This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. For the complete interview, you can access here.
Kristine Dizon: Hello! My name is Kristine Dizon, and I'm the CEO and Founder of the Modern Artist Project. Today, I'm with Dr. Sidney Shapiro, data analytics educator, manager of data sciences at Sofvie, and professor of Business Analytics at Cambrian College, who will be an incoming Assistant Professor of Business Analytics in the Dhillon School of Business at the University of Lethbridge. He teaches courses in programming and computer science. Thank you, Sidney, for joining us today!
Sidney Shapiro: Hello! Thanks for having me!
KD: I know you do a lot of things, it's impressive! Could you tell us a bit more about your background and what led you to this path?
SS: That's an excellent question! I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do when I grew up. I read a lot of books when I was a kid and was always interested in figuring out how things work, or what the underlying pathway of systems is. I think that led me – in my first year of university – to sign up to be a psychology student, and I realized in the first class that not only does it take 12 years to become a psychologist, but you don't actually get to experiment on people or do the really cool stuff for at least 10 years.
So, the first day I switched to political science. I walked into my first political science class and people started screaming at each other right away. Everybody is upset about something! Everybody is screaming about something! Everybody is super passionate! I walked into a class where people believe that aliens were actually real, you know, stuff like that. Every class was basically super exciting.
So, I went to political science and I got a degree in international relations with minors and anthropology and law, and I was positive I was going to be a lawyer or go to medical school or something like that. I wrote the LSAT, I wrote the MCAT, and when I went to apply to law school I asked for a reference and [my professor] said to me, “Do you know any happy lawyers? You should not be a lawyer, you should be an academic.”
Because of that, I did a master's degree in sociology and applied social research, and through that process, I started working with an organization called YouthREX, which educates social workers and nonprofits on how to use Excel to figure things out, to get funding, to understand their programs better, and that led to program evaluation and many other things. Then, they ended up doing my Ph.D. in data science, looking at large complex networks and trying to figure out who are the hidden influencers and how those influencers influence those around them on social media.
One thing led to another. Six years ago I started teaching at Cambrian College. I designed a graduate program in data analytics and then started teaching in the program, and it's been fantastic ever since. I recently left Cambrian and I'm working as a programming manager now for data science, and I work with a team of former students building AI to figure things out in occupational health and safety. [It’s] really fascinating and a nice change instead of dealing with a lot of email to actually get a lot of coding done and spend quiet time in the zone. Code is like building art, right? Like music, there are a lot of very complex pieces that go into it, but when it all comes together it's amazing, and that's really what it's all about. And this spring, I'm going to be going to the University of Lethbridge, starting a new MSc in data science and teaching in their Masters of Management, so I'm pretty excited about that. It's gonna be really interesting.
One of my students came to my office and started crying and said, “I'm not like you. I can't do this. I can't do the homework.” I'm like, “What do you mean not like me?” And she said, “A computer person,” and I was like, “What are you talking about? I have a degree in political science. I figured this out. You could figure this out, it's totally possible!” With coding with data, there are tons of it. We’re surrounded by it all the time. It's what drives every system that we use, but people can get very intimidated by it. I think it's a lot of fun to break it down into simple [terms], like chicken and pizza examples. Everybody likes chicken and pizza and they fundamentally understand how it works, and once you put it in those terms, people get it and then everybody learns.
During the pandemic, I started teaching kids how to code online, and 6000 students later I'm still going strong. I'm teaching a lot of students new things and it's amazing to me that, going from teaching graduate students that are taking their skills and bringing them to the workplace, now there are kids that are ten years old that know just as much as graduate students do! That's gonna be pretty amazing to see what they come up with [and] what they developed by the time they're 25, ten years from now. It's gonna be pretty cool.
KD: Wow! It sounds like such a journey, in the sense that it was so varied. One of my favorite [comments] was the fact that you wanted to study psychology until you found out that you couldn't really test it on people. That you're like, “Well, this may not work,” but the fact that you tried different things was really great. It sounds like it led you on a path, not only being exposed to the humanities, the social sciences, but also to being able to acquire your own skills of being able to say, “Data is important!” and being able to understand data and apply that in a setting where you're able to teach it not only to students but also to adults, graduate students. I think that's really great! It sounds like the path that you took was a very creative one – and I say that in the kindest way! How was it for you to be able to test these different pathways?
