CMU HCII vs Berkeley SIMS: The Hogwarts Factor
Sunday, Apr 13, 2003
I just had a phone conversation with someone who was accepted to both the HCII and SIMS programs, just as I was two years ago. He's agonizing over whether to leave Berkeley (where he owns his home) and move with his wife to Pittsburgh for a year, or study at Berkeley SIMS for two years.

I don't envy him his decision. I know how hard a decision it was for me. In fact, the relocatioon factor was probably in no small part responsible for my decision to defer from CMU for a year to work at Yahoo. I remember that a year later, when I again had to choose, this time between Yahoo and CMU, the fact that I'd have to move either way (the 50 mile commute from Berkeley to Sunnyvale was just too much) made the idea of moving to Pittsburgh a little bit easier.

In the end, what made my decision was the Hogwarts factor: HCII is the best place to learn HCI. SIMS excels at information systems, and would teach me perhaps 70% of what I wanted to learn in HCI, but the idea of being limited only by my own bandwidth was just too attractive.

It's really a kind of risk aversion: I worried about spending two years at SIMS and leaving thinking that I could have learned more about my own focus somewhere else. On the other hand, unless the HCII underdelivered, Carnegie Mellon offered me exactly what I was looking for, with people who shared my focus and passion.

Other pennyweights on the scale were the idea of spending a 'year abroad' in the East, to experience something other than 'California seasons' (and last Winter didn't disappoint on that cold front), and getting an advanced degree from a different school than my undergrad. Having TA'ed Marti Hearst's UI prototyping and evaluation class (after taking James Landay's version of the class) I felt that I already experienced the single SIMS class closest to my interest.

In the end, I just needed a big change. 12 years in a city can build up a lot of plaque, expecially when the reason for not leaving is fear of change. This last year is a yo-yo on a string. Ship out, gather experiences, and come back the wiser. All in all, (and I'm a little surprised) the experience has been gratifying in many of the ways I theorised when fretting about the decision to come out here. (By the way, the post I just linked to has become one of my all-time favorites; a real turning point.)

A year ago last January I was living in the middle and now I'm not. I'm headed down a certain path with a few forks to navigate, but I'm moving fast and with definite purpose.

Everything's just moving so fast. How fast? Next month I have two days of interviews with Google, I may be flying to Seattle to talk with Amazon, and there's still Yahoo and eBay to think seriously about.

I've never really had so many parts of my life change at the same time, as they will in August. I don't know when Rachel's leaving (neither does she), be it late May, after I go in August, or any time in between. I'm blessed to have found such a great person to share the second half of my year here with. Every time I carry something up the two flights of stairs to my apartment, I think about having to carry it back down in a few months, or daydream about hiring movers.

I'm starting to yearn for the open road again. The week with Ammy last August, gunning across the top of the country was amazing, and we're deciding between taking the Canadian high road or the deep South on the way back. I'm working on so many projects right now I have scant time to think, let alone dream, but the future is pretty well packed with options. We'll see how it all pans out.

And now I've taken this post down three or four different paths, with little cohesion. Funny how there's an inverse relation between the directedness of my life and the directedness of my writing. Well, I'm sure that's enough for now.

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Hi, I'm Kevin Fox.
I've been blogging at since 1998.
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I've led design at Mozilla Labs, designed Gmail 1.0, Google Reader 2.0, FriendFeed, and a few special projects at Facebook.

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