College class

Computer Science classes vs real world internships

Having recently finished my second year of my computer science degree at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and my first internship at Arkane Digital, there are a few differences between college and internships that I wish I knew and some things that I wish I did differently before I started working. 

Outside learning to supplement courses

Because of the field's holistic and generalist nature, programming is only a subset of every computer science course. As such, classes focus on building a solid theoretical foundation instead of focusing on modern technologies and frameworks. For example, my databases course focused more on mathematical theory than writing database queries, and my computer graphics course taught more linear algebra than programming. 

These build strong foundations, but you'll likely need to learn more outside your classes to prepare for an internship. UCLA follows a more technology-agnostic approach to its courses, so I learned most of my practical skills in my own time or while working at Arkane. However, I still often asked my coworkers for help because I couldn't figure something out. Even so, spending time learning modern technologies from online resources and joining clubs was a great help. 

Focusing on the bigger picture

Computer science curricula often cover a broad spectrum of topics in-depth. It's common for engineering students at UCLA to take 3 or 4 computation-heavy classes concurrently, each covering a wide array of material in relatively high detail. It's easy to spend a lot of your time focusing on the minutia. This takes away from the time you can spend applying your knowledge outside of your class, exploring topics you're interested in, and enjoying college life.

Classes are a great way to explore many fields to find what you're passionate about, and making sure you don't spend too much time studying every topic leaves you with more time to kindle that passion. For example, taking a Software Construction course helped me realize I enjoyed web development. Unfortunately, I spent a lot of time over-studying all of my classes, which left me less time to focus on this interest. On the other hand, my internship at Arkane provided the time and environment to improve my web development skills. 

The projects I worked on and the friendly environment helped me improve and gave me insight into how the topics I learned in university work in practice. University was a great way for me to learn the fundamentals, but my internship gave me a chance to apply them. 

My internship at Arkane provided the time and environment to improve my web development skills. 

Knowing when and how to get help 

In large universities, it can be hard to find help when you get stuck. Classes often have over 100 students assigned to a handful of teaching assistants. When you've spent hours on a single problem and none of your friends or classmates know the answer, you'll have to join a line of other confused students dealing with equally confounding issues. It's a hit or miss whether or not you'll get your question answered, especially if the line is long. Your best bet was to go early or find TAs who are available at "stranger" times - early in the morning or later in the evening. 

This environment was different from my experience at Arkane. I worked in a small team, and it was easy to get help. Everyone I worked with was extremely knowledgeable and helped me understand the issues I ran into. I never felt stuck or like I wasn't learning enough because my coworkers were always there to help. They often were able to solve issues I spent two or three hours on in minutes, and going to them for advice was always productive. 

Learning to balance formal education and self-driven learning would have helped me be a more balanced programmer. Working with this duality rather than focusing too much on a single side can make it easier to thrive in both professional and academic settings. However, regardless of what you do, knowing how to get help is a great benefit. The best part of my internship was the people, and there was always someone I could ask when I needed help. 

Both the foundation built through formal education and the technical skills learned through internships are very valuable, and finding the common ground between both avenues can help you excel in whatever you pursue.

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