Samir Sheriff shares his story of how 6 years in software engineering, dozens of online courses, and collaborative real-world experience with Omdena can make the difference

How did your journey start?

Nearly a decade ago, back in 2011, when I had just completed the 4th semester of my Computer Science & Engineering Degree course, I found that even though I had fared well in all my exams, my practical knowledge in this field was (in the words of Lord Kelvin — the famous mathematical physicist)“of a meager and unsatisfactory kind”.

This was due to the fact that, aside from a handful of really great courses, the majority of my coursework relied on rote-learning and the competitive pursuit of grades instead of practical knowledge.

I had joined the field of Computer Science to satisfy my childhood dream of working with computers, but I found I was still far from my dream of understanding and creating software with my computer. In this dismal state, I spent the beginning of my semester-break searching for a motivation in the online universe. After Googling for a short while, I stumbled upon Mehran Sahami’s CS106A video lectures on Stanford’s Youtube channel, and thus began my tryst with online education. Little did I know that life would never be the same again. Although it wasn’t a live course, I was able to grasp important concepts, thanks to the amazing video lectures and challenging assignments.

This experience inspired me to put my free time to good use by taking up even more online courses like Nick Parlante’s Python course, Julie Zelenski’s Programming Abstractions course, and a whole bunch of other wonderful courses. A few months down the line, Coursera and Udacity were founded, and this opened up new avenues for students like me from all around the world, who didn’t get the opportunity or couldn’t afford to enroll in prestigious institutes situated in other parts of the world. Machine Learning was a pretty new topic to me at that time, and I was first introduced to it by Andrew Ng’s famous Machine Learning course as well as Sebastian Thrun’s and Peter Norvig’s AI course.

 

How did you move into real-world projects?

Fast forward to early-2019. I had spent almost 6 years as a Software Engineer as well as completed a plethora of online courses such as Udacity’s Self-Driving Car Deep Learning Course and Jeremy Howard’s fast.ai Deep Learning Courses. Although I truly enjoyed the projects I worked on as part of these courses, I suddenly found myself with an inexplicable yearning to work on a real-world Machine Learning project with real people and real impact. This phase of my journey began with me participating in a few hackathon’s, Kaggle competitions, and a venture challenge; following (especially on Medium) other Machine Learning enthusiasts online to learn from their expertise; and joining the Towards Data Science publication on Medium as an author, to share my learning’s with others.

However, I knew I still hadn’t completely found what I was looking for, but I couldn’t explain why.

One fine day in May 2019, I stumbled upon two articles (Why Community and Collaboration is the Key for Building Ethical AI and Join the Global AI Community and Solve Big Social Problems) in my Medium newsfeed. Why these particular articles were recommended out of millions of Machine Learning articles, I will leave Medium’s recommendation systems to answer. However, as I perused these articles from beginning to end, I realized that Omdena was the answer to that inexplicable yearning to work on a real-world project with real people and real impact. I was really awestruck by the ideas of “collaboration instead of competition” and “the need to stop focusing on individuals or teams but start shifting our attention towards communities of people solving a problem”, which compelled me to muster up enough courage to apply for participation.

A few days later, I received news that I had been selected to be part of a 50-member team that would work together to detect anomalies on the surface of Mars over the next two months and my joy knew no bounds. Following the successful completion of this project, I also got a chance to work with a 50-member team on another project to prevent gang and gun violence via social media analysis. Through these two projects, I got the opportunity to work and learn as I had never done before.

 

What skills did you pick up?

 

1. Working in a 100% online environment

“It always seems impossible until it’s done” — Nelson Mandela

I was used to working in an office and believed that face-to-face interactions were always necessary for project success. We even had concepts like co-location, face-to-face 1:1 meetings, etc.

Omdena taught me that working in a 100% online environment is indeed possible and:

  • A global project brings with it diverse minds with diverse experience, perspectives, knowledge, and opinions which, when put together, will make human knowledge and humanity leap forward into a progressive, bright future.
  • Tools such as Slack, Zoom, GitHub, Google Colaboratory, Drive, Documents, and Slides come in handy when working on online projects.
  • Ironically, most corporate work is done online these days and this skill is priceless now!

 

2. Solving problems collaboratively

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed” — Charles Darwin

 

 

Working collaboratively on Omdena projects was akin to training a neural network to achieve a goal, as depicted in this short animation in which a neural network is gradually trained to distinguish between orange and blue points (Image Source: https://www.doc.ic.ac.uk/~nuric/teaching/imperial-college-machine-learning-neural-networks.html)

 

 

Working collaboratively on Omdena projects was akin to training a neural network, wherein things were chaotic at the beginning of the project with random strangers joining a newly-created collaborative environment (similar to how weights and biases in a neural network are initialized randomly during creation) and as time went by, we gradually got to know and learn from each other, thereby refining our understanding and becoming less chaotic by constantly iterating (similar to how a neural network gradually adjusts its weights over multiple epochs to minimize a cost function) until we achieved our goal or came close to it (similar to how a neural network eventually produces expected results).

