Data Analysis & Visualization at Codecademy (feat. Eva Sibinga)
Alumni Aloud Episode 80
Eva Sibinga graduated from the Graduate Center with a Master of Science in Data Analysis and Visualization. She is now a Curriculum Developer at Codecademy.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Eva talks to us about working at the intersection of tech and education and how to turn your graduate education into a career path.
VOICEOVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with the GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
MISTY CROOKS, HOST: I’m Misty Crooks, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the Graduate Center and a fellow in the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development. In this episode of Alumni Aloud, I interview Eva Sibinga, who graduated from the Graduate Center with a Master of Science in Data Analysis and Visualization. She is now a Curriculum Developer at Codecademy. She talks to us about working at the intersection of tech and education and how to turn your graduate education into a career path.
CROOKS: Could you give us an overview of your organization’s mission and your role there?
SIBINGA: I work at Codecademy. It’s an online learning platform for learning code. There are no teachers. It’s all kind of self-paced modules. And my role is to help develop the educational content. I’m a curriculum developer on the data science team. So that involves developing content. thinking about what kind of content we want to have on the platform, what do our learners want to learn in data science, so coming up with the courses. And then everything from the idea phase to the getting it published on the website phase. Except for a lot of the writing, we actually work with content contributors and subject matter experts, so I work with those people to write the content, but my job is to develop the content.
CROOKS: And how did you get interested in this field?
It took me basically until this point to let go of the idea that I had to work for like a small data viz studio that was making the best quality work, and I would just every single day come in and be creative and code and make designs and, like all these things that make me feel really good. I actually can do those on my own to some extent or like in collaboration with people who I’ve met on Twitter or like through projects that I’ve put out through the data viz society. And that really scratches that itch for me to be creative and to get that design and data viz. And then in my day job I just get to show up and like do work that’s sometimes creative and sometimes not and involves a lot of writing and that’s really been cool for me.
CROOKS: What’s a typical day or a week like for you?
SIBINGA: Typically, I have a few meetings. I’m kind of in a project-oriented role, so we work on, and we’re a little in transition right now with how we work on projects. But basically, I would say one or two projects at a time. And a project would be like a course that’s going to be released on codecademy.com. Right now, I’m working on a course in data literacy so that’s aimed at anybody who wants to get a better basic understanding of data literacy. Like what is data if you’re starting from kind of square zero. Like I don’t really know what people are talking about when they say we have data on this. Or all the way up to like well, I really know a lot, but I don’t know if I want to become a data scientist or a data analyst or if I want to go into data visualization or web development. So, this particular course, the way that I kind of spend my time, I’m actually writing some of it, which is a little unusual. Usually, I wouldn’t be doing that. But then go to meetings to check in on the progress. I meet with content contributors to see how they’re progressing like producing the individual modules. I edit the work that they submit. That means reading and making sure that it fits within the whole scope of the course and then also that, like it’s readable and friendly. A big thing is like making it accessible. It can’t be too long because you’re not learning in a classroom. There’s really a limited attention span. So, it has to be engaging and truthful and accurate content, but then also pretty short. So actually, I do a lot of editing, kind of more than I would have expected. And otherwise, some road mapping like thinking about what we want to do next. And I work as part of a team so I’m definitely not the one out here. I may have made it sound like I’m making a lot of a lot of big decisions but I’m definitely like operating as part of a team in this.
CROOKS: What is the balance like between independent work and collaborative teamwork?
SIBINGA: I work on a really honestly incredible team. It’s five people, so we’re small enough to be able to really work closely together. And that’s like a big priority on the team is making it work as a team. So, we check in with each other and that has been honestly incredible. It takes work to make a teamwork. And that work has been getting done. So, usually we’ll make some sort of collective decisions or check in and say like here’s what I’ve been working on. What are you doing? Are we falling behind on anything? Are we ahead on anything? What needs to happen next. And then the majority of the day, I do spend doing my independent work, kind of having had those meetings to decide what needs to get done and action-oriented meetings, I would say. And then I’ll come back and have a task of like, I need to edit this article. Or I need to produce these three modules. Or I need to put in art request tickets for all of the artwork that’s going to go along with this course, that kind of thing.
