Too much, too fast: just a bullet list of going-ons in the past two days

Tuesday, 12:30pm: First Student Directed Seminar presentation

This is a milestone for every project in the course, all of which seem super awesome and will probably all attract lots of attention if we manage to complete them. But this is an extra special milestone for me: the course I devised (workshop topics, project structure, marking scheme, etc) managed to keep 15 diverse, experienced students entertained for a month, and the work everyone put into this project is awesome. 

Meeting Paul is  one of the biggest reward for me. He is extremely knowledgeable, experienced, and his talent is combined with uncommonly excellent patience, enthusiasm, and a genuine desire to help everyone around him learn. In short, Paul is quickly becoming one of my favorite programming buddies and overall a great inspiration. 

Tuesday 3pm: Talked to Google engineer about her campus outreach program

A  few programmers used their 20% time to work on a campus outreach program where they provide tutorials for students who are interested in learning about web technologies. Hey, sounds familiar? I got on skype and chatted about the Student Directed Seminar with Stephanie Liu, and how I think she can connect with the talent pool she’s interested in: recruit workshop leaders who are both motivated to learn new skills on their own and experienced with event planning, train them the web technologies, and have them organize small workshops for the other students.

Tuesday 4:30pm-8:30pm: Beyond the BSc

After months and months of planning (we started planning in October, had weekly committee meetings up to last week), it was finally our time to shine. And shine we did! This was actually the first event I co-chaired, but with tremendous help from my co-chairs Gaby and Liz, and expert help from Jen Scott of Career Services, our beloved Janet Sinclair, and of course the tireless planning committee who took care of everything from food planning to poster design to mentor invitation… 

The feedback I received from mentors and students were extremely encouraging; I changed my status to “I. Love. You. People.” later that night, after I changed out of my suits and generally collapsed in exhaustion. 

This short blurb does not nearly do justice to my experiences with this event. I wish I can find the time and motivation to say more soon.

Wednesday 1pm: Tech Career Fair

There were fewer companies this year, but this was the first time I actually prepared some resumes and dropped some off! I bombed: Microsoft, Informatica, and Safe Software. Microsoft because I knew the person manning the booth: Andrew Rothbart, who was the President of the CS Student Society when I first joined, Informatica because it was in San Fran and it has a flexible start and end time for summer internship, and Safe Software cuz they got killer domain name.

Wednesday 3pm: met a cool friend

Wednesday 3:30: Interview for International Peer Program – Student Manager

If I haven’t mentioned that the entire SCI Team loves Janet like children love their mom, well, we do. Due to the policy that SCI Team members must graduate after 2 years of service, Janet actively seeked out opportunities for me to stay involved on campus, and she recommended me to join the IPP as a Student Manager. 

The program has a great mission that I resonate with, the transition it’s undertaking fits my shoe very well, and Caroline, the program’s staff coordinator, was very considerate of students in my position and encouraged me to still apply even though there is a possibility that I will enter Med school next year and have to pull out of the program. So after some deliberation, I applied. 

The interview was a great opportunity for me to reflect on my skills and believes. I was interviewed for campus leadership opportunities in 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year, and now in 4th year, I felt a lot more comfortable, but still I could catch myself sounding nervous. 

Wednesday 5:30pm: Peer Program Information Night

A salute of campus involvement and leadership opportunities, including the SCI Team, SPAC, and IPP, presented their programs tonight. This year, we’re actually doing a common application, and all of the information is consolidated here. I thought this is very clever, and it should make it a lot easier for students to apply.

The video they made did not get finished in time for this event, so I was pretty disappointed. I went with a fellow coach, Jonas, who was planning to go home when I stopped him and got him to come. (“But I’m not invited,” he said. “I’m not invited either! Let’s go!” was my answer). And at the last minute, we were given the task of presenting the SPAC program to the audience. And we pulled it off like no one else 🙂 

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Ninja and the demise of the sword maker

I can’t believe I did not include this video earlier, when I made the ultra awesome ninja sword last March for a mysterious ninja friend, who not-so-stylishly slashed around during our last SCI Team meeting.

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Oh yes, this was made waaay back, when I was still living in Fairview and had my old laptop. 

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The basic story: a friend on SCI Team is pathologically fond of anything Ninja. So I dared her: if I made her a ninja sword, she’ll dress up as a ninja at our last meeting. It was on April 1st, 2008.

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So a ninja sword I made.

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This thing took me about 2 hours. Why no decoration?

1) The only material I had was a discarded piece of cardboard I found in the unit, some tape, a stapler, and a knife. I didn’t even have scissors. 

