We live in an era inundated with all kinds of data that can be too much to make sense of. But relevant data can help turn patterns into business narratives supported by scientific and factual evidence to aid strategic decision making.

Sourav Nandi, our next pathbreaker, Quantitative Analyst at Morgan Stanley, builds data centric models/algorithms that are well suited and appropriate for business use cases related to Risk Management.

Sourav talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about pursuing his masters in Statistics from IIT Kanpur after getting hooked to Statistics, the Science of Data, for its relevance across all domains in delivering key insights based on objective facts.

For students, the future beckons problem solvers who can analyze business challenges and develop solutions using data driven and statistical methodologies. A great career for those who love numbers !

Sourav, Your background?

I come from a small village in West Bengal, located in a remote part of the district Purba Bardhaman. It’s a very beautiful place filled with never-ending farming fields, and a less complex lifestyle devoid of technology. I’ve been very lucky in that both my parents as well as my grandfather and uncle are in the teaching profession. I used to go to the local pathshala (school) with my grandpa and hang out with other kids there in his class. I was an introvert by nature, and tried to find a sense of companionship in books. My Dad being an avid book lover (he also helped create & donated books in a mini library in the local club), I had access to a plethora of interesting books ranging from Bengali literature to Astrophysics. My parents encouraged me to participate in many extra-curricular activities and competitions like Essay Writing, Debate, Drawing and Talent Search exams; and I ended up with some more cool story books & memoirs. 

I immersed myself into the beautiful and mysterious world of different books and its characters. It undoubtedly expands our horizon, and the spectrum of our thought processes. We become aware of our biases – it gives us a balanced view of the world. And the Bengali literature is a treasure trove in the true sense of the word — Rabindranath Tagore, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Sharadindu Bandopadhyay, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Swami Vivekananda, Leela Majumdar and many many more. Their ideas became a part of my character.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did a Bachelor of Science in Statistics from Calcutta University (RKMRC Narendrapur) with Mathematics and Computer Science as Minors. Then I joined IIT Kanpur to finish my Masters in Statistics. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

During my higher secondary days, I got hooked to Statistics, the Science of Data. We humans are emotional creatures who rarely depend upon objective facts while decision making. So the idea of data-driven decision making fascinated me. I decided to pursue a career in this field. Being from a middle-class family background, many of my relatives wondered why I didn’t want to join an engineering course in a top-tier institute despite a decent rank in JEE Mains. But I believe if you are hardworking and practical, pursuing your passion won’t fail you. The idea is to keep on up-skilling and re-inventing yourself. I got into good colleges in Kolkata like Presidency and St Xaviers. I got admitted to Xaviers Kolkata, but later moved back to RKMRC Narendrapur, where I already knew many people and there is a rich heritage of Statistical education. The main turning point for choosing this career path is definitely joining RKM Narendrapur for higher secondary where I got introduced to this amazing field of Statistics.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

As I decided to pursue a career in basic science, I came to know about different scholarships by the Govt of India and other reputed organizations. I applied for and was offered the INSPIRE fellowship by DST, Govt of India; and the JBNSTS Senior Scholarship. These also gave me the opportunity to get involved in science camps and research projects during my early college days.

After college, I decided to move out of my home state to have better exposure and appreciation for the mixed culture of India. I appeared in the IIT JAM exam (an entrance for PG courses in Institutes like IITs and IISc). I worked very hard for the last few months for this (didn’t take any coaching, but attended all classes in college), and got an AIR of 5 in Mathematical Statistics. I joined IIT Kanpur to pursue a Masters in Statistics.

Other than the academic projects, I did some independent research project work guided by the professors and mentors in RKM Narendrapur, JBNSTS Kolkata, and IIT Kanpur. I also cold-emailed a professor in ISI Kolkata who gave me the opportunity to do an internship under his guidance in the Machine Intelligence unit in ISI. I did many online courses and independent projects from sites described below in this article. Also tried some freelancing in websites like Chegg.

