Sources & Methods #40: Data Science with Eric Schles

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Show Notes:

6:50 - [On working at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York] There is some emotional burnout when the work that you do involves slave traders. That can be challenging for a lot of folks. But overall, the ability to know that the work you’ve done has made someone’s life better - there’s nothing like that in the world. It’s better than any other possible thing you could do.

10:07 - The General Problem is that we don’t want people enslaved. Fairly simple. People are not property. People are people. At a high level, that’s the goal. To have no one in the world treated as property.

This [slavery] problem is fundamentally an economics problem.

[On parents enslaving their kids or family members to beg] If you lift people out of poverty, then that doesn’t happen anymore. That’s a path forward to removing that form of slavery. Because that’s not motivated by malice or cruel intent. It’s motivated by simply not having means to do anything else. And this extreme desperation.

13:30 - There are some things we can do within traditional economic stimulus-style things for developing countries that will alleviate a great deal of the problem space. So I originally tried to work on that. The problem there is that economists aren’t particular interested in this. I don’t think they’re disinterested, I want to be clear. I think that their research dollars come from very specific sources and it’s hard to find research dollars for this.

14:29 - In international development, there’s plenty of money and everyone’s interested in this. But you can’t do this only from an aid perspective. You have to stimulate economies. There have to be network effects. Aid can help and lift specific people out of poverty. But we’ve seen that aid can be detrimental. There’s well documented evidence on this. If you give people aid, they become dependent on aid. And if the aid dries up… and the aid goes away, the cycle of dependence basically leaves these people worse off than they were originally.

15:23 - I was lucky enough while I was in the federal government to see how truly well intentioned so many federal employees really are. And I had the specific pleasure of interacting with someone from USAID. They were working on a project in West Africa. What they did was - it’s mind boggling how simply and brilliant and effective this was - was give folks really old cell phones and really old laptops with Excel. They were able to use this to coordinate crop outputs. And look at the weather.

They leveraged basic technology and they were able to get crop outputs up like crazy. And they brought these subsistence farmers up substantially.

These people didn’t need our help the next year.

If you give people standard tools and you are well intentioned, you can actually make a lot more change. Especially for third world or disadvantaged groups.

22:34 - I really recommend checking out the Polaris Project on Global Modern Slavery.

1:04:04 - Research Question #1: We need to figure out the frequency of trafficking

Research Question #2: I’m very interested in the discovering the probability that someone is being trafficked. How likely is a specific neighborhood to be an area for trafficking?

1:09:30 - Specialization is how I determine what problems to solve. I will usually work on issues that have technical solutions.

1:13:07 - I think understanding how automating works is a great skill, not least because it makes you highly employable. People need to make a living.

Follow Eric’s Work on Github: https://github.com/EricSchles

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ericschles

Eric Schles on LinkedIn

Sources & Methods #39: Mastery-based Learning with Chris Lee

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Launch School 101:

Chris Lee on Twitter

Launch School

Launch School blog on Medium

Show Notes:

4:27 - (On leaving ‘ad tech’) Most software engineering jobs pay really well, of course, but - and this is probably the case with most jobs, period - you have to reconcile your personal beliefs with the primary goals of a money making enterprise. Everybody has to go through that. Ad tech in particular, especially in san francisco, is focused on growth, and focused on numbers.

It’s hyper focused on money, especially with regards to increasing conversions and eyeballs for the customers of the ad tech company. Which is a fine goal, but not my personal reason for getting up every morning. So it was hard for me to get excited for it. I was excited about my paychecks at first, but eventually you get numb to that.

6:18 - In the search for something different and more meaningful, we decided to focus on education (which led to LaunchSchool). My partner, Kevin, works on this with me, and I’ve known him since 2002. Early in our careers we were both computer engineers at IBM in Austin, Texas.

Early on, we read a book called Good to Great by Jim Collins and he talks about getting the right people on the bus.

9:18 - This is one of the things that makes us unique (in teaching coding skills), is our approach to Mastery Based Learning. It’s about making sure that people know what they’re doing each step of the way, and taking indefinite time on each step.

Ours is a curriculum where you have to demonstrate you understand each topic every step of the way. And we don’t know how long that will take. And we’re a 100% Mastery based program. We evolved over the past 3 to 5 years to that system because we were unhappy with the results we were seeing.

