Brandon, Data Scientist, Father of Four, MA
Brandon is currently a data scientist for Microsoft in Boston and is the creator of BECCA, a machine-learning program. He has four children and was interviewed by his daughter, Andie.
Tell me about a child you care about. What makes them unique?
I have several that come immediately to mind, but for the purposes of this interview, I will pick one. He happens to be going into ninth grade. What makes him unique from an educational standpoint is that he has some really remarkable skills, but also some other areas, notable areas, where it takes more work for him. He’s very curious and engaged, but reading used to be a pretty big challenge. He has worked really, really hard at reading, whereas with math and things involving spatial reasoning he’s super speedy, nice and slick.
Imagine that child is now in their 30s – out of school and starting into adult life. What do you hope for them about their life? What would make it a ‘good’ or ‘successful’ life?
If they are into their thirties, then at least from the perspective of education and their trajectory, I think what I would want for him would be doing something that he loves and is good at. It doesn’t matter to me one bit what that is, but if he is good at it and he loves it, he’ll be able to make a living out of it in some way or another, and, more importantly, he’ll have a deep satisfaction. That’s what I strive for in my own professional work and that’s something that I wish for everybody that I love.
So you would define happiness as a deep satisfaction with life?
Yep, and specifically related to a job, doing something that you’re good at and you love.
What role do you think schooling should play in achieving that ideal good life?
There are a few that come to mind. This is from my own experience; the most important thing school has done for me is to teach me how to learn new stuff. I went to school for a lot of years and I remember very little of what I learned in any class. What I get paid to do right now I didn’t learn to do in school, but I enjoy some of what I do very much and I was able to discover it not when I was going to school, but I was able to learn it because in school I learned to not be afraid of learning. So, if there was something that I wanted to learn, I could buy a bunch of books, I could read about it, I could try it, and I could jump in. Learning to learn is a big one. Another one is that, for a lot of professions, there are boxes you have to check or badges you have to get. One of those badges could be a certain degree and it would help if that degree is from a certain school. Sometimes you need a certain professional certificate, or to pass the bar exam if you’re a lawyer. So education is kind of jumping through hoops and playing a big elaborate game. Being able to play that well gives you a much better chance of doing something that you love and are good at. It can help you get to that position. Education will also prepare people to play that game and to play it well.
Do/will schools play the role that you think they should for “your” child? Why or why not?
I think, as far as the learning to learn, there are, in my experience, a minority of really good teachers out there who emphasize that. Not just, “learn this and spit it back to me”, but “think about this, question this, do you think this is even right?” or “hey, you’re curious about this, go on your own and explore it and dig up more information about this, and totally drive it yourself.” Not many teachers go to that level but a few do. Where they tend to excel more is in teaching you to play the game. Most teachers who are considered good help you prepare to take standardized tests, they help you to do the things you need to do to get into a school, or a program, or a professional training program that you want, and they’ll write you letters of recommendation. I think that’s more common. The learning to learn part is more rare in my experience.
Will schools play the role it should for all children? If not, why not?
What I’ve observed is that teachers in schools in richer neighborhoods tend to be much higher quality than teachers in schools in poorer neighborhoods. And so, no, that doesn’t serve everyone evenly. My understanding is that there’s also a racial disparity there too. It’s not uniform, but from what I’ve experienced the single biggest determining factor is whether or not a child at home has a safe, welcoming, accepting environment. If they’re not safe, all the stuff at school is going to take backseat to emotional survival. They’re not going to care about playing the game; they’re not going to care about learning, because they’re just going to be trying to get by. It’s good if they have a safe, secure home environment, a place where they feel accepted and loved, and on top of that they have parents who are pretty excited and say, “hey, tell me what you learned, and tell me about your project ideas,” and encourage the children to do that. And even, in exceptional cases, parents who take the learning home and support learning to learn. If a child expresses curiosity about something, the parent will take them to see whatever it is, like a glass blowing exhibition, or a museum exhibit on how Pixar makes movies, or whatever, THAT is what super charges it. No school will be able to make up for the lack of that at home. Basically what I’m saying is that there’s a huge disparity and the number one factor is parents and home environment. There are other factors like some schools are better than others, which often falls along socioeconomic lines.
