Founder of TCB Analytics
Data Scientist Entrepreneur
Student Debt Success Story
“Well, we're finally demanding freedom from the classic nine-to-five, widget-making factory lifestyle, right? We're using our brains, and we're working globally with other people through means like Skype across different time zones. We’re getting that sense of independence, flexibility, and a way to actually have a healthy work-life balance.”
By Abigail Bliss
In Boston, where the gig economy is already robust and still growing, companies are creating the physical spaces, digital networks, and support systems to sustain the new structure of work in America. The Cambridge Innovation Center, Workbar and We Work are set up for floating doers. Firms, like Catalant, match experts with businesses in need of their time and advice, allowing consultants across a range of industries to independently and remotely attract and filter their clients. One millennial who has adopted this model of consulting to handle her multiple gigs is Tanya Cashorali who works in the nascent field of data visualization.
Since beginning her career in bioinformatics, Cashorali has launched her own data consultancy and developed courses at Northeastern and the Startup Institute for people pivoting into data analysis and visualization. Perhaps most impressively for our millennial generation, she has paid off her student loans years before she expected. Her work in data visualization and bioinformatics has brought her into a wide variety of industries, including finance, education, and sports giving her a unique insight into the prevalence in the gig economy across the board.
In our candid conversation, Cashorali went to bat against the paralyzing weight of student debt for millennials and revealed the role data analytics erroneously played in the 2016 election. For anyone who has or will fund a college education, or anyone still grappling with what happened in the 2016 election, she has some interesting perspectives to share.
Could you tell us about your current gigs?
Currently, I'm spearheading the growth and business efforts for TCB Analytics. Not only am I sourcing projects and putting together proposals, but I have a team that executes on those projects, too. We're constantly involved in various hackathons. For example, TCB Analytics recently competed in the Boston Open Data Challenge, where we were using the city of Boston's open data to help identify the most optimal places for solar installation in Boston. Certain groups and large parcels in the city are more optimal and can offset energy costs better than others. We put together an application and won our track, which was exciting.
I'm also an instructor for Startup Institute, where I've helped them build a part-time data-science course. It’s an intro to data analytics for people who are trying to transition their career and get involved in data analytics. In order to make it accessible and fun, it was sports themed. At the moment, I'm working with them on rolling out a data science curriculum in Western Mass in conjunction with a few universities out there.
Otherwise, I’m attending conferences and giving talks and trying to mentor other people that want to get into the industry.
A lot of your work comes to you via Catalant. Would you describe this model for pairing consultants and clients?
It’s essentially a bidding site, where you can go and submit proposals on really high quality projects. I've tried other sites, and the problem with a lot of those is people try to drive prices down in terms of the competition. I'm highly hesitant about the quality of work you can get when data scientists are required to charge $25 an hour. I've found Catalant to be the Cadillac side of things, where you're getting high quality work.
TCB Analytics is your brainchild. What was the motivation behind starting a data consulting company? What needs do you see it filling?
I started my career in bioinformatics, in biotech, working with super smart PhDs who were furthering personalized medicine for diseases like cancer by using the human genome and personal genetic makeup to target drugs more effectively. From that experience, I learned a ton about the algorithmic approaches and how to use data to answer really tough questions. After that, I went to a few other startups that were not health care focused but still data rich – industries like telecommunications, finance, and sports. I realized that there is a huge talent gap between those PhD advanced statistics brainiacs and someone that can simply manipulate data outside of Excel, cleaning up the data, getting it in the right shape, and conveying and communicating the results properly.
Basically, people on one side haven't been able to touch anything extremely advanced and then, on the other side, we have everyone from physicists to statisticians to computer scientists who are doing advanced research or work for big companies like Google and Amazon. Only some startups are able to afford them. What I saw was, not only a talent gap, but people on both ends of the spectrum who are really good at what they do, and they're either underutilized, undervalued or not working on interesting projects. It's my goal to take them and give them projects that are interesting, that are challenging and give them a flexible schedule and pay them competitively. I'm fortunate to have worked with a lot of smart and talented people to push TCB forward towards that end.
Have you observed technological developments or cultural shifts in the past few years that have changed your industry?
