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Sabbaticals, Projects, and Unexpected Storytelling with Data

Last year, DevResults instituted paid sabbaticals for employees with five years of service in order to expand our collective skills and reward long-term commitment. I was the third person in the company to take advantage of this personal and professional development opportunity and I’d like to share a bit of my experience with you.

Motivations

There’s always more than one reason to take a sabbatical. In my case, it was a mix of the following:

  • Curiosity about the world of AI, something I had never had the time to pursue
  • A need to switch gears and use different tools. When you work in a single product for over five years, the world changes around you. I felt like I was missing out.
  • My body telling me it needed me to take better care of it

Timing

I started planning this before Covid-19 hit the world. Initially, I had picked a time of the year that interfered as little as possible with the company’s busiest months, my summer vacations (I’m in the southern hemisphere, so that’s January-February), and other commitments.

The pandemic made me and my colleagues reconsider. Ultimately, we acknowledged that unforeseen circumstances could have happened in any context, and it was still in our best interest to carry out the original plan.

I’m thankful for the company making this decision, as the stress resulting from the long and strict lockdown in my country would have been extremely detrimental to my health. Being able to take care of myself, my house, and my family (besides learning) while knowing my teammates weren’t depending on my input was extremely important.

Preparation

In order to get the best value out of my sabbatical time, I talked to the other people in the company that had had the experience. Besides planning specifics, like which online courses I was going to take, this helped me moderate my expectations. A great piece of advice I got: “Whenever you take on a project with lots of unknowns, you will accomplish a fraction of what you thought you would. Accept that and don’t let it discourage you.”

Initial direction

I started with an online course that covered a pretty good number of ML scenarios, from simple linear regressions to image recognition with deep learning. Around the middle of it, and once I had grasped the fundamentals of classification, I decided what my programming project was going to be: a personal expense tracker that would read transactions from a PDF and automatically classify them. This idea was born out of frustration with existing software, and I still think I can do better than the products I tried.

Issues

As I should have remembered from my experience, writing software usually entails 5% of the fun, shiny ideas and technologies that you want to use, and 95% of boilerplate, infrastructure, and many things you are not really interested in. When you work with a team, it’s easy to split the tasks in a way that everyone gets a reasonable share of cool and boring stuff. When you’re on your own, that’s not possible.

I did not abandon the project, but ultimately decided to do it as a longer-term, on-the-side thing.

New paths

At the beginning of August, a local network of schools which included my kids’ started a fundraiser for emergency scholarships, as many families were being hit very hard by the economic crisis due to covid-related restrictions.

When I contributed to this campaign, I found out a good amount of information about the donations was made public, and it was not hard to parse it from the website. I thought it would be fun and maybe useful to apply some data science to it.

A new interest

The reaction to the analysis results I shared was very positive, and encouraged me to pursue data science for fundraising as a central topic of my sabbatical.

For this next part of my journey, I mostly used a book. I enjoyed it very much. It didn’t only teach me how data science and machine learning can help for fundraising - it gave me a better understanding of how visualizations, particularly, can help tell a story.

Circling back to my job

Visualizations happen to be one of the things I was involved in the most at DevResults. I was a part of the teams that built our dashboard system, the indicator reports (graphs, maps, pie charts, matrix) and more.

I always liked creating tools that helped our users understand, analyze and report on the data in the easiest, fastest, most accurate way possible. However, as a more technically-focused person, I had not stopped to think about the stories our users are telling with these visualizations. A compelling story, which the appropriate images can tell better than thousands of words, can help get programs funded, priorities changed, and actions executed.

The future

As I write this in the last week of my sabbatical, I’m looking forward to working again in our product, and having a chance to engage with users about the stories they’re telling with data and to apply the things I learned to bring you better tools to tell your story and help your team improve the world.

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