Build Something.


One of the first questions that I ask when interviewing someone is “What’s something interesting that you have built or made?” It’s surprising how many engineering graduates do not have anything to show. I always wonder why.

The first time I saw a line of code was during a C++ course that every freshman engineering student has to take at the University of Waterloo. I sat at the back and learned very little in that class because everything went over my head.

It wasn’t until that summer when I built my first little application that I truly appreciated software engineering. It was a website called Uniconnect. It tried to connect students who were selling textbooks with buyers. I learned PHP and HTML (which were also new to me then) and painstakingly put it together over 4 months. I was extremely proud of Uniconnect; so much so that I still have a poster of it in my bedroom. Here’s the kicker: a total of 0 users signed up to use it. Zilch. Zero. But it didn’t matter to me, because it taught me so much more than that C++ class.

From then on, I made it a priority to keep building things. In my second year, I built a dating app called Adore.ly which basically was like Tinder except using Facebook (Ah, the days when you could spam using the Facebook API). In my third year, I built an algorithmically driven Top40 playlist generated from Twitter. And in my last year, I built Peekaboo, a facial-recognition app (it was creepy).

I learned more building these than I did in any university course. The classroom taught me how to manage time, work in teams, and theoretical fundamentals. But spending those early mornings and late nights on pet projects taught me about not giving up when I couldn’t figure something out, creativity, and the joy of engineering. I don’t think you can really learn those skills in a room. That’s probably why some engineers lack the passion for creating new things. They just haven’t done it before.

Looking back, if it wasn’t for that silly Uniconnect app which had no users, I probably would never even have considered Software Engineering as a profession. Sometimes, a small decision makes a big impact on your life. Strange how that works.

In his book Making Ideas Happen, Scott Belsky wrote:

“The ability to gather and present your past accomplishments visually in a “show don’t tell framework” is much more effective than having a list of clients or distributing a resume.”

So if you’re an engineer, go build something. Be proud of every project. Make yourself interesting. Trust me, it’s a lot of fun.

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