It’s been about six months since the UK first went into lockdown. Many of us around the world have drastically changed our lifestyles and ways of doing things. I’ve become much better at working from home and there are lots of things I prefer about it. But one thing I miss is having meetups, training and conferences in person, because you gain such a lot from meeting new people as well as simply being in an environment where you benefit from other people’s questions and thoughts.
Having said that, lots of organisations have risen to the challenge. I was recently interviewed by Women in Data Science (WiDS) about my career path. They contacted me after their 2020 London conference, which had gone ahead fully online in April - it was such an impressive effort, so soon after they’d been forced to reconsider their options.
That made me think more about all the options available to us. Obviously there are tons of training videos and blogs available online, but here I want to focus on things we can engage with where we still get some of the benefits that seem initially unique to in-person events.
Just like WiDS London, lots of conferences are going ahead remotely, and making an effort to replicate some of the social benefits of in-person events. I’ve seen things like break out sessions and discussion workshops, where you meet others and talk just like you would normally. You also have the opportunity to ask questions in sessions and engage in real time.
Many of these conferences are free or have big price reductions.
Some upcoming examples:
Bonus: Recorded conferences
If you missed a conference, you can still get a lot out of available recordings. These are often better than watching a training video of the same information, because you get the benefit of the questions at the end, where often people in the audience will ask the same stuff you might have been wondering. You also get a bit more atmosphere and that sense of being at an event.
Some recent examples:
In a lot of cases, meetups that do training type workshops have moved online. I’ve received training about Python paths (ugh) and delivered training about beginning R. These can be just like in-person training, because it’s real time, and it’s easy to share screens and engage just like you would in a classroom.
Bonus: Recorded training
Although missing the interactivity of real time training, I prefer watching recorded training sessions rather than training videos intended for camera. Partly this is because I benefit from other students’ questions, and partly because I feel more like I’m in a classroom and part of the group. An example of this is Rachel Thomas’ fast.ai NLP lessons. She’s such a great teacher and it feels more natural learning from her as she engages with students in the room.
Online learning groups
Even though training and conferences are bringing a lot of the benefits of in-person events, if you struggle to fully engage when watching something passively, you might enjoy learning groups instead. For example, the R for Data Science group runs R-related book groups. I’m currently several weeks into a cohort of the Advanced R book group. The job of leading the group through a chapter rotates so some weeks I have to prepare a few slides and be ready to talk through the main concepts. Other weeks I just have to read the chapter in advance and then engage in the session. It’s much more active than more hierarchical training. It also has the benefit of meaning you can meet people in other countries, because you’re only restricted by time zone, not exact location!
I’m also in a book group at work looking at Hands-On Machine Learning with Scikit-Learn, Keras, and TensorFlow, and recently I’ve seen that the AI Club for Gender Minorities held a journal club.
It’s also easy to set these up if you aren’t aware of any that suit you. Find something you’re interested in learning about and propose it at work or on social media - you’ll find some interested people.
Of course, online communities continue to be amazing. I check mine daily. Sometimes it’s to get suggestions for a problem, sometimes to give advice, sometimes to talk about something topical. It’s a way of keeping in touch with others interested in data science and being exposed to new developments. This could be as simple as following people on Twitter, or joining a slack group, or a forum. This is the closest to ‘normal’, I think, in that you are having lots of those micro interactions you have at events, where you have a lot of control over how much you want to engage.
Finally, I want to leave you with a few benefits of doing things remotely. It’s not all a downgrade!
Without travelling to events, you can fit more in. I don’t have to commit an entire evening to something - just an hour - and then I can relax the rest of the evening. That means I’m more likely to attend events, because I’m not overcommitted.
I can be choosy about what I want to see. I don’t need to watch every session at a conference. And if it’s really boring or irrelevant, I can skip out without feeling like everyone will notice.
I can go back to things to make sure I understand them or refer back months later.
I can go to events happening all over the world and meet people I wouldn’t normally meet.