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Interview with a Fellow: Javier Farfan on data, creativity, and adaptability in Data Science

We talked with one of our Fellows, Javier Farfan, who graduated from the Asigmo Data Science Training Program in November 2020, about his past experience in Academia in Mexico and Finland and his future aspirations. He shared his reflections on the importance of data in academic research, flexibility in the modern world and staying creative, even if one assumes that Data Science is all about numbers and coding.

" It was quite evident to me that the data was extremely important and it was what makes the difference if you want to have excellence in research".

Asigmo: Hi! Thank you for joining today! This interview is about your journey of becoming a Data Scientist. Could you please first introduce yourself and tell us where you are from, what you have been up to until now, and how you learned about Asigmo Data Science Program. Basically, about everything that led you up to this point.

Javier: My name is Javier Farfan. I was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico. In 2010 I decided I wanted to find my path abroad. At that point, I searched for studies abroad and eventually found a good place for myself in Finland. So, I came to Finland and I did my Master's degree. On my naivety, I thought that during the first year I would be able to learn both the Finnish language and the Swedish language. I had no idea how they were. Of course. I had a bucket full of reality coming at my face when I understood that these are the languages that you cannot read and learn in one year—or nine—as I have been living here. But anyway, I moved to Finland and did a Master’s degree, which I finished at the end of 2013. Then I decided, “Ok, I’m going to find a job”.

As soon as I entered the job market in Finland, the conflict in Ukraine happened. This was a huge economic crisis, and Finland was hit the worst since Finland is close to Russia. It was hit with a lot of sanctions from the European Union. Not only there were no available jobs, but the people who had a job were also losing it. I spent a year looking for a job and I found nothing. After one year a friend of mine told me that there was a research position at the university where I had finished my Master’s and that I should have maybe applied for it.

I checked the position, I applied, something quite funny happened. I went to a couple of interviews and then at the end they told me, “Ok, you are not going to get the job”. And I said, “Well, ok, I tried”.

And then a week later, another Professor that was starting the research group (he had hired the person, but that person got a job somewhere else and, in the end, he was not coming) asked in the department, “Does anyone have candidates to start a research project? We are looking for some right now”. The guy, who was searching for the candidates, told him, “If I had 2 positions, I would have hired the Mexican guy [Javier]. But I had one position”. So, I exchanged a couple of emails and I went to the interview, and in the interview, I was told that I was going to get hired.

So, I started doing a Ph.D. at the beginning of 2015. And you know, from the left or from the right it was something new to me. I was working on my project for the Master's degree and it was a completely different level of research. We were a group of 3 people, the first 3 hired to be a part of that research group. So, it was a new group with a new professor in a new field, everything was uncharted territory, let's say. And, on top of that, the type of research I was doing—the doctorate degree— was something that I have never done before. So, it was a lot of learning.

During the first year of work, something interesting happened. Originally as for my research topic, I was trying to come up with the environmental assessment of the large rivers in the world in order to come up in the end with a bunch of reasons why they [large rivers] shouldn’t be turned into hydropower resource. For instance, the Congo river. I drafted my research plan and so on. And that all my research had nothing to do with that after the draft. Because the guy that was my boss at the time was like, “I need you to do this, I need you to do that”. And the core activity of the research group was to make a model that shows pathways, in which you can transform the energy sector in the world to the carbon free energy sector, based on renewables.

And this work was two-sided. One side was about modeling: to create a model to do all the calculations, and on the other side was the data. And they put me in charge of the data side. So, I had to my own dataset based on commercial databases and do a bunch of analysis and feed the data to the people, who were in charge of the modeling. I ended up working with data for my whole Ph.D. During that time is when I understood that it is sometimes more important to have proper data than to have a good model. It was the excellence in data that made us reach the results—in the modeling and everything else—and be published in the top scientific journals of the world, within our research time. It was quite evident to me that the data was extremely important and it was what makes the difference if you want to have excellence in research.

I continued my research working mostly in that kind of activity. I diversified a little bit because I did some data surveys from the steel industry, cement industry I did something in greenhouses, and, of course, in agriculture. And then I completed my research for my Ph.D.

