Balancing life between data science and gliders

Jim Barker’s off to a flying start in his new job as a data scientist at Virgin Mobile USA. This role takes him on an exciting journey through random forests and neural networks – but his biggest thrill comes when he takes to the sky in a glider…

Recently, I joined the Virgin Mobile USA team in Kansas City. I’ve spent the majority of my working life in IT, but five years ago I decided to change careers. I wanted to work in the field of data science, so I enrolled in classes to earn my Master of Science in Business Intelligence and Analytics at Rockhurst University, which I will complete this summer.

Data science is a relatively new discipline and is a hybrid of data mining, statistical analysis, predictive analytics and programming. It’s very satisfying to analyse data and discover unexpected insights into business problems, and it’s fascinating to work with predictive modelling techniques like random forests, support-vector machines and even neural networks.

Many of you probably don’t know what those terms mean, but I love my job! It’s absorbing and I think about it frequently outside of normal working hours. However, I also enjoy interests outside of work. Besides enjoying spending time with my wife, two daughters and two dogs, I’m also a licensed glider pilot.

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The most common way for a glider to become airborne is to be towed by a powered airplane with 200 feet of nylon rope attached to both aircraft. Once the glider is at a certain altitude, you simply release the rope and start flying on your own. In order to stay in the air you need rising columns of air called ‘thermals’ or ‘ridge lift’ from mountains. A glider can stay in the air for hours and climb thousands of feet if the pilot knows how to use the rising currents.

There is nothing as exhilarating as releasing that tow rope and gliding in silence through the sky

While I love my work at Virgin Mobile USA, there is nothing as exhilarating as releasing that tow rope and gliding in silence through the sky. I imagine it’s how Richard Branson must have felt that first time in a hot-air balloon. I’ve only been a member of the Virgin family for a short time, but I hope to meet Richard someday and tell him that I share his passion for aviation.

In the meantime, it’s a pleasure to be part of the Virgin team, and I’m really looking forward to my first flight on Virgin Atlantic or Virgin Australia!

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