We talk to Skanda Vivek, a Senior Data Scientist at OnSolve, and learn about his journey from academia to the world of Data Science. Through our conversation, Skanda provides valuable insights into the challenges he faced during his transition and the skills and expertise that have helped him excel in his current role. Join us as we explore Skanda’s inspiring journey, and gain valuable perspectives on how to navigate the rapidly evolving landscape of Data Science.
Whether you are an aspiring Data Scientist or an experienced professional looking to stay ahead of the curve, our blog will provide you with the latest insights and trends from the most influential voices in the industry.
Since I was around ten years old, I’ve always wanted to be a scientist. Many close family members were scientists in academia – so getting a PhD, then a Postdoc, and finally becoming Professor were naturally my goals. This dream was just pie-in-the-sky for many years. But all that changed once I started having fun solving advanced physics and calculus problems while my friends were more concerned about grades, and not the subject.
So, as an Undergrad, I made up my mind to follow my dreams and become a Physicist…
After that, it was relatively smooth sailing thanks to a combination of hard work and dedication, as well as my natural creative inclination to find and solve research problems. I did a Masters at a prestigious IIT in India, a PhD at Emory University, and a Postdoc at Georgia Tech. All indicators showed that I was on the right track to achieving my academic dream. During my PhD, I was awarded the ‘Best Graduate Student Award’ by the Physics department at Emory. I also published a first author paper in PNAS, and had many other co-author publications. During my Postdoc, I was awarded the ‘Best Speaker in Robotics Award’ (related to research at the Georgia Tech Postdoc symposium) and my work was featured by the likes of Forbes and the BBC.
I’m giving this context to show how focused I was on the track to academia, and why it’s important to enjoy what you are doing at a particular moment.
Finally, I landed a Faculty position at Georgia Gwinnett College – an undergraduate college in the Atlanta area. I enjoyed my time there; having the freedom to teach a course that I created and choose research projects that interested me most. Towards the end of my third year at GGC I decided it was time for a change. One month later, I landed a new job as a Senior Data Scientist. However, that didn’t mean that I’d only prepared for this role for a month…
Research using data
I’ve always been keen to understand patterns in the world. So, when I had some spare time to develop an independent research project as a Postdoc, I thought of exploring traffic patterns as a physics problem. We came up with one of the first estimates of how traffic patterns would break-up in the aftermath of a cyber-attack. For this project I explored a bunch of traffic data – including data from the likes of Google, HERE API, NYC taxi data, and Open Street Map. I also developed a simple algorithm to track vehicle speeds from a local camera.
While none of the data science methodologies I used in these projects were ground-breaking, it gave me hands-on experiences in data extraction, cleaning, and some basic machine learning in real-world contexts.
Data incubator fellowship
I then did a remote, eight-week intense data science fellowship. At the time, I was more interested in academia, but in case I didn’t find an academic position I wanted data science to be the next option. I got a bunch of interviews from the fellowship program which almost resulted in an offer, and my Capstone project was also highlighted during pitch night.
But ultimately, as my wife had just given birth to our twins a few days earlier, I’d decided not to pursue an on-site visit at a Chicago-based company. I had just landed my Academic Professor job at GGC. The most important thing about this fellowship was that it exposed me to peers, most of whom chose data science after the fellowship and gave me an overview of the technical skills and requirements for an entry-level Data Scientist. The experience also provided me with another important trait: the psychological edge. Before TDI I felt like a physicist who was skilled in python. After TDI I felt like a Data Scientist.
This was back in 2019, where my path to data science had already started. But, there have been several steps along the way…
My first article on Medium was back in October 2019: ‘What if the next large-scale hack involved your vehicle instead of your security camera?’. It performed dismally for a month, racking just 20 views or
so. At the time, I didn’t know about submitting to larger publications. Then, an editor from The Startup (Medium’s largest publication at the time), reached out to me about publishing my article. After that, I consistently continued to appear in top Medium publications-particularly Towards Data Science. Publishing and sharing my work with the larger data science community has helped me stand out during the job interview process.
Consulting, tutoring, mentoring
I started reading stories about how people were selling data science services on platforms like Fiverr and Upwork. In parallel, I’d also dabbled with creating tutor accounts on common tutoring platforms during my PhD, but I’d never really followed up on these.
