Interview with Industry expert – Ajay Ohri, Founder, decisionstats.com
Recently I caught up with Ajay Ohri, founder of decisionstats.com over a cup of coffee. Ajay has been a friend and a mentor to me and a well known data science evangelist in India. We share a lot of common interest, the most obvious one being writing!
For the people, who don’t know Ajay, here is a brief intro:
Ajay Ohri is the founder of analytics startup decisionstats.com. He is a well known writer in the analytics industry. He has religiously contributed to the analytics space by writing books such as ‘R for Business Analytics’ & the latest ‘R for Cloud Computing‘.
I am also delighted to announce that Ajay has cordially agreed to join Analytics Vidhya as a mentor. We are excited about having Ajay on board and are sure that his experience would help our readers immensely in their data science learning.
Here is a brief transcript of the discussion between me & Ajay:
Kunal: Congratulations! Ajay on the launch of your second book ‘R for Cloud Computing’! I personally have a lot of respect for authors, who religiously devote themselves to their love for writing.
First of all, we sincerely thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. You come from DCE / IIM fraternity. What prompted you to get into the entrepreneurial boots leaving behind your well established job?
Ajay: There is no fraternity nor a sorority for DCE/IIM people. I loved being part of both DCE and IIM Lucknow, and I am grateful for what these institutes have done to help me kickstart my career. I am thankful, I got access to the best coaches in this country to help shape my thinking. Having said that, the real benefit of the so called top institutes is the alumni and the friends network you get.
I think I got tired and dissatisfied at the pace of my learning in analytics, the displeasure with which I was forced to indulge in managerial soft skills (a.k.a. politics). I was always wanting to get more , learn more, and to be honest & write more. A corporate job would place enormous restrictions on what I could blog or write upon. I learnt a lot at all the places I worked and am very grateful to everyone I worked with in my corporate stint. Even the bosses who pushed me and made me cry, they taught me the importance of hard work and focus.
The final kick into startups was Citi’s troubles in 2007 and GM going bust in 2008. So you see, it was not all career planning. A lot of events and luck went into it. Things I thought were a lucky break, turned out not to be so good. Things I thought were awful, actually were the best things for my career. I guess a time frame of 5 years is necessary to rationally and impassionately look at events and say whether they were really good or bad, and if so in what magnitude.
Having said that, I owe my financial independence since 2007 to my clients who take a bet on my brain, people across the world who took time to mentor me on social media. I don’t think I am very intelligent to begin with, but I certainly have been trained by the best.
Kunal: You started data science career much before people would have heard about it and it became one of the hottest field around. What were the challenges that you faced during the initial stages of your professional career?
Ajay: Cool question man. Yeah it used to be called business analytics, then data analytics and now its data science. What will they call it next?
Initial challenges: R was raw (this was 2007) , SAS was expensive, even Open Office was not so good as it is now. Getting a pipeline of work, leads for clients, converting leads to contracts and chasing people to pay me after work done were initial challenges. Initial challenges in blogging were: what do I write, when do I write, I did not know anything at first . I picked up blogging, SEO, SEM, Web Analytics, social media, networked like crazy.
Money was a constant challenge. I even went through a divorce because my ex wife did not (rightly) support my crazy move to startups . I have been blessed by God though that my clients always managed to keep the proverbial wolf from my door.
Differentiating myself from the competition was a constant challenge. I stuck to my guns, was true and frank as my personality was, constantly turned down boring work, and kept my prices low and honest and my deadlines timely. This is how I met those challenges. Open source and R really helped me here as they also took off at the same time. So I guess I got a bit lucky.
Kunal: You have been an avid blogger. What stimulated you to write books?
Ajay: Well, Google Adsense basically. It doesn’t pay you even peanuts. So, I started selling my own banner ads on my blog. The interviews were then a new feature in 2008 in analytics. Then kind people like John Sall, founder SAS Institute helped me out by answering my emails for interviews. Those breaks helped me build a brand and following.
