From the Source: Frank Burkholder’s Improbable Path to Data Science Instructor


This is From the Source, a regular series where you hear the stories of the Galvanize community straight from the source. This week, Galavanize Data Science associate instructor (and DSI graduate) Frank Burkholder discusses a missed opportunity, his time in the Peace Corps, and why he chose data science after more than a decade in the solar industry.

I grew up in southern Oregon, a small town, Klamath Falls. The kind of place with probably more cattle than people. It’s a nice place to grow up, but I haven’t been back in a while. After high school I went to Stanford for undergrad from ’90 to ’95.

I was going to be a medical doctor, but I ended up working in a hospital as an orderly for a summer, and I really didn’t enjoy the work environment. I had been taking some engineering courses on the side, sort of for fun. Maybe that should have been a clue that I liked engineering.

Frank Burkholder chose data science after more than a decade in the solar industry.

Frank Burkholder chose data science after more than a decade in the solar industry.

At one point—I think it was my sophomore year—a friend of mine had a chance to work as an intern for this company that just didn’t seem like it was a very good idea. It was this startup called “Yahoo”.

My friend told me they were hiring, but I thought it didn’t sound very realistic. So I stuck with my engineering coursework, got my M.E. degree, and in hindsight, it’s just one of those things. I think she interned for just a few years, but they did go public while she was there. She basically paid for medical school based on what she got from her Yahoo shares. So sometimes I feel like coming to Galvanize and getting back into this environment is my way of making up for that mistake in my sophomore year of undergrad.

After graduation, I got my professional engineering certification, but engineering was in some sense a bit unfulfilling. I was mostly doing litigation type work, and that just wasn’t interesting. After a case was settled, our work product was just put in boxes and pushed away, undiscoverable. I felt like we were doing good work, but everything was always motivated by the next case. There was no evidence of the work we were doing. So I left.

I went to Tucson for a bit, and then I left for the Peace Corps. I was in southern Africa and Namibia, and I was basically a high school teacher. In high school I had seen the ads with the Jeep and the African safari, and I always imagined I was gonna do it, but I kept putting it off. So I was glad to do that before going back to grad school.

I loved the first year. The second year was tough in the sense that I know I was a better teacher, a better volunteer, but it was a lonely assignment. I was in the bush, and I think the closest volunteer was six hours away—and that was if I got up at 4:00 in the morning to walk to the tar road and hitchhike to his village.

“Namibia doesn’t have many resources. What they do have, is sun.”

During the rainy season, there were basically moats that would form. You have kids that were walking four or five miles to school every day. And they would swim across these moats that there were alligators in. It’s just crazy. It was really eye-opening to me, to see how much these kids valued education. It was all about perspective. There’s so much I feel we take for granted, that I still take for granted. So it’s good for reminding myself of that.

I enjoyed teaching, but I started to realize I missed engineering. So I thought about coming back to get a PhD. One thing that really affected me in Namibia was that they don’t have many resources. They can’t grow a lot of their own o, so they’re really reliant on goats and cattle that can eat the grass there. What Namibia does have, is sun. So I decided to pick solar energy as the thing to become good at in graduate school.

I ran the solar energy lab at University of Wisconsin in Madison, and did my PhD there. It’s very cold and muddy there. They have a really strong modeling and analytics side, but as far as actually having hardware to do tests on, they don’t have that much. So that’s what actually brought me to CU Boulder. I came to work on Solar Decathlon here.

I was engineering team lead for the 2005 Solar Decathlon, which we won. It was an international competition, and we had a great team of people. It was really fun.

The solar industry went through a lot of changes in the last 10 years. I basically made a bet 15 years ago that CSP was going to be the technology in solar, and I dedicated myself to it. But China came in and subsidized the manufacture of PV panels, and large scale refining of silicone came online for them too. So PV panels are an order of magnitude cheaper than they were before. It’s a great thing for the solar industry, but it meant that CSP was not as big as I had hoped.

I started reevaluating myself, what skills I had, what I could do. I’ve always done a fair amount of programming, and, even though I enjoy design, it seemed like I was often pushed to more of this strategic vision, analyzing systems. What insight can we get from the present market about our technology? So I thought, ‘How can I apply those skills in another field?’ And that’s how I came to the data science program.

I heard about Galvanize last summer. I had been following EdTech a little bit, and it’s very interesting what’s happening in that space. I’m a big proponent of traditional education—I mean, I got a PhD. But I gotta say, there is certainly room for something that’s much more vocationally focused that takes into account the huge opportunity cost associated with taking yourself out of commision for a couple years.

I took the Data Science Immersive, and after that I was asked to stick around as a data scientist in residence, and later moved up to associate instructor. I really enjoy the curriculum, and I enjoy all the people I work with, so I feel like it’s a good place for me. Its a chance to teach in an environment where I enjoy teaching.

“I’m a big proponent of traditional education, but there is certainly room for something that’s much more vocationally focused. It works in a lot of different fields, and Galvanize is a part of that.”

I’m a big tennis player. I love tennis. I enjoy chess too, but I don’t get as much of a chance to play chess anymore. I feel like this sort of occupies my more analytical aspects. I like to go salsa dancing, actually. I’m a big fan of La Rumba and Opal. They have good salsa scenes.

I’ve been a big proponent of vocational education for a long time—even like for machine shops and things like that. It works in a lot of different fields, and Galvanize is a part of that.

I was very impressed by my classmates. It was really fun to be in this environment where—mostly in my education background I had been with engineers in an engineering setting. So all the disparate backgrounds in the class, the different ways of looking at things, was really refreshing.

It was difficult. Just the amount of material that’s presented every day in the DSI can be overwhelming, so you really have to pick your battles and try to figure out the most important things to learn from it. From a teacher perspective, it’s about figuring out how to distil the most important information. The program has really smart, motivated students, which is great. But you still have to distil the information so that it can be digested in a short period of time.


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