In a few of my jobs, and more frequently as a consultant, I’ve seen businesses make an effort to create a data science capability in their organization. It’s well known that most of these attempts fail.

Having seen both successes and failures up-close, I’m confident that there is a clearly definable process for successfully creating a data science capability. I’m going to sketch out that process here.

The “engineering first” approach: an example

The process I advocate depends heavily on engineering and product working together with domain experts long before any data scientists are hired. …


I spent about a year working at McKinsey & Company as a Principal Data Engineer. In that role, I was responsible for training and technical implementation for clients who were building a data science capability. Given that I was there for only a year, you can infer that this job was not a good fit for me. One of the reasons I quit — but not the only reason — was that I felt I could not work for a company that was so unapologetic about its role in fueling the opioid crisis in the United States. This was personal…


As I write this, it’s the end of June. I live in Florida, where Covid-19 infections are increasing exponentially. This is happening after we’ve already seen other countries and states try a variety of approaches to containing the virus. We know exactly what needs to happen, but people are stubbornly resistant to taking simple actions such as wearing a face mask.

Clearly, some of the blame is on the individuals who refuse to accept the simple truth that covering your face helps prevent the spread of respiratory viruses (didn’t your mom tell you to cover your mouth and nose when…


As a former philosophy professor who’s now in the private sector, I’m often asked how my philosophy background was helpful. Some people assume that there’s some kind of secret sauce or ‘one weird trick’ I learned from philosophy that made it possible to transition easily into the private sector. Others assume that philosophy is irrelevant. Naturally, the truth is a lot more complicated.

How it didn’t

Sometimes people wonder if there are philosophical theories or techniques that I can apply directly to my work — perhaps something I learned from a philosophy text that has turned out to be relevant. Maybe there’s something…


When I quit my academic career and started working for a tech startup seven years ago, I initially focused on learning the technical skills that the job required. I had wrongly assumed that my biggest challenge would be my relative lack of technical knowledge. But as I soon realized, my biggest deficit was that I came from the bizarre and dysfunctional culture of academia.

Just so you know where I’m coming from, my academic career had been as a philosophy professor. …


Seven years ago, I switched careers from academia to tech. I gave up my tenured position as a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri and became a junior level software engineer at a startup in Chicago.

I was forty-one years old at the time, and the oldest person in the startup except for the CEO and the founder. There were about thirty-five people in the company, and the average age was, if I recall correctly, twenty-six. And I knew less about my job than anyone else. …


Seven years ago, I was an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri-Columbia. I had tenure, excellent students, and a solid research record. I loved to write and I loved teaching. But I started to feel that I’d regret it later if I didn’t make a major career move and try something different. So after a few years of preparation, I quit and took a job as a junior-level software engineer at a startup in Chicago.

At the time, my academic colleagues were split into two camps. The first camp was made up of people who privately told…

Zachary Ernst

Machine learning technical lead, former philosophy professor, drinker of too much coffee.

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