But I never got satisfied in the “Build more views” business. The trouble with that was analytics was and will remain a rather niche area for reading. How do I spread my views further. Springer stepped in. I sent them a book proposal. They approved it. 2 years later Book1 – R for Business Analytics got out. It was ok. A Chinese university got a contract to translate it. So, 2 more years later book 2- R for Cloud Computing.
I am 38 now. I still try to learn a new technical thing every day. One new thing every day. I share everything I know because I get more knowledge in return.
Kunal: What inspired you to write the second book ‘R for Cloud Computing’?
Ajay: Writing the second book was to just an excuse to do more research on a geeky and cool subject cloud. I loved the freedom that the cloud represents to people from poor countries and how we can now match even super computers by paying by hour. Also R was RAM constrained so the cloud is a natural fit to R. I also got a lot of traffic to a particular blog post on setting up R on cloud. That made me think there was an audience out there wanting to learn more and learn easily. My book style has always been – This is how we will do this task, Step 1 , Screenshot, Step 2 Screenshot etc peppered with trouble shooting comments.
I try to aim for simplicity and that’s something which comes only if you have learnt to study and clear engineering exams at the last hour. These books were just diaries of my jugaad. Each book costs two years of my life but it is a life well spent. I love analytics and think of it as both elegant and beautiful.
Kunal: What was the hardest thing about writing the second book?
Ajay: The technology about the cloud changed so quickly and so often by so many players I had to rewrite it a lot more than the first book. Even now it is changing. Amazon and Google and even IBM keep coming up with new innovations. Microsoft just bought Revolution Analytics totally changing the analytics game at the globally strategic level.
Kunal: What is your favorite past time?
Ajay: Writing poetry on http://poemsforkush has been my favourite past time and watching movies with my DCE / IIM friends. I loved Birdman and I think Benedict Cumberbatch was awesome in Imitiation Game (as he is in any movie he plays).
I firmly support Tyrion Lannister for winning the Game of Thrones and have a huge crush on Claire in House of Cards.
Kunal: What has been the turning point of your life?
Ajay: My son’s birth in 2007 provided me the focus, the urgency and the need to build a digital legacy one that he can enjoy and use when he grows up 15 years from now.
Kunal: If you had a chance to go back in time, what are the things you would have done differently?
Ajay: I would have learnt R earlier. I would have drunk less beer. I would have exercised more. I would have applied more sunscreen. I would have balanced my emotions better with my logic and my instincts.
I definitely would write more poetry and more code and write fewer emails , read more computer science and read less celebrity news. I would also worry less about money and just shut up and do my job more.
Kunal: You also run one of the most successful meetup I know about. How did that start and what keeps it ticking?
Ajay: I enjoyed Meetups during my time in North America. There were no R meetups in India in 2012. So I started up one. I keep it ticking. People are slowly coming to learn about Meetups. In India I often find people grow impatient and try to make money out of everything they work hard on. Some things can be worked on for passion and community also. I think we have the largest R meetup in India.
Kunal: What will be your advice for the people who are looking forward to enter analytics industry?
Ajay: Learn R, Python, Java. Learn to Blog, Tweet and use LinkedIn. Keep Learning one new thing every day.
Kunal: Any advice for young budding entrepreneurs of the analytics industry in India?
Ajay: Just do it Man! Don’t be greedy for easy money. Don’t tell lies. Don’t believe the lies you hear repeated most often. Keep a side job that makes steady money. Keep some time spare for thinking new ideas. Experiment, Fail, Learn, Repeat &Try to think of products and not just training and outsourcing services.
Kunal: What is coming next from Ajay Ohri?
Ajay: More books (I think Python – one need not be dependent on R 😉 , more blog posts, more consulting, more poems. I try to learn new things and I try and spread. So teaching and meetups and conferences will be there. I am getting into spatial and big data analytics. Also, more analytics for economic well being of the poor people who are a big part of India (still). More teaching and efforts to reduce barriers to learning analytics.
I will like to die writing with my head on my laptop on my writing desk and on my epitaph they should throw a party and have a beer and say- he did what he loved.
It was indeed a wonderful experience to share. We are excited to have Ajay on board and wish good luck for his future endeavors. We wish that his success momentum keeps rolling to achieve even greater milestones!