Tuesday, July 21, 2015

I am Adrian Letchford and This is How I Work

Today, I am interviewing Adrian Letchford in the "How I Work" series. Adrian didn’t go to school - his parents taught their children at home. They taught them how to teach themselves, a skill everyone should have according to Adrian. He went on to study computer science eventually finishing his Ph.D thesis when he was 23. He spent the next year dreaming, experimenting and lived in Nepal teaching computer science and mathematics to a school full of excited children in the middle of nowhere. When he returned he worked at the National Security College at the Australian National University doing some preliminary research into building a simulation of the internet. Governments want to use it to figure out how to keep the internet open while maintaining security. He is now at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom as a data scientist figuring out how to use online data from places such as Google, Facebook and Twitter to learn about human behavior.

Current Job: Research Fellow in Data Science
Current Location: University of Warwick, United Kingdom
Current mobile device: Nexus 5
Current computer: A desktop and laptop both core i7s with 8 cores running Ubuntu.

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I work on about 6 projects at a time, my favorite one explores people’s behaviour on Google. For example, in America, states with higher birth rates search more for information about pregnancy than other states. Quite obvious, really. But what happens when we ask a sensitive question? Say, what information are states with more dying babies searching for? The results are grim. People living in states with higher numbers of dying babies are searching for information about loans designed for people with a bad credit history. They’re also searching for information on sexually transmitted diseases. These people want to know about bad credit and STDs. This is not a causality analysis, simply Googling for sexually transmitted diseases surely doesn’t make your baby more likely to die. This research demonstrates that online search data can give us insight into people’s lives.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
I love using Todoist to keep track of the tasks I need to do. Todoist is a simple “to do” app that just works on every platform imaginable. It can organise tasks by projects, priority, time, anything I want! My only problem is when I get into the “zone,” I forget to use it!

A tool I would recommend to anyone is Dropbox. This software makes sure that my files on all my devices are automatically synced. I can switch between my work and personal computer without skipping a beat.

The rest of my tools lean more on the technical side of my work. I write in latex which is a sophisticated typesetting program used extensively in Computer Science and Mathematics for writing papers. I write the bulk of my software in Python using Spyder which is a graphical interface to Python specifically aimed at scientists.

Last of all, I need a tool to help me deal with those moments when I’m just fed up and I don’t want to work anymore. I ride a unicycle! It’s great to clear my head because I still have to think, but it is entirely physical work. My brain gets time to relax, my body gets a bit of a workout and I’m refreshed to continue working.

What does your workspace setup look like?
My workspace is just a desk with a computer and on the wall I’ve stuck up a Big Bang Theory poster and the logo of a software product my team and I are designing.

I’ve always been the guy who is always in the office. I’m trying to change this. I want to be able to work from anywhere be it at home, in the office, or on the road. My aim is to cheaply travel around Europe while still working.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Right now, I feel very privileged to work with the directors of the Data Science Lab here at the University of Warwick, Tobias Preis and Suzy Moat. These are two of the best data scientists in the world. They are some of the most productive people I know. They’re amazing to work with and I learn so much from them. My advice is to find colleagues that you clique with, that you admire, and most importantly whom you want to be like. I believe this is the best thing to ever happen in my development as a scientists.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
Todoist manages this.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
No.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I work very hard to communicate. Science communication is a tricky field. A lot of research is technical and complicated, taking years to piece together. Yet, without simple (and perhaps even entertaining) communication the research might not be used by anyone. Or worse, be credited to someone else! This does happen.

I quickly joined Toastmasters International, an organisation that teaches how to publicly speak. I promise you this, Toastmasters is a better education than a Ph.D. I know, I have both. This is not a skill I have mastered. I am still learning and still growing. But if I were to attribute any of my success so far to anything, without a shadow of doubt it is communication.

What do you listen to when you work?
For grunt work or when I’m having trouble focusing, I use classical music. When I need to be creative I’ll usually play anything that makes me feel good and helps my mind wander.

What are you currently reading?
I rarely have time for recreational reading. However, I am slowly reading Alex’s adventures in numberland written by Alex Bellos. A brilliant book about the history of numbers and all the little quirky things about them.

What's your sleep routine like?
Through trial and error I have found that a strict sleeping routine is the best way to beat fatigue and keep my mind at its peak. I do my best to start settling down at 8pm and go to bed at 9pm and I am currently getting up at 5:30am.

What's your work routine like?
I get up in the morning at 5:30am, start work ASAP, work all day until I feel happy with my accomplishment or I get fed up. Simple as that.

What's the best advice you ever received?
The best teachers I ever had were my parents. They challenged the status quo in everything they did and raised a remarkable family. They told me, no matter what, I should do what I want to do. Life is too short to waste on other people’s dreams and other people’s idea of success.

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