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halfway through systems design engineering at the university of waterloo
the jack of all trades engineering program
So I’m now in my 3A term, 4 co-op terms done, and halfway done university. It almost feels surreal - so close yet so far from the finish line.
I get a lot of questions from prospective students interested in the university of waterloo - and specifically - the systems design engineering program. I wrote a post a long time ago on my university decision-making process and thought I would follow up on it now, with a little more hindsight with two years of experience being in the program.
Systems is almost like a unicorn program. You could probably make a whole company full of all the students in one cohort. Everyone specializes in different things - there are people pursuing things from software engineering, product design, physical CAD design, hardware, mechanics, product management, venture, consulting, and more - the possibilities are endless. I’ve never even realized the diversity of this until stepping back and seeing all the different co-ops my friends were able to pursue. Even myself - I’ve jumped from consulting to software, product, and venture throughout my internships.
Now, the systems curriculum doesn’t specifically prepare students for any of these fields at a great depth. We take 1-2 very introductory level CS courses, a circuits course, and design thinking courses each term, along with all the typical, math and physics required for an engineering program. But I think it’s the very grit of all the students in the program, and the exposure they’ve had to all interdisciplinary fields, very early on. They learn from their mentors or get exposed to new fields from the diverse interests of their peers. If you want to try something, there’s probably a good chance someone in systems has done it before.
Systems has a very strong mentorship culture. As soon as students are welcomed into the program, they’re paired with mentors to ease their transition into university, a responsibility taken by the class two years above. It’s very community-oriented and many individuals tend to take initiative to organize events for the community.
At the end of the program - and honestly even halfway in - the applying to jobs thing gets a lot easier. By the end of studying systems or any co-op program at the University of Waterloo, you’ll have done 6 internships - the equivalent of two years of work experience. Students have to apply for their first internship, only two weeks into their freshman year of university, just barely being done high school. You learn how to build a resume, and develop skills/experiences, in a short amount of time.
I was talking to an alumni of SYDE at my first co-op at Deloitte, and he was a partner at the firm. I asked him about his experience in hindsight, and he said - “Waterloo prepared me for some of the hardest experiences of my life. Getting through systems was one of the hardest things I had to do. Everything else in my work life is much easier in comparison”.
And I’m finding that true as well. When I worked two jobs during my last co-op term (product and venture) - they asked me, how did you manage all of this? I’ve learned time management skills inherently through going through the engineering program at Waterloo. Taking 6 classes, balancing labs, a social life, ambiguous problem sets, and projects - you have to learn how to time-manage like a pro to get through it. Taking on a few extracurriculars or working on a project during a co-op term feels like a breeze compared to this schedule.
Maybe that’s why so many people make bets on hiring Waterloo grads. Getting through the curriculum and 6 co-op experiences, they’ll be hard working and know how to learn things quickly.
In Systems, you’re part of a tight-knit cohort of 90-120 students. This means built-in friendships and a shared group effort of “we’re all in this together”. Whenever things got tough for a class or a prof was unreasonable, the systems students and our class reps banded together to advocate for change, and often ended up working in our favour. People in the program are genuinely really kind and offer to help one another - some students even running review sessions of their own or offering to lend a hand. I also genuinely felt like I belonged in systems. Having almost a 50-50 gender ratio, I’ve met a few of my best friends in this program and it really made me feel at home.
Sometimes, when I was on co-op terms and was often one of the only women in engineering teams, I forgot the typical ratios in tech because it was such a drastic difference from what was seen every day at Waterloo.
The cohort system does have some drawbacks. Since systems students mainly take classes with only other systems students, it becomes increasingly hard to meet people from other programs. Everything becomes a bubble. Adding on to the fact we’re also on a different stream, we won’t be on campus at the same time as other non-engineering programs in our year.
I came into the expectation that university would be much different than high school. That my life would drastically change, I’ll be friends with everyone, and I’ll have the most fun of my life. Sometimes even if you’re in a room of 90 people, it could feel more lonely than ever. And maybe it’s also because my cohort had two years of online school and only 4 months together in the first year the dynamic isn’t the same. Everyone has already formed their cliques, and it almost feels impossible to make new friends organically. And since the class is so small, people talk.
A part of me missed online school because I didn’t have to worry about anything about myself. Now back into in-person university as a whole this term, I wonder if I’m doing something wrong by not spending every night of my week drinking and spending time aimlessly with people who don’t want anything but just a fun time.
I realized just because environments might change, circumstances don’t. The people are still the same. The same problems will happen, but it’s up to you to choose how it affects you. Being in a bubble of the same type of students made everything an eco-chamber, and made it hard for me to find agency for myself.
