On Funemployment (and My Next Job)
Isaac Hollander McCreery, 5 September 2014
The inspiration for this post comes from Ernie Miller’s post of the same name. I’m going to try not to totally parrot his article. It’s pretty well-written, so at the risk of losing you as a reader here, I recommend you read it.
Like Ernie was a year ago, I’m ambivilant about endings and new beginnings. I just finished a spectacular summer at the Data Science for Social Good Fellowship in Chicago. I was blessed to work with 50 outstanding minds and outstanding hearts. My co-fellows who descended on the city for the summer to take on hard problems in the burgeoning field of data science for public policy were a great bunch. We shared a collective struggle of wanting to good in a world that, for the most part, leads people with our skills on a fast track to optimizing ad revenues and building things that just enrich those who already have too much wealth. As Nadya said even before the final goodbye, I miss you all so much already! It’s hard to imagine the next place I’ll be around so many great people who are sharing in the collective search for a good use of our skills.
I’ve been mourning the loss of some amazing people in my life, but I’m terrible at resisting looking forward to what’s coming, and the last few weeks have been no exception. While we worked long hours at the office on our project with the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, I encouraged my mind wander in what little time I could find outside of work, like on my bike to and from work everyday. I couldn’t help coming up with a few things I’m stoked about doing in between gigs, in no particular order:
- I’ve already taken a lot of time to write, and I hope to produce a lot of content for this blog. Expect an article of some kind every weekday. I love writing by myself, but perhaps even more, I love collaborating with others. Having someone looking at—and tearing apart—my work is a great way to become a better writer, and I think so is working with others’ writing. If you’d like to collaborate in any capacity, get in touch!
- There’s still a lot to be done for the Chicago Alliance, so that’s the next top priority. I’m giving a talk at Oberlin this Thursday, if you’re around, and I hope a couple other DSSG-ers and I will give a talk at Data Community DC in the next couple of weeks.
- I plan to contribute to some projects that are technically fascinating to me, namely GHC and Rust. I’d also love to make some progress on finding, contributing to, and/or building a Haskell IDE, something like the IPython Notebook. Finally, I’m planning on doing some spelunking to check out some alternative data science workflows that rely on purely functional langauges such as Haskell. If you’re interested in collaborating on any of these, or just have ideas for what I might check out, drop me a line!
- I’ll be in Washington, DC, with my family for the first time in too long.
I had the opportunity to take some time between years in school, and I know that the blessing of space and time to pursue what I want is hard to come by. And in a culture where most of us are apart from our families from 18 years on up, being near those who raised me is something I can’t pass up.
The list goes on, (I’ve been wanting to build a bicycle-powered blender for a while,) but those are the big ones.
There are a couple of things that stand out to me when looking at this list. The first is collaboration. I think unemployment will get pretty lame pretty quickly if I’m not collaborating with different people on lots of projects. I have a few (many) friends who are also unemployed, and this list makes me wonder what they’re up to. Usually they talk about applying for jobs, which, of course, is important. But everyone says that these days, the only days I’ve ever known, you have to know people, and that’s how you’ll find work. Regardless of nepotism, I think that’s probably true: the internet has saturated the inboxes of HR employees beyond capacity, and so it seems we’ve pretty much found our way back to a world where the internet doesn’t help you get a job much at all. So, in addition to being something I’m really excited for intrinsically, I also wonder if collaboration will be instrumental in finding my next gig.
Something else that stands out is balance. I’ve got some extremely technical work ahead of me—the mysterious art of functional language compilation is something I know very little about right now—but I’ve also got less-technical and entirely non-technical stuff I’m looking forward to. This is a balance I’ve struggled with, as I’m sure many of you have, for years, and having the freedom to do however much or little of something in a day is wonderfully pleasant. I’d love to be able to strike this kind of balance in months and years to come, too, which brings me to, of course, the cornerstone of unemployment. I’ll be looking for a next real job, and I’ve been doing some thinking about what I want out of that.
