I wasn’t always a data scientist.
Before becoming the person I am today, data scientist at a startup, I worked as a consultant. Consultant is even too mighty of a title, I was a data analyst. Before that I was a master’s student. Before that stint at the master’s program I was unemployed. And before that I was a mathematics tutor at a local community college. And my past stretches back even further than that, but I won’t go into it now.
The point is that like most other things becoming a data scientist is a journey.
At this point in it’s development the field is young enough that there are many ways into it. There are many data scientists who started out their careers in the humanities. Some who didn’t receive a formal education. Some others with vastly different life stories than you or I. And that’s perfectly legitimate.
As I was saying, three years ago I was a data analyst. This involved summing values up in spreadsheets and dividing those totals by other totals I had previously calculated. I might apply a simple statistical test and determine if the average of one group was different then the average of a different group. The job felt a lot like stacking different piles of rocks and comparing what I stacked against one another. I’d spend all day stacking one pile then stack another and look at the differences between the two. Even though that description isn’t a particularly generous one of the job, I enjoyed it.
Life was pretty good.
I didn’t need to build predictive models, didn’t really know how to code too well, and my linear algebra was rusty but that wasn’t too concerning because I wasn’t using it. I was good at my job. I would work on new and interesting topics on a regular basis. Yet I knew there was something I was missing. That something was the promise of growth. Of becoming more than I was and eventually reaching new professional and developmental heights. I couldn’t do it in that position. I was stuck.
That’s when my outlook started to change. I began doing things differently. Eventually I became the data scientist I am today. I am going to tell you how I changed and someday perhaps you will use this information to grow yourself.
I sought out new communities through meetup.com. This is something you can do right now wherever you are as long as you’re connected to the internet and because you are reading this that means you are connected to the internet. That thing that you want to become? There’s a group of people on meetup.com meeting up about it and they are probably in your area meeting up to talk about it in the coming month. You can be there. As Woody Allen is supposed to have quipped “80% of life is showing up.” I believe it too. You need to show up time after time. You become the person you want to be when you start being that person.
I started listening to the conversation via twitter. I’m not on twitter for the cat videos, though there are some incredible cat videos on twitter. I am part of this social media network to listen and participate in the discussion from the community. The authors of the data science books you read are almost all on twitter. Data scientists Hilary Mason, DJ Patil, Andrew Ng, Hadley Wickham, Francois Chollet, Wes Mckinney, Julia Silge are all twitter talking to each other about the field. Where else can you have the luminaries of the field gathered talking candidly about their work. What kinds of opportunities are you missing because you have an inaccurate picture of what a social network can be. Think about it. You don’t have to participate in the discussion.
I enrolled in a local workshop. I had learned about the opportunity on twitter and seized it. That three month long workshop took the group through the layout, construction, and deployment of data projects. There were real life data scientists present and I could talk with them. There were other individuals who were a lot like me. They had the same questions I had and we could figure out many of the answers together. It was a lot of hard work but by the end I had a real data science project I could show off to others. And I had built it with my own sweat and tears.
Later I led that workshop.
I looked for online courses on data science and took them and then took the recommended followups. To do this I purchased a monthly subscription to learning site Pluralsight. It cost me $30 a month but it was well worth it. There I was able to watch hours of videos by the programmers and data scientists. I was able to code the projects they presented. I iterated on those projects and made them my own. Sure, you could learn most of this for free by Googling around and watching youtube videos. But this is what I did.
This is what I did — I paid for the content and experiences I knew would increase my abilities. Paying hundreds of dollars for materials that will grow your salary by thousands or tens of thousands of dollars a year is a no-brainer. You do it. Yet most people don’t do it. They are too caught up in the cost of the product their purchasing now while discounting the value they’ll receive from it’s proper use later. I have a colleague who always buys books people recommend to him or that he thinks are interesting. He just buys them. He probably spends thousands of dollars a year on books. Books. Why? Because of the value they’ll bring him in the long run. He won’t go searching around for subpar content when he has the expert opinion right there in front of him. Pay for value.
This isn’t just my advice you’ll hear it all over the place. You get what you pay for.
Here’s the advice I will often give wayward friends who are searching for the path towards becoming the thing they always want to become: do the hard thing. You know what the hard thing is that you’ve been avoiding. This might mean finishing the masters program you started. It might mean opening that book that’s been sitting on your self gathering dust. It might mean finally beginning coding on your project or finishing coding on your project. That thing that you have been putting off you can no longer put off. The ancient Chinese proverb goes like this; “The best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago. The second best time is right now.”
This is your life. It’s time you begin living it.
If you found this article helpful I’d appreciate hearing it. I’d like to write more in this direction in the future but only if it’s providing value to you.