Computer Systems Engineering - Vaishnavi


Vaishnavi

Dear everyone, my name is Vaishnavi (vysh-nuh-vey) and I’m all about that Compsys life. Through all the posts that are to come on this page I hope I’m able to shed light on what that life actually is and why you should (or shouldn’t) be about it too.

A little bit about myself:

  • I was born in India, but I’m an Aucklander at heart (since ’99).
  • I think those live Snapchat stories from different cities are really cool.
  • I’m trying lacrosse this semester and I suck at it but I love it anyways.
  • I like banana chocolate chip muffins and instant noodles.

Throughout Part I I was always leaning towards a specialisation in the ECE department. We were fortunate enough to be born into a generation where technology is improving the way we live right before our eyes. I wanted to make a difference in the way people lived. Right until the week before our specialisation submissions were due, I was still tossing up between software and compsys for my first choice. But when it came down to it, computers are everywhere. And I wanted to know how ALL of it worked. The hardware, the software, the works.

Join me on my journey as I try to figure out how wifi and smartphones work. I’ll try to keep it as real as possible. 

 

The Last One


For the very last time this year, hi friends! As I’m writing this post it is currently a very, very good time of the semester: the (almost) end. All 330% worth of coursework for the semester has been handed in, and relaxed study is about to get underway for the one exam we have this semester that doesn’t take place for two more weeks. The fact that I’m excited for relaxed study to take place must say a lot about how Compsys has been lately. The last two weeks of semester have been hectic. We all knew the deadlines were coming in the final week.  We had time to prepare ourselves and plan ahead. Aiming to get at least six hours of sleep every night seemed reasonable. But plans don’t always work out, code doesn’t always compile, and time definitely speeds up when you’re in the labs. Semester two has taught me skills that I never thought I would gain from a Compsys degree. Here’s my attempt at summarising the unique experience that is part II Compsys:

The electrical and computer engineering undergraduate labs (UG) will become your new home. You will spend all of your time in here and all your other friends might wonder where you’ve gone for a few weeks, but you’ll just be in UG, as usual. The beginning of the semester started off with us not knowing/understanding enough technical knowledge to complete some of the weekly ELECTENG209 labs, but somehow managing to complete them anyways. Contrastingly as it came to the end of the project, despite everything in our code seemingly making perfect sense, it didn’t work the way it should have. #JustEngineeringThings.

“You’ve been down before, you’ve been hurt before, you’ve got up before, you’ll be good to go …”

–Kachingwe, T, Kronlund, A, Loules, L, (2016). That’s My Girl [Recorded by Fifth Harmony]. On 7/27 [MP3 file]. California: Syco Music and Epic Records.

As dramatic as these lyrics may seem now, they were the perfect motivation to keep me going every time my code didn’t work the right way after each new compilation. (And the APA referencing above is something you can look forward to becoming an expert at in ENGGEN204 next year.) So much learning happened in the UG labs over this semester. I learnt technical skills related to embedded C programming, VHDL, circuit components, oscilloscopes and more. I learnt that not having the first clue about how to approach a task or fix a problem becomes the norm in engineering- and that you somehow figure it out in the end. I learnt the value of persevering when the amount of time, effort, and brain power put in seems frustratingly un-proportional to the amount of progress being made. I learnt that people are always there to help.

Something that came as a big surprise to me was that they turn the AC off in the labs after 5pm on weekends. With all the lab equipment that we use, the pressure of deadlines looming, and the long hours spent staring at a screen, the temperature in UG can climb up to suffocating. That’s when the best friendship times occur. I touched on this in my last post but the comradery in labs is great. Everyone is always checking if everyone else is okay, and everyone is always more than happy to help everyone else.

UG Lab
Soaking up the airflow by the doors on a Saturday night in UG
Icecream
Third year pal we befriended in the labs bringing us ice cream from Diwali festival

Okay so writing about life in the labs accidentally took up my whole blog post (just as being in the labs accidentally took over my whole life) so here’s some last minute advice that will hopefully help you pick your specialisation:

Compsys is different from software in that you gain a lot of electrical knowledge in Compsys too. Coding is integrated throughout the year but it isn’t our one and only primary focus. Compsys is very hands on. You become familiar with a lot of technical equipment. Personally I haven’t learnt how exactly a smartphone works just yet, but I feel lucky to be learning about an industry where innovation is currently booming. So that’s all I have space to write about. Goodbye and good luck for your second year of engineering :) It’s been a pleasure blogging for you.

