How Raj Bandyopadhyay builds connections through communication

Rice computer science alum transitions from data scientist to educator to personal brand photographer.

Black and white photo of Raj Bandyopadhyay

“Diving into data science was an intermediate step for building my communication skills,” said Rice University computer science alum Raj Bandyopadhyay, Ph.D. ‘08.

“When I was a CS graduate student, there was not a lot of emphasis on communication beyond research papers. It felt like communication skills were more important outside academia. Working in the tech industry, I knew fairly soon that I didn’t want to spend all my time coding and recognized there were some gaps in my communication skills —like being able to talk with a manager or a client. I was actually excited about gaining those skills and eventually began drifting even further into the business side of things.”

Four years after completing his Ph.D. at Rice, Stanford’s Computer Science Department offered a certificate in Mining Massive Data Sets and Bandyopadhyay dove in.

He said, “To be successful in data science, you need solid technical skills; it requires an understanding of statistics, coding, and machine learning. But what no one tells you is how important the so-called ‘soft skills’ are. First of all, you have to be really good at problem definition. You are describing something ambiguous – such as how to improve an aspect of a business such as sales or product – and you have to determine what that means in a way that can be solved with data.”

In addition to being able to clearly define a problem in terms that a machine learning model can process, data scientists may need to explain to —or seek more information from— almost anyone in the company. Bandyopadhyay said he was constantly communicating to validate his assumptions or goals for his algorithms with non-technical stakeholders. Getting appropriate feedback required him to tell a good story, connecting his audience with the problem or solution.

Finally, after the models are done and results obtained, it’s critical to communicate those results back to those stakeholders in a way that makes business sense to them, and that they can incorporate into their strategy.

“In my experience, storytelling and communicating with non-technical audiences is a skill that science and engineering students need to be taught more. The pandemic itself has shown us how important it is for scientists to tell a story people can understand, how epidemics and vaccines evolve and work, and why the new data and results are meaningful,” said Bandyopadhyay.

“Luckily for me, I really enjoyed my storytelling interactions with stakeholders, exercising those communication muscles and learning more about relationship communications that convey, convince, and engage. When I realized I was enjoying the communication part of my job more than the technical work, I transitioned to teaching data science (DS) in a startup, which led to my role as a DS educator.”

Bandyopadhyay was hired to create content for all the DS coursework at Springboard, an educational technology startup in San Francisco. His communication skills grew as he learned more about how to teach and interact with students. He also helped translate what was occurring in the DS courses for the marketing team, so they could better guide prospective students who were exploring Springboard’s concept and courses.

He was growing and thriving in the startup, immersed in work he loved when his path took an unexpected turn. Finding himself at a crossroads, Bandyopadhyay scaled back his time in the office and began to reassess his life goals. Five years later, he described his time of transition in an essay on Quiet Quitting.

“Today, I communicate through the camera lens,” said Bandyopadhyay.

“There is a saying that a portrait captures the connection between the subject and the photographer. Given my deep engineering background, the technical aspects of photography – lighting, lenses, poses, composition — were all fairly easy to pick up. What was more challenging for me, as an emerging photographer who specialized in personal brand portraits, was how to build that relationship with a client so their photos would look more natural.”

While he discovered many discussions and videos on taking better photos, he could not identify any courses or tips for building trust between photographer and subject. Bandyopadhyay knew that he could only create a safe space in which his clients could relax if he first created a bond with them, so he began drawing on his previous communication and rapport-building experiences. He also studied psychology and became a relationship coach on the side.

“A lot of the techniques used by therapists and coaches work well for photographers who want to establish areas of trust in which their subjects can be vulnerable and awkward. I really enjoy incorporating ideas from those fields as I deliberately create a safe space in front of a camera for my clients.

“Recently, one of my clients surprised me when they said, ‘That must be the engineer in you. You like solving problems.’ But I had never really made that connection before,” Bandyopadhyay said.

From a young age, Bandyopadhyay’s family and teachers had encouraged him to pursue engineering. His undergraduate degree focused exclusively on computer science and engineering; he had neither the time nor the opportunity to explore other areas of study. Entering Rice, he faced a new set of challenges including the loss of his advisor to cancer.

“I wasn’t sure if I belonged there, if I should stay there,” he said. “It became a training ground for dealing with uncertainty.”

But the advice he most wants to share with prospective graduate students —particularly those considering computer science or engineering programs — is the importance of the Rice experience outside their chosen department.

“At Rice, I got the liberal arts experience I had been missing. I took courses like history, feminist studies, languages, and architecture. I also got into fascinating conversations with other students from every discipline and background. Maybe I’d be taking a class in Chinese or history, but what that really meant is that I got to see a lot of different ways of approaching knowledge, learning, and life.

“That is the part of Rice you will probably cherish most —that very diverse, very broad and informal education inside a beautiful campus. The whole experience can be holistic and good for your mental and emotional health.”