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Elliott Miller
Elliott Miller

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Why I decided to become a data scientist

It all started on a couch in San Diego...a couch I was living on...

I had been living on said couch for 3 months. My driver's license, car tags, and motivation to have a social life had all expired. It didn't matter,since I could barely afford gas. I had barely any clothea, barely any things, and was practically homeless. It should be stated. A month ago actually was homeless, so it wasn't the worst part of my life. But it was pretty bad. I was broken.

But this isn't a sob story. Or a story of how I pulled myself by my bootstraps and changed my life. It is a story of identity. I hope by sharing it I can make a point that developers are human. And, while we come to write code, we do so as a part of ourselves. While we are all different and are reasons varied, they are all valid. We are individuals. We are people. Even though we can sometimes be thought of as machinelike as the machines we work with.

To get to this point I want to go even further back. Further from one the lowest periods to one of the entry into grad school. I had come to California to obtain a PhD in physics...which is actually a giant lie. I didn't need to come to California to go into grad school. I wanted the sunny weather and exciting lifestyle....which is exactly why I didn't do so well.

While I did get good grades and complete important lab work, I was not focused enough and joined far too many student groups. This caused problems. I would grade homework at house parties, duck out of going into the lab to go on snowboarding trips, and once took an entire year off to write a play. All the while I told myself it was ok. I believed my social life could coexist with my grad student life. But it was too much. Eventually, it caught up with me and I was kicked out.

However looking back I understand that I did not have a crisis of work ethic or talent, but rather a crisis of identity. While I loved the work of being a physics researcher, and I was good at it, I did not have the motivation needed to push myself through to completing a thesis (I am ABD). While I enjoyed what I was doing, I struggled to see its value. I think this is because I was naive about the actual work of physicists.

I went into the field of physics-inspired by Nikola Tesla, Irwin Schrodinger, and Werner Heisenberg. I looked up to great physicists but also physicists widely known and praised for their work. Instead...I found a field of basic research, where praise would be given to null results and measurements of increasing precision. While I could see the scientific value in basic research, I wanted to make quantum computers or highly efficient solar cells. Furthermore, I wanted to do it with novel mathematics. However, I neglected to go into engineering or materials science as I was dead set on being a physicist.

However, my greatest issue was not my misplaced expectations, but my lack of confidence. Despite wanting to study condensed matter theory, I worked in an experimental antimatter lab. And despite studying immensely for my comprehensive exam, I got jitters, missed sleep, and flunked it. I remember thinking that I would never truly graduate, and would have to get a Masters, a week after starting the program.

Funny thing about the mind. When it believes something. It makes it true. And so I failed. Not just at being a physicist, but a productive member of society. I failed at paying rent. I failed at maintaining relationships. I failed at taking car of parking tickets. It was 6 years of a lot of failures.

...Fast forward to the couch...

Fast forward to the simple google search that would change my life.

How to get a job with a physics degree

This was around 2014/2015. DJ Patil had just been hired as chief data officer in the white house. Tensorflow was right about to be released. Online storage was getting cheaper. And data was everywhere. Companies did not know what to do with this data and they were desperate for talent to deal with it. Furthermore, They were desperate for physicists.

The time seemed right, and several occurrence made this point more clear. My car got crashed into, a family member died, and a close friend moved out of the country. The winds of change were in the air, and it necessitated me moving out of California. Out of the sun and into the nation's capital.

Remember DJ Patil? He was now my neighbor. I went from thumbing through job postings that were miles away, to being offered positions at every hackathon I went to. There were 4 Data Science meetups a week. I made friends and colleagues. I met people that inspired me. I was very active in the field of Data Science, or so I thought. However, furthermore, I was active in dc.

What was interesting about this time was not that Data Science was new to me.... it was new to everyone. The definition changed from person to person and business to business. To some, a data scientist could only be a refugee from academia with several published papers and a background in hard science. To others, proficiency with tableu and the ability to execute SQL Joins was more than enough. All of this seemed enticing, but also not quite a fit for me... Hence my conflict.

You see up until this point, I had worked through statistical learning papers and entered into online machine learning competitions. I had forked several NLP repos and derived an LSTM from scratch. I was gunning to be a machine learning engineer and yet no one seemed to want that. Furthermore, no one seemed to even no one that was. The few places that were hiring for this type of position had lofty requirements (which I would later learn were not as high as I thought).

And once again I felt trapped and without identity. I felt as though being the kind of Data Scientist I wanted to be was as far away as getting a PhD was when I dropped out of grad school. Once again my confidence took a hit and i didn't know what to do.

However, I think that sometimes in your career, you feel a pull to do something that is stronger than your own fears. Stronger than your abilities. And this was that thing. I desired so much more from myself, my career, and the world of technology in general. I saw businesses with more data than they knew what to do with and mostly the capability to wrangle databases and do visualizations (don't get me wrong, those visualizations were and are amazing). And, while I knew they wouldn't listen to me if I posed that machine learning could give them value, there must be someone somewhere that could understand... and then give me a chance to prove myself

I realize something else. Despite networking and going out for over a year, I had not actually applied...the power of confidence at work. However, after some meditation, I sought to actually try. If I could not be confident, I could at least do what I do enthusiastic. I think this is why I got hired at the place I am now. While my first conversation with the man who would become my boss was full of technical mistakes on my part, I was excited and charged.

And I think the takeaway is this. We may not always know what we are cut out for...even what we are good at. The path ahead is branching and full of twists. But sometimes you just feel it in your bones that you are supposed to do something. You feel it so just do it. And I do not know if this is purpose or fate or whatever. I truly do not believe in such things. And yet, when your career gives you life and energy, you know you are going in the right direction.

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