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Prioritizing