Letter from a former student

Yesterday I received an email from Puteri Tengu, a former student who graduated two years ago, and with her permission, I like to share it with you.

Dear Prof. John Vu,

It’s been two years since I graduated from CMU, but the life as a student still shows up often in my dreams. All the coursed I have taken, and all the advice given by you are still fresh in my mind. As you may remember, I was not the best students in your “Introduction to Computer Systems” course, as I had limited computer programming as compared with other students. However, with your encouragement, I worked hard and got a “B” in the course. In my second year at CMU, I took “Advanced algorithm” course, and again got another “B” but you kept telling me “Do not worry about the grade but focus on learning, a grade is only a milestone in the journey, but learning is the destination.” In the third and fourth year, I did well in all courses, and my grades were improving to mostly “A.” I remember when I received the first “A” in your “Software Architecture” course, you told me: “As long as you put in your effort, nothing can stop you from achieving your dream.”

I also remember in the first year, you required all students to develop a career plan and told them: “Do not think about a job but focus on building a career. Getting the job is easy, keeping the job is harder, but growing on the job with a passion is the best.” At that time, the whole class often laughed about your “funny” mantra: “GET, KEEP, GROW.” But now as I am working, I think it is the best advice that you can give to the students

After working at Facebook for about six months, I began to understand the workplace philosophy you taught us during the class. As a company with thousand employees, Facebook has hundreds of team that focus on different parts of the business. All new employees are assigned to a team based on their skills, and the result of their interview. Most will stay on that team until they can advance to another assignment, which is usually about two to three years. However, I was able to advance to another assignment in a year and a half, mostly due to your advice.

I remember that you kept telling us not only focus on technical skill but also soft skills. You told us to be proactive talking with people outside of the team and paying more attention to the company’s direction. You also advised us not just follow what other people told us to do, but think about alternatives because there are more than one solutions for every problem. I found that advice very useful as it became the primary of my work.

When I started to work at Facebook, I was focused mostly on technical skills. What I did every day is to look into the code and tried to finish my tasks as soon as possible. However, after few weeks of observing how team members worked, I found that focus only on technical works will not help my future career. So I started rethinking the advice you gave us during your class, then realized the importance of soft skills. As a student from Malaysia, my English was not very good, but I forced myself to improve it by finding every opportunity to talk to people and asked them to correct my pronunciation. I also used a language software to help me adjust my accent. I observed how senior managers work and found most of them were not only knowledgeable but also had strong communication skills. At that time, I realized that is why you told us to improve our communication skills. Although the ability to write code is essential, be able to explain what you do, why you do it, and how it works with others is more important. Because I can explain what I did and how it integrated with others, I gained a lot of respect from team members.

Within a year, I had a good reputation for being one of the best software developers in the company. Per your advice, I also did a lot of research on which projects that I interested in and proactively talking to relevant people for additional information. I started with a team that randomly assigned by the company to recent graduates, but within a year and a half, managers recognized my ability then moved me to another team, which is part of the core infrastructure of the company. And I am the first and only college graduate that they promote so far. Most people who work on this team had five to seven years of working experience. The system we are responsible for is the primary distribution system that is handling thousands of requests per second with latency less than few milliseconds.

Now as a vital member of a core group, I felt really honored that I had the chance to study under your guidance. Four years of studying at CMU not only provide me the opportunity of learning the leading edge technologies but also teach me the philosophy of how to be responsible for my personal career. And I am grateful for your teaching and guidance.

Puteri Tengu


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