Programming in Python

Did I mention that I am learning (and have learned) to program in Python at Codeacademy and am loving it? (Unbiased plug: if you want to learn to program, doesn’t have to be Python, try Codeacademy!)

Sometimes I think that I’m such a nerd: reading programming books in the train; programming for fun at night; cracking a “have you heard of Excel Slicers” joke when asked to cut a cake.

I suppose I always have been sort of a nerd, but now I actually feel alright coming out as one.

How I became an anaylst

I just approved a comment on one of my earlier posts, a post about my possible foray into sales. A post that, as I re-read it, brought back plenty of memories. A post that reminded me how my career as it stands now, that of data science and analytics, is quite different from what I had once thought I would be doing.

When I’d written that post in January 2009, I’d just graduated from the University of Western Australia and was actively looking for a job. But what job I was looking for I didn’t have much of a clue. Most of my peers hadn’t studied what I’d studied (a combination of business and information technology), or had the interests I had.

The Career as Journey not Destination

Back then I wished someone told me how jobs and careers worked; I wish I someone told me that a job or career is more journey than destination, and that not everybody knows outright what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And sometimes, careers are, as in my case, down to plenty of randomness.

So as these memories flooded back, I thought, why don’t I write something about how I found my current calling? Maybe it might help someone just starting out as well, someone as confused as I was. So here it is.

My Initial Career Intentions

Based on what I’d studied and what I was interested in, I had the following careers in mind:

  • Entrepreneurship (to be my own boss was something I’d always dreamed about, but doesn’t almost everybody);
  • Web-design (I’ve had a website since since 1997 — you might, but probably don’t, remember Geocities and Homestead, two free web-hosting platforms I used in the early days);
  • Programming (in 2002 I wrote a content management software in PHP that was essentially a clone of one of the leading CMSes at that time called MoveableType, and used it to power;
  • Copywriting (I used to write, still do, a lot, and loved writing to influence (and still do);
  • Business analysis (whatever that was… the only reason I’d had it down was that in my university’s course material for one of my majors, information systems, it was listed as a probable career, and I’d scored a perfect GPA for the major, something I only found out in hindsight as I prepped my résumé);
  • Education (teaching or similar — I wanted to “change lives”); and
  • Financial planning (I’ll talk more on this later).

These were some of the options I had bouncing around in my head. And whatever I decided to do, my initial thought was that it should be related to non-profit or charitable work if possible. If I was going to be spending the most part of my life doing something (i.e. a job) it might as well be something “worthwhile”.

Limited Options

I would find out soon enough that though I might have tons of ideas of what I wanted to do, those tons would be whittled down quickly to what jobs were available. Being in the middle of an awful recession — remember Lehman Brothers and the sub-prime crisis? — many of the  jobs I thought I had a chance in were simply unavailable.

Sales(y) jobs, though, were still in abundance. These were jobs were largely commission-based, and no- to low-risk propositions for the employers: if you don’t sell, you don’t get paid. And I suppose because of the abundance of these jobs and my not quite knowing what jobs to look for, I decided to try my luck interviewing for them, finding out what they were about and convincing myself that I could do them (the post above was part of the “convincing myself” part, but to a large extent I stand by what I wrote — though I’m not “selling” a product to external customers, I do plenty of selling in terms of ideas , analyses and other “data products” to internal customers).

One sales(y) career that I had seriously considered was that of financial planning. I had taken (and enjoyed) financial planning at University, and I loved reading personal finance blogs and books. Helping others with their finances was also something I felt I could do, especially if I was doing something I knew would help them.

I interviewed with an independent financial planning firm (one I trusted and felt really comfortable with) and was conditionally accepted. I was told to go back when I had the necessary certifications, which I diligently went out to get (which set me back about $600).

But all this while I still wasn’t sure if that was really what I wanted to do. Did I really get a degree for this? A polytechnic diploma would have been sufficient, and having a degree didn’t really help. So I decided to let fate decide: if by April 2009 I hadn’t been offered a non-financial planning, non-salesy job, I would take up the position at the financial planning firm mentioned above.

I continued scouring job postings, looking out for the less sales(y) jobs, trying my luck by sending out résumés for which I felt unqualified but had great interest in. I also targeted jobs more relevant to my degree, which I would never had gotten with just a polytechnic diploma.

Then one day a job ad came along that made my small eyes open a little wider. One that made me think: I could do this; I want to do this. It was for a Business Analyst position, a position I had, until then, not really thought much about, but which had a beautiful mix of business, social science and information technology.

The technical skills that they were looking for seemed a little more than I could offer (specifically VBA programming skills), but everything else I had down to a tee. I sent in my résumé and hoped for the best. A few days later a call came, and I was told that they wanted to interview me (hooray!) That first interview went decently, and I was told to return for a technical skills test, which I passed.

