June 18, 2018 by American College of Sofia
Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97
It’s impossible to fit all of Ivan’s awards, achievements, and medals in just a quarter of a page, so I won’t attempt to. I’ll just say that he is the one-in-a-generation programmer who is a genius mathematician who can make robots – and all his triumphs haven’t made him one bit less humble, true, and warm. In his senior year at the College, Ivan received both the Math and Computer Science Department Award and the Floyd Black Award, presented for hard work, honesty, respect, responsibility, and love for learning. I had the pleasure of interviewing him on one of his last days at ACS, on a beautiful day in May, somewhere between Last School Bell and Senior Dinner. As we sat conversing on a bench by the Fountain, now sunken in lush greenery, the newly completed Campus Center rising behind Ivan, my confidence in a brighter future, invented by this young man and the other talented people of his generation out there, grew by the minute. For this future, I’m ready!
So what is the life of an ACS senior like for you, Ivan?
Well, a lot different than previous years because now you realize that you finish school but it doesn’t mean you’re gonna rest now; the exact opposite: now you have to deal with all those aspects of life which school in one way or another combined previously and you didn’t even notice. It feels great because you have finished something to the end but, as many say, life is just beginning.
Do you know where you’re going next?
I have a conditional offer from Cambridge and their only requirement is for me to get a good grade on the matriculation exam. If I manage to get that, which I’m currently aiming at, I will study there for the next three years, most probably four, because they include also a Master’s degree at the end.
Which subjects are you doing matriculation exams in?
I’m doing first the mandatory Bulgarian one and then the math exam. At math, I feel more comfortable than English or any other subject; it has been my interest 10 years now and I feel I would realize my full potential this way.
What major are you planning to study at Cambridge?
Computer Science. There they offer just one general course, it’s not divided into sections. As I have read its curriculum, the major covers almost all aspects of programming, so at the end I will be able to choose what I want to specialize in.
So matriculation is what you’re up to these days?
Yes, predominantly, since it’s at the very end and it would be a pity if I didn’t do so well.
So, you have some doubts about how you’re going to do?
Well, I have some confidence in myself but this doesn’t stop me from extra preparation. The more you prepare, the higher results you can expect. At the end I would prefer to sit for these exams feeling prepared and calm than to feel worried whether I would meet the requirements or not.
We keep hearing of your national and international success in Informatics but also in Math. Did you at one point in your life have to choose between these two, or were you chosen by one, or are these passions easy to combine?
They can be combined to some extent, up to 7th grade they were, as both sciences didn’t require too great and in-depth understanding and the material was not that voluminous. However, as I went into high school, I had to make that choice between pure mathematics, meaning that I would be able to solve very complex theoretical problems but I wouldn’t be able to apply them so easily into some practical thing, or informatics, which would allow me to solve some theoretical problems to some extent but also to apply what I know directly into practice. So, I chose informatics. I kept solving some math problems but not that much and with not that high intensity.
Very practical sort of thinking for a seventh grader! Did you make that decision yourself?
Let’s say some competitions helped me make that choice. In the beginning here at ACS, I didn’t have much success in math on a national level, the other students were also very good and the competition was enormous. With informatics, on the other hand, I quickly became first in two competitions and that motivated me to kind of dive deeper into it and explore it more and more.
How did you and your family choose ACS?
Well, at first I learned of ACS from the daughter of a couple, friends with my parents; she studied here before and her feedback about the school was both positive and helpful. But I kind of felt it impossible to get in here – I mean, I hadn’t gone to any preparation courses and enrolled for the exam in the last possible minute. I just didn’t do anything special to get in. However, as I came here for the first time, during the admission exam, I really liked the school. I saw it was more than just a school, not a single building where you go, study, and then leave. I would later spend all my days here constantly going through different buildings, living in that world with other students and beautiful nature. Here we have gardens and this very well maintained look of the College makes me proud of my school, makes my time here enjoyable. So, after seeing ACS “in person” at the exam and then getting qualified third among all boys who took the exam, I started considering enrolling here. After I shared this with my parents, they also agreed that it would be a great choice and so I started at ACS.