The research project in ISI was mainly focused on Statistical Learning and Deep Learning (using Artificial Neural Network for Pattern Recognition). In simple words, we were trying to use modelling techniques to identify patterns from datasets. So during the winter of 2017 I had some free time, and I thought of doing something interesting. I started cold emailing professors from ISI Kolkata (emails are usually available on the official website), and some of them kindly agreed to guide me. I ended up working with Prof. Rajat Kumar De from Machine Intelligence unit in ISI. 

It was a really amazing experience and a great learning opportunity. He encouraged me to understand the theory from good textbooks and in depth. Then when it comes to code implementation- we can always use pre-existing packages to skip the hard work. But he motivated me to write the Python scripts from scratch. While this was a time demanding exercise, it helped me understand the core ideas better. I also learnt to use open source sites like GitHub, which helped me in getting inspiration from pre-existing resources and codes.

How did you get your first break? 

My first Industry offer was from Ford Motor in their Global Data Insights & Analytics team in India. I got an Internship opportunity through campus placement process in IITK. I enjoyed the work very much and learnt a lot, guided by industry professionals with decades of experience. After the internship, they extended a PPO (Pre-Placement Offer) to join Ford India as a full-time employee. However, I decided to join Symphony AI, a startup in Bangalore. This was an off-campus opportunity which I got through LinkedIn. In Symphony AI, we were building Data Products focused on Healthcare Analytics, mainly around Oncology and also publishing our results.

In Symphony AI (Concert AI) we were building data products and Analytical Models for predictions related to disease progression and a patient’s medical conditions, based on the previous medical history. Our main focus was on Oncology (study of Cancer), Real world evidences, Synthetic Control Arm in Clinical Trials and Clinical Outcomes. Now because there are so many unknown factors involved in Medical Science, it’s very hard to make a reliable prediction in this area. And that makes this work so interesting. We extensively used different statistical techniques and cutting-edge AI (Artificial Intelligence) & Machine Learning models to get insights from the disease history and other related information. We also published our findings in conferences like ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) and leading journals.  

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

I think the main challenge is getting the first few opportunities and creating a demonstrated history of interesting work experiences. In this regard there are a few tips that I found helpful:

  • Create a portfolio of your best works, like open source projects in Github, blogs in Medium, Quora Answers etc
  • Try to add value towards others by solving interesting problems and pain points
  • Share your learnings with others. What worked and what didn’t, and why.
  • Build long term relationships by being genuinely interested in others.

Another challenge is turning theoretical knowledge into practical usage. Here, the main tip is to start applying the theory in the real world. See what’s working, and what’s not. Take inspiration from others and assimilate those with your own experiences. Iterate and try making tiny improvements. Get feedback from others while iterating. Use your knowledge and skills in making others’ lives easier and more meaningful. Over time this can have a tremendous positive effect in your personality as well as career. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

Currently I’m working as a Quant Analyst (Quantitative Analyst) in Morgan Stanley, Mumbai in the Model Risk Management (Wealth Management) team. Risk Management can be thought of as the process of identification, analysis and mitigation of threat/ uncertainty that can negatively affect the business as well as the end customers. Our work focuses on making sure the processes, assumptions, and models/algorithms are well suited and appropriate for the business use case. Another aspect is to make sure we are following the regulatory guidelines as well as the ethical considerations.

The core skills are Quantitative & Communication skills, focused on Statistics/ Data Science, Programming and Communicating key findings/ insights to the stakeholders. So a typical day mostly involves a lot of data crunching, building quantitative models, and preparing reports based on the findings. The right balance of the technical aspect as well as the communication skill makes this job very interesting to me.         

How does your work benefit society?

Investment banks like Morgan Stanley play a crucial role in terms of making sure there is a stable flow of Credit & Market Liquidity in our economy and supporting investment infrastructure & ecosystem. The role of Risk Management is to make sure there are enough preventive mechanisms & to proactively search for potential biases/ inaccuracies in our decision-making pipeline that can have adverse consequences in the future. This ensures the end customers are protected from an adverse outcome in periods of financial stress and crisis. From a aspiring student’s perspective, you get to learn about the fascinating world of Finance from mentors with decades of experience in this field as well as the rich library of existing content and case studies.