CROOKS: You had mentioned before that you’re really enjoying the job. What are you find the rewarding about the work?
SIBINGA: I would say a big part of it is the team actually. It happens to be a team of all women. I just want to shout that out since in the tech field that’s special. You know we’re hiring somebody else, and it could be anybody, and I think the most important thing is that people have values and prioritize working together. We have kind of a collective mindset that has been just amazingly refreshing and inspiring in this workplace. And it’s funny because it’s an all-remote job and we’re actually spread across time zones. We’re not even all in the same city, let alone like working together in an office. And that has been just so cool to see how like supported I have felt jumping into a new job and already after like five weeks feeling just supported and like I know who to ask questions. I feel like I’m going to grow so much. I’ve even already grown a lot in terms of my skills as like an educator and in terms of curriculum development, but then also just as a person working as part of a larger organization. There’s so much that goes into that when no one person could touch the whole organization, but we have something we’re trying to accomplish. And the in and out, if you like the people you work with and you believe that they have your best interests at heart, or that they share your values, that just makes such a difference. That has been super rewarding for me so far.
CROOKS: What are some challenges that the organization is currently facing?
SIBINGA: I mean the one that leaps to mind actually like within a matter of hours after I signed my offer letter to accept this job, Codecademy was bought by Skillsoft. So definitely there’s a transition from being a scrappy established ten-year-old startup mentality to like having been bought by a massive company. And now like that’s kind of an identity change. It’s funny to come in at the beginning of it or like for me the beginning. Everybody else who I talked to pretty much has already kind of knows what Codecademy is. I had used the service before, but I’ve never worked there. So, I guess that would definitely be a challenge. It ties into also just like being a growing company and what I talked about a little bit in terms of like working as part of an organization where no one person could touch the whole thing. I think that’s true of any organization that grows like how every decision you make to hire somebody you are changing the culture of your organization by addition. And so far, it seems like they do a great job of prioritizing values and really like trying to find people who will grow the company in the way that they want to. Kind of an anti like move fast and break things mentality which I’m definitely a fan of, but that that definitely seems like a challenge moving forward as well.
CROOKS: Stepping back to think about your move from being a grad student to where you are now, can you tell me a little bit about that transition broadly?
SIBINGA: It’s funny because it really didn’t take that long. It was a matter of months, but it felt endless. I finished my degree in September. I did my capstone project over the summer and the whole time I was like oh my God, I really, really, really want a full-time job. And, as it turned out like I’ve been graduated from college for five years, and this is my first full time 40 hour a week job. Like I really was more in the model of hodgepodge and like scraping together what I needed from part time work. And that really worked for me and was a privilege and there’s a lot of good stuff about it. But my transition from being a grad student to now was basically just like, I was trying to just constantly pep talking myself. It’ll be okay, you’ll find a job, and even if I didn’t believe it. I just had to keep telling myself that and it has worked out. But it’s funny because it feels like it took a year and I look back and I was like that was like three months. I worked at a deli counter and was applying for jobs, and it felt like a lot longer.
CROOKS: What did your job search process look like?
SIBINGA: Personally, I cannot do a lot of cover letters. Every cover letter I write takes me a lot of energy. I put myself into it and for better or for worse that’s just the way I operate. I wrote probably like, over the course of the time my two-year program at CUNY, I probably wrote between ten and twelve cover letters for jobs that I really wanted, where I felt like I could really make a convincing argument for why they should hire me. And out of that, I think I maybe got four responses that led to interviews or something, you know some kind of promising lead. But for the most part, I just also made sure to like go for less stressful means of continuing the job search, reaching out to people, professional contacts who I liked, who I would be happy to just chat with for 30 minutes, and that was honestly what led to my job. Michelle McSweeney, shout out, professor in the Data Analysis and Viz program and a really just like friendly, kind person who had said, if anybody wants to chat with me after our class. She was like anybody if you ever want to chat, career anything just send me a message. So, I took her up on that and I did, and it turned out that actually I was a great fit for what she was looking for. But even if I hadn’t been, she gave me a bunch of other ideas of even just things as simple as like what to Google to figure out what I was looking for in a job. And those kind of things are so much less stressful than submitting a cover letter and waiting and being like, oh my God, are they going to love me. It doesn’t matter if they do or not, but it can feel like. I would so much prefer just to have a cup of coffee and chat. Honestly, I think that’s how I’ve gotten most of the opportunities. I find it really hard to get on board with the word networking, even though I know that’s what I’m doing. I find it so much easier to just frame it to myself of like, I already like this person. Why wouldn’t I just you know check in? And one of the hard things sometimes is to like tell myself I’m worth giving them an update. They’re curious about how my life is going, and that can be really hard, like I’m not huge on social media or anything so I’m not used to like putting myself out there. I don’t really like the feeling of it. But some amount of that is really helpful, even if it means like pushing myself a little out of my comfort zone to send the email just being like, hey I just want to take a little bit of your time. You’re totally worth it.
