Faces of UMSI: Steven Ong
Steven Ong began digging into data science by taking data science MOOCS offered by the University of Michigan School of Information. His experience in Python for Everybody and Python 3 Programming inspired him to enroll in the Master of Applied Data Science program.
In this profile, Steven discusses the MADS courses that have been the most valuable to him, and the ways that he has utilized his data science skills in his career and personal life.
Tell us a little about yourself.
As a Singaporean, my journey has taken me to the vibrant landscapes of the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines, where I currently reside. In my role as an investment director, I manage portfolio companies across these two nations. My career in finance, with a focus on mergers and acquisitions, spans over 15 years, including a decade of overseas experience in places like Saudi Arabia and China. Living abroad has been a transformative experience for me, significantly broadening my perspective and deepening my appreciation for the rich tapestry of cultures and histories that shape our world.
How did you first hear about the MADS program? What made you decide to enroll?
My journey towards data science began a number of years ago in Singapore, where a corporate experience involving a handful of financial frauds sparked my curiosity. The company I worked for was involved in a suspicious acquisition of a data science firm. This firm, using unethically sourced data, showcased questionable correlation analyses, raising doubts about its true value and legal integrity. These incidents highlighted the potential and importance of data science know-how in order to identify and prevent financial malpractices, igniting my interest in the field.
I started exploring data science through Python courses on Udemy during my free moments. My deeper dive into the subject came during the COVID-19 lockdown, a period of solitude away from family and friends. To maintain my mental well-being, I immersed myself in the Python for Everybody and Python 3 Programming specializations conducted by UMSI professors Charles Severance, Paul Resnick, Christopher Brooks and Steve Oney. The humorous yet insightful teachings, especially Paul's jokes provided much-needed levity during this isolating time. Completing these programs, with their exceptional teaching teams and resources, solidified my decision to enroll in the MADS program.
My affinity for the University of Michigan dates back to my youth. Two decades ago, the University of Michigan College of Engineering was my top college choice, but financial constraints led me to pursue an accounting degree at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore instead. Enrolling in the MADS program at the University of Michigan feels like life has come full circle; I’m fulfilling a long-held aspiration, albeit in a different field.
What is it about applied data science that interests you? How do you plan to use this knowledge? Are there any projects (either at work or other activities) where you were able to apply or benefited from what you’ve learned in your MADS courses?
My fascination with applied data science lies in its transformative power in both professional and personal realms. Having recently completed the MADS program, I'm thrilled to say it exceeded all expectations. A standout course for me amongst others was SIADS 503: Data Science Ethics, taught by Christian Sandvig and Melissa Chalmers. This course emphasized the importance of considering the broader impacts of our data science work, such as potential cumulative disadvantages and the societal implications of the models/analysis we create.
In my role as an investment director overseeing portfolio companies across Asia and the MENA region, the skills acquired in courses like SIADS 505, 511, 515 and 516 have been invaluable. I've automated the generation of financial and statistical reports, integrating advanced visualization techniques from SAIDS 522 and 622 to produce over 200 charts in minutes. This significantly reduces manual labor for my team.
Beyond work, my passion for tennis led me to apply these skills in a unique way. Teaming up with a neighbor who shares my interest in selenium, automation scripts and supervised learning, we developed a predictive model to analyze tennis strokes and devise game strategies for community tournaments.
For current and prospective students, I view this program as a foundational step, akin to a mustard seed. It provides the essentials for beginning your data science journey, but the field is vast, and self-driven learning is key. Alongside MADS, I pursued additional courses in TensorFlow and UX design, even building a website to showcase my work. Skills like selenium, often used in website interactions, have practical applications as well–I've leveraged them to automate tasks like booking tennis courts. This journey underscores the program's role as a springboard into the expansive world of data science.
If you were employed during the program, how did you balance school with work and home life?
Balancing a full time job with the MADS program was a demanding yet rewarding challenge. The unwavering support from my colleagues and family, especially my wife and boss, was instrumental in navigating this journey successfully.
The MADS program is rigorous and demanding. Unlike other master's programs, it offers no shortcuts or social distractions. It's a path that requires resilience and dedication.
However, the journey was incredibly fulfilling. It was a period of personal growth, providing answers to longstanding questions and contributing positively to my mental well-being. There were challenging moments, like deciphering complex codes in the early hours or seeking help from the teaching team at 4 a.m. due to time zone differences. But these were balanced by the satisfaction of solving intricate problems and the sense of daily achievement. This process was something I cherished and already miss!
Is there anything about the MADS program that has surprised you? Can you tell us something unexpected about you?
The MADS program and UMSI have cultivated an environment that fosters authenticity and a passion for learning. My two-year journey with them has significantly contributed to my personal development, instilling a sense of global belonging and a drive to address issues around me. This experience has fueled my commitment to continuous learning, leading me to explore further educational opportunities in machine learning and large language models after completing my master's degree.
Living in the UAE and the Philippines, I've found myself surrounded by startups and individuals curious about leveraging their accumulated but untapped data. My newfound expertise in natural language processing and deep learning has made me a go-to resource for friends and neighbors seeking assistance. This has led to numerous projects where I could apply my academic learning to real world data sets.
Recognizing the growing demand, my wife and I founded SyndroCapital.org, a platform for data exploration, to connect with friends and business partners. This venture is not just a side hustle but a means to engage with fellow data enthusiasts. I'm open to connecting with like-minded individuals and can be reached on LinkedIn.
The most pivotal lesson I took from the MADS program is the philosophy that education is not just a means to attain privilege or a competitive edge, but a tool to deepen our understanding of the world and empower those around us, treating everyone as equal. The privilege, if any, is the privilege to be taught by the best professors in a renowned institution. We have the responsibility to use this knowledge for the greater good.
To learn more about Steven, visit his LinkedIn profile.