When did you find out that you wanted to be a data scientist? What motivated you to become one?
I am naturally attracted to finding out how things work and how I can influence and shape their behavior and outcome if possible. I think this innate curiosity to understand how things work is at the heart of being an applied data scientist – one who solves real-world problems. This differs markedly from those who love to do theoretical mathematical research in statistics and operational studies (equally important and complementary to the applied world).
The tag “data research“Is a relatively new term as industries strive to raise awareness of advanced analytics based on data and switch it as a science. It’s not so much that I wanted to be a data scientist when one day I woke up and people started calling me a data scientist. I went by many different names prior to its recent popularity and I have always practiced my craft and wandered my way regardless of industry and business light or lack thereof.
Computer science practitioners have honed their skills long before its recent buzz and hot marketability. For us, it is our passion, our calling, our being. That’s who we are – not a fad. And we continue to do so when the limelight moves somewhere else, as it inevitably will.
We need more data scientists; there are so many more problems that can be solved today than before. I would advise people to choose this field not because it sounds nice and popular now, but because it is our passion because it is who we are – analytical problem solvers. This is my long-standing way of saying, I think real motivation is very innate rather than externally driven.
Which department do you work in and who do you report to?
I am always attached to the business unit where the problems reside. Advanced analysis is not an IT feature, and to be far from the problem creates, in my opinion, unnecessary and harmful barriers. You cannot solve a problem well when you are away from it.
At American Express, I worked in card operations and risk management. I analyzed client behaviors across multiple departments looking at the card product life cycle, from application, authorization, credit, collection and fraud. Currently at CIBC, I am affiliated with marketing and report to the Vice President for Customer Information and Competitive Insights.
The shift from risk management to marketing is interesting. While risk management is about controlling operational processes and mitigating losses, marketing brought a fresh new perspective, using data and analytics to identify business opportunities and create new opportunities. I joked with my risk management buddies that it is now my turn to create a headache for them as we look for new ways to grow the business.
How long have you held your job and were you hired specifically to be a data scientist?
I joined CIBC to establish the advanced analytics feature in customer marketing when there was none, which was almost 20 years ago. So yes, I was hired specifically as a data scientist. My mandate was to build an analytics team and establish business practices using advanced analytics on client data to reveal insights that would allow us to compete better in the market.
Do you work on a team? If so, what is the composition of your team?
I surround myself with the best and brightest people who have analytical passion and are stubbornly problem-solving. We contribute our individual talents and learn from each other. Our different experiences and perspectives enrich each other. This cross-pollination can work wonderfully in rounding off people’s abilities and views on solving real-world problems.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with both experienced people and talent right out of school. They are physicists, mathematicians, econometricians, statisticians, biostatisticians – all people with a strong quantitative skill set and a disciplined scientific mind. Many began to know little about formal statistics or SAS, but their strong quantitative foundations and bright minds enabled them to pick up skills on the job. I run some kind of training school.
How’s your job? Is there a typical day, or is each day different? Can you give us a basic idea of what you’re doing and the type of projects you’re working on?
My days are a mix of many things – working with business partners to understand their business problems and concerns, educating people on what we can do and how it can benefit them, proposing frameworks and methods to solve problems, presenting find and drive for change. Even politely declining engagement where analysis is not what is needed.
I also spend time thinking about how to deliver better value. What problems should we solve next quarter, next year and next three years? And how we can solve problems better. How can we better communicate with our business partners and increase the scope of our operations with the same number of people?
In a leadership role, I keep an eye on my team to see what they know, what they don’t know and what they need to know. I want to help them look deeper, longer and clearer and pass on knowledge and skills to them. I want them to have fun, and of course we want to acknowledge people for their achievements. On the technical side, we are constantly looking to see where the industry is going, what we need to do to keep abreast, where we can get more relevant data, and how bleeding edge we have to strive to get what we need to do. for continuously delivering results.
Specific examples of projects we work with include customer acquisition for the bank, predicting individual behavior, determining risks and responding to changing market conditions and business strategies.
We have weekly full team meetings where all new discoveries are put on the table and tried to make them better. We cross-check what we just discovered with what we already know before. I try to challenge people. I want them to think about how problems can be solved differently and what opportunities we have for improving what we have already done. We also keep an idea log of what would be interesting to explore – what we call our “skunk-work projects.”
Is your job the way you expected it to be?
In the first phase of my career as an individual contributor, it was all I expected it to be – working on interesting issues, gaining technical skills, using SAS to get to know the case and being recognized as a competent in data and analysis.
The second phase of my career is markedly different – managing an analytical function. The analytics side continues to be, as I want it to be, a beacon that brings invaluable insights that companies need to know. Creating a team, working with brilliant people, and shaping its culture taught me many new things. It’s about creating what you want it to do, rather than accepting a given sandbox. Company policy, bureaucracy, adoption of change are not as I expected it would be. Just having insights is not enough to cause organizational change; it takes more than collecting changes.
I am working on the third phase of my career. I hope it will shape up to be an advocate for advanced analytics – and that is to help organizations gain the right perspective and pass on knowledge and experience to people entering the field.
What is your biggest challenge?
I have several challenges:
- Maintaining a team of advanced analysts.
- Get more data out of our reach.
- Equip teams with the right tools.
- Control over what to solve and what not to solve; an eye on the distant horizon and an eye on now, both with the industry and the field of analysis.
- Driving for business change.
I guess the last one is the most challenging for me as I can orchestrate the other factors. For other organizations, this may well be the first. Top-notch talent is very hard to find if you want the best.
What is your biggest achievement so far?
My greatest joy is introducing advanced analytics to many bright people and adding analytical passion to them. It’s wonderful when you see that “they get it.” The bulb comes on, their torch lights up and it will continue to spread.
In terms of technical results, I have a long list, but the one that stands out is identifying a billion-dollar impact, a research project that strikes gold. I did it at three months of leisure. Just an idea, a lot of data and SAS – that was all it took. It’s not every day that you can find a price like that.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
What leisure time ?! I’m listening to music. I practice Taichi and meditation in my down cycles. I dabble in Zen and Buddhism. I read up on a variety of topics: physics, astronomy, cosmology, statistics, operational studies, computer technology, SAS blogs (Rick Wicklin!). Then I just keep them in mind and let them incubate. It’s probably weird, but I also like playing video games. As I play while enjoying the game for what it is, I also dissect how the game was put together, the creativity and teamwork required to bring together a great interactive story using video games as the medium of expression.
These interconnections help me break out of my own preconceived notions to see things more clearly for what it really is, rather than what I imagine it to be. This process is recursive, my new consciousness is still not what it really is, so the cycle continues. My best ideas and solutions to many problems “just pop out” when I’m in a quiet zone and don’t actively think about it. I try to get into this room as often as I can because it is quiet, rejuvenating and creative.
What is your favorite new technology or app?
The technology I admire and follow most is the rapid development of affordable massive computer hardware and the advances made in massive parallel processing. These two factors – hardware and software – allow us to do things that have never been possible before in human history. They are passionate about the practice of advanced analytics on a scale never seen before.
While I admire our ability to calculate, I will never turn on Skynet. The huge increase in computing power allows us to model the world like never before, but knowledge discovery is a human endeavor that cannot be replaced by machines. That’s my belief anyway.
Discovery is a journey that requires art, science, vision, judgment, inspiration and (mostly) sweat. When it all clicks together, you get to see what’s in a whole new light. It is creation. It’s pure magic. This is why I do what I do.