2) It was April. I was in school. Add those up, and you will be amazed I had time to do anything other than studying.

So there you go! Thought I would include this for completion, so that the “crafts” section of this blog isn’t all about painting random things.

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SCI Team Q’s from E Team founders

*The SCI Team is somewhat well-known on campus, and I am humbled and honored to be a member of it. If I sound in any way arrogant or self-gratifying in any of my reflective posts, it is definitely not my intention. The purpose of these posts on SCI Team is to archive the valuable lessons I learned from this experience, and to share my ideas with those who are interested.

Several students in Engineering heard about the SCI Team, through our cross-faculty events, word of mouth, or science converts to engineering (:P), and they are eager to start an analog in Engineering called the E Team.

And I am honored to be asked the following questions, and although I’m not in an authoritative position to answer them, as there are many much more experienced and articulate SCI Team members than I am, since I’m asked (and fast answers demanded :P), here are my 2 cents.

  • If you had the chance to start SCI-Team from the ground up, what sort of structure would you give it?

I don’t think I will change the committee structure. The SCI Team is composed of roughly half returning members and half new members, who have diverse interests and unique styles of leadership. Creating a fixed hierarchical structure of executives will not only limit the number of events and projects that we can organize, it would also discourage the active, self-driven participation that is abundant in committees.

I don’t think I will attempt to remove the umbrella of Dean of Science’s Office that encompasses the SCI Team. An appropriate amount of involvement of the administration adds to the credibility and professionalism of the SCI Team while allowing full self-determination of the team members. It’s more like: the Dean of Science’s Office backs the projects that we come up with and got approval for.

Of course, an effective, professional student group is entirely possible without such faculty supervision. I’ve written a few key things that are characteristic of a professional group here.

  • What are some negative aspects of SCI-Team?

For those who have difficulties managing time effectively, SCI Team may be too much of a commitment. And the danger lies in the supportive, exciting atmosphere of the team, which drives you to spend hours and hours on the projects. Time management is a key skill that is sought after in SCI Team interviews.

  • What challenges have you overcome within SCI-Team?

As a new member on the team, I was quite intimidated at first. The team building activities and introduction were helpful, but it wasn’t until I helped out in the first event and saw the team functioning together that I fully embraced the team. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the co-chairs of that event, both my good friends and returning SCI Team members, had “let’s show them how we work” in mind :P)

I’ve heard stories from previous years about conflicts and ineffectiveness in the team, but I’m lucky to say that the team worked like a dream this year.

  • How would you improve SCI-Team & SUS relations?

There is no hard feelings between the SCI Team and SUS that I saw explicitly. We are two distinct groups both in terms of structure and mission, and I think we should be synergistic and not competitive. For example, SCI Team and SUS cooperate over peer academic coaching sessions, which was a great success.

One way to strengthen the relationship though, is that we could organize an ice-breaker for the SCI Team to meet with the SUS executives, so that we know who each other are, and potentially generate links for future collaboration.

  • What general advise do you have for this dude who wants to start up E-Team?

Engage the SCI Team members who served their full 2 years and are now retiring! They are eager to continue contributing to UBC, and imagine all that time and energy that they would find to spend outside SCI Team!

Also, we’d love to keep in touch with you. Like we said to Erin (the Engineering Student Development Officer), the SCI Team is looking forward to seeing the E Team grow and mature as fast as possible, so that we can have some fun with inter-faculty collaboration!

Further reading: SCI Team organizational structure.

SCI Team organizational structure

On the eve of SCI Team recruitment, this is also a time when new clubs are starting and old clubs are restructuring their executive teams. I’d like to summarize what I understand the team to be in this time of transition, for those who may be interested in learning how we work as a team.

The people

We are a team of 20 science students, coming from different programs with various experiences and interests. Some of us have done co-op and are finishing their 5th year of study, and some of us joined the SCI Team by the end of their first year.

However different, we share a common understanding of what the team should be like, and how we can contribute to make that happen. When the mean commitment of the team is high, there will be no idle teammate. When the team members work so professionally together as to become a motivation for each other, you know you have a good team.

How do we ensure this level of leadership is maintained in the team?

Professionalism

We are not a student club. We joined the team knowing it is a professional group, not a social one. Most of us are here to work together to create, implement, and improve events for students’ career or academic interests. (This is the mentality we have when we improve upon the established blockbusters like Get Into Research, and we pioneer new projects like Entrepreneurship in Science.)

Being professional doesn’t mean we don’t have fun though. Many of us are friends outside the team. But on the team, business is first.