While I was experimenting with online platforms, I’d stumbled across a great need for data science tutoring, as so many universities and colleges had started to offer data science Masters programmes and undergrad specialisations. I got a number of students who valued my tutoring sessions and gave me good ratings, and as the hours and ratings piled up, I increased my hourly rate. Surprisingly, I found that as I increased my rate — the requests didn’t dramatically decrease. In fact, I had students from top universities like Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley. I even tutored someone for a semester whose father is a Tech
CEO of a top 20 Fortune 500 company. I also landed a longer-term client who was consulting with me on developing an image object detection platform.
Interview, interview, interview…
My limited data science consulting and tutoring experience made me a little nervous when I was deciding to transition into the data science profession. I figured there must be lots of applicants on the job market, given every college or university seemed to have launched a Data Science programme. However, it was only during my interviews in March and April 2022 that I realised two things.
Firstly, there were a record number of job openings at that time (inflation was not yet a concern), and secondly, everyone who claims to be a Data Scientist, or has a data science degree, is not always competent. The latter is actually obvious in hindsight – I was tutoring so many students from top universities who didn’t have a clue what they were doing.
An encounter with a recruiter taught me that interviews are like doing reps at the gym. Do more, and you get better at it. Interviews are the most important part of the job search process. The only way you get better at interviewing is by doing more interviews!
Don’t be afraid to fail
It’s natural to hold back on interviewing until you feel ready. But, if you’re like me, you might never feel 100% ready. And that’s the danger of settling into a comfort zone and making excuses about why there’s never a right time.
Once, I almost lost my voice due to an illness from my kid’s daycare. I’d applied to jobs with mistakes on my CV. But I still interviewed, even though at times my throat didn’t cooperate. I fixed my CV and made it more appealing when I wasn’t getting interviews for a week. After that, recruiters reached out to me. One of the worst and most morally devastating tools that I came across was Jobscan. I haven’t heard anyone say negative things about Jobscan,but it didn’t work for me. Jobscan scans your resume and the job posting and gives a matching score. I never got above 20 or 30% from the Jobscan system, and they suggested applying only when you have a score of 70% or higher. If I‘d taken their advice, I would still be tailoring my CV to this day!
Document everything you don’t blog about
If you follow Ali Abdaal’s YouTube channel, you will see that he was incredibly successful in med school, and at the same time made it big as a YouTuber. One of his productivity tools is intense note-taking using Notion. I use Notion to consolidate my DS learnings; especially in the context of job interviews. It isn’t very structured, but does the job.
Becoming an ‘expert’ at something new is about more than having one specific goal and achieving it. For me, the journey was much more important than the final destination. Think about it, if you decide on a goal and reach it, what will you do once you’ve met it? In the absence of future plans, you might crash and burn out. Also, big goals can change from day to day. What if you were to suddenly decide on a goal for where you should be next year and change your mind tomorrow?
On the other hand, if you are on a constant journey and enjoying every moment, any destination is a step along the way. Creating positive habits is more likely to strengthen an ever-changing mind. If you decide to blog every week and make it through nine weeks, you are less likely to quit in the tenth week. You might take a break — but it is easier to get back in the zone afterwards. After thirty blogs, recruiters might reach out to you, and you end up getting an interview where you talk about your blogs and land a dream job.
Compare this with creating a goal of transitioning to a data science job one year later, and not putting
in consistent efforts. That could be an unrealistic goal, especially if you can’t show someone that you have the relevant experience. This neat psychological mindshift is also referenced in other ways by many successful people.
As Maria Sharapova said: “The mission I was on was very different. It wasn’t that I had or didn’t have to be a champion. It was that I was learning and growing to be a better tennis player.”
Ravikanth Naval says: “Be impatient with actions but patient with results.”
And in the book Tiny Habits, B.J. Fogg discusses how small, focused daily activities can lead to hugely
positive impacts on your life.
Finally, if you have a positive attitude towards your transformation and make the necessary efforts – whether that’s blogging, publishing your research, consulting, writing a book, posting on social media, or taking the time to be creative; then you’re making the best possible decision. By investing in your health and success, it doesn’t matter whether you reach your original destination. You might find something even more awesome along the way.