Find yourself at the onset of a global pandemic, unemployed, and unsure about your next move 

It’s January 2020. I’m the operations lead for a startup that’s making a snowboarding product and we’re having trouble finding product market fit. The board of directors makes the decision to shut the company down. I sell off what I can, find new tenants for our office/warehouse lease, and move any items that are left into storage. The company goes into hibernation at the end of February 2020.

I dive into how to produce podcasts with the goal of creating my own and offering production services to others. In parallel, the world heads towards major uncertainty as news emerges about a novel virus that’s spreading rapidly.  

Find work to pay the bills; rethink what you want out of life

I quickly come to realize that it’s going to be a long road to profitability in podcasting, for both developing my own and billing for services. Let the job search commence. 

Luckily, my buddy needs some help in the finance department where he’s working. Basic data entry that’s flexible, low commitment, and pays well enough. With a base income locked in, I continue to explore podcasting. It’s not long, however, before I begin questioning what the heck I am doing with my life, just as many others are during the pandemic. 

Apply to grad school… late

It’s now the summer of 2020. I’m an engineer, who likes to build and create, doing admin tasks. Something needs to change. The challenge is I don’t know what direction I should head. I have a broad engineering background yet feel I have no specialty. I want to become really good at something, have a niche, have a thing. I want to be a part of tech that’s changing the future and I’ve always been curious about machine learning.

At the same time I like academia and I feel at home on campus. I find there is this curious, excited energy at universities - a feeling that anything is possible and your future awaits you. I also think the lifestyle of a prof doesn't look so bad. Fuck it, let's get a Ph.D.

I find a professor that is willing to supervise me. But shit, it’s the end of August. I have clearly missed the deadline for a September intake and only have a few weeks to get my application together for a January 2021 intake. I hustle to get my reference letters and other requirements submitted. I also confirm that I can enrol in courses in September as an unclassified student (an option since I already have a degree from the university) and that they will be eligible for transfer to my program once I am officially registered. Game on.

Make life harder for yourself by not working on your supervisor’s existing projects

The “easy” thing to do is to build off research that your supervisor already has established, preferably with an existing grant. Despite liking my supervisor’s overall lab themes, I want to do something different than what he currently has on-going. I consider topics such as digital twins, smart cities, predictive maintenance, and more. I eventually decide to focus on continuous monitoring for predictive health using machine learning (a close contender was ocean health). 

I pick up a side project as my supervisor and I search for an appropriate industrial partner for longer term research. We find a local company that is keen to collaborate and apply to grants together. I even write a paper, which I never submit anywhere, about the impacts of stress on your health and how continuous monitoring and machine learning can help.

Become eligible to fast track to the Ph.D.; drop out instead

Before I had first applied to grad school, my supervisor and I planned that I would fast track to the Ph.D. program. This means I start in the master’s, complete some initial requirements, then switch over to the Ph.D. without completing the master’s. Nice idea in theory, harder in reality.

We’re coming up to the fall of 2021 and things aren’t going so great. It’s been about six months of unsuccessfully trying to secure funding. I have a part time job but it’s not enough. I’m running out of money and I can’t live the broke student life; I’m in my 30s and have bills to pay. On top of this I’ve been observing my supervisor, his responsibilities, and lifestyle. Turns out being a prof isn’t exactly what I thought it was. It feeds the intellectual curiosity though ultimately doesn’t align with the vision of how I want to live my life. 

At this point I’ve completed the initial requirements to be eligible to apply for fast tracking, yet I’m stressed out, broke, and headed in a career direction that isn’t for me. I can’t commit to living my life like this for another 3+ years. I make the decision to drop out of grad school and go back to work full time. 

Hit a low point

Now it’s late 2021 / early 2022 and I’m back looking for a new job. I reflect on what roles I can do that will fit my technical interests, desire for flexibility (i.e. remote work), and financial goals. I land on software development. Software is where it’s at. 

Although I’m inexperienced as a software dev, I know I’m highly capable and only need be given a shot. Unfortunately - and understandably - no one will. This is where I hit a massive low point. I had minimal income during the initial part of the pandemic, funding issues with grad school, and am now struggling to find a job (even outside of software development). Money is running out: my savings are drained, my line of credit is maxed, and I’m not sure how I am going to pay my mortgage next month. 

Stick with it; change your career path

A couple family members help me out and loan me some money. It’s enough to float me for a few months as I figure out this software thing. I don’t have the time or cash to do a software bootcamp nor are there any guarantees that doing one would secure me a job. So I put myself through my own intensive, shorter boot camp and build an example website. I then pick up a gig with a construction crew setting up and tearing down concrete forms for house foundations and keep applying to jobs. 

I interview with Shopify for an internship position and I’m stoked because it’s somewhere I would like to be employed and I know that I can spin the internship into full-time work. The interview process appears to be going well enough… and then it goes silent. It’s not long until I read a news article saying they have laid off a bunch of employees and have cancelled that cohort of interns. Fuck. 

Fortunately, I come across a post on LinkedIn from FreshBooks saying that they have internship spots open and are happy to interview anyone that was impacted by the Shopify events. We chat and they are willing to hire me. One little problem is the internship doesn’t kick off until September 2022. Welp, a couple more months of concrete forms.

