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.

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!”