SS: In academia, there are a lot of silos, and despite the fact that there are very separate disciplines that don't necessarily share the same approach to things, they do generally use the same tools, because everybody's using the same tools in every discipline. I've done a lot of health research, for example, working with people on projects that I don't understand the science at all, but I do know the spreadsheets, I can build dashboards, and I can put the coding together to make it make sense. There's a lot of opportunity for multi- and interdisciplinary collaboration in so many different projects, and I've worked on a lot of cool research projects – from autonomous cars to potato farms, and a whole bunch of things in between. I don't know anything about farming and I'm not a potato farmer. I do enjoy eating potatoes though!
But, I learned about how to take the data that's coming out of the models that they use, and then how to build dashboards or project that data to figure out things that help them – using their data to figure out things that will help their business. That kind of example works in every industry. You have to try to communicate with people, use the tools that you have, and find creative solutions to what would otherwise be challenging problems. Breaking it down into understandable terms, trying to meet people where they are, and looking at the kind of data they have, really helps build capacity [and] build resilience so that they can go and run their own programs [and] do their own kinds of research that have continuity – being able to take their data forward.
KD: Yeah! People just get intimidated, from what you've mentioned earlier regarding being able to interpret those types of things. One of the things that you also do is social media and being able to interpret data in that way. How did you find that useful in being able to shape the different things that you do? Not just social media, but [also] the value of data analytics.
SS: We're all consumers of data in different ways, and for the past 20 years, our goal as companies has been to gather as much data as possible, but not necessarily analyze it and figure out what's going on. If you look at the movie Moneyball, it's a perfect example. You could find the real pathway of what the data says that we should do, but the entire industry runs on people's gut feelings, right? They run baseball a certain way, they run football a certain way, and that's the way they do things. But maybe there's an underlying pathway that actually makes more sense if we're open to the possibility of looking at it. We all use social media, and maybe if you're interested in growing your business, it would make sense to write down the number of followers you have and then see what you do. Try different approaches using AB testing so you can market yourself in different ways, and then see how many people respond to the post. How many more followers do I gain if I try this option or that option? Who follows me and why?
Looking at some of those things – they don't have to be complicated, they don't have to be very extensive, but it helps you [better] understand who your customers are, and it really helps you understand the voice of the client so you could provide them what they really want. Is the messaging that you're putting out there on brand? Does that help grow your success or does it not make sense and it’s disconnected, and you have many different people meeting together? Which could be okay depending on what you're trying to do. So, I think it's about being open to trying new things and trying to pivot, using data in different ways to understand what the approach is and what would end up being most effective.
KD: For sure, this is really fascinating! For example, what we have with The Modern Artist Project, one of the things that we talk about and emphasize is being able to create careers that are meaningful – whether it be academics, people that have interdisciplinary backgrounds, people who are artists who also happen to be in academics. Being able to find something that means something to that person. What's great about the testing is, when you have test A and then you have test B, you [can] have the same image and just change the wording, play with the hashtags a little bit, and see which one performs the best. It's like you're testing a joke on an audience and you're trying to see if they laugh or not, and when they do laugh you have to try to reproduce that in a way that captivates the audience.
You come from such a rich background. I'm actually so thankful that you're here because of the fact that you do so many things that you're really passionate about: teaching and being able to share that with others. What value do you see with social media or the digital age that academics could take advantage of?
SS: Again, academia is very siloed and teaching can be very siloed also. People have been doing the same thing the same way over and over again. By being open to possibilities or trying to mix things up and see what happens, it really does bring in much better results. If you look at the type of education that was available when I was a kid, it would not be possible to take the kind of courses that I teach. I can only imagine if I did, I'd be so much further ahead in my life now, and it really comes down to where are we today. It's not unheard of for somebody ten years old to fundamentally learn key concepts of how to program, how to put things together, and build capacity in a way that was never possible before, because it's so much more accessible.
Because information is out there and because there are so many different ways to consume it, it means that we're able to take advantage in a way that's not intimidating and not this huge barrier to entry. You don't need a degree in order to be a programmer.
We'll pivot for a second and I'll tell you about what I actually do. In coding, a lot of people don't understand it. It looks like The Matrix, like screens full of numbers, and sometimes it is. It does get very busy and complicated, but what it comes down to is putting pieces of symbolic logic [together]. You can think about it like writing music: you have hundreds of pieces, like notes, and you have to organize them into chords, organize them into groups of cords, and organize them into bigger and more complex structures because they do things. They're like little machines. As you put these pieces together, they get bigger, more interconnected, and more complex, and they're building these virtual engines that sit there and do all kinds of different jobs.
