Convocation: Big data degree reaps big rewards

June 07, 2016

Ask Shruthi Narayan how she feels about graduating from SFU’s new master’s in big data program, and you will get a simple but poignant answer: “It’s like a dream.”

It’s no wonder. Bangalore-born Narayan, who immigrated to Vancouver in 2011 with her husband, has already landed a job at a top Vancouver-based tech company.

“My loan is paid off and I have the kind of job I was always looking for,” says Narayan, now mom to four-year-old Akhila.

In fact, 11 of the program’s first graduating class of 13 students have found full-time jobs already.

Narayan’s graduation marks the end of a long journey. Following a brief stint living in Dubai, the young family moved to Vancouver when Narayan’s husband was offered a job at a consulting firm.

Narayan, an electrical engineer with several years of experience working in both India and the Middle East, had taken a few years off after Akhila’s birth. Keen to restart her career in Canada, she began applying for jobs, but the competitive market and fast-moving pace of the tech industry initially derailed her plans.

“It felt like everything had moved on since I had worked before—all the job descriptions looked so different,” she says. “Tech knowledge comes with an expiry date, so you have to stay current.”

Undefeated, Narayan made the big decision to return to school and earn a master’s in one of computing science’s most cutting-edge fields:  big data.

SFU’s School of Computing Science established this innovative program—the first of its kind in Western Canada—in 2014 in response to the growing global demand for big data experts.

Narayan says the sheer scope of big data captured her imagination.

“The opportunities are endless, like running algorithms on huge volumes of data to help computers understand human speech, or using data from millions of images to help detect disease.”

For her final project, she used data-mining techniques to identify faulty water wells in developing countries, which helps municipalities deal more efficiently with water loss and other hazards.

Students in the program also completed co-op work terms with companies like Microsoft, Samsung, SAP and others.

Narayan found her niche at Visier, specializing in cloud-based solutions for dealing with massive amounts of data. She is now working there full-time as an analyst and programmer.

Balancing the demands of academia, a full-time co-op work placement and motherhood had its challenges, but Narayan overcame them with determination, and a little help from her friends.

“The support and encouragement I received from my professors and the co-op office was enormous,” she says. “My husband was my saviour all the time and he got me through it.”

When she crosses the convocation dais, both her husband Girish and her daughter, who is starting school this September, will be there to cheer her on.

“I didn’t know if this day would ever come, so to be here and to look back—I see now that everything was worth it.”