I’m currently doing my final year of B.Tech in Computer Science & Engineering and I’ll be graduating in a few months. Throughout my first two and half years of college, I never realized the importance of building a network outside that of my college until I got the opportunity to be a part of the Machine Learning for Microsoft Azure scholarship program organized by Udacity. Along with developing my skills as a computer science engineer, I met a lot of people with similar interests from different walks of life from around the world. I’ve been blessed to come across this program and be a part of it during a time when the whole world had to stay inside. Through this article, I would like to talk about my experience as well as give tips to Udacity scholarship aspirants.
I came across this program through one of my classmates. She had previously applied for a different scholarship at Udacity and had shared about it. I signed up on their Scholarships Page to get notified about future programs. In May 2020, I got notified about Machine Learning for Microsoft Azure Scholarship Program sponsored by Microsoft. During my bachelor’s, I got an introduction to machine learning through Andrew Ng’s course on Coursera. The domain fascinated me and I was eager to study more about it. Most of the resources I went through focused on building models on a smaller scale and went deeper into it. I also wanted to know about how machine learning models were used in the industry as a large-scale product and this program seemed like the right opportunity.
Udacity conducts scholarship programs for learners all around the globe. The programs aim to prepare participants with relevant skills and help them to progress their careers, change domains or move from academia to the industry. Microsoft, Suse, Bertelsmann, Google, AT&T, and Facebook are some of the sponsors they have had so far.
What makes the programs on Udacity different from those on other online learning platforms is that they are conducted through 2 phases. The first phase is called the ‘Challenge Phase’ where the learners will be provided with access to an introductory course and an active community on Slack for around 3 months. Top 3-4% will be selected for the second phase based on completion of the introductory course and participation in the community activities. The second phase is the ‘Nanodegree Phase’ where the winners will get a full scholarship to a Nanodegree program. This phase consists of an advanced course with 3 to 4 projects which will be reviewed by expert mentors.
The Application Process
The application for the challenge phase was entirely essay-based. Some questions were based on my knowledge of the prerequisites, while other questions were on the reason for my application and why I deserve the scholarship. The prerequisites for this particular program were a basic understanding of Python, statistics & machine learning concepts. The only other eligibility constraint was to be above 18 years of age. To be honest, I didn’t spend too much going over my answers in the application, but I kept them genuine. From over 30000 applications globally, I was fortunate to be among the 10000 they selected for the challenge phase!
The Challenge Phase
The main focus for anyone who got into the program was to be active in the community. For a first-time participant, I was overwhelmed when I initially joined the Slack workspace. There were so many channels and so many people! I did not know where to start and I immediately started worrying about how I’ll never get selected for the second phase. But gradually I started getting used to using Slack. To my delight, I met a few people I knew too. Two Community Managers from Udacity managed the conduct of activities and measured the activeness of the participants. They were so friendly and sweet and made everyone feel comfortable. They conducted an orientation followed by weekly Ask Me Anything sessions which were helpful. I would suggest for anyone joining a Udacity community to not miss such sessions and participate wholeheartedly. Even though the initial goal was to get to the second phase, I stayed because I enjoyed the energy of the community. (There were days when I used to check Slack first thing in the morning!)
If you’re looking for ways to be active and win the ticket to the second phase, here are some of the ways I did and had so much fun!
- The Introductory Course
The introductory course must be completed before the deadline. The course was informative, well organized, and contained skills that would be required for the Nanodegree. It had mini-quizzes and lab sessions on Azure as well. The best thing was that you have a lot of people on this same journey as yours. Unlike other online courses, here you are learning with a community, thus giving you opportunities to help and get help.
- The Slack Channels
At first glance, there are so many channels and it’s hard to decide what to check. The idea is to select channels that interest you and be active in those. Don’t forget to keep an eye on the #announcements channel! Each channel will have 3-4 leaders. I applied for the leadership positions and got selected for the #introductions channel. Since it’s a non-technical channel, my co-leaders and I conducted activities that celebrated the cultural diversity in the group and I published a video on it. I was also active in other channels like #women_in_tech, #relax, #beginners, and the lesson channels.
- The Study Groups
Study groups are a really fun way to get you motivated for the course and build friendships along the way. Study groups can be created based on focus, goals, or even geographic locations. I created my own study group which focused on discussing the application of machine learning in music. Through that, I met people who had the same interests as me. A participant can join any number of study groups. I joined a few other groups and participated actively. There was one called agile squad where we conducted webinars on different topics as a team of advanced students and beginners, and they were extremely beneficial to me.
- Community Challenges
There were many pre planned community events organized by the community managers. I took part in most of them. There were 50 Days of Udacity which encouraged us to post our progress in the specified channel daily for 50 days helping us practice consistency.
Another fun challenge was the Visual Challenge where we were asked to send in entries that depicted machine learning concepts visually. These were my entries!
Another fun event was the Study Jam which gave me the vibes of an actual college fest. It was like a 24-hour study marathon along with multiple webinars and other fun stuff like Jam Tunes happening in the channels. I could feel the energy through Slack! I’m happy that I got the chance to conduct a few webinars and organize quizzes for my peers during the Study Jam. Towards the end of the phase, a Student Story Challenge was held. Everyone sent in their stories and it was amazing to go through them! The demographic for the program was indeed inspiring. There were undergraduate & postgraduate students, people getting back to or switching careers, and some who are way ahead in their careers.
- Activities Initiated by Participants
The participants had the complete freedom to come up with activities and conduct them. My peers conducted quizzes, study-partners programs, game nights, and even tambola and I earnestly took part in all that I could. One of my peers and I conducted ‘Women of the Week’ in the #women_in_tech channel where we curated discussions on women leaders. During the final week, we interviewed the community managers. The #women_in_tech channel still holds a special place in my heart!
Another highlight during this phase was the special Ask Me Anything session on Zoom with two program managers from the Microsoft Azure team! It was surreal to interact directly with them and they were kind enough to answer all our questions on Azure Machine Learning and career journeys.
Overall the entire journey helped me learn more about Azure & why such a platform it’s relevant today, build friendships, gain mentors, and have an amazing 3 months. The final zoom sessions were emotional as all of us were sad to say goodbye.
The Nanodegree Phase
After 3 weeks since the challenge phase ended, I got an email saying that I won the scholarship for the Nanodegree! I was ecstatic. The second phase focused more on the three required projects than the community. Most of the expert mentors were supportive and provided timely responses to our queries. I was impressed with the thorough feedback for the projects. Even though the program was intended for 3 months, I was able to graduate in less than 2 months.
I believe Udacity prioritizes providing valuable content for their customers because they conducted user research and round table conferences and took in all our feedback. So if you’re wondering whether to apply for a similar program, I completely encourage you to give it a go! I guarantee that you would gain much more than you expected.