Now I’m halfway through the program, I’m making it a priority to develop my own agency, stop comparing myself to others, forge my own path, and also make an effort to engage with other communities outside of my program, and outside of Waterloo. I choose to cherish the close friendships I have, do things that spark joy, and tune out the noise. I’d rather spend time with a few people who share similar values in friendship, and are my ride or die for anything.
I’m not highlighting the negative parts of my experience to deter anyone from applying to or accepting the program. I think the important thing is recognizing where some qualities fall short, and then figuring out what to do about it. 9 times out of 10, you can probably find a way to mitigate that risk and make an experience better for you. For example, if you’re finding it hard to develop agency and find diverse perspectives outside of engineering, join non-tech clubs, learn how to be content with time alone, read thoughtful essays, and write more.
It’s hard to criticize any of my own experiences because I’ve never experienced the alternatives. Co-op has been amazing - I wouldn’t be where I am without it. It’s helped me offset student debt, explore different industries, and build my skills. But, a part of me wished that we didn’t have to jump into it all so fast. Since Waterloo was so job-oriented, everything was all about getting the best jobs, optimizing the next thing I worked to align with helping me get an internship, instead of working on things that brought me joy.
I remember telling an upper-year student about my co-op stress, and he told me, at the end of this, you’ll be the end game, not the companies. And now I’m slowly starting to realize what he said was true. Now that I’m older and finally getting closer to my graduation date, I’m getting more interview requests than I ever had in my first year.
Now, I wonder what life would be like if I had a whole year to declare a major, frolik in the fields, and dance in front of the fireplace. And maybe I am falling into the cliche of only realizing this now after I’ve “made it” and finally have this sense of job security where I can finally step outside the rat race and reflect on what life could be like without it.
And it's a cliche for a reason. I could never imagine having experienced that life. The first-generation Canadian within me saw no alternative to doing whatever I could to find opportunities that could put me on a trajectory to a stable career path. It’s only after I found those jobs I realized that I’m going to be spending the rest of my entire life working - why did I spend so much time in my university years trying to grow up so fast?
The carousel just keeps on turning.
One thing I wished for was that the Waterloo schedule was more flexible. Because of the cohort system and co-op streams, I can’t magically take a gap year or decide to take an interesting summer opportunity when I have a school term. I would have to graduate a year behind (of an already 5-year program) and join a completely new cohort of students + never see my friends again. I’m always so impressed when I meet other Waterloo students that have done this because it feels like such a hard thing to do.
There were a lot of times I considered switching out of the systems program, not going to lie. I even had a call with a CS advisor and almost went through a math transfer. Some of the courses felt absolutely unbearable and I couldn’t imagine how I could spend so much time learning about chemical materials or thermodynamics when those were all unrelated to what I wanted to work on full-time. But I realized, I’m not the only one who was going through this. My roommate is in product design - she doesn’t need to take all these math courses or learn how to make circuits - she could easily take another program at the school that probably carves out class time to work on her portfolio. Knowing that there were others also in this boat compelled me to stay and was a strong support system.
I also never really realized some of the value in these courses, even if their applications weren’t direct. All these scientists poured decades of research that now define the fundamentals of how the world works. How do we get heating in our homes, why do objects move when you push them, and why is the earth round and not flat? It all falls under the saying - “Systems is how you understand the world, design is how you change it”.
In today’s new era of software technology, everything seems much faster. Ship this feature, build a start-up, get venture funding, create a magical B2B tool - it all feels so quick, almost like magic. But I forget that there were all these fundamentals in science that made this possible.
And I don’t want to skip steps. I want to be able to truly understand different landscapes of the world before I dive into exploring problems and seeing how to change it. I want to know how we got to the current state of the world before I propose building a new one. I do acknowledge there are other ways to get this knowledge outside of university education - but this is one of the things that’s kept me going.
So, this is a halfway reflection of my time in systems design engineering. Who knows, my opinions could change, and maybe I’ll change my mind on what I do in the end. This post was a bit of a ramble but it was mainly meant for me to have an artifact of this integral part of my university career to look on and what I’ve learned.
I still can’t believe high school students have to make such a pivotal decision on their university programs and career paths with such minimal exposure to the real world. This is me doing my part in hopefully shedding some light on this through sharing some of my raw and vulnerable thoughts about my university experiences.
Catch you on the flip syde,
**note these are thoughts only reflect views of my own - many people have probably had different experiences regarding systems, the co-op program, and more.
** I made this website: mathurah-syde-journey to document some of the learnings from the courses I took in my first two years, feel free to check it out :)