I started using R in 2005, and back then, it was just a console. There were no online tutorials. There was no ggplot2. There was no R Studio, which is a nice integrated development environment for R.
I recently gave a talk on how far we've come with interactive graphics, for example. When I first started, all my charts were static because the industry was still maturing. Now, there are tools like Shiny and D3 and Plotly, which are all libraries that enable data scientists to make more interactive and beautiful charts and dashboards. It turns out that, as a data scientist, I've been able to see this progression not only within bioinformatics and health care, but in other industries, as well; a lot more people are getting involved because of some of the leading work The New York Times did with D3 and making those really beautiful visuals – Same thing for FiveThirtyEight, if you’re familiar with them.
As an instructor, which skills are you hoping to instill in people during their career transitions, and how do you prepare them for their new profession?
The biggest thing that we teach them is how to think about and define a problem. It’s so easy, once you have a bunch of data, to get lost in the weeds and lose sight of what you're ultimately trying to do. You have to constantly keep yourself honest, come back to the original question at hand, and make sure that you have the relevant and right data to answer that question. Also, we keep showing them that coding is not scaring, and R isn't that scary; whether you're a biologist or work in public relations or HR, and you've never coded before, you can learn R in a friendly environment. Those are two of the biggest things that we're helping people do, as well as how to effectively communicate and tell those stories.
This series focuses on millennials forging unique professional paths in the gig economy. As an entrepreneur yourself, why do you think that option is so popular among millennials?
Well, we're finally demanding freedom from the classic nine-to-five, widget-making factory lifestyle, right? We're using our brains, and we're working globally with other people through means like Skype across different time zones. We’re getting that sense of independence, flexibility, and a way to actually have a healthy work-life balance. We're finally taking a stand and saying, ‘Look, we can get this work done anywhere and wherever. We're adults. We can be responsible and productive. I just need a laptop and the time to get things done.’
Having experiences across multiple companies in a shorter amount of time is really valuable – much more so than years and years of schooling or staying ten years at one company. I'm a believer in working at a startup when you first come out of college because you earn much more experience in a shorter time frame. You get to wear many different hats and, as a result, see everything from how operations functions to how proposals go through the process to how different groups collaborate. You will learn a lot more in, say, a two-month engagement, and may start to see patterns and improve your own processes and life in the future.
What are some drawbacks to working in the gig economy?
I don't see too many. Companies are always going to go to outside vendors. It's just a matter of not having the resources, the time, or the people, or oftentimes it's a political move because companies are more likely to listen to an external expert. I can't say that there are too many disadvantages to it.
You sound optimistic! How do you see the work-life balance you mentioned affecting the way we structure our downtime?
People are going to be healthier and happier. I've worked with so many people that don't have time for the gym, their creative hobbies, or their interests outside of work. For a long time, people have known that, while you can be really productive for a few hours, there's a lot of wasted time in offices with desk distractions and meetings that may or may not be necessary addressing things that could get done over a quick email or phone call. We’re going to start to see people not be completely consumed by work the way we are right now in the United States.
Is there something about the city of Boston that makes it more hospitable to innovative ways of defining work and careers?
Definitely. I was born in Mass, though I grew up in Rhode Island, and I've been in Boston since 2003, and all of my networking and career has been built here. The reason it was so fitting at first was the healthcare boom; all of my work was initially around biotech and healthcare, and Boston is, obviously, a hub for that. It’s also becoming a major startup hub. There are all kinds of tech accelerators, and it's easy to go to any event in the city. Whether to Cambridge or Boston, it's a short T ride. Obviously, there are a lot of young people and talent here. I think one in four people are college students. [The city of Boston is almost 674,000 people according to the most recent US census and the Boston Redevelopment Authority recently reports 152,000 people studying in higher education institutions today in Boston.]
Do you enjoy having multiple pursuits, or is the end goal to have only one?
I've always considered myself a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type of person; I need the stimulation and excitement of multiple pursuits. I'm having fun right now. I like doing different things. Teaching, for example, fulfills a passion and more altruistic side. It's really rewarding hearing from former students about something specific that they learned in one of my classes and then used to get a job or an interview.