CROOKS: For the current position, what was the interviewing process like?
SIBINGA: Honestly shout out to the hiring team of Codecademy because in the last year I have been through some like really horrible interview processes, and this one was so smooth. Like they told me upfront everything that I was going to have to do, which makes a huge difference to just being mentally prepared. Not being like am I going to get strung along for another interview after this. So, the process was pretty much a combination of a few shorter phone call interviews that were assessments of did I have the baseline necessary skills that they were hoping for this position. And then, like a writing sample. And then once I was into like the real interview-interview portion of it, I had to do a home test. I like created a syllabus for a class to prove I could do that. I edited a piece of writing to prove I could do that. And then I had four different interviews, but all kind of like smushed together over two days, so it didn’t take too long, all over zoom. Then the process went pretty quickly because I was hired right before the New Year break, so they were trying to expedite the process. Even though that that really sounds like a lot, looking back, and it was but knowing what to expect and like feeling like I had a hiring manager like guiding me through it the whole time was super helpful.
CROOKS: And can you give advice for people who are interviewing for that kind of role. What would you recommend?
SIBINGA: I would say, look back at the projects that you have done, and like spend some time with them, so that you can really articulate what you’re proud of in the work that you’ve done before that might be relevant. There’s kind of nothing worse in my experience than getting to an interview and being asked a question that you kind of bumble through and then afterwards being like, I totally worked in a group project where we faced a problem and I helped to solve it. And I would have remembered that if I just went back through my projects so. On the other side, like having a portfolio if that’s relevant to you. Or if it’s not projects, then like your grad school work and kind of feeling like you have some talking points about what you have already worked on that are easy. Like especially stuff that you’re excited to talk about, because any person in an interview who’s excited is going to come off so much better than somebody who’s like robot resume talking.
CROOKS: What qualities or traits are useful for somebody in your field?
SIBINGA: Yeah, I’m honestly trying to just think about like what is my, how would I describe my field right now. So, I’m a curriculum developer, so I work in education. I’m constantly thinking about what’s the best way to help somebody else understand the content that I’m trying to present. But then, at the same time, the content that I’m working on is data science and, more specifically, data visualization. So, I’m also thinking about the content. What are the components of a data visualization and what does data literacy mean, things like that. So, I do think actually that like thinking deeply and staying connected with my student self seems actually really important and just continuing to care about pedagogy. Like how we teach and learn things and to keep for myself that like desire to keep learning. That seems like definitely the best way to be a good teacher. The best teachers are people who remember what it feels like to be a beginner and if you can’t remember that, it’s really hard to teach somebody effectively something that they don’t already know. Just thinking about the ethos of what will help me to be good at my job, not just like what skills do I need.
CROOKS: Are there any professional skills or qualities that you would recommend people developing or working on or looking at while they’re in grad school?
SIBINGA: For my field, the biggest thing was making myself a really good portfolio and a website. That honestly has, I’ve heard from multiple people that that actually makes me stand out and having a resume that’s not just black and white, you know bullet points all the way down. I was inspired by some of the design classes that I had at CUNY to make a resume that better reflects like who I am. There’s color on my resume. And definitely like check and see if that’s relevant or like appropriate in your field because I know that it’s not for everybody. But for my field, I love my resume. I love my website. They feel like fun professional extensions of myself that aren’t like, I have my normal life and my robot professional life. It’s kind of a nice amount of mixing from the two. So as far as concrete advice, skills things that I took from CUNY. Definitely this was advice from professors, also to like make a portfolio so that I have my projects. And that was really good. Other than that, it was just like continuing to follow and take classes that inspired me. So, I took interactive data viz and it like totally lit a fire in me, so I took the advanced interactive data viz and those things have all had knock on effects and led me to. One of them, I asked the professor if I could do an unpaid internship with her, and then I actually got the CUNY career planning center to pay for it, which was awesome. And so that was just because I loved the class so much, I just wrote an email and was like, any chance I could be your intern or anybody else at your organization. Like if you need an intern, I’m here and I’m so ready. Those are two things.
