Ricardo Diaz is a machine learning engineer. He works for a great company in Peru, and he’s a graduate of no less than four Nanodegree programs! By all measures, he’s a success. But just two years ago, it was a different story. He was still in Venezuela, struggling to learn new skills. He was short of money, and his prospects for making a full-time salary weren’t great.
How did he manage such a rapid and complete career transformation? We chatted with Ricardo recently to find out.
Great to talk to you Ricardo! Can you set the stage for us? Where does this amazing transformation begin?
Well, computers were always something I was interested in growing up. So when the time came, I enrolled in a Bachelor’s in Computer Engineering program. This was at a university back home in Venezuela. But there weren’t really ever any classes. Back then, things were bad economically, and at my university, it meant that classes would just stop because teachers were protesting. It was a mess. And even when classes happened, it never felt like I was learning anything meaningful that would help my career.
So you took it upon yourself to try and learn some new programming skills?
That’s right. I started looking online and tried a few different free programs to learn some programming languages—some HTML, some CSS, some Python. I really liked it, but I wanted to go beyond just learning coding and start learning how to build projects that would help my career. That’s when I began looking at whether I could find more serious resources online.
Is that when you found Udacity?
Yes. From the homepage onwards, it was amazing. I saw all the programs, and the experience on offer was exactly what I wanted—a program that could give me career-ready resources and experience. I thought I already knew how to code, but I didn’t know how to build anything, so I wanted real projects to practice my developing skills.
What program did you enroll in first to start building the projects you wanted to create?
I started with the Full Stack Web Developer Nanodegree program. I was so excited about working on it that I finished it in just one month. I literally spent all day, every day working on the content. It was my first time actually coding anything like the projects, and I was just so excited.
From day one, I was building something, coding something, doing quizzes. From the first lesson, it felt like I was doing what I had wanted to do for so long.
“It was so exciting to be building things with code that I could see would be useful through my whole career.”
So there you were, just a month later, a graduate of your first Nanodegree program. What happened next?
I started signing up to some online freelance sites, and tried to get freelancing work with what I had learned in my program. I put up some examples of the projects I’d made, and I got a couple of jobs because of that. I managed to save some money.
Money that you put towards more learning?
Yes! I think in maybe November of the same year, I saw Udacity had a new upcoming program—Deep Learning Foundations. I didn’t really know much about the field back then, but I loved just the basic idea of machine learning and deep learning. I did a little reading, then I saved some more money, and then I enrolled in the program in January of last year.
Were you able to apply the same degree of intensity to your studies?
I was. I was doing it all day, every moment I had. I was working through the content so quickly, that I sometimes got ahead of the content developers! As soon as new content was published, I’d start immediately and finish it as soon as possible. In fact, I completed the whole thing so fast, I was told I was the first person to graduate the program!
You were focused on freelance work at the time—did you new skills lead to more opportunities?
Yes, through all of my programs, I was doing freelance work. Every time I learned something new, I’d add it to my freelance portfolio on Upwork. And pretty much all of it was useful for getting more work—most of the time, I found freelance work that was exactly the same as the projects I was building in my Nanodegree programs. Especially after I had experience with machine learning. The skills I learned there were really in demand, and the work really helped a lot when I was struggling financially. It meant I could save up to enroll in the Robotics Software Engineer AND the AI Nanodegree programs right after I graduated the Deep Learning program!
Four Nanodegree programs! You must have become quite a familiar face in the various community spaces—what was your experience like when it came to engaging with the Udacity community?
The community is really great with Udacity—you can put your problem in a community channel, and someone will nearly always answer you really quickly. You can learn so much from the other students. I also really liked trying to teach others, because it helped me understand the concepts better. I’d review the projects of fellow students, or help them with a code question, and I would learn as much from explaining a concept to them as from the program content alone!
I understand you learned about your current role while you were studying in yet another Nanodegree program. Tell us how that happened.
About six months ago, I had enrolled in the Computer Vision Nanodegree program, and I got a call from a company that had found me on LinkedIn. I’d used Udacity’s career support a lot— particularly the LinkedIn and resume reviews, to make sure my profile presented my experience properly. And I guess that worked! They reached out from Peru, where they’re based, and invited me to interview for a machine learning role.
Can you tell us about your experience in that interview?
During the interview, I felt they took my credentials very seriously. They asked me about my projects, and the process I’d used to work through challenges while I was building them. And they were also really interested in my experience as a freelancer—what I had worked on, and the things I’d built. Having project experience was so important.
What happened after you spoke with them?
I had a couple more interviews, then they offered me the job! They sponsored me to come to Peru and start working for them—as a machine learning engineer! It’s my first full-time job, and the first time I’ve ever worked in an office. It’s great! And I’ve already been given a raise and a promotion too! I’ve only been here five months!
So fantastic! But does this success mean you’re taking a break from your studies?
Not at all. I’ve still got Term 2 of the Robotics Engineer Nanodegree program to complete, and I’m enrolled in the Cybersecurity program, to build my skills in that area. I’m also a mentor and beta tester for the Cybersecurity and AI for Trading Nanodegree programs, so I’m still learning every day! And I’m actually still attending my university online, to finish my Bachelor’s. I’ve stayed enrolled the whole time.
So you actually landed your current machine learning role without having a university degree?
I did. Which was pretty incredible when I think about it now. Most of the job postings I’d seen for machine learning seemed to be looking for Master’s or PhDs. But that didn’t matter in the end, because I had the skills and the experience to impress my recruiters. And since I joined, I’ve always been treated exactly the same as my coworkers who have more degrees than me.
You’ve come so far, so quickly; have you had chance to catch your breath and think about what your longer-term career ambitions are yet?
I eventually want to go to Silicon Valley. That’s one of my dreams, and I’m trying to make that happen. My main goal in life is to try to change the world in a meaningful way with what I do. And I know that over there, in California, in Mountain View, that’s where people change the world—just like Udacity changed mine!
But I’m really thankful for where I am in my career now. Peru is great—a little colder than Venezuela, but really interesting. I have great coworkers, and I’m enjoying my work so much.
“I’m so glad I found machine learning and that first Nanodegree program. It changed my life completely.”
We’re just astounded by your story Ricardo. Students like yourself—who commit to learning new skills, who study hard, and who make things happen—are why each of us at Udacity are thankful for the work we get to do. We can’t wait to hear what you do next, and have no doubt we’ll see you changing the world in Mountain View very soon!