Our datathon team at work

My Datathon Meetup Experience

One cannot learn from MOOC alone

Just between you and me, I’m revelling in my new student life. After so many years working across multiple teams in large organisations, and most days finding myself rushing from meeting to meeting, switching gears between the different focus areas, it’s a welcome reprieve to spend long stretches of time studying one subject area and to have the luxury of time to learn and build new skills.

While I’m a decided convert to the benefits of online study, I’m still conscious of the limitations of a MOOC (massively open online course) education. The content, pacing and delivery of education by a MOOC is high-quality but the online student community is not building that all important network of peers and potential employers. My motivation for study is to find a rewarding and satisfying job in the near future, and so, I’m putting part of my career transition effort into building and strengthening my professional network through meetup groups. 

Meetup for Networking

Meetup CEO, Scott Heiferman, founded the site after America’s 9/11, to foster and build communities in real life. I’ve found this offline connection tMeetup logoo people provides an ideal complement to the online study experience. The variety of Meetups is exciting and a little daunting at first. In Melbourne CBD alone, there are over 2000 active Meetup groups centred around subjects as diverse as data science, night photography, self-defence and an extensive array of other interest groups. Luckily, I’ve found a couple of active Meetup groups who are connecting me with other Melbournians with common interests.

One of these is the Data Science Melbourne group. They are a well-organised crew with strong business links and a welcoming environment for experienced and novice data scientists. Last week, they held a datathon for members of the group to work on real-life data in a time-boxed exercise. The datathon was a chance to follow a data analysis exercise from exploration and analysis steps through to a final pitch. There was a lot of interest, possibly helped by the incentive for the top five teams to win not just the glory, but also cash prizes donated by the group’s generous sponsors.

The Datathon

What better way to flex my fledgling analytical skills than participating in a datathon organised by Melbourne Data Science Group. The Saturday of the datathon brought together 140 novice and experienced data scientists to work on betting data. All the teams were supported on the day with mentors in statistics, data science and other domain experts. The output of the day’s effort was a pitch submitted to the judging panel, with the top five pitches presenting at the final datathon event the following Thursday.

Datathon team at work

Team Extreme

It was a fantastic learning experience. The datathon provided me with an opportunity to put in some valuable hours of practice as well as to learn from the expert mentors and more experienced team members. Our team had a common goal to learn as much as we could, and managed to have a lot of fun on the day itself, as well as on the days following as we pulled together our pitch. I walked away with a better understanding of how transactional data can be used to understand customer behaviour and as a step further, to build a predictive model using machine learning to drive better business outcomes. The experience has given me renewed impetus to tackle the next lot of subjects, as well as to explore, in more depth, the principles of data visualisation and customer segmentation. More importantly, I met, worked with and learnt from some clever and talented data scientists and analysts.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started

MOOCs vs Traditional University Post-Graduate Study: What’s my return on investment?

The landscape for formal education has changed

In the early years of my education, around the time dinosaurs were roaming the campus and Modula-2 was at the leading edge of programming languages, I had a fantastic experience learning through a structured degree program delivered onsite by my local university of technology. I’m still good mates with other students in the same degree program, and I was fortunate enough to get a good start to my working career even though Australia was undergoing the recession we had to have. A traditionally delivered university degree built those strong relationships to my peers, helped me gain a paid internship at IBM, and gave me an excellent grounding in the knowledge and skills that employers at that time needed.

Triceratops with Steven Spielberg - from Jurassic Park set

Myself (right) and a fellow student showing off our Triceratops toppling skills

Of course, nowadays there are so many more high-quality pathways to gaining new skills that it can be hard to choose.

For example, here in Melbourne, I’ve been considering the options available to me for post-graduate study in data analytics. I’ve been weighing up what content is offered, how it’s delivered and what it costs. Once the field has been narrowed down, I have a few key options:

  • Masters of Information Systems at the prestigious University of Melbourne will cost around AUD$51,000
  • Masters of Computer Science at the venerable RMIT will cost around AUD$46,000
  • Data Science Specialization at John Hopkins through Coursera will cost around AUD$600

Show me the money

Coming from a purely economic perspective, further study will need to provide a return on the investment. If I invest $50k and two years of part-time study (guesstimating 1000 hours ) into a masters degree, then it will need to return that amount in additional income over the remainder of my working life. The MOOC (massively open online course) offered by John Hopkins won’t provide the same value for the much, much smaller cost of $600 and time (guesstimating 400 hours), however, the returned additional income from this investment would obviously need to be quite a small increase.

As a conservative investor, I can’t be certain of the financial return on the investment in a masters degree. As a mid-career student I’m looking for a higher return per-year than someone else just starting out on their working life, and this brings a greater risk that it won’t be achieved. On a purely financial basis, the MOOC is the obvious choice.

But then, there’s more than financial considerations in choosing my next step to gain the skills to support a career change.

Why choose traditional university post-graduate study?