Apply to grad school… late… again

Throughout 2022, I stay in touch with my supervisor. At every conversation he asks, “are you ready to come back to the lab?” He’s convinced that I’m headed towards becoming a code monkey pumping out features, another cog in the machine, and that it’s not the life for me. And he’s right.

As a side note, no offence if that is your thing - there is something beautiful about producing clean, efficient code that solves a problem, it just wasn’t for me.

I’m not sure why but, in August for whatever reason, I respond to him, “yep, I’ll come back, let’s do this.” We agree that I will complete the master’s and not pursue a Ph.D. such that I can get back to industry sooner. I contact the university and they inform me that they can’t reuse my previous application and I will have to submit a brand new one since I had fully withdrawn from the program (only 8 months ago!) instead of taking a leave. To their credit, they allow me to apply to be reinstated for September instead of January of the following year, if I get my paperwork in ASAP, and inform me my previous courses will transfer over. Once again, I scramble to get my reference letters and application in. I get everything submitted before the end of the month, am accepted, and am a master’s student again, with a new official start date of September 2022.  

Come across a paper that lights you up

So here I am working as a software developer intern. The FreshBooks team has been great. They’re very flexible, supportive, and accommodating, which allows me time to take courses to complete my credit requirements and explore areas to focus on for my research. I come across the TensorFlow Lite for Micro paper and I can feel myself getting more and more excited with every paragraph I read. This is it. This is the niche I’ll focus on.

I reach out to Pete Warden to ask him if he knows of any current developments happening related to tinyML at Google. He lets me know that he’s not aware of active efforts and suggests that I check out this new company called Edge Impulse. I dig into the company and I light up all over again. 

I have to pause here and give a shout out to Pete. He’s awesome. He had zero need or reason to respond to me when I contacted him, although he did. That interaction was a turning point that set me on the path that I am on today and for that I am immensely grateful. About 6 months after we first interacted, I met him and was able to thank him in person. That was a special moment for me.

Take a year off from grad school (essentially)

I check out Edge Impulse and all I can think is, “this is where I need to be.” I take a peek at the careers page and there is nothing available right now. I figure out who the head of HR is and we connect on LinkedIn. We agree there is not an appropriate position at the moment but that we should stay in touch. A month or so passes and then boom! A relevant role pops up. I immediately reach back out to the head of HR and they agree we should move forward. Let the interview process begin. 

I interview at the end of December 2022 and get rejected. This is a tough blow that hits pretty hard. I take a week to let it sink in and regroup myself before sending a follow up email letting the team know that Edge Impulse is still where I want to be and that it would be great to keep in contact. Shortly thereafter, the head of HR contacts me to let me know that there has been a change in some of the team structure and there is a very similar, yet slightly different, position available and ask if I’m interested in interviewing for it. I absolutely am.

I land the job and at the end of February 2023 start a role I haven’t done before, with people I don’t know, at a new company, in a new industry. Needless to say, there is a learning curve. I deal with imposter syndrome and this feeling that it is too good to be true, that somehow this opportunity is going to be taken away from me. As a result, I end up focusing almost entirely on learning my new role and put the master’s on the back burner for the time being.

Continue to make life harder on yourself; change research directions

Throughout 2023, I find it hard to set aside time for my master’s. I had pitched my supervisor on tinyML and an application using some existing equipment in the lab. It was the right direction but an application that I wasn’t super stoked on. I went with it because I simply wanted to get the master’s in machine learning completed, so that I could land a job. I’ve now landed the job without first completing the master’s.

I try putting time into the master’s in the evenings and weekends, and even use some of my vacation time. Finding the motivation to work on my master’s is tough; there is less drive since I achieved the original goal ahead of time. I let my supervisor know that, if I am going to be applying the majority of my free time to this master’s, the research needs to be something I am highly interested in, not merely something to get it done. He’s supportive of my decision and I search for a new application, again.

Find an organization to partner with; choose a different organization instead; have that partnership not pan out 

We’re coming up on the end of 2023 and I investigate edge AI/ML use in the field of wildlife conservation. Since Edge Impulse believes in tech for good and supports 1% for the Planet, a lot of our team members have contributed in this space and have numerous connections in the community. I leverage this and receive an introduction to a group implementing an interesting project that is local to my home province. 

I find the potential research meaningful and the people are cool. Nevertheless, after a couple of conversations, it becomes clear that the immediate goals of the project might not align with my personal goals for my master’s, there could be a duplication of efforts with another partnership the organization has, and there could also be some data sharing/privacy concerns. 

At the same time as chatting with the above organization, I am introduced to another group that also has intriguing initiatives on the go. I have a few chats with the second group. It feels like there is a lot of alignment and mutual benefits for all involved. I make the decision to move forward with the second group. A few weeks into corresponding with this new organization, we find out that there has been some delays to their data collection plans that are out of their control and their new timeline won’t align with my own. I let them know that there are no worries on my side, ask to apply their use case for inspiration, and move on to plan B.

Roll with it; decide to build in public 

That brings us to today, March 2024. Though there has been a few detours along the way, I’m rolling with it. I’m happy with where I am at now. I have a full-time job that I’m pumped on, I’m in a better financial situation, and I have a research direction that I’m eager to learn more about. Now it’s all about execution. 

I started this blog partly to engage more with the ML community and partly to keep me accountable and on track to get this friggen master’s completed. Thanks for reading thus far. Stay tuned for more.