“많이 먹어야지!” [“Eat more!”]

This is something I wrote a while back, when my grandfather passed away. It blows my mind that it’s already been 6 years. I sometimes re-read this just to remember how much has happened since then, and whether he’d be proud with where I am today.

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I’m told that 할아버지 [grandpa] was a war veteran, that he served in Vietnam. Even before Vietnam he had been exposed to war — at the tender age of 15, he left his siblings and parents on an errand to the South [Korea], never to see his family again. The borders had closed on him. He was cut off, and alone.

Then, some 50 years back, he met and married Grandma, had three beautiful children, and decided to immigrate to America to pursue the American Dream. He has, without a doubt, succeeded. He sent all three of his children to college and concluded his life the grandfather of seven strapping young men and one bright, young granddaughter.

We were a sight to see, lined up next to Grandfather’s coffin, smart in our matching black suits, ties, and dress. I can imagine him standing next to one of his old friends, enormously content, as he points each of us out – that one, that tall, good-looking chap over there? He’s my oldest grandson. The oldest of my oldest son. He’s working in Boston right now. That one, the one in the ACU? My second son’s oldest child. He graduates from West Point in a year. And that one, see how broad his shoulders are? My daughter’s oldest child. He goes to UVA…

And yet, Grandpa never got to see that. He never would have. His death, ironically, was the only thing that could bring the entire family together. The first time the entire family was together in years, but only to see his funeral…

We went to eat 순두부 [tofu soup] after the viewing. I couldn’t help but think that the move was just so 할아버지. It was just like him, after a service or any special occasion, to usher everyone out to eat. 신촌 [Korean restaurant], 꿀돼지 [Honey Pig], Country Club Buffet… To him, eating out was the real occasion. He’d sit in the restaurant and just watch as his eight grandchildren consumed a small village’s entire month’s rations of food. God, he loved feeding us. And so, after his death, we carry on his tradition. We eat, be merry, and think of him…

After his burial, we all sat together at 신촌 and started talking about our memories of him. The one memory we all share (minus the youngest), it seems, is that of his little convenience store. We all loved the place, the location of our fondest childhood memories. The big lunchmeat-slicing machine, the hundreds of ice creams flavors and potato chip varieties and candies and – and the Swedish Fish! After we moved to Korea, Grandpa sent us SO MUCH Swedish Fish that I’ve actually grown to hate its taste.

He really did love to feed us. He’d hover over us as we browsed the aisles, urging us to take this and that and more and more and declaring, “아이스크림 먹어야지! 많이 먹어야지!” [“You should eat some ice cream! Take more!”] in his typical one-liner fashion as Mom stood in the back, warning us with her eyes not to be too greedy. I have no idea how he made a profit, what with seven hungry grandchildren to feed. But profit he did, and he just gave us more and more.

Grandpa visited my family in Korea while I was still in high school. I remember he was very active – every morning he went out for a walk and came back with food in his hands. 뻥튀기 one day, ice cream the next – we ate the food that he had stockpiled in our house for days after he left. He even gained a reputation with our neighborhood 떡볶이아줌마 [street food vendor]. Every single day after school, religiously, he would wait for our buses to arrive and buy us 떡볶이 [spicy rice cakes]… to the point where the 아줌마 [the vendor lady] thought something was wrong when he stopped showing up, after he’d returned to the States. We all laughed, when we heard that. Of course Grandpa would be known for his food-related consistency…

God, he wasn’t supposed to go like that. He was supposed to have died after I got there, after Dad got there, sometime way, way in the future after he saw my brother’s graduation and my marriage and his first great-grandchild’s birth and – he was supposed to be getting better! When I said goodbye to him, two weeks back, that wasn’t supposed to be the last time I saw him. He had been RECOVERING when I left him. My mind had projected that consistent rate of recovery on him for the two weeks that I didn’t see him. Not this sudden spiral to death. It was too sudden.

I got there too late.

And Grandma… I know Grandma and Grandpa bickered a lot, but she was still his partner of more than fifty years. They weathered through all of life – three pregnancies, the uprooting of the family to foreign lands, the years and years of working more hours than the sun, the crippling disease… and now Grandma is left with a huge, empty house, and my brothers and me… we don’t have a grandfather anymore. No stoic, McDonald’s-crazy grandfather figure whose sole delight was watching food enter our mouths. No one to drag us all out to fancy dinners or supermarket runs while insisting on buying food for us with his dwindling bank account money. No one to bicker with Grandma or sit quietly on the sofa at family reunions as the chaos of eight grandchildren ensued around him. He was truly the rock, the foundation of this family.

