Identifying (and Interviewing) Machine Learning Talent

According to this recent survey on enterprise AIOps (Artificial Intelligence for IT Operations) adoption, 67 percent of enterprise IT organizations in the United States have experimented with artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning (ML) for data management and incident remediation. What’s more, research firm Gartner fully expects that artificial intelligence will create more jobs than it replaces by 2020.

A.I. is moving fast and enterprises need talent today. But not just any talent. What once was a shortage of coding and software engineering expertise has now evolved into an overall shortage of skills in artificial intelligence and algorithmic engineering.

No Skills to Pay the Bills

Skills gaps are cited as among the biggest hurdles to AIOps adoption and implementation; a recent EY survey of 200 senior leaders found that 56 percent see talent shortages as the single biggest barrier to implementing A.I. in business operations. It’s clear that finding machine learning engineers is not an easy task; they’re a bit of a unicorn, combining engineering fundamentals with data modeling and statistical analysis. But with the right framework, it’s entirely possible to build a team that has the right mix of data science, engineering know-how, and even a little robot emotional intelligence.

Math in the Machine

To start, machine learning engineers need deep expertise in predictive modeling and statistical analysis. At my company, we look for engineers who can combine core engineering fundamentals with the ability to see patterns in data and translate that into action. Not only do they need to be able to manipulate code and build software, but they must also understand how mathematical models can create insights, and those insights can drive action.

Some practical questions during our initial interview rounds include:

“When should you use classification over regressions?”

Setting up use case-driven questions like this helps us understand how a candidate builds mathematical models. Fundamentally, classification is about predicting a label, and regression is about predicting a quantity.

“Do you have experience with Apache Spark or some public machine learning libraries? (TensorFlow, etc.)”

Ultimately, we want to make software that’s scalable. This is the advantage of a machine learning library. Today’s A.I. engineers must be proficient in modern tools to build enterprise-grade solutions.

Power to the Problem

The next challenge for a true A.I. engineer is solving the big problem of clean data. Creating datasets that are rich, contextual and clean provides the best results for an artificial intelligence solution, as AI relies on data for decision-making. Some questions may include:

“How would you handle an imbalanced dataset? How do you handle missing or corrupted data in a dataset?”

These questions get at the importance of building models using clean data. At its core, A.I. must use clean datasets for insights. Otherwise, the actions will be incorrect or useless.

“Provide an example of why you would use quicksort versus binary.”

These are both algorithmic options for organizing the data, and help illustrate a use case of two extremes. An A.I. engineer can employ either one.

“How do you clean and prepare data to ensure quality and relevance?”

This question is relatively tactical, but helps us understand the critical processes that the engineer employs at the most critical points in A.I. engineering.

In short, I look for engineers who can apply statistical analysis to data for enhancement, cleaning and processing, but who also understand the practical ramifications of data as the engine of software.

At its core, machine learning engineering sounds like a natural evolution in software engineering. Before, we were looking for engineers who could translate basic human requests into some sort of computer-based action; now we’re simply trying to anticipate those human requests. The basic mechanics of data ingestion, analysis, interpretation and action are the kind of actions that humans take every day; turning these steps into an action that a machine can take unsupervised is an entirely new challenge.

This is where statistical analysis and predictive modeling come into play. The true machine learning engineer is both a geek and a craftsperson; she’s a math nerd and a builder. Our talent search helps us identify candidates who live at this intersection, and who can help us continue to win the race for efficient, effective technology.

Bhanu Singh is the Vice President of Engineering for OpsRamp.

One Response to “Identifying (and Interviewing) Machine Learning Talent”

  1. Dan Marinescu

    ai in general and ml in particular require advanced math (not just handy boy with a mouse and practical skills)
    they also require time to sit and think first, before writing any code all all, even when core algorithms is not involved. in most cases, people use existing functionality / libraries, with simple models of supervised ml. some use computer vision, some use more
    but whatever you use, should be framework/commercial grate even at client side! why? simple. because if you are an inhouse programmer and hope for miracle from using black boxes you do not understand, it is more likely that the lack to deep understanding of what is going on (underlying theory) will hurt your customers, your managers and you quite fast. plus, if you are not using at least tdd and/or believe that the best language is the one you know, well, that would add insult to the injury quite fast as well. last but not least, big data cannot properly be done unless you know relational, without know acid transactions does not allow one to properly do basic transactions, nor even get close to understand cap theorem. on top of that, without a correct pubsub (messaging, kafka is a decent one, written by a decent vendor and forged in real life scenarios) without a correct understanding of distributed computation with acrylic graphs (spark like) and why hadoop was nice to use for grandfather from hell but has no business for you do primitive/pre-technological mapreduce stuff, without a correct understanding of the three axes of scalability (build, run and further expand/maintain), well, both you and your employer would be better of not using ml/ai at all. which is, quite the opposite of what i see happening all around, mostly because of “religious” enthusiasm all around. remember guys, magic does not rhyme with engineering, not even remotely. whatever you do not understand, not only that will not serve you, but will hurt you asap. same about cs and art and other aberrations of that kind. building reliable/virtually bug free products in time and budget IS Engineering. the whole thing with cs (s stands for science) is naive at best and here is why: science discovers natural roules. engineering uses already discovered facts and turn them into useful/usable products, in time and budget (cause if time and budget are missing, there is no engineering). and when i say time and budget, i do not understand let it be ready yesterday! i mean predictability of grand total when it comes to an engineering target. without proper / realistic / technical planning, without using precise project management methods (CPM/MPM) with fully identification of critical path and doubling resources or at least pay proper attention to activities on critical path, you can call engineering, but it’s not. software engineering is generally more complex than hardware engineering (civil, mechanical, electrical, you name it) because of complexity and volatility (both exponentials of failure, so to speak). on top of that, barrier of entry is lowered and largest software companies in the world were founded by clueless bimbos. for an engineer, the two core tools are: 1. divide and conquer, modularize or go home & 2. no matter how obvious it is, how simple and majestic you think things are, MEASURE.
    this may look like fairy tale to many in the software industry today, but hey, china and japan are working hard on a new wave of ai based devices (with well written software souls). who does not understands the implications, well, perhaps should pack and go home as well.
    time will tell, i sure hope for more engineers all around, american if possible! (like me, you, you name it)