My experience with commencing post-graduate study in my home-town was overwhelmingly positive. I absolutely loved it, but unfortunately, moving to Melbourne has meant I couldn’t finish my studies. Having experienced the considerable advantages of traditionally delivered post-graduate coursework, the pros are:

  • Meeting face-to-face with lecturers provides a connection that motivates and rewards study and academic achievement
  • Guest speakers shared their valuable local expertise around Australian laws (for example) and brought with them their professional connections to the corporations who may be a future employer
  • Pre-qualified students who’ve met the entry criteria ensures that the student cohort are all committed, capable and able to operate at an appropriate academic standard
  • Australian universities are recognised institutions with a level of prestige and name recognition by locally based employers and potential clients
  • Structured course content ensures graduates are grounded in the subjects needed, and these needs are determined in consultation with key employers

Ultimately, traditional universities help build relationships with fellow professionals, with employers and with the faculty. The structured course content provides an assured depth of coverage of a knowledge area, while helping provide the motivation to complete the required study work. The biggest drawback is the large money and time investment needed to complete a course.

Why choose a MOOC?

Having now started on my data specialisation course through Coursera, I’ve become a fierce advocate for online study through a MOOC. The advantages are:

  • High quality of teaching material, John Hopkins has an admirable reputation in the field of biostatistics
  • Build your own adventure approach means it’s possible to select additional courses to supplement any gaps in capability (eg. my woeful statistical knowledge), or to continue study in areas of interest
  • Considerable flexibility to study from home, or on the road, whereever it best suits
  • Flexibility in the schedule with each 4 week subject restarting every month making it feasible to plan around life events (holidays, illness, etc)
  • Low cost removes a barrier to committing to study, in fact, it’s free if certifications aren’t a consideration

The overwhelming advantages of online study through a MOOC, are the low cost and the flexibility. As long as a student has the drive and motivation to complete the course work, there’s excellent content that’s well structured and paced. The biggest drawback is the very limited opportunity to build those relationships that are so important in getting a job and securing an income.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started

Where I’ve landed on these choices

The benefit that tips the scales for my individual circumstances, has been the smaller scope (and lesser cost). Studying the data science specialisation on offer through Coursera, means I can test whether I can sustain the interest and, more importantly, whether I can build the capability to work in the field of data analytics.

In fact I hope that the traditional and MOOC options aren’t mutually exclusive. Once I’ve dipped my toe into studying data analytics, I hope to be ready to dive into deeper study and further specialisation. Right now, I’m just getting started.

Old car with lots of character

Can I change career now I’m over 40?

It’s tough to change career when mortgages, family commitments and concern for future earnings all weigh so heavily on my mind. The stakes are high. Am I willing to risk my future career and divert from the well trodden path of an IT professional in a middle-management role?

What if I don’t change career?

Looking ahead I can see certainty of income, in the short-term, which is an important step towards the comfortable retirement I envisage for myself. At this stage in my career, my skills and experience have kept me in full-employment, maintained a roof over my head, funded a well-travelled life and furnished me with challenging opportunities to build new skills. My hopes for retirement are for a future where I’m housed, well-fed and with a good quality of life.

The IT sector is undergoing and driving significant disruption to not just how we work, but the nature of the jobs that will be need to be done. This brings the uncertainty that in the longer-term, I won’t continue to have the opportunity to build skills that will maintain this level of income.  Will I have the skills to work as digital index operator to work at Spacely Sprockets like George Jetson in 2062?

What if I do change career?

As an experienced geek and leader, my sense of self is entwined with my job. Will a change in career mean I’m not myself any longer? And when the 2am worries hit, I’m concerned that I’ll find it increasingly difficult to get a new job. A career change at my age puts me at risk of experiencing a tougher employment market being a ‘last resort‘ option for some employers. Then, there is an ongoing challenge to thrive in the tech industry as a member of a minority by virtue of my gender. Too old, in need of some mansplaining and lacking modern skills. Those 2am worries are mean bitches!

Come on, make a decision already

Weighing up the risks of a career change suggests the choice is between the certainty of continuing along the same path of minor career changes, and the uncertainty of what will make up the future employment market for someone like me in 2020 and beyond. Weighing the risks of a career change, braving the butterflies in my belly and considering the possible paths ahead; I’ve decided to take the leap.

Drum roll please … The Plan
Let’s do this. Over the next six months I’ll work on transitioning into what I hope to be a new career path. This is my initial plan of attack:

  • Skills uplift through MOOCs on Coursera and Code camp
  • Research the job market through reading and networking
  • Undertake short-term project based work while transitioning

I will work through this plan with monthly iterations: reviewing what I’ve learnt, assessing whether I’m getting closer to my target and adjusting my plan based on these reflections.

I’m nervous, I’m excited … but you know what, I’m ready.

Motorbike ready to be carried away by balloons

Adopting enterprise 2.0: An iterative approach

It can be quite daunting when planning a change management program such as driving the adoption of enterprise 2.0. One way to tackle planning for enterprise 2.0 is to take an iterative approach: this is through a repeating cycle of planning, doing, checking and then acting on the results. There is an abundance of valuable resources describing how to apply an iterative approach to project work as well as arguments for an agile approach.

