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Who is Nic Ryan the Data Dude?

My life is a montage of code, data, gym, surfing, basketball, skateboarding. I am a 35 year old Dad, I don't think I will ever grow up.

Life is awesome for me now, but I think it is important to point out to aspiring data scientists, and to others that it wasn't always awesome. I have had sucky times, and there is stuff that is sucky that I am brushing over below, but if you read on you will get the picture. It has been a grind, but I am in a good spot now.


School and Uni

I grew up on the Central Coast of NSW at a time when the place didn't look like a suburb of Sydney. It was quiet, it was nice. I surfed and played basketball. When school became more serious I locked into maths and ended up doing pretty well. I graduated in 2000 and went to UNSW to study Actuarial Studies and Finance, first time leaving the Central Coast I stuffed up catching trains and buses, just had no idea at all.

I trained as an actuary at UNSW, got my first taste of city life and really didn't dig cities or actuarial studies. Nothing wrong with either, just really a personal preference thing. Out of the fishbowl of high school I wasn't the nerd anymore, so I managed to go on a few dates. That was something unexpected but fabulous!

He meets a girl

I graduated from UNSW somehow with a degree in Actuarial Studies and Finance. It was a hard slog because my heart just wasn't in it. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, but I was sure I didn't want to be an actuary. It was just a solid grind for me without much fun or interest at all. In retrospect I should have switched to computer science/ stats.

I took about a year off and worked at the local hospital as a wardsman, it was pretty good pay and I managed to get pretty fit surfing most days, picking up people and moving them around, I was also playing a fair bit of basketball back then.

On 27th January 2005 I met a nurse at the hospital. I was stuttering like an idiot because I was nervous, she thought I had learning problems - a pretty fair call because I always stuttered around her. That girl was my wife Leslee, who has been wonderful to me ever since that day she thought I was a complete imbecile.

Fu$% it I might as well be an actuary

Yeah, it really was a f%$k it decision. What can I say? I met a great girl and I needed money, we'd decided to move to Sydney without jobs and just to see what the hell would happen. In those days we were so poor that we couldn't afford bread, so we made our own bread because it was significantly cheaper.

As a nurse Leslee found it ok to get a job, but I really struggled:

"So, what have you been doing for the last 12 months?"

"Ah, surfing?"

I had so many rejections it was crazy, anything that looked like an actuarial or analyst job was just not going to happen for me at that stage. It was tough, but I (I mean we) persisted.

In the end I managed to snag a role as a Group Life Administrator, which sounds more impressive than it actually was. It was just doing admin stuff for Group Life Insurance plans. It paid less than a quarter than what I am on now (and I took a significant pay-cut to work remotely). But it was a start and really that's all that mattered at the time. It was as close to an actuarial department as I was going to get.

The end of the actuarial dream

After working for about a year in the Group Life Admin role I was able to get a pricing role for an auto-insurer. Again it wasn't actuarial, but it was playing with code and numbers. I learned SAS, I started building Generalized Linear Models for pricing automobile insurance. It was great!

From there I was able to join a larger insurer in Sydney, this time in their actuarial department, what's more they paid for me to undertake my actuarial specialist exams. Again building models in SAS, and also getting involved in reserving work. Reserving work I didn't particularly dig so much, which was a problem because the General Insurance actuarial exam was split into 2 parts: Pricing and Reserving. Whatever it takes to get pumped about reserving just wasn't in me, that wasn't really a problem though because when we were living in Melbourne my wife Leslee showed me a couple of blue lines on a piece of paper to indicate we were going to have our first child. I couldn't study and work full time with a new bub, and in my heart I had always known actuarial studies wasn't for me. We moved back to Sydney.

Credit risk leading to data science

When I say Sydney, I mean the Central Coast of NSW, we were renting at Ettalong because it was cheap. Ettalong is about 90km from Sydney, and the commute took a couple of hours each way door to door. I had a job with a bank and really got into building many credit risk scorecards. To me personally this work was way more interesting than actuarial studies ever was. Later on I worked for a credit bureau mainly building credit risk scorecards for external clients, doing scorecard validations and also validating some of the risk products the credit bureau had. It was about this time from 2011-2014 that I really started getting interested in data science. I had a long train ride, I had hours - like 20 hours each week where I could just study and I hit that thing hard!

Being away from my young family (2 young daughters and wife) sucked but I made the best of a bad situation by spending all that time commuting studying data science.

This was when Coursera was getting some traction. I studied like a complete psycho, I burned through MOOCs, read online courses, stats books, you name it. That train ride from Woy Woy station to Town Hall in Sydney was my Masters in Data Science. I loved learning, I loved data science and I knew I was hooked. I knew I had all the right experience to be great; business knowledge from actuarial studies, a pretty good grasp of stats, the only thing was I sucked at code. I had only really used SAS and SQL,. I found code the toughest part, so I just practiced it more. Pretty soon I had landed a role as a data scientist, pretty soon after that I was mentoring other staff, it was easy since I loved data science and I was having a great time teaching. You've just gotta keep at improving those skills, it is so damn critical!

Mostly I stayed working on my dev and data science skills for the next few years until I received a call to hop on a plane and head to the Gold Coast. A company was looking for a Head of Data and Credit. They were after someone who could mentor and could also be on the tools. They had tried for years to find someone who could do both, initially they thought I was a bit young, but after a while as a senior analyst I was appointed the Head of Data and Credit.

Bundaberg and living the dream

After finishing with the Gold Coast job I asked one of my buddies what he was up to. He offered me a role at a fintech based out of Melbourne. He knew what I was getting paid in my previous role, "you aren't going to get that much, but you can work remotely so you can spend time with those kids of yours". It was a pay-cut but fu%$ it spending time with the kids was going to be wonderful, so I took the job. I moved to Bundaberg, about a 5 hour drive north of Brisbane and have been here for about a year.

I bought a house by the beach (because houses are about 1/5th of the price here compared to a city). I don't have the commute anymore so I have managed to get my health back.

Staying fit for yourself and your family

My Dad used to tell me that you owe it to your family to stay as healthy as you can for as long as you can, bad stuff can happen but he told me to try to reduce the risk by staying healthy.

He is 61 years old and still plays division 1 basketball and still works as a lawyer part time.

It might seem selfish but it really isn't. Since moving to Bundaberg I have:

  • Started surfing in competition

  • Trained to and slam dunked a basketball for the first time in 20 years

  • Doubled all my major lifts - deadlift, squat, bench etc

Linkedin and connecting with the data science community

I don't know what the hell made me start writing stuff on Linkedin. I think the isolation of not having anyone else I can talk to about dev or data science really makes me value the online community.

So there we are, that's the story of how I found my way into data science and into this little Queensland regional center. You guys know the story now.