I still get goosebumps when I think of that hot Sunday afternoon in June 2014. I was browsing the internet looking for some interesting articles on Data Management, when a website called “Coursera” caught my attention. They were providing free online courses on various interesting topics. I had never heard of them before and was not sure what to expect from these free courses. I decided to explore the course material. Little did I know that one click would mark a major turning point of my life.
This story is about how I stepped out of my comfort zone and pushed myself from a successful Delivery Head into data science & machine learning.
After graduating from Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (Bachelors in Technology in 1994, Masters in Technology in 1995), I started my IT career developing ERP software. After working for 3 years, I went on to pursue an MBA degree from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. My tryst with Data Warehousing & Business Intelligence began after graduating from business school at the turn of the millennium, first with a consulting company and then with large IT service firms leading me to the position of Assistant Vice President handling a portfolio of 40+ million dollars. The path that was laid before me was fairly clear – handle more accounts, larger teams, higher revenue targets. This could easily accelerate my journey to the “top echelons” of the IT services business. But deep down, I knew that I was not happy. I was rapidly moving away from being a technologist, a subject matter expert into an excel junkie only worried about revenue, cost, attrition, recruitments & so on. Not that these problems are trivial or uninteresting, it was just that I did not want to spend the rest of my career solving these problems.
So, once I got into Coursera, I felt like a kid in a candy store. There were wonderful courses being taught by great professors from superb universities and to top it all – they were all free! Soon I registered for the introductory “Machine Learning” course taught by Andrew Ng and was soon doing 3 to 4 courses in parallel. I had some background in Statistics, but I soon realized that Machine Learning was really fascinating. By mid-2015, I had completed 12 courses in Machine Learning & Data Science across Coursera & edX. Andrew Ng’s course was followed by 9 courses in Data Science Specialization from Johns Hopkins, Bill Howe’s Data Science course, Analytics Edge on edX and I was becoming increasingly confident in connecting the dots among various data science and machine learning topics.
By June 2015, with the help of MOOCs and by sacrificing my weekends, I was able to relate to data science and machine learning concepts. But the bigger challenge that I was facing was that I was still not very comfortable writing end to end programs. In order to overcome this challenge, I started looking for resources that could help. I then discovered sites like Analytics Vidhya & Machine Learning Mastery which were focused on helping programmers write Machine Learning code. Towards the end of 2015, I was able to write programs in R and started participating in competitions on Analytics Vidhya, Kaggle, Driven Data etc. Though I was not able to make it to the top percentiles in these competitions, I was very happy working through the datasets and making my submissions. An additional advantage of participating in these Hackathons was interacting with top data scientists in these forums. I thoroughly enjoyed it and to improve further I started going through the approach & codes of experts. I was gradually crossing the chasm from conceptual knowledge to working code.
Early in 2016, by day I was still handling teams working on Data Management & Business Intelligence projects for Banking & Financial Services customers and by night and over weekends I was working on Machine Learning. By now it was becoming increasingly unviable to lead two different lives and mid-2016 saw me joining a start-up focused on Analytics, Data Science & Machine Learning. I finally felt that I found my calling in life. Working on use cases for large Fortune 500 organizations, I began to see the power of analytics in action. I only wish I was 10-15 years younger but as they say “better late than never”.
We are at a brink of a huge wave of business solutions powered by data & data science related techniques. India with its young and dynamic workforce can become an analytics superpower by nurturing high-profile, talented data scientists. Providing training & mentoring these young minds will always be something that I strive towards. I am also a big enthusiast of the Open Source movement. The fact that so many talented people spend their priceless hours to create fantastic software to be made available for free has also always inspired me to give back something to the ety.
I have come to spend a considerable portion of my career working on all aspects of Data Management & Business Intelligence. Those concepts along with my recently acquired data science knowledge puts me in a unique position to appreciate all aspects of data-driven decision making geared towards delivering business value. I have encapsulated this knowledge in a mindmap, which I claim to be the world’s largest analytics mindmap (1800+ nodes). My goal is to make this mindmap a pivot for all Data Science practitioners to understand the broad canvas of analytics and appreciate the beauty of this field in a holistic manner.
The future is going to be driven largely by technology and data science could be our answer to a better, healthy world for coming generations. These are the most exciting times for people entering the analytics & data science industry. There are lots of opportunities to find one’s place in the industry. That being said, the basics are not to be forgotten –Develop business understanding, be curious about technology, learn programming and most importantly, never give up!
Meet Karthikeyan Sankaran: Data Scientist, Open Source Enthusiast, Technologist, and Dreamer.