Let’s take a look at an example plan:

Every iteration delivers something of value:

The project sponsors may decide to stop the project when they have realised enough value from the initiative. This means any iteration could be the end of the project. The iterations, releases and whole project is planned so that every initiative is delivering something valuable, such as a training module, an updated policy or a structure for internal blogging. Later iterations will be changed to course correct as people start using the output of the early deliverables.

Showcases let stakeholders see progress and provide feedback:

Each iteration finishes with a public showcase that is available to anyone to attend. The showcase let’s stakeholders, including sponsors and people impacted, see how the initiative is progress and what has been delivered during the iteration. It’s a chance to provide feedback and ask questions about the work underway.

Retrospectives let the team learn as they go:

At the end of each iteration the team will hold a retrospective to learn from what has gone well as well as what hasn’t gone well. The lessons learnt will be applied in the next and future iterations.

Communicating a compelling vision:

Taking an iterative approach doesn’t change any of the fundamentals of driving the cultural change required for enterprise 2.0 adoption. The deliverables will include effective communication and a compelling vision, they may include training, feedback and recognition.

Obviously the deliverables will be determined by the organisational needs and the goals of the project, this iterative approach provides an approach to delivering these in a way that builds support and incorporates early feedback.

As my team works through our understanding of the current situation and moves onto developing our proposal we hope to use this iterative structure for the implementation plan. There are many critics of agile approaches and arguments against, however, in my expereince it’s a valuable way to tackle organisational change projects, it’s particulary strong in building support from sponsors who can see things happening at early stages as well as from people affected as they are able to influence the changes that will affect them.

It’s early days and we haven’t yet determined the deliverables so I’ve mocked up a few to make the plan more meaningful. So, with this in mind if we’re just thinking about the structure, what do you think? What have I missed?

Some more reading (there’s a lot of software development examples because of the heritage behind iterative approaches):

The Agile Manifesto – the principles behind agile approaches to projects.

Continuous Delivery – looking at how Apple create products through releasing a minimum viable product to get early feedback

Articles on retrospectives – Singing the songs of retrospectives is a particularly good piece from Linda Rising, the doyenne of retrospectives🙂

Time to get agile – Explaining agile for business leaders using examples at Telstra and Suncorp

Why yes, it's essential I pause the lecture to take a photo of me concentrating on study!

What’s it like to study a massively open online course?

My first day at high-school was awkward: I got lost travelling between classrooms, felt terrified of the teachers and I felt self-conscious, with that unique intensity of teenage awkwardness, in my sister’s oversized uniform that ‘left to room to grow’. The outfit I wore starting my online courses is immensely more comfortable and confoundingly even less stylish, but the sense of disorientation was familiar.

Studying online is just the same as studying at school or university

The first few days and weeks are about getting oriented. There’s a new geography of lectures delivered by video, quizzes that need to be completed each week and project work that needs to be planned for and completed. It’s worth taking the time to understand how each course is structured, the supporting material outside the lectures, and how the different pieces of assessment fit into the subject schedule. Of course, rather than going to the wrong building for a class, it has been just as frustrating to find I hadn’t noticed the links to the quizzes when I’m focussed on viewing all the lectures.

The content can be challenging to learn. If you’re taking studying something new, there are new concepts to grasp and complex material to absorb. But really, why would you study something you already know, right? This seems obvious as I write it, and yet, it’s easy to underestimate the size of the challenge. If I’m honest with myself, I expected it to be a comfortable walk in the park. This week, as I grapple with T-Distribution for small sample sizes, there are times when it feels like my brain wasn’t wired to make sense of the theorem. It’s helped to expect to be challenged.

Help is there for the asking.  The massive scale of these online courses, means there’s invaluable support and assistance available from the community teachers assistants, from more experienced peers and from clever people making bunnies and dragon videos to explain complex mathematical subjects. Asking for help in the subject discussion forum, has helped me over some tough hurdles in my understanding of the subjects I’m studying.

Studying online is so very different from studying at school or university

Peer reviews.  The massive scale of MOOCs means there are thousands of students from diverse backgrounds all working through the content alongside me. The scale of these subjects works because four peers are marking my assignments, and I’m marking another four peers, and these scores determine my grade. Peer reviews change how you write assignments so that it’s clear to the assessors how you’ve met the grading rubric. Now I’ve get my head around the logistics of grading, t’s changed how I write code and my assignments.

Special consideration isn’t an option. Let’s face it, shit happens. Computers fail (usually just before you save a project), health can take a dive, and life can get in the way of perfectly formed plans. While these online course offer amazing flexibility with repeating start dates that let me schedule around contracts and holidays, nevertheless, there is no special consideration: there is no way to ask for an extension on hard deadlines. This has been heartbreaking when I’m set on finishing by a certain date, but usually it’s just a minor delay before the subject is run again. No money lost and no drop to a university GPA, means disruption to my online study doesn’t carry the same penalties as study at university.

I’m motivated by a sense of achievement

I found it a valuable step to think about my motivation and intent. This is now my opportunity for gratuitous showing off … I’m inordinately proud of my progress so far, with distinctions giving me a warm fuzzy sense of achievement:

Coursera certificates of achievement

Have you tried an online subject? What was your experience?