The economy and the Markets are like living organisms- impulsive, irrational, and responsive. The underlying mechanisms are very complex and inter-tangled. Thus, it’s very difficult to predict what would happen next – very much like Healthcare. That makes this a fascinating field to explore. Now the target becomes to make the best possible decision with the limited information that we have. Statistics tries to find patterns and insights from the available information, and give us an enhanced understanding of the dynamics of the factors/ variables in play. For examples, let’s say we have a certain number of financial product offering options for the customers. Now diving deeper into the dataset available on the customer interaction and feedback can help us understand how the customer requirements are changing, and be prepared for the future by adjusting our products and services accordingly. Another important aspect is Risk Management which focuses on how we can limit our downsides. This becomes especially important during periods of distress like Financial Crisis period of 2008-09, and the current pandemic scenario. It’s also very fascinating and a privilege to work with a financial institution like Morgan Stanley with such a rich heritage and learn from senior leaders with decades of industry experience.     

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

With the help of my friends, I created a community for students preparing for Masters in Statistics or related courses. I realized that there is no high quality, free online platform to help students preparing for the IIT-JAM exam (for admission into Masters and PhD courses in institutes like IITs and IISc). So I created a nonprofit platform to provide some guidance to students preparing for Statistics related courses, as well as sharing resources and information that may not be accessible to everyone. 

We have been running the platform for more than 3 years, and the group has grown to over 3400 members, thanks to the support from my friends from IIT Kanpur and IIT Bombay and ISI Kolkata. It’s very inspiring to see students giving their best in spite of financial and other difficulties. I’ve also made some very good friends while running this community. This is something close to my heart!

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Start building meaningful connections and trying to add value first. Opportunities are by-products. Pick some pain points from everyday lives and try to solve them: Break things and make them better. And share your journey with others. Create blog posts, tutorials, Quora answers, YouTube videos, Github projects, Kaggle kernels – you name it!

When you create something of value, people want to reach out to you. They give constructive criticism, energy as well as teach some new aspects. Thus they open up. This approach of inbound networking is the best one. Some more tips could be to be open to constructive criticism. Learn how to make others comfortable around you (Google ‘The Airport Test’). Let any concerns be heard (Politely, of course!). 

Build important life skills like how to talk to strangers and relate to their experiences, read about personal finance, mental health, and business. Practice ideas like Rationalism, Falsifiability (the capacity of your hypothesis to be proven wrong in light of new evidence), use of Empirical evidence (as compared to Authoritarian ones) and Questioning your own assumptions. Learn about some core ideas from fields like Psychology, History, Genetics, Physics, Philosophy & Art, and integrate them in your life. Use excellent free resources like Khan Academy, Coursera, EdX, Udemy, MITOcW, Udacity etc and YouTube. 

Stop endless scrolling through Motivational Videos. Get Organized- Build a Routine. If possible, ask someone to hold you accountable. Practice independent thinking and reasoning from first principles. Get into something creative- Drawing/ Music/ Writing/ Dance etc. Have deep conversations with your Parents. Try to understand the tremendous sacrifice they’ve done for us. Be humble and helpful to others.

Future Plans?

With so much youth and energy, I think India has great potential to accomplish big things in near future. However our traditional schooling system may not be sufficient to provide us with the necessary toolkits to cope up & thrive in today’s fast changing world. We need to move beyond rote learning and theory. We need mass entrepreneurship and more problem solvers. I want to be a part of this ecosystem and build practical tools/ resources that’ll be helpful for our next generation. 

On a small scale, I’ve started sharing some tips on Life skills, Career Guidance (Resume making, getting opportunities, networking tips), Personal Branding, Survival in Digital World, Stress handling, etc; as well as Statistics and Data Science. Along the way, I learned a lot myself. Some of my posts can be found via the hashtag #souravsays on LinkedIn. Finally, please feel free to reach out for a discussion/ if you have any questions or feedback/ suggestions. I am reachable via my website  https://about.me/sourav.nandi .

A huge shoutout to Shyam for the amazing initiative of Interview Portal, and providing me with the opportunity to share my journey and experiences.