Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Tough Year

It's been a tough year. I covered the beginning of the year in another post regarding the Calculus course I took in preparation for applying to a master's program in applied statistics. I had planned on studying for the GRE this summer and taking it this fall as well as applying for the master's program, then working through the master's program for the next 3-5 years. My employer, HDMS (a subsidiary of Aetna), was going to help pay for the degree. However, those plans were going to get thrown off course.

I had just finished submitting my coursework for reimbursement when I was sent an out-of-place meeting request. At the meeting, I found out HDMS was letting me go. At first it appeared it was just me, but as I found out later in the day, they were laying off about 10 other employees and closing about 10 other open positions. For two hours, I was trying to figure out what I did wrong - but it had nothing to do with my performance. I was the most recent hire on the team, and there were others getting laid off too.

I hit the ground running. The severance package included a career consulting service - I looked it up and scheduled time to review my resume with a consultant. The paper / PDF version has undergone quite a few revisions over the past few weeks. I also started contacting my network, browsing through online job boards, and all the usual job-hunting tasks. I did find quite a few roles through my network, and a couple of them resulted in offers.

I quickly found a role as a consultant data analyst with Great Wolf Resorts. I stayed there for a few weeks, working on a single project integrating credit card transactions with the reservations. Essentially, if a guest uses a credit card for something on site (e.g., restaurant) and does not charge it back to the room, the transaction is not connected to the reservation. In order to connect the two, I had to merge transactions with reservations based on guest name and, if available, the last four digits of the credit card number. It was messy, and I was able to get about 57% of the transactions matched. I believe the best possible rate was somewhere around 65%, but it would have required a lot of exception handling, manual matching, and/or time-intensive matching processes (e.g., matching text within another text field). The company analyst and I decided the additional matches weren't worth the expense.

The position was a good fit for my skills, and I enjoyed working with the people there, but as a consultant role, the benefits were very expensive and of course it could have ended at any time. So, I kept looking for permanent roles while I was there. I need something more permanent right now, but I can definitely see myself as a successful consultant. In my short time there, I think I demonstrated a lot of value with my skills and the process and analysis I left behind.

Recently, I found a new role as a Senior Healthcare Analyst at SSM Health, a non-profit healthcare organization with hospitals from Wisconsin to Missouri. They also own Dean Health Plan, where I worked a few years ago. I still know a few people there, so it will be good to reconnect with them. I'll be analyzing healthcare data for a particular region of the system, starting in a few days. I feel very good about the team and the leader, so I'm looking forward to getting started. Luckily, I'll be working from home again, so I'll get to use my treadmill again.

Here's hoping quarter four is quite a bit less turbulent!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Calculus III

In the last year or so, I decided to apply for a master's program in applied statistics, but I was missing one of the prerequisite mathematics courses: Calculus III. I had taken calculus courses in high school and college, but those courses were more focused on applications. Furthermore, I hadn't covered any of Calculus II in those courses.

Instead of taking the entire series, which would have taken quite a bit of time and money, I decided to do something rather daunting: I took Calculus III online and used Khan Academy and other sources to catch up on Calculus I and II. I read reviews that the first few weeks were tough even if you had taken Calculus I and II just before III. Undeterred, I started the course earlier this year, and the first few weeks were indeed tough.

The online program I used - NetMath - used an online math tool for running code and submitting homework. Each student is assigned to a mentor who grades assignments, answers questions, and ensures each student is on schedule. Students receive feedback on their homework and are able to re-submit corrections a couple of times. The two midterms and final must be taken in person with a proctor.

My first mentor was not very responsive. On week 2, a critical week in the program, my mentor did not respond to emails or grade my assignments in a timely fashion (within 3 days, as noted in the program handbook). I notified the program administrators and they assigned me a new mentor. She had quite a bit of catching up to do, but she did her best and eventually graded the outstanding assignments and responded to my questions. Honestly, she was amazing, and I'd write her a letter of recommendation if she asked.

Lesson 2 is quite difficult. It's really the first lesson on the topic of the course, where lesson 1 was review of parametric equations and other necessary concepts, and it's there in case anyone missed or forgot these topics. With the combination of difficult content and slow responses from my mentor, it took me 2 weeks to finish lesson 2. In addition, I got sick for a couple of days and there was a death in the family, which put me behind another 2 weeks or so. Fortunately, the program offers a two-month extension, and I planned on using it if needed.

However, there were additional, serious problems with the course. One of the most grievous was incomplete or incorrect content. There were often no terms given to ideas, preventing students who have taken this course from communicating the concepts effectively. For example, vector projection was just called "vector push on another vector". It took me quite some time to find the right term to be able to research this concept online.

The course also neglected saddle points and claimed that whenever a gradient was {0, 0} (or more zeros depending on the number of dimensions), that the point was a minimum or maximum of the function. This is blatantly not true when a saddle point is present, and it would be terrible for students to internalize this falsity since it is profoundly meaningful in calculating predictive models with machine learning, specifically neural networks. You can't assume you've optimized a function when the gradient is {0, 0} without looking around it to see if you've found a saddle point.

All told, I was quite unhappy with this course. Not only was I spending a lot of time catching up, but I was spending time trying to learn the material through other sources since the course material was incomplete or inaccurate. Nearing the end of the course, I was able to catch up to the point where it looked like I could finish the course if I just had another week or two. I emailed the administrators for a course extension, noting the reasons I had for the delay and the issues I had with the course, and they offered a shorter extension so I could finish it without rushing and without taking the full extension. (My schedule to finish without an extension would have been very demanding for my mentor to complete all the grading in time.)

Despite all the delays and issues, I finished all the material within the original time frame, and I just needed to take the final. I studied for a few extra days and took the final about 2 weeks after the course originally ended. Since the final was comprehensive and included the last three lessons, I was very nervous about it. I had aced the midterms, but there was just so much to remember (e.g., the curl of a 3D field is difficult to remember). To my great surprise and delight, I not only aced the final, I got an A+ in the course. I was relieved!

Now I just have to re-take the GRE and apply for the master's program.