Chasing the Cutting Edge in Data Science Led to Turku

Sebhat Yidelwo is a San Diego-born engineer with an Ethiopian heritage. He is currently working on a project for Turku City Data that aims to optimize a path-finding algorithm for deliveries in big cities. Graph theory, Java and other skills he now uses daily in his work were unheard of for him even until a year ago. This June, he found himself admiring the nightless night of the Finnish midsummer in the southwestern coastal city of Turku of all places. What initially drew him half-way across the world to Turku and got him to work in a field far removed from earlier interest in engineering?

— I studied electrical engineering at San Diego State, did some work for companies like Airbus and Boeing, and then worked for three years doing projects for a large aerospace company based in the U.S. I branched out to data analysis, after trying to solve many data based questions like “how can I predict when parts of an airplane were more likely to fail” and decided this is what I want to do, Yidelwo explains.

Questions like that could be answered through rigorous analysis of data and Yidelwo was fascinated with the process. His previous assignments in project engineering weren’t challenging enough after years of experience, and data science appeared as a new horizon of professional development. After that realization, it was off to Scotland to get an M.Sc. in data analytics.

Sebhat Yidelwo seized his opportunity to see the world and landed in Scotland

From the West Coast to the Scottish Lowlands

The move to Scotland was scary, at first. Yidelwo says that he wasn’t too outgoing growing up, but a solo trip to South America and the interpersonal skills his previous job allowed him to develop were gamechangers.

— I love travelling and seeing new places, meeting new people and learning languages, so I didn’t want to stay in San Diego too long after growing up, going to school, high school and college there. I had to get out. I had an opportunity to explore more of the world and it’s like that Wayne Gretzky quote about how “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”, so I decided to take my shots, Yidelwo says.

So, the love of new places led Yidelwo to the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and to his degree in data analytics. Coincidentally, the University of Strathclyde is partnering with the City of Turku and the Turku University of Applied Sciences to mutually develop each other’s educational capabilities in technology, and that is how Yidelwo heard about that Tech Summer Trainee program.

The Tech Summer Trainee program, organized by Turku Science Park Ltd. and the City of Turku, is all about attracting tech students to work in Turku by providing free housing and public transport passes for three months. For Yidelwo, having things to do, places to see and people to meet outside of work is hugely important. According to him, the program was well-outlined in terms of how it works, which gave him the perfect home base from which to proactively seek out new people and networks in the new city.

Doing Data Analytics in Southwest Finland

Sebhat Yidelwo sent numerous emails to data analytics companies in the Turku region, telling them who he is and what he can do. The main thing for him was to find a project for the summer that aligned with his new interest in data science. Jussi Vira, the CEO of Turku City Data, was immediately impressed and hired him on the spot to work on a project for Turku City Data. However, as with everything else, COVID-19 was a hurdle for Yidelwo too. Getting into the country became much more complex almost overnight. The whole situation was uncertain and Yidelwo is quick to mention the difficulty of planning anything in the current situation. Yet, he was able to relocate to Turku for the duration of the project and the reception has been nothing short of stellar.

— I had the option to work remotely fron Scotland, but I wanted to come to Turku. Jussi was super welcoming and took me for a ride around the city in his car, Yidelwo recalls.

He says that the team at Turku City Data has been patient with introducing him to their technologies, techniques and overall has been extremely supportive and understanding. The project he is working on has been a perfect match for his interests. It is about improving the calculation speed for “shortest routes” between stores and local addresses. The goal would be to use this optimization for a variety of projects Turku City Data is working on, namely, the current grocery delivery program for delivery routes to COVID-19 risk groups. In addition to finding fulfilling work, he has been smitten with the city of Turku; its people, culture and language.

Sebhat has fallen in love with Turku’s culture, people and sights, as well as the sometimes-challenging Finnish language

Right now, Yidelwo is laser-focused on finishing his project. After that, there is plenty to do in Turku, such as visiting museums and hanging with new people. Yidelwo points out that the timing of his employment is actually very fortunate in this regard. Unlike San Diego or Scotland, Finland is experiencing a loosening of restrictions and people are much freer to meet and go out in public. A visit to Lapland is on the horizon, as well as a sojourn through a yet-unplanned number of countries in Europe that are accessible to people coming from Finland, especially the Baltic states.

— The fact that you can drive for a few hundred miles and go through four countries is amazing, Yidelwo says.

Always on the Lookout

Yidelwo is always pushing himself to give 100% and to go out on a limb. This is also visible in his professional life. Going into data science can be a stretch for an electrical engineer, but that hasn’t slowed him down. Now, Yidelwo is fascinated by all the new things he has encountered while working on his project in Turku. In his spare time, he is honing his skills in new programming languages such as Java and approaches such as graph theory, while also being on the lookout for more hands-on projects.

— My goal is to further develop my field and make myself into an invaluable asset to companies, governments and organizations, he says.

In short, becoming the kind of multitalented international expert Turku is in dire need of.

From Yidelwo’s point of view, Turku is taking important steps in the utilization of their available data and data science: for example, the city’s focus on smart solutions and infrastructure. He mentions San José as an example of a highly developed smart city and, according to him, Turku is well on its way to similar status. There is plenty of useful data around, it’s now a question of finding the right people and tools to use it.

People, such as Sebhat Yidelwo.

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