Digital Technology Instructor Interview: Ali El-Annan
UCLAx: Please tell us about yourself and how you got where you are in your career?
Ali: I could probably say it all started with a Lego set as a child when I had that “I want to be an engineer” moment. But I’ll pick up from when I graduated from UC Berkeley with an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science degree. I was determined to build satellites, shuttles or go work for NASA. Destiny being as such, I ended up going into financial services post-Cal, and later worked at a technology company rather than go back to finance. It was great — I contributed across roles, from portfolio management to quantitative research to analytics, and beyond. It was challenging at times, rewarding at others. I’ve built skills across domains and networks across the globe. Currently, I work on a variety of data science, analytics, and technology efforts at a financial services firm.
To close it out with that Lego set and my core ambitions, I am blessed to have grown up in a house where my Mom always encouraged active citizenship and participation in the community, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and to always be open to learning new things. As such, I’m happy to be able to instruct at UCLA Extension and be part of the community.
UCLAx: Is there anything you are currently working on that you would like to share with us?
Ali: Absolutely. There are a few ventures I’m pursuing. One is a very creative project (my first in the non-technical sphere). A few others are projects with fellow Cal Alumni that we (hope) can make the world a better place. I’m also independently learning some interesting “Internet of Things” technologies and tools for use with 3D printing and design.
UCLAx: Could you tell us about your course “Exploratory Data Analysis and Visualization,” and what students can expect to take away from it?
Ali: I’d love to talk about the Exploratory Data Analysis and Visualization course, which is part of the suite of Data Science courses UCLA Extension offers. Students will be able to approach existing challenges, frame and define new problems, and solve them using both the skills and tools they will learn through the course. It will be challenging, as we will use a lot of tools to give broad and deep exposure to all things data, to all things visualization, and tie them together. We will trace back and forth through the problem with data and visualization solutions. Effectively, students can leverage these skills for their entrepreneurial interests/starting a company, by using them at an existing company or institution, or for their own academic learnings.
UCLAx: What advice can you give to our students trying to break into the Data Science field?
Ali: Learn core concepts across domains (i.e., mathematics, computer science, design, etc.), learn different approaches (i.e., be able to solve the same problem using different techniques, or understand the available options and their trade-offs), and be ready to pivot (i.e., know the field will continue to grow, so grow with it and perhaps even contribute to it). Practice, exercise, and build intuition around what you are learning. Be aware of trends, but be careful about chasing them and have a diverse portfolio of skills. The field of Data Science can arguably be said to have existed from the beginnings of math and computer science, but essentially the improvements in computational capabilities have created a platform for amassing, processing, and understanding mass amounts of data by individuals with a computer and some skills. Practice, practice, practice. If you have a problem you want to solve, be patient with yourself, but try and solve it using the tools and skills you learn so that you can continuously improve. Create portfolios of your work, and be creative in gaining experience (i.e., seek an internship or work on a project with a non-profit). Attend networking events, technical talks, participate in competitions and find companies that — although they may be riskier from a career perspective — might give you the exposure you seek. Another route could also be to provide consulting services while you build your experience. There are many paths to success, and you’ve already started the most important part — learning and growing.