Siddharth Nagarkatti is Senior Vice President of Client Quantitative Analytics at Bank of America in Boston and a member of the MIT EMBA Class of 2017.
No one starts business school thinking they’re going to end up unemployed… with no idea what they’re going to do next. But on Patriots Day in 2016, I was unemployed. As the breadwinner for my wife and two kids, I had no idea where my next paycheck was going to come from. Even worse, I chose to put myself in that situation.
Midway through the MIT Executive MBA Program, I quit my job and said goodbye to colleagues I had worked with for almost a decade. I had spent many years developing high-tech products – for semiconductor manufacturing and electrosurgery – but just solving cool technical problems was not enough. All I had was faith that I could chart a different path based on what I learned at MIT with the support of my extraordinary classmates.
The first week of class (a.k.a. Walmart week), I vividly remember sitting in a large classroom with my fourth coffee when Prof. Nelson Repenning started talking about fixed & growth mindsets. I realized I had been a true believer in a fixed mindset my whole life. I believed that intelligence or talent are fixed from birth. Was this one reason why I had not pursued new career options? Was I afraid that I might not have the required talent? The growth mindset, on the other hand, believes that talents and abilities can be developed and that challenges are the way to do it. Did this mean I could quit and find a new job? Yes.
Driving back home on that brisk spring morning, I distinctly remember slowing down to enjoy the beauty of gorgeous farmhouses, and feeling excited and relieved, liberated and afraid – all at once! Life had whizzed by and now I had the space and time to think. There was just one problem: I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then, one day while on a walk listening to NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, I heard, “chase your curiosity and you may find your passion.” Over the next few months, I chased down my curiosities. I attended MIT seminars, participated in hackathons and enrolled in more courses. Eventually, I recognized a common thread that got me super-excited – the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence to solve business problems. I reached out to my classmates for guidance.
Sitting in the MIT Sloan cafeteria, a physician classmate encouraged me to “give myself permission” to go for whatever career path I saw fit. In a study room, a couple of Goldman alumni classmates advised me to reach out to 50 to 100 people (rather than 10, as I had done). They not only coached me through this outreach process, but also followed up almost every week to check on my progress.
I did a deep dive into the practice of machine learning. I enrolled in Prof. Sinan Aral and Prof. Erik Brynjolfsson’s Analytics Lab to work on commercial-grade datasets and Prof. Dimitris Bertsimas’ Analytics Edge class that provided a broader perspective. I spent hours on YouTube, MOOCs, and Stack Overflow to understand how machine learning tools were being used to solve real-world problems. I sought out and spoke with many industry practitioners to understand their problems, their views on what success looks like, and what they do to be effective in their organizations. I also paired up with domain experts – many of whom were my classmates – to work on small projects in industries ranging from newspapers and finance to e-sports and med-tech. While my early projects were pro-bono, I setup an LLC as I started to build a list of paid clients.
I never let up with the outreach and conversations.
A month after getting my degree, I read an email from an EMBA alum describing an open position in her Marketing Analytics team at Bank of America. During the EMBA program, our marketing professor Catherine Tucker had got me very interested in marketing analytics.
I reached out immediately. With every subsequent conversation, I became more excited. I observed a high degree of empathy, and the problems being solved and questions being asked were most exciting.
In Nov 2017, I took the role of SVP in Client Quantitative Analytics and joined a fabulous team where I get to chase my curiosity: use machine learning to solve business problems in consumer marketing for wealth management and banking. Oh, and I am no longer unemployed.
This 18-month journey was no fairy tale. There were moments of sheer joy and many moments of doubt. What kept me going was the support from my family and so many of my classmates who were always a phone call away.
I owe much of my success to luck and to what Prof. Repenning said that very first week of school: to unfixing my mindset – by making progress, however small, every day. My mindset has started to grow and can now take me on any journey I choose.