I recently applied to a Master of Data Science Program. Part of the application package required a “statement of purpose” letter. Below is what I submitted.
My grandfather was an artist. I remember sitting in his studio as a five year old, intermittently marveling at the ever-evolving creation coming to life on his canvas, whilst anxiously keeping an eye on the minuscule rock climbers dangling, a thousand feet up, on the massive red-rocked cliff faces of Sedona, Arizona – cliff faces which served as the speech-impeding, jaw-droppingly gorgeous backdrop to his floor-to-ceiling glass windowed studio.
Prior to becoming one of the Southwest’s most renowned artists, my grandfather had served as an illustrator at Pacific Union College’s School of Medicine, a designer and layout director for a variety of book publishers, and finally, as an Art Director at one of Portland’s early ad agencies. From as far back as I can remember, he was always eager to impart his knowledge of, and, passion for, the multi-faceted disciplines of visual communication. Whether it was letters containing articles on the golden mean (sent to me at age 8), or copies of his sketchbooks with handwritten notes helping me understand the finer points and proper intricacies of shading the human eye to make it look convincingly real, or personal visits with him while he was in declining health in his mid-80s, he was steadfastly dedicated to not only sharing his knowledge with me, but extremely vested in sparking the same interest in me.
Yes, his passion for visual mediums and dedication to communicating the mysterious complexities of the world in precise and compelling ways has certainly left a large imprint on my life and without a doubt, shaped my career pursuits and intellectual interests. However, as influential as his passion for the visual realm has been on me, perhaps most influential, was one of his failures. To be clear, my grandfather didn’t fail at many things. A proud World War II veteran, he went to design college on the GI Bill and had a splendid career and enduring marriage – both of which spanned over six decades.
As a young boy, and now, as a thirty-something, married, father-of-four, my grandfather could do no wrong. Except for when it came to a mysterious and fully-perplexing piece of machinery, commonly referred to as a Pentium 386. During the early 1990s, my grandfather, in his 70s, became fascinated with both the equipment and promise that personal computing and, more specifically, the Internet, held in store for mankind. Unlike stereotypical elderly curmudgeons, who disdain change and pine for the “good old days”, my grandfather was truly like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. Under the disapproving eye of my sighing grandmother, he spent several thousand dollars on that Pentium 386, equipping it with all the bells and whistles that particular era could muster, and set out on a quest to enhance his artistic disciplines through the use of technology. He enrolled in basic Computer 101 night classes at the local community college, procured a small library on everything from “how to work the modem” to “using floppy disks” to “understanding word processors”, and even hired a young computer whiz to give him personal tutoring sessions. His dedication to understanding this new technology was very admirable. It also proved to be entirely futile.
So, one day, after exasperatedly resigning his fate to me over the phone as “an aged canine” incapable of learning new tricks, I received a very large box at my doorstep. When I opened it up, atop the Pentium 386 and various technological accouterments of the day, sat a note that read “The future is on the World Wide Web. Learn how to use this.”
That note, along with the creative curiosity he instilled in me throughout his entire life, have been driving forces of my last 20 years on earth. From diving into HTML and Flash ActionScript in the late ‘90s, to starting my own design and technology firm my senior year of college, to successfully launching and growing software products and, most recently, becoming fascinated with artistically visualizing big data, the twin mantras of computing and creating continue to energize my mind and electrify my sensibilities. With all of that said, my goal in applying for, and hopefully participating in, this newly launched Masters of Computer Science in Data Sciences program is relatively concise, namely, to continue “learning how to use this” and, to do so in a way that evokes the same level of fascination and awe imprinted on my mind by the rock climbers dangling a thousand feet above my grandfather’s rapturous, 36” x 24” canvas.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
I was not accepted to the program. Other than a generic “we regret to inform you” introduction followed by a vague “not an ideal fit” qualifier, I am left to only speculate as to why I wasn’t accepted. Too artistic for computer science? Too much real world business experience coupled with insufficient academic pursuits? Perhaps the admissions gatekeepers didn’t understand my data art samples because they don’t look like PowerPoint bar charts? Whatever the reason, I do know the quantity of candidates was exceptionally high, and I’m sure the quality was equally impressive.
Sure it’s disappointing. It’s never fun to be rejected, especially when you believe you possess the chops to excel if accepted. However, I will not let academic gatekeepers dampen my awe and wonder of data, science, art and design. As my favorite entrepreneur professor in college frequently told us, “Those (in business) who can’t, teach.” So onward and upward, with an ever deepening appetite for “doing”, rather than “being accepted”.