Make a Big Impact in Your Life

I owe all my success in life to effective communication. This includes my professional life, my love life, and my social life.

In this article, I’d like to share two tips for effective communication in your professional life.

It’s just three small tips with huge payoffs! Read on…


In my professional life, I work as a sales engineer, data scientist, and master of duct tape. I stick things together to make them work in a high technology field. It’s one of the most affirming and exciting things I’ve ever done in my life and I look forward to going to work every day.

How did I go from “zero” to “hero?”

I didn’t go to school for computer science or data science, I have a degree in Civil Engineering. I worked as a Professional Engineer for over 20 years. So how did I get here?

I got into this field by luck, curiosity, hard work, and communication. I had started a blog on data mining that turned into a full-blown career in the startup world and data science, and I couldn’t have done it without communicating complex ideas simply and effectively.

It appears that recruiters are searching for those communication skills as well:

However, the difference between a good Data Scientist and a GREAT Data Scientist is often not found in their technical ability or their amazing mathematical genius. Data Science exists to provide a service to business and business is run by people. If Data Scientists cannot comfortably communicate with their non-expert colleagues and bosses, then their effectiveness is greatly reduced. They need to communicate easily with people, to understand, to interpret, to translate.

How did I go from “zero” to “hero?” By learning public speaking, writing with style, and making pretty pictures.

Take a Toastmaster’s class

One of the best things I ever did for my career was to take public speaking classes. Before those classes, I used to only speak to other engineers. When I typically started a conversation with them I would say, “I used a c value of 0.95 for that section of impervious cover.

They’d nod their heads and understand what I said perfectly. A non-technical person would be scratching their heads wondering if I was speaking in a strange language.

…I seem to make people cry a lot…

Over time I learned that it’s the non-technical person that was in charge of budgets and/or making business decisions. If they have no idea what you’re doing or you can’t persuade them that your project is critical, they’ll allocate time and resources elsewhere.

You must communicate effectively to non-technical people to persuade them for that important win, budget, monies, or decision.

So what’s the solution here? Is it making pretty images or large displays? Is it writing at a level for non-technical readers, or is it being able to speak clearly? The answer is all three.

Achieving proficiency in all three is completely feasible but it does require some time on your part.

How do you do it? How do you start? You enroll in Toastmasters.

Yes, you get your ass up in front of people and work toward becoming a certified Toastmaster. To achieve that status you need to give 10 speeches, each one with a specific focus.

The first one is the hardest, it’s the icebreaker. You have to get up in front of people and introduce yourself for 3 to 5 minutes.

Then you progress into speeches to inform, to persuade, or to evoke an emotional response (I seem to make people cry a lot).

My current career relies heavily on the skills I learned being a Toastmaster, as does my partner’s career too.

The best part about joining Toastmasters is that it doesn’t break the bank. Yes, there’s a membership fee but it’s nominal and you have clubs in churches, libraries, and schools. Just visit Find A Club link and enter your zip code. Done!

Joining Toastmasters all those years ago was the best thing I ever did, it yielded the highest professional return in my life for the smallest investment of time.

Elements of style

I met Robert in graduate school. He was a Canadian man in his late 60’s, retired, and living in the States with his wife. He woke up one morning and enrolled in business school where I was.

“Tom, this book made a big difference in my writing and I hope it does the same for you.”

We hit it off and worked on many class projects together. Over the semesters he started to share his life with me. I was impressed and inspired by the life he had led up till then.

As a son of Chinese immigrants, he settled in Canada, worked in a dry cleaner, then owned a pizza parlor, started and sold a newspaper, and became a writer.

He was the most interesting man I’ve ever known up till that point and he remains a good friend to this day.

As our graduate life came to an end, we went down to the local pub for a celebratory drink. We had spent a good 3 years together, writing, learning, and presenting. We reminisced about all the good times and commiserated on the bad times.

You’ll never remember all the Macbook versions out there but you will remember the Apple logo.

After the second drink, he reached into this bag and handed me a small sliver-looking book.

He looked squarely in my eyes and said, “Tom, this book made a big difference in my writing and I hope it does the same for you.”

