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For Former Academic Dan Taber, Data Science Bootcamp Bridged Skills Gap to Industry

By Emily Wilson • October 23, 2018

Dan Taber is certainly no stranger to data. Prior to landing his current role as a Product Scientist at Indeed.com, he’d already been working with data for more than 15 years in various academic and non-profit roles spanning science, technology, and policy.

Academia encompasses the most significant portion of that accumulated experience. He earned a Ph.D. in Epidemiology, or the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases and other factors related to health. That area of study shares a lot of the same tools as data science, according to Taber.

“You can think of Epidemiology sort of like data science applied to public health and disease,” he said in a recent interview discussing his motivations to leave academia and pursue data science full time. 

He chose to make the change largely because he craved new challenges that academia could not provide. Between then and now, he founded a company that allowed him to work with data every day and he came to rediscover how much he loved it – but also how his skills were out of date.

“The tools and techniques had evolved and were different from what I'd learned in graduate school, and I really needed to update my skills,” he said. “I knew if I did so, there were more exciting opportunities out there beyond the kind of the research I'd been doing in the past.”

Upon hearing this desire, a recruiter familiar with his resume and experience and was quick to suggest he look into the bootcamp model as a next step.

“She basically told me, ‘You have the end of a great resume, but you are missing the beginning,’” said Taber. “I came to understand that a bootcamp can be a great model for somebody like me, who has a strong foundation but has holes to fill.”

Of the options, he chose Metis based on the project-based curriculum, feeling that his previous research and work were difficult to convey on a resume. He knew that a portfolio would make him a stronger candidate during the job search.

And it worked. During the bootcamp, he created projects based on topics of personal interest, knowing that diving into data that interested him deeply would inspire him to find creative solutions. He worked to predict which TED Talks would go viral, for example, and which actors and films would win and lose at the upcoming Academy Awards. Showing finished projects clearly demonstrating passion and skill, Taber landed his current role as Product Scientist at Indeed.com in Seattle, where he's challenged every day – and where he gets to stay in a city he loves.

“I'm not originally from Seattle, but I do call it home at this point, because I've actually lived here three different times. I keep leaving and coming back because I like it so much,” he said. 

At Indeed.com, the data team is made up of Data Scientists and Product Scientists. According to Taber, Indeed created these titles to differentiate between skills sets that various members of the team bring. Product Scientists integrate statistics, machine learning, and business and often tackle vague, large-scale questions. Taber’s knack for abstract topics in academic research make him a great fit for the role. He routinely uses time series forecasting to make long-term projections, enabling senior leadership to understand what to invest in, why, and when. It’s exciting to work on something so impactful as the future direction of the company, according to Taber.

The shift from academia to industry hasn’t come without challenges, however. The speed of the work and short turnaround times can still throw Taber off temporarily as he adjusts and settles into the newer mindset.

“I think most people from academia struggle with the new pace, where someone might ask me a question and want the answer within a week,” he said. “If I were a professor still, I would take at least six months to answer the same thing, so having to come up with answers fast, which often means taking different approaches – and not being quite the perfectionist that most academics are – can still be a struggle.”

But the bootcamp helped him make strides in this area, he said.

“I think [adjusting to the faster timing] would have been a greater challenge if I hadn't done Metis,” said Taber. “The number one skill that I got was not any specific method or technique, but rather the ability to learn something very quickly and develop something quickly, and actually execute a project in a really short timeline.”

For a person like Taber – someone with a strong foundation who needed to fill in skill gaps and get experience with new tools – the bootcamp turned out to be most valuable in terms of the “intangibles,” as he put it.

“I know a lot of people who are skeptical of bootcamps will say, ‘Can’t you learn all of this online?’” said Taber. “And I see where they’re coming from with that, but it's really not about the material you’re learning. Of course, that’s a big part, too, but it's more about the intangibles like connecting to the alumni network, having built-in mentors, and also instructors who are your mentors, plus having those projects to focus on. All combined, that’s what really what made a bootcamp appealing to me.”

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Interested in reading more about the student/alumni experience? See more stories here.


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