So, I had completed my research, I had completed my thesis and sent it for a review. And then you have some time, a gap when you are waiting if your thesis is going to be approved or not before your defense. During this time is when somebody there in Lappeenranta told me, “Hey, I heard about this program — Asigmo Data Science Training Program, maybe if you are interested you can apply”, and I thought: “Yeah, why not?”. For me, it was quite clear how important it was, data and everything. And the shift to data science seemed to be the only natural thing to do. So I applied. I had a conversion with Shiva and later with Ehsan and they decided to take me in, and this was when I made the shift to Data Science. Just to say, it was during the first weeks [of the Asigmo Program] I understood that during my Ph.D. I was working on data in an extremely inefficient way. Because there were so many thighs that I didn’t know, the latest ways of working with data, and I literally lost countless hours and probably weeks and even months of inefficient data work. So, it was definitely an eye-opening experience. And I learned a lot.

Now, as you know, I am trying to see if I can make a jump, not only from the training side but also from the professional side. I would like to get any kind of – data scientist, data analyst – position, that is my target. Hopefully, this year will be much better than the previous year and I hope I can make that happen.

Asigmo: I hope so too! Do you want to stay in Academia and work as a post-doc and get (hopefully) tenure track, or do you want to be more involved in the Industry?

Javier: If I had to make a choice, I would probably go to the industry. Even before I got the knowledge of Asigmo. During my doctoral degree, I understood that there are two big disadvantages in Academia for your professional life. One big disadvantage is: if I want to continue in Academia, for the next 10 or maybe more years I will never get a very long-term contract. They give you one year, two years, you have to search for your own funding. So, it’s kind of unstable. Not kind of – it is unstable! From the job security perspective. And on top of that, the salaries are much lower compared to what you get in the Industry. I have nothing against the research as an activity, but Academia—I don’t count it out! —is not my preference, my priority.

Asigmo: I don’t know if the question of long-term or short-term plans then counts in these times, no-one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow even, but...

Javier: Yeah, that’s right! Everything is in the air. Short-term... thankfully, at least for the next three weeks, I am going to have my hands full on the internship we got through Asigmo with a company in Boston. So, I think it is going to be a really good experience, a real-case kind of thing, my first contact with the Data Science world. So, my short-term plan is on excelling at that. Maybe— not from a professional perspective but from a personal one—I am going back to the Finnish courses. I really want to improve my Finnish skills for which I didn’t have much time during my doctorate degree.

In the long-term, I really want to find a position where I can happily do data work, in a field where my work can have an impact. Make a difference in a way – for the company and, hopefully, on a larger scale. When I was doing research for the doctorate degree, we were working on carbon reduction or carbon neutrality. So, it was always something like climate change research in a way, which is very important. And we can only hope that at some point somebody reads your paper and thinks, “Ok, this is a good reason to stop emitting carbon!” And you made the change, you know! And I want to reach a similar impact, but through data. Either though... It doesn’t have to be in climate, it can be just—I don’t know—happiness! How positive we are in the company or hopefully on a larger scale. Country, the world, the city...

"I think the need of people to continue to move forward, to adapt to the new environments, will continue".

Asigmo: Do you think the future will be completely data-based and all the work will revolve around it? Or it will be a part of it, and there will be something else to it?

Javier: Hmmm... Ha, that’s a good question...

Asigmo: Do you think that data scientist skills—or, how to say it—like typing or basic skills that you have to have to live work in the world of the future?

Javier: It’s interesting... Throughout my life, I have seen how radically things are shifting. I think right now much faster than they ever did in the past. Like the example of my own mother. Her Bachelor’s degree was literary in typewriting. Being able to type on a keyboard was a Bachelor’s degree in her years! When I was doing homework in my high school or during the early years of my bachelor's degree, I was still bringing the floppy disks to save the code. Now you see a small computer in everybody’s pocket these days. Back in the time, the computer was just a big box sitting in the corner of your house. You had a lot of fun with these internet noises with the dial-up Internet.

It's clear to me that data is extremely important, it's going to be the main thing, but it will be not the only thing in the future. The human's interactions and participation – it has been discussed globally: how jobs are going to disappear due to automation and Artificial Intelligence. But throughout history, the same number of jobs that disappear due to technology – appear because of technology. I think the need for people to continue to move forward, to adapt to the new environments, will continue. I do see data and AI taking a large share of activities that we do today.

Asigmo: What would be your advice to the younger people, to the people who want to shift their careers, to enter a new one. What kind of skills or what kind of vision should they have to have? What kind of skills do you want yourself to have, to develop?