My next job
- My next job will be a highly technical, but balanced, gig in data science for policy. The field of data science has recently been dominated by models that predict well and don’t do a whole lot else. I’m looking forward to pushing toward more interpretability, which is the primary concern for policy makers. My work with the Chicago Alliance to End Homelelssness focused solely on data science for policy, but I found that techniques to tell coherent, useful, and accurate stories are hard to come by. We need those techniques, though, if we’re going to start making data talk for good and not just for profit. I’ll be in a place where I get to do some hard technical work, building models, wrestling with data, and innovating new ways to use computation for policy, but where I also get to deliver stories from that data, and do other writing.
- I’ll feel like the dumbest person in my next team. If I learned one thing this summer, it’s how much I still have to learn about data science, (and statistics in particular). I have a strong background in theoretical computer science and math, and a reasonable background in systems and software engineering. But the field of data science requires a deep understanding of machine learning algorithms, statistics, modeling, and that ever-present special sauce that I don’t feel like I’ve got a great handle on yet. One of my friends recently wrote to me about his workplace, “Fewer rockstars and more sages.” That’s the kind of environment I’ll be at next: a place to do good work and to learn to do better work from people who know more than I do. So, no, I don’t want to work at your startup, unless you’ve already got at least 5 people working for you, all of whom will make me feel dumb.
- My next job will be open-source. I have little interest in keeping the amazing things that my team and I make closed-source. In order to get as far as possible, we as a community are all going to have to work together. At my next job, I’ll be contributing to open-source projects that support my work as well as releasing my work openly.
- My next job will be at a deeply human place to work. I know I work best in a diverse, flexible workplace. There is a certain discomfort that comes from working in a place dominated by a narrow set of experiences and identities. Being around exclusively upper-class white and Asian men erodes my faith that we are doing what people of different backgrounds and experiences can benefit from. Coming from Oberlin College Computer Science, which is more than half non-men, and seeing many non-men around at KDD, I’m not going to buy the argument, “we want to hire them but they’re just not around.” They are around, and I’ll be in a place where they feel welcome, because that will be a place where I feel welcome. I will be at a place with strong community but enough flexibility to allow me to explore myself and the world I serve. I’m not looking for a decadent workplace, like I feel many companies try to offer; I’m just looking for a deeply human workplace.
- My next job will be at a place I’m proud to work with. This is the hardest thing to clarify. We all want to do good in the world, and it’s damn hard to figure out what that means, and even harder to actually do it. This is of course related to working in a deeply human place, but I’ve also recently been thinking and writing a lot about power and solidarity, and I’d love to be in a place where I’m doing work that is more solidarity than charity. It’s hard for me to sleep at night when I feel I haven’t made the world a better place during the day. In the past, that’s meant working for racial and economic justice, teaching, reading and writing, and supporting other people working for environmental and social justice. Now, I’m searching for a place to work where I can exercise my passion for social justice with my technical skills.
I’m afraid that some of these things might be hard to find in a single job, though I remain hopeful. I don’t know of any highly technical large team working in data science for policy, and my experiences at last week indicate that the field itself hasn’t really even coalesced yet. Combine that with a desire to do solidarity work, and I’m not sure what I’ll find. It seems like I might have to compromise on one of these things. I’ll say this: at this point in my life, learning is going to come first, so I’m hesitantly prepared to sacrifice social justice work for a great learning environment. But still, if you’re a weapons manufacturer, (or even an advertising company), don’t bother calling.
A few reflections
I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge what an incredible place I’m in right now. I’m uncomfortably aware as I’m writing this of how many people, folks who left high school early all the way to PhD’s, are struggling hard to find jobs to support them and those they love right now. It’s not an easy world to work in right now, it’s never an easy world to be unemployed in, and I feel blessed to be able to dream about some amazing possibilities. I’m committed to not taking it for granted, but I’m also here for a reason and happy to do what I can to make the world a better place. And there’s no reason I can’t have joy in my life along the way.
Here’s to everyone who’s looking for a gig.