-Vaishnavi

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Squiggles and Camaraderie


Hello and welcome back to life in Compsys Part III. At the end of my last post I was halfway through the first half of semester two, with high hopes for a challenging yet exciting semester ahead to make up for a theory-filled first semester. It is currently almost halfway through the second half of semester two as I write this and I am in no way disappointed.

If you ask anyone in part II Compsys or Electrical about how their semester is going, they will no doubt tell you about ELECTENG209. This is the kind of course that takes up all your time, all the space in your brain, and becomes your entire social life. It is also likely to be the course that you remember the most when you graduate- hence it seems only fitting that a substantial chunk of this blog post is dedicated to 209. I have so much to say about this course.

Firstly, you should know that 209 is completely project based. There is no final exam. It’s half Compsys, half Electrical and you’re working in a group of four for the whole semester to design and build a prototype “Wireless Energy Monitor”. And that’s all I was aware of for the first three weeks. At the beginning it was very daunting. I wondered how on earth I was supposed to design this thing with my very rudimental skillset in basic electronics and coding. If you ever find yourself with this mind set, you should remind yourself of these words that I heard from someone at orientation on my first day of university: Anything complicated is actually made up of a lot of really simple things put together. With these words at the back of my mind, and with the support of the lecturers and TAs, 209 quickly turned into my favourite course.

The picture you see here is of our printed circuit board (PCB). For a lot of the mid-semester break we were in the labs designing these. The way those lines squiggle, the sizes of those holes, and the layout of those funny shapes were all we were thinking about for two weeks. A bonus of all those hours spent in the labs, especially during the lead up to deadlines, is that you become a lot more familiar with the people in your cohort. It is inevitable that a sense of camaraderie develops.

CircuitboarVaishnavi

COMPSYS202 is probably my second favourite course this semester, and the second most time consuming. This is another course that doesn’t have an exam. There isn’t much to explain about this course because it essentially just builds onto your coding knowledge by introducing a new language: C++. If you liked ENGGEN131, then you’ll probably love COMPSYS202.

ELECTENG204 is a course similar in style to those that we had in first semester. It’s pen and paper content learning that builds on the electromagnetism knowledge that we learnt in Level 3 Physics. If I’m being completely honest this is the course that most people forget about during the semester, because it’s the only course we have an exam for. Study for ELECTENG204 can usually wait.

ENGGEN204 is another paper that we have in common with all of part II engineering. This is a very interesting course in that the grade boundaries are all higher than usual and there are only 1-2 hours’ worth of lectures each week. This course teaches us some extra skills that are most definitely useful to have under our professional tool belt such as how to use MS Excel, write technical reports, and deal with ethically controversial scenarios.

So that’s a summary of what semester two is like in Compsys. Check back at the end of this semester for concluding thoughts, and random bits of information that would have broken my word limit if I’d included them in previous posts.

See you soon!

-Vaishnavi.

Here's Hoping


It’s currently week three of semester two as I’m writing this post. Here’s a sample of some of the thoughts that have been at the forefront of my mind these past few weeks:

  • I need to get involved in all of the clubs at university this semester so that my CV is shiny enough to get a job for the summer.
  • I need to not get too involved in university clubs so that I have time to do well in project work for my courses.
  • I need to be working on my 209 project right now, but what exactly am I meant to do?
  • I need to gather up all of my focus and actually pay attention during the back to back two- hour lecture blocks this semester.
  • I need to get a less heavy laptop.

I am not by any means a big computer enthusiast. In fact, I’d probably get ripped off if I went right now to buy that lighter laptop that’s been on my mind. That being said, one of my most surprising observations about Compsys so far is that I’m finding myself mildly looking forward to studying this semester. The drafty bottom floor of the engineering library where I spent most of my time last semester is becoming less and less familiar to me as the majority of my “studying” is now taking place in the ECE labs. There’s an exciting vibe about this semester. It’s as if all that content learning we did before the break is finally amounting to something real.

