Category Archives: personal

On wanting to be a daffodil

I love January, full with possibility and empty of regrets. Last year’s disappointments and failures–wiped clean. All January holds is promise for the coming year.

Spring, on the other hand, demands achievement, not just effort and inspiration. Daffodils and tulips should grow tall and green before bending down with heavy flowers. Crabapple trees must cover themselves with leaves then buds then an outrageously excessive display of flowers. Grass will shake off its winter chill to transform back into a thick blue-green carpet that provides the perfect backdrop for the wonders of the spring garden.

But that’s just the garden. It’s the same story everywhere. Work projects and commitments started in the bracing cold of January must blossom in the sunlight and lengthened days of April. Even then, summer threatens with child care arranging, summer camp provisioning, and family travel planning challenges. It’s not enough to just dream of possibility any more. Possibilities must be turned into executed reality. Or not, in some cases.

The difference between me and a bulb is that a bulb
has all that stored up energy plus a natural urge to do exactly what it is supposed to do. The Cheerfulness daffodils that grow among my magenta moss phlox will automatically produce double white flowers with pale yellow centers. The Claudia tulips that encircle my crabapple trees know to grow lily-flowered purple with white tipping.

I am neither so energetic nor so properly directed as a bulb. That is why every year I find spring a challenge even as I welcome the warmth and beauty it brings.

I am more like a crabapple tree than a tulip or daffodil, I suppose. I’m sure my husband and children would seize upon the “crab” in that admission. But there is more. I will bloom in the spring only if everything has gone right for me before that. Even then, I might refuse to do it if it’s not my year. I might throw out one solo branch of flowers, like one of my trees did one spring, taunting those around me with possibility if not aesthetic pleasure. I might get my buds ready to open right before a late Denver snowstorm then drop them unbloomed onto the ground, mocking those who anxiously awaited a flower show. I will only rarely do what a flowering crabapple tree should do–which is to flower, reliably and appropriately, each spring.

It’s hard to be a crabapple tree when you should be a daffodil instead.

So you call yourself a data scientist?

Hilary Mason (in Glamour!)

I just watched this video of Hilary Mason* talking about data mining. Aside from the obvious thoughts of what I could have done with my life if (1) I had majored in computer science instead of philosophy/economics and (2) hadn’t spent all of the zeroes having babies, buying/selling houses, and living out an island retirement fantasy thirty years before my time, I found myself musing about her comments on the “data scientist” term. She said she’s gotten into arguments about it. I guess some people think it doesn’t really mean anything — it’s just hype — who needs it? Someone’s a computer scientist or a statistician or a business intelligence analyst, right? Why make up some new name?

I dunno, I rather like the term. My official title at work is “data scientist” — thank you to my management for that — and it seems more appropriate than statistician or business intelligence analyst or senior software developer or whatever else you might want to call me. The fact is, I do way more than statistical analysis. I know SQL all too well and (as my manager knows from my frequent complaints) spend 75% + of my time writing extract-transform-load code. I use traditional statistical methods like factor analysis and logistic regression (heavily) but if needed I use techniques from machine learning. I try to keep on top of the latest online learning research and I incorporate that into our analytics plans and models. Lately I’ve been spending time looking at what sort of big data architectures might support the scale of analytics we want to do. I don’t just need to know what statistical or ML methods to use — I need to figure out how to make them scalable and real-time and — this is critical — useful in the educational context. That doesn’t sound like pure statistics to me, so don’t just call me a statistician**.

I do way more than data analysis and I’m capable of way more, thanks to my meandering career path that’s taken me from risk assessment (heavy machinery accident analysis at Failure Analysis now Exponent) to database app development (ERP apps at Oracle) to education (AP calculus and remedial algebra teaching at the Denver School of Science and Technology) and now to Pearson (online learning analytics). I earned a couple of degrees in mathematical statistics and applied statistics/research design/psychometrics meanwhile. 