Javier: t’s a good question! Back in my time when I was doing my Bachelor's in Mexico... The education in Mexico back in my time, I don’t know if it has changed now – it was extremely tough. Like it was a brutal time. To have an idea of how brutal it was – I would say roughly some 40% of people who started high school with me failed. And maybe 50% of people during my Bachelor’s dropped out. The type of education we had – it was like we really had to … I remember the professor was really drilling us with so much information, so many things we needed to know. And he used to say, “All these things that we are making you learn right now—we are just trying to put the whole knowledge in the world into your ear—the things that you are learning right now will not be of use to you, but learning how to adapt, to how to learn learning all these things in the short period of time will make the difference during your job. It doesn’t make a difference what you're learning right now”.

The moment you jump to real life is when you have to start from zero. That background is what I had when I got exposed to the Finnish educational system – adapting to the education system in Finland was so simple! I came from the educational system in Mexico prepared for the jungle and from this experience, I understand that flexibility is the most important thing you can learn or should focus on as an ability to have. For me, it's perfectly clear that whatever you do during your studies is not necessary and, in most cases, more likely not what are you going to do when you move forward in your professional life. So being able just to learn, not only the information but the process of how to absorb these things – is what is going to move you from one to another. I think something I learned from the move from the education from Mexico to Finland and what helped me to succeed in other places too.

Asigmo: So, do you think Finland is more progressive in terms of adapting to new changes?

Javier: So, the education in Finland is quite interesting. In Mexico, it feels or it felt in my time that the schools the universities had incentives to make students fail. It was like an obstacle race; it was really hard. In Finland, it is completely relaxed. If you fail you can take several attempts, if you don’t like this course you can choose another course. It was such a weird change. It was like going from the military to a hippie concert, to Lollapalooza. From ‘You have to do everything as we say or you will be punished’ to ‘Don't worry, do your own way’. I do believe that there are two different approaches. For me, the approach of Finland really promotes creativity, and I personally believe creativity is the most important thing you can have as a human being. Because knowing how to do stuff is not nearly as important as how to create stuff. I think this is what puts Finland on top, what makes Finland have such a great reputation in terms of education. Because I believe, even being a super small country in the middle of nowhere, ice, and cold, they are still finding ways to succeed in their economy without having many resources. They are always finding the ways; they are always creating themselves.

"I personally believe creativity is the most important things you can have as a human being. Because knowing how to do stuff is not nearly as important as how to create stuff".

Asigmo: Do you think that creativity is an important skill for a Data Scientist?

Javier: Yes, very much! The way I see it, creativity means ‘sometimes being able to see outside the box’. I think it is particularly useful when you work with data as a Data Scientist because you do not need always to do things the way they are usually done. Even in Data Science in particular (or in modeling) —let’s say you do a regression model— there are so many ways to do it in data science! And the ways that already exist are not the only ones in reality – there are more ways to make a regression prediction model that will appear at some point – that it will be created. Things are going to be developed. And this constant development of algorithms, of these libraries, all these things — all these things are all about creativity. I think it's one of the most important things to have as a data scientist!

Asigmo: Do you think that Asigmo Data Science Training Program updated both your hard skills and soft skills, and opened up you to something new?

Javier: One thing that I see that the program was rather intensive. We had a world of information to absorb. I think that just knowing that a thing exists is already a huge advantage. Even if, for example, TensorFlow (A library for artificial intelligence), don’t know it like the back of my hand, after going through the Asigmo Program—just that I know that it exists helps me in a way that in a moment that I need it—I know that it exists and I can access it and dig into that. In a way, it provided me with a bunch of little boxes that in a way that is still closed to me but I know that I can go on and open it. So, I believe that to a large extent, Asigmo prepared me for these things. I am not coming out as an expert in everything Data Science-related because 2 months is not enough time to become an expert in anything but I think it opened a lot of new doors for me and it opened my eyes to a new world that I didn’t know it existed just last summer. It really changed the way I think.

Asigmo: We have been talking for more than 40 minutes! Do you have maybe a final note? Something that was bothering you, for instance, this year and how you were overcoming it.

Javier: This one for example: one thing that I admire of Asigmo– is that how fast they adapted. In the summer when I had my talks with Shiva and Ehsan, idea was that I would go to Vienna, we would all meet in a classroom, we would exchange ideas in person and so on. And in the middle of that COVID-19 takes over the world. And the decision came, “We have to move everything to the virtual!”. There was no other choice. And you did it really fast. In a way, I wished I was able to go to Vienna and do all these things, meet everyone in person - from Asigmo and the colleagues, the trainers and mentors— all these fantastic people, with whom I would like to go outside and have a beer, you know. But from having everything prepared to be in-person to go virtual within a month ASAP — you did a great job! And the trainers did a great job too at that. I really need to give ‘kudos’ to Asigmo for that.

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