A Programmophobic Engineer’s Resilient Journey Towards Data Science
Last Updated on January 6, 2023 by Editorial Team
Author(s): Amir Memon
Originally published on Towards AI the World’s Leading AI and Technology News and Media Company. If you are building an AI-related product or service, we invite you to consider becoming an AI sponsor. At Towards AI, we help scale AI and technology startups. Let us help you unleash your technology to the masses.
October 2017. Flashback to my college freshmen year. I received an email from the Science & Technical Committee of my university. The mail read- We are elated to share that you’ve been allotted to work on the project ‘Data Analysis of Oil Spill accidents.’
Don’t expect me to jump in excitement or celebrate this rare opportunity. Back then, I was too naïve to understand the power of Data, AI & Machine Learning! Weeks passed. Our then mentor and one of my favorite seniors (Girish Joshi) walked us through an inspiring introduction to the project. I vividly remember him mentioning that this was crucially important and one of the best projects out of all the others. I was happy and excited to be a part of it.
A few days passed. I overheard a friend from another project group proudly stating that the project allotted to him was the best, as confirmed by Girish sir. Looking back, I now understand that Girish sir had different intentions of pulling the freshies into the respective projects by making them feel good about it. But to me personally, it was the point where I started having second thoughts about putting effort into the project.
Soon we had our end-semester examinations. I saw myself struggling with Computer programming. In fact, it was the course that ruined my first semester grades. I was good at applying logic but sucked resolving syntax errors. Having messed up the lab exam, I got convinced that I’m someone not meant to code!
Over the next few months, I was dragging myself through tableau tutorials and python exercises. I no longer felt excited or enthusiastic to finish the project. Rather did it as an obligation to fulfill my commitment.
I suffered from programmophobia. I knew that technology and programming were outside of the bubble of my comfort zone. Made up my mind that a petroleum engineer certainly does not have to know how to code.
Fast-forward to March 2020, The world is at a standstill. Schools & colleges are shut down. Challenging times have added to the uncertainty and fear of the students stepping into their final year. I utilized this time to ruminate about my future. Often asking farsighted questions-
Where do I see myself ten years from now?
When was the last time I worked on something that consumed me entirely, yet I didn’t feel exhausted?
Will the career that I’m pursuing be relevant and add value to society ten years from now?
Honestly, These questions are hard! Especially if you don’t know the answers to them. I consulted students, working professionals, researchers from all walks of life, seeking answers to those questions.
At times, I hated thinking about these subjective questions. It compounds your confusion when you have a multitude of career options.
A few months passed by, I still didn’t have a clear picture of my future self. I never will. Neither does anyone else.
“Life is full of change and uncertainty. What we like today may not be our preference tomorrow.”
It was time that I appreciated the uncertainty of life. But I did apprehend my dislikes and what I don’t want to pursue. I couldn’t see myself tirelessly working on the oilfield in extreme weather conditions. My forte was research so far. When I thought about work…
“…I wanted to experience the moments which occur when my mind and body are stretched to their limits in a voluntary effort to achieve something difficult and worthwhile!”
I desired to do deep knowledge work solving real-world problems. I was unsure how? Maybe I was too young to think about all this?
After confusing my mind to the maximum limit, I decided to call Girish sir again. After all, he was the one who empathized with me the most during the Data Analysis project. He was the one who consoled me that it was okay if you don’t love technology. He was the one who inspired me and most of my batchmates to explore different skills.
3rd June 2020, An hour-long call concluded with the advice to not lose the golden opportunity at hand- Campus Placement.
The institute I graduated from has a fascinating history of attractive placements in the leading National Oil Corporation- ONGC. The sad news is only 20% of the students receive the golden cups. Sometimes even less. I made up my mind that I should go with the flow. Do what most of my friends were doing. Prepare for the campus interview. Even though a part of me didn’t want to go in that direction, I was tired. Tired of the ifs and buts. Tired of the uncertainty revolving around every field. Thanks to Covid! Or China?
Between the highs and lows of my preparation, I would often get haunted by questions like What if I don’t make it through the campus placement? What if I end up with nothing in hand at the end of my graduation? It was time to think for a Plan B.
I’d researched different universities from the US and their Master’s program application deadlines. Realized that I did not have much time in hand as the application process to get into the best institutes is quite daunting. That left me with 2–3 universities that had application deadlines around February 2021. I’d planned to apply to these universities after failing the campus interview for ONGC.
18th November 2020, I’d just finished studying Nodal Analysis from Production Operations. It was lunchtime. I was already feeling fatigued. Maybe feverish. Post lunch, I immediately took a nap. Three hours later, I woke up to extreme body temperature, mild cough & cold, which only got more critical the following day. Temporary relief with home medication was not of much help. Friday, 20th November Me and my dad showed up at our family doctor’s place. She suggested a few tests and prescribed some routine medicines. By now, my condition has gotten only worse. Aggressive coughing left me no space to breathe. Breathlessness frightened my family. I vividly remember my Mom praying, comforting, and feeding me kadha all at the same time.
