Sid Patel: From Blackjack to Twitter

Poler Hand

Poler HandTHUNDER BAY – The lexicon of the business is full of buzzwords and phrases that, for the most part, don’t mean that much. However, there are some terms that have crossed over into the mainstream and one of those with a semblance of meaning is “transferable skills.”

According to the National Careers Service in the UK, transferable skills are “general skills you can use in many jobs.” The organization goes on to say that transferable skills are usually acquired from previous jobs or life experiences and can be directly applied to your current position.

One person that knows more about this concept than most is Twitter’s head of data science, Sid Patel. Now the man in charge of all things informational at Twitter, Patel’s experience with numbers and data came not in the form of an apprenticeship with a major tech company, but at the blackjack table.

Twitter

From Bachelors to Blackjack

After studying for his Bachelor’s and then Master’s degree in Science at the Indian Institute of Technology between 1991 and 1996, Patel gradually became exposed to the wonders of blackjack. First studying the rules of the game and playing on his own before linking up with other experienced players, Patel used his knowledge of mathematics, probably and data analysis to achieve above average returns in the game between 1998 and 2000.

In fact, it was blackjack that allowed Patel to give some practical application to the theoretical work in chemical physics he was doing for his PhD at the University of California, Berkley.

Naturally, Patel wasn’t able to graduate from the blackjack tables of Atlantic City to the head of Twitter’s data science subsidiary TellApart in a single move; however, it was the lessons he learned and skills he acquired during his time as a blackjack player that allowed him to thrive in the world of data analytics.

Indeed, from Decision Engineer at Rapt in 2002 to Director for Modeling and Analytic Services at DemandTec in 2008, Patel has managed to fuse his passion for gaming with the world of technology and big data.

 Building on the World of Gambling Greats

Poker to Blackjack(Image: edwardthorp.com)

Describing his life and career to-date to Venture Beat, Patel explains that the dynamics present in blackjack actually bear a striking resemblance to the dynamics in the world of analytics. In fact, Patel isn’t the first person to note these similarities. Looking back through the history of blackjack and some of its notable figures makes you realize that many of them have pointed out the links between the game and various numerical pursuits.

Indeed, from computer software engineers to statisticians, the game has many transferable skills for the mathematically and statistically-minded player. Edward O. Thorp, pictured above, is an excellent example; he located the links between blackjack strategy and the Wall Street Stock Market. Another visionary was Don Johnson, a computer scientist and CEO of a company that designs horseracing software – he managed to win $15 million at the blackjack tables by employing his analytic capacity and understanding of algorithms.

One of the main reasons Patel was able to not only succeed at the blackjack table but apply his knowledge to the data analytics was his understanding of dependent events. Unlike other casino games where each round of betting is an independent event (i.e. the preceding and proceeding action don’t influence the present), blackjack’s past, present and future are all intertwined. By understanding this variable, a skilled blackjack player is able to analyze past events, study the present and then gain a more accurate insight into the future.

For example, if a game of blackjack is using three decks of 52 cards (156 cards), a player will know that each game will start with 48 cards with a value of 10 (16 X 3 = 48). Taking this information into consideration, a player can track the number of tens left in the deck versus the number of lower value cards and then make a prediction on the likely value of a future card.

Dependent Data in Business

 Big Data(Image: b2bnn.com)

This same process of noting the pre-game variables and using them to analyze data as it comes in is something that Patel and his peers do on a daily basis in the online arena. Today big data is an important part of many industries, including cloud computing, security and mobile app development. However, it’s not the collection of this data that’s important, it’s the analysis of it and that’s what Patel has become highly skilled at. As an industry, big data is already worth over $33 billion globally, and is projected to reach almost $84 billion by 2026.

Because he understands that data has a memory, Patel is able to use past trends to give context to the present. Moreover, he is able to use the sum of this analysis to highlight potential future trends which can then be used to enhance a product’s expected value.

Another term common in the world of blackjack, is expected value (EV) – the projected long-term result of a particular move. For example, hitting on 13 against the dealer’s 10 is a positive EV move as it will be more successful the standing in the long run.

“When you work out the variables, find out what is significant, understand the chances, and push through, you can win in the long run,” Patel told Venture Beat.

Things are exactly the same in business. Indeed, data driven marketing is now helping media companies analyze not only their key demographics, but the response to their campaigns. Employing the services of numerical experts, media companies are now able to enjoy better success rates than they were 10 years ago thanks to big data analysis.

Learning to Roll with the Punches

Leaping obstacles (Image: adm-ea.com)

The final area in which Sid Patel says his blackjack career helped his success in the business world was an understanding of the ever shifting goalposts concept. As he stated in his interview with Venture Beat, one of the biggest lessons he learned from blackjack is that the rules of the game can change.

When one party works out what the other is doing to achieve a better success rate, the dynamics will often change. Twitter is now a much different platform to what it was even just a few years ago. Indeed, back in 2013 the data showed the 72% of Americans used social networks. Today PewResearchCenter has found that almost 90% of young Americans now use social media.

Not only has the size of the market changed, but so has the way in which people access it. Smartphones have shifted the goalposts and that’s forced the likes of Patel to reevaluate their data and give the development team a new set of ideas to target.

Linking blackjack and the analysis of big data might not have been Patel’s idea when he first learned to play cards; however, as his career has developed and the world of tech has become more of a numbers game, it’s clear those early experiences have helped to make him an expert in his field. Transferrable skills are certainly no myth – and Sid Patel is one of the best examples to prove it.