Do I Have to be Great at Math?

In many cases, individuals try to start out knowing all the math behind the data science before being practical with the science. The majority stop here before they even get started – in fact, they have a belief in data science (they are attracted to it) but they simply do not feel adequate because the math can get in the way.

Bottom-line you can go far in machine learning without understanding all the math.

Just Start

Think back to when you started something that you did not understand completely. You made use of it. It probably was terrible, but you stumbled your way through and on the other side you had much to be proud of. It was a slow process, but your passion for whatever you were involved in carried you through the stinking points. As the complexity of whatever is you were interested grew so did you desire for knowledge and so you were able to overcome the limitations that could have been perceived to be in your way.

The truth if everyone had to start machine learning by learning about Nonnegative Matrix Factorization or Peturbation Bounds for Eigendecompositions then very few individuals would have the passion ignited.

Copy-and-Paste Heaven

You may not believe me, but one of the best things that can happen to you early on in your data science journey is for things to fail. Let’s face it when something breaks you can either do one of two things 1. walk away or 2. fix-it. Many individuals focus on copy-and-pasting code from Git, data challenge, or code cookbook just to simply see if the code can work on their machine. In fact, they simply want to recreate the results, but there is a point where you will want to extend the code. Maybe it doesn’t do everything you need or the data type is not  the same as what you are working on, or maybe still you want to tune the model – in all these cases you will  have to move beyond copy-and-paste code.

When something breaks or you decide to enhance what you have, almost certainly you will have to breakdown the code line-by-line and understand what it is that the code is doing. In doing this, you may not realize it, but you are building confidence in what it is you are working on (as a side, you should apply this same technique to the math formulas you encounter).

Where’s My Geiger Counter

  1. Be a Navigator – work well with tools like scikit-learn, R, WEKA
  2. Be a Librarian – use programming libraries that give you small algorithms
  3. Be a Doer – put what you are learning directly into what you are doing

You only need to know what you can use today. These approach is highly practical and efficient.

Find some dataset or problem that you are interested in working with and began to work systematically through the results. Document it for yourself – categorizing your thoughts will help you crystallize what  you are learning. In time you will began gaining an energy within your learning which will prompt you to seek new algorithms, understand the parameters behind them, and solve more complex problems.

This type of process, like a Geiger counter, points you to want you need (and nothing more). It is highly customized and meaningful to the individual who adopts this method. The Geiger counter should be juxtaposed to an individual completely grounded in theory. Theory alone is generally not sufficient to move beyond a prototype solution.

The secret to math is you need to know what you are good at and what you are not. Know where you need to improve. When the time is right pursue that knowledge. Having a problem that you are working with and needing more knowledge around a math concept can go along way in cementing the idea in your mind for future problem sets.

You Really Do Need Math, Later

Since you will have to know linear algebra, why not use machine learning to teach you through a problem that interests you? You will gain more intuition at a deeper level than any textbook introduction you may receive. In short, there is a path available to all individuals interested in machine learning, but that are intimidated by math concepts. Keep in mind that you can overcome issues of overconfidence of a poorly understood algorithm when you decide to understand the math behind any algorithm you decide to implement. 

I am sure some of the data science purist may disagree with what I have stated here, leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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