When you're looking at, for example, Instagram, when you’re scrolling to the next picture, behind the scenes, your phone is asking a database, “Hey can I have the next picture?” The database finds the picture, resizes it, shows up on your phone, you see the picture, you press like, which gets stored into the database somewhere, and you move on to the next one. Although this happens instantaneously, there are a number of pre-planned steps that happen behind each one of these pieces. So, designing complicated software really comes down to figuring out, what are all the pieces? How do they talk to each other? What kind of cool things can we do with it?
A lot of it is about artistic exploration. So, I have a piece of data. Maybe I could look at this like a network or clustering, or I could try to figure out, can I use machine learning or AI to understand it better? Or, can I project this data into the future and learn things about it using a hypothesis that I could test the data to see what happens next? There are many, many different ways that we could use these very simple building blocks for things that are very complicated, and run literally every system that we use – from the Internet to Netflix, to a million things in between.
KD: Wow! I'm also a researcher in addition to the many other things that I do, and it's really interesting because I'm learning a lot right now in regards to being able to really get to the nuts and bolts of it, not really messing around with crazy terminology. One of the things that I really enjoyed is the fact that you are able to simplify it. I imagine it's trial and error, but how were you able to explain concepts to someone who's ten versus someone who's 24 or 25?
SS: I think it could be a challenge, and it's really important to tailor the information for the right audience. Last year, I taught a class for university professors, and everybody there had PhDs and was expecting what they were learning on a very different level. But when it comes down to it, they're all the same fundamental pieces, they're just about how it works and how you connect to the audience. Putting it in terms that people understand really helps. A student came into my class and said to me, “Hi Professor. I'm vegetarian. Is it possible for you to talk to the cafeteria and get broccoli on the pizza?” And I said, “Look, I don't know if you know what I do here, but I don't have anything to do with the cafeteria. I'm not responsible for ordering food.” And by some strange coincidence, that night, the people in the kitchen got rid of the broccoli chicken pizza and replaced it with broccoli pizza. The student came to my office the next day and said, “I can't believe it! This is amazing! I can't believe you did this. Do you have any control over the bus schedule?” I have no control over the bus schedule either, that's not what I do! But, if you go to class and talk about what you're teaching in terms of broccoli pizza, people get it and everybody understands that concept, and then you could build on from there.
There's a lot of power in meeting people where they are and trying to figure out what the best and most effective way to communicate those concepts with them is, so they can actually use them. I mean, we've all been to terrible classes where somebody shares knowledge, but then you take that tool and you have no way to use it, there's no way to apply it, and there's no continuity. Everything I do has continuity. Not only should you learn something new in the class, but you should want to leave class and then use that to build something new. So, if you learn how to build a website in class and you learn how to put things together or figure things out, take that and actually enjoy doing the homework, cause you're gonna build something new and unique and really, really cool after that because your building skills.
Programming, like music, is a performative skill. You have to practice a lot at it, and the more errors you get and problems you run into, the better you get at it the next time until eventually, you're fantastic at it! To build that, it takes confidence, it takes practice, and it comes down to trying to figure out, what's the best way for you to get there? If you go to a bookstore and you look at a programming book, it's gonna be 900 pages and very intimidating. But, if you realize that what you're actually talking about is broccoli pizza, chicken, and dinosaurs, everybody can get on board with that. That's an easy thing to do. That helps you move forward and figure out what the next step is, and before you know it, you know, everything. That's the easiest thing.
KD: That gives me hope, being able to talk about broccoli pizza, chicken, and dinosaurs, and being able to say you know everything! One of the things that I really appreciate is the fact that you make this connection to music, and you could even expand it to art. When we think about trying new things, being able to step out of your comfort zone, it sounds like you stepped out of your comfort zone so many times! With the background that you have, being able to teach all levels, that's really admirable to be able to do that.
Thinking about people who are not so comfortable or tech-savvy in regards to being able to create content, you are a creator, I am a creator. We both create. We create curriculum, we create things that are meaningful, that could be useful for people. For those people who may not be a creator but want to develop the skills to, for example, be able to use social media and use technology to their advantage, what advice would you give to those people?