CROOKS: Was there anything that you felt like you needed to supplement your work that you were doing in the degree in order to be more competitive for jobs?
SIBINGA: So, I finished almost my entire degree in the spring. I just had my capstone project left and I did an internship over the summer. I did a capstone project and an internship in my final summer of CUNY. And the internship, it was an opportunity to work with a person who I like really vibed with. And I was like yes, I really like her. I think she’s doing really cool work. It’s not actually what I want to do, but I am like totally interested in the entrepreneurial spirit of this project. And she basically had said, like, I will set you up with adobe creative suite and you will gain design skills from doing this internship. So, I guess I did intentionally take an internship where I knew that I would gain adobe design skills, which was something that I didn’t specifically have. I’m not sure that I would have done like a boot camp personally. I have taken a few kind of outside education classes and writers’ workshops and stuff for just being interested in writing and stuff. I haven’t had as good of an experience in those kind of courses as I have doing a more structured thing like a master’s program. But I got so much out of the internship. I was so glad that I went for it because I was a little nervous to go for something that was like. It was like a data science, data analysis in tableau and that’s not where I’m trying to go. But I could see the specific skill that I wanted from it. And I had a great time. I’m actually having coffee with the person who ran the internship tomorrow because like we really hit it off, and it was awesome to work with her too.
CROOKS: Are there any skills that you developed as a grad student, whether specific areas of knowledge through your degree or just the skills we pull upon to be grad students in general, that you now realize have been super helpful to you?
SIBINGA: It’s a funny question because I started my degree in the fall of 2019, so I had a super different vision of what it was going to look like than it actually ended up being. But it really, I felt like in job interviews, I feel like I’ve always had a good answer for like have you done remote work. And I had a remote internship. But like even without having extensive remote job experience, I have so much, I had so much to speak to of like well I’ve done fully remote class projects. I have done remote classes, which are really, really hard. I really didn’t appreciate before how challenging it was going to be. I think the semester that I took three remote classes at CUNY was without any competition, the hardest academic semester of my life. That’s a big thing. Just like doing the degree mostly remotely gave me a lot to talk about and a lot of skills too. I feel like I’m really good at remote work now.
CROOKS: And is there anything that you wish you had done differently as a grad student?
SIBINGA: I’m kind of a live life with no regrets person. I did, so my first, before I even started at CUNY, I just like missed the first round of registration. So, my first semester, I ended up taking three courses and none of them were actually in my program. But it gave me just perspective. I ended up taking like one course at Hunter College and then two courses in the MA in Digital Humanities, which is the sister program of the MS program I did. Honestly like no regrets. If I regretted it something in the moment, it tended to lead to an experience that I actually got a lot out of. I’m overwhelmingly grateful, rather than regretful I would say.
CROOKS: As a final question, we like to ask if you could offer any advice to students in the degree program that you did.
SIBINGA: I would say, so I did the MS program in Data Analysis and Visualization and I would say, definitely if you have any interest in the humanities at all, take classes in the MA program in Digital Humanities, because the need for humanists in tech is so great, for people who understand the data science and data analysis portion of it, who have technical skills. And who also have an appreciation for why it really matters, what is lost and what is gained when we turn our world into data. That humanist understanding and humanist background, that is the kind of thing that you really can get from the CUNY Digital Humanities program in an amazing capacity from the professors in that program and from the other students in that program that you cannot pick up at a boot camp. There’s no boot camp for digital humanities in tech. That to me is an amazing opportunity of that particular program.
CROOKS: Great. Thank you so much for sharing with us, and all of your insights and knowledge, thank you.
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