Coming out of graduate school, Elliott Stepusin was able to land a job in data science — a field everyone is talking about these days. But it just wasn’t the right fit.
“I was working with data for a school district, using Excel and other basic tools, but it wasn’t the job I wanted,” Elliott said. “The fun part of grad school for me was the math, the programming and problem solving.”
While doing some research, he found there was a discipline that better matched what he was looking for: machine learning. It’s based on the idea that today’s powerful computers can use sophisticated algorithms to continually refine how they analyze large data sets. To learn as they go, so to speak, in the same way that humans do.
“Machine learning is the term for how computers can discover patterns in data in order to learn more about a specific process or predict on that process in the future,” Elliott explained. “Our society has a wealth of data and information, and we can leverage that information to improve the current processes around us and create new, unique solutions to problems.”
To make the transition to this field, Elliott knew it would require more specialized training. The Certificate in Machine Learning offered exactly what he needed.
Soaring Job Growth
Professionals with machine learning expertise are in huge demand. A recent search for "machine learning" on LinkedIn turned up more than 15,000 jobs in the United States, more than many other data-related positions.
Because the demand is so great, and the skills so specialized, compensation in the field is high. Job listings for machine learning on Indeed.com list a salary range of $80,000 to $130,000, depending on experience. Studies by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate the job market is growing fast. These studies also show the median salary of computer and information research scientists, roles related to machine learning, was $111,840 in 2016.
For Elliott, though, the appeal of machine learning goes beyond the job market or money.
“I’m sure the salary is a big draw for many people, but that’s not what attracted me,” he said. “I really wanted to find something that was fascinating to me, something I could do for the rest of my life.”
Bridging the Resume Gap
Breaking into machine learning would not be an easy task, Elliott realized. His background and work experience didn’t match what employers were looking for.
“I have a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, which seems way out of left field,” he explained. “I needed to get something on my resume that would bridge that gap, and I also needed to acquire some practical knowledge.”
He decided getting another degree was not an option (“I’m definitely done with that level of education”), but a certificate program would provide the practical learning — and respected credential — he was after.
“The certificate was something of substance to put on my resume,” Elliott said. “I think that’s definitely important. A certificate program really facilitates everything you need to do, in terms of positioning yourself in the marketplace.”
I liked that the teachers were in the industry. I think the years of experience that they have, the very diverse backgrounds and job experiences, was really important.
Choosing the UW
After looking at a few other programs, including those at Stanford and Harvard, he decided on the UW certificate program.
“I liked that the teachers were in the industry,” Elliott said. “It's great to learn theory, but at the end of the day, what actually gets done on a daily basis is more important. I think the years of experience that they have, the very diverse backgrounds and job experiences, was really important.”
He also benefited from the online format of the program.
“Offering a program online is great,” he said. “I really like the utility of being able to do the program anytime. And since I live in Chicago, I couldn’t do it in the classroom.”
Elliott considered doing a boot camp program, but he felt that the UW certificate offered greater depth.
“I like that the certificate program included three classes,” he noted. “Some of the other ones are shorter, but I actually prefer that it was nine months, because I thought it gave a little more validity to it.”
Accelerating His Career Path
It didn’t take long for Elliott’s experience in the Certificate in Machine Learning to pay off. In fact, he hadn’t even finished his first course when he hit pay dirt.
“I actually applied to Crowe Horwath, the company I work for now, right out of graduate school,” he recalled. “I talked to the recruiter and he said, ‘We're looking for someone with more machine learning knowledge — maybe two years from now you could come back and apply.’ After I started the program, I reached out to him, and he set up an interview.
“There were a lot of technical machine learning questions in the interview, but all those things had already been covered in the class, which was nice. They pretty much offered me a job on the spot. I think I was two-thirds through the first course of the program at that point.”
Even though he had the job he wanted, Elliott decided to finish the certificate, graduating in 2017. He finds that what he learned continues to help him at his job today.
“The types of things you do in class during the certificate program, those are the exact kinds of things I do at work now,” he said. “We have machine learning conversations and debates where I can use what I learned from my instructors and participate in a meaningful way.”