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Craig Nelson is a Data Engineer for Syncsort – a company specialising in data infrastructure and analysis
How would you characterise your current work?
Data Engineering involves preparing the infrastructure and managing the storage of large volumes of data. We pull data from many different sources, learn their limitations and make them ready for use by analysts, sales teams and customers alike. We also engage in aspects of data analysis, but this is usually a separate role. We draw insights from raw data and use them to help customers make big business decisions. We also use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) – software used to visualise, analyse and manipulate location data – turning 1s and 0s into digital maps. Using 1s and 0s is a common way of understanding binary data and helps us translate computer-speak into meaningful insights.
How do you feel about maths?
Maths can be both wonderful and frustrating in its range of subjects, but the actual mindset needed to make maths work is one that can be beneficial across all disciplines. I find that maths which is purely theoretical is not as engaging as maths that is applied to real life. Who needs to differentiate on a daily basis?
What is it about your work that is mathematical?
The logical and analytical mindset that is learnt through maths has vast uses in my work – problem solving, being able to spot patterns, understanding and following code in a logical manner and of course, being “good with computers” all stem from a decent mathematical ability. It’s not that I need to do rapid mental multiplication but being able to think of tasks in terms of how certain operations would affect data is a plus (maths pun). Understanding that there are multiple methods of arriving at the right answer is a good habit to be in. Cartography (the practice of map-making) is also very mathematical. The fundamental problem in cartography is taking a 3D oblate spheroid and making it fit on to a piece of paper which takes some pretty gross maths.
How do you use maths, calculation or numeracy in your work? What tools do you use to help you?
Computers obviously do most of the actual calculation, but a computer only does what it is asked (scary AI dystopias aside) and so we must ask the right questions. While I don’t need to work out sums in my head, I need to know how to “ask” the computer to do the job for me. Code is sort of a mediating language between human-speak and computer-speak and knowing how these operations are built atop each other is almost like learning proofs in maths in order to better understand theorems.
The most obvious use of maths in my job comes in understanding mapping and geographical concepts – cartography is fairly maths-heavy, as mentioned earlier, even if it is all done behind the scenes by the software. The basic problem of maps - transforming the shape of Earth – an (almost) sphere into a flat picture that you can hang on your wall or fit in a book, has ceased to be as important now that we can have a virtual representation of an entire globe on our screens.
Do you think maths is creative? If so, how?
Many areas we traditionally associate with creativity – music, art, tactical problem solving – often incorporate maths in some form. Whether through the aforementioned “maths mentality”, or musical theories, or stunning visualisations of mathematical concepts, creativity is innately tied to maths in my opinion.
Do you use or rely on any maths that you learnt in school?
Maybe at a base level, but we never learnt any particularly computer-heavy maths at school. In general, the thought processes that help people understand and be good at maths help them to be good at visualising and analysing data. Some A Level maths topics loosely come up in modelling and predictive analytics, and a fair amount of geography-maths is relevant, but it is mainly the way we think about problems that requires mathematical understanding most.
How would you change the school curriculum, if you had the chance? Why?
Probably a greater focus on practical computer skills earlier on in IT lessons. I still think angrily back to a project that involved using Excel and rambling on about 5 portions of fruit and veg a day when we could have learned the basics of Python with that time. Really glad I learned all those PowerPoint slide transitions though, thanks.
I also think that PSHE-style lessons (Personal, Social and Health Education lessons, which usually cover issues such as health and safety, relationships and drug and alcohol use) could incorporate more informative ways of teaching life skills such as cover letter writing, understanding taxes, cardiopulmonary resuscitation or outdoor survival skills.
School in the 2000s seemed to be mainly a test of a good memory – I could get good grades with minimal work because I could remember answers. This isn’t a particularly good habit to get in to, because suddenly that stops being useful at A Level and above. Shifting the way we are tested may also help people feel more valued if they have skills other than simple memorisation, and may reduce the stigma of learning being a constant conveyor belt of revision and grades.
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