Robert handed me a book titled “Elements of Style” by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.

It’s a tiny book that packed — and I mean packed — elements of writing compositions, style, and grammar.

Over the years that gift has made a big impact on my writing and I refer to it when I need to edit a lengthy text or just need some inspiration.

Thank you, Robert, you have no idea how your thoughtfulness has impacted my life.

Visuals, it’s about the visuals

The last item that made a big impact on my life is understanding that the majority of people in this world are visual learners. That means they learn best from pictures and visualizations.

A single photograph can inspire a call to action or change the narrative of war.

I took up photography many years ago as a way to express my creative outlet and have spent countless hours reviewing and analyzing photos.

In that time I’ve learned a few things about images and visualizations.

The most effective and powerful images are the simple ones. I’m not talking simple flowcharts, but the ones that are stripped down to their bare essentials and focus on my key thing, whatever that thing may be.

Every commercial and every advertisement we see seeks to focus your eye on one thing.

You’ll never remember all the Macbook versions out there but you will remember the Apple logo.

How many Nike shoes did you have? You’ll remember the swoosh first.

When you create visuals and images, you have helped the viewer train their eye to the most important part of that image. That’s how you make an impact.

To see a non-commercially inspired set of images, I suggest you visit an art museum. Walk around the halls in the different periods, see what images resonate with you.

I’m partial to the abstractive art and Wabi Sabi types of Art. I like minimalistic art because it makes a powerful statement that leads viewers to read into any way they see fit.

You will need to figure this out for yourself and see what works best in your career!

TL;dr

Sign up for Toastmasters. Learn to write better. Make pretty pictures.

Seeking Bodhisattva

My posting activity has started to drop off again. This is partly due to a large workload and traveling schedule. I’m enjoying my work immensely but my blog is neglected as a result. A few weeks ago I even considered shutting this blog down because I feel like I’m like an “old man shouting at clouds.”

I’ve come to realize that my skills are not in coding but in communication.

I know that many people find value in my old RapidMiner tutorials and videos but my heart isn’t in making any new ones. My YouTube channel is also neglected partly because I work for H2O.ai now and because there’s so much free content on Machine Learning and Data Science out there now. I think that’s awesome.

There’s never been a greater time to get into Data Science and Machine Learning than ever before. There are so many ‘rock star’ programmers, Kagglers, and technologists out there now. You can’t NOT be amazed how fast the ‘AI’ space is changing, for better or for worse. I consider myself lucky to have joined near ground zero and love the fact that I’m a part of it now.

BUT.

I’ve come to realize that my skills are not in coding but in communication. Sure I code stuff, mostly to make my life easier and automating the boring stuff (great book BTW), but my expertise is best used elsewhere. Sometimes I don’t even know what this means but I feel alive when I talk to prospects or customers and help them go from a ‘zero level AI person’ to applying ‘AI’ to their problems and helping solve them. I seem to be good at connecting the dots and using tactics and strategies to solve problems. I think that’s the Engineer in me.

Someone scrawled on a wall “Be the Bodhisattva you seek.”

I’ve also become more politically aware and active over the past few years. The reason? Trump. I won’t devolve into right vs left discussions here as I find them useless BUT I’ve always been an environmentalist. This current administration has attacked so many people and groups because of their color of skin, who they love or identify as, and religion. There are so many fights to fight and mine is the environment.

Our entire planet is under assault from climate change, habitat loss, extinction, and pollution. All in name of money. Yet I’ve blogged about trading and investing. I’ve blogged about making money. Am I as complicit as credit card companies that approve gun transactions to a future school shooter?

While technically I’m not cutting down trees or killing baby seals, my recommendations, actions, and investments might support doing just that.

Am I part of the problem? Yes, I believe so.

Many years ago I took a course in world religions. I was most enamored with Buddhism, not in the classical sense but more of the Zen version. I learned about Bodhisattvas and how they chose to “out of compassion, forgo[sic] nirvana in order to save others.” Granted, I’m an atheist but I found Bodhisattvas interesting. Then I read a piece of graffiti that made me question everything. Someone scrawled on a wall “Be the Bodhisattva you seek.”

