Interview by Gabriel Foreman
In 2016 Stephon Nixon trained with Duro as a data visualization intern. Today he works as a full-time Technical Data Analyst at Viacom, Inc., a media conglomerate that counts Paramount Pictures and Comedy Central among its assets.
I sat down with Stephon on a recent Friday afternoon to discuss his path to success, his plans for the future and advice for other young people looking for their first break.
(Picture: Stephon Nixon at Viacom’s Times Square offices)
Gabriel Foreman: Start by telling us a little bit of background, where are you from?
Stephon Nixon: I’m from the Bronx, New York, born and raised.
GF: Where did you go to school?
SN: For high school I actually went to three different high schools. My first high school was Mount St. Michael, I went there my freshman year. Sophomore and junior year I went to Frederick Douglas Academy, and then I graduated upstate in Montgomery from Valley Central High School. For college I did three semesters at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
GF: Do you think you’ll go back?
SN: I’ve been thinking about it. Probably, just to get the diploma, you know what I’m saying? Just to have it on the wall, and for my mom. It’s mostly for my mom.
GF: That’s a good answer.
GF: So what got you interested in coding originally?
SN: It all started back in 2012 when I graduated high school I was looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, and I knew people that programmed that made money doing websites and stuff. So I tried to learn programming at the time but it was boring to me at that point.
Then I tried it again, when I attended Borough of Manhattan Community College I majored in computer science, but I scheduled my classes poorly so I set myself up for failure. Fast forward to 2016, my brother told me about The Knowledge House. I had a phone interview and went and met [co-founders] Joe and Jerelyn, and they helped me fall in love with it.
I like to be by myself, and coding is something where I could put my music on and I don’t have to depend on anyone else, I can do everything and figure it out myself. And if I can’t figure it out myself, with my best friend Google I can get everything I need. I can sit down and lose myself coding while listening to music, that’s where the love came from.
GF: Tell us a little about The Knowledge House and your experience there.
SN: The Knowledge House is a non-profit organization in the South Bronx that helps less fortunate youth get into the tech world, because tech is a big thing of course. As more tech jobs are opening up there are not enough people to fill those jobs. So their whole thing is they’re going to teach these kids the coding skills they need to become relevant, to be needed in the workforce.
My experience there, I studied Python, which is a programming language used for data science but can also be used for web development. So I did a course there under Joe Carrano. It was cool. It was really cool. It was in a class setting but it wasn’t like a regular class setting. There was serious camaraderie. I’m normally a shy person, but the first day I found myself talking to so many people.
You just feel welcome there once you get there. It really feels like a family. And you have Jerelyn, she helped push me a lot. Not only do they give you the programming skills, but they also help you with personal development and job readiness. They’ll help you with your resume, they’ll introduce you to other people. That’s how I ended up at Duro. They literally give you everything you need, all the ingredients, and it’s up to you to cook.
GF: Following The Knowledge House, what was your experience at Duro like?
SN: Duro was cool. So like, Duro exposed me to some of the smartest people I ever met. Half the conversations I had there it was like there was a monkey in my head with cymbals [laughs], it was like a lot of the things they were saying were just flying over my head, there were so many intelligent people there.
I was on the intern team doing data visualization. It was me and a couple other trainees. One of the other interns was doing a piece on the Bronx River for the [Duro] Blog, so one thing we did was we helped by getting data and doing some data vis on, for lack of a better word, how dirty the Bronx River is. I wrote a program that narrowed down the data and visualized what we needed.
The Knowledge House gave me Python and then at Duro they geared me more towards data science. It was thanks to Duro that I fell in love with data science. At first I thought about Python simply about web development, and then at Duro I found you can do all these amazing things, visualizing data, cleaning, manipulating data. I was able to hone those skills because of the projects I was working on.
GF: Tell me what happened after Duro, the process of getting brought on at Viacom.
SN: While I was still at Duro a recruiter from Viacom had messaged me on LinkedIn to be a part of the data science team as a data scientist, but as I was speaking to him he knew that I was still fresh to the whole data science side of things. But I let him know how passionate I was about it. I let him know that, even if I don’t get anything with you guys I’m going to do what I have to do to go somewhere else.
And he was like, “Alright, I’ll try to find someone to at least speak to you”, because I wasn’t quite ready yet for the complicated things that the actual data science team was dealing with. So he showed my resume to Comedy Central and the VP of Insights, and she was interested and reached out to me.
