly to GT is almost a guarantee -- as long as you do well there, you are pretty much certain to be admitted.

Second, whatever university you wind up going to, be sure to get involved in activities outside of class. They don't all have to be focused on programming or startup stuff, either -- my time working on GT's student newspaper helped in my job search nearly as much as my degree itself. Plus, the things I did had the additional benefit of exposing me to a much wider group of people than the typical CS crowd, and keeping me sane during tougher times.

Last, don't give up, especially once you actually get into university. GT's engineering, science and CS programs tend to smack people down in their first couple of semesters, and the worst thing you could do is let that get you down to the point of dropping back to your current situation.

Great advice. Have a friend who went to SPSU for his undergrad after dropping out of school. Let me know if you want to get in touch with him.

> GT's engineering, science and CS programs tend to smack people down in their first couple of semesters, and the worst thing you could do is let that get you down to the point of dropping back to your current situation.

Same at my school. The Intro to CS class (which I never took) was famous for failing you if you left out a semicolon on the written exam--"It won't compile."

Just keep plugging. There are hoops in place to thin the ranks. It's loosely based on merit, but the actual results can be quite arbitrary. Keep SICP in one hand and Kafka in the other.

Last time I checked Georgia Tech wasn't a no name state school, and depending on your CC gpa you could very well transfer(Transfer requirements are usually a lot lower than initial entry requirements.) Second, there is intro to engineering, basic engineering classes that don't have the high math reqs you are envisioning. In fact if you go the CS route most of your classes will have no math req.

Not only is GATech a good school, Atlanta has a good startup scene. Attending GATech will expose you to it. Just be active in clubs, like the Young Entrepreneurs Society.

I am familiar with Georgia Tech, and have a few friends there. My GPA is not so great after randomly leaving town last semester, but I can always bring it up elsewhere.

See http://www.admission.gatech.edu/transfer/requirements.html for GT's transfer requirements; You only need a 2.7 GPA to transfer from in state. The bigger thing to look at is what courses you need to have finished before you can transfer in. Which you should be able to knock out in a semester if you haven't finished already.

I'm not in state, unfortunately. I just moved hear from, again unfortunately, Florida.

I was just browsing that same page, actually. GT is a good school.

I had a room mate who transferred to GT from a community college after a semester with a 4.0 gpa (after doing not so well in high school). He said it's surprisingly easier to transfer into GT than it is getting into GT after high school. Look into it.

GT also has several public events where there are profs / researchers showing their projects which you can attend (especially if you are a student) and possibly even work with them (if you can help with something specific). You should definitely come visit and get to know them. When you apply to get in, having a rapport with a professor goes a very long way to getting in.

Hello. A lot of your early years sound very similar to mine: Liked computers, grew up in a place where nobody knew/cared about them, was smart but never worked very hard, got by in school but never excelled. I lucked out and knew a professor that knew someone and when I dropped out of college I left for industry and have been able to keep inertia up to where I am. My advice:

1) Keep Moving. If I only had two words to tell you it would be those. You're behind the eight-ball as far as education, math in particular, goes but you can fix that... but it's not going to fix itself. Take any other classes you can in parallel but Just. Don't. Stop. What you're looking at as an crushing, insurmountable mountain of work is really only a few years.

2) Get a degree in a field you care about and can find work in. The school doesn't really matter. The old "just get the piece of paper" advice is generally considered deprecated, but you do need to have the skills. Unless you go somewhere that is actively known for its bad program (and even then that's only likely to be known locally) it will be a net positive.

3) Attempt to seek out people that are smarter and more curious than you are. I can relate to your high school experience, and I don't have a lot of hopeful to say about the people that stayed in the town I grew up in. Always keep your eyes open, though; you may find people that seem smart at first that don't seem like it after you see their weaknesses.

4) The "cities full of intelligence and ambition" thing is romantic but won't pay the bills. Be on the lookout for cities that have a solid economy and job opportunities for people with your skills and education. I suspect you'll do better more toward the west than the (north-)east, but I don't know much about the south-east. You may be better off right now than you know.

5) Use your desire to learn about geek stuff (SICP, Python, et. al.) to feed your general sense of curiosity, and your "technical taste" but don't bank on it for preparation for entrepreneur-hood. {major dissenting opinion ahead} I believe that people searching for the next big thing in the fields of the last big thing are generally wasting their time. Too bad for me (and possibly you) this industry is what I love. Tech is a great industry to be working in, but every big thing started with an itch to scratch.

Good luck!

> Be on the lookout for cities that have a solid economy and job opportunities for people with your skills and education.

There's plenty of work in Atlanta. I don't know if it's interesting or if the companies are pleasant, but it's there.

