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Hard to Explain


Welp, after two months out here in the Bay Area, I’m not convinced. I’ve decided to go back and start my PhD this fall, back with Prof Hanumolu at the University of Illinois. It took me way too long to decide, and maybe I did know the answer all along (seems like everyone else did). I think there’s a lot to be said for the air out in the Bay however - calling it toxic would be cruel, but it’s definitely intoxicating. There’s a lot of factors I’m going to go over, but please bear with my stream-of-conscious-complaining.

I think the best way to start is to attempt to explain why I’m leaving SF, rather than why I’m staying at UIUC. The Bay Area has a lot of hype, and if you squint your eyes just right, it really does live up to it. Of course, by squinting, you blur out all the realities of #baylife. Starting from the top:

  • Price. People are just awful with dealing with numbers, and I’m no exception. No one has ever said “oh yeah California, what a cheap place to live”, but it still didn’t hit me till I came out here and started spending money. My rent has tripled and the square footage went down by 75%. Subway Footlong Index (not yet A Thing but maybe a good weekend project) is up 100%. Has my income gone up? Yes. Has my take-home income gone up? No. Admittedly, I’m currently on a startup intern salary, so that last answer is pretty unfair. Still don’t think the incoming delta would be meaningful.

  • Tech Culture. Tech culture everywhere, this one didn’t disappoint. The airport has ads for cybersecurity. The subway has ads for Ebay and Etsy. The spam paper mail my apartment gets is usually for fast food, but equally often it’s an ad for a new delivery/deals/grocery app. So many neat companies in such a small proximity is super enabling. This really had me hooked in the beginning, but now I feel like the lack of mental diversity is a bad thing. I got a chance to hang out with a high school friend who works in journalism this summer, and I felt like we lived in different worlds. The irony of having trouble talking to a journalism major is hilarious. SF doesn’t help this at all, with its tech monoculture.

  • Wealth Gap. This one is unfair to blame on SF, and likely a problem of cities in general. However, I’ve never “had more” in a place with this many “have-nots” before, and it’s been doing pretty significant damage to my psyche. Seeing the insane levels of poverty in this city force me to do something. That something usually ends up being really small, like giving out spare change or food. This is a positive feedback1 loop, as I feel like my actions are never enough and I just feel worse. (Yes, this is a #privilege argument to make, I get that. I’m trying.)

  • Creative Freedom. I bought a drum set two years ago. For the first year, I had to leave it at my friends' house and could only play it on occasion. As a result, it felt like a huge waste. This past year, I lived in a house with two other friends, and I got to play it whenever I wanted. I’ve always tried to be involved with something musically, and that was the first time I got to be in a real band and write songs. While I may call that “priceless”, I can estimate the cost as a number that I’ll never be able afford out here.

  • Climate. SAN FRANCISCO IS COLD. SAN FRANCISCO IS COLD. THE WEATHER HERE IS NOT GOOD. “It’s not cold, you just need to bring a jacket everywhere” - THAT’S WHAT COLD IS. You know who has great weather? San Diego. No jackets.

Phew, been holding that in for awhile now. I don’t want to make it sound like my summer has miserable or awful - on the contrary, I’ve had a ton of fun this summer. It would also be unfair to lump my company Astranis in with all the negativity. They have been such a cool team to work with, and I’ve learned so much this summer (and not just about satellites). It’s crazy to see what some dedicated people can do if they really want to, and I could put my hear and soul into this company as much as they do. Not to mention the perks are pretty sweet. Having an AI order you lunch? Hilarious.

I think that wraps up leaving, or at least the main points. But that makes it seem like an easy decision, too easy in fact. My counter points won’t be too long, and I’ll try to quickly tear down the strawmen as I build them up. If I get too in depth, I might get cold feet, and I’m pretty sure some people would murder me.

  • Income/Debt. I have a lot of student debt from undergrad. Getting a PhD delays real life by at least four years by pretty heavily restricting my income (relative to what I could make at an industry gig). Then again, the jury is still out on what ““real life”” means, so I’m not too worried.

  • Opportunities. The chance of me finding a company that’s a better fit for me are about 60 dB2 better in SF than CU. Additionally, even though my heart isn’t in Astranis, I think they’re doing some fascinating stuff and have a really good chance of Making It Big. On the other hand, they’re not the first and they definitely won’t be the last company to Make It Big.

  • Entertainment. I’m not a complex person, I like the intersection {bad, good} beer and {bad, good} live music. I know there’s more of that in SF (so many great concerts this summer), and that’s a definite loss. On the other hand, CU’s DIY scene is amazing, so I’m excited to go back and hopefully be a bigger part of it.

  • Pigeon-holing. I hinted at this at the start of the summer, but here it is in a more blunt fashion: I can’t imagine myself working at a big semiconductor company. I’m not sure what else I would do with a PhD in IC Design, but I’ll find something. This one is honestly the least of my worries.

OK, but why stay at UIUC? Why not try another top school in this research area? Honestly, it hadn’t even crossed my mind. If I was getting a PhD, it would be with my adviser. I consider myself blessed to have a fantastic adviser3. To me, fantastic means “no bullshit”, and that’s exactly what I get. Does it help that he’s also the best in the world at what he does? Of course. The reality is, he knows me really well and he knows what makes me tick, and as a result, he pitched me on a project that I couldn’t resist. The technical term for this is nerd-sniping.

The project he pitched deserves a blog post of its own, and it will get one soon. As a one-linear: “automated synthesis of high-speed serial links”. Translations to English sometime soon, I promise.

  1. Positive feedback in the controls sense, meaning self-amplifying. It is a feedback loop of negative emotions however. ↩︎

  2. A lot ↩︎

  3. Heh ↩︎