Thanks to my medical history, which had several instances from my childhood about my chest getting cough blocked, making it difficult to respire. I frequently relied on a nebulizer to clear my respiratory tract. My Mom emphasized using the nebulizer that day which turned out to be life-saving for me. It restored my breathing rate to normal for a few hours. We were still worried if that was the virus as such an instance had repeated after many years. More aggressive this time!
In the meantime, the local family doctor suggested going to a different city with better hospitals and facilities. I’d already started feeling better every passing day. Still, I had my covid test done on a Sunday afternoon.
On the other hand, Our college placement cell worried us, with the news that ONGC will be conducting online Interviews anytime soon. I prayed it came only after I completely recovered.
Tuesday, 24th November My Covid test results surprised all of us! I was calm and wondering if there was an error with the test results. My SpO2 levels were above 97 for the last three days. I was feeling better every passing day, yet hadn’t recovered completely!
I was immediately home quarantined. Note that the home was different. To avail better medical facilities we’d already moved to my uncle’s house. A chest X-ray followed by the doctor’s examination had put all of us in a tense situation. The doctor scolded me for taking it lightly. We were all under a false impression: that the virus affected me for only three days, that I had started healing. But in the backend, the virus had different intentions.
The left side of my chest was almost covered with phlegm. A little more delay and the phlegm would have started entering the lungs. I consider myself fortunate that I received the right diagnosis at the right time. Grateful that I got saved from the stressful situation of finding a hospital bed and a ventilator.
I was consuming 15–20 pills twice a day. Some more in the midday! The unconsciousness from the drugs hardly left any time to think about the upcoming interviews. Then came the catastrophe! Interviews to be held on 28th November 2020. The tiny part of the day that I was awake was occupied by filling forms, accumulating certificates and editing resumes. I almost appeared for the interview unprepared.
But would it have made any difference if I could have dedicated every second of those 10 days heavily preparing for the interview? The answer is a big ‘NO!’ My interview hardly lasted 4 mins with questions that were remotely related to the position I was getting interviewed for! Mind you I’m not complaining. Nor do I intend to defame anyone. All I wish to express is I’m a huge believer in destiny. And ONGC was never meant to be! It was the culmination point of my journey. I never looked back. Nor did I have any energy to overthink, regret and fret upon what happened as the diagnosis kept me occupied for the next week.
Rise of the new Amir
Foolishly optimistic! That’s the word I would call myself for the next 9 months or so. I still am a pragmatic person, but there’s a slight difference between the two.
Quotes like these would occupy my mind all day. I saw failure as an opportunity to explore limitless possibilities. I’d imagined myself being a Researcher, Product Manager, Consultant at MBB (McKinsey, BCG, Bain) and whatnot? I literally took serious consideration at each of those career paths. What would it look like to be one?
But somewhere through the dark clouds of confusion, I could see light! One evening while returning from a routine covid checkup, I stumbled upon this 10 min article by Scott Young. Reading through the article gave me a new lens through to look at my fear of coding. Scott argues that learning to code is easier than we think. I was amazed and filled with hope!
Some things are pure magic! They happen to you at the right time, at the right place. Yet, It’s hard to make sense of this chain of events until we see the domino effect produced by them.
For instance, I watched this 5 min video by Google in late September last year.
I felt deeply inspired in those 5 mins for two particular reasons.
- It highlights Machine Learning as a gift to humanity
- Understanding that Machine Learning is a powerful tool that can solve problems from any field.
Isn’t that pure bliss? I’ve got a knack for solving problems. Working on various complications from different industries has always intrigued me. Suddenly, It all started making sense. It fuelled my curiosity on one end and gave me a sense of purpose on the other.
Watching the video gave me a notion that a future-proof, value-adding, and rewarding profession is certainly a career in tech.
As I started healing from Covid-19, I began giving a serious thought on transitioning into Data Science. Suddenly my LinkedIn feed would revolve around all things Data!! I would read posts like your domain expertise is your strength and not weakness. In the weeks that followed, I would schedule 1–1 calls with geologists and chemical engineers who had successfully transitioned into Data Science. I was learning about people in their fifties, never exposed to programming yet successfully making the transition! The pandemic definitely gave people an opportunity to re-establish themselves.
“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” -Paulo Coelho
I was attracting positive news from all around. Indicating what I was trying to seek is possible!
January 2021, I signed up for a Python course with Datacamp. It was the time where most of my friends were acing up their preparation for the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE). Here I was finishing my Intermediate python course for Data Science. Everything was going smoothly. I planned to initiate a project and even emailed the idea to my professor.
On January, 31st I moved to the college campus, closer to my GATE examination center. Unprepared, I was only giving the exam keeping the worst scenario in mind. It went just fine enough that It would’ve served me with an alternate option in my most unfortunate times.