SS: The best thing is to figure out where you are and start from there. What are you comfortable with? What are easy wins that you can accomplish? What are the more difficult and complicated things that you can learn and acquire skills in? Sometimes just reading a website helps me learn a new skill. Sometimes I don't understand the website and I need to go to watch a YouTube video. Sometimes that doesn't work and I actually have to talk to somebody and take a class to figure out how to learn that thing. We all have this continuum of “What's the easiest way to learn?” Everybody has a different learning style.
In my programming class, I have slides – because that's a normal thing to have in a class – and a student said to me, “I'd also like to have an interactive video.” I said, “No problem!” So, I recorded a video that goes over the entire module, that goes over the book, it goes over the slides. Now I have a video about the slides – it's like a meta video – and the students are like, okay, that's fantastic! Another student came to me and said, “Could you do a podcast?” I'm like, “Programming isn't very interesting in a podcast. You have to see it to understand what's going on, so I don't know about that!” But, if you find the learning style that works best for you and find the material that you resonate with, it makes learning a lot more interesting and a lot more fun – to see other people do and to get an idea of how it works.
I find that I don't like reading textbooks, I like talking to people. If I can sit in class and ask questions, that's really helpful, and most of the time it answers the questions that I'm actually interested in – not necessarily what's in the book – and usually that helps me do better in the course. So, if you can tailor your approach to whatever works best for you, to the learning style that you have, and to the kind of information that you're interested in getting, you could slowly build capacity. You can't accomplish these things in one day.
I often talk to students about LinkedIn, and it's complicated because there are so many pieces that go into it, but you got to start somewhere. If you change something and then go and research a bunch of people and see what they're doing, go back and change something else, and every day slowly, incrementally, keep on changing little things, before you know it, you're gonna be amazing and people are gonna be breaking down the doors to hire you for the next exciting thing – and that all comes from building capacity. It's the same idea when you're looking at technology or when you're looking at programming. On my laptop, I have a sticker that says, “Coding is art that does something!”
KD: That's great! “Coding is art that does something!” What's really great is that you're providing advice to your students. Being able to emphasize the value of LinkedIn, of different professional networks, so that way they could present the best version of themselves. Ten years ago, I was like, “LinkedIn? What's that?” And now it's this really big thing! When you look at the different channels that we have for social media [and] being able to show the value of what we have to offer and what we do, what is the best advice you would give to our listeners?
SS: It all comes down to communication. If you look right from the source and programming – that's my world – it's really about communicating with other people. You could build the best program, but you're probably not gonna work by yourself in isolation. You're gonna have customers and a boss and other programmers, and you have to talk to them and figure out what's the most effective way to build a complex system while working with other people. You want to be able to share your value proposition and explain what you can do, explain to people the amazing things that you can put together – and this is true for everybody. I always tell students, “You're amazing and they need you – they just don't know you exist.” You have to make that connection so people can actually find you, and that comes down to communicating your value, talking to people, networking, and trying to build connections so that people understand, “This is what I can do.”
If you go into it [thinking] that you're just trying to get stuff out of it, it doesn't work very well. I think it can, but it's usually not the approach. The approach is, if you go out there with the intention to build good karma, do things for other people, try to build a high-quality network of people who value you – because you're willing to do things for them without anything in return – you'll be top of mind when that person says, “I need somebody for a project, I know exactly who to talk to,” right? For example, I have a student who graduated who's in fashion and in programming. Those two worlds don't cross each other very often, but when a new student a couple of years later came to me and said, “I'm interested in getting into fashion and technology,” I'm like, “I have the perfect person! I actually know somebody who fits that Venn diagram of fashion and sports and coding, and this is who you should talk to!” That person helped mentor them into a career, but the only reason why I put those pieces together is because I had a good relationship with that person and I was happy to go out of my way to do something for them. You want to try to build that good karma with everybody in your network, and hopefully, by putting things out there that are valuable and interesting and more than clickbait, it helps build positive relationships with people that will hopefully circle back and help you as well in the future. Put good stuff out there [and] good things will happen.
KD: For sure! It's interesting because a lot of the time people think, “If I just post about this or respond to this, this would be enough.” It goes back to what you mentioned, this idea of communication [and] being able to make genuine connections with people. How do you see digital media? Do you think digital media takes away from that or actually contributes to it?
