Engineering a Better Career

How and why I made the transition from energy to data science.
Blog Post
Aug. 28, 2017

I made my decision where one makes all responsible life choices: at my friend Aubrey’s bachelorette party. As we all chatted about our lives over drinks, I joked that I’d prefer living off the land in Alaska to my current job. I could make it work, I reasoned, if I sold off most of my stuff. And then I had a realization: I could just quit. And I probably didn’t even need to sell all of my things and move to the tundra. When I woke up the next day, the decision felt right even sober ( and with coffee).

Two weeks later I left the coal mine where I’d been working as a heavy maintenance superintendent — a 24/7 job where I was responsible for maintaining 17 miles of conveyor belts between the coal mine and the power plant. Immediately, I bought some chicken flavored ramen. With no money coming in, I had to learn how to live more frugally. Two days later, I signed up for bartending school and entered the bike delivery business so I could munch on more than just the ramen. And about a month after that, I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in computers and technology. I’d been attending classes to prep for the professional engineering test, which made me realize I did not want to go back to civil engineering — my original professional background. My guilty pleasure at work had been finding projects that required coding, so I figured: why not try to make that my career? After researching programs for data science, I decided to apply to the Galvanize Data Science Immersive program — a competitive option that would not only teach me what I needed to know, but would also help me get a job in the field. I already had an engineering degree, a love of programming, and experience in data analysis — so though it seemed like a jump from coal mining, it was, in fact, a logical transition.

The next step was buckling down and studying, because getting into the program required a series of interviews that would test my skills and knowledge. I was bartending for three or four days a week, and on my days off I would sit in a coffeeshop and bury myself in sometimes harrowing new technology lessons. Take, for instance, the first time I ran a bash terminal window on my Mac I was terrified. The terminal provides text-based access to the computer’s operating system. If you’re having trouble picturing it — I can almost guarantee you’ve seen it in a movie: It’s that computer screen with a black background, lined with neon green text, usually accompanied by a person typing frantically to remotely hack into a server or computer. I was terrified because I knew that just one incorrect command could erase my entire hard drive. It felt a little bit like learning how to drive stick shift in your mom’s car: Dread, exhilaration — and then normalcy. Soon I was navigating and running Python code written in Atom in the bash terminal and feeling like a beginner badass.

Of course, this year of transition wasn’t easy. And the challenges didn’t always come from the technology. Right before a big interview that would determine my placement in the program, I got an eye infection that turned me into a swollen-faced oozing creature. I was diagnosed with a sinus infection that had spread to my eyes and was causing extreme pressure. I could barely see when I rolled into the pharmacy. The pharmacist looked at me and said, “I am not letting you go home in this state without medicine.” I then proceeded to thank her and stand by the cereal aisle as other customers looked at me like the Swamp Thing reincarnated. I was supposed to be studying for my statistics and machine learning interview.

Next week, the week before Thanksgiving, I failed the interview. Since I felt I’d been close to passing, I begged Galvanize for a second try in two weeks, which they granted. Still, I dreaded facing my family at Thanksgiving with no job and no guaranteed plan going forward.

I buckled down and doubled my studying rate, watching Khan Academy videos at double speed. The effort paid off. On Monday, November 28th at noon I was accepted into Galvanize’s program.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from my transition was this: Going back to school after being in the workforce is the most wonderful gift you can give yourself. Your past experiences give you clarity, perspective, and appreciation for the material. Everyday at Galvanize blew my mind in the best way possible. I learned that while machine learning algorithms have been around for more than 50 years, it’s the recent advancement of hardware that made them practical in real world applications. I learned that all machine input — user clicks, text, images, and sound — can be converted into numbers that can then be filtered through a machine learning algorithm or statistical model.

Though I’ve learned a lot, applying to entry level positions in a new field is challenging, humbling, and refreshing. After eight years of working in the same company where the hiring board included coworkers and an ex-boss, it’s new territory. I’m currently looking for a full-time data science position while doing freelance contractor work — but am invigorated to be in an industry that prioritizes problem-solving and talent. It’s been a bumpy road, but I know the transition was the right thing for me to do — and it could be for you, too.