Xipu Li

New Things Learned in 2021

An uneventful year full of trying out new things and learning opportunities

10 min read

Date : 2022-01-16

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Breaking into tech (Jan - Oct)

Year 2021 felt like an uneventful weekend given the backdrop of how much had occurred in 2020. However, I had officially made an inroad into tech as I had spent most of my first-half of the year on learning the fundamentals like algorithms and data structures. I'm very grateful for having a part-time internship that had left me with ample amount of time to dig into these computer science concepts while able to earn a living in Manhattan.

Once grasped foundamental concepts, I started to seeing the world differently. Many things we take for granted — like the traffic control, social media apps, websites, etc. — started to appear glamorous to me. I marveled at how smart human beings are, how we are able to come up with powerful abstractions like trees, graphs, lists, and so on, to represent and build our world.

Although there is a copious amount of resources online, many are of low-quality or contain fragmented concepts. I was lucky to avoid wasting time on those hours-long YouTube videos that most uninformed beginners would start with. Thanks to a high-school friend who now attends UC Berkeley, I was able to get a high-quality self-study curriculum that was ridiculously simple:

  1. CS61a: an introductory course on programming offered by UC Berkeley
  2. Algorithms (Part I, Part II): coursera courses designed and taught by Kevin Wayne and Robert Sedgewick of Princeton University

All of these resources are available to the public and free-of-charge, which makes me regret about picking finance as my undergrad major (the ROI and the utility are just subpar). High quality learning should involve robust and frequent tests, and I benefitted a lot from the challenging tests and projects designed by best-in-class professors in the field.

To work in tech as a software engineer, I would have to obtain a degree in Computer Science or related fields due to my visa status. Meaning, there is a good chance that I will be attending a grad school. As a non-CS major, I face a very limited choice when selecting schools. Currently, I have submitted my application for University of Washington, and in the process with Northeastern and Brandeis. From what I learned, grinding LeetCode seems to be more important than the prestige of the school. So, I optimized for location and affordability.

After drafting a list of potential schools, I started planning for something that I thought I would never have to touch again in my life: the standardized test.

Preping GRE was quite an experience. It refreshed my understanding on foundamental math concepts, but more importantly, it taught me how to engage in critical thinking. Within the reading section, there are logical inference questions like "Which of the following is an assumption on which the argument depends?", or "The argument is most vulnerable to criticism on the grounds that it fails to consider the possibility that...". Answering lots of these questions had left a mark in my mind. I found that most reading sources online are either biased or outright misinforming. By simply asking what assumptions the claim is based on is a worthwhile mental exercise to help gain clarity and stay objective.

I'm still learning and breaking into tech, but so far, I've been very much fascinated by the power of technology and excited to see how emerging tech like blockchains can transform and empower individuals. It's time to build!

Trip to California (Nov)

I went to Bishop O'Dowd for high school and naturally, a good amount of my friends stayed in Cali in pursuit of computer science related majors. It had been more than three years since the last time I visited California, so I decided to take advantage of the Thanksgiving break to pay a visit.

With a duffle bag and a backpack, I hopped on a Uber. Destination JFK. Once I passed the security check, I kinda just walked into the plane as there was no line at the terminal. I later found out that the gate was supposed to be closed 15 minutes before departure but since I hadn't taken a flight for so long, I thought I was early by being there 5 minutes before the departure time — I had certainly taken so many subways. In other words, I almost missed my flight but because I was not aware of the urgency, the whole process felt was personally tailored.

The next I knew was me, three-hour younger, bathing in the San Francisco sunlight.

California had a unique vibe. There's no exhaustive way to describe it, but many things were of stark contrast to that of New York. The foremost difference was how Uber drivers were so talkative in San Francisco, whereas their New York counterparts were more taciturn. Another difference was obviously the weather. I took the photo below when I was in high school, but didn't start appreciating the picturesque view until after having lived in New York's concrete jungle for a while.

Marin Headlands picture
The pic was taken on the Baker Beach. The landscape should be Marin Headlands.

I had a great catch-up with the Berkeley friend mentioned before. We grabbed pizza, enjoyed boba, and talked hours about everything from what's up with our high school teachers and friends to investing strategies.

Next day was Thanksgiving, and knowing I came to SF alone, a co-worker at my current company invited me for a family dinner (Thank you Louis!). The most memorable thing was when kids asked what superpower they should have, a girl answered "hugging", which resulted in kids running around the house hugging everyone. Very wholesome!

The care-free vibe, the weather, the hospitality, and the tech scene finally convinced me to go back to California in the future.

Things learned from the ski trip (Jan 2022)

A whimsical call to my friend Frank led to an excursion to Vermont. Up until then, I hadn't engaged in any outdoor sport since I moved to New York in 2018.

At Penn Station, Frank, Tom and I convened. We took a train to a parking lot in Long Island to pick up the car, and then drove into a very large boat that could accomodate vehicles. We offboarded in Connecticut and took a break at a Domino's in Massachusetts. Two slices of pizza and three chicken wings later, I learned that Tom and Frank were working on a startup idea that sounded quite interesting. The remainder of the drive to hotel, therefore, was dedicated to an intensive conversation about growth strategies, margin projections, and how to pitch the idea to VCs.

Next day, we arrived at Okemo Ski Resort. And the fun began! As a total beginner equipped with overweight cheap rental gears, I could not possibly enjoy this sport without Tom's patient training. With over a decade of experience, Tom was an expert skier who could do things like spinning and dancing down a black trail or ski on one leg — all without wearing a helmet.

Me in ski gears. Smiling.
There's a black trail behind. The smile was forced.

With Tom's robust training, I was on a lift to a green trail on the second day. Everything was enjoyable until I suddenly face an intimidatingly steep slope. I could barely pizza well, so the slope looked a suicide mission to me. I was paralyzed with my mind envisioning all the epic falls that could happen to me. My legs were shaking. Every cell in my body was in survival mode. Fear took over.

I ended up stood there for quite a while. I tried to postpone the inevitable by telling myself "I will go once there were fewer people". But there was a constant stream of people breezing past me. "There will always be people", Tom said, "the only way to go is down. If you fall, you fall."

I did fall, multiple times. But Tom's words sank in. If you fall, you fall. Our fears and worries are what prevent us from achieving amazing things in life. But life has taught me that the things we fear and worry either 1) did not happen, or 2) happened to us but we've already gotten over with them.

Another thing I learned from skiing was that going too fast can result in dramatic failures. When I just started, I didn't know how to stop, so I dashed down steep slopes like a bullet — into the woods. The lesson applies beyond skiing. According to a podcast, one of the major reasons why startups fail was that they grow too fast to maintain control.

Now I can do black trails without fears (still with falls, though), and I intend to ski as many times a month as possible. So if you are into skiing, definitely hit me up!

Inspirations (Jan 2022)

Early in Jan, 2022, I stumbled upon Nathan Leung's blog on how to become an accredited investor. I thought he was a finance-major but as I explored more of his posts, a new world just opened up to me.

There are so many talented college students in the startup game! I was amazed by the things they are building and lifestyles that would be considered as odd in New York. Somehow, I felt a sense of belonging. That had motivated me to learn more and build more.

One thing I learned from reading Nathan's blog was his strong networking skills. This year, I strive to walk out of my comfort zone and meet more people in the startup field. And that's one of the reasons why I was motivated to start this blog to share my journey and updates with my network.

I will start my full-time job in Feb 2 in New York but always willing to meet and chat. Feel free to drop me a note via email or a DM on Twitter. I hope you stay safe and healthy and wish you a wonderful new year ahead!