Do you think people agree with you on each of those levels?
For a good life, I think some, although especially where you are in California (Silicon Valley) and where I am in Boston (Beacon Hill) there’s much more emphasis on achievement in the sense of, not just, “do you love what you’re doing and are you good at it?” but “is it something that makes a lot of money and gets a lot of recognition?” Those are things I intentionally didn’t put on my list. I think a lot of people would, and would say if you love it and are good at it is secondary.
What about with the role of school in getting you to that place of satisfaction with your life?
I think that I would probably get more agreement on that school prepares you for more school, and for achievement, and for playing the game, and for advancement. I would get less for learning how to learn. There would probably be some agreement, but I would guess less than half of people would agree with that being really what’s important about school.
What about with whether or not schools will successfully execute the role that they should?
I think I would get relatively wide agreement with that family’s the biggest thing, and after that some schools are better than others and it tends to depend on wealth. Wealthy schools are much more likely to deliver on what their students need.
What have been some of your most empowering educational experiences? This doesn’t have to be in school – it could be outside of school or after you finished.
I have been really lucky. I have been able to learn things that I’ve wanted to learn as a part of my job, since leaving school. So, for instance, I have done a lot of learning in machine learning, which is the rules and recipes that computers use to learn patterns. But, I didn’t learn this in school at all, and when I got serious about learning it, I was able to buy a stack of textbooks and I started reading through them. I didn’t do all the problems at the end of the chapters, but I started reading through them and trying to fit the pieces together in my mind. I was building something, a computer program that was doing machine learning, on the side, so I got to use some of these ideas and start to fit them together. That was about ten years ago, and as a result, I’m considered a machine learning expert and I didn’t even go to school for it! *laughs * I just really sat down and studied it and started using it to build stuff. That was incredibly empowering. Now, I’m often approached by people who say, “Hey, I want to learn machine learning, how do I do it?” I wrote a little article and I put it on the web, and it’s called “Build Stuff”. You start learning, there are lots of resources on the internet, you just start studying and using it. It’s the same approach that I would take if I were to get into anything. If I were to learn Chinese, or if I were going to start studying architecture, or if I wanted to become a chef, I would just jump in and gather what I could, but most importantly start using it right away. Feeling that the power was within me to do that, and it was just the time and effort that it takes, but I can choose that, was a huge revelation.
Tell me about a teacher who impacted your life.
When I think about teachers, I have a lot that have been pretty good, there’s always one that comes to mind. I had her as my English teacher in my junior year of high school. As a freshman and a sophomore I had English teachers and just thought, “Psh, come on, I’m on my way to be an engineer, I work at cars when I’m at home, I ride my bike, I like to rock climb, this English stuff is just a waste of time, it’s crap, it’s boring, I can’t stand it”…I had a really bad attitude. So, I go into my junior AP English class and my teacher is smart and has got a fairly strict set of rules, but when she starts talking about literature, (she’s talking to a bunch of juniors in high school, a lot of which have a worse attitude than me), but her face just lit up and she got so excited. She was very articulate and was able to explain what was going on. She was able to point things out and get us talking about it and to ask questions about not just about who said what, but about, “hey, these characters are dealing with an issue and it’s kind of like this issue you might be dealing with, what do you guys think about that and what do you think about their approach to it?” It just made it all come alive. I had a slightly less bad attitude and I started reading stuff. I got to some of the poets in British literature. I read some poems, one by T. S. Elliot. The poem is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It was about this guy, who was older, but he was incredibly awkward, he felt left out, he didn’t feel like he was going to find someone to love him, he felt hesitant, afraid, like a coward. The world was scary, he felt like people were mocking him, and he wanted to be a part of it so bad, and I thought, “wow!” For my junior in high school self, this author took a little slice of my soul and put it into a poem. I thought, “how do you have my words?” Anyways, that was moving for me. I had always enjoyed reading books, but they were the “cool” books, the ones I wanted to read. I realized why people love good literature, because it tells stories that are a little pieces of a lot of us. I ascribe all of that to this teacher. She, in a really nontrivial way, changed my life.