Drew Conway's Venn diagram of data science

None of what I did made sense at the time I was wandering the path — and yet it all adds up to something useful and rare in my current position. Data science requires an alchemistic mixture of domain knowledge, data analysis capability, and a hacker’s mindset (see Drew Conway’s Venn diagram of data science reproduced here). Any term that only incorporates one or two of these circles doesn’t really capture what we do. I’m an educational researcher, a statistician, a programmer, a business analyst. I’m all these things.

In the end, I don’t really care what you call me, so long as I get the chance to ask interesting questions, gather the data to answer them, and then give you an answer you can use — an answer that is grounded in quantitative rigor and human meaning.

*Yes, I do have a girl-crush on Hilary. I think she’s awesome.

** Also, my kids cannot seem to pronounce the word “statistician.” I need a job title they can tell people without stumbling over it. I hope to inspire them to pursue careers that are as rewarding and engaging, intellectually and socially, as my own has been.

Midlife career reboot

My husband Rick started work as a patent attorney this week. He was trained as an aeronautical and mechanical engineer, worked as a NASA engineer and later a Boeing executive, then went back to school in his early forties to launch a second career. This isn’t typical today, but according to Virginia Postrel, perhaps it should be. In a time of increasing life expectancy and good health in old age, we need to reframe the way we think about career evolution:

But changing that picture means exchanging today’s architectural metaphor, “building a career,” for another one: adaptive reuse. This is the human-capital equivalent of turning industrial lofts into apartments, factories into medical schools, power plants into art museums, or saw mills into shopping centers. Your original career may be economically obsolete, or you may just want a change, but your knowledge and experience still have their charms. Instead of equating success with a steady progression of better-paying jobs, each related to the previous one, this model emphasizes taking on new challenges and making new contributions, even if that means going back to school, taking a pay cut, or starting as a trainee when you’re middle-aged.

I’m engaged in some human capital adaptive reuse myself, as I upgrade my statistical education from master’s to Ph.D. level. I’m looking towards a second career that combines my experience in software development with new expertise in research design, psychometrics, and the latest in statistical modeling.

Carlo Strenger and Arie Ruttenberg, writing in the Harvard Business Journal in 2008, suggest that midlife career change is not just desirable but existentially necessary. It’s important for financial risk management too, they say:

Hanging on for dear life is usually the wrong strategy. In terms of long-term risk management, it might be much better to start a new career at a relatively young age. Many people need to start thinking about alternatives that suit their abilities and personalities when they still have two or three productive decades ahead of them. In this way, they can discover the possibilities that will allow them to work much longer and thus ensure their financial well-being.

It’s scary, for sure, to be doing this. It’s exhilarating too.

Dot plan for autumn

I have really great memories of my first job after finishing my master’s degree. I worked as a Unix/C++ programmer on an intelligence agency software development contract. The people I worked with were really smart and the work was engaging.

Many of us at that workplace kept “.plan” (say it “dot plan”) files in our home directories that said what we were working on. You could see what someone else was doing by “fingering” them (kind of a precursor to Facebook poke, but with a reaction–a listing of the person’s .plan). Keeping public plans was a good way for us to share what we were working on, without being annoying about it. People use Twitter for that now, and I do intend to get back to Twitter, someday soon. But for now, it feels comfortable to write and think alone in my hermit-cave here.

Back to school

I completed my two big summer projects: submitted two studies to the AERA 2011 conference then prepared for and passed the SAS base programming certification exam. Now I’m thinking about back-to-school activities and fall quarter. It feels like the right time to update my plan.

These are my fall projects:

Submit a manuscript to a journal. I haven’t decided which study to rework into a journal article. Both studies are based on the TIMSS 2007 data set and fortunately I’m attending training in D.C. at the end of this month to learn more about that and other international education databases, so I think I’ll be in good shape to do this.

Prepare for my doctoral comprehensive exam, scheduled for late October. I’ll be blogging about the topics I expect to see on the exam, so if you see some tutorial-like posts, that’s why.