SS: I think it's a fantastic starting point. I put out a book last year and somebody tweeted me and said, “Do you mind if I talk to you and ask you questions about it?” I'm like, “Sure, that's exactly what I wanted.” I'm sure somebody's reading it somewhere, but I have no idea if they are not. But this person actually getting back to me to ask me questions was like, “Great! I actually wrote this for somebody!” It wasn't just going nowhere. That kind of relationship is really important and people are very accessible. [It’s] very interesting that if you reach out or write back or make those connections, this is a starting point to a bigger conversation [and] it really leads to a lot of positive things. I don't know if that has to happen all the time. I don't know if your message has to be consistent or if you have to have exactly the right content or message, but if you're getting out there, then these things build on themselves and eventually get to the point where you're able to make those connections with people, and when people come to you asking you for advice or vice versa, it really helps!
KD: That's really great! Could you tell us the title of the book? So that way, it gives our listeners an opportunity to visit it or take a look at it!
SS: It was on HyFlex, and it's this whole idea about teaching remotely and people having hybrid and flexible options to participate in school. I thought it was great because it came out during the pandemic, which is the perfect time for the explosion of HyFlex everywhere. Depending on how you do it, there can be a lot of challenges, but there are also a lot of advantages by appreciating for the first time – or the first time that people took this seriously – that students have lives too. Sometimes you can't make it to class, and sometimes school needs to be more flexible so that when it comes to classes or deadlines or the way that we consume information, there are options and you can do it in the way that works best for you.
The whole idea is really changing how education works. I do a lot of online teaching, whether it's synchronous, I talk to people in real-time, or asynchronous, I'm sending them a video and they watch it later. I think I've done like seven or 8000 feedback videos by now and it really helps because again, I can show you in a 30-second video what's going wrong, how to fix it, and what a new idea could be, but maybe writing that out would take a very long time because I'm rewriting the textbook. It's a lot easier for me to look at your essay and say, “Here's where you should change it. This is good. This is bad,” and then help move things forward. I find it’s a really effective way.
When I was in university, I would write a paper and my professor would write more comments on the paper than I wrote, so they would fill the entire paper full of red ink, and then I just flipped the last page and said, “Ah, 65, okay,” I only got nineties, but you get the idea! That wasn't very useful, right? What I really wanted was something that was more meaningful. We could actually review the paper together. The student can watch me reading their paper and I'm explaining literally word by word, “This makes sense. This doesn't. Change this. Something else needs to be better.” Of course, it depends on the course, and that really helps because when you walk away from that assignment, you learn a new skill that could make the next one better, and that's really the goal, right? Learning new ways to communicate with students and meet them where they are.
KD: It sounds like you really do care about your students, and it's really nice to hear the different things that you do to be able to provide them with that feedback. If I was a student or if you were a student, you would want to do something that would make it so they would be able to connect with the material a lot more. In regards to being able to prepare your students for what we call “the real world” or “the middle world” or what have you, what are the things that you do?
When I was a student, don't get me wrong, I studied with great people. I have had some really great professors throughout my academic life, but at the same time, I never learned that I had to write a biography [or] have a CV. Not just listing the things that I do, but having a CV so that when someone's looking at it, they're like, “Oh! She’s done X, Y, and Z.” Being able to put out the most important information versus this superfluous “I joined this,” type of thing. What are things that you would recommend for young professionals in any field?
SS: The first thing, and the most important thing, is to be prepared now. If you're in your first semester of college and you still have four years of college, left start working on building networks now. By the time you graduate, you shouldn't just be looking for a job, you should have a whole bunch of things lined up. It really comes to having strong, resilient networks of people that you've helped – that want to help you. That's basically what it comes down to.
I'm teaching the capstone class – this is my final semester at Cambrian – and in the capstone class, we have a cover letter assignment [and] a resume assignment where everybody sends those in and we review them together as a class. But before we do that, we have a “setting an appointment” assignment. Basically just writing to the person and saying, “Dear Bob, I have the skills that you're looking for. I can help you. I can help you make money, save money, etcetera. How about we meet next week at 9 a.m?” You'd be surprised how many people write bizarre versions of the wrong tone, like “Give me the job! I'm the right person! You don't know anything!” Or the opposite, saying things like, “I'm a student and I don't know anything, but if you give me money, I'll figure it out right!” which is the wrong message to send to somebody who's looking for expert advice. Although you're a student, you still went to school, you have some idea of what you can do, they're coming to you to help them, right? Working and practicing that networking, going to networking events, building a connection. Plus, you're in school with all these other people. Who are they and what are they doing?