I can spend hours in flame wars with people on Facebook or Twitter about climate change and not change anyone’s position. I’ve realized that relating and compassion are much more powerful than attacking someone’s position.

I think I can help shape the dialogue in a healthy and sustainable way.

Everyone wants to drink clean water, breathe fresh air, and eat healthy food. It doesn’t matter what your political leanings are, I think this is a universal fact. However, if you tie this to work and jobs, then things get interesting. Let me give you an example:

“I don’t care about some endangered animal, I have my family to feed”

“Climate change is fake news because China wants us to be less competitive and you’ll lose jobs”

“The wind isn’t blowing tonight, so you can’t watch TV”

“There are so many job-killing regulations”

Take your pick or make your own, there are hundreds of these divisive messages out there. Why? Because of money.

As a former Civil Engineer, I can design water and wastewater plants. I’ve designed groundwater recharge systems and wetlands. I fully understand how humans impact the land, sea, and air AND I think I can help stop this onslaught. Armed with Data Science and AI, I think I can make an impact. I think I can help shape the dialogue in a healthy and sustainable way.

What does this mean for the blog? I don’t know yet but I want to become the Bodhisattva I’m seeking.

How Blogging Led to My Personal Growth

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been blogging now for over 15 years. I’ve written 100’s of posts, some short and some long. I’ve had my shares of ups and downs here but in the end, I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s made me realize that blogging has led to my personal growth. Blogging has become a career!

What’s happened is that I’ve been reposting and repopulating old posts from my archive. I took these posts down a few years ago thinking they were of no use, but now I realize I was wrong. Sure there was some cringe-worthy type of posts back then, but I look at them now and smile. I’m so far removed from them now and I realize I am so different now.

As I repopulate these posts I can’t help but remember where I was in my personal and professional life. I also notice how busy I was. My posting frequency is proportional to how crazy my work and personal life are. Yet still, I wrote at least a few posts a year. 

Year 2007 to 2009

Back in the early 2007-2009 era, I spent a lot of time blogging about Forex, Stocks, and using AI to trade the markets. It was during this time that I first wrote my RapidMiner tutorials. They brought me a lot of traffic and I adored the attention. I market timed and moved money in and out of my accounts, thinking I can beat the market. Lo and behold I was wrong. 

I made a sharp career change. I couldn’t believe how fast things could change, but they did for the better.

I also held onto some crazy ideas back then about Objectivism and Libertarianism. As I grow older I realize that this selfish way of living is a folly. Life does not have to be a zero-sum game. Yes, invest in your future but also invest in deep relationships, love, health, and Nature. Cultivate those and you’ll find balance and true wealth. 

Year 2010-2014

In the 2010 to 2014 era I saw some big changes to this blog. I ramped up my blog posts around Machine Learning and what was to become Data Science. I created a lot of YouTube videos on how to use RapidMiner and it generated even more traffic for me. I was still working full time as a Civil Engineer but I began to dream of moving into the Machine Learning space. As luck would have it, RapidMiner moved to Boston and got VC funding. 

In 2014, RapidMiner offered me a job as a Sales Engineer and I accepted. I made a sharp career change. I couldn’t believe how fast things could change, but they did for the better. 

I learned that passion, learning, and dedication can change your life. If you want something bad enough, you must chase it. You must work hard and learn, face the obstacles and work through or around them. After some time, you’ll see how far you’ve grown and how successful you can be. 

Year 2015-2017

From 2015 to 2017 I cut my teeth as a Data Scientist. I learned so much about Data Science, Marketing, and especially Sales. I’ve come to realize that I LOVE working in Sales. No matter how crazy and stressful it can be sometimes, it matches my personality. It’s who I am. The stars have aligned!

I’ve always loved public speaking and presenting and now I was presenting to CTO’s and CIO’s all over the USA. Yes, the travel burned me out but I learned how to compensate for that (now). I did make A LOT of bad decisions for my health. I ate too much, drank too much, and sat in my chair. While at RapidMiner I gained about 40 lbs, something I’m working off now. 