RIP, 할아버지. Beloved grandfather, proud father of three, fervent believer, and one who’s greatest joy lied in doing things for his grandchildren. He was so, so full of life. Even to his last moments he struggled to live his previous, active lifestyle. He hated the fact that he was so weak that he couldn’t even drive. He tried to act as if nothing was wrong. Stupid nurse… she didn’t understand him at all. “Why do you walk around so much, Grandfather? Why do you keep struggling, when you’re in so much pain?” If anything, Grandpa was a stubborn old man. He refused to be reduced to a bedridden infirm, even when it took him a good ten minutes to descend a flight of stairs, even as he was forced to receive blood transfusions every week to sustain himself. He fought on, just like the soldier he was… and through his progeny, he’s won. I plan to do him proud.

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How to become a programmer, or the art of Googling well

*Note: Please read all italicized technical words as if they were in a foreign language.

The fall semester of my senior year, I was having some serious self-confidence issues. I had slowly come to realize that I did not, in fact, want to become a researcher. Statistics pained me, and the seemingly endless and fruitless nature of research bored me. I was someone who was driven by results – tangible products with deadlines that, upon completion, had a binary state: success, or failure. Going into my senior year, this revelation was followed by another. All of my skills thus far had been cultivated for research. If I wasn’t going into research, I had… nothing.

At a liberal arts college, being a computer science major does not mean you are a “hacker”. A liberal arts CS major prepares you for a career in computer science research, which is completely different from, say, software engineering. It’s like comparing a physical therapist with an athlete. Sure, a therapist knows which muscles get strained, and how to better take care of your body. But you can’t ask them to substitute for a player in a professional game. As a computer science major in my school, sure, I’d studied the structure and interpretation of computer languages. But I’d never even heard of the words front-end developer or full-stack. What was Heroku? Never heard of Xcode. Wasn’t git just the thing you used to share code with your lab partner? Frameworks? Didn’t you just need HTML and Javascript? What the hell was an API?!

Job after job description required IOS or Android programming experience, or a portfolio of websites I’d designed. I had none of these, and to be frank, I didn’t even know where to start. I hadn’t grown up in a tech-savvy family – my dad still can’t text. My mom still waits for me to come home during breaks to transfer new music to her MP3 player (which I bought her). I could pick at a couple tutorials, but how could I ever bridge the gap between me and them? The ones who went to technical high school, or whose parents were both software developers? The ones who had their own servers running, or whatever? Who had hacked into their middle school computer system in 7th grade? How could I ever compete with the technically privileged?

I settled for jobs that weren’t even computer science related. Knowledge of bash recommended, but not required. Even worse, I gave up. My experience with python scripting will give me an edge over other IT Help Desk candidates, I firmly told myself. I have experience helping old people with their computers. I should at least be able to land a job. That’s something.

<– SPOILER: I have an offer from Google. –>

Mid-September my senior year, that all began to change. I somehow became a friend of one of them, and it was all I needed to learn.

I initially put this friend on a kind of pedestal. The first time I met him, he was in the middle of writing a script to scrape Craigslist of all its free furniture listings (which is illegal, btw). At the time, I didn’t even know what scraping was. Then came the hackathon. I’d always wanted to go, but I’d never had the kind of friends who’d attend, and I couldn’t go on my own. I knew nothing. Who would want to bring someone as useless as me? But I shyly asked this friend if I could tag along – just to watch, mind — understand that I will be completely useless to you – and he laughed, said he understood, and we went.

He was the very picture of the competent hacker I held in my head, that I nursed a secret crush for. But most extraordinary, he threw something together using tools that he’d never used before. Yes, he did spend more time on Google than he did coding — but through sheer force of googling and a prior, general picture knowledge of how these things worked, he’d roped together a pretty sophisticated app. He knew where Twilio belonged in the grand hierarchy of things, and so, even without knowledge prior, was able to figure things out.

And I despaired. How do you get so good that you can build something out of nothing?

The rest of the semester passed glumly, and without incident. Come winter, I began to panic again. Driven by the need to become employable, I tried my hand at a couple Code Academy website tutorials. Hm. Not bad. I made an attempt at my first website – pretty terrible — just one, static page full of boxes and awful colors — but it was something. Something I realized. Just like my code-god compatriot, when I didn’t understand something, all I needed to do… was google it.

