June 12, 2019

Being President Was The Best Thing I Did In College

Serving as the President of the Michigan Data Science Team (MDST) was the best thing I did in college. It was more fulfilling than any personal project, any book I’ve read, or any internship I’ve done. It also helped me hone several invaluable soft skills that would have been hard to develop in other settings.

Why Was Being President So Fulfilling?

As you will see from the examples below, the things that I did and implemented created real changes in the team. They affected the productivity and happiness of people and allowed students to learn more and do more. Without me, none of this would have happened. I know this because I’ve seen the state of the team for the past 1.5 years. Even under my candidacy, my first semester was a mess. It was only when I got the exec members together at the end of the first semester to reflect and brainstorm solutions for the next semester that we were able to fix our mistakes and improve.

Since the founding of the team five years ago, the team has had problems with member retention. Though the team published papers to world-renowned conferences, few people came to meetings and few people worked on these projects.

  1. MDataHack

    One of my primary goals when running for president was to organize Michigan’s first technical data science hackathon (datathon). Though it was our first time organizing such an event, we were able to pull it off with great success. Not only did 70 students show up for the datathon, every single one of them stayed for the entire 24-hour duration.

    After the datathon, one professor came up to us and asked us, “how many times have you organized this kind of event before?” He was shocked when we told him that this was our first time organizing such an event.

    A few students also came up to me to thank me during and after the datathon about how great of an event it was. One student told me about how long he’s waited for a data science hackathon.

    According to a member who’s been on the team since its foundation, this was the most successful thing that the organization has ever done.

    High school junior year transcript

    A team of Chemistry Ph.D. students presenting to a professor

    High school junior year transcript

    Excited winners

  2. Work Sessions

    At the end of my first semester as president, we realized that there were things that definitely needed improvement. I remember we had only one member show up to our project meeting during exam week.

    To address some of these issues, for our last exec meeting, I asked everybody to reflect on our current state and brainstorm solutions to our problems.

    As a result of reflecting on our problems at the end of my presidency’s first semester, we implemented work sessions. We wanted to create a more collaborative environment for students and to make the MDST function more like a team than a research group. We wanted people to work together and get to know each other as this would make their time with the team more enjoyable.

  3. Restructuring

    During my first semester, we tried a flat organizational hierarchy. This meant that we had one project team and that there were no fixed leaders. Instead, we had people assign tasks on GitHub and people did them at will. This resulted in a total of 18 people contributing to the project during the semester, but only one person was doing all the work.

    Inspired by The Mythical Man-Month and realizing that an 18-person team wasn’t very effective, I suggested that we create smaller teams of 4-5. We also decided to scope out project leaders for the project teams. By giving people leadership positions early on, we could groom them into taking over positions on the exec board as well.

    Creating this sort of 3-level hierarchy also helped to make the team more enjoyable for members as they developed stronger relationships with their teammates. Having project leads also meant that we could work on more projects in a semester. This allowed more students to work on a project of their desire, further increasing engagement.

As a result of #2 and #3, we had 30 people showed up to the election day meeting, with about 15 people running for the 6 positions. We had speech after speech from candidates from departments as diverse as Ph.D. candidates in Evolutionary Biology and Ecology to Ph.D. candidates in Mechanical Engineering. When I was running the year prior, only 3 people showed up to the election day meeting. Not a single person showed up to watch.

In hindsight, all these things that we did above seem obvious and don’t seem hard to implement. The hard part was realizing what went wrong and finding the right solutions. That it was the hardest thing that I’ve done in college which made it all the more rewarding when we achieved success. I was in the dark trying to find my way the entire time. During most of the first semester, I was still seeking guidance from the previous president. By the end of the first semester, I was taking the reins and implementing new ideas and trying new things. Like a startup, I realized that there wasn’t some straightforward path to success. I had to make different hypotheses and run experiments to see what worked and what doesn’t. Second, to actually attempting to starting a company, being the president of an org is one of the best ways to learn some of the skills for becoming a founder. Especially since the cost of failure is so much lower than actually starting a company which may cost years of your career or school.

It felt so good to make such an improvement. To see students collaborating and having fun when they weren’t before. To see students continue coming to meetings even during exam week and the very last meeting. It’s a feeling that is addicting and is the most rewarding thing that I have ever done in college. It gave me purpose and a sense of accomplishment. The accomplishment of leading a group to success has been more rewarding to me than any personal achievement ever. It wasn’t getting the highest test score in some class, I created a sense of community and improved the lives of others.

What Did I Learn?

To become the best leader I could, I tried to improve my leadership skills. These are a few of the things that I learned.

Delegation

When I first began my presidency, I had a hard time delegating. I wanted to do the work myself not because I didn’t think other people couldn’t do a good job, but because as a workaholic, I gained personal satisfaction from getting work done. Delegating to me was not doing work, it was getting other people to do it for me. Over the course of my presidency, I learned to delegate. I realized that delegating allows me to work on the tasks that I’m more suited to work on and allows the entire exec team to get more work done. Once I started to change my mindset from “what can I do for the team” to “how can I get the team to do more” was a big inflection point for me.

Public Speaking

I’ve seldom had difficulties to inspire a single person. As the size of an audience increases, it becomes more difficult to understand your audience and adjust your delivery and content. During the past year, I lead exec meetings of four undergrads and one Ph.D. student, lead project meetings of 20-30 people of diverse academic backgrounds, spoke to over 70 students and professors and presented at a mass meeting of over 250 students. Though I still have much to improve in this area, I enjoyed taking this responsibility and I’m much better at reading the audience now than ever before. One day, I’d like to be so good that I can energize an audience or get everybody tearing up.

Future

I wish I could continue serving as the president of the team forever. There are tons of changes that I want to put in place to make the team even better. But, I am graduating this next semester so I must move on. I will serve as an advisor of the team from now on.

Last but not least, I want to thank the rest of the executive board for their hard work and hours put in on weekends and during exam weeks. Without them, none of these achievements would have been possible. Wish you all the best in your future endeavors and I hope that you’ve enjoyed working with me as I have with you all.

© Wesley Tian 2019

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