From Slacker to Data Scientist

My journey into data science without a degree.


Butterflies in my belly; my stomach is tied up in knots. I know I’m taking a risk by sharing my story, but I wanted to reach out to others aspiring to be a data scientist. I am writing this with hopes that my story will encourage and motivate you. At the very least, hopefully, your journey won’t be as long as mine.

So, full speed ahead.


I don’t have a PhD. Heck, I don’t even have any degree to speak of. Still, I am very fortunate enough to work as a data scientist in a ridiculously good company.

How I did it? Hint: I had a lot of help.

Never Let Schooling Interfere With Your Education — Grant Allen

Formative Years

It was 1995 and I had just gotten my very first computer. It was a 1982 Apple IIe. It didn’t come with any software but it came with a manual. That’s how I learned my very first computer language: Apple BASIC.

My love for programming was born.

In Algebra class, I remember learning about the quadratic equation. I had a cheap graphic calculator then, a Casio, that’s about half the price of a TI-82. It came with a manual too so I decided to write a program that will solve the quadratic equation for me without much hassle.

My love for solving problems was born.

In my senior year, my parents didn’t know anything about financial aid but I was determined to go to college so I decided to join the Navy so that I could use MGIB pay for my college. After all, four years of service didn’t seem that long.

My love for adventure was born.

Later in my career in the Navy, I was promoted as the ship’s financial manager. I was in charge of managing multiple budgets. The experience taught me bookkeeping.

My love for numbers was born.

After the Navy, I ended volunteering for a non-profit. They eventually recruited me to start a domestic violence crisis program from scratch. I had no social work experience but I agreed anyway.

My love for saying “Why not?” was born.

Rock Bottom

After a few successful years, my boss retired and the new boss fired me. I was devastated. I fell into a deep state of clinical depression and I felt worthless.

I recall crying very loudly in the kitchen table. It has been more than a year since my non-profit job and I’m nowhere near close as having a prospect for the next one. I was in a very dark space.

Thankfully, the crying fit was a cathartic experience. It gave me a jolt to do some introspection, stop whining, and come up with a plan.

“Choose a Job You Love, and You Will Never Have To Work a Day in Your Life. “ — Anonymous

Falling in Love, All Over Again

To pay the bills, I’ve been working as a freelance web designer/developer but I wasn’t happy. Frankly, the business of doing web design bored me. It was frustrating working with clients who think and act like they’re the expert on design.

So I started thinking, “what’s next?”.

Searching the web, I’ve stumbled upon the latest news in artificial intelligence. It led me to machine learning which in turn led me to the subject of data science.

I was infatuated.

I signed up for Andrew Ng’s machine learning course on Coursera. I listened to TwitML, Linear Digression, and a few other podcasts. I revisited Python and got reacquainted with git on Github.

I was in love.

It was at this time that I made the conscious decision to be a data scientist.

Leap of Faith

Learning something new was fun for me. But still, I had that voice in my head telling me that no matter how much I study and learn, I will never get a job because I don’t have a degree.

So, I took a hard look at the mirror and acknowledge that I need help. The question now is where to start looking.

Then one day out of the blue, my girlfriend asked me what data science is. I jumped off my feet and starting explaining right away. Once I stopped explaining to catch a breath, I managed to ask her why she asked. And that’s when she told me that she’d seen a sign on the billboard. We went for a drive and saw the sign for myself. It was a curious billboard with two big words “data science” and a smaller one that says “Codeup.” I went to their website and researched their employment outcome.

I was sold.

Preparation

Before the start of the class, we were given a list of materials to go over.

Given that I had only about two months to prepare, I was not expected to finish the courses. I was basically told to just skim over the content. Well, I did them anyway. I spent day and night going over the courses and materials. Did the tests, got the certificates!

Bootcamp

Boot camp was a blur. We had a saying in the Navy about the boot camp experience: “the days drag on but the weeks fly by.” This was definitely true for the Codeup boot camp as well.

Codeup is described as a “fully-immersive, project-based 18-week Data Science career accelerator that provides students with 600+hours of expert instruction in applied data science. Students develop expertise across the full data science pipeline (planning, acquisition, preparation, exploration, modeling, delivery), and become comfortable working with real, messy data to deliver actionable insights to diverse stakeholders.”¹

We were coding in Python, querying the SQL database, and making dashboards in Tableau. We did projects after projects. We learned about different methodologies like regression, classification, clustering, time-series, anomaly detection, natural language processing, and distributed machine learning.

