2018 Annual Review — The Year of Exponential Productivity

Me in San Diego, CA — November 2018

We have officially closed the door on 2018, which means it’s time to share my Annual Review with you. This will mark the 5th year in a row I have conducted my Annual Review, and I’ve found the process useful every time.

As always, this Annual Review will answer 3 questions:

  1. What went well this year?
  2. What didn’t go so well this year?
  3. What did I learn?

If you’d like to spend some time reflecting on your year, you can use a similar format like mine to write your own review.

1 — What went well this year?

Okay, here are the areas where I succeeded this year:

Starting Graduate School

I officially started my Master’s Degree in Computer Science at Rochester Institute of Technology in August this year! I spent 4 months from September to December of 2017 doing research and applying for different programs, then got my acceptance letter from RIT around early February 2018. After working through the paperwork with scholarship, I finally decided that RIT would be the right choice for me because of its technical prowess and proximity to New York City.

My first semester in grad school has been extremely challenging, yet rewarding. I took 3 CS courses: Foundations of Algorithms, Foundations of Intelligent Systems, and Deep Learning for Vision. The workload has been really tough, and I certainly spent an average of 50–60 hours a week studying and doing homework assignments. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the knowledge I gained as they are directly related to what I want to pursue for my career. Algorithms course gave me good practice for technical interviews, Intelligent Systems exposed me to fundamental concepts in AI, and Deep Learning forced me to work on an individual project about Computer Vision that I now can use for my work portfolio.

Building Data Science Projects

Talking about career preparation, this year has been great for me as I seek to build up my data science expertise. A piece of important advice that I read from the Internet is that landing the first data science role definitely requires some sort of portfolio work. Therefore, I spent a lot of time between February to August working on data science projects. I have 4 complete projects that I am really proud of:

  • Movie Recommedation System: I built 4 different recommendation systems using the MovieLens dataset. This project gives me great insights into how recommendation systems work at companies like Netflix, Spotify, Amazon etc.
  • World Cup 2018 Analysis: This is a super fun analysis that I did during the summer when the World Cup 2018 was happening in Russia. As a huge soccer fan, I used the FIFA18 dataset and aimed to predict the best possible lineups for a variety of teams. This project allows me to be really comfortable using Python analysis and visualization packages. By the way, I predicted that France would win the World Cup, and yeah they did!
  • Spotify Artist Analysis: This is another cool analysis work I did to disentangle the musical taste of 50 different Spotify artists from a wide range of genres. I was able to identify different clusters of artists that share similar musical styles. This project provides a good practice using R packages to analyze and visualize data.
  • FashionMNIST Image Classification: This is my first attempt using deep learning technique to work with images data. I built 4 different Convolutional Neural Network models to classify fashion images in the FashionMNIST data. I learned a ton of cool tricks on training and visualizing deep neural network models.

Medium Blogging

This is a huge area of success for me. In my 2017 annual review, I made an attempt to write more. And yeah I did. I wrote 40 posts in total in 2018 and gained 10.5K followers on Medium up until this point. Most of my posts are about data science and machine learning, as there is a huge community of practitioners of the field on Medium. Huge thanks especially to Towards Data Science and Heartbeat, the publications that help publicized my work the most.


As a result of my prolific blog articles on Medium, many people reached out to me with freelance and consulting opportunities. Limbik is a New York-based startup doing video analytics that I have been working with since the summer. I have been able to work on industry projects in machine learning, a good experience for me to apply the book knowledge into a real-world scenario. Besides that, I have been doing freelance writing for a variety of tech companies, including CodeMentor, Nanonets, FritzAI, and DataCamp.

Creating a Podcast

I have a new podcast called Datacast! As a huge podcast listener, I have been honing the idea of having my own podcast show for a while. Huge thanks to Seth Godin and his Podcast Fellowship program during the summer that finally pushed me to do this. Datacast is my attempt to have raw conversations with practitioners in the worlds of AI, machine learning, statistics, and data science. I have had 6 episodes so far, close to 1000 downloads, listeners all over the world (particularly the Czech Republic, US, India, and the UK). I already have a couple of guests scheduled in 2019 and certainly look forward to expanding Datacast’s reach even more.

Daily Journaling

This is a great habit that I got from Tim Ferriss. Essentially, every morning after waking up, I open my journal and write down 3 things that I am grateful, 3 things that can make that day great, and 3 affirmations of who I am. Every evening before going to bed, I write down 3 amazing things that happened and 3 things that could have been better during that day. I believe I only missed about 10 days not doing this routine in 2018. The results are quite amazing, as this habit ensures my days are productive and filled with gratitude.

Exercising and Practicing Meditation

I am utterly happy with the great progress I’ve made in exercising. I hit the gym on average 5 times a week, usually for weight-lifting on Monday / Wednesday / Friday and HIIT training on Tuesday / Thursday. Sunday is usually reserved for a quick 30-minute Yoga session. I use an app called NIKE Training Club to choose the exercises as well as keep track of my progress. I maintain this routine pretty closely both while at home and while at RIT. RIT has super nice athletic facilities equipped with a fitness center and swimming pool that are free for students. I also started playing soccer again, playing twice a week through the RIT’s intramural program. For 2019, I am looking forward to improving my fitness further — both in terms of eating healthy diets and building muscle mass — by following Michael Matthews’ “Bigger, Leaner, Stronger” program.