I think we are the only place where Mastery Based Learning is taught.

13:13 - We started this to try to figure out education. It was not a money making endeavor. So to us, teaching became the engineering problem to solve. I was not a proponent of Mastery Based Learning before LaunchSchool. Mastery Based Learning or Competency Based Learning is not unique to LaunchSchool, it’s a well known pedagogy in academic papers. But it’s really hard to implement.

Think about a physical classroom. Mastery Based Learning means that a student gets to occupy a seat in that classroom for an indefinite amount of time. That’s a really hard promise to make when our schools are tasked to usher through students. It’s not about training students and making sure they understand every topic, but getting people through.

15:39 - Complexity grows exponentially if not handled linearly. You have to handle one concept at a time, otherwise the complexity grows out of control.

16:49 - So, everyone wants to talk about algorithms. Well, there’s no point in talking about algorithms and solving complex algorithmic problems if you can’t handle loops. And lots of people can’t handle loops. Or nested loops. There’s no point. So to cover an advanced topic is pointless.

22:24 - I see a lot of people go from Explore - and bypass the Fundamentals - and head straight into Advanced. And then they realize there are so many knowledge gaps they have to plug in, and they spend years fixing that.

25:21 - We chose a pedagogy, and then built a pricing model around that.

27:30 - The value that students get from their education has such a lag from when they pay. There’s a tremendous lag. Think about Uber. You pay for an Uber ride, and you derive the value immediately. I view education almost like a restaurant that serves healthy food, and the restaurant says something like, ‘If you have eat here for 5 years, you’ll live an extra 10 years.’ It doesn’t taste great.

Coding bootcamps can make a big promise - ‘in a few months, you can get a job.’ And they have been getting away with that because the job market is so good. It’s so good - and there’s such high demand for software programmers - that they can take people who are just in that ‘Explore’ phase (of learning) and pay them. And that’s why bootcamps are very successful.

If you think about long-term though, it’s dangerous. Because you have a lot of people who are underskilled. 2 months, 3 months, that’s just not enough time to develop context or nuance for some of these problems. So if there’s a downturn, people are not going to be able to get these jobs. So it’s very dangerous.

I think coding bootcamps are a marketing success. It’s market forces that allow this to happen, and it’s the marketing - it appeals to people's’ desires for fast results. Lasting education needs to last decades, a career. So that’s the hard part of education.

32:14 - You don’t just want a job doing programming. Because most programming jobs, as I alluded to earlier with ad tech, are not very good, are not very satisfying. What you want to do is develop enough mastery so you can dictate some of your own terms on your own career. In order to do that though, you need to get pretty good. And that’s what we’re trying to do here.

Fail State Movie - Documentary on for profit higher education.

36:10 - The key word in higher ed these days is ‘retention.’ It isn’t learning - it’s how do we get students, and how do we get them to stay. Because the attrition rates in a lot of schools are close to 50%. Which is astounding if you think about it. So they’re trying to retain students any way they can. One way they do that is to through grade inflation. So everyone gets a good grade now. A C nowadays is a Fail. If a professor fails too many students, that professor will get pulled into the Dean’s Office and be told ‘What are you doing? If you do that, these students won’t come back.’

38:21 - You’re starting to see companies not demand a college degree anymore. Google doesn’t demand that. Deloitte said recently they won’t demand a college degree. And it’s because the college degree has begun to lose any meaning as far as quality. And part of the reason for that is because schools need to retain all the students, otherwise they can’t make money, so for that reason, they’re letting everyone through. It’s a compound effect here.

It means more than ever that a Mastery Based system is required. Learning institutions have to hold the bar, and educate students on why that is. I spend most of my time talking about Mastery Based Learning for this reason.

47:50 - (On international students in some countries) - It’s pretty easy in the United States to say, if you want to work at Google, you need to learn this (x). That’s a fairly straightforward statement to make. And you can decide, that’s too hard or I don’t want to do that. But when you don’t have that context, it’s really difficult to convince people to learn things deeply unless they have this natural intellectual curiosity.

53:10 - Everyone needs to learn to code just from the perspective of awareness.

Does everyone need to become a software engineer? That I don’t know, it’s more of a career choice. But programming concepts will touch more and more things.

More and more jobs will require how data flows and how systems connect.