Analytics Boot Camp: Personal Reflections for the Data-Driven

By Lisa Santonato

Six months ago I committed to a ‘boot camp’ program in data analytics. I had been thinking for some time about developing skills in this relatively new field. Two years prior, in 2016, I had started my master’s in cinema and media studies at York University and had hit a major roadblock with my thesis, which primarily came about due to a personal ‘crisis of faith’ in myself, in my chosen industry, and in my future. It’s complicated, but by the summer of 2018, I knew that I had to get back to work, and in order to do so, I knew that I had to do something to jumpstart my brain and my motivation.

I began thinking of various different avenues I could pursue and kept coming back to data. With my background in cinema and media studies and my history in production, it seemed a logical move to extend my work from theory and creation into analytics, especially now that the field has become so deeply data-driven with our networked economy. So, in August of last year, I completed a somewhat rigorous application process and was then accepted into the first-ever University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies Data Analytics Boot Camp.

When the program commenced in October, I thought I had a fairly good idea of what to expect. However, as I sat in a classroom full of students once again, I initially looked around me and felt unsure as to whether or not I belonged. I had already become accustomed to being in the older range of student demographics, but in this environment, I was really a ‘fish out of water’. Even though I had always considered myself somewhat of a computer nerd, here I was practically an amateur! This class was composed of the nerdiest of nerds: computer scientists, engineers, biostatisticians, microbiologists, business analysts, finance consultants and more… with a few web developers being my closest relative in the field.

“What am I doing here?”

Not coming from a traditional STEM background meant that in many ways I felt out of my league. Yet, as a creative producer with a long history of work in digital media and an education in the humanities, I knew that my concerns around the ethics of data mining held value. I also recognize(d) that the future of cinema and its potentialities will be more deeply tied to machine learning and data integration.

With these principles in mind, I approached the course completely committed to developing the skills required for work in this field. The six months that followed presented me with some of the greatest challenges I have faced in my academic career. My brain often hurt as I struggled to process complex coding algorithms completely unfamiliar to me. On many occasions I asked myself, “What am I doing here?” and “Why am I doing this?” but I only had to turn to the incredible support network provided by the course administrator, the instructor, the team of assistant instructors and my fellow course mates, and in every instance I was given all of the support and encouragement I needed to continue on.

#bc_2019

It’s truly incredible how much information was packed into six months. Every week there was a new program or language or library or module to tackle. The course began with work in Excel and moved to VBA. From there we delved straight into the Python programming language and its various libraries, including primarily pandas and matplotlib. We developed APIs and went on to SQL.

Our second term brought us to HTML and CSS. With front-end development completing our program’s journey we learned to code in javascript, d3 and visualized data using plotly. The entire process wrapped up with additional lectures covering topics in big data, intelligent algorithms, and machine learning. We were introduced to complex software and coding methodologies and tackled our projects working with PowerBI, Hadoop, and NLP among many, always led by our fearless leader, Piro Dhimitri!

It bears mentioning: not least among the tools we worked with was #Slack. I was already familiar with it having used Slack a few times already for other various projects both within and outside of my educational arenas. Whereas I had found it useful in previous instances, it became indispensable to us as we moved through the program. Besides our project work and in-class experiences, I personally believe that our use of Slack — that is, in particular, the manner in which we made use of it, secret channels and all [#bc_2019!] — truly shaped and facilitated our cohesiveness and solidarity as a group. Of course, emoticons were in full use as well! Group decisions could hardly be made without them. Dare I say they were applied gratuitously, and with pleasure. Some of the top favourites included a few custom emoji: #banana-dance, #carlton-dance, and (my personal favourite) the #party-parrot.

The course moved at an incredibly fast pace, and our regular meetings three times a week eventually began to merge into one seemingly long data frame as we worked through our projects to reach our final day of presentations. At times I had to put my life on hold — no doubt it will take me another six months to process everything more fully — but the tools are with me now, the foundation is laid, and I am prepared to take these skills with me on my journey going forward. I am now well-equipped to enter to the field with a complete set of analytics skills in my arsenal. It was a hard-earned effort, and I have no doubt in my mind that it will be well worth the time and money I have invested into it. Most importantly, my brain has been fully ‘reset’, my cache is ‘cleared’, and I am ready to return to my thesis work once again, and what’s more, with a new toolset to guide me.

#blessed

As an added and totally unexpected bonus: I also get to take each one of these incredibly intelligent, awesome, and beautiful ‘nerds’ with me. I am so proud and happy to call these individuals and classmates my friends. Thank you Piro Dhimitri, for everything you have done to lead, inspire, and humour us through every stage of this rigorous and challenging program.

Thank you Christina Pearsall, our course admin, for guiding us through the course structure and for personally assisting me along the way. Thank you Dennis Tran, my dedicated tutor. Thank you Eric Oulster, Sunil Khambaita, Nasir Safdari, and Anthony Mazzawi, our assistant instructors. Thank you Nathalie Semaan, our Boot Camp Career Director, for coaching me through the journey as I look towards new career avenues. Thank you to all of my new friends whom have inspired, assisted, encouraged, and helped to coach me along on this journey. I was so awed and impressed by the high level of work completed and showcased by you in our final presentations! Truly, I am so #blessed to be counted amongst you and to have presented alongside you. I could not have done this alone, or without any of you, and I am proudest of all to say we did it all #together.

On a side note, in the graduating class picture (top photo) we are all wearing t-shirts that commemorate our participation in the inaugural Class of 2019. Back in February, I came up with the idea of organizing a commemorative t-shirt as a surprise gift to our instructors and admin. One of my fellow classmates and friends, Jose Tomines, immediately took up the challenge of designing the t-shirt concept, and away we went. Everyone joined together as a team to help make it happen.

I was delighted and honoured to surprise our instructors and admin with this gift which I presented on behalf of my entire class during our graduation ceremony yesterday, and it pleased me more than anything to see everyone joyfully wear these shirts as we posed for our group photo together yesterday afternoon. It was truly an achievement made material. A gift for us all, which we wore proudly.