More importantly, the experience taught us the following:

  1. Real data is messy; deal with it.
  2. If you can’t communicate with your stakeholders, you’re useless.
  3. Document your code.
  4. Read the documentation.
  5. Always be learning.

Job Hunting

Our job hunting process started from day one of boot camp. We updated our LinkedIn profile and made sure that we’re pushing to Github almost every day. I even spruced up my personal website to include the projects we’ve done during class. And of course, we made sure that our resumé is in good shape.

Codeup helped me with all of these.

In addition, Codeup also helped prepare us for both technical and behavioral interviews. We practiced answering questions following the S.T.A.R. format (Situation, Task, Action, Result). We optimized our answers to highlight our strengths as high-potential candidates.

Post-Graduation

My education continued even after graduation. In between filling out applications, I would code every day and try out different Python libraries. I regularly read the news for the latest development in machine learning. While doing chores, I listen to a podcast, a TedTalk, or a LinkedIn learning video. When bored, I listened to or read books.

There’s a lot of good technical books out there to read. But for the non-technical ones, I recommend the following:

  • Thinking with Data by Max Shron
  • Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neill
  • Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez
  • Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work by Liz Wiseman
  • Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
  • The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter by Michael Watkins

Dealing with Rejection

I’ve had a lot of rejections. The first one was the hardest but after that, it kept getting easier. I developed a thick skin and just moved on.

Rejection sucks. Try not to take it personally. Nobody likes to fail, but it will happen. When it does, fail up.

Conclusion

It took me 3 months after graduating from boot camp to get a job. It took a lot of sacrifices. When I finally got the job offer, I felt very grateful, relieved, and excited.

I could not have done it without Codeup and my family’s support.


Thanks for reading! I hope you got something out of this post.

To all aspiring data scientists out there, just don’t give up. Try not to listen to all the haters out there. If you must, hear what they have to say, take stock of your weaknesses, and aspire to learn better than yesterday. But never ever let them discourage you. Remember, data science skills lie on a spectrum. If you’ve got the passion and perseverance, I’m pretty sure that there’s a company or organization out there that’s just the right fit for you.

Stay tuned!

You can reach me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

[1] Codeup Alumni Portal. (May 31, 2020). Resumé — Ednalyn C. De Dioshttps://alumni.codeup.com/uploads/699-1562875657.pdf

This article was first published in Towards Data Science‘ Medium publication.

Grateful

I was writing about my journey from slacker to data scientist and I was reminded of just how fortunate I am because I had a lot of help along the way.

  • I am blessed to be working in the field of data science.
  • I am blessed to be employed a ridiculously good company.
  • I am blessed to still have a job amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

And most importantly, I truly am very fortunate to have family and friends– both professional and personal– that help me get to where I am now.

Today, I created a Kiva Team “Data Scientists for Good” with hopes of encouraging other data scientists, data analysts, and data engineers to give back. Click here if you’re interested in joining the team.

So, what are you grateful for?

Highlights- The First 90 Days: Chapter 1, Prepare Yourself

Michael Watkins

It’s a mistake to believe that you will be successful in your new job by continuing to do what you did in your previous job, only more so.

Preparing yourself means letting go of the past and embracing the imperatives of the new situation to give yourself a running start.

Getting Promoted

You must figure out what it takes to be excellent in the new role, how to exceed the expectations of those who promoted you, and how to position yourself for still greater things.

Balance Between Breadth and Depth

You also need to learn to strike the right between keeping the wide view and drilling down into the details.

Rethink What You Delegate

… the keys to effective delegation remain much the same; you build a team of competent people whom you trust, you establish goals and metrics and monitor their progress, you translate higher-level goals into specific responsibilities for your direct reports, and you reinforce them through the process.

When you get promoted, however, what you delegate usually needs to change… it may make sense to delegate specific tasks… your focus may shift from tasks to projects and processes… entire businesses.

Influence Differently

… the decision-making game becomes much more bruising and politically charged the higher up you go. It’s critical, then, for you to become more effective at building and sustaining alliances.

Communicate More Formally

Establish new communication channels to stay connected with what is happening where the action is… all without undermining the integrity of the chain of command.

Your direct reports play a greater role in communicating your vision and ensuring the spread of critical information.

Exhibit the Right Presence

What does a leader look like at your new level in the hierarchy? How does he act? What kind of personal leadership brand do you want to have in the new role? How will you make it your own?

Four Pillars of Effective Onboarding

Business Orientation

Getting oriented to the business means learning about the company as a whole and not only your specific parts of the business. It’s beneficial to learn about the brands and products you will be supporting, whether or not you’re directly involved in sales and marketing.