The Committees

There is no power hierarchy within the team of 20. In the general meetings which all 20 of us attend, everyone opinion has an equal weight. These meetings are led by our Faculty Advisor Janet (aka the Mother of SCI Team), who prepares the minutes and acts as a facilitator. Occasionally, a SCI Team member will also assume the facilitator’s position, and the general meeting functions more or less the same way as it does under Janet.

Of course, there is a difference in experience among members. About half the team are returning members who have had a year of experience with SCI Team, and the other half are newly recruited members. We encourage this type of leadership to naturally emerge; this is how committees are formed.

At the start of each school year, the SCI Team spends time doing team-building activities (UBC ropes course!) and brainstorming events for the year. We decide what legacy events we want to continue, and what new events we want to pioneer, and most importantly, who’s interested in which events.

Then, a pair of SCI Team members who are most passionate about an event (for example because they came up with the idea, had past experience, or has ideas for improvement) get together and become the Co-Chairs of this project. They then call for SCI Team members who are also interested in the event to form a committee that would meet, plan, and implement this project. And depending on the project, the committee may call the entire team for help on the event day. For example, on the days of Get Into Research and Beyond the B. Sc., the majority of the SCI Team was mobilized.

The formation of committees is usually done in general meetings where every member has an opportunity to contribute. Therefore it’s easy to gauge the level of team interest and viability of the project, and engage team support.

Every team member has an opportunity to put forth a project idea, have it discussed in the team, and chair or join its committee. The involvement of committee members is variable; they can be even more engaged than the co-chairs, or they can be as disengaged as teammates not on the committee (which may give them a bad reputation). How much we get out of the event depends on how much we put in, rather than what names we have.

Back to professionalism

Every general and committee meeting has a full set of agenda prepared and published beforehand, its start time and end time decided, and its minutes taken and published right afterwards. This is usually done by the co-chairs or delegated committee members. Each member is tasked, and their progress updated in the meetings.

I don’t mean we don’t have goofs and chats during our meetings. We pass around juice boxes and snacks (or pile them up in front of members known for a good appetite as a joke), and the atmosphere is usually light and relaxed.

But we stay to the time constraint and follow the agenda closely, bullet after bullet. We keep each other to the topic, and cut off extended digressions. We respect every member present, and explain things when there is a chance that some of the members present may not be up to date on what’s being said.

All sides of opinion are heard, constructive criticism encouraged. Co-chairs and committee members reach consensus on decisions rather than letting the majority rule – and the co-chairs adopt to their members just as the members adopt to each other.

Final words (for this time)

So, it all sounds fine and dandy. “Get a good team who work professionally together, and everything will be great.”

How do we get that team together in the first place?

Because of the amount of interest in joining the team, the SCI Team traditionally interviews applicants and accept new members who show the greatest potential to benefit the dynamics of the team. It may be their new ideas, their past experiences, their background (comp sci SCI Team members are in demand, guys), or their personality.

An interview supervised by Janet ensures that the team members are not formed on the basis of connections or popularity, but this may not always be viable for other student groups, and besides, this may not be the most important thing in forming a good team.

A good team, I’d argue, is one that has a clear mission that is shared wholeheartedly among its members. This is not a cliche. This means that the mission cannot be vague or implied. It should to be clear and concrete enough to throw a pop quiz on the members, and all of them would pass.

This also means the mission as well as the level of commitment have to be clearly laid out before forming the team, rather than trying to conform the team to a new mission after it’s formed. The better the teammates understand what they are signing up for, the greater the chance to build a successful team.

* This is written in a lazy Sunday morning, so please feel free to ask for clarification, point out errors, and add your comments 🙂

SCI Team application

Having the opportunity to worth with some of the most motivated, productive, and overall weird interesting people, I need to confess that being on the SCI Team for the past year has got to be a highlight of my undergrad experience at UBC.

Every year, we graduate part of our team of 20 and absorb new teammates. And that time of the year has arrived: Join SCI Team Info Sessions.

As a failed applicant in first year, I have tasted the full show: eagerness, anxiety, letdown, bitterness, eagerness again, and the eventual happy exhaustion. I learned many, many things from SCI Team, some of which are blog-appropriate, some others, not so much. But here are a few that I can conjure regarding SCI Team application that may be applicable for other applications in general. Other stories will be for other times to share 🙂

  1. Do the homework. What do you know about SCI Team? What do you think the mission of SCI Team is? What have SCI Team done before? What is the difference between SCI Team and the Science Undergrad Society? Don’t tell me “it’s a great program where students help other students.” That’s true, but that’s what everyone else says.
  2. Be a good critique. What is SCI Team good at? How can it be improved? How can you bring about the improvements? You are joining the team with a new perspective, a fresh mindset. Use it. That’s what we are interested in learning. But be sure that you do step 1 first, and do it well.
  3. Be specific. It’s great that you are energetic, motivated, involved, and team-playing. Provide an example to support that, come with stories to tell. “There’s this one time when I saw…” “When we organized___ (insert event), we ran into this problem…”
  4. Ask questions. Prepare some good questions that show you are responsible, committed, and intelligent. Asking what the typical commitment is for a team member shows that you care about time management. Asking about the team structure and project organization shows that you are interested in the team, not the team’s name.