North Carolina and Washington, DC are other options if he wants to stay kinda local. In DC now there's high demand if you have/can get security clearance. Not sure if that would be desirable work, but it certainly exists. And if there's anything of the anthropologist in him, he might find the beltway culture interesting.

In old days, there is another path: To join military. It will shape the view of a person definitely. After services and you can go to school with better financial support and stronger will to achieve things, if you are lucky to get out the service without trauma.

But it seems joining military is not really good choice since invasion of Iraq. It seems like the best way is try to build something that you like and learn from it. School can only teach things that can be taught, and unfortunately there is no school to teach creating stuffs for arts and technologies or fiction/poem writing! You can only learn them by doing, from trials and errors.

It is your will power to be successful matters. You are 20, so you are much more luckier than people who figure this out in 30s or 40s and have no guts to choose the path.

> when I'll have to fill up an entire semester with just a Trig class, so I can fill up another semester with just Calc 1 so I can get to Calc 2

A lot of people 'place out' of these using AP exams - you can take them even now. This should help you move faster.

I am failing to see the problem.

No seriously guys. Here's the problem:

20 years old. Doesn't know what to do. Options are college or work. And how is this "problem" anything other than universal? And how is the advice anything other than banal? Go to college. Keep working. Whatever.

Hey, just get it done.

I understand you are 20, and you still have a lot of sorting out to do, but you know what the answer is?

There is no answer; just get it done. There's no real need to write out this essay about why this, how that... its nonsense, either you want to do something and you start trying to do it, or you don't

Somebody has to say it.

Stop talking, start doing.

@apsurd, I am glad that you said it. This is my motto as well, don't explain, don't complain, true for an immigrant, even more so for any aspiring entrepreneur.

Heh, I'm 33 and actually in a similar spot in some ways. I hated school, was sick to death of it, went to college because it was just sort of the thing to do. I was interested in math and science but the classes were hard and I realized I just didn't have the drive at that point to compete. I ended up majoring in Anthropology and dropped out after three and a half years.

I do alright as a professional, self-taught programmer, after working my way through various tech support and later testing jobs, but I long for a better foundation in math and comp sci and am trying to go back to school full time. I can say this from my own experience...if you're not reasonably sure you want to knock out a bachelor's degree, don't. It doesn't get easier as you get older but there are still lots of opportunities for adults returning to college. I didn't need a degree to make it as a programmer and many others didn't either, but I also got in during the dot com boom so had some easy experience to go on.

>Besides that, will it even do me that much good to have a degree from an unknown state university?

It won't make you a successful startup founder, but it will give you a ticket to employment as a member of the professional class. That's enough for a lot of people.

What state are you in? Why not go to the flagship state university while you figure out what kind of startup you want to do?

I'm in Georgia, but I just moved here (ran away to the mountains) from Florida, and am a Florida resident. UF I guess is our "flagship school", but I'll probably need to spend more time at a community college to be eligible to transfer there.

Being employed as a member of the professional class isn't all that I aspire to, but there is no shame in that. The idea quite depresses me though.

This is almost certainly bad, over optimistic advice.

If the idea of being a member of the professional class depresses you try shooting for the stars before going to college because that's what college is preparing you for. If you want to do the startup thing, surely the thing to do would be move to the Valley, do open source stuff, and just keep trying.

Others below have mentioned taking AP and SAT-2 tests to place out of requirements. Also worth looking up, DSST, CLEP and Excelsior College Exams.

After living in GA for some period of time, you could be an in-state resident and transfer to GA tech. Atlanta is a great city and GA tech is a great school.

"Credentialism, like it or not, is still a huge factor when you have no work experience."

Uh, yeah. that's what your parents always say. I can't tell you how many people told me I'd be working at gas stations if I didn't get good grades and go to college. By 20, my wages were competitive with my parents.

If you don't have education, you need experience. Get a job as a windows monkey/cable bitch at an office or an ISP. Work for people who are better than you are. Yeah, you have a few years of getting ridiculously underpaid ahead of you. I remember getting paid $7/hr to fix computers, when customers were billed for my time at $80/hr.

move up to a better job every year or two. Linux pays better than windows, so as soon as you can make that jump, do so.

That said, you are going to be working shit jobs until the recession is over. just remember it is the experience you are after, not the money. But as soon as the economy picks up, if you have been doing the job for peanuts, you will be able to get paid real money.

But the important thing is to have jobs that count. small companies are good, because the owner cares about money, and if you get hired on as a level 1 windows monkey, if you can, it's usually pretty easy to get them to let you take on more responsibility, work on the linux servers, etc..

I started doing that at 15. By the time I was 20, I was living in the bay area making around $60K. Now, that was '00. The crash wasn't too long after that so I had a few years of flat salary, but then things picked up again; that seems to be the way it works. learn things during the downturns, cash in when times are good.

