A new career

by Sam Selikoff May 26, 2013

It's been a while since my last blog post - and a lot has happened. I originally started blogging to write about my future career in economics. I became enthralled with the subject towards the end of my undergraduate years, and moved to Boston to start a PhD program. I truly loved economics, and a career as an academic made all the sense in the world. I had experience teaching, and loved it. I read economics literature in my spare time, and went to seminars in the summer to learn more and meet others like myself. Unfortunately, graduate school didn't turn out to be all I had hoped for.

Being an academic economist is certainly an intellectual challenge, but it's not quite what I was after. Your career is centered around publishing papers. To publish a paper, you need to (1) think of an original research question, (2) collect relevant data, and (3) develop and test a model. The problem is that (1) is driven almost entirely by (2) and to a lesser extent (3). So, when it comes time to write your paper, you're lucky if you get to devote 5% of your time to actually developing your thesis. Mostly you will be collecting and cleaning data, specifying your model, and calculating the appropriate statistics. (Often, even, the story your data tells will be the driving force behind your thesis - surely a questionable application of the scientific method.) In any case, I realized early on that the economics profession and I weren't a good fit for each other. I wanted to be a scholar - not a scientist. It also didn't help that I had recently come to reject the standard approach to economic research.

So, I got my master's degree and withdrew from the program. I didn't have a specific career in mind, but my desire to work in a quantitative environment narrowed my focus. I took a job as an economic consultant, doing mostly data work for companies involved in litigation. It was interesting and I learned a lot, but I had a feeling it wasn't going to last. I wouldn't have minded the long hours if the work was immensely satisfying to me; it wasn't. But I wouldn't trade my time in consulting for anything, because it introduced me to the world of programming.

In financial litigation, models are your guns, but data is your ammunition. If you can't pick up the skills required to manipulate big datasets, most of the interesting work will simply pass you by. My very first case forced me to learn basic SAS programming. It was a pharma case on a tight deadline, so I didn't have the luxury of taking a textbook approach. But I managed, and several colleagues even told me I picked it up pretty fast. It was then that I realized programming wasn't beyond my grasp.

I grew up around technology. My father has been a software developer for the majority of his career, and my brother relies on code to produce his artwork. But when I went to college, I decided against computer science and instead studied finance and economics. When I became interested in tech and entrepreneurship, I just assumed that the programming ship had sailed for me; I didn't study comp sci in college, so that was that. My experience in consulting showed me that with all the resources online, and a bit of patience, I could actually teach myself how to program, and maybe even completely change my career.

So that's what I did. I started out simple, learning the building blocks of web development. The more time I spent with programming, the more it fascinated me. I couldn't believe people did this full-time. I was having so much fun discovering, learning, creating. It became my main hobby and eventually led to a new job as a full-time programmer - somewhat ironically at a financial software company.

Web development changes so rapidly that it's an ongoing task just to keep up. So one reason I'd like to start blogging again is to share what I'm learning, help other beginners, and allow more experienced programmers to critique my work. That means many of my posts will be technical. But economics is still a subject I'm heavily invested in. On occasion I may write about economic or political theory, or discuss any longer-form writing projects I'm working on.

I've told this story to so many people in the past year that I felt like writing it down - and what better place than here? I feel very blessed to be doing what I love every day, and I'm excited to see what the future will bring.


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