How I landed my first Data Science job in one of Australia’s Big Four banks

First day in Australia

After a tearful farewell at the international airport in my home country, the flight to Melbourne took off and soon after everything looked miniature through the aeroplane window. Looking down to see my city for the last time, I knew that I was about to start a new journey in another country without certainty about the future as well as the return date. I told myself that at least, I knew the destination and the most precious belonging I was carrying with me back then were hopes and dreams.

Arriving Melbourne on the day after, I had to leave the past, friends and my family behind to begin a new life like many other students coming to Australia for February intake in 2018. Gorgeous, peaceful and sunny were the words I used to express my feeling about Melbourne on the first day. Ancient buildings surrounded by skinny skyscrapers, uphill roads reflecting the sunset, tram gongs and the sound of crosswalk buttons kept me distracted from my homesick and made me feel excited to explore the historical city and its secret lanes in Central Business District.

Struggled to find a job

After the first week exploring Melbourne, I settled down in a student accommodation next to my university in the city and started tracking the numbers in my bank account to plan for rental payments in the upcoming months. Even though I had enough money to survive in Melbourne for the next 12 months without working, watching the balance dropping down every day was a real pressure similar to a count down till my bankrupt moment… Yes, I have to find a job.

I was an experienced Automation Engineer with more than 7 years of experience and used to work for a Germany tech giant in my home country. Therefore, I was quite confident that I would easily get a similar job with my background so I created my profiles on certain Australian job search sites and applied for some relevant positions. I was shocked that amongst 10 applications sent out, there were only three of them getting back and I failed the same interview question for all three despite their impressions with my profile.

The question was: “What is your residency status?”

“I am currently holding a student VISA”, I said.

That was how I got rejected. Student can only work for 20 hours per week in Australia and this is one of the reasons why many companies don’t want to employ international students. From my perspective, the working hour limitation is not really a bad thing since students are supposed to focus on their studying to be beneficial from the program. I have barely seen any students who work while studying fulltime and still understand all the lectures. After all, we all come to Australia for studying, improving ourselves and chasing our dreams. The money will absolutely come after if you have successfully brought yourself up to the next level.

Addicted to Caffeine

However, the downside of this policy is that student will often turn to cash-in-hand jobs with off-the-book salary payments and high risk of being exploited as the finance pressure still exists and they need to earn income for living. I used to work part-time in my undergrad and I guess it is a typical student life around the world.

A few weeks later, I jumped on a popular website for part-time job seeking in Australia and started searching for Barista positions. Before coming to Australia, I completed a short course for making Australian coffee since I had thought that it could be useful just in case I could not get the engineering job and indeed it was!

Australian coffee is quite unique and strongly influenced by the history as well as the culture of Australia. If you have a chance to travel to Australia, you shouldn’t be surprised when a lady walks into the coffee shop and says that she wants a Long Black. This “Long Black” thing is definitely not what you’re thinking about now and instead, it’s the Australian version of Americano (my Aussie mates would be very disappointed if I explain it this way). The only difference is the order of pouring coffee and water.

Back to the story, I soon found a barista job in a suburb toward North West Melbourne and this was my first “job” in Australia. It was a busy restaurant serving pizza, coffee and croissant, a commonplace to have breakfast for the locals. Making coffee wouldn’t be a problem for me but finishing the order within one minute was a real challenge, especially from 11 am to 1 pm when there were a lot of customers walk in. Sitting in the office for a few years really slowed me down as compared to when I was an undergrad student. I admit that I am not good at customer service and I knew I was not performing well. I was so stressed and exhausted after finishing the shift every day, not to mention that I had to commute a long distance as the restaurant was far away from the city. Besides, I couldn’t have any time for independent learning or pre-reading before classes and it began to pull my scores down.

I was considering quitting the job but thinking about the dropping number in my bank account and all the upcoming bills, I couldn’t be brave enough to do that. However, not long after, I received a message from my manager saying that “you don’t have to come next week”… I lost my first job.

Going back home after the last day at work, I locked myself in the tiny room, deactivated all social media accounts, stopped talking to people and began drinking a lot of coffee to boost myself up for uni lectures. If someone gave me drugs at that time, I would have taken it. Anyway, I became addicted to caffeine. A barista addicting to coffee is not really a bad thing, is it?

Semester break activities

I thought that if I was so useless and the only thing which no one couldn’t stop me from doing or there was no working hours limitation applied on was “studying” then I would just focus on studying, researching and do it extremely well. Otherwise, what else could I do, right? My passion for technology and data science kept me busy for a while and forgetting the “unemployed” status as well as the balance in my account. Finally, I got a 4.0 out of 4.0 on GPA in the first semester of my master degree. 

Time went by, the first semester had passed and I had been in Australia for a few months. There were so many events happened during the past period and the only things that cheered me up were the encouragements from my teachers, supports from my wife and a letter for recognition of achievement from the university. Sitting on the train running pass the city centre, I hoped that one day I could work in one of these skyscrapers.

The semester break then came and I had three weeks free before the next semester commencement. I tried to utilise this gap time by starting a side project, otherwise, I would feel bored and face the reality of unemployment. I began researching about Google Cloud Platform and reading my first book in cloud technologies: Programming Google App Engine with Python by Dan Sanderson. The knowledge from the book enabled me to build an automatic newspaper capable of scraping news from my favourite pages and displaying them on a single front page of the app. I could then read all of my favourite news without navigating through different websites.