I always tell people, if you are just trying to get a job, start networking, build a network of really resilient connections that you can come to and ask for advice, and to do that. Ask people for mentorship. If you ask people for a job or money, they're just gonna say no, because it's easy to say no. But if you say to somebody, “Hey, do you mind spending 10 minutes to tell me about your story? Or what I should be doing? Or what clubs to join? Or what people I should be talking to? Or can I just buy you a cup of coffee and get some wisdom?” they'll say sure! It makes them feel good, it’s ten minutes of their time, and they get coffee out of it. You could do that virtually. You can do that in person. It's easy to do. People will say yes, and you'd be shocked at what kind of people are happy to work with you.
I think it's far more valuable to meet somebody like you who's in the industry than to meet the CEO, and normally when we go to a company we're like, “I'm gonna reach out to the VP,” but that person is ten jobs ahead of you. That's not the person you want to talk to. You want to talk to somebody like you who, when they get promoted and they're looking for somebody, they'll hire you – the right person for the right job. When you build those resilient networks and you have the right connections, asking people for a low barrier to entry or being helpful and saying, “You have this problem. Here's something I learned about in class. I can totally help you do that,” that really builds a lot of goodwill and keeps you top of mind for that person. By building that network, it makes getting into a job a lot easier.
Your cover letter and resume should read well, be properly capitalized, [and] have the right grammar syntax, and tone. Those things are all important, but it also has to do with where you are applying. A student told me the other day, “I applied to three jobs and nobody got back to me.” If you know that you have a 1% success rate applying, you should be applying to 1000 jobs. Then somebody will hire you. You'll probably get five interviews, you know? You really have to try to apply to as many places as possible, but also build networks. The last five jobs I got, I did not get them because I sent out random resumes. I got them because people knew me. They knew what I was able to do and they said, “This person fits the gap that we have perfectly. They can help us accomplish things.”
The bizarre thing is that, although your resume and cover letter and all of this networking are about you, it's really about them and what their problem is. If you go into these situations thinking about what is their problem, what their pain point is, and how [you] can help them, the whole process will be a lot easier because you have the special skill to help them. Although you're amazing, at the end of the day they don’t really care about you. They care about making more money, saving money, and not losing as much money, and you're the person to do that. So, if you can figure out how to properly position yourself in relation to their problems, then you come out ahead.
KD: What's really great about what you mentioned is that this is universal. Not just for academia, but universal across all disciplines [and] industries in regards to being able to say, “It's about what I can do for you.” With young professionals, sometimes we missed a cue on that, and it's just a matter of being able to remind people, “What are you actually filling in?” Being able to do the research too. I feel like your interest in psychology made you aware in regards to how to approach these different situations, also with your experience. It's not easy, especially within academia.
Also, being able to guide people to prepare them for careers for today. Some professors that I've had who have gotten their jobs 30 years ago, that was completely different. Life was completely different 30 years ago than it is today. Being able to prepare students and I think that's something, you know, sometimes we forget, I always feel like, if we were that invested in our students, we would see it through. When I say see it through, [I mean] “I'm going to make sure that I can help you to the maximum of what I can, help you get that entry-level job,” or, “I'm going to do the maximum that I can to at least give you that small boost of what you would need to be able to get that performance or exhibition or curate this project.”
My question for you is – and I know you’re waiting for it – your thoughts about ChatGPT in regards to being able to draft cover letters that don't sound like a ten-year-old wrote them. Or, being able to take out information in regards to AI, being able to take advantage of that. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that, and especially its relation to not only the job market but also to social media.
SS: I think it's an amazing new technology. I use it every day in different ways and it really helps explain things. It maybe helps reshape things in different ways, but it doesn't make up new things, and that's the whole point of what the technology represents. That's why people are excited about it. Unfortunately, it doesn't actually do that part very well at all.
If you've ever watched Star Trek, people talk to the ship and they say, “Ship, what's going on outside?” Etcetera and the ship just responds. You'll notice if you start ChatGPT quite often, it doesn't understand what you're talking about, and although it can generate amazing cover letters and responses, which is great and a really good tool to use, it can't replace you. It could make you somebody who uses AI as a tool, and I think that's really the important part. It's only as good as the prompts that you're giving. It is only as good as the information that you feed into it. And if you're writing fantastic prompts that really make sense and actually respond to the job, that's great.
