Maraki Ketema: career experience and advice for data science/software engineering beginners

14 May 2021
By Jimmy Zhong
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Photo of Maraki Ketema, Carleton class of 2015
Class of 2015, Computer Science Major and Neuroscience Concentration and DataSquad alum.

Maraki is currently a senior product manager at Tableau. Tableau is a data visualization software company under Salesforce®. After Carleton, she started as a software engineer at Tableau, and currently, she pursues a managerial career path. On Nov. 6th, 2020, we (David Chu and Jimmy Zhong (writer)) interviewed Maraki for her advice for Carls who want to pursue a career in Data Science/Data Analytics.

Q1: How are Computer Science classes (Ketema’s major) and Neuroscience (minor) relevant to your current job? 

Ketema: Core Computer Science competencies are essential. The industry is constantly changing, and you have to have a solid foundation to really grow. Carleton’s theory-based curriculum was often difficult, but it’s proven to be super valuable. It taught me how to think through problems and break them down into smaller pieces. As for Neuroscience, it helps me indirectly. Some of the awesome innovations out there in the ML and AI space are important, and Neuroscience is foundational to theoretical research in those areas. Companies like Tableau have also really tapped into the field to augment human intelligence and built intuitive tools that leverage our innate human capabilities. 

Q2: What were your most memorable Carleton courses? What would you recommend to us to take?

Like I mentioned earlier, some of the foundational courses like Data Structures and Algorithms are valuable. I also enjoyed the classes that Carleton offers in Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) [CS Course Page]

One of the courses that really stood out to me during my time at Carleton wasn’t actually a CS class. I took Diverse Bodies, One Nation with Prof. Adriana Estil. I found it really applicable because of the tech industry’s struggles (and Corporate America more generally) has with Diversity, Equity, Inclusion. The course came to mind again in the midst of the petition going around the Carleton alumni community earlier this year. 

I enjoyed many Neuroscience classes during my time at Carleton, but Sleeping and Dreaming with Prof Lawrence Wichlinski stood out for me. It taught me about the importance of sleep and the impact of sleep deprivation on our productivity and health, more importantly.

Q3.5: Which internships you did in college? And extracurricular activities?

I interned at Intel after my Junior year. I worked on Solid State Drives (SSDs). As a freshman, I did a Public Health-related internship. I went back to Ethiopia and shadowed doctors to really understand the health care system and the challenges doctors and patients face every day.

I wasn’t very involved in extracurriculars. I am a founding member of DevX, but I was not too engaged after the first few months. I was also in ACA (African Caribbean Association) and Lovelace, but I was not very active.

Q4: What are our advantages as liberal arts students? 

Maraki_at_Tableau_new_feature_launch
the liberal art approach teaches us to venture outside of our core areas, setting us up to be better problem solvers

I think it depends on the type of company/service you work for. For example, if you work in security, solid security knowledge/classes are hard requirements. However, Carleton gives you a lot of breadth; the liberal art approach teaches us to venture outside of our core areas, setting us up to be better problem solvers. My liberal arts background definitely shaped my career path. 

Jimmy’s followed up: do Carleton students prefer managerial over non-technical roles?

Ketema: NO. There are a few of us at Tableau who graduated from Carleton and I believe I’m the only Product Manager.

Q5: What is your daily job/work routine? Do you consider yourself a data scientist, manager, or software developer?

My job is to build tools for analysts and data scientists. I translate the needs of our customers and the core business problems into the right set of engineering problems. I do not code anymore, but my teams and peers are engineers and people managers. 

Day to day, I spend a lot of my time thinking strategically about the product and our customers. This could be looking at usage data to understand how users use our tools and conceptualize new features based on customers’ demand. I do a lot of writing/speaking to make sure we build the right features and ensure that our customers understand why we’re building what we’re building.

Q6: what is your advice for college students thinking of joining the software or data science industry? (Companies do not always hire freshman and sophomore interns.)

Companies often hire rising seniors as interns. New grad hires are usually returning interns who did a great job with their projects during the previous summer. Internships for rising juniors are a little tricky but I have seen some sophomores land great internships. For my own internship, I applied to 30 or 40 places. Luckily, Intel picked up my resume. If you don’t manage to find an internship, try to find an open-source project of your interest and see how you can contribute to it. That by itself is a job experience and something you can call out on your resume. My campus jobs like the DataSquad and IT Helpdesk were great for building my resume, too. 

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Zoom interview: getting the most out of what is available!

Q7: How did you decide to go to industry vs graduate school after Carleton?

I knew I did not want a Ph.D.  I wanted a break from academia after graduation, so I applied for jobs and chose Tableau out of several offers. I wanted an MBA because I wanted a career in business leadership, particularly in the tech industry. For some reason, the stars aligned, and I became a Product Manager without an MBA, so I’d likely pursue that further down the road. 

Your priority dictates your choice between industry or academia after your bachelor’s degree. If you prefer a route in academia, you should undoubtedly consider graduate school. If you enjoy delivering products to customers then maybe the industry is your better choice. In my experience, a Master’s or Ph.D. degree does not necessarily mean you’ll have a salary advantage over your coworkers with bachelor’s degrees. 

David’s follow-up: I saw that you are recently enrolled in a master’s program at Georgia Tech. Can you share your thought process about that?

Yes, I am in a part-time online CS master’s program, this is something I do in addition to my full-time job.  I’m in the Interactive Intelligence specialization which is an intersection between HCI (human-computer interaction), AI (artificial intelligence), and ML (machine learning), I encourage you to read more about this program [link]

I learn in the evenings and weekends, so it will take me longer to finish the degree. I do this program for the sake of learning (not for a salary bump or a job). I want to expand my knowledge of the industry beyond the “data” space. My job is my first priority because it’s my primary avenue for career development, and this Master’s degree is a “cherry on the top”. 

Conclusions: 

Chase after your interest and your knowledge in other fields will have a place in the industry. You have interests other than tech, like how Ketema did the pre-med track and ended up with a neuroscience minor. It still became useful in her career in product management.

A strong theoretical foundation sets Carleton students apart from people without such an academic background. While Carleton Computer Science does not offer many courses that are directly applicable to the industry, learning the groundwork teaches us how to think.

Take whatever available opportunity to “get your foot in the door”. In an ideal world, we gain insight into the field from internships and research. Even if things do not go as planned, campus jobs and open source projects are great ways to get precious experience, too.

We sincerely thank Maraki Ketema for her time and valuable insight. When I (Writer Mr. Jimmy) graduate, I would love to share my experience with younger Carls (first, of course, I hope that I am a little successful and people will want to interview me ).