Vaishnavi Post 2
Amount of exercise books required to get me through semester 1

One thing you should keep in mind about this half of the year is that we only have one exam, meaning that assignments, tests, and group projects are probably going to take up a lot of our time. This definitely seems daunting at times, especially when you put down due dates in your diary and realise that you have 76% due in week five and 40% due the week after. Luckily one of our lecturers reassured us in our first lecture back after the break that we only need two things to be successful this semester: time management and passion.

Additional Compsys life hacks from my own repertoire of experiences include:

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of food even if you have 6 hours’ worth of labs and lectures in a row, because you might as well not even go if you’re too tired to focus!
  • Just like in semester one, you can afford to have a life outside university for the first few weeks back.
  • There are so many places you can go to for help. Talk to the TAs or lecturers either during office hours, tutorials, during the  lecture breaks or over piazza.
  • Shield your project group members from feeling stress. It’s so important to have good vibes around each other while you’re   putting in all those hours together.

I said at the end of my last post that it felt like all the work we’re doing is leading up to something very cool. That sense of anticipation has only intensified this semester with the promise of all the practical work to come. Will it all be as fulfilling as I’'m assuming it will be?

Here’s hoping.

-Vaishnavi

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Remember When Life Was Chill?


There are only a few weeks left of Semester 1 and in less than four weeks’ time I will have completed the last 35% of coursework that’s due, as well as sat three out of four of my exams. Since the good old days of pre-mid-semester break the deadlines are seemingly non-stop. We have had several tests/assignments due every week since we’ve been back. It’s safe to say that life in Compsys is heating up (literally since someone blew up their circuit board in a lab earlier this week - more on labs later).

Rewind to before the mid-semester break. Life was good, life was chill. The odd assignment due here, the odd test there, and new faces everywhere that were becoming more and more familiar with every lecture. If you do end up picking Compsys the first bit of advice I would give you is to enjoy these first few weeks. With a bit of effort you will have no problem staying on top of your coursework, and you can definitely afford to do other fun stuff in your spare time. Make sure you approach a bunch of random people in your lectures and make friends with them. They will without a doubt make the rest of the semester more bearable. But if you prefer being a lone warrior in all your courses, that’s cool too!

This semester we have two electrical type courses, one Compsys course, and one maths course that’s common to all of second year except software.

·         ELECTENG202 covers how to analyse circuits similar to what you’re going to cover in ELECTENG101 but just with some more analysis techniques and more complicated layouts of circuits. There’s a lot of finding the values of resistances, voltages and currents.

·         ELECTENG210 is more about the applications of these circuit fundamentals and how they can be used to create useful circuits in electronics. You’ll learn how to use circuit components to manipulate electrical quantities in ways that you didn’t even know mattered that much, but actually do a lot.  

·         COMPSYS201 is our only Compsys paper this semester. It provides a feel of what I think our humble specialisation is really about. This is where we begin to learn about the structure and functioning of computer systems. Where the other two courses deal with electrical circuits, COMPSYS201 is about digital circuits. This means that all circuits’ inputs only have one of two values: 1 or 0. All of our computational logic comes from manipulating these 1s and 0s. Isn’t that just mind-blowingly cool?

·         ENGSCI211 builds on the maths you’re learning in ENGSCI111 (shocking).

I’ve heard from various older students, TAs and lecturers that the Semester 1 courses are meant to provide you with the knowledge that you need for the more practical courses coming up. So while Compsys is mostly pen and paper learning at the moment, it’s all in preparation for when we “move into the labs” for our project work next semester. That’s not to say we haven’t had a taste of anything practical yet. COMPSYS201, ELECTENG210, and ELECTENG202 all have a few labs that come with them. Notable memories from these include designing part of a calculator, when people accidentally blew up capacitors and caused their circuit boards to start smoking. We even got to make this lil guy flash his small yellow light at different rates just by changing some code. 

Vaishnavi.jpeg
The ATMega328P Microcontroller from our COMPSYS201 Lab

Can you believe that this tiny computer pictured above has hundreds of thousands of switches on it? Or that the CPU in your computer might have more than one billion switches? We might not be designing revolutionary embedded systems just yet in part II Compsys, but nonetheless there’s still the feeling that it’s all building up to something very cool!

Until next time,

-Vaishnavi 

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