Engineering school is about learning how to frame problems. So is data science.
I have a degree in mechanical engineering from a good school, but I’ve never worked a day in my life as an engineer. Instead, I’ve dedicated my career to “data science” — I help people solve business problems using data. Despite never working as a mechanical engineer, that education dramatically shapes how I do my job today.
Most baccalaureate mechanical engineering programs require you to take ten or fifteen core classes that are specific to the domain: statics, stress analysis, dynamics, thermodynamics, heat transfer, fluid dynamics, capstone design, etc. These cover a lot of content, but only a tiny fraction of what you actually face in practice, and so by necessity mechanical engineering programs are really about teaching you how to think about solving problems.
My thermodynamics professor taught us two key things about problem solving that shape how I solve data problems today.
“Work the process”
On the first day of class, rather than teach us anything about entropy or enthalpy, he taught us a twelve step problem solving process. He said that the way to solve any problem was to take a piece of paper and write in numbered sections the following:
- Your name
- The full problem statement
- The ‘given’ facts
- What you’ve been asked to find
- The thermodynamic system involved
- The physical system involved
- The fundamental equations you will use
- The assumptions you are making
- The type of process involved
- Your working equations
- Physical properties or constants
- The solution
The entire course was based on this process. Follow the process and get the wrong answer? You’ll still get a decent grade. Don’t follow the process but get the right answer anyway? Too bad.
Some of these steps are clearly specific to thermodynamic problems, but the general approach is not. If you start from a clear articulation of the problem, what you know, what you’re trying to solve for, and the steps you will take to solve it, you’ll get to the right answer most of the time, no matter how hard the problem looks at the start.
“There is no voodoo”
The other thing that this professor taught us right away was that there was no “voodoo” in anything we were going to study, and that everything can be explained if you take the time to understand it properly.
I’d argue that the fundamental reason why data science is a hot topic now is that businesses want to understand why things happen, not just what is happening — they want to peel back the voodoo. There’s always a fundamental reason: applications don’t suddenly get slow without an underlying cause, nor do people start or stop using a feature without something changing. We may not always be able to find the reasons as well as we’d like, but there is fundamentally an explanation, and the job of a diligent engineer or data scientist is to look for it.
It was totally worth it
People sometimes ask me if I feel like I wasted my time in college by not studying statistics or computer science since the career I’ve ended up in is more closely aligned to those. My answer is a categorical “no” — I can’t imagine a better education to prepare me for data science.
Signal vs. Noise is a founding member of The Deck advertising network
I always thought that inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.
Chuck Close, an American painter and photographer who achieved fame as a photorealist, through his massive-scale portraits. In 1988, he was severely paralyzed by a catastrophic spinal artery collapse. He had to learn to paint all over again, and continued to paint and produce work that’s sought after by museums and collectors.
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Being remote means that the typical watercooler discussion of the office tends to be reduced to sharing neat links and cute dog photos in our Campfire rooms. This is another reason I enjoy our company meetups: it’s a chance to learn a little more about your coworkers. It’s much more rewarding when we share snippets of daily life, like our current workspace status.Continued…
An excerpt from Chicago: City on the Make, a 12,000 word lyrical essay by Nelson Algren originally published in 1951:
Chicago. City on the make. A tangle of hustlers, gangsters, and corrupt politicians. A city of nobodies nobody knows, the ginsoaks, stew bums, and shell-shocked veterans who lurk in the alleys and linger in the weedy wastes underneath the ‘L’ tracks, and a town that sells out its dreams and disappoints its dreamers, but Once you’ve become a part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.
I love Chicago—imperfections and all. Some are surprised to learn that 37signals, a software company, is based in Chicago rather than San Francisco or New York. Yes, we’re a company of remote workers. We’re even writing a book called REMOTE: Office Not Required. But I believe our Getting Real approach and REWORK perspective just would not exist without Chicago’s “real-ness” in our blood.
What do you love about your city or town? Does the surrounding culture affect how you approach life or work? I’d love to read about it in the comments below.
PS. Come experience Chicago first-hand by attending The Switch Workshop on Friday, April 12. We’re hosting at the 37signals office. Right in the heart of Chicago.
Take a tour to see why others use Basecamp every day.
Customers don’t just buy a product — they switch from something else. And customers don’t just leave a product — they switch to something else.
It’s in these switching moments that the deepest customer insights can be found.
On the 12th of April, a group of 24 people will attend a unique, hands-on, full-day workshop to learn about “The Switch”.
Most businesses don’t know the real reasons why people switch to — or from — their products. We’ll teach you how to find out.
The workshop will be at the 37signals office in Chicago. The cost to attend is $1000. The workshop will be led by 37signals and The Rewired Group.
- You’ll participate in live customer interviews.
- You’ll learn new techniques for unearthing the deep insights that most companies never bother to dig up.
- You’ll understand why people switch from one product to another and how you can increase the odds that the switch goes your way.
- And you’ll be able to put everything you learned to immediate use.
There’s only one simple requirement: You’ll be asked to bring something with you. It won’t be a big deal. Details will be provided one week before the workshop.
Spots are limited. Only 24 people will be able to attend and participate. Want to be one of the 24? Register now.
Note: All previous workshops have sold out well before the event, so don’t delay if you want a spot.
“For the modern audience, the fluidity of objects in Robert Lazzarini’s body of work, for example, immediately registers instead as having been run through the computer and messed around with. As a nod to this sea change in perception, Italian designer Ferruccio Laviani has created the brilliantly disorienting Good Vibrations storage unit for Fratelli Boffi.” Read the full article.
It’s untoward to bash someone publicly. I’ve done it before and I always end up feeling horrible about it later. I’ve found that the longer it takes you to feel bad about it, the more work you have left to do on yourself. I’ve worked hard to stop doing it, and I don’t do it anymore.
Of course this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have strong opinions, or withhold public disagreement on a specific decision. Every decision demands dissent. But bashing isn’t disagreeing. It’s bashing. Bashing is about tone (overly aggressive or passive aggressive), it’s about time (often tied to a knee-jerk reaction), it’s about outcome (if the point is just to make yourself feel good, then you’re just talking out loud to yourself). It often signals a lack of information (on your part).
You don’t change someone’s mind by telling them they’re an idiot. When’s the last time someone changed your mind that way?
A good trick that helped me cool myself down a couple years back was to institute a personal “1:1 bash ratio”. I didn’t always hold myself to it, but basically it went like this… Before every external bash, I had to bash myself first. If I’m going to bitch about someone else’s work, what about my work? If I have a problem with how someone runs their company, how about how I run mine? If I’m going to complain loudly about someone else’s point of view, what about mine? Are there any flaws in my way of thinking? There must be, so what are they? What am I getting completely wrong?
This isn’t a new idea, of course. “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” – that’s been around forever. But what I like about the 1:1 ratio is that it’s not saying you shouldn’t strongly criticize – it’s saying that you owe yourself one before you dish one out to someone else. Avoiding a harsh criticism doesn’t help you learn like harshly criticizing yourself helps you learn. And eventually it helps you realize how often you’re breathing fire. Ultimately you may not want to do it anymore.
I love Fantastical but missed having a quick way to find out today’s date, a feature the native iOS calendar app provides with a special app icon that changes each day. To work around this Fantastical offers a clever hack: an option to display the current date as a badge on the app icon.