Would you have decided differently had you been qualified further down or in the reserve list?
Yes, very. At that time my highest priority was to continue at the Sofia High School of Mathematics (SHM) because I had been there three years and I was familiar with the high level of teachers and students there. But it was more or less focused just on math. The other subjects were kind of marginal, you get some knowledge but it’s not enough. While at ACS we have these amazing labs and teachers invest a great amount of effort and passion to teach us, at SHM teachers were good but just not that enthusiastic about their subjects.
What do you dream to be when you grow up?
I would say it was a dream when I came here, now I feel more comfortable just calling it future realization. I would like to be a programmer dealing with software someday, maybe working for some popular software company or doing research. I still haven’t chosen the exact field I would like to specialize in – research or software engineering – but I think it would become clear in college. You see, researchers work at a university dealing with one unsolvable problem. There they have the funds, the researchers, they just have to come up with the final idea – while software engineers do something directly for the people. They are working with something people are currently using and therefore their thinking is a little bit different, more user-focused, not general theoretical.
What inspires you?
Well, I got inspired to kind of pursue that future from a Marvel character and especially Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man, because as I watched the movie I realized he is very knowledgeable in technology and his knowledge enables him to construct that suit that helps him later.
I don’t dream of becoming Iron Man but just of acquiring that knowledge which would help me develop something even I don’t consider possible.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I do not give up. Even if I face a lot of problems I try to do some planning and fit them into my schedule and just do them instead of just ignoring them or going over them without effort and producing a bad result. However, this sometimes leads to me overworking, a lot, which is not that good, especially in this early stage of my life because it is detrimental to health and I would need that for the later part of my life. Currently I feel very good, I’ve been on some kind of vacation last week and I have managed to catch up on sleep and reading. But there were some tough periods, especially last year, when I did all my SATs and in a single week I had to prepare for an SAT exam and do three majors – you cannot plan and predict majors beforehand – and was almost left without any sleep.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your life so far?
I cannot say I have had a very big and deciding challenge, but a certain point of my life where I had to act fast in order to get to the end happened two summers ago as I was preparing for an international exposition. Just the day before departing, as I was trying to implement a new feature into my project, all that tiredness and work that had accumulated, finally resulted in me damaging a little the mainboard of the computer which kind of broke the whole project. This happened at midnight, so I couldn’t do anything. In fact, I had two options: either accept that I do not have a project and pretend to be presenting it without demonstration or just work until I fix it. I chose the second option. I worked until 4 am but it was fixed and it did work at the fair later. But at that midnight I really questioned myself, Will I be able to do this? It seemed impossible to fix in just 4 hours: the mainboard was a very specific one and I didn’t have a replacement, so I had to adopt a new one for the purpose.
What is your favorite journey, metaphorical or real?
It’s a real one. It’s again connected to this exposition which I just talked about. It was held in Toulouse, France. The good thing was it was not a competition, you had to just go there and present, and you’re pretty calm. There is some kind of worrying again that it could crash in front of the audience but you hope it won’t. We had a very good sightseeing of the city, nearby excursions that we also made and talked with the other participants, and it was just great. It left me a very memorable experience. I haven’t been back but it’s definitely on my list.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Maybe I would like to make myself not feel so obliged to work. I have that quality that when I begin solving something or dealing with one problem I cannot stop until I finally resolve it. That’s OK for competition problems but for more general ones it could literally take days or months of constantly thinking about it until finally solving them. I would like to be able at some point to say, That’s all for today, forget it, tomorrow you will be dealing with this again. Otherwise this leaves me working many days on something simple which I keep missing. After taking a small rest, I notice it and realize it was that simple.
If you could change one thing about ACS, what would it be?
