Bad Timing

Exam weeks yet again. It’s Monday, two days to go before the first exam, intelligent systems, on Wednesday. We were lucky because three of our four exams are in the second week, and none is this Thursday or Friday. Which not only means we have more time to prepare, but also we won’t be affected by the G20 summit taking place in Hamburg at the end of this week. There will be events and demonstrations, some of which are expected to become violent, plenty of police, lots of areas restricted for traffic, subway and train services interrupted, and most of it downtown, and our campus is a mere quarter-mile from the central station. Several exams had to be moved, and the advice for all others is to allow several hours for getting here. That’s the kind of stress you don’t need just before an exam.

That aside, it’s been a while since I had such mixed feelings about an upcoming exam phase. I am confident about just one exam, software engineering, which is going to be another relaxed talk with the professor, primarily about our software project and our experiences organizing it, in the light of the project management techniques we studied this term. Computer networks will be similar to operating systems last term–lots of arcane details, and a grading scale without any buffer, i.e. you have to get everything right for an A+. At least we are allowed a printed crib, which I prepared in just a couple of hours yesterday by copying those flashcards I had most trouble remembering into a .tex file.

In intelligent systems, by comparison, the professor has again insisted on a hand-written crib, and I found again that I just hate preparing one–apart from the sheer physical pain of writing several pages in tiny letters by hand, it’s nearly impossible to organize such a crib. Inevitably you forgot something and have to insert it elsewhere where it doesn’t belong. Equally inevitably you make mistakes you have to correct by crossing words out, losing the space. And there is always some space left at the bottom that can’t be used. I almost felt like I should complain to the professor again, but for one thing she had already refused to listen the first time, and for another I suspect she would just suggest I fair-copy the whole crib, to even better memorize what I have written!

In any case, this exam will be the hardest this term. There will be two parts, one prepared by her, on general areas such as logic, search algorithms, constraints, soft programming and all that, and one prepared by her co-teacher, a young assistant teaching his first course, on machine learning and neural networks. That means that the Altklausuren we have are only relevant for the first part of the exam (and mind you, they are nasty enough), while the second part might be almost anything, including questions on the comparative advantages and disadvantages of, say, batch gradient descent versus stochastic gradient descent–which involves understanding several pages full of formulas. Which,┬áto be honest, nobody in the course ever managed. And this course is full of people who are doing it for the second or third time. I expect disastrous results, and that might be a blessing in disguise, because if the outcome is truly abysmal they just might adjust the grading scale.

Which leaves the compulsory choice module on adaptive systems, which is an oral presentation on the last day of the second exam week. I have already handed in the written paper, a couple of weeks early, so to have at least one thing out of the way, and plan to prepare the presentation itself just in time. Last week I went to see the professor, not about that, but about his recommendation to his buddy in the industry that caused me worries. I told him I was grateful, but still felt I should accept the other offer. To my great relief he was completely relaxed about that. He said he was happy to write recommendations, and the rest was my affair.

Maybe it’s unfair, but after that talk I finally felt ready to turn his friend’s job offer down and accept the job at the downtown IT consulting firm. As a final irony, just when I had decided that, my cell phone rang. It was the small IT company I had initially applied to after the first job fair here at UAS in May, but never heard back from. Now, nearly seven weeks later, they were offering me the job. I almost laughed, and politely told the guy he had missed the bus. Later I thought, what a pity. I really had found that company attractive. So I wrote a short email saying too bad it took you so long, I really wanted to work for you. I got a slightly pissed-off replay from their HR, pointing out they just didn’t have to resources to work more quickly, and besides, six or more weeks were quite normal. Are they? Three other companies managed to reply within 48 hours, and offer me a job within a few weeks. Did these guys really think I would patiently wait for them six weeks without their ever saying as much as “bear with us, we’re still working on this”. Truth is, they dropped the ball.

And still I am not sure I am really doing the right thing in going to work for that downtown IT consulting business. Just this morning I realized that working 16 hours per week during the term and 32 hours in the term break is going to be a stretch, what with the older kids being at school only 8 hours a day. There is still that offer from another firm that is paying less but is also sounding an awful lot more relaxed. Particularly attractive is that they would allow me to work from home part of the time. But as my wife says, there is no way of knowing in advance how any of this is going to work out, anyway. I suppose I just have to try. And hope that, with the added experience of having worked for a year or two, another employer will still consider me later. Even though at that time I will be 49 or, god forbid, 50.

But you know, the timing could really be better for all this. Right in the middle of the exam phase I honestly have other things to worry about.