2014 Summer == Full Time Data Science Work

For the last three months I have been working at Change.org as a data scientist and engineer. Its been a great experience so far and I’m blown away that this is where I landed after starting this journey a year plus ago.

Impostor Syndrome
I’ve coached others going through moving into engineering about how to believe in themselves and they are smarter than they think. I totally get that you want to fake the confidence till you get there. Don’t be cocky just be resolved to figure stuff out.

Still I felt overwhelmed by the impostor syndrome. The fear of the company figuring out I’m a fraud and firing me during that first month was powerful in my mind. It didn’t matter how much I rationally knew better. Thankfully I have a good community of people who have gone through similar experiences with starting jobs that I was able to fall back on for support.

The feeling has subsided with time as I expected, but it does keep me on my toes to be vigilant in my growth in the space and make sure I’m having positive impact on the company.

The Company
Change.org has been an amazing experience for my first data science and engineering job. I couldn’t believe it when they put me through almost a month of training and rotation for on-boarding. It helped me get to know the team and get more comfortable working with the group pretty quickly. I’ve heard of some companies doing this for their employees and it shows how much the company is invested in you.

The people are extremely friendly, welcoming and willing to help when I have questions. It’s not a negatively competitive or condescending environment that makes me feel like I have to hide weaknesses. It has allowed me to ask questions no matter how stupid I think they are and to grow so much faster as well as deliver so much faster.

They have also made plenty of time for me to grow even though I just started. In addition to the near month rotation, they sent me to the GraphLab conference and gave me time off to take a short Spark class I got into at Stanford. And next month they are giving me time to go to StrangeLoop. In the consulting world, there is no way I would have been able to take time away from work to grow myself being so new to the company. Granted I know the more I learn the better I become as an employee. However, not all companies are able to or willing to make the time for this type of growth.

Also as you can gather from above, the company does not take over my life. The hours are 10 to 6 and people typically stick to that with a few working occasionally outside those hours. We do fun stuff together during and after work but it’s not mandatory and makes room for you to have a life.

We do happy hours every other week and sometimes play board games especially on Fri. Earlier in the summer, we would gather around the TV in a big open meeting room and “work” while watching some of the World Cup games. And almost every Friday close to the end of day, we break for what feels a little like an open mic sessions. Anyone can present on a topic they think will be valuable for the team to learn about. It helps us see what other groups are working on or learn about new tools and methods we may want to use. I’ve presented a couple of times already on GraphLab and provided an overview of data science by leveraging my PyCon presentation.

Basically its been a great place to work.

The Work
The first week on the job, one of the senior engineers had me ship code. Basically you push up code that will change the live site in some way. This can be a big deal especially for a site that is so comprehensive and beyond just a start-up. So it was pretty cool to do that and not break the site in the process.

During the rotation, I did collaborate on a few bugs, but I was given an assignment to do as time permitted to answer a question using MrJob and Hadoop; thus, the previous post. I knew this from general experience and from talking to my friends who were working. Still I will note that nothing compares to hands on experience. Working on the MrJob project taught me so much about  Hadoop, AWS, how to access data at work and just gave me a better understanding of the big data hype.

Lately I’ve been working through implementing a Multi-armed Bayesian Bandit solution. Again teaching me so much through figuring out how to implement for the specific company.  We’ve built out a testing environment and coded the solution in Python initially but the live code we are implementing into is in Java and uses the Gradle framework.

I asked for the opportunity and was given the time to take a crack at converting the solution into Java before working with one of the engineers who is more versed in the code base. Java is a bitch but it has been a thrill figuring it out for the last few weeks. I understand much more the concepts around functional programming and interactive kernels and so forth.  And I did manage to figure out and convert and test the algorithm in Java which did make me feel fantastic about that accomplishment.

I definitely have days were I’m so excited about the work I’m tackling and feel so lucky to be able to do this for a living.

Strange Stuff
Before I even started, recruiters were contacting me for other jobs. Literally I changed my LinkedIn profile the week before I started at Change.org and at least 3 recruiters contacted me that week. Very flattering but also funny considering I hadn’t even worked yet. I know people who are still looking who are better versed in math and/or programming than I am and having a company officially hire me added this level of credibility at least for recruiters to want to talk with me. I am stressing this to point out there are many qualified people and I think they are worth a look whether they have a full-time position in this space on their resume or not. Frankly, I think drive and determination are more important characteristics to look for.

Also friends were putting me in touch with people getting into the industry to give them advice on how to go about it successfully. Again flattered but considering I was scared to death of loosing the job the first month, I did not feel qualified to give anyone advice.

Additionally, my path was not easy and this journey is far from over. I still have a ton to learn and I have many days at work where I feel like I know nothing. Again thankfully many in my community have shared those experiences with me, and I know this is typical. Hell one of the senior guys at work was saying he has those days still all the time. That’s the best and worst part about this. Everything keeps changing so it can keep you constantly humble but also challenge you a ton to learn.

Sunscreen Advice
For those getting into the space (I heard from a number of you this summer), I highly encourage jumping in. What I have been sharing is that a bootcamp may or may not be the right experience for you. There were people I know who did not get a lot out of Hackbright or Zipfian as much as I know people who did. The approach, people, experience or whatever just didn’t work for some.

I can’t tell you to quit your job and take the risk because I don’t know what is best for you. And I don’t know the hiring stats beyond, it is definitely not 100% hiring rate into the field after those programs. I think anyone who survives those programs should get hired because of the rigor and determination required to sustain through them. Still companies are selective and will do the best for themselves by hiring for talent and fit. You probably won’t like all the people in your class, and may even hate a few. The job search process for you could be almost a year after you are done, maybe more. You could find this is not a field you want to get into. All of these things I’ve seen happen because the bootcamp process is not a gold ticket or a promise of success for everyone.

You make that success for yourself. If you decide to do these programs or whatever approach you take to get into the industry, make sure to own it. It is your responsibility and no one else’s to make you successful. You can have expectations for education you pay for to a point. Still the one who is going to be most concerned for what’s best for you is you and that is not going to change no matter where you go or how much you pay to get into something. You really have to make sure that you show up to whatever you try to do, be willing to participate, thankful for the help you receive in whatever form it comes, constantly look inward on what you can do to improve, try not to compare to others and fight to overcome any internal ego issues that may battle against you.

Get clear on why you are getting into data science and/or engineering. Different reasons can determine the best path for you too. I’m here because the challenge and constant learning makes me feel alive and I love it as much as it frustrates me. I seek opportunities that make sense for what I want to get out of the space and I’m constantly re-centering on what I need and want to learn as I get clearer on what the space is about. You don’t have to have those reasons to get into it. Just be honest with yourself on why you want to be in data science and engineering and what you expect from it. And be open and ready for the fact that whatever you expect will not be what you get. It may be very close or very far off.

I want to see more people working in engineering and data science because it’s definitely needed and there are a lot of people who feel like I do.  We are willing to help make the path more accessible. Still it is really on you to figure out what is best for you and then fight for it.

Blog Next Steps
I have learned so much in the last three months and there are many times I’ve thought, I should write a post about it. Reality is this site has become a lower priority while getting up to speed on work and getting a lot clearer on where I want to focus my studies. I’ve also tried to get some level of sanity back into my non-work life. I will try to make time again for posts but its tbd on frequency. Thanks for all those who have been reading so far and sending me great feedback. Seriously, much appreciated.

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