标题：“Give it a Try”: How Taking a Risk on AI Changed my Life
“Give it a Try”: How Taking a Risk on AI Changed my Life
I grew up in a small town in rural Ohio, USA, where my life was very quiet and very average. All of my friends looked just like me, and most of them live within a few miles of where we grew up to this day.
Ten years later, by a strange twist of fate, in April of 2019 I found myself in Hangzhou, China speaking to a packed crowd at the 2050 conference, giving an introduction to Artificial Intelligence. As I looked up from the stage, I could see faces in the crowd from all over the world; faces from China, India, Europe, and America. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Jessie and I outside of 2050 in Hangzhou, China
When I was 18, like most young people, I was struggling to know what I wanted to do with my life. I was drawn towards mathematics because I felt it was objective: you can’t have two right answers when solving a math problem. Still searching for what I wanted to do with my life, I left University to serve as a missionary for the Mormon church, also called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had the unique opportunity to spend two years helping with humanitarian efforts for immigrants coming across the Mexican border into California. It greatly changed my perspective.
Eventually, I returned back to University to continue my education; deep down I knew that education would be the key to my success in life. By 2011, I noticed the world had changed since I had been away. Life seemed to be engulfed by technology. Everywhere I looked people were using smartphones, which at the time had only recently been invented. New and exciting technologies were changing how people interacted with each other. This was the so-called “big data” era, and I was captivated by it. I had an intuition that data would continue to change the world, and I wanted to be a part of it. So in 2012 I changed my major to Statistics. Here, I felt like I could learn the skills necessary to identify patterns and make predictions from data.
After graduation 2014, I took a job working with a team of data scientists building predictive models for banks. It was very interesting, but I quickly realized there was a lot I did not understand.
One day, my boss, who was also a Finance professor, brought me into his office and said, “Porter, I think you should get a PhD.”
“That’s ridiculous”, I said, laughing under my breath. “I was a pretty average student in my Statistics program, I don’t think I’m smart enough to do a PhD.”
“Yes, you are”. He said. “You definitely have it in you… if you are willing to give it a try.”
“Give it a try? That’s an interesting way to frame dedicating five years of your life to writing a dissertation” But deep down, I knew he was right.
I’ve always felt like taking risks in life is prerequisite to do anything interesting. Before I knew it, I was investigating graduate schools and taking entrance exams. By 2016, I was enrolled in a PhD program at Penn State University, 2,000 miles away from where I was living in Utah. It was a big risk. My intent was to master techniques that could be used to learn “interesting” things from data. My friends, who were all economists, persuaded me to begin a PhD in marketing.
Historically, Marketing has not been a data-driven field. However, over the past decade or so, a deluge of marketing data has changed how people view connecting consumers with products. Unfortunately, after two semesters I realized that Marketing was not for me. Despite massive amounts of data at their fingertips, marketers still tend towards simplistic economic models. They study the data, but in the end, theories are what interest them. I was unhappy and considered dropping out.
Meanwhile, I was taking every computing class I could related to Artificial Intelligence. I found it captivating; I realized that teaching machines to amazing things through interacting with massive datasets was exactly what I wanted to do. At the time, I was also homesick, so I applied to another University near my family in Utah, this time for a Master’s in Computer Science. But I was rejected.
Feeling somewhat hopeless, in my third semester I took a Data Mining course from Zhenhui (Jessie) Li. I quickly fell in love with the concepts she was teaching. After a few weeks, I made another risky move: I asked Jessie if I could join her research lab. It’s quite uncommon for students to change their PhD major, but I thought I would at least “give it a try.”
“What’s the worst that could happen?” I asked myself. “She says no?”
Jessie took a big gamble, but she did accept me into her lab. I was an unproven marketing student, trying to join her research lab in Computer Science. Compared to her other students, I felt like an “imposter.” But I was lucky she believed in me. I worked very hard to catch up and improve my computing skills. By 2019, I even landed an internship at a top American social media company in San Francisco.
Jessie visiting me at the Pinterest HQ, in downtown San Francisco
In the fall of 2019, I returned to campus excited from my summer as a software engineer at Pinterest. I had performed well and they made me a full-time offer to return after I graduated. I met with Jessie to discuss the details of my graduation so I could go work at Pinterest. Going into the meeting, my goal was to convince her to let me graduate the following summer.
As I laid out my plans, Jessie was quiet and just listened. When I was done “convincing” her she said, “have you considered applying for a faculty job?”
“A faculty job?”, I nearly laughed out loud as I repeated her question. I literally thought she was making a joke. “No, definitely not.” I responded. “There’s just no chance.”
Academic jobs in the United States are very competitive, and felt like my publication record was below most candidates in the market.
Jessie responded and said, “I think you can just give it a try. What’s the harm in trying?”
Recalling a friend from her PhD program that didn’t have many papers, but landed a top job at Notre Dame University, she gave me a few tips to improve my chances. I did everything she said.
By summer early 2020, I was actively interviewing with a handful of Universities, in Utah, where my wife is from. But, like the rest of the world, my plans were derailed by the pandemic. Most universities were implementing hiring freezes in anticipation of the economic hardships most states in the US were likely to incur. But I kept trying. By autumn of 2020, I had a series of final interviews set up with my Alma Mater, Brigham Young University. Ultimately, the faculty liked my research and made me an offer as assistant professor in the Computer Science department!
When I look back, it truly was an improbable sequence of events. My nonlinear path led me through Mathematics, Statistics, Marketing, to Hangzhou China, San Francisco, and finally to the Computer Science halls of BYU. Now I do exciting academic research in AI, and have collaborated with startups building AI technology for Coca-Cola. My path simply could not have been predicted when it began. But each time I was faced with a difficult decision, I was always willing to “give it a try”, take a risk and try something new.
Jessie’s research lab, in April 2018
I feel like my story is a key part of what 2050 is about: bringing people together to change the world through technology. My small world was changed because I had great mentors, like Jessie, who believed in me. And now I try to impact the world by creating new, data-driven technology.
I hope that any young person who might be reading this might be inspired by my story. I am an average person who has worked hard, and never been afraid of trying new things. Amazing events have unfolded in my life as a result. Whatever it is you’re passionate about, never be afraid to “give it a try”, and build the future you long for.