Tim WeeksSeptember 18, 2018
Timothy Weeks lives in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, with his wife, Heather, and son, Reo. Timothy is a data scientist at Post Holdings, where he combines machine learning, visual design, and communication (of course!) to help Post’s portfolio of companies understand their data.
What year did you graduate and what was your concentration?
What extra-/co-curricular activities did you do?
I worked for News36, now TMN TV, all four years and became the executive producer my fourth year. I hosted a show on KTRM for two semesters, served as a student representative to the Economics department board, was a part of the CRU community, and completed the Honors Scholar program.
Did you go to grad school? If so, where? Was it immediately after you left Truman, or did you wait? Why?
Yes, I graduated from U.C. Berkeley’s Master of Information and Data Science program in 2017.
When I left Truman, I was already interested in a quantitative master’s degree in statistics, finance, or applied economics and prioritized job opportunities with education sponsorships. In 2014, I reached a decision-point; I could either spend four years in a non-technical role until I finished my degree or postpone my degree and find a new job where I could work meaningfully with data every day. I decided to transition to Post Holdings and worked there for about 18 months before starting my master’s program, also with an employer sponsorship.
In hindsight, I’m glad I prioritized hands-on experience ahead of a degree, both because the skills I developed on the job are more valuable and because I appreciated the content of my master’s coursework so much more. Additionally, working for an employer with a sponsorship program rather than enrolling full-time made my degree significantly more affordable. These sponsorships are common among large companies and can be a great resource, if you’re willing to make a multi-year commitment to your employer.
What was your first job after graduation?
I was a part of Boeing’s Business Skills Rotation Program and spent a year focused on expense compliance, auditing, and fraud detection. I performed a range of repetitive data analysis process at a small scale and became deeply familiar with Excel and Access, increasingly designing workflows that could be completely automated with Visual Basic code.I began researching more advanced analysis tools and found Python and Tableau mentioned frequently for data processing, artificial intelligence, and visualization. Massive open online courses from Codecademy and Coursera helped me to teach myself the basics, and St. Louis-based LaunchCode connected with me with an apprenticeship at Post Holdings, where I’ve grown into my current role.
What work do you do/What are you doing now?
Post Holdings is a consumer packaged goods holding company with a wide range of food products across its divisions. I am a part of the Decision Science team, which focuses on using data to improve organizational decision-making. We function as internal consultants to our divisions; we help to identify areas of improvement, move and store large quantities of data, repeatedly explore the results with our audience, and deliver analytics products that are visual, interactive, and easily understandable.
Personally, I focus on machine learning and advance analytics projects, constructing algorithms to predict future performance, optimize processes, or detect incorrect data. I write code in a few different tools, design dashboards and other custom visualizations, communicate insights to our internal clients, and summarize the impact of our work for Post’s top executives.
How has your Liberal Arts/COMM education helped you?
I firmly believe the liberal arts are the best preparation for a career in data science. Many of the earliest definitions of the field emphasize the interdisciplinary blend of abilities required to unlock its value, and while it’s easy to focus on technical skills, I believe motivated, curious exploration and cross-functional experience are the rarest components.
In contrast to more focused curricula, the flexibility of the liberal arts rejects a single canon of critical information or techniques and illustrates how multi-disciplinary world-views can interact in reference to a single topic. At Truman, I learned enough about statistics, modern art, and communication theory (to name a few) to realize how much more I can explore. The curiosity to continue exploring is still a part of who I am today.
The breadth of the liberal arts certainly cannot wholly substitute for some set of tangible skills, but in my experience, it’s much easier to take someone with a broad set of mental frameworks and teach them how to query a database (ideally, they can teach themselves!) than to make someone who has exclusively studied computer science or accounting prepared to solve relevant business problems. Cross-functional skills allow you to relate individuals and concepts from several fields, associating them in innovative ways and delivering a unique value that’s distinct from a single-domain expert.
Which class did you dislike at the time you took it, but now you’re grateful you took it?