A general idea I had about ACS that, I think, is currently being implemented with the new Student Computer Innovation & Fabrication Institute (SCIFI) labs which I’m going to unfortunately miss, was to make a working place where the school gives students resources to realize their ideas, not just have them in mind. As I have been on a tour in one of the biggest software companies in Bulgaria, SAP, I have seen they have those specialized rooms with all kinds of devices where workers could just get in, experiment with something, and if it turns out to be working, they can turn it into their own product without having to buy the materials themselves initially. Here they want projects from us but they don’t give us the necessary resources. The SCIFI lab would give students this great opportunity to make their ideals real and actually create great projects. Not everyone is good with drawing and creating artistic stuff on paper, some are good with 3D printing. I haven’t tried the 3D printer here yet, but I did try the 3D at SAP where I wanted to print a new outfit for my robot.
Yes, the small robot I constructed for that same fair in Toulouse. It was my first kind of project-oriented computer programming. I took one of those small robots which are driven by batteries and can move forward, backward, left, and right and with it I tried to implement a glove for gesture control. You put the glove on and you can control the robot via gestures. I managed to do this first with my own materials but then, as I got selected for the fair, I wanted to make it a little more visually appealing – with my own materials there were wires all over the glove. I talked with SAP and they said they could help me with their 3D printers. So, I both constructed a new outfit for the robot and made the glove from plastic.
And what would you change about school in general?
It would be great if every school had makerspace like that. But also, for every school except ACS as we kind of already have it here, I wish they had club-based learning. Usually students have a lot of different interests they are not able to pursue in the standard school curriculum. This would be corrected with clubs, where students could make friends and also learn new things; as they get closer they share their knowledge and build on one another’s. A certain good thing in our school curriculum is that it covers almost every aspect of sciences as a whole and most predominantly that we graduate with very good common knowledge. I have a friend in England, who studies only 5 subjects of his choice in high school. He studies only those 5 subjects, takes exam in each one. However, if they choose predominantly sciences like physics, math, and computer science they won’t have sufficient knowledge in history, biology, which in a casual conversation is obvious.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement is coming up to that point now when I have almost finished school and got my offer from Cambridge, I feel that everything I have started thus far comes to a good end and hopefully in September a new beginning would come with its new challenges.
What do you most value in your friends?
That they are supportive. I’ve been through a lot of competitions and sometimes I’m in the top rankings and sometimes I’m not. When I’m not I feel some indignation and sadness, too. Then, my friends show up and say it’s not a big deal, next time you’ll do better – this calms me a little, and makes me forget about it. When I’m on the other hand in the top rankings, they tell me they’re proud of me, and this makes me feel even better. You cannot compare a medal to making someone feel proud of you. The medal is just an object and doesn’t mean anything without the result and effort behind it. I can easily go and buy one from HIT and it won’t mean anything.
And what do you most dislike in people?
Maybe when people pretend to be someone they’re not. Many people imitate others and it’s too obvious and doesn’t go well. Everyone has their own individual approach to life so people should follow their own way, not trying to copy others.
What are your favorite books?
With ACS and all those competitions, I don’t get that much time to read but some of my favorite books of all times are the books of the Harry Potter series. I like how they’re focused around magical events, at the same time being entertaining and relieving, offering you an escape from reality. I also like Winnetou by Karl May, because the books in that series, even if purely unrealistic, describe a culture very different from ours and an imaginary place. My father mentioned he had the books but he couldn’t find them, so I rented them electronically, a great way to take a bunch of books with you for summer vacation and even on the beach.
When and where were you happiest?
The moment I was happiest happened last year when I got selected for the Research Science Institute (RSI) summer program held at MIT. I didn’t expect it; I think I did terribly on the interview and I just wanted to get home afterwards. The jury from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences asked me specific questions, one of them being whether I know someone at MIT, like a name, who would be able to help me deal with parallelism. Instead of lying persuasively, I told the truth that I didn’t. I thought they expected me to list professor names. But then eventually they said I was chosen along with a girl. I was really surprised! This coincided with the end of first semester final exams and I was happy both about them and this journey; at that time I wanted to go to MIT after graduating from ACS. But as I went there, I found it to be too monotonous after a while. When I visited Cambridge later, I realized this was the place for me. One term in Cambridge is 8-10 weeks, in MIT it’s longer.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Imagine you’re working on a very big project, a product of your lengthy work and you release it into practice and it’s working without major problems. Then you say to yourself Well, I can rest a little bit now. For a short amount of time you enjoy that rest when you feel fulfilled and can celebrate with your friends.
