Saturday, April 8, 2017

My Path to Become a Data Scientist - Decision Making Under Uncertainty


It was the summer of 2013. A year that unbeknownst to me at the time, would mark the beginning of the most challenging journey in my life.  I was a software engineering manager at a medical device startup, Cameron Health that had recently been acquired by Boston Scientific Inc. The gusto and motivation in which I entered this role 5 years ago in 2008 had eroded over time. Now, after being acquired, I felt distant and unable to define an identity of my own let alone be an efficient leader for my team. As a manager, my core technical skills were eroded to being a glorified project manager whose focus was to push a derived tactical set of orders onto my team. I had lost the once outstanding ability to think big and inspire others towards an exciting new future. This was precisely the ability that allowed me to quickly move up the ranks within General Motors and eventually gaining a critical engineering management role at Cameron Health.


It wasn't a huge surprise when I got the message that Boston Scientific was considering transitioning all operations to the headquarters in Minnesota. After all, they had just acquired all this technology and manufacturing capability which is more or less redundant to a number of core pieces of pre-existing technology that already exists within their corporation. However, it was a surprise when I was told by my manager, the engineering director, that only key staff members were going to be retained and the process was going to be completed in a week. Clearly, management individuals were not among those who would be retained. Both me and my manager were laid off the next week, along with 15% of the staff. Another 80% of the original ~200 person staff would be laid off over the following year.


After 11 years of continuous employment and never even having to apply for another job, other than right out of graduate school, I was faced with a whole new set of experiences and emotions. Initially, I felt very confident of securing a new and better role. I took a lengthy vacation for a few weeks before getting started on that process. However, reality struck when month after month passed and interviews were scarce, let alone job offers. It dawned on me that despite the fact I had 11 years of experience, my technical skills were extremely stale and the industry I had been in, had changed dramatically in both the type of problems they were solving and the technology stack. Management experience in itself was not valued if it was not accompanied with strong hands-on skills on new technologies and experience in solving domain specific problems.


I had a few alternatives at this stage - continue with my current job search in hopes of finding a position, expanding my search to other industries or geographies, sacrificing a search for a long term career for short term employment or simply reinventing myself. There was no data, no prescribed solution or best practice that was available to guide me in the right direction. Most of the advice I received were in the lines of simply performing better at interviews or taking a less desirable job just for the sake of having a job in hopes of growing into a better role in the future. I even tried analyzing the various alternatives I had and evaluated them relative to a few set of quantitative measures such as how close my skills were to the desired skills necessary and how many jobs were available within that industry. However, all these decision analysis simply created more confusion and did not get me to any concrete steps towards a solution. At this stage, my confidence and my skills were quickly eroding. I had two mortgages and financial obligations that were pressurizing my timeline to secure a new source of cash flow.


Necessity is the mother of invention. This was certainly the case for me at this point. I was forced to get out of my comfort zone of doing job applications and networking. I started to venture out to unique conferences, hackathons and entrepreneur events that were in different industries. I started to notice trends of where the industry was moving to and over the course of a few weeks, I was convinced that data science and machine learning were going to reinvent the next 20 years of technology. However, I had absolutely zero skills in this arena. I had never used Python before and all I recalled of statistics were buzzwords that I had long forgotten their meaning. I looked at the requirements for data scientist roles at the time and it was almost greek to me. The path to transitioning from scratch to become a data scientist at the ripe old age of 35, was seemingly too challenging to overcome.


The path to success is paved by pain and suffering. I had overcome many difficulties when I first came to the US to start a new life. In situations where there isn't much information to make a decision and a deadline quickly approaching, I decided that my strategy is to pick a clear and simple vision and then put your blinders on and trudge your way towards that vision despite the odds or any challenges that may come. My vision was to be a data scientist. Now all I needed to do is to learn everything necessary to be one.


I now armed myself with this clear vision and with a continual mantra that no matter how difficult the path is, given enough time and hard work, it can be overcome. I signed up to a part time bootcamp in data science in Los Angeles. It was a 4 hour drive one way from my home in Orange County but the class gave me a first glimpse of the knowledge of a data scientist. Three months later, I signed up for a full time bootcamp in San Francisco. I was going all in with this vision. I relocated for 3 months and simply worked tirelessly every single day, morning till night, on absorbing every piece of knowledge and skill necessary to be a data scientist. However, even after the full time bootcamp, I still had a tough time getting through the interview process. Most companies would consider me too junior in skills but too senior in age.


I was humbled to the degree where I decided that I would have to work my way up again from the bottom even if it meant throwing away 11 years worth of seniority. I was willing to take any role that would give me critical experiences as a data scientist. I took on contract work, hackathon projects and even any company’s take home assignments. It was pure hustling, something that I had never done before when I was in the enclave of a cushy full time corporate career. Over the course of 5 months past the completion of my full time bootcamp, I steadily built up key experiences, won seven hackathons with 40k in winnings, third place in an international data science competition and built a solid data science portfolio. Finally, I was getting more interviews and getting further in the interviews as well.


Five months after the completion of my bootcamp, I landed a role as a data science manager at Change.org. I had a broad exposure and I was able to utilize both my management experience and my new founded skills in data science. However, I wanted to get more hands on so I left that to join 6Sense, a machine learning as a service startup where I quickly proved my worth by building an entirely automated data pipeline and machine learning model training platform that improved the performance by over 300%. Now, I work as a senior data scientist in Goldman Sachs among a team of highly qualified data scientists from some of the top universities in the world. I am also a lead instructor for the same part time bootcamp that I started my humble beginnings 3.5 years ago. They say it takes 5 years to be an expert in any domain. I feel I am well on my way to this.

The key to decision making under uncertainty is to have a clear and simple vision that will become a compass for all other tactical decisions. After that it is simply the unending focus and motivation that will drive you towards that vision.

2 comments:

  1. Its good to read your life expereinces of becoming a data scientist. Its always difficult to select your field. You have so many options and you have to select right option for you.

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  2. This was a fantastic write up of one's roadmap to success and enables a lot of people who are in that position to realize that they are no alone in this journey. Thanks for having the courage to put it out there and make others aware of your experience.

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