Stakeholder Connection

It’s also essential to develop the right relationship wiring as soon as possible. This means identifying key stakeholders and building productive working relationships. Remember: you don’t want to be meeting your neighbors for the first time in the middle of the night when your house is burning down.

Expectations Alignment

Check and recheck expectations.

Cultural Adaptation

Think of yourself as an anthropologist sent to study a newly discovered civilization.

Identifying Cultural Norms

Influence

How do people get support? Is it more important to have support of a patron within the senior team or affirmation from peers and direct reports?

Meetings

Are meetings filled with dialogue on hard issues or are they simply forums for publicly ratifying agreements that have been reached in private?

Execution

Which matters more- a deep understanding of processes or knowing the right people?

Conflict

Can people talk openly about difficult issues without fear or retribution?

Recognition

Does the company promote stars or does it encourage team players?

Ends Versus Means

Are there any restrictions on how you achieve results? Does the organization have a well-defined, well-communicated set of values that is reinforced through positive and negative incentives?

Preparing Yourself

Take time to celebrate your move, even informally, with family and friends. Touch base with your informal advisers and counselors and to ask for advice.

Assess Your Vulnerabilities

One way to pinpoint your vulnerabilities is to assess the kinds of problems toward which you naturally gravitate.

Watch Out for Your Strengths

“To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Relearn How to Learn

New challenges and associated fears of incompetence can set up a vicious cycle of denial and defensiveness. Put bluntly, you can decide to learn and adapt, or you can become brittle and fail.

Relearning how to learn can be stressful… if you embrace the need to learn, you can surmount them.

Get Some Help

Engage with HR and your new boss about creating a 90-day transition plan. Ask for help in identifying and connecting with key stakeholders or finding a cultural interpreter.

Closing the Loop

You have to work constantly to ensure that you’re engaging with the real challenges of your new position and not retreating to your comfort zone.

Highlights- The First 90 Days: Introduction

Michael Watkins

The actions you take during your first few months in a new role will largely determine whether you succeed or fail.

“Success or failure during the first few months is a strong predictor of overall success or failure in the job.”

If you’re successful in building credibility and securing early wins, the momentum likely will propel you through the rest of your tenure.

The most dangerous transition can be the one you don’t recognize is happening.

Leaders also are impacted by the transitions of many others around them.

Your goal in every transition is to get as rapidly as possible to the break-even point. This is the point at which you have contributed as much value to your new organization as you have consumed from it.

The goal is the same: to get there as quickly as possible.

Avoiding Transition Traps

  • Sticking with what you know
  • Falling prey to the “action imperative”
  • Setting unrealistic expectations
  • Attempting to do too much
  • Coming in with “the” answer
  • Engaging in the wrong type of learning
  • Neglecting horizontal relationships

Understanding the Fundamental Principles

  • Prepare yourself
  • Accelerate learning
  • Match your strategy to the situation
  • Secure early wins
  • Negotiate success
  • Achieve alignment
  • Build your team
  • Create coalitions
  • Keep your balance
  • Accelerate everyone

Mapping Out Your First 90 Days

Your transition begins the moment you learn you are being considered for a new job.

Use the 90-day period as a planning horizon.

Start planning what you hope to accomplish by specific milestones.

Begin by thinking about your first day in the new job. What do you want to do by the end of that day? Then move to the first week. Then focus on the end of the first month, the second month, and finally the three-month mark.

Hitting the Ground Running

Every new leader needs to quickly become familiar with the new organization, secure early wins, and build supportive coalitions.

Job Search

I was on the road and got stuck in the middle of a storm. I pulled over and decided to wait it out until the road conditions got better. While I was waiting, I was thinking about my job search strategy.

I realized that I was doing way too much busy work and not enough substance. There’s a lot of job postings out there and after a while, they all start to look the same.

So, I’ve decided that I’m going to be “more intentional” and go deep. I’m going to spend a lot more time researching the company, their product/services, and culture. This time around, I shall optimize for quality rather than quantity.

Impostor syndrome abound, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Already?

There’s a saying while I attended military bootcamp back in the day:

The days seem to drag on endlessly but weeks fly by

Well this week we’re doing practice interviews and I can’t help but wonder where the last few months had gone.

Seemed like only yesterday, when I had started this blog with the intention of documenting my experience at Codeup. Didn’t quite pan out as planned but did I have a blast!

Yes it was intense but it was hella fun. Stressful, but exciting at the same time.

Now I can actually see the finish line.

Yay!

We graduate on June 14th!