It was also the point where I started reconsidering my plans on applying for Masters’s abroad. Having closely experienced the virus and the turbulent times it created worldwide, I (along with my family) was just too scared to move thousands of miles apart!
Besides, I figured out I wasn’t born to be a researcher! I enjoyed the thrill of working on diverse projects from different disciplines. I’m someone who relishes breadth more than depth. So investing 3–5 additional years (after Masters) working in the same domain (on the same set of problems) was clearly opted out.
Side Note: Please understand that It was my personal preference to abandon pursuing a Masters’s/Ph.D. abroad. I deeply respect all researchers and the wonderful work they do! 🙂
I had returned to the campus after almost a year. Knowing that It was hardly a few months before we end our college life, I got carried away along with my friends. I forgot about the Data Science journey I recently started. I forgot that I was still unplaced. The only productive part of my day would be concentrating on the online classes. I found myself enjoying the complicated mathematics involved in the Modelling, Simulation & Optimisation course. Yet another indicator to shift towards data science!
Between friends and classes, I’d extract chunks of time for my project. The project meant to improve my programming skills occupied most of my time assembling data! I was off track. I wasn’t enrolled in any course. Couldn’t make much progress with the project due to the missing data.
In the hindsight, I realize It was never my fault. You cannot stay laser-focused when you’re surrounded by a group of pessimists. Go to the hostel of senior year students at any average engineering college of India, you’ll notice a strange environment. An atmosphere filled with hate and regret for the career choices they made, accompanied by hope for a brighter future!
11th April 2021, I’m boarding the train to return home. Rising deaths and unavailable beds in the hospital have taken a toll in the country. Our final exams were shortly held online. Soon after finishing my exams, I stumbled upon a compelling career transition story by Avery Smith. My major takeaway from his article: Get paid to learn Data science! I somehow believed it!
June 2021, I was back in the game. You’d find me attending Machine learning workshops from IIT Delhi in the evenings while listening to Andrew Ng in the mornings. I was putting sincere efforts yet was unsure how long it would take.
I covered basic Machine Learning, Data preprocessing, short regression projects on Python, Statistics, and an overview of other ML concepts through the workshop. Even went through the cheat sheets and ML interview guides experts share on LinkedIn. They came off very handy and helpful.
12th July 2021, It was time that I appear for my first off-campus interview for the Graduate Data Scientist position with Atkins.
There are two kinds of organizations in the corporate world. One that hires you based on your skills. The other one hires you based on your capabilities. I’m fortunate to be a part of the latter.
The 75 min interview went slightly above average based on my experience. What amazes me are the interviewers who gave me an empathetic ear to learn about my strengths along with weaknesses. There were questions I wasn’t able to answer. But somehow, I was comfortable with those questions. There was a burning desire inside me trying to prove my mettle after a prolonged struggle of fetching interviews. Somehow this attribute was reflected as confidence with every answer I gave. This spirit of mine was showcasing:
- enthusiasm in learning the concepts I didn’t know and
- the conviction that almost everything is figureoutable.
On 28th July 2021, the Good news arrived! It’s finally the time that I remove the question mark from the title. Yes, my dear friends, Life is a full circle!! From fearing programming to deploying complex Deep Learning algorithms, the journey has been an extraordinary ride! I’m beyond grateful and proud 😀
“It’s okay to have plans. It’s okay to put yourself out there in a direction. But it’s not okay to be too rigid about the beliefs we hold for ourselves! It’s not okay to fear changing paths if things don’t go the way you planned. Trust your gut instinct and follow along. “ ~Amir Memon
“Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure. You’ve got to find the treasure so that everything you have learned along the way can make sense.” ~The Alchemist
Final tips before you walk away
A lot of students contact me asking, “How did I manage to make the transition despite coming from a non-CS/non-tech background?” What they’re trying to seek is a universal formula that works. Little do we understand It’s different for all of us. Your journey is unique to you based on your sets of experiences and encounters. Yet, there are some essential components common to all. Here are my two cents if you’re coming from a core engineering background looking to transition into Data Science:
- Despite mastering all the algorithms, codes, and fancy items, Develop the aptitude to comprehend engineering problems across multiple domains. I believe that’s what completes an engineer in the true sense.
- Have a broader vision of the industry you’ll be working in. Look at Data science as a tool to add value to businesses. Having a thorough understanding of the different use cases & applications reflects your passion to leverage Data Science.
- Nurture transferable skills. Working on analytical projects, industry-relevant software will help you create a parallel, demonstrating your experience using technology for utility.
- A basket of soft skills (communication, leadership, agility) is always good to have. Besides, with more and more companies encouraging Work-Life Balance, having side hobbies & interests certainly improves your chances of being a great fit!
Hope my story inspired you in some way or the other! I’m all ears to hear yours 🙂
If you read it till here, I’ve massive respect for you! Thank you so much 🙂
If you like what I write, please consider subscribing to my newsletter. I’ll knock on your virtual door (email) every month with such goodness! ?
No spam, I promise!✨
Bye & Cheers!! ?
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