Now, I've chosen the path of bootstraping my company, because I prefer to sell to customers than to investors, which is a little different, but really, knowing how to do something useful is a huge help in starting your company. First, working lets you see problems people have, and second, if you know things, you can rent yourself out for venture capital. I suck at business. I spent four years bleeding into my current venture before I saw black ink. (But... that was my Porsche.) But the thing is, with what I can bill out as a contractor, I've got (what seems to me like) a massive wad of venture capital, replenished monthly. That means I can pay for a lot of mistakes, and I'm finally at a point where it looks like I have the upper hand. (see, this downturn I'm prepared. During good times, nobody cares about money. During downturns, money matters. You should probably try to apply this to selling your labor. Offer to be underpaid for a job you are not quite qualified for.)

I don't want to discourage you from going to school, but it's not the only path. Credentialism is dead.

Here is what it comes down to. School is a security blanket, as is pretty much everything else society tells you that you "need" to do before doing a startup (VCs, corporate experience, etc.).

This is what you need to be able to do to succeed.


Hustle your brains out and figure out what you want to build, build it, monetize it, prove that you can do great things, and the rest will be history.

Good luck man, just don't let your past dictate your future and you'll be fine.

I am in my mid-20's. I still have a long way to go and I have lots of plans for the future. The thing I have learned so far is that we should all be responsible for everything we do. Be it your job, your small projects or even those quick scripts.

The level of education and facilities in my country are way behind from the US, but thanks to the internet I can learn new things that were not taught in schools.

I don't have too much big picture advice given that I'm roughly your age and also somewhat disoriented, but with regards to learning your math: most if not all schools will allow you to take a math placement test to determine where you need to begin in the curriculum. I completely agree with you that taking 3 semesters (a year, a year and a half?) just to get up to speed would be silly, especially if you do in fact have an aptitude for math.

If you've never taken calculus it would probably serve you well to take it in an actual classroom (possibly at night while working?), but trig can easily be self taught from a book. If you need a little extra help, contact the math department of a local university and ask if they have a list of students who are available for tutoring. It would be a small cost to meet with someone once or twice a week to stay on track with your self study, compared to an actual college class.

Can't you take SAT II and place out of calc 1?

I have a hunch that you will be in a lot better position when you join uni and graduate than a lot of my friends who recently graduated and then had the "NOW WHAT?" moment. You are having that moment right now, which is good.

Knowing that you like math is a great start. Also, learning python is another awesome decision. Now while you are trying to figure out your "big" thing(which school to goto etc.), try putting together your love for python/math and build cool apps out of them.

Finally, quit regretting your past. Think you partied too much in high school? There are geeks who wish they had more fun in high school:) Point is, it is about how you frame your experience. Instead of thinking "I was a slacker" ask yourself "what can I build for slackers like me[and profit!...jk]?".

> I've been working my way through SICP and I've recently learned the basics of Python, but I don't know if I can learn everything I need to know through self-study

The majority of what you need to know in order to run a startup isn't taught at collage/uni, it's self-taught or learnt through experience

Good luck in college. Work hard to transfer into Georgia Tech. I'm not a Math person by any means of the imagination so after visiting and trying to convince myself that I would do well at the liberal arts at Georgia Tech, I decided to go to Emory (starting august)

But enough about me.

It's all about a simple idea and then just doing, making an application, starting simple, and working hard without giving up. Doing website design work has exposed me to the skills, now HN is getting me exposed to the mindset, I'm taking steps.

Since you are local, feel free to get in touch with me. We have similar dreams. Hopefully employers and educators will quickly look past your GPA. I am sure they will.


I'll be in touch. My mother went to Emory, and enjoyed it very much. Good luck with everything!

Credentials don't so much matter if you're doing startups -- you need to know some co-founders and you need to all trust each other to be able to make things.

But college helps a lot of other things. So:

If you end up at GT, I'd recommend looking into their Computational Media program. It's a lighter version of CS with extra media studies (games, films, websites, etc). You still have access to all the CS classes if you want them. I am of the (somewhat biased) opinion that you can craft a better startup education there.

UCF also has a pretty good CS/media program and is in Orlando, which might be easier for you.

I don't know how the admission systems work, but perhaps you could get into school in another country, like the UK? Although I seem to remember from the UK they also have things like you had to take physcis in school to be allowed to do it at university. But in some countries it does not work that way, for example Germany is different (you are either qualified to get into university or not).

Thanks for all the comments. I've actually followed through on a couple pieces of advice.

I scheduled an interview with an admissions officer at Southern Poly, and I spent all night last night working through the Django Book, so I can try to put together my first webapp idea. I've always learned best by actually getting my hands dirty, so I think it will be a good experience.

Cherokee County, eh. We should touch base; I'm in Fulton/Midtown.

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