It’s been a wild and rewarding ride ever since!

I left RapidMiner in 2017 to start my own Data Science and Engineering consultancy. I built up a client base in both fields but left after a serendipitous phone call in July of next year, more on this next.

In the end, those years were tough working years. I loved every minute of it. The startup life was and IS for me. I looked back and kicked myself for not making the leap sooner. I learned that you can’t hide who you are, you must BE who you are. The longer you hide from that, the more miserable you will become. I know it’s scary and I’ll admit that I was scared, but there comes a time when it’s now or never. I chose now. 

Year 2018 – present

I worked in my own consultancy for over a year before I got a phone call from my now colleague J. We had met back in 2014 when she was a new hire at H2O.ai. She reached out to me because she had an extra ticket for H2O World in New York and offered it to me. I declined because I had some client meetings but I did tell her that I left RapidMiner last year. 

That call set up a chain reaction where two weeks later, I had an offer to join the Sales team at H2O.ai. I made preparations to close down my consultancy in September 2018 and joined the team. It’s been a wild and rewarding ride ever since!

I owe it all to Blogging

I owe everything to Blogging. I do. I took my passion for AI and turned it into a career. Along the way, I’ve met so many awesome people and now I’m surrounded by so many awesome people. I’m part of the Maker culture where you “make stuff” happen and I’m humbled to be there. It’s crazy, wild, stressful, adventurous, hard, enlightening, and plain awesome. 

I would’ve never been here if I resigned myself to my fate back in 2007. Do what scares you, do what you love. Make your world sing.

Do it!

If you’ve ever wondered if you could blog yourself to a new life, you can. I share some tips on how to do it in my How to Blog Yourself to a New Life post.

What If No One Ever Saw Your Photography?

I came across a curious YouTube video a few weeks ago where the creator went into a philosophical discussion about creating photos and having no one ever see them.

He referred to Vivian Maier, a woman that died in 2009. She had let her storage place lapse two years prior and all her contents were “won” by John Maloof, Ron Slattery, and Randy Prow. In her storage space were decades of developed and undeveloped film of her street photography work.

© Wiki Media Commons

Vivian spent all her free time photographing over decades and never showed anyone her work. It was only just before her death that her work was shown and took the world by storm.

Can you imagine a person like her in today’s world with an iPhone, Instagram, and Facebook?

I can’t.

She was a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She learned English by going to theaters, which she loved … She was constantly taking pictures, which she didn’t show anyone. via Wikipedia

She never posted her work on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. She never did it for the likes, recognition, or adulation.

If the right people didn’t find her work, after letting her payments lapse, she would’ve died in obscurity. No one, except her living relatives, would’ve known who she was and her odd quirks.

My initial reaction was “OMG, how lucky we are to know her work” but how many Vivian Maier’s are out there? And how many will we never know?

Why Shoot if You’re Not Going to Show?

In today’s FOMO world and siloed social media, we’re driven to create content and share our photographs. If our creative work is well received we might get a like or a comment. On the surface, this instant feedback is good. You can learn faster and course-correct as needed.

But the darker side to instant feedback is that you get hooked on it. You might tie up your entire self-worth or voice as a creative in little likes and hearts.

I find that incredibly upsetting. We are more than just social media likes and hearts, at least I’d like to think we are.

Plus, developing your style and your voice takes time. It takes making mistakes, falling, and getting back up again, time after time, to develop who you are as an artist and photographer.

Perhaps it might be a good thing NOT to show your work for a long time or even at all. You need time to find your voice and develop your style if you want to be an artist.

Some find themselves faster than others, and some — like yours truly — can take decades.

Here’s a mental exercise. What happens when you do show your work and it’s not well received? Do you then change your style to match what general society likes or wants? If you were to change, what is the reason why? Is it for the likes and hearts?

If you couldn’t care less about the likes and hearts then it begs the deepest and hardest question to answer, why do you shoot at all?

This, dear friends, is a question I struggle with. Why do I even shoot at all? What is my voice? What is my style? What is my message? Do I even need to have a message?