“How to center a div in CSS.” “How to make tiled background image in HTML.” “How to link to a pdf.” Sometimes it took hours for me to figure out the simplest things, but I’d come to understand that the answer was out there, somewhere. So I kept at it. Soon I was confident enough to try my hand at a small project – scraping our school’s Grades at a Glance website to create an automatic GPA calculator (our school didn’t have one of those). Eureka, it worked! And that wasn’t so bad, was it? Just like that, the first crack began to form on the illusion I’d cast on them as being a superior kind.

<– Some Small Advice: if you’re just beginning to program, I’d suggest starting with JavaScript/HTML/CSS because there is a plethora of help out there. You will most likely find someone has done exactly what you want to do. And do a couple tutorials! Even if they seem ineffective, at the very least they help you learn the terminology you’ll need to be able to google effectively. –>

Boosted by this small success, I gathered a group of like-minded classmates – friends who also did not have software engineering experience – to attend a second hackathon. Here, I had a second revelation. I knew more than my friends. Suddenly, I was an expert. I could speak the language. I knew what had to be done, and where things needed to go. After just two weeks of going through random tutorials, people were already beginning to see me as more competent than them. Sure, I was nowhere near the competency of my coder-god friend, but I slowly began to realize that the gap between me and him might be as artificial as the gap between my friends and me.

That’s all it takes. Really.

I took on a summer internship with a custom software engineering company. I was surer in my programming abilities than I was before, but I needed to be completely certain I had what it took to make a career out of it. There, I picked up IOS programming, Ruby on Rails, and Angular; I can make bluetooth devices do all kinds of gymnastics on a mobile phone. I’ve exchanged blows with git, shared intimate conversations with Cordova, chatted with Heroku, and I’ve even dipped a foot in the Android programming world. But most importantly, I know that experience, though important, is not everything. The gap is not insurmountable because I have what it takes to learn.

To be honest, I probably could have passed the Google interviews without any of this software knowledge. A solid background in CS is what they look for, and my school gave me that. But I never would have dreamed of applying to Google. I obviously didn’t have what it takes.

It took meeting a god and dethroning him for me to realize that I was wrong.

The barriers to becoming a software engineer are real. People born in technical families, or who were introduced to programming at an early age have this easy confidence that lets them tackle new things, to keep learning — and, in our eyes, they just keep getting further and further ahead. Last year, I saw this gap and gave up. But all we really need is the opportunity to see that it’s not hopeless. It’s not about what we already know, it’s about how we learn. It’s about the tenacity of sitting in front of a computer and googling until you find the right answer. It’s about staring at every line of code until you understand what’s going on, or searching until you do. It’s about googling how-to, examples, errors, until it all begins to make sense.

Everything else will follow.

Why I’m going to fail my background check and have my offer from Google rescinded

I usually keep good track of my paperwork, but one slipped through my fingers – a W-2 form, from a summer researching at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I needed it to prove that I had worked there for my background check with Google. I was pretty sure my dad had it, but when I called him for a copy, he said he couldn’t find it. Instead, he suggested that I just request a duplicate copy from the NIH. Easy.
 
In order to get a duplicate copy of my W-2 form the NIH, I went through the following steps:
 
  1.  After extensive online searching (wherein I learned I needed an NIH account), put in a ticket at HR asking how I could acquire a duplicate W-2 form.
  2. Was told to fill out a Request for a Duplicate W-2 and mail it to them. I did.
  3. Was called and told that I could not be found in the database, so I had to call OHR(?) at some number.
  4. That number told me they did not handle W-2 forms, and referred me to someone (Molly*) at a given number (*fake name).
  5. That number took me to an automated voice mailbox system, or something like that, that required me to login, or provide the extension of the person I wanted to reach.
  6. I called #4 back, and they could not find the extension.
  7. I put in another ticket (step 1).
  8. I was given Molly’s number.
  9. I called the number, but was told that she no longer worked in that office… But wait! They knew she was tele-working today. They gave me a number.
  10. Called number. See step 5.
  11. Called back number at step 9.
  12. Another person picked up, and gave me Molly’s direct number after I explained my situation.
  13. Got to Molly’s voicemail. Left a message. A week passes.

Still no W-2 form.

 
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I gave my dad one, last desperate call. Are you sure you can’t find it? No, I’m sorry. It hasn’t turned up.
 
Five minutes later, he calls me back, sheepish. “I didn’t see it the first time… but it’s where I left it, with the other paperwork.”
 
Dad!!