And then I was told that there was a final interview. By this time I was feeling a little job-search weary, and I told myself that this was going to be the last interview I’m going for before I said yes to the financial planning firm.

And as fate would have it, the final interview went well, and I was told a couple of days later that I got the job.

On 1st April 2009 I started my career as an analyst at Future Electronics.

(Yes, April fool’s. “My job’s a joke; my career’s a joke” became a standard joke for me while I was at Future).

And that’s how I became an analyst (and not (yet) an entrepreneur; web-designer; copywriter; financial planner; or an educator. Though on this last one, I still do plenty of educating in my analytics role!)

Some asides:

  • In case you’re wondering what an “analyst” does, read my post “What do you do? I’m an analyst.
  • I’m no longer at Future, and currently work at Study Group (a higher education pathway provider), where I’ve taken a similar but more strategic analytics role – still not quite non-profit or charity, but I’m getting there).
  • As an analyst, especially in smaller companies or teams, or where analytics is more immature, I find that you pretty much define your own job scope. Sure, the job you’re hired for needs to be done, but there’s often so much more you can do with data and systems with lots of business impact, that if you’re gung-ho enough you can start side projects that can quickly become integral to how the business runs things.

The Teacher Being Surpassed by the Student

I was in class on Saturday thinking about how nice it would be if an article of mine on was used as a piece of “teaching material” – i.e. quoted in class, or perhaps in the lecture notes.

It was then that a recollection of “some saying” hit me, something about the aim of a teacher is  to have students surpass him or her in skills. Well, a Google search has just confirmed I was imagining such a saying (apparently teachers don’t really care about students surpassing them in skill.)

But I did come across a Chinese saying that goes like this:  青出于蓝而胜于蓝 qīngchūyúlánérshèngyúlán, which literally translates to “blue comes from the indigo plant but is bluer (vivid) than the plant itself.”

Two things I learned: that the Chinese have some very nice and poetic sayings (well, I’ve actually known this a long time); and that I want to be that teacher who seeks to have students whose skills surpass mine.

I’ve always dreamed of having a team of data workers (data-analysts, engineers, scientists) working under me technically more skillful than me, even when hired they may not have been so. To build a Manchester United of data science within the company (my dear employers, are you reading this? Excited?! I am.)

As an aside: For even more dramatic effect, make that the Manchester United of the 1950-1960s under Sir Matt Busby. The one whose team was just about wiped out in a plane crash in 1958 on their way to the finals of the European Cup, only to return ten years later to win it. I love that story.


The Difference Between Amateurs and Professionals…

…is that amateurs practice till they get it right, but professionals practice till they can’t get it wrong.

I love that quote.

Reminds me of how I push myself to obtain my IPPT golds. In the months leading up to it, I’d train like I was training for the Olympics. During the test days itself, even if I was tired or sick or just not feeling quite up to it, I’d still manage the gold.


Making Measurement Count

There’s a saying I’ve heard many times that goes something like this: what gets measured gets done.

And though I completely agree with that saying, I think it misses a crucial point: that before measuring anything, we have to make sure that what’s getting done is what you want to get done.

After the army started testing for push-ups in their standard physical fitness tests, I started training for it. After they stopped testing for pull-ups, I stopped training for it.

I now do 50 push-ups without too much difficulty. I used to struggle at 30.

I now do 8 pull-ups with difficulty. I used to be able to do 12 with both hands tied behind my back.

Both were intended to act as proxies to my fitness. So, can someone tell me: am I less fit or more?

To answer that question, I propose we ask two further questions, the answers of which will then determine the answer:

    • What’s the definition of fitness?
    • Which exercise, pulls-ups or push-ups, is more closely correlated to that definition?

It would be great if fitness could be measured directly, but t can’t. So we use proxies or indirect measures such as pull-ups, push-ups, or running times to help approximate it. Sometimes these proxies make sense, but sometimes (many times) they don’t (e.g. how high or far you jump is often used as a proxy for fitness, but it’s actually probably more technique than anything else).

Proxy measures are used all the time in business as well: the performance of a business is often measured via financial proxies (revenue, costs, profit) and these often make sense – when there’s no profit for too long, companies go bankrupt and fold.

But many companies don’t stop there (nor should they). Things like staff turnover, lead times, number of customers and more are also used as proxies as well to determine if a business is “doing well”.

I do worry sometimes though, that in our quest to measure everything in order to understand where we’re at and seek “improvement” in some process or activity, we forget to ask what our true end-goal is (the formal definitions of what we’re trying to achieve), and whether or not the measurements we have in place are truly correlated to that goal.

What does it really mean for a business (or business unit or employee) to be “doing well” (in the context of this organisation)? And are the measures we have in place to measure if the above are “doing well” really correlated with what we have define as “doing well”?

Because if we don’t, we could well be working hard at improving the proxies without improving anything of real value.

The place for the polymath. Because there's too many good things in life to be great at just one thing.