A Recent DSI Graduate is Building an A.I. Assistant To Help Journalists
Growing up, Daryl Kang knew his aspirations would someday take him far from home. Born in Johor Bahru, Malaysia—the southernmost point of Continental Eurasia—he was an avid consumer of American media. And those media images fueled his dream of living in America, which he viewed as a “the land of opportunity.”
In the summer of 2012, his dream materialized when he accepted an offer to attend the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). It was his first time in the U.S. and he found himself in a land that struck him as both foreign and familiar. At UCLA, he was drawn to issues of social and economic inequality and therefore majored in economics.
As the first in his family to attend college, Daryl had a drive to excel, and he graduated summa cum laude from UCLA in two and a half years. Following graduation, he took a gap year to pursue what was then for him a new interest: app development. He had no programming background, yet strove to become a self-taught programmer; he wanted to master a skill that could be applied to all disciplines. That same year, while working on a finance project for which he used statistics and computing, he began to dabble in data science. Similar to programming, data science seemed to him a field that could inform one’s understanding of multiple fields. That motivated him to study data science, and he applied to and was accepted at the Data Science Institute (DSI).
During his time at DSI, he excelled academically and also interned at Viacom, one of the world’s largest media conglomerates. There, he worked on projects in movie analytics for Paramount Pictures, and implemented novel machine-learning solutions to long-standing problems in the movie industry. It was during that internship, which merged his passions for film, media, and machine learning, that he realized he wanted a career in data science.
After completing his master’s in December 2017, Daryl landed a job working as a data scientist at Forbes, where he now works on applying the innovations of Natural Language Processing (NLP) to the field of journalism. He and his team are currently building an A.I. assistant that will assist writers and editors in the creative process of publishing articles. The assistant will help writers and editors by identifying and alerting them to trending news stories in real-time, analyzing the content and writing style of articles, and suggesting edits such as adding media or additional news topics.
In this Q&A, Daryl talks about his job at Forbes, his time at DSI and his journey to America.
Talk about your work at Forbes.
In my job at Forbes in NYC, I’m working on a project to build an AI assistant for writers and editors—not unlike the Microsoft Word Paperclip from way back. This includes crafting features such as predicting article performance based on content and writing style, evaluating writing complexity, and suggesting relevant pictures to include. On a higher level, I’m also working on abstracting topics from an article, measuring their similarities to other articles, and identifying trending stories that could then be shared with writers in real-time. Since the data is primarily unstructured text, I work extensively with tools from natural language processing (NLP) and deep learning, in addition to leveraging linguistic knowledge in morphology, syntax, and semantics. It’s definitely a very rewarding job, and coming to the DSI was clearly a decision that made it all possible.
On the personal front, what was your life like in Malaysia?
I grew up in the suburbs of a major city that was on the border with Singapore. Life was certainly a lot simpler. Being close to the equator, the sweltering heat often pushes one to stay indoors. It was a very diverse and multicultural society—I learned early on to get along with people of other races, which was essential to adapting to life in the US. School in Malaysia was strict, but it managed to instill in us the virtues of hard work and discipline—qualities that I believe are fundamental to success in any endeavor. But while living in Malaysia had its charms, I was ultimately drawn to the rush and opportunities of life in the US.
Can you talk about your parents and your background?
My parents started working right after high school. My dad took night classes and self-studied to pass the bar exam to become a lawyer, while my mom eventually became a stay-at-home mom after I was born. It wasn’t uncommon to be a first-generation college student where I grew up, but my parents always stressed the importance of education.
Was it hard graduating from UCLA in just two and a half years?
Graduating early was a challenge, but it was by no means insurmountable. Rather than packing my semesters, I opted to take classes every summer, thereby spreading out my workload. In doing so, I was able to conserve my financial resources for graduate school, which had been my goal from the beginning.
In the year you took off, were you successful in teaching yourself programming?
Initially, I was eager to implement the ideas I had learned in college and to develop an app. As an economics major, I was drawn to the area of equity valuation—i.e. determining whether or not a stock was overvalued by comparing its price to its actual valuation, and vice versa. Having no programming background, I attempted to build an app entirely in Excel. Hence, the virtues of computation quickly became apparent when I needed to scale up my app, automate processes, and create a front-end UI. This was the point when I began teaching myself to code via online courses and tutorials. As I later realized, the applications of computer science to financial theory and data was in fact data science in practice.
Did DSI help get you the internship or your job?
I interned at Viacom during the summer and fall semesters whilst at the DSI—I applied through an on-campus recruiting event. With regards to my current job at Forbes, I was referred to the hiring manager by a classmate who had interviewed there. In any case, DSI career services were an invaluable resource, both professionally and emotionally. They were very involved throughout the entire process, from networking to interview prep to evaluating my offers.
And did studying at DSI help you succeed?
The master’s program at the DSI was certainly essential in helping me land a job. Coming from a social science background, the program had equipped me with the necessary grounding in computer science and statistics to bridge the gaps in my skill set that allowed me to become a data scientist. Contrary to the view that I was switching fields, I saw the program as an extension to my prior education by gaining technical expertise to implement the theories I had learned in real-world applications.
Looking back, was it a good decision to come to America? Is it still, in your eyes, a land of opportunity?
Absolutely. The last couple of years have been remarkable, and I’m excited for what’s yet to come.
--By Robert Florida