Education without the School: A Summer with Roompact

I thought I finally had it. I thought I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life. For four years I was set on going to graduate school, and if I managed my finances properly, even pursuing a PhD. That’s before I came to the sobering realization this summer that school is all I have ever known. How can I make such an important decision, concerning my future, when I don’t even know how life looks outside of academia? I never thought it would happen, but after 16 years of the same routine, I somehow allowed myself to become institutionalized; forever, trapping myself in the intellectual bubble of the educational system. Well that dewy-eyed college student is no more, and I have the wonderful team at Roompact to thank for that.

For the longest time I labored under the delusion that my own intellectual growth needed to be restricted to a “place” rather than being a fluid process that followed me wherever I went. That’s not to say that I thought I was incapable of self-study, I knew very well that I was. I just became so reliant on the traditional methods of “brick and mortar” education that I felt I needed the extrinsic motivation of a grading system to speed up my learning and to keep me in line.

So what exactly caused this all to change over the summer? In short, I found something that was a much stronger motivator than grades. I wasn’t just learning to perform well on a test, I was learning almost exclusively for myself. I was learning because I wanted to produce something that would not only provide real value to Roompact’s clientele but something that I could tout as an achievement when I finished.

Looking down the street in Chicago

Within the first three weeks of my internship with Roompact, I was able to learn more than I have ever learned in an entire year of schooling. It wasn’t just restricted to programming either. I learned about startup culture, about the challenges facing emerging businesses, and even about the importance of communication in the business world.

Perhaps the immediate difference, I noticed, between school learning, and “on the job training” was that it was easier to see the point of learning specific skills. School has been much more abstract, and even though most of my computer science classes included coding projects, it was difficult to see their utility. While, the projects still helped me acquire useful skills, they seemed rather disjointed. It wasn’t until I started working at Roompact that I learned how to unite everything I knew about programming and use it to create something useful.

At school even when I got my code to work properly, the final products ended up being phenomenally dull. I mean really, what is the point of writing some 500 lines of code when all you’re able to do is move a few pixels on your screen? Moreover, no one cares! It’s not like it’s some grand achievement that you can, for example, generate a random maze image on your computer.

When working on Roompact’s software, the results were immediate and always more rewarding. Even debugging, something I dreaded doing in my CS classes, actually became enjoyable. Rather than seeing a static image on my screen and trying to figure out what went wrong with my code, I actually got a chance to play around with the features that I was creating; and depending on how they broke, I was given clues about what was wrong with my logic. It almost became a game.

Flowers on Michigan Avenue

Before I continue, I would just like to preface this by saying I am not a computer scientist, I’m an economist. That has been, and always will be, my passion. However, over the years of studying the discipline I discovered a need for acquiring other skills, or more specifically, tools for conducting economic analysis. That is one of the reasons I turned to programming.

I was expecting this internship to make me a better programmer but what I wasn’t expecting was to be introduced to a completely new concentration within the field of economics. I had never heard of an industry focusing on “res life” software before nor did I appreciate the need for it. However, the more I learned about Roompact, the more I became fascinated with its research potential.

Economics isn’t just about money and policy (as some may believe), it’s a study of human behavior in the presence of incentives. Questions such as, for example, what types of individuals are more susceptible to having conflicts, or what type of behavior strains relationships, or even what kind of arrangements promote healthy living environments, are not only economic in nature but are in the very foundation of Roompact’s software.

From a more business-centric side, I learned about some of the challenges start-ups face. The Roompact team prides themselves over the fact that they are entirely client funded; that is to say that they have neither sought out nor accepted venture capital funding. Coming from the world of academia I looked at venture capital through rose-colored glasses. I never really considered just how much control business owners need to relinquish when they become beholden to investors.

Looking back at the summer, I have to say this has been the best work experience I have ever had, and I am extremely thankful to the Roompact team for making this summer so unforgettable. I am especially grateful, to Christian Charukiewicz for his unbelievable patience and for spending countless hours training me and helping me debug my code. Almost everything I learned over the summer is thanks to his guidance.

After being back on campus for about a week now, and talking to others with similar internships over the summer, I can confidently say that Roompact gave me an experience some of my peers only wished they got with theirs. The entire summer I never felt like I was working “under” somebody nor did I feel like I was just another “cog in the machine”, I felt like an equal. Christian and Matt Unger consistently challenged me with the projects they assigned, which motivated me to code to the best of my ability. And perhaps, most importantly, I felt like I had complete creative control over my features, which encouraged me take risks during the development process. This is something many of my friends have complained was missing in their summer internships, so I am extremely grateful for being given the opportunity to develop my creativity.

Interning at Roompact certainly put a lot into perspective. If I could learn this much on the job, why should I rush to graduate school? While I still entertain the idea of becoming a researcher, I think it might be a wiser decision to take a break from academics and truly experience the opportunities the world can offer me; and if there ever comes a time when graduate school becomes necessary to progress in my career, then I’ll make the decision to return.