Every fall, Carnegie Mellon University hosts a job fair called the Technical Opportunities Conference (TOC). For many students, this event is a counter-productive stretch of two hours that leaves people feeling unexpectedly depressed about their future. The university’s student center fills up with job booths while hordes of students wait in line to speak with a handful of company reps.  The reps are usually CMU alumni looking to fill their hiring pipeline with fellow Tartans.

The competition is stiff and more often than not, the conference provides students with zero productive leads. Regardless, CMU recommends that everyone attend. We practice wearing our over-sized suits, get an opportunity to professionally present ourselves, and get a taste of the fabled real world that’s waiting for us outside university grounds. This conference purposefully promotes peer competition and serves as an unbiased progress marker for students; how well you navigate the booths reflects your current aptitude.

Looking back, it’s impressive the difference one year makes for the typical undergraduate. As a freshman, the non-introductory classes the sophomores are taking seem light years away. Sophomores get jealous of the shiny internships that the juniors are getting. Once you’re a junior, seniors taking their capstone projects and getting fat job offers start to intimidate you. By the time you’re a senior, you grudgingly bow your head to seasoned professionals with real jobs, even though some of them are no more than a year or two older than you. 

NVIDIA always had a cutthroat presence at the TOC. Founded in 1993, NVIDIA is a living legend in Silicon Valley and they are still killing it today. At CMU, they gained TOC-notoriety through the use of a simple but terrifying 3-question quiz.

There were two flavors of quiz, Analog and Digital, each capable of demoralizing the unsuspecting underclassmen. These quizzes were NVIDIA’s way of rooting out the incompetent: an easy and effective way to filter down the magnitude of students pouring through their booth. When I took them, the analog quiz covered voltage differentials and asked you to explain what an amplifier was doing. The digital quiz made you map out some gates, reason through some logic, and enumerate a truth table.

You never really fail the quiz, you just fail yourself. Once you get to the front of the queue, you’re handed your questions and ushered into a staging area of standing desks. Around you, any number of sweaty students are staring pale-faced at their own test sheets. After filling out the questionnaire, you wait in line again to review your responses with an official NVIDIA judge. Overlay this whole scene with a subtle but very clear power differential between student and employer, and you should have a good picture painted in your head of what this tech-based cattle market is like.

First time around, I failed myself. I looked at the quiz, realized I couldn’t do any of the problems, and quietly excused myself from the booth. I was doing everyone a favor—one less person in line for the other students and one less incompetent prospector to discourage for NVIDIA. I’ll always remember that moment; as I walked away, I felt the laser burn of all those eyes following me out of the booth.

Fast-forward one year. I was a budding junior; a little smarter but still hating the TOC. First things first, I headed straight back to NVIDIA, because I remembered the questions and thought I knew the answers. This time, I finished the quiz and made it to the final line. Unfortunately, it turned out I still didn’t know the answers; I scored about a 1.5/3 and proceeded to botch my interview with the NVIDIA rep. My résumé went straight into the please-do-not-call-back-these-students pile. I would have been crushed except that I saw underclassmen doing the exact same thing I did the year before. They picked up the quiz, looked very sad, and quietly left the booth. I wanted to give them all hugs.

After some more running around futilely handing out résumés, I bumped into an ex-girlfriend from my sophomore year. She was with her new boyfriend, Mike. By the way, CMU is filled with Asian-American Mikes who play basketball, dominate at Street Fighter, and are incredibly smart. He was the same major as me, one year younger, and had already worked at Microsoft. Damn, she upgraded! Let me remind you again of the CMU student dynamic and mindset. Big company internships are coveted; the people who land them are the cream of the crop. Fancy internships are on people’s minds 24/7, so naturally I was jealous of Mike. When we bumped into each other, my ex-girlfriend graciously asked:

“Hey Mike, do you think you could help get Dave an interview at Microsoft?”

“Maybe. Is he smart?”

The exchange was lightning quick and I got an influx of different emotions. It was a mix of shock, sadness, and damn this guy. Mike looked at my résumé, came to the conclusion that I hadn’t taken the right classes yet, and decided he couldn’t help me. Did I just get pseudo-rejected by Mike?

I don’t have a name for this feeling, but I’ll describe it for you. Something happens to you that doesn’t seem like a big deal at first. The day goes by and you dwell on it more and more with each passing hour. Before long, your day is ruined. Let’s call it the “increasingly unfortunate hindsight emotional trauma due to crappy person and interaction feeling.”

A day later, I finally stopped thinking about Mike and made an important decision. I would stop putting the better engineers on a pedestal and begin to wean my mind off inter-student comparisons. It wasn’t easy to do; peer competition is rampant in any engineering school in the U.S. We compete with our classmates for the most elegant coding solutions, the top test scores, and the best internships. One of my CMU courses would publicly post everyone’s coding scores on the class website. Everyone used aliases, but we all knew who was at the top. The TAs made sure you knew who wrote better code than you. This was the kind of competition we had to deal with on a daily basis.

Whether they admit it or not, CMU breeds a cutthroat environment.  On the one hand, the peer-vs.-peer competition pushes everyone hard; if you respond well to this kind of atmosphere, you quickly rise to the top of your game. On the other hand, it’s a little messed up.

My biggest takeaway from this experience is that you can’t let another person’s progression disturb you from yours. There will always be students like Mike; they’re younger than you, ahead of you in class, and smarter than you. Extrapolate this idea out beyond academics. Each one of us is on our own timeline. Taking random samplings of timelines out of context is never helpful. Your 25-year-old self is probably not comparable to 25-year-old Bill Gates. Don’t dwell on this, but use it for discretionary doses of motivation. As long as you—and only you—continue to progress, everything is on the right track.