What I got from Entrepreneurship in Science

Once again, SCI Team put on a successful event. This time, Entrepreneurship in Science.

Keynote by Dr. Ali Tehrani was animated, engaging, inspiring, and at places, controversial.
Questions were raised regarding his claim:

decide now, what you want to be: a 9-5 person, or a 5-9 person? Do you want to be a family person, or a career person? Because you can only be one or the other. It’s a choice, not a judgment. And don’t fool to yourself that you can do both, because you can’t.

His other points worth noting:

When everyone looks this way, entrepreneurs looks the other way. Biofuels is hot now, but it won’t be hot in a year. It would be gone. (The biofuel mentor invited at the event may have felt insulted.) That’s why everyone is selling out. Everyone’s leaving, to find their next thing. Get in early, and get out while it’s hot.

Find people who share your dream for your company, but you have to sell your dream first. Let them see what your dream is, and make them want to be a part of it. So you must dream big, to get your team excited. It’s 6pm, and as I speak, half of my team is still working. Not because I make them, but because they share my dream. My passion.

Entrepreneurship is about sacrifice. It’s hard work. I work 70hr weeks, and I love it. If I don’t do what I do, I will be “itchy” all the time. I’m not married. I don’t have time for a serious relationship, because it would be unfair to my partner. What am I gonna be, a 2-hr husband?

Just to insert a little blob here about Ali’s company Zymeworks: it’s a company that uses computer algorithms to simulate molecular interactions such as protein folding and enzyme substrate binding to produce molecules for industries such as pulp and paper and pharmaceuticals. As a double major in pharmacology and computer science, my reactions to learning about Zymeworks can be imagined.

Mentors invited also provided very nice insight. I didn’t know Professor Donald Acton from Computer Science was also an entrepreneur until I was introduced as such, and I was surprised by how much real business experience he has and is willing to share. Importance of company structure (incorporate your company if you are serious about it), and getting professional advises from a good accountant (“we actually interviewed several accountants”).

Also talked to a long-time Shad friend Daniel Dent, who founded OmegaSphere in high school (which is providing me with web hosting and awesome customer support for our project), and we talked about his plan to expand his business.

And my plan to start mine: TimetableBuilder (TTB). In a nutshell, we aim to improve the course selection process at UBC, which currently requires students to select the right sections manually. TTB allows students to simply name the courses they want to take – and optionally, what time they want to take them, whether they want extra days off, etc. – and produce timetables that suit their needs.

We brainstormed some business models that are interesting, but I don’t think I like:

  1. Auction the best timetables – users who place the highest bid can be guaranteed registration into that timetable. I can immediately see how UBC would not like this.
  2. Subscribe users to a mailing list, and spam them. That’s not my style.
  3. Donations – this will never put money on the table.
  4. Ads on the website – again, this will not put money on the table, and it’s ugly.

The best business model that I have in mind, is still this: incorporate our program into UBC’s registration system, charging UBC in the same way WebCT charges UBC. This benefits students because they won’t have to visit two websites (ours and UBC’s) to do their registration, and this benefits us because the hundreds of hours we spent will at least be compensated. And this gives us a good model for expanding to other universities.

Daniel Dent, being a businessman as he is, warns: the current registration system is not causing UBC problems, so they do not have a reason to spend money and upgrade to our more user-friendly service.

I thought about that for a while. And I can come up with a few reasons for UBC to support us:

  1. University support students’ entrepreneurial endeavor looks like a nice headline on Newspapers.
  2. If this project goes well, UBC will be its birthplace and a good parent.
  3. I don’t know how much UBC wants to be the university with the best registration system (for a while)?
  4. Hopefully student satisfaction counts for UBC.

That’s very well. Daniel Dent also warned: don’t work for the hours. That’s an easy trap to fall into. I’m sure the WebCT people don’t work for UBC by the hours.

Well, where TTB will go depends on how well it’s received when we launch it this summer. So all is just a big wild dream at the moment.

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