Learning Data Science Through DS4A: Empowerment – Part 1

DS4A Empowerment Program

Around 6 months ago, I stumbled across a post on LinkedIn (or perhaps it was Twitter… I can’t quite remember) that was promoting a Q&A session about a free data science training program. I’m a lifelong learner and I’d been considering moving into data science for a while (I do have some previous experience both in programming and data analytics for marketing) so I went ahead and registered for the Q&A.

The Q&A session was moderated by Teneika Askew (an incredible woman who is impossible to sum up because she does SO much to help everyone around her – if you’re not following her on Twitter or LinkedIn, I highly recommend that you do because she is *constantly* sharing fantastic resources and information for women and other under-represented people in the tech industry) and she was interviewing John Benjamin (of Correlation One, the amazing company that runs the DS4A program) about DS4A.

The goal of the DS4A Empowerment program is a BIG one! So I’m just gonna pull an excerpt from the website and share it here:

The data & AI revolution is disproportionately leaving behind under-represented groups and minorities. Access to the jobs of tomorrow is not equal. 

DS4A / Empowerment seeks to remedy this. We are creating a nationwide ecosystem of data-driven professionals who are from the Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ+, and other communities, such as veterans and military spouses. In addition, we have accommodation for a cohort of deaf and hard of hearing participants. Our vision is to provide free data analytics training to 10,000 people in the next three years and provide equal access to the jobs of tomorrow.

I had almost completely forgotten about the Q&A session so I didn’t even have any paper on hand to write notes! [So… I literally used my hand as a writing surface].

Photo of my hand with notes about the DS4A program scribbled on it in ink

Immediately after the session, I decided to go for it. After all, the program was

  • FREE (no strings attached)
  • For under-represented groups in the data science/tech industry (i.e. Black, LatinX, Women, Disabled, Veterans/Spouses of Veterans, LGBTQIA, etc.).
  • Primarily on Saturdays so it wouldn’t interfere with my day job (I had a job at the time, but I was let go thereafter so it wound up not being as much of an issue – thanks COVID 😒 — I will add though, that I was extremely fortunate that my partner was incredibly supportive and took on a LOT of extra overtime hours so I could focus on the training and we could afford to pay all our bills).
  • 4 Months (13 weeks in all) of weekly classes taught by teachers from MIT and Harvard (more on that later).
  • Did I mention it was free!? (The biggest thing keeping me from making ANY kind of jump from the marketing space was the cost of training/certifications which I was worried wouldn’t even really amount to much – plus, I will admit that try as I might, it’s REALLY difficult to stick to your own cobbled together curriculum of study for a new career).
Now, I didn’t actually expect to go very far. I wasn’t sure that I would even get past the initial application (which really just included submitting my resume and answering a few questions about my interest in the program and my goals). After all, even though I’m bisexual woman who can sometimes struggle a quite a bit with mental health, I’m still VERY white and do carry some privilege that comes with that — so I kept asking myself if I could even be considered a “minority in the data science/tech industry”?  And who’s to say I was even smart enough to handle a program like this!?
 

Oh, Hello IMPOSTER SYNDROME!

Low and behold, I got an email asking me to complete an assessment. Ah yes, SURELY they would trash my application after this! The assessment felt REALY difficult. It wasn’t a lot of questions but they mostly had to do with math and reasoning and stats and I *think* there may have been a couple programming related questions as well. I did my best with what I DO know but I was SURE they would look at the results and reject me immediately. The assessment doesn’t actually give you a score at the end. You just submit your answers and you get a message that basically amounts to, “Thanks. Maybe you’ll hear from us.”

I crossed my fingers and waited but… a big part of me was still pretty sure that would be the end of the line.

Much to my surprise, I heard back! They wanted to do a brief “Get to know you” type of interview. So I scheduled the interview (and although the guy I spoke with was overwhelmingly casual, I was SO eager to impress upon him just how badly I wanted to get into this program, that I figured his train of thought was something like, “She’s definitely trying too hard, perhaps to a somewhat scary degree, jeez lady, this ISN’T a job interview, please chill out!”

At this point, I HAD to have been rejected because there’s NO way I could spend 15 minutes being the MOST obnoxiously eager person in the world and not scare them off… right?

But I got in! — And it turns out, I was 1 of only 500 people who were accepted into the inaugural Data Science 4 All: Empowerment Program – out of something like 8,000 applications? Basically, it was a 6% acceptance rate. SIX PERCENT!

So, from what I understand, they use the initial application to get an idea of your past experience/career and determine if you’re the kind of person who’s capable of sticking with and completing a program like this or if your existing skills might help you along the way.

Then, the assessment is more about finding out how you think than it is about correct answers. Now, I’m sure there definitely were CORRECT answers to some of those questions, but I guess the other answers somehow gave them an idea of how you were working to solve the question? 🤷‍♀️

And the interview is to get an idea of who you are as a person and whether or not you’re going to really stick with it and finish the program.

I will admit, that even after ALL of that… my Imposter Syndrome continued through at least 2/3 of the program. I kept telling my partner, Ryan, “I really do not belong in this program! I’m worried I’m taking someone else’s place, someone who REALLY deserves it! Someone who’s smart!” Because I was SO blown away by the people in my cohort! Some of them have MBAs or PhDs, others have already worked or interned at huge companies, some have traveled the world, some have come to the US as refugees, and every one of them is just – SO overwhelmingly smart and talented. It sometimes felt like my inclusion MUST have been an accident. 

So did I overcompensate, just a little, by trying to be super fun and funny in the live chat every Saturday? (Okay, yes and no – I AM definitely one to make lots of silly jokes but I also probably may have occasionally come across as a *little* obnoxious in the chat). But luckily, in doing so, I got a lot of positive feedback. Which, as someone as self-conscious as I am, the fact that there were people who privately DM’d me and thanked me for helping to keep up the energy or the conversation in the chat, or for sharing funny messages or posts in some of the Slack channels and making them laugh – made me feel so much better about myself and so much more accepted. And honestly, that’s what happens when you’re in a community where everyone is hoping to make the world more inclusive and more appreciative of diversity! You find yourself in a space where, even though you don’t “match” everyone there – your differences are still VERY welcome. 

I mean… heck – we even had a Slack channel for “Neurodiverse” people (i.e. those who sometimes struggle a little because we think a little differently because we have depression, anxiety, ADHD, Autism, etc.) where we could vent and get support from one another because the live chat was going a little quick that morning and it was overwhelming, or because depression/anxiety was making it hard to work on the homework that day, etc. 

And of course, that wasn’t all, there were channels for different racial and ethnic groups as well as a 🏳️‍🌈Pride channel – and these all just popped up organically and naturally. Because listen, there are in-groups and out-groups (which is fine, you wanna mix and mingle with those you’re most comfortable around) but I looked at the Slack workspace analytics for DS4A and honestly – there wasn’t anyone who didn’t also post in other spaces – because the OTHER thing I found is that, no one is ever just a part of ONE group — especially among those of us who fall into the realm of “under-represented groups of people.” You’re usually a woman and also a member of the LGBTQ community or you’re LatinX and Neurodiverse, etc. And unfortunately, those intersections and multiplicities are things that we just aren’t always concious of in our greater society and especially in the tech industry (which can have a HUGE effect on greater society as we’ve seen in the past few decades). But that’s part of why DS4A exists – and I’m SO incredibly grateful that it does!

Anyway – I’m going to cut this post short (because it’s already a little long 😅) but next DS4A post will be about my experience in the program. Specifically as it relates to what we learned. And then I may also create a third post about my team’s project.

Stay tuned!

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