Interview with MEng student Kanjun Qiu

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What were your interests as a high school student and how did you come to choose Course 6 when you came to MIT?

In high school I loved math and art and music, but was never really exposed to computer science. I started at MIT as a math major, uncertain about what I wanted to do with my life. When I looked around, it seemed that knowing how to program was necessary for every field, and so I switched over to Course 6. In retrospect, this was not a great reason to choose a major. Choose something you love, and not necessarily something you think is most practical. I've seen peers choose the practical option and graduate unsatisfied - but I was one of the fortunate ones who happened to discover a love for computer science and the way it interacts with math, and the awesome things you can create with it.

Once you decided to major in Course 6, what led you to choose 6-3?

I found out that I greatly preferred algorithms and software design to circuits and signal processing, so the choice was fairly obvious. That being said, one great thing about Course 6 is that you can graduate with a deep understanding of how computer systems work in their entirety - from the plug in the wall outlet to the CPU, the operating system, the programs, even the wireless routing and communication. The computer is a magical machine that's everywhere, and we usually take for granted the fact that it somehow works. But Course 6 breaks down that assumption and takes it apart and you leave MIT with an idea of how all the pieces of technological magic in the world work together, and how to manipulate them. And that's really powerful.

What are the aspects of 6-3 and the MEng. Program you liked the best and how have you found your interests grow or change as you've gone on?

The MEng. is wonderful because it gives you a year to do all of the things you wanted to do during undergrad but never had time to due to classes, meetings, and endless problem sets. I had much more time during my MEng. year - I finally got a chance to sleep normally, have a reasonable social life, take advantage of the classes offered through the Student Art Association, become serious about ballroom dance, go to random interesting talks, and thoroughly learn class material instead of just rushing to finish the next pset. Days were still chaotic and I was still busy, but there's much less pressure and much more room to explore.

Where do you envision yourself headed next and how do you think 6-3 and the MEng Program has prepared you?

MIT does a pretty good job of putting us all through enough grueling work that by graduation, we feel like no matter what problems are thrown at us, we'll figure them out. However, the MEng. really taught me how to manage longer-term projects and goals, and figure out how to deal with long-term stress - something that's missing in undergrad, where we focus on when the next problem set is due (usually tomorrow - maybe even tonight), and where both stress and relief are very immediate. But you can't just write a thesis at the last minute. So I learned to plan and set goals for myself, and force myself to meet those goals (because it's easy to ignore and push back your self-set goals when there are no consequences for missing them). These are really useful skills in the real world, where many goals are quite long-term and require a good deal of planning and forward-looking vision.

As for where I'm headed next, I enjoy working at small places where I can do lots of things quickly. My current thesis work focuses on education and technology (see here for more info: http://video.mit.edu/watch/kanjun-qiu-expanding-the-culture-of-computing...), and I hope to continue my work in the field as a side project after graduation. In the past I've done a lot of algorithmic trading, which I like because lots of things get done quickly, and I will likely pursue trading for a few years. But I believe that as privileged MIT students, we are fortunate enough to be given important skills and powerful knowledge. And there are tons of domains out there with many people who don't have our privilege, and who are sorely in need of our skills and knowledge - U.S. education and women's issues in underdeveloped countries being two that I care a lot about. While I don't know where I'll be in five or ten years, perhaps I'll find myself somewhere in those domains.