Is there anything that you regret?
if something doesn’t go the way you hoped it doesn’t mean it’s going wrong, it just means it should have taken another direction.
I think that every decision I have made has to some extent importance to where I am now.
Your best and your worst day at ACS?
My best day at ACS was the Last Bell Ceremony day because it was kind of a school day but without all the teaching and lessons. We gathered in classes again, so we met with one another, our teachers said they were thankful for us graduating, and at the end, the whole school shared our enthusiasm. Our English teacher played a video from a graduation speech that he liked – again a lesson but one we were ready to take. If teachers had something to finish they did it quickly and from then on we arranged in a circle and talked to one another – not like students and teachers anymore but like friends; they shared life lessons, we mostly listened.
As per the worst day – I cannot think of any day in particular but I would almost surely say it was a day when I got too many assignments to do, I didn’t sleep well the night before, felt irritated the whole day, and just wanted the day to end so I can go home and…
Do the assignments?
No, sleep. (laughing)
What is ACS to you?
A life-changing experience. An amazing one, too, with plenty of unexpected outcomes. I never imagined myself being here when I was 7th grade. I didn’t have any idea what I would do next; I was just solving more and more problems for competitions. While here, at ACS, I realized competitions are not life; they’re good because they test your knowledge but you should definitely do other meaningful things besides them. While I was here, I started doing these projects, a step further from competitions, because you don’t do them a few hours and then you’re ready; you do them for days, weeks, even months sometimes, and at the end, when you present them in front of someone, you realize this was a product of lengthy work, not something anyone can do in a couple of hours. Also, I started doing some personal projects for more or less personal use. I have developed my own web server and kind of domain. I have played with some robotic parts at home and it is a lot different when you do something personal because you appreciate it as a user yourself. If you solve some task for a competition, you just solve it and forget about it but with this personal projects you use them every day and you improve on them every day.
I’m somehow reminded of that TED video Why you should make useless things Mr. Youngs recently shared.
Yes, I would say that nothing is useless. For example, this domain I talked about, I set it up in 8th grade just to advertise it to my friends, like Look, I got my own domain; if you type this link it goes home and then returns to you, that kind of thing, foolish almost, especially since I invested a great deal of time into it and did a lot of things with no pay-off. Until I recently got an email from a software company that said We came to your site by mistake and we really like it. Would you like to connect with us? I didn’t expect it but this was the pay-off of my efforts from three years ago. So, you see, there’s nothing useless, some things just haven’t found their proper use yet.
What would you like to take with you from your ACS experience and what would you gladly shed?
I would like to keep the club activities even in university. I know in Cambridge I will have this possibility, even with the great deal of studying. I would gladly leave behind this construction on campus – it marked half of my stay at ACS. At some point it felt like the whole ACS was turned into a construction site, there was mud everywhere. We all looked like construction workers after walking between buildings. But now, as we see the ready campus center I feel it was really worth it. We had a tour of it on our last day of school and it’s amazing!
Where would you most like to live long term?
Most probably somewhere in Europe. I haven’t thought about a dream country yet but certainly, I like Switzerland a lot – it has everything and also some of the most important Google offices are there. My greater aim is to work there: first, because it is here in Europe and second, it combines both approaches I told you about, you can do research while being a software engineer, and this in a great place.
What’s your message to former and future ACSers?
Even though the world is changing and ACS is not exactly the way you and we remember it in the beginning, it is still a great place with its modern technology and how student opinion is valued – anyone who comes to study here would surely benefit.