When I found out that I was going to Singularity University I didn’t know where to start. I had a month to get my things done, pack and leave.
I didn’t know what I should get done, what I should pack and to where I was going to. Tons of anxiety going on. I spent hours and hours Googling everything possible about SU, reading Quora answers, cold calling previous year’s students and trying to get a glimpse of what I was getting myself into.
I remember asking Pipa‘s Dhaval Chadha how is SU like. He said “I can tell you how it WAS, never how it IS, because it’s always changing“. And it’s true. They are seriously committed to make it better ever year. If it sucks next year it’s our (GSP12) fault: We had all the opportunities to let them know what we think about the program and how it could get better.
That said, here are my practical advice to anyone applying to Singularity University, according to my own experience. Please remember it changes every year and my advice may not help you at all…
“Real life” work
My first advice from SU Alumini came from Everson Lopes and I would like to pass it on: Don’t take any work with you.
If you think you will be able to keep doing a little work while you’re there, you couldn’t be more wrong. You might do it, but you shouldn’t. The program is INTENSE. Drop everything you have outside campus if you have the chance. You will have a better experience.
One thing that made me really nervous was the pre-reading list. It’s insane. I was advised to read at least what was in the tracks I was planning to pursue as my main subject and this is what I did.
I guess only 25% of the people actually read Singularity’s seminal books “Singularity is Near” and “Abundance” and less than that read the pre-readings. In the end, those who did got a little bit bored of the speakers explaining everything from the beginning again.
My advice: Read “Singularity is Near” and “Abundance”. Get a Kindle version because you will get the actual books (signed) in your swag bag. Also skim through the pre-readings and select what you think it’s interesting. You will not have the time to read it while you’re there and there are really interesting stuff in the list.
What to pack
The campus is in NASA Ames, Mountain View. Mountain View is way warmer than San Francisco and during summer can reach 30C. It gets pretty chilly when its dark though. Make sure to bring a fleece jacket. T-shirts, jeans, shorts and flip flops/sneakers will do the trick. Bring a formal attire for opening and closing cerimonies.
The campus has a laundry facility but doing laundry every couple of days is a time sucker. Bring enough clothes and undergarment to be able to do laundry only once a week.
Talking about laundry, on GSP12 one of the students got a deal with a laundry service that would pickup and deliver your clothes for a reasonable price.
Yes, you will need a laptop. They do have computers in the Innovation Lab but you will spend long hours preparing your Ignite presentation and working on your team project. Tablets work fine at the classroom but it’s hard (and unproductive) to get this kind of work done on them.
Yes, costumes, wigs, props…
There will be Cultural Nights, when you’re supposed to show your fellow students something about your culture. If you have a traditional costume, dance, music, booze… Bring it on!
Space Masquerade Ball is probably the best party of the summer. There are several places in Mountain View where you can buy a costume or anything else to make your own costume, like Diddams Party HQs. But if you love costume parties and like to plan ahead, keep Space Masquerade in mind.
You will also need props for your SU mug shot. Bring something that says something about you. If you do not come up with something, don’t worry. There will be lots of cool stuff in the Innovation Lab. Get creative.
Life in the Bay Area
If you think you are going to experience the Bay Area while you’re there, forget it. If you want to get a taste of the Silicon Valley, get there a few weeks before the program starts (and stay another week after, because after you will be tired as hell).
One of the main anxiety of some of my colleagues was the dorms. So here it goes…
Yes, you will stay in the NASA Exchange Lodge with NASA summer interns. You will share a room with one of your colleagues. The room has 2 single beds, 2 sets of desk + chair, 2 wardrobes and a small fridge. There’s one bathroom per room, and the sink is in the room, and not in the bathroom, hostel style.
About sharing a room, again, nothing to be anxious about. You will only be there when you are tired enough to not notice there’s someone else next to you.
The lodge is probably from the 70s (or before) but it’s clean and well maintained. It does look a little bit like Dharma Initiative, but this is kinda cool actually.
The wi-fi is all right in the classroom and not so good in the dorms. The thing is that in the dorms wi-fi is provided by NASA and it’s not their priority. Let’s hope SU finds a work around next year.
They cater 3 meals a day during the week (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and 2 during the weekends (brunch and dinner). The only remark I would make about the food is that it might be a little bit “too healthy” or “too plain” for some people. The reality is that in the beginning you will think it’s fine and after a few weeks you will get tired and start hating it. But it’s most likely to be just you bored and not the food.
In the kitchen you can always find coffee, milk, tea, fruits, cereal, protein bars, bread.
It’s brutal. It’s pretty much 13 hours of classes everyday, Monday to Saturday. Be prepared for it. 9AM to 10PM. We had 2 “free” weekends on GSP12 (Saturday + Sunday without academic schedule). The other weekends, only Sundays did not have structured activities.
The day starts with breakfast at 7:30AM, first session at 9AM. Lunch at 12PM. Afternoon sessions start at 2PM. (Sometimes) wellness break at 5PM. Dinner at 6PM. After dinner session 8PM-10PM. People keep hanging out in the classroom, lounge and Innovation Lab after that.
If you are a night owl, great. If you are a morning person (like me), it’s going to be a pain. Things the way they are do not help this kind of people. The rockstar speakers usually come after dinner, when my attention span was reduced to 5 seconds.
Here is something else that does not fit morning people. The wellness break is (when it actually happens) at 5PM. I, personally, by 5PM, don’t have that much energy left. It was good because I could take a power nap and come back to the after dinner talk feeling a little bit better, but I would love to have the energy to actually exercise, but I just don’t.