Meditation is an interesting thing I have delved into this year, after learning about its various benefits all over the personal development space. Every morning after waking up, I meditate for about 10 minutes using an app called Insight Timer that lets users choose the type of meditations they want and share them with other users. This has been spectacularly helpful on days that I have to deal with a lot of stress, as I can reconnect with my breathing and a mindful presence.


This got to be my biggest accomplishment in 2018. I read 39 books this year spanning across many topics including personal development, business, technology, career, psychology, and art. Here are all the books I’ve read this year in chronological order (you can see the complete list on my website):

  • “Tribe of Mentors” by Tim Ferries
  • “Thinking In Systems” by Daniella Meadows
  • “Principles” by Ray Dalio
  • “The Master Algorithm” by Pedro Domingos
  • “Vagabonding” by Rolf Potts
  • “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield
  • “Coders at Work” by Peter Seibel
  • “Data Scientists at Work” by Sebastian Gutierrez
  • “The Effective Executive” by Peter Drucker
  • “The School of Greatness” by Lewis Howes
  • “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin
  • “Remote” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
  • “The Art of Possibility” by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander
  • “Mating in Captivity” by Esther Perel
  • “The 4-Hour Body” by Tim Ferriss
  • “Tools of Titans” by Tim Ferriss
  • “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” by Richard Feynman
  • “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande
  • “Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger” by Peter Bevelin
  • “Blue Ocean Strategy” by Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne
  • “Still Writing” by Dani Shapiro
  • “Superintelligence” by Nick Bostrom
  • “Enlightenment Now” by Steven Pinker
  • “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly
  • “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser
  • “Finite and Infinite Games” by James Carse
  • “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl
  • “Thinking In Bets” by Annie Duke
  • “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling
  • “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely
  • “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari
  • “Algorithms To Live By” by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths
  • “The Dating Playbook For Men” by Andrew Ferebee
  • “The Signal and The Noise” by Nate Silver
  • “Bigger, Leaner, Stronger” by Michael Matthews
  • “Do Over” by Jon Acuff
  • “Bold” by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler
  • “The Second Machine Age” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
  • “Smartcuts” by Shane Snow


I finally got back to traveling after a whole long year staying still at home! I traveled to New York City in October, spent Thanksgiving Break in San Diego, and am currently doing a New England road trip this Winter Break. I have visited Hartford (CT), New Haven (CT), Newport (RI), and Providence (RI) in the last 2 weeks, and will be in Boston (MA), Manchester (NH), Portsmouth (NH), and Portland (ME) before heading back to RIT for the spring semester.

2 — What did not go so well this year?

Family Loss

The biggest shock to my life happened in June this year when my grandfather passed away after a sudden heart attack. He is a big role model growing up, someone educated in the Soviet Union back in the 70s and then became a university professor teaching in Vietnam. I remembered attending his funeral and seeing thousands of his colleagues, friends, and students paying tribute. Certainly, his passing left a huge emotional gap for my family; however, I am glad that I got to spend time at home close to him during the last couple months of his life.

Time Management

Another thing I struggled with is handling the difficult workload in graduate school. I didn’t expect that the workload would be much heavier than that in undergraduate. The materials are much more comprehensive and the assignments are much more involved. Anyhow, I managed to work my tail off and finish my first semester strong. Now having that experience in the first semester, I am certainly more well-prepared for the rest of my graduate career.

3 — What did I learn this year?

I learned a lot in 2018. Here are some of the main takeaways.

The Importance of Good Habits — Back in my undergraduate days, I normally slept late, went out drinking in the weekend, and did not exercise much. The past year and a half have been life changing as I started adopting better habits. I became an early riser, going to bed around 10 PM and waking up around 5 AM most weekdays. I stopped drinking completely. I went to the gym 5 times a week and maintained a healthy food diet. I also got into meditation as mentioned above. Overall, I have felt significantly more productive and happier since making these changes.

The Importance of Multilateral Thinking — This essentially means that in order to become a better thinker, you need to absorb materials from completely different disciplines and somehow find a way to connect the dots. For me, continuous learning has always been a huge mantra, thanks to various channels like books, blogs, online courses, podcasts, video interviews. I try to expose to as many disciplines as possible, such as technology, business, health & fitness, finance, history, arts etc. Over time, I find creative ways to use the source of inspiration from one field and apply that to another field. For example, by reading a lot of blog posts about product design, I can apply that knowledge to data science by making the presentation of data much more visually appealing. Or by listening to Oprah’s “Super Soul Conversations,” I learn the importance of self-care and developing emotional resiliency.

The Importance of Sharing Work Public — I am lucky to be in a field where there is a lot of free and open-source knowledge that is public to newcomers. The main reasons behind my desire to write blog posts and create a podcast about data science are not only to make myself more publicly well-known but also to give back to the community as there are many aspiring data scientists looking to enter the field. I believe any field — whether you are a programmer, a designer, a scientist, an economist, or a writer — in this day and age, it is of paramount importance to maintain a digital portfolio of your work.

That’s all I’ve got for this year’s Annual Review. As always, thanks for reading. I can’t wait to share my best work with you in 2019.



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James Le

James Le

Data >< Product >< Community | https://jameskle.com/ | @le_james94