I didn’t enjoy Experimental Methods much at the time, but many of the course concepts apply directly to my current role.
One of my favorite quotes is from statistician George Box who said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Practically, it’s imperative to recognize the assumptions and limitations of a given analysis approach and balance reasonable assumptions with complex realities to draw meaningful conclusions from data. If we don’t simplify the world into a mental model at all, the complexity will prevent any insight, but oversimplification, shoehorning a problem into an incorrect set of assumptions, will yield claims that fail to hold up in the long run. Tests of statistical rigor and solid experimental design help to ensure our models are useful without being too wrong.
What was your greatest accomplishment at Truman?
Graduating in four years with a double-major!
Why is Truman a good place for a student to study?
Close relationships with faculty. I remember writing a short paper for one of my first Communication courses and receiving feedback from Dr. Diane Johnson. She simply wrote, “Great paper! Have you considered going to grad school?” As a freshman, I definitely hadn’t thought that far into my future, so I went to her office hours to discuss what parts of the graduate experience she thought would be beneficial for me. Dr. Johnson’s encouragement and openness made me feel I could succeed at Truman and demonstrated the willingness of faculty to support and engage with students.
Beyond their constructive feedback in the courses I was taking, I interacted with several faculty members in other contexts; I was a student assistant to both Dr. Johnson and Dr. Jay Self, met frequently with News36 advisor, Dr. Marilyn Yaquinto, and received valuable advice from Dr. David Gillette on multiple occasions. In particular, Dr. Gillette made me aware of the internship opportunity that began my career in data science and has continued to build my connections with other Truman graduates. I’m proud to say we have a second Bulldog working at Post now! (Editor’s note – Boo-Ya!)
What would you say a COMM student should absolutely do while at Truman?
Internships! I had very little insight into what real jobs looked like as a first-year student and changed my career goals many times. Two different experiences really clarified my expectations and helped me understand my own preferences. I was a promotions intern for Entercom broadcasting in Kansas City and a business intelligence intern for Pinnacle Technical Resources in Dallas, and both internships gave me unique, hands-on experience that showed me what it would be like to work in these industries (student media is great for the same reason). My internships not only helped me build a resume, but also guided which courses I would take and what jobs I would apply for after graduation. I would have felt very lost without them!
What advice would you give someone who wants to go into the same line of work as you?
Become comfortable experimenting and teaching yourself, especially new technologies, but always strive for impact over credentials. My boss likes to say, “20% of your skills become obsolete every year. If you go 5 years without learning anything, you’re approaching irrelevancy.”
Fortunately, there are many free, informative resources and incredibly intelligent people online who are committed to openness and sharing. The democratization of information makes it possible to develop a very marketable skill-set through self-study and to stay current, even if you’re not living in Silicon Valley or New York. However, always relate technical skills back to business impact.
I see many resumes that are packed with acronyms, jargon, and the latest, cutting-edge technologies, but are completely missing a sense of perspective, a story of how these tools can be used to help people. It’s easy for people who work with technology to measure themselves by tools they know how to use, rather than the value they’ve delivered. Often the right approach is the simplest. Always chasing new, complex technologies, rather than selecting the right tool for the job, will harm your company and ultimately your career.
What do you miss most about campus/Kirksville?
The walkability of campus and sense of connection to other students.
What tag line would you create for the COMM department at Truman?
If you could come back to Truman and teach a class for a semester, what would be its title and what would it be about?
Metaphor in Professional Communication.
I have no idea if there’s any scholarly work to support this observation (Editor’s note: there is), but I’m always surprised at the clarity provided by a good metaphor, even in the most technical or strategic conversations. In fact, my favorite interview question is to ask potential hires to use a metaphor to describe a statistical model. The question demonstrates their stats knowledge and ability to communicate without relying on jargon. Maybe it should be a JINS course with a computer science professor!
If you would like to learn more of Timothy’s story, you can follow him on LinkedIn.