Long story short, I interviewed with her and after that she ended up moving to the Audience Science team at Viacom. And she was like, “You know what, it would be better if you came with me to Viacom, you would be of more use to Viacom than Comedy Central.” So I was like, “Alright cool, you’re the professional, you should know.”
So I came over and interviewed with someone who is now my senior manager, and then around Christmas they emailed me saying, “Good news, we spoke to the Senior Vice President and we have space for you on the team.” And I remember I was on the train when I read the email, and I literally jumped up and was like “YES!!” [Laughs] And so many people are looking at me like, “What the heck is wrong with this guy?”
GF: That’s a great story. And how did they find you on LinkedIn, what was that process like? Did you have a LinkedIn profile when you came to Duro or did we set that up?
SN: I had a LinkedIn profile, but it wasn’t really the best LinkedIn profile. At Duro, like at The Knowledge House which also helps with resumes and stuff, Duro helped fine tune it a little bit more. They showed me little errors and extra things I could add to my profile, which got a lot of people looking at me. Because, I actually spoke to a recruiter and what they do is basically enter keywords and it scans profiles. So the way I was found is that it picked up the data scientist keywords I had added.
GF: So what’s it like working at Viacom? What’s your day-to-day like?
SN: When I first got here it was mainly studying. They gave me an onboarding book so I can know who everyone reports to, what our motto is, what our goals are, pretty much everything I should know as an employee. It was a lot of studying.
Now, my purpose here, I’m a Technical Data Analyst, so long story short I help automate the processes for Viacom’s brands to analyze their marketing campaigns. With the use of Python and the use of pandas, which is a library within Python, I turn what takes multiple steps into one step. And not only do I have to do that, but I have a time frame, and it can be a lot. I remember there was a day I came to work at 9 in the morning and didn’t leave the office until 10:30 at night.
GF: That’s great. Do you have any goals in mind for the future? Or are you just keeping it one day at a time?
SN: Being a consultant has crossed my mind, a data consultant. I want to be the person that takes a look at all your data, where you’re storing that data, and lets you know if you’re really leveraging all that data. Let you know, “Ok, you’re using this properly, you’re using that properly, but why aren’t you looking at this? This affects this.” Right now I see myself doing that in the future, but I do take every day one day at a time.
GF: Are you already doing that in some small way?
SN: Not necessarily just yet. I consult as far as what can be done to improve how processes move, but as far as what they do with their data, no. Since I’m on the corporate team, everybody that I’m working with literally has years upon years upon years of experience. I’m trying to absorb what they’re trying to give out. Instead of me telling them what they should do, I’m trying to shut up and listen.
GF: That’s fair. So, final question, you’ve had this incredible career trajectory over the past year or so. Do you have any advice for other young people who might be trying to get their break?
SN: What I would say is the number one thing is stay hungry. Definitely stay hungry. Hunger is the biggest thing. And when I say hunger, I mean be determined. Set goals for yourself. If you say you’re going to do X amount of studying, get X amount of studying done plus one.
And not to discourage anyone from college, but certain people feel that without college they’ll never make it in life, but that’s simply not true. Without determination you will not be able to make it in life. As far as developing and programming and all that, what you really need is experience.
It doesn’t have to be necessarily you at a job, that would look great, but of course you’re not going to get that job just yet. I got lucky a little bit, but when I was home, I did a lot of work. I looked at a lot of tutorials, I programmed whatever they were teaching me, like pandas for example, other libraries.
Read tutorials and make sure you know what you’re talking about. That’s another big thing. Because if you think you’re going to talk to some of these people and they’re not going to know what you’re talking about, to be honest maybe some of them won’t, but you don’t know whether the person you’re sitting in front of knows it or doesn’t, so the best thing you can do is make sure you’re 110% ready. These people are very intelligent.
And make sure your LinkedIn is good. Make sure your LinkedIn is good. I was surprised how many young people I’ve spoken to and asked if they had a LinkedIn and some of them didn’t even know what a LinkedIn was. Clean up your social media. I deleted my Facebook account. It was painful at first [laughs], but it helped in the long run. Make sure your Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, make sure that’s all clean. If you have anything bad, even if you have hundreds of thousands of followers, delete it right now.
GF: Any final words?
SN: Be healthy. Eat your greens. Do the work. Just do the work.