Many millennial are forced to pursue multiple gigs in order to pay student loans. You went to Northeastern, which is known for its co-op and practical applicability post-graduation. What role does the high cost of education play in the disruption of traditional work structures?
This timing is impeccable because I paid off all of my Northeastern loans three days ago.
That's so exciting. Congrats!
Thank you! It was something I didn't think I would do before I was forty, and I'm thirty-two. I did get help – the Dean’s Scholarship – but I owed about six figures worth of student loans. It's a major problem in this country because most people will most likely never be able to pay it back, unless they have taken up the exact right degree or career path. And, it’s the type of debt that you can't even ask forgiveness on or from which you can declare bankruptcy, and you can't deduct interest on loan payments after you make over a certain amount. Young people are really getting the shaft in that sense. It's the reason millennial are not buying homes. It's the reason they're not taking on more risk or going back to school. Something has to change.
Ultimately, I think the costs of private universities have to come down. There needs to be more need-based scholarships; otherwise, you're going to miss out on all these young people who want to go get a higher education and are told that community college is as good, and we know that it's actually very different. The other side of that coin is companies are starting not to care from where you were granted your degree. For students who show ambition by learning from online courses, having portfolios online, or coding on their own, the right employers are going to recognize that ambition and talent regardless of where your degree came from.
Do you see that bubble bursting any time soon? What do you think the trigger will be?
I mean, it's a matter of time. It's going to be like another housing crisis, probably. It may be when our generation's kids stop taking out second mortgages to pay for their kids' education. Someone has to stop paying it. It's outrageous that they so readily give out these loans regardless of your potential for paying it back, which is very similar to what we saw with the credit default swaps in the collapse of 2008.
You’re making a decision at seventeen to take on six-figures-plus worth of debt. That's a huge decision, and some people don't have the financial guidance in their lives to make those decisions. My high-school guidance counselor told me, ‘You can't put a price tag on your education.’ Now, fortunately for me, I was lucky in terms of my career choice and degree choice, but you definitely can put a price tag on an education, and the monthly bills were very real.
Besides crushing student loans, are there other attributes ascribed to millennial that make them better suited for gig work?
Right, we were kind of the first generation where everyone was really pushed to go to college. There is a lot of stress on high school students these days.
You said that a lot of your students are transitioning, professionally. Why?
A lot of people see something that's exciting to them, and when you have a full work schedule or you're in between jobs, you really need the structure to hold yourself accountable and stay on course. A lot of these programs are designed to give you assignments and have TAs and mentors available. Northeastern's Level course, for example, which I helped design, sets you up with an employer project so that you are able to attain real world experience for two to three weeks and many of the students have been hired by that employer afterwards. It’s almost like a mini-version of Northeastern's undergrad co-op program, which is what I joined while there.
What’s an example of a company or publication currently using data visualizations well?
Definitely the FiveThirtyEight blog by Nate Silver and his team is a classic play. The New York Times, of course, with all of their various, especially political, visualizations. Flowingdata.com does a lot of great visualizations and also provides tutorials and online courses for people interested in data visualization.
A lot of people are starting to showcase their skills and explain complex topics on their blogs using data visualization and Tableau, which is a business analytics and intelligence tool that allows you to rapidly create interactive dashboards. Many big name companies – major pharmas and major consulting companies – use Tableau as a means of understanding even their own internal data generated as a result of day to day business operations.
Do you think data analytics played an erroneously role in the 2016 election? What role can it play going forward?
Oh, boy. The polling was obviously wrong, and the pollsters learned a lot about their sample: people potentially not answering honestly, not polling the right people, or not having the complete picture. I have very close colleagues that worked on the DNC campaign and know that some of the data wasn't necessarily in agreement with the Hillary campaign; we knew that there were going to be issues with various states, and they weren’t addressed.
There's definitely an integrity issue when it comes to being a data scientist. It’s almost like journalism; it's data journalism. We have a responsibility to make sure that we're not using biased data sources or just trying to confirm our own beliefs.
When you're not working from home, where in Boston do you like to work?
There are a few co-working spaces like Workbar and WeWork. Sometimes, I'll find a quiet coffee shop or even a bar if it's later in the afternoon and I feel like having a beer.