My two key takeaways from solving problems collaboratively on Omdena’s projects are:

  • Investigate several approaches to a problem to arrive at the most viable solution in the shortest possible time — Every Omdena project involved breaking down an ambiguous problem into smaller parts, each of which could be investigated simultaneously by different members of the team, to eventually implement the most viable solution, all within the short span of 2 months. It was also magical to witness how certain investigations, which had originally led to dead-ends in the initial stages of a project, could be combined with certain solutions during later stages of that project to unravel better solutions.

Thanks to the different perspectives that the team brought to the table, I was able to quickly learn a lot more than I would have had I worked alone.

  • Share knowledge — Documenting the progress made during all our investigations helped in knowledge-sharing within the team, especially as some team members belonged to different time zones. Furthermore, I am grateful that Omdena provided me with the opportunity to contribute articles, code to the open-source community, as well as presentations/demos (live and recorded), through which I could share our learnings with the rest of the world.

 

3. Stepping out of my introvert zone

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world” — Mahatma Gandhi

I am an introvert by nature but Omdena succeeded in bringing me out of my shell. Omdena’s projects were extremely engaging and the passion with which the team discussed approaches to problems got me involved to such an extent that I started suggesting new ideas without any fear of drawing flak, and learned from ideas suggested by others — in no time, I had stepped out of my introvert as well as comfort zones.

 

4. Applying Machine Learning to real-world problems

“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced” — John Keats

These projects made me realize that real-world machine-learning problems are not as well-structured as all the assignments and course/hackathon projects I was so used to, especially because data is complex and usually never available in the relevant form. There are so many unknown variables to consider and so many trade-offs to make in order to come up with a practical solution.

 

How did you land an engineering job at Google?

Having worked in a Corporate setup for 6 years, I had already developed knowledge in the field of Software Engineer (ing) which acted as a prerequisite for the interview at Google. Omdena’s unconventional approach and methodology added to my skill sets and experience, thereby unlocking my hidden potential. Here is how it helped me and how you can increase your chances:

 

1. Building an eye-catching résumé

Since Google receives millions of software engineer job applications every year, it is important to make your résumé stand out from the rest in order to improve your chances of being selected for the interview process. One way to do this is to mention projects that you’ve worked on or managed, in order to demonstrate relevant skills and knowledge.

The open-source contributions as well as the articles/presentations that I created through the Omdena projects enhanced my résumé.

 

2. Building up confidence for the interview

Apart from assessing problem-solving skills, the interviews aim at evaluating other attributes of a candidate, such as the ability to communicate and collaborate with others. I can’t stress enough how important it is to augment your skills by working on real-world projects.

Online courses and assignments introduced me to important foundational knowledge to tackle problems, but unless this knowledge was put to good use regularly in real-world projects, I’m sure it would have slipped out of my memory and I would have had to spend more time re-learning a lot of concepts again.

The communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills that I honed over the course of Omdena’s online projects helped me build my confidence and played a significant role in my software engineer job interviews at Google.

 

3. Knowing Google´s tools

This is a good-to-have attribute that could boost your confidence besides your résumé.

Coincidentally, to accomplish some of the tasks in the Omdena projects, we had used Google products like Colaboratory, Drive, Documents, Slides, etc., and I felt so proud of this fact when I walked in for the software engineer interviews at google.

 

4. Expertise in remote working

This would probably be a must-have skill for current times. Omdena’s projects will make you an expert in remote work.

Now, more than ever, due to the work-from-home environment that the ongoing pandemic has forced most of the world to accept as the “new normal”, I find that the invaluable experience I gained from working online with amazing people from different parts of the world on Omdena’s projects, helps me immensely — I work online with yet another set of the most amazing Google software engineer (s) from the world over, on software engineer projects at Google!

 

Any concluding words for our readers?

I believe that learning is a lifelong process and there is still so much more for me to learn, but I am glad that we live in an age where we can improve our knowledge on different subjects, with the aid of online courses and the opportunities provided by extraordinary platforms like Omdena, by collaborating instead of competing with each other.

In a world being plagued by greed, hatred, and intolerance, Omdena comes as a breath of fresh air to do away with national as well as man-made barriers and brings together a group of strangers from different corners of the Earth, transcending geographical borders and time zones to work together and solve fascinating social problems; whilst learning from and inspiring each other every single day. This is not just a pipe dream, thanks to online education, collaborative tools, and Omdena!

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