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My 9/11 Story

I started my Ph.D. studies in August 1999, and my first year did not go well at all. When I started my Ph.D., I was a competent software developer with 4 solid years of industrial experience and several publications in professional software development periodicals. I just had completed an M.S. from NYU and had plenty of exciting career opportunities in industry.

My first year in grad school was very disappointing.  I tried working for two different research groups but did not like the problems I was working on at all. Despite admiring my research supervisors, I could not see myself working in their research areas long enough to earn my Ph.D.

So at the end of my first year, I left the Ph.D. program and spent the summer of 2000 working for a startup in NJ. I joined the project as the DotCom boom was starting to dissipate. I worked as part of a great technical team that created a state-of-the-art technical solution for an idea that, alas, had no solid business basis behind it. By the end of the summer, the investors stopped funding the company, and all the developers were laid off. Nevertheless, I immensely enjoyed the experience working with top notch technical professionals creating innovative technical solutions.

Even though by the end of summer 2000, I did not have a job anymore, I was not sure whether I wanted to go back to my Ph.D. studies. Administratively, it was easy—because I was only gone for the summer, I could come back in the fall and continue my studies. In addition, right before I left for the summer, I had started talking to a new professor, who’d just joined the department, about working on one of his projects that involved building programming language tools for distributed computing. I was quite intrigued with that project and felt compelled to give it a try. Nevertheless, it was not clear at all whether that project held enough promise to become my dissertation topic.

So my options were either to go back to school and continue my Ph.D. or look for an industry job in the NYC area. To explore my industry options, I e-mailed several acquaintances of mine who held software development jobs and asked them if they knew of any openings that could fit my profile. Within days, a couple of them replied.

One reply looked particularly compelling. Dan, a former co-worker, just became a technical team lead in a large financial company. He cut through the chase right away: “I have worked with you; I have seen your code; I have read your programming articles; you can pass our interview with flying colors; I know because I’ve been interviewing people almost daily. As far as the compensation goes, this is a financial company, and they compensate competent and productive people well. Trust me your salary will make you glad that you have this job. Think it through carefully, and let me know when you are available for an interview.” Even though Dan did not identify his company by name, I trusted him that I had the technical background and expertise to pass their technical interview. A couple of days later, I left NYC  to continue my Ph.D. studies without ever getting back to Dan, which was rather inconsiderate of me.

About a year later, Dan e-mailed me asking if it’d be alright if we talked on the phone. It was early September 2001, and I had just spent an exhausting summer prototyping an ambitious research project. During the entire summer, I worked 12-14 hour days, coding non-stop, but at that point still had no publishable results. I asked Dan to call me in the evening at home.

Dan called me around 10pm and we chatted for a while. He asked me whether I was happy with my decision to continue my Ph.D. studies. I was not sure at all. The hours were long, the work was exhausting, and I had no social or personal life. Furthermore, it was not clear at all whether my research project would pan out and engender enough quality publications for a decent Ph.D. dissertation.

I shared my doubts and frustrations with Dan, who as it turned out, called me to seek my opinion on some technical issue. I distinctly remember him asking me whether I regretted declining his offer to interview to join his team the year earlier. And I remember replying that at that point I was really frustrated with my life and was not sure whether I’d persevere with my Ph.D. studies. To which Dan replied that unfortunately at the moment there were no more openings on his team, but that he’d keep me in mind for future openings. His last words were: “Remember no matter what you decide, we are still friends. When you visit NYC next time, make sure to visit me in my office. You should see the view from my office window.” Then he apologized for having to cut our conversation short—he had to be back in the office next morning at 9am sharp for an important meeting.

This conversation took place in the evening of September 10, 2001, and Dan had less than 12 hours to live. Daniel Ilkanayev worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in World Trade Center, Tower 1, on the 104th floor. All the employees of the company who reported to work on that fateful day perished. Since Dan never mentioned his company by name, it took me weeks after 9/11 to connect the dots. For some time, I hesitated whether I should contact his family, but since I had never met his family in person, I decided against that.

Dan was a highly talented IT professional and a great guy overall. That’s how he will always stay in my memory. The more I live, the more I realize that life has no coincidences. Why did he have to call me in the evening of September 10? That was our first (and alas last) conversation in more than a year. Why that particular night?

This tragic episode had a profound impact on my life. I persevered in my Ph.D. studies having overcome tremendous difficulties against all odds.  However, no matter how I’d feel during my Ph.D. studies, I no longer had any doubts that completing my Ph.D. was my destiny. And this was enormously helpful. I did finish my Ph.D., producing a strong dissertation backed up by several quality publications. My research record enabled me to get a tenure-track position in a research university despite the very tight academic market at the time. This year, I am up for my tenure review, which I hope will lead to a positive outcome making me a tenured professor.

Now I am even more convinced that you cannot escape your destiny. If you are pursuing a hard-to-attain goal, it can be quite hard to keep your doubts away, particularly if you have other, perhaps easier to pursue, options. My decision to decline an attractive job offer to pursue the tenuous goal of completing my doctorate did not seem logical at the time. In fact, taken in isolation, it does not seem logical now.

On this 10 year anniversary of 9/11, my heart goes to Dan’s family–his memory will never be forgotten. But now I can say in all certainty that my irrational decision to persevere with my Ph.D. studies was the right one, and I feel fortunate that I made that decision.

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Categories: careers, Uncategorized
  1. September 11, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    It is interesting how “little things” ultimately shape our lives in ways that we do not appreciate or even understand.

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