Can I get there from here?
This started out as an experimental journey! Would it possible to travel from music to teaching to SAP consulting to data science? At the outset I was not at all sure (!), but in the spirit of taking a sho’t left, this journey began as a quest that was less about the destination and more about the enriching experiences to be had along the way: I figured at the very least a little intellectual stimulation could do a person no harm!
I’ll be frank about the starting point of the journey: I hadn’t done much in the way of mathematics since high school (a while back – but let’s not be too frank about how far back!) and I hadn’t done any coding before either. So literally a zero starting point: a good test case you might say. This is roughly what the journey looked like so far:
It all started with one of those clichéd life-changing experiences – a little brush with cancer that got me asking long-overdue questions like ‘what do I want to be when I grow up?’ and ‘how could I find meaning and purpose in my work?’. I started thinking about the things I love doing and allowing myself to dream about possible new careers. And the more I looked at data science, the more fascinated I became! One day, sitting on the couch at home, I found myself signing up for my first online Python course (still thinking in the back of my mind ‘this is ridiculous…’). But that is the beautiful thing about all the online learning platforms available today: you can try stuff out with relatively little to lose – I didn’t have to give up my job and enrol at a university, I just had to make a small start and see if it led anywhere. And it did! By the time I read about the IBM/MTN rhino conservation project which really cemented my decision to take this journey seriously, I’d been coding and brushing up on math and finding any way I could to apply my new skills at work – even if just to automate repetitive tasks that I found a bit boring.
A major milestone came in October 2018 when I was accepted onto the 2-month full-time Data Science Intensive program in Cape Town – what a joy to spend the whole day grappling with machine learning problems, together with like-minded colleagues. At the same time, it was also tough: impostor syndrome is a very real phenomenon and there were nights when I’d lie awake thinking ‘maybe I’m just kidding myself…’. But then there was the excitement of figuring out how to make a small piece of code work, or the greater delight in seeing a model actually make valid predictions.
You’ll notice that this blog grew quiet after that as my focus switched from learning to getting my foot in the door somewhere! There were 2 main approaches I could follow: network inside my own company or build my online profile. I opted for networking because I knew from experience that this is often the fastest route to a job. I approached the data team and basically asked if there was anything I could help with (willing to work for free after-hours was my ‘impossible to refuse’ pitch!). I got my first assignment in December 2018 and my family had to endure me rushing home from Christmas lunch so I could carry on with my EDA… they’re a very tolerant bunch. A couple of months later the same data team had a resignation and I was invited to a technical interview to assess my SQL skills and fitness for the job – I’d done one beginner SQL course about 6 months prior and never had occasion to use these skills so I had a few days of frantically reviewing, memorizing, googling top 50 SQL interview questions and the like! And suddenly my foot was in the door and I had my first job offer: granted, as a data analyst rather than a data scientist BUT it came with the understanding that there would be plenty of scope to use and develop my data science skills. I took a leap of faith on that one, and I’ve not been disappointed. The remainder of 2019 has been spent (rather stressfully I must say!) getting to grips with a job that is unlike anything I’d ever done. I’m on my way to becoming a minor SQL ninja; I’ve completed the Udacity Deep Learning Nanodegree (again my tolerant family understood when I retreated to my study on weekends to commune with AWS!); and I’ve been exposed to a rich world of data – with the freedom to explore any available means to extract meaning and answer questions. NLP is an area that particularly fascinates me…
Now that I’m settling after this period of upheaval and change, I’m returning to my blog: the journey continues and I still firmly believe that the best way to learn a new concept is by explaining it to someone else.