Once More Waiting

Every term I break fall for this trap. With the exams over, I confidently expect the professors to be as eagerly wanting to grade the exams as we are (or maybe only I am) waiting for those grades. I’ve probably been spoiled by those few professors who always grade quickly. This term it’s only two grades we’re still waiting for–distributed systems and the process mining “compulsory choice” module. But it’s been nearly four weeks now that I’ve been refreshing the view in the campus system every few minutes over the course of the day while trying to concentrate on my actual work, whatever that is now. And nothing’s moving. It can happen any minute. Or it can take another couple of weeks. I hate it.

In truth, since I am certain to pass, nothing depends on those grades, other than my somewhat irrelevant ambition to finish what I have begun. Having become used to always having excellent grades I just would hate to spoil my grade average on the home stretch. Needless perfectionism. And yet I can’t shake it off. So I keep clicking.

But that’s a small annoyance, no more. What really bothers me is the fact that my betters at work so far haven’t been able to come up with a concrete idea for a project for my bachelor thesis. Apparently I was somewhat naïve there. When I first talked about my need for a project with my team manager a few months ago he sounded extremely confident and seemed to have several good ideas, all from my favorite field of data science/machine learning/process mining.

But when he and the CRM guy we had asked to help started actually making contact with the customers my team leader had in mind, the field narrowed quickly. My team leader’s contact at one firm (a big telecommunication company) basically stated, on the subject of log management and process mining, yes, they had logs (and plenty of ’em) and yes, they had processes, and also they certainly had room for optimization there (process mining, you see), but no, they didn’t have time for that right now. Or for that matter, for me.

Same story with the petrol retailer who, to the CRM guy, had sounded so interested in having someone optimize their retail prices. I spent several days reading everything I could find on algorithmic retail pricing in general (a fertile field for articifial intelligence–actually it’s a hot topic right now and I would have loved to be a part of it) and on petrol pricing in particular (ask me anything about it). I had already worked out a solid concept, identified the data I needed and even come up with a model when the colleague from CRM suddenly told me the customer wasn’t interested after all. Or rather, they still were interested in algorithmic retail price optimization. But they couldn’t afford the time to look after me, or maybe supervise me–the German word is “betreuen” and it’s rather broad in meaning.

Mind you, I had not asked for any supervising. I just need their data. But in the end apparently it’s a tough sell for a consulting firm to place a bachelor candidate with a customer. Inevitably the customer expects a lot of trouble with little in return. Even though they would get the results for free, i.e. at my employer’s expense, it seems they shy away from using an undergraduate student for a real project.

That was a sobering realization for me. Because it seems these had been my team leader’s best two shots–a firm that had expressed an actual interest in the kind of expertise (machine learning) I could provide, and another that my team leader had excellent contacts with. There is no indication that any other attempt will fare any better. So now what? Then my team leader got sick and nothing happened for over a week, and now he’s sick again this week.

Meanwhile we’re getting closer to the end of February, and I really need to start working on the thesis in March so I can finish by the end of August and won’t need to enroll for a otherwise useless seventh term. Right now I am getting a stupid feeling I may have missed the bus. I probably should have taken a more active interest in this much earlier. My practicum partner from process mining already has had a project for months, down to a table of contents and a list of sources. I have nothing. And actually I am beginning to doubt that a consulting firm is a good place to find a project for a bachelor thesis. Were I working for a regular software developer instead, as she is, it would probably be much easier to find a project, for at least there would be no need to sell it to a customer.

But that’s water beneath the bridge. Now all I can do is wait and hope. Well, and get on everybody’s nerve, just in case. Yesterday I got desperate and asked my business unit manager (my boss’s boss, that is) for a project, any project (well, not front end development, if possible) just so I can get started. He has more than 70 people under him who work for God knows how many customers. There must be something? He promised to ask around. But now I have second thoughts. I don’t really want to work on just anything. Something with big data or machine learning or processes would be a lot more fun. And better for my profile. You see, I don’t want to end up being a code monkey. I am a reasonably competent programmer, for a student, but I do think my real qualifications lie elsewhere. Artificial intelligence. Requirements. Project management. Architecture.

Which must have been one motivation for one of the probably oddest ideas I recently had: getting myself a certificate. Germans in general are obsessed with proving qualifications by having a paper with a seal on it that proclaims they have earned a certain certificate or title. For consultant firms in particular it’s a major advantage if their employees have certified qualifications. It makes it easier to have a customer pay for their services. Which means it’s the certificates you have on your resumé, rather than your own experiences or preferences, that determine, to a certain degree, how and where you will be employed. At least that’s my impression, or fear.

Almost as a rule a new junior consultant in our business unit will spend his first weeks at work preparing for, and then taking, the exam for the Java certification. In addition, my “compulsory choice” module in the summer term is a preparation for the “Certified Tester” exam of the International Software Testing Qualifications Board. So in the normal run of things I will end up with two certificates that basically prescribe a subordinate role for me in any project I’ll be in: Java developer and/or tester.

I’m sure that gave me the idea of reaping a windfall profit from the fact that the book our architecture lecture in the winter term was based on was labelled as being suited for preparing for yet another certification exam, namely “Certified Professional for Software Architecture”, offered by the International Software Architecture Qualifications Board. I checked the curriculum for that exam, and to be sure it all sounded pretty familiar. So I thought, before I forget all the stuff I studied so hard to remember, why not just take that stupid exam and get a certification that at least proclaims my interest in the higher levels of software engineering. Particularly since usually people take a three-day, 2000 Euro course to get it, and I got the preparation for free. Well, except for studying very hard, of course.

I talked to my boss’s boss (my boss being, as you may recall, on extended sick leave) and he thought it was a good idea. The company would pay just for the exam fee (300 Euros or so) and everbody’d be happy. Particularly since I am just sitting around waiting anyway. So I figured out the details, which are kind of curious by the by. Because none of the institutions certified to conduct this examination have an office in Hamburg, I will take the exam at a third-party testing center that conducts exams for practically every institution that needs that service. Picking some examples at random, you can there qualify as New Jersey Multiple Dwelling Inspector, or for the Bahrain National Health Regulation Authority, or take your Driver Theory Test. I admit this first sounded rather fishy to me. But apparently it’s a serious and sought-after service and in the end it makes a lot of sense. And the exam questions are standardized anyway. Still feels odd.

So I provided those details to our human relations department, they started a workflow in our system that was then stuck with my absent team manager for days before I asked my business unit manager to override the system so I can still take the exam during the team break, and now I’ve got an appointment in two week’s time. Mighty strange. I bought me the smallish official exam preparation book in addition to the one I already had studied and transferred the contents to 120 flash cards. Proven concept. And with my employer covering the fees, I really don’t want to fail. Though the risk is slight. You need to get just 60 per cent of the answers right. The official questions are of course secret, but I did a test on the internet with questions credibly claiming to be similar and got 80 per cent right before I even started to study. I do think it’s gonna work. After all, people take and pass this exam at the tail end of a three day workshop with no studying time at all.

Well, at least a way to fill my working hours and not get crazy waiting, right?


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