Now, what I recommend that students do is, if you take the job posting and you take the style, syntax, your information, and put those together and say, “Here's all the information. Write me a cover letter,” It's probably going to be a really good one. When we did this in class, we generated some cover letters by the computer. We also looked at what students wrote and, although the computer’s [cover letter] is perfect, it's also kind of bland. Sometimes, being creative or different or throwing things in that are non-sequiturs are really important, because sometimes getting the job isn't necessarily about your skills alone. It's the fact that you love fishing and so does the hiring manager. That just brings it together, and ChatGPT is not going to throw in, “By the way, I love going fishing I see that you do too. Let's talk about fishing,” because ultimately, people want to work with people who they want to work with, right? That's really a key thing.
Students today, people getting a job, face a huge barrier in Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). Applicant Tracking Systems read resumes and compare the words that are in your resume to the words that are in the job posting, and you want to try to align them as much as possible, as well as the cover letter. That's why sometimes, it's not like you're trying to talk to a person – you're talking to a computer. So, if you have the ability to use AI to hopefully make that process easier and make your cover letter and resume match the job posting better, ultimately your resume should be pushed to the front of the line to a real person, at which point you could convince them with your shining personality that you're the right person to hire. And sometimes, that's the big challenge – actually getting to a real person so you can tell your story. Once you're able to do that, then you can convince them that you’re the right person for the job. Like I said, you're amazing, the job is there. You just have to make that connection.
KD: And that's the thing. With a lot of the things that I've been seeing on the Internet and news, for example, ChatGPT being banned in New York schools, being able to you know communicate to a community, saying, “This is taboo, this is not good,” In a sense, as long as we're able to understand how to use it as a tool, I agree with you [about ChatGPT]. I've played with it a couple of times and I sometimes would ask it some things and make sure to write the prompt or question in such a way that it's very clear [and] that it does produce great content. But keep in mind, you can revise it. You can add that personal “je ne sais quoi” about you, making it so that you can connect with your audience or with whatever opportunity there is, and I think that's something really important to share.
This was really great! What would be the last piece of advice that you would give? It doesn't have to be just within artistic disciplines, but across the board for our audience, in regards to the value of technology and digital media for career development [and] creating connections.
SS: I'll tell you a secret. This is probably the most interesting, mind-blowing revelation. If you've been to university and you've ever seen a professor or gone to a class, it's interesting. You're learning things and you're meeting people, but professors get ranked on how many papers they write, right? That's really the output of what they do. They research things, they write papers. Have you ever seen a professor write a paper? No. Because there's no room that you go to and sit there and watch them writing, and then you just learn something. You learn by osmosis, and they write and you learn. That doesn't work like that, right? That whole layer is hidden. And the same thing is true in social media. We look at social media posts all day long, and we don't really understand what's happening behind them. The marketing approach, the media, and the messaging. I would probably guess that most people's fantastic lifestyles that you see on social media are not 100% accurate, and I think understanding the underlying system – how it works [and] what the pieces are that come together – fundamentally helps put these things together.
I always tell students, when you get to your workplace, you get the job, what does your boss do? How did your boss get to be your boss? What do they know that you don't know? What do you have to do to level up to the next stage? What does that mean for your career? Quite often, people are going through it without even thinking about what the elements are that go into gathering data – and this is not a fancy computer gathering data. This is a “life detective” gathering data: looking around you and [asking], “What are the hidden, unexpected, unexplored things that I could use and actually learn from?” That's really what it's all about.
In the end, whether you're doing research, working in a job, or doing literally anything else, it all comes down to trying to learn, understand, and figure things out beyond the surface layer, the hidden, underlying side. I try to bring a lot of Sherlock Holmes into my classes, and hopefully, that really helps you get ahead of whatever you're trying to do.
KD: This is really great, and this is really great advice! Being able to ask the question, “Why?” all the time really brings to the center of focus what – whether it's me, you, or our listeners – [one’s] intentions are and how to be able to achieve those.
This was great! We're gonna leave on that note. Thank you for joining us today and for sharing your experience and thoughts with us. We look forward to seeing the amazing things that you continue to do for the community, Sidney. Thank you.
SS: Thank you very much.
Kristine Dizon is a multi-faceted performer, teacher, writer, author, linguist, and entrepreneur. She is Founder & CEO of the Music & Language Learning Center, The Modern Artist Project and co-founder of the Gran Canaria International Clarinet Festival and American Single Reed Summit. She is an artist for Uebel Clarinets and Silverstein Works. Learn more at www.kristinedizon.com.