From Software To Physics

Preparing myself for the next decade leveraging software development skills

· 9 minutes read

What would you actually do if you would not have to think about paying the bills? Like, when you have some kind of UBI (Universal Basic Income)? More specifically: when you are not rich but get your monthly paycheck without actually working?

  • travelling to exotic places?
  • starting your own business?
  • purchasing some nice lifestyle products?
  • playing video games nonstop?

As it turns out: I am in this situation now.

Short-time working

The corona pandemic has been a major showstopper for the travel industry, especially the cruise industry, where I am employed currently. But thanks to the german government we have a special welfare programme called Kurzarbeit, where the state pays a percentage of the salaries of employees when the company is in trouble. Otherwise there would be layoffs and unemployment benefits would be in the same ballpark of costs, so it makes sense for the government to do this. The companies can then reactivate employees once things start to normalize again instead of having to hire and train new people. People have stability in hard times, companies can go to sleep until a crisis is over, and the ramp up is seamless.

What this means for me: I continue to get my monthly salary, but without having to work. And since my particular industry (cruises!) got hit really hard, I predict that things will stay this way for many months to come. Somewhat UBI, right?

Revisiting the list above, none of the points. Travelling is my daily business ("been there, done that", literally). Since the bills are covered, I have no real pressure to start a business right now, more on that later. Purchasing things lost its appeal years ago once I could buy whatever I wanted (everyday things, not a yacht). Playing video games started to feel like a waste of time long ago, but once in a while a few days of gaming is fun.

Maybe it's just me, but people are so obsessed in hacking their way to more money that they never realize why they to it in the first place. To illustrate the point more colorful: why do people want to start their own business?

The side hustle fallacy

Some people are makers and independent tinkerers who do it because it makes them happy on its own, even if they barely make money. But all the others? Either frustration with their past employers or the dream of becoming rich somehow. Both ways can unleash quite a huge amount of motivation and productivity. And Silicon Valley culture, talks with successful entrepeneurs, venture capitalist news portals, ..., all of them preach happiness once you "made it".

But, does this hold? Typically, bootstrapping a startup is highly stressful and quality of life will suffer from scarcity of time/money/energy/... since you need to be hyper-focussed to get things moving. And the majority fails, often multiple times. Even when you manage to become really successful, after multiple rounds of begging for VC money and having cofounders and giving away shares to early employees, how much money will be left on the table? Typically not what one was dreaming before all started.

High level principal software engineers in big corporate jobs can earn up to 500k$ per year, and probably have a less stressful day while still being challenged. Calculate for yourself: what does it take for a bootstrapped business until you can make 500k$ per year as a salary, including the years when you are still working towards enough cashflow. What are the odds to succeed? Looks like a hamster wheel with a touch of lottery, where you get a more tickets the faster you run.

Finally, even if all stars align and you get some fortune, then what? Back to square one.

Capitalizing Differently

If doing business is not the answer, what else is? For me, it's learning in itself. I want to understand how the world works. Since I have time, no money issues, and live in germany: university it is!.

I already studied computer science and have a grasp over adjacent engineering fields, so more of the same or similar stuff is not particular exciting. To get highly paid work, I can leverage my CS skills, so no need to study something to get a job.

Geisteswissenschaften (propably "liberal arts" in the US?) is not for me. I prefer "hard sciences" as we call them here, or better known as STEM. Something that is way out of my comfort zone but still has lots of synergies with my CS skills, that would deepen my understanding of our reality? Physics it is. I will go back to university and study physics full-time, sponsored by our government.

Aside from getting a better understanding of the universe itself, I think that expertise in general physics will be increasing in demand in the nex decade. Problems like alternative forms of energy or space travel are upon us. And I want to be part of it. There is a different spin to it when you unlock something that benefits humanity instead of just growing just another business with technology as I currently do.

To make it more clear: I use the time and money to improve myself in a way that could benefit society sometime in the future. And if this should fail, I would still have a double major plus ongoing senior-level software engineering experience, probably leading to higher salaries in the future.

Transferring Software Skills

What I have seen so far, academia is unifying behind python for all things code. There are still outliers like MATLAB, R or Julia, but without judging the technologies, consolidating around just one set of tools is a great thing. It amplifies everyone involved and leads to great open source development efforts like SciPy or NumPy (and countless others). This means for me: I have to learn Python properly, which should be a non-issue given my background.

There is also some kind of interactive coding environment in academia now: Jupyter Notebooks. Think of some sort of simplified org-babel, or markdown files with embedded code REPL. Thanks to Jupyter I can understand things in a (for me) natural way, by tinkering and computing results/visualizations. It should also be great for lecture notes, since LaTeX is suppoerted withing markdown.

A very big block of work (especially in the beginning) of physics is math. Since a good chunk of it has been part of my earlier CS degree, re-learning stuff should not be too hard. Having an intuitive understanding of algorithmic problem solving from everyday programming should also help to get through all of it. Last but not least: the actual hard thing of math seems to be the syntax. But one can view math as just another programming language and compare concepts with things from already known languages. Stuff like loops, conditions, function signatures and so on, somewhat tersely written. A bit like people who are proud of how they solved a problem with an arcane oneliner of perl that is barely readable. But one can get used to it. At least, I hope that this will be the case for me.

Using Technology

I like to use different devices for different things, some sort of device determinism:

  • Working on business things or coding stuff happens on my macbook air.
  • Playing casual games happens on my nintendo switch.
  • Playing "big" games happens on my iMac 5k.
  • Sports and health things is measured with my apple watch.
  • Messaging and Communication handles my iPhone.

I do not install games on my macbook, neither setup dev environments on my iMac, and so on. When using a device, my brain automatically shifts in the right "mode", be it coding or socializing or gaming.

For university, I think there is finally a use case for my iPad pro. It has been collecting dust until recently, because for everything in my life I already had a device that is better optimized for the things I do. Gaming is better with real haptic controls, coding is better with a "real" operating system, and so on.

With the apple pencil and a good note writing app (I use GoodNotes) there is no need for physical paper. Going digital while still having the feel of haptical writing feels great.

To do things more properly than just handwritten notes, there is also a great app called Juno, which bundles Jupyter Notebooks into a native app, including a python interpreter. This means that interactive markdown documents with LaTeX snippets and code/data/plotting integration right at your fingertips.

There are also many different apps for scientific calculators and formula collections available. Combined with splitscreen, this sould come handy. Not to mention that I can have Numbrs/Pages/Keynote and Word/Excel/Powerpoint directly on the iPad, too.

For more administrative stuff, there seems to be a good app called Uni Now, but it seems exclusive to germany. I have not yet used it, but it looks like integration of university annnouncements, student email access, mensa food calendar, and so on.

For better inputs (when not using the pencil), I have a keyboard cover case on my iPad. Typing longer texts on it is actually quite comfortable. Not as great as on my macbook, but way ahead of the touch interface of iOS.

Within a few weeks, the mental link should been established between my iPad and studying physics. Finally! (Until now, the iPad was just an expensive kindle reader for me.)

At least in my current mental model, my iPad (including accessoires) should be able to be the only device I need on the campus.

Closing thoughts

Either going into research, getting a more exotic job because having a double major, or just the satisfaction from gaining a deeper world understanding: I hope things will play out as I imagine.

For all the terrible things that the corona epidemic caused, I am grateful to still be healthy, in a country that managed the crisis quite well, protects its citizens well (even financially) and where higher education is free for all. Maybe I will become skilled enough to contribute something to science that moves humanity forward one day.