The app was hosted on Google Cloud Platform and powered by several cloud services including Google Cloud Datastore, Google Cloud SQL, Google Cloud Storage and Google App Engine. At that time, people were talking about digital cloud across multiple media channels as the state-of-the-art and disruptive technology and therefore I was so excited to see my first application running on the cloud within three weeks of research and development. That was how I spent my first-semester break.

Finding connections

One month later, after my second semester had commenced, I kept sending my resume and received many rejection emails from the HR departments. Till now, I don’t even remember how many jobs I applied for back then.

I then started thinking differently that maybe I should stop worrying about the job and look at the other side of the coin. I was having a chance to study what I love and have a great passion for. I felt excited when learning something new and exploring the knowledge ocean day by day. It was like unlocking hidden areas of the map when playing video games. Worst case scenario when the game is over, I can still go back to my home country and bring back the invaluable gift from studying abroad called “knowledge”. At least, I have a home to go back.

Although this positive thinking didn’t change the fact that I had no job, it made me more open. I then tried to reach out, meet new people without shyness about my no-job status as well as accepted the fact that I was a starter and still learning. Since then, I broaden my network with people who are positive thinkers and able to inspire the community with their positive energy.

The assignment

In the second semester, one of the courses required us to build a team and participate in a Data Science competition in Melbourne as part of an assessment. I quickly teamed up with a talented software engineer who I had met since the last few months. He was an experienced front-end developer while I had some knowledge in cloud platform and machine learning as a back-end service. We later had three more students joining and together, we took part in the Melbourne Datathon competition with other 200 registered teams.

All the teams received more than 25 GBs of public transportation data containing information about tickets touch-on and touch-off of passengers in Melbourne. We were required to build an application (web app or mobile app) from this data and there was no limitation on the idea. This was what they called end-to-end data science. We aimed to develop a web app that would tell the passengers if they should take public transport or car at a specific time in weekdays from destination to destination. The backend of the app employed multiple time series models to predict public transport waiting time, travel time and road traffic for a given time in the future.

The team structure seemed to be perfect with diverse skillsets of members: front-end, back-end, cloud infrastructure, model building, data processing and data analytics. However, there was a problem: We were all first-year students and the only models we knew were K-Neighbours, K-Means, DBSCAN and Decision Tree. Deep Learning or even XGBoost was definitely out of the list.

Let’s play it big!

The chance of success was not really high and we all joined in the competition just because it was a part of the course’s requirement. Because of this, we soon lost motivation and wanted to give up as it was extremely challenging and none of us had the experience to handle that big amount of data. I didn’t even know how to use Hadoop and Spark (a popular platform for big data) back then. Our target was to submit the project, finish the assignment and pass the course.

After one month wandering around the data with nothing has been done, I then convinced the team to try something new. I decided to use Google Cloud Platform (GCP) to store, process and analyse the data then build the model and serve it as a service. The cloud platform allowed us to collaborate easily and work together on the same GCP project without concerns about computing resource or sharing data across the team (I have included the app architecture below for the folks who are interested in). Since the workflow had been improved, we tried our best and worked so hard to finish the application within two months and finally submitted it. I felt so happy since I finished an end-to-end data science project which combined all the knowledge and techniques I had learnt during the past few months.

The unexpected result

The second semester also passed when I finished the course. I still got no job but stayed positive and kept meeting new people. Once again, my passion kept me busy. I learned about Docker for containerising machine learning models, Kubernetes for containers orchestration while waiting for the result from the datathon. After everything happened, I started to believe that life is a mirror and will reflect back to me what I think into it. A few weeks after the summer took place, I got the final result… We won second prize.

At the same time, the bank who sponsored for the competition was starting a special intern program called Data Science Gig Incubator. They were looking for candidates via the competition and choosing the members of the top two teams to join the program. I became a Gig Incubatee when the third-semester commenced and started working in their office inside a tall building located at the Central Business District.

One year later, I finished my master degree and was then promoted to the Data Scientist role in the bank.

Everything is connected

You might think that I was so lucky and in fact, I have no doubt about it. However, from the perspective of a Data Scientist, I would use the term “probability” instead of “lucky”.

At a single moment, me having the Data Science job seems to be a random event just like winning the lottery. Nevertheless, if you look at the entire timeline of all occurred events, there were some factors that help increase the probability or the chance of landing the job. Given the final milestone is to become a Data Scientist in Australia, it could be seen that:

  • If I didn’t come to Australia, the probability would be 0%
  • If I didn’t participate in the competition after coming to Australia, the probability would be only 50%
  • If I didn’t learn how to use Google Cloud Platform in the first semester, the chance for me winning the competition would be reduced.
  • If I didn’t think positive and reach out to the community, I wouldn’t know my great teammates and the chance for us winning the competition would thus be dropped as well.
  • And if I didn’t have the passion to explore the technologies and apply them into the project, to try harder when facing blockers, we wouldn’t be the winner.

Or in the form of checkboxes (this is very much like Doctor Strange calculations for the chance of occurrence of some events):

I use the first-person subject “I” to express the idea as these are actions that we can take initiative to perform and increase the likelihood of the outcome we want, even though there will always be some external factors that we don’t have the control on such as the sponsorship of the bank or if my visa application was failed.

The idea here is that it took a journey to lead to the result of today. In other words, everything you do now will lead you to somewhere in the future and later when you look back, you will see it all happened for some reasons. If you ever feel tired or lose your motivation on the long journey, try to imagine what you want to be in the future just like when I wished I could have a job in those skyscrapers in the city. And if you ever get lost in that journey, always remember that your passion will be an accurate compass.

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9 March 2024