We put a series of questions to Brian, from our Dublin office, on his role as a data scientist. As well as his learning more about the challenges he faces in his day-to-day role, we asked why he chose data science, what attracted his to UnitedHealth Group and how he sees the field of data science evolving in the future.
Optum is part of the UnitedHealth Group family of businesses. What attracted you to the company?
Optum is building a world class data science team in Dublin, and quite simply, I wanted to be a part of it. The opportunity to be part of a cutting edge team, the collaborative environment that is being fostered and the opportunity to work on projects that can have a real impact on people’s lives are all reasons I joined Optum. The company is at the forefront of healthcare and really making a difference. The impact is on a global scale. Since joining last year, I have not been disappointed.
Data Science is the career area everyone is talking about. How would you describe it to someone new to this field?
Data Science evolves around three disciplines: statistics, programming (software engineering) and business/consulting skills. A data science project has two elements, a problem and data. The core to data science is taking the three skills, shaping the problem and the data to deliver insights and solutions that make an impact.
What attracted you to a career in data science?
I have a background in software engineering and I enjoy consulting with stakeholders. Data science seemed a natural fit between both as you get to really put your stamp on the solution you create. In addition you are continually learning new methods or algorithms and often new domains, like healthcare!
How do you see the field evolving in the future?
There are so many advances and changes in data science. However if I may I will focus on model interpretability.
From a social perspective, data science is expanding into many areas of our lives, without us being aware of it. Think of Google Search or Spotify music recommendations and predictive text.
From a business perspective, data science is also expanding into all parts of the business functions. However the key difference is the awareness. Business needs to understand what a model is finding, how good that finding is, and what the impact will be before using the model.
So the onus on methods for model interpretability is becoming more pressing. This runs contrary to the advancements around methods like Deep Learning, which in many ways obscure model interpretability.
Tell us a little more about your role and what you do on a day-to-day basis.
I work with a core team of four people. I am normally working on a few different projects at any one time, all at different stages of maturity. I try to spend the morning working solely on projects and the afternoons are given more to meeting with stakeholders and on-going communication of results.
What’s the most challenging part of your role?
Within Optum the most challenging part of my role is the volume and variety of the data due the size and ongoing expansion of the company. As a relatively recent starter I am constantly learning and finding out about new data sources and trying to understand how to incorporate them into a project. It’s challenging but exciting at the same time.
What do you like best about your role?
I like the interaction with other data scientists to flesh out an idea. More generally I like data science as I am always learning new things. Being part of an elite team where I am continually developing my skills makes for a very exciting work environment.
You recently took part in a photo shoot with Optum. How was that?
It was lots of fun. It was out in the Wicklow mountains, just south of Dublin. A beautiful part of the country. I love being outdoors so it was great to be able to bring my passion into images that I now see promoting the company I work for!
If you could travel anywhere for a day, where would you go and why?
Can I travel forward in time? I’d like to see what the earth looks like in 100 years.
How do you switch off at the end of the working week, and how important is it to do that?
I often go for a jog on Saturday morning and meet up with friends for breakfast, which normally gets me in a great mood as you feel you have started the weekend on a healthy note.
What would you say to someone just starting out in their data science career?
As mentioned earlier, there are three core skills. Taking the first two I would say – 1) learning one or two algorithms really well, so you know them inside out. After that, other algorithms will fall into place easily.
2) Learn a programming language (R or Python are really popular ones). It will stand to you as you become embedded with teams whether they are consulting or software engineering type teams.
Lastly I would say, try to get a position within a team where you will have a good support network and be able to learn as much as you can from your peers.
Thanks for joining us, any final words of advice?
My pleasure. I really enjoy my job and find it very rewarding. There are lots of surveys out there that say “Data Scientists” are the most content employees. I certainly enjoy my working day – which is a great place to be in terms of career. So as a final word to anyone thinking of a Data Science career I would say give it a go. I think you will find it rewarding.
For more information about Brian, visit his profile here