Box of Positives & Negatives

My partner and I moved our entire family to a new house 5 years ago. When we did I boxed up all my old positive slides and negatives in a box and promptly forget where I put them.

A few weeks ago I found them again and was amazed at some of the old work I did. Granted, I have to scan them in (and I’m lazy that way) but I held the positives up to the light and remembered.

© Thomas Ott

I found my old landscapes from New Mexico and my 3-week exploration of the desert Southwest. I found my scrap metalwork at Port Newark. I found my old flower work.

And I found 100’s of negatives that need to be sleeved and stored. A lot of work that I will reserve for the winter if I have time.

© Thomas Ott

That box of positives and negatives reminded me of Vivian Maier. She photographed and stored her work, never to be seen again. I photographed and stored my work and forgot it. Did Vivian forget her work too?

A Life Worth Living

If I died my family would probably throw them away, a large part of my life gone. I would hope they would at least look at them before they tossed them away, but the probability of that is very low because everyone lives digitally now.

My images, good or bad, are pieces of my life. They provide a window into my past life, a place where I’ve been.

Then there are photographs of me that other people have taken. One day when they die and their work gets thrown away, that photograph of me will be thrown away too.

Will my life have been meaningless? Watch this NY Times video, it hit me hard.

In a world where photography is cheapened, a world where we hustle, a world where we live and die by the likes and hearts, is there any true meaning to photography left?

I say yes.

Its meaning can take many forms but its first and foremost’s meaning is what it is for you.

This is you. When you snap that shutter, it’s you.

A self-portrait is you. A photo of that rock you took, is you. A photo of your loved ones, it’s you. A photo of your lover, it’s you.

This is it. This is your life, the wonderful meaning that is you. Photography is just another way to bring meaning to your life if you let it be.

If you let photography be the avenue for your self-discovery and your meaning then the likes and hearts don’t matter. They become noise around you, and you are the signal.

Your work matters, if it’s only for an audience of one.

Print Your Photos Out

My father passed away unexpectedly at the beginning of November 2021. He had some severe health issues and we knew he was living on borrowed time, we just didn’t know how short that time was.

While preparing for my father’s memorial and eulogy, our entire family searched for photos to share and use as a tribute to his life. My mother searched through her photo and wedding albums and found some beautiful photos of my father as a young man.

These were photos of him when he first came to the United States, their wedding, and when my sister and I were born. My mother had it easy to find those photos, my sister and me? Not so easy.

I realized that all our photos live online or on some backup device. It’s hard to troll through Facebook and by accident, and I mean really by accident, I found a wonderful family photo from Christmas 2019.

That was the last time our small family was together for a family gathering. As I printed that photo out I scolded myself that I should’ve printed that photo out before. As I pasted it onto the white paper board I scolded myself again that I should’ve made a second copy of it and framed it.

My son and daughter helped paste the images on boards and created a collage of their grandfather’s life. My mother cried when she saw the photos of my father that we snapped but never printed out.

It was at that moment that I realized what a travesty it is not to print out photos. It’s an affront to your family and all the loved ones in your life not to make a physical reminder of your time together.

Is this not what we do with lovers and cherished people in our life? Make reminders of our time together? Reminders of love for one another?

Why have I become so dismissive of this simple act? Why have we, as a society, chosen to share our lives on social media only to have them buried in a timeline?

Why don’t we print out those photos of us with friends, lovers, and parents? Why don’t we print out every single silly photo of us laughing, when we were young and wild?

Why don’t make tangible, tactile, and physical reminders of a time that was slowed for just that instant? When we were in states of ecstasy and happiness?

I don’t know why we don’t but I dare us to do so again. I dare us to print out our photos and put the best ones in a frame or album, and then give them away.


My partner and I hosted Christmas dinner this year, after skipping it in 2020 due to Covid19 fears. My sister and her family couldn’t make it but we gathered again and we took a family photo.

I printed it out and put it in a frame, right next to the Christmas family photo in 2019, when everyone was alive and happy. I see smiles across everyone’s face and I am reminded of that evening.

I can hold that picture frame a look at my father one more time when he was in better health, and with life in his eyes.

Print your photos out. It’s the only way to hold onto your time.