My Path to Grad School

I live to make the most positive impact on human existence. As population grows, as higher education is more accessible, and as we continue to automate as much of our work as possible, it will be increasingly difficult to stand out. For the benefit of myself and society at large, I am closely listening to the needs of society that I can best satisfy. To compete in this quickly changing economic climate, we need to specialize in work that will be in high demand for years to come. I am building a stable career path that leads towards the impact I want to make. I am ready to start applying to part-time graduate school programs to help me fulfill my vision of the future.

For several years now I have researched the job market to find the most in demand skills and knowledge that live at the intersection of my interests and abilities. I am defining myself as a solutions architect who solves digital marketing problems with biologically inspired machine learning techniques. The size, volatility, and overall complexity of the online space makes digital marketing incredibly challenging. I want to help connect people to brands using software solutions optimized to find insights in such complex systems. Pursuing a graduate education in machine learning or predictive marketing analytics will further hone the skills and knowledge I need to create these solutions.

My drive towards a machine learning career began with my studies in artificial intelligence during my undergraduate program. I combined programs in Computer Science and Cognitive Science to lay the necessary foundation I would need to create intelligent software solutions. My coursework focused on how to design and build software that effectively interacts with or emulates the human mind. Particularly, my projects and papers often explored human computer interaction, natural language processing, or algorithms that emulated biological processes (especially neural networks and genetic algorithms). The more I researched these subjects, the more I wanted to learn and apply my learnings to real-world problems.

During college, the work experience I acquired across engineering disciplines complemented my academics in mind opening ways. My first two internships were dedicated to working in agriculture and water treatment. During the first internship, I built out working prototypes of sprayers based on circuit diagrams I drafted in AutoCAD. During the second, I created designs for multi-million dollar water treatment systems based on my own cost, flow, and power analyses in Excel. Following these internships, my creative interests and technical abilities eventually led me into audio engineering for recording studios and music venues in Athens, Georgia. Bootstrapping myself as an audio engineer while studying software engineering allowed me to see the parallels between the fields. I began to notice the importance of abstraction, extensibility, communication protocol, signal flow, and so much more. I was becoming a practiced interdisciplinarian well suited for solution architecture.

Towards the end of my college career, freelancing as an audio engineer and studying computer science led me directly into software and digital strategy consulting for local startup companies. My entrepreneurial mindset and my courage as a hacker allowed me to acquire enough gigs developing web applications to support myself. I learned whatever technologies I needed to learn to get the job done. My associate degree in business administration proved useful as I learned all members of a successful startup team must exercise business analysis (this degree also helped me deal with account management and billing). During all of these early work experiences, I practiced many parts of the systems development lifecycle. These various pursuits further strengthened my abilities as a systems thinker. I developed the confidence to solve any problem.

I entered into industry immediately upon graduation, taking a job as a Support Engineer at Microsoft. There I was placed into the Microsoft Academy of College Hires where I learned enterprise level systems administration. The training focused on the design and development of massive server farms. I further refined my understanding of systems development with a special focus on security, performance, and scalability. After four months on the job, I began working daily with Fortune 100 IT personnel on scores of data intensive projects at various stages of the content management lifecycle. Within my first eighteen months I was promoted to a Senior position and took on so many side projects that I was nominated for Entrepreneur of the Year in my group. The journey within Microsoft Premier Support was awesome, but I knew I needed more relevant experience if I were to pursue a career in machine learning there or elsewhere. Any position that truly interested me within Microsoft where I could practice machine learning required a master’s degree.

My search for the right opportunity led me outside of Microsoft to the much more agile and culture rich landscape of Red Ventures. Here, I work daily with business analysts primarily implementing web analytics solutions and optimizing sites for search. The tremendous amount of knowledge and skill I have gained in open source software development can only be matched by everything I am learning about digital marketing. When I gather the requirements behind the solutions I am building, I make sure the business strategy is clear to me first (even challenging it sometimes). This habit ensures I am capturing the correct data, managing it appropriately, and presenting it in a way that provides the expected results.

What I provide using analytics at Red Ventures is only an enlightening description of what has happened or, in the best case, what is currently happening in the marketplace. In order to go beyond mere incremental improvements, I will need to help the company see what will happen in the future. We are pushing our business intelligence and emerging media teams to develop skills in predictive analytics. We are on the hunt right now for data scientists to do this and more. My favorite open position, Director of Data Science, at Red Ventures requires a master’s degree (and a lot more hands on experience). Many of the most exciting opportunities I have explored in the Charlotte area, at companies like IBM, Tresata, Bank of America, and Premier Inc., require the education and experience a master’s program would provide me.

I have reached a point in my career where I must accelerate towards a specialization in order to qualify for the opportunities I want to pursue. I have pushed myself in the evenings to take several courses offered through massively open online courseware across the field of data science. It is time that I start following a strict and complete academic curriculum under the advisement of world class faculty. If I were to enter into a graduate program, I would choose courses to deepen my understanding of machine learning and predictive marketing analytics, like Machine Learning, Consumer Analytics, and Complex Adaptive Systems from UNCC’s Master’s Degree in Data Science and Business Analytics. These courses would allow me to better compete in the marketplace while also affording me more opportunities in work that I would enjoy.

I would prefer a program’s faculty members, students, and industry partners to be just down the road from my home. The single most valuable takeaway from my undergraduate program was my network. To this day I still gain numerous benefits from the people and companies I worked with throughout my college career. I would love to have regular consultation from professors that have both industry and research experience in intelligent systems and marketing. Shaking hands with them after class and being able to attend their office hours in person would be a huge win for me.

Another goal I have is to broaden and deepen strategic innovation within the South East. I am already captivated by various local startup scenes. Being an entrepreneur at heart, I cannot get enough of the events around my current hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina (go Packard Place!). My career started in the startup scene in Athens and Atlanta, Georgia (I still regularly consult companies, like Routine, from those areas). I plan to return to entrepreneurship full-time once my knowledge-base and network is strong enough. The South East is where I plan to start my family and my next data-driven business. I am dedicated to expanding and empowering my local community so we can make the world better together. These points and more show that the momentum of my life is leading me to attend a local graduate program, maybe in the evenings after work.

If you explore my web presence, starting with paulprae.com or simply by Googling my name, you will see a trail of evidence that proves my preparation and career intentions. My LinkedIn profile details my work experience and education. Application of my knowledge and ability is exemplified through my creative works and code displayed at behance.net/paulprae and on GitHub. You can read insights from my experiences on this blog, blog.paulprae.com, and see the depth of my learnings in my undergraduate papers on Academia.edu. You are also welcome to witness some of my greatest conclusions and see links to my favorite articles of interest by running through my Twitter feed (follow me @praeducer). Collectively, this web presence not only shows you who I am but also represents my abilities to execute on what I have learned regarding personal branding and digital marketing.

As was the intention of this essay, the digital content I have on display tells my story. I have been working towards a degree in machine learning or predictive marketing analytics for years now. I applied to UNCC’s Data Science and Business Analytics program recently and plan on applying to others soon. The need for data scientists is growing at an explosive pace for a reason—the world needs the specialist that I want to become. Program’s like these will help me increase the positive impact I will make on existence. I am ready to start this monumental step towards a better future for my family and for society.