Nearly a year has passed since the last update. In order to at least partially rectify this situation, I am planning to publish a series of posts describing what have I been up to during that time. A natural place to start then is the final year of Computer Science undergraduate degree (also known as CST Part II) at Cambridge.

CST Part II undoubtedly offers a largest amount of flexibility out of all years of the Tripos. Three written exams (or as they are known in Cambridge, papers) have to be taken at the end of the year. Each paper contains fourteen questions, out of which five have to be selected and answered during a three hour exam.

This implies that it is enough to select a proper subset of subjects (out of twenty-four subjects offered in Part II) in order to do well in the final exams. This is where various strategies come into play.

Here is one that worked for me:

  1. Choose the courses that you are really interested in,
  2. Choose the courses that you are really good at.

The only remaining task then is to identify courses that satisfy the above criteria.

Let's start with #2: it is easy to be good at well-taught courses. That includes courses with well-written handouts, good exercise sheets and effective lecturers. Here is my list (but YMMW):

  1. All courses by Prof John Daugman (this typically includes "Information Theory and Coding" and "Computer Vision"). There are multiple good reasons for taking these courses: first of all, it is really worth seeing a polymath at work. I have not seen anyone closer to a Renaissance man than John Daugman. Secondly, the questions for ITC and CV follow the round-robin pattern over the years and never deviate from the material in the learning guides.
  2. "Business Studies" and "E-Commerce" courses by a serial entrepreneur-in-residence Jack Lang. I have been to a number of "business" courses, both within and outside the academic environment. I have not seen anyone eliminate the bullshit factor more effectively than Jack. This is both a tremendously effective skill to learn, and provides a very down-to-earth set of introductory lectures to anyone who aspires to be an entrepreneur. Exam-wise, Jack follows the same no-bullshit approach. The questions test your basic knowledge and provide an easy way to grab fifteen out of twenty marks (the median results for the year 2011-2012 were 15/20 for BS and 16/20 for E-C).
  3. "Computer Systems Modelling" by Dr Richard Gibbens. Besides the fact that Dr Gibbens is a very good lecturer, he is also very stable when it comes to setting the exam questions (viz. one out of two questions is always about the probability theory and the other is about queuing theory). Stability is predictability, and predictability is an expensive commodity in Cambridge exams.
  4. "Bioinformatics" (also known as "Algorithms III") by Dr Pietro Lio'. Despite sporting a couple of PhDs, Dr Lio' is a tremendously helpful lecturer. Seriously. He demonstrated it multiple times by arranging additional examples classes, Q/A sessions, handing out complementary lecture material and, of course, by setting the exam questions that yielded "very good results, well spread but with very few low marks" (his own words).
  5. Temporal Logic and Model Checking

    Temporal Logic and Model Checking scribbles...

    "Temporal Logic and Model Checking" by Prof Mike Gordon (not to be confused with the evil "Hoare Logic" course!). Behind the nasty notation hurdle (see the image on the right) lies another self-contained and straightforward course. This is also reflected in the exam results: the median marks for both TL&MC questions in 2011/2012 were 17/20!

Once again, the list above should be taken with a grain of salt, especially for the relatively young courses like Bioinformatics or TL&MC, where a large variance in the exam question difficulty has not been statistically disproved.

However, written papers account for only 75% of the final grade. The remaining 25% is allocated for the Part II dissertation. One of the biggest challenges in Part II is juggling between writing up the dissertation and learning for the exams, especially in the Easter term.

Here is my solution:

  1. Take all the courses in Michaelmas and Lent terms.
  2. Do not take any courses (apart from business ones) in the Easter term.
  3. Finish the implementation of the Part II project by the end of Christmas break. If you need to spend all your break on project work - do so; leave the revision for the Easter term (see below).
  4. Finish the write-up of the dissertation in the first two weeks of the Easter term. If you need to spend the whole Easter break on the dissertation work - do so.
  5. After the first two weeks of the Easter term you should be done with your dissertation and your courses (modulus a couple of business lectures per week). This means that between the first day of week three in the Easter term and the day minus-one of the first exam, you should be spending 95% of your time revising.

This approach has two main strength-points: first of all, the amount of task juggling is reduced to bare minimum. You work on your Part II project during the holidays, you study during the first two terms, and you spend all your time revising during the Easter term. Secondly, you avoid the "re-learning" (c.f. with Michaelmas courses in Parts 1A and 1B) since there is no new material between the revision and the exams to interfere. It tremendously reduces the amount of time required to prepare for 10-11 courses.

Finally, three tips for your revision:

  1. Go for the quality, not for the quantity. It is much better to have six strong questions in each paper than seven or eight average ones. Most people will go for the latter, making a huge mistake. Having four strong answers yields you a first class result while still leaving two questions for risk management.
  2. Find a suitable working space and establish a working regime. Separate "working" and "leisure" environments (e.g. work at the library instead of your college room). Seeing fifty people working hard around you both increases the motivation and decreases the temptation to procrastinate.
  3. Create a revision plan and follow it. Download Microsoft Project from DreamSpark and create a Gantt chart (you can see mine above). I am not joking. It is surprisingly easy to slip up by a day-or-two ("I will revise these two topics tomorrow and I will be done with the course.") Having an interactive schedule which can be easily updated, helps to see what trade-offs are actually being made ("I could revise these two topics tomorrow, but that will leave me only one day to revise the whole Information Retrieval subject").

Examination revision plan (Gantt chart in Microsoft Project)

International Undergraduate Awards 2012

So how does this all work in practice? For me this strategy yielded the average grade >80% (well above the first-class threshold) and a Jennings prize third year in a row. YMMW.