Study for and pass the SAS advanced programming certification. I plan to do this after taking comps, but ideally before January, when I’ll start looking for a job. Some of the most interesting statistician positions I’ve seen require SAS. Plus my advisor and I have a plan to do a missing data simulation study in the winter and she suggested we use SAS. I might have selected R if it were up to me, but I plan to use R for my dissertation research, so I’ll have both adequately covered.

Find a good middle school for my middle child. It kills me that Denver no longer supports neighborhood schools; it’s all choice choice choice. This is great when you find a school that suits your child and your family circumstances. The problem is there’s no default choice in many neighborhoods now. I don’t know anyone who sends their kids to our neighborhood middle school or high school, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable sending my daughter to either of those schools since her peers will go elsewhere. We’ll be looking at private and magnet schools. We may also consider trying to “choice in” to a traditional public school that’s near us but has a better reputation than the one that we are assigned to.

Complete 14 units of coursework. I am taking Cost-Benefit Analysis, Economic Fundamentals: Global Applications, Item Response Theory, and a required seminar in which I learn to administer IQ tests. After this quarter, I’ll have just two classes left, Qualitative Research and Analysis of Variance, and I can focus on my dissertation research and job search.

Meanwhile, keep the family happy and healthy. I’d like to get in the habit of starting my kids off each day with healthy breakfasts: scrambled eggs, berry smoothies, pancakes and waffles made with good stuff. We eat dinner together almost every night and I’d like to continue that too, including continuing to try new recipes on a regular basis so I can feed my need for novelty.

Bring on spring

I’m ready for spring. I’ve almost finished winter quarter classes — just the writeup of my HLM project left to turn in. The snow is finally melting off my front lawn. The crabapple trees are putting out buds.

It hasn’t been a hard winter like 2006 but still it’s been grey and icy for far too long.

And these past ten weeks were seriously strange.

This Ph.D. pursuit is psychologically much bigger and harder than I imagined. It’s turned into some sort of monomythical journey, and in winter quarter I traveled the road of trials.

Something like this:

Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials…. The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiatory conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed – again, again, and again. Meanwhile there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land.

It did feel like a dream landscape, absurdly odd with strange events and people and strange projects too. The trials came from inside me: sticking out a class that I despised when I’m used to quitting whatever doesn’t please me, confronting demons from my past as I spiraled back on old decisions and events that led me to this place, stifling my familiar ways of approach so that I could build new relationships for the journey ahead.

Were there “preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land”? Yes and yes and yes. My professor’s telling me my project had a good chance of yielding publishable results, then sharing my proposal with the class as an example of how one should be done. A raucously funny altercation in psychometrics that made me laugh so hard I really did cry, not just over the unexpected outburst but because of the good friends I have more unexpectedly found. Monthly department meetings, begun at my suggestion, where, for the first time, I could imagine myself as some sort of academic. Dreaded group projects that turned into opportunities for intellectual sparring and companionship, things I have so thoroughly missed over the past ten years.

Thinking into the future of this mythical story, I wonder what Atonement with the Father could possibly mean for me. I know it doesn’t mean atonement with my actual father, as we are not opposed. I think what it means is atonement with the father inside me. Figures in the hero’s journey are symbolic, not literal. The Goddess is not always female, woman as temptress doesn’t necessarily mean some other woman (isn’t the temptress inside me? yes), and each person has masculine and feminine inside.

For the past ten years, the mother inside me has been dominant, as I had babies and raised them and put work mostly to the side. Even before that, I made choices from the female side of myself: dropping my plan to get a Ph.D. in favor of my boyfriend’s career and our plans to buy a house, having my first child at a relatively early age thus stalling my career progress, moving to Virginia to be closer to family, choosing to have a third child even though with only two I could have gotten back to work earlier.

I can even see how my stereotypically female side has actually been in charge for far longer than that; before I married, I lost myself in romance again and again.

It would be too pat if spring brought atonement and rebirth. More likely, I will have to keep slaying dragons and passing surprising barriers as I look for the ultimate treasure. And what is that treasure? Perhaps I have already found it. As Michael Foley in The Age of Absurdity says, it is the journey itself:

The search for meaning is itself the meaning, the Way is the destination, the quest is the grail.