Waking up an hour earlier to exercise would make me feel great during the day and dead later in the evening, killing any possibilities to pay any attention to the after dinner talks. Though choice to make.
The Ignite will make you nervous. You may be a veteran in public speaking, but you will get a little bit anxious when it comes.
Keep in mind that it’s not only 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds for a total of just five minutes. You are supposed to share your passion, tell a compelling story, let people know why you are there. If you made it to SU, I’m sure you have an awesome story to tell. Nothing to worry about.
Things I wish I knew before my Ignite:
- You will not have time to prepare and rehearse. The schedule keeps going in the days before the presentation. You will have to do it at night or in any other spare time you can find.
- The presentations take place simultaneously in different rooms. If you’re not presenting in the classroom you may not have a monitor with your slides in front of you (as we were told we would have). In this case you will also not have a microphone.
I have a huge limitation with my voice and I’m not able to speak loud without losing my breath or sound trembling. I’ve got a pretty good review on my Ignite and the only negative remark was about 1) my difficulties my voice 2) me looking back to the screen in the back of the room. All this could have been prevented if I knew what I was going to deal with beforehand. That’s why I’m telling you
Other tips to your Ignite presentation:
- Rehearse 100 times. That’s Tiago Mattos’ tip and he did the best Ignite on GSP12. And he did it blindfolded.
Good reads about giving an Ignite presentation:
Scott Berkun - How to Give a Great Ignite Talk
Jason Grigsby - How to Give a Successful Ignite Presentation
Cory Forsyth - How to Give an Ignite Talk
Ignite PHX - 5 Myths About Being an Ignite Presenter
Ignite PHX - 5 Reasons Why Your Submission to Ignite Phoenix Sucks
Bess Gallanis - My journey to Ignite Chicago
I’m a little bit concerned about giving advice about team projects because the “rules” change every year. However, I will write a few lines about things I think will not change.
Choosing your team members: 50% of the class are technical people. If you are not a techie (and by techie I mean developer, engineer, scientist, someone that can actually sit a build something real) go after them. If you are, go after more people like you. Talkers are great people to hang out but in the end of the day, builders build. And if you don’t build something real until the end of the program, you’re most likely to not keep your project going after that.
Choosing your project: Choose something that at least half of the team knows a good bit about it. Otherwise will end up with a group of people dreaming of solving humanity’s problems with some “magic AI sauce” as wisely stated by Brad Templeton.
Relationship with Teaching fellows/Faculty: Your team project is just as strong as your teaching fellow. Choose one wisely based on how much they can help your project and talk him/her into being a real member of the team. They will be assigned to more than one project depending on their track, but use everything you have to bring your teaching fellow as close as possible. If you can, also get an influential member of the faculty to help you. A chair or co-chair of the main track you are working on would be great. Also keep in mind: Things might be easier if you’re working in a track that has a highly valued faculty member.
Relationship with SU network: The SU network is the most valuable thing you will take with you. And it starts here. Take advantage of it. Ask for help, tell them who do you want to meet and how. Get your ass out of the campus and talk to all this people they can connect you to. Are they offering you an IDEO workshop? DO IT. Are they in contact with a company that might be a potential client or partner. DO IT. Your team project is just as strong as the relationships your start while you are there.
Relationship with Staff: Ask for help and be nice to people. They CAN help you. Office space, professional photos, professional videos, interviews, supplies, tools, introductions, PR. They are there to help. Don’t be stupid, take advantage of it.
Do not be afraid of breaking up with your team just a few days before it’s due: It will happen to some teams and no, they are not crazy. Crazy are the ones that don’t do something amazing because of other people. If you feel you are not making a good use of the resources given to you by SU, drop it and start over. Seriously.
One last important thing about GSP team projects: If your team or project is amazing, teaching fellows, faculty members and staff will jump into it. Wonderful photo shoots, beautiful videos and all the help you will need to any kind of field trip, resources, meetings and advice needed. You will have it all.
Dealing with personal problems
One thing that can really harm your experience is having personal problems during the program. If it’s something that you can share with the group, great. You will have the most amazing support you can ever dream of. If it’s something that, by any reason, you can not let everybody know about it, you will be perceived as someone that does not value the SU experience. That’s super sad.
This may be true in any kind of boot camp experience and it’s not SU fault. I just hope it doesn’t happen to you because you will be through hell during your days there and all the wonders of being part of this amazing community might not be available for you later. People will make an impression of you and you will not have another chance to change it.
What takes me to another issue: privacy. There’s no private space anywhere. The bedroom is shared, the lounge is a public space, just as the kitchen and the classroom.
This year they made a huge effort to give each team a private office space, what helped a lot with the privacy issue. Still, if you need to talk to only one of your team mebers, you will have to take a walk. But that’s actually a good thing. Taking a walk always help.
It was funny because at some point, I just saw two guys talking under a tree in the middle of the night. It would be sketchy as hell if it wasn’t on NASA, where nothing happens. But it was actually amusing realizing how much you need space and silence sometimes.
Relationship with students
To wrap up, I will talk about the relationship with other students…
You will meet another 79 brilliant people. If you could spend the whole 10 weeks only with them you would learn just as much. Try as hard as you can to get to know them better, to connect with them in a higher level.
You will see the future with them. And nothing will be the same again.
Laugh, dream, make crazy plans with them.
One of these crazy dreams might become reality. Because with the resources you will be given at SU, everything is possible.
My last advice…
Plan ahead at least ONE week to recover after SU. Because in the end, you will be thrilled with the experience…
But you WILL look like this.