the only constant is change

Areena Akhter
7 min readJan 12, 2022

january 11th, 2022

What follows is a series of thought dumps from the first 11 days of the year (which have, to say the least, felt just a little bit hectic.) This isn’t artful or reflective like some of my other writing, but felt important to record for future students to dig up as primary evidence of a Software Student Slowly Sinking. There are highs, lows, goals for 2022 and some pretty bare-faced thoughts on the pandemic. Not necessarily as coherent as my previous pieces of writing, but indicative of the times, I think.

planting the seeds in my digital garden for 2022…

unprecedented times
In the month and ten days since the CDC added yet another Greek letter to our vocabulary, I’ve heard it pronounced fifteen different ways. Omicron — how hard should this three-syllable, simple little word be to pronounce? And yet, I’ve heard “ohm (as in meditation) — ih — kron” and “oam (as in roam) — nih — kron” and suddenly, it feels like this obscure Greek letter has become so common that it’s replaced the whole tomato, tomato thing. (How did you pronounce those?)

On March 13th, 2020, I was getting ready to go to class during the announcement that there was in fact, never ever going to be class again. I was working in-person at my dream startup this fall during another, similarly ominous announcement. This one shared that my 3A term would start online, just as my 1B term ended in the spring of 2020. In between these bookends of time, I have experience a myriad of change: the startup I was interning at folded, I met my boyfriend and lost other friends, and my spin studio in Waterloo closed (on a day’s notice) at least four times.

During these “unprecedented times,” change has become my only constant.

In engineering, we are constantly manipulating data and iterating on our models. Nothing is constant, really — they’re just our best guesses. This past year taught me the same lesson, on a global scale. My best-laid plans were ruined within a single month: hopes of an in-person semester sitting at the front of the classroom for the first time in my engineering career, dashed. Experiencing my early twenties in the pandemic has also exacerbated the differences in how my peers are living their life. On any given day, some of us are trying our best to get in-person jobs, some are stranded in our Waterloo apartments, and some never left home at all. The pandemic has left many of us strapped into the passenger seat, and still is. We hunch over our phones and bookmark reddit/uwaterloo for updates on what our life will look like. Tomorrow, today, next week. Who will I be?

mindset is everything
In 2022, I really just want to decide. Decide who I will be in the face of change, how I will develop a resilient mindset, and decide if the life that feels prescribed to me is the one I must live. Taken from my journal, I’ve decided that “this year, my entire life will change. It will change because I love myself enough to know I deserve more, am brave enough to ask for more, and am disciplined enough to work for more.” The world may shift around me, but this is the year I decide what roots me. What motivates me? (She asks, hopefully.)

I’m trying very hard to believe that change can also be exciting. The startups I’ve worked at iterate and reevaluate on every decision they make, because that seems to be the key to the dance of pivoting, of finding that perfect fit. I would like to apply this mentality to my own growth as an engineer and human being. I recently discovered the career development website 80,000 Hours, which argues that if the average person works 80,000 hours in their life, they should leverage those hours for impact. Their metrics for impact are:

  • How pressing the problem is
  • How effective the solutions are I’m working on
  • The amount of leverage that I can apply to the problem
  • My personal fit

By the end of the year, I plan to set benchmarks and guidelines for how I’ll fulfill these metrics. Perhaps I’ll build my own framework for impact. I want to be the type of engineer who is intentional about the roles I apply to and the work I choose to do. Last year, I was just trying to picture myself as an engineer, as someone who could succeed in this field. This is the year I decide who I will be, and what I could work on.

artificial intelligence is not just for the highly intelligent
At the start of 2021, I had a coffee chat with my role model Allie K. Miller, who is the Global Head of Machine Learning at AWS. She’s also the most emphatic and encouraging mentor I’ve met so far in this industry. On January 1st, I sent her a long DM explaining how she models my ideal mindset. Within ten minutes, I was picking up a video call from her on Instagram, scribbling down her advice on success in AI and being a woman in STEM.

When I grow up, I want to be like Allie K. Miller: someone who knows how to identify and act upon action potential in any part of her life. She taught me to stop talking about what I want to do, and start doing it. This is a philosophy I know she lives by, because she stopped her day to mentor me, a 2nd year software engineering student from Ottawa, Ontario. My #1 takeaway from speaking with her was to treat myself as my greatest project — what are my values? What trajectory am I aiming for, and how will I gauge my progress?

In my tech journey so far, many people have told me I’d be better suited to product management or design than being deep in engineering. I think I’ve internalized this feeling, and pushed myself towards front end and UI-focused roles as a result. But being a user-focused engineer doesn’t mean I have to tiptoe around algorithms and the backend of a codebase; I can and want to know everything there is to know about software engineering. From the back and from the front. And so, I’ve decided on another goal: to deeply understand algorithms and artificial intelligence by the end of 2022, so that I can be deployed like a Swiss army knife to solve any kind of software problem. That’ll show the haters.

the pandemic, again.
The Ontario government announced its fourth (fifth??) full lockdown this past Wednesday. Change, change, change. I was trying so hard — to build a routine, to build the habits of a healthy person. How can I be healthy when there is nowhere to go except for half an hour loops around the block in -20 degree weather? I feel conflicted by everything and I’m pretty sure all of Ontario feels the same. The name of my new daily workout class? “Woman versus nature.” Didn’t I say things would change?

from my journal (with some authorial liberties)
Week 2. This phase of the pandemic feels the hardest yet, for all of us, I think. I think it’s because we had hope, for the first time in two years. And that’s the hardest, most depressing part of the Omicron-Delta-Deltacron lockdowns that are consuming us in this first month of 2022, I think. We have this hope, suspended in the air, unsure if a new Greek letter will enter our vocabularies and shatter any pretense of normalcy we had built thus far. Hospitals are overflowing, we are languishing, Don’t Look Up! This is how 2022 has felt so far.

There are highs and lows pretty much equally throughout the days now, and the highs are what I have ~decided~ to focus on. My sister hasn’t seen someone her age yet this year. I’m in my first course of <130 people in my entire degree (but on Zoom, can you tell the difference between 20 and 120 people?) The stakes feel high again, the way they did in March of 2020, but also slightly dulled. We are tired, but we march on. We march into this politicized public health fight together, releasing what we expected in 2022 for what we will do to help keep the world spinning.

when life gives you leetcode…
This term, I’m taking Algorithms (Leetcode 101 — our first lecture was on two sum, the joy), User Interfaces, and my favourite course yet at this university, Discrimination in Computing. This course has NO lecture slides, only super interesting discussions about algorithmic bias, fairness, and the Catholic pope who got caught using Grindr! Here it is, my route to becoming a well-rounded software engineer. Pandemic or not, I am here and I am showing up in the face of change.

So, at least for this first stretch of 2022, I am choosing to celebrate my little wins amidst a tumultuous start to year two of this pandemic, alone in my apartment in good old Waterloo. This third-year university student made it out of the house and to Dana Porter library to study with one other colleague? Go me.

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Areena Akhter

thinking about people, computers, and the space in between them 💭 computer science @ uwaterloo, she/her