Perhaps more importantly though, it left me with enough time to do a Part II project that was highly-commended by the Computer Laboratory, and a >200 page dissertation that was highly-commended in the international 2012 Undergraduate Awards. More on the Part II project will follow in the later posts.

With Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of C++. Queens' College, Cambridge (2012 May)

It's not all doom and gloom. With Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of C++. Queens' College, Cambridge (2012)

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Education, Life

All Shall Be Well

You step in the stream,
But the water has moved on.
This page is not here.
-- Internet Folkore

Rather surprisingly even for me, it has already been over five months since my last post. Writing a thorough and yet succinct account about everything that happened over that time is way beyond my literary abilities, so here's a bullet-point summary about a few things worth mentioning from that period.

1. Cambridge CST Part IB Exams

Back in June 2012, folks at Computer Science Tripos Part IB (including me) had the opportunity to enjoy four consecutive days of exams. The structure of papers was straightforward: three hours, nine questions (one or two questions per course); five questions had to be answered.

University of Cambridge, Jennings Prize

Jennings Prize '11

If I could give a single advice to someone who is about to go through this process, it would be "focus on the time". Three hours will not be enough to answer five questions, and there will be almost no time to think about anything if you get stuck. Most likely, the bottleneck in your answers will be the speed of your writing, so don't make a huge mistake by thinking that you will be able to do less revision and figure out things "on the spot". You won't.

At the end of the day, of course, it's not the grades that matter, but... receiving the thing on the left was still nice.

2. Internship at Microsoft

My office at Microsoft

My office at Microsoft (Redmond, WA, 2011)

After three days from my last exam I arrived to my office at Microsoft, in Redmond, WA.

Over the summer, I was working as a Software Development Engineer in Test in Microsoft Office team. In particular, I was writing a performance testing suite for the feature that is used across Office and Windows divisions when developing and updating over 50k+ pages of documentation on MSDN.

Microsoft Campus, Redmond, WA, 2011

Microsoft Campus

Well, I say "working". The summer was literally packed with events for interns! Starting with the intern day of caring, when we spent a full working day volunteering for the community, and ending with the huge intern celebration involving Dave Matthews and customized Xbox + Kinect bundles for everyone!

And then, there were meetings and talks by senior people in the company. And by senior people, I don't mean my manager's manager. Just to throw in a few names, we heard talks from Andy Lees, Steven Sinofsky and, of course, Steve Ballmer (or as he's known within the company, SteveB).

Seattle Skyline, WA, 2011

Seattle Skyline, WA, 2011

I even had a half-an-hour chat with the head of the Microsoft Office Division, Kurt DelBene - definitely one of my best experiences over the whole internship!

Also, the perks that you get as an intern are incredible: paid flights, subsidized housing, free bike, two weeks of free rental car, gym plan (and if you're around Redmond, WA area - check out the Pro Sports Club). That, and all-you-can-drink soda at work! (OK, so you don't get free food as in some other places, but trust me, you will able to afford food from your intern compensation package).

With Coworkers at Vancouver, BC, Canada, 2011

Vancouver, BC, Canada

Finally, there are people that you are working with. If you are as lucky as me, then everyone's going to be exceptionally smart, and nevertheless, extremely approachable. I wouldn't have achieved anything over this summer if not for my team; their help and guidance was invaluable. And not only limited to the working environment - the weekend trip to Vancouver, BC was pretty epic, and I already miss our regular Friday basketball games, just outside the office.

However, to make things even better, I have already received an offer for the summer of 2012! If there aren't any major changes, there is a good chance that I will spend my next summer working as a Program Manager intern at Microsoft Office team!

Microsoft Campus, Redmond, WA, 2011

Microsoft Campus (Redmond, WA, 2011)

3. Vacation

This year me and Ada have decided to go to Turkey. We have spent two final weeks of September in a beautiful Alanya region: the weather (every single day above 30°C/86°F) justified the nickname of the region ("Where The Sun Smiles") and the Mediterranean Sea was simply magnificent. We were also very lucky with the choice of the hotel: two pools, five minutes away from the sea, extremely polite and courteous staff, and great all inclusive food and drinks!

Anyway, a picture is worth more than a thousand words, so here's a few of them. Enjoy!

P.S. Fact: it is possible to get a 500% discount when buying a leather jacket in Turkey. Verified. And it takes only a little bit over two hours of negotiating.

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CST Part 1A

... otherwise known as Part 1A of Computer Science Tripos in University of Cambridge has officially ended.

All in all, a rather enjoyable year. From the introduction to ML by the brilliant Prof. Larry Paulson, to the realms of Discrete Mathematics II (with a wicked a proof of existance of ordinal numbers in the exam); from Algorithms to Software Design, from Digital Electronics to Operating Systems, from Floating-Point Computation to Regular Languages and Finite Automata; and everything in between.

A crash course, but the one that is definitely worth going through.

If you're just about to come to Cambridge (or just starting your part 1A), here are a few simple tips that proved to be helpful for me:

  • Don't fall behind - in lectures, ticks, homeworks, supervision assignments - in Cambridge pace it's difficult to catch up.
  • Do things in advance - it's usually a very good idea and pays off well.
  • Make sure that you keep your work/life balance: do a bit of sports (many choices in University of Cambridge Societies website) and go out once in a while. Paradoxically, having a few hours off in a week will help you to stay on top of things.
  • Finally, keep an eye on these subjects: Discrete Mathematics II, Operating Systems II, Floating-Point Computation, HW ticks (sorted by the effort they took from me, in decreasing order). They might be different for you, but these particular ones are worth being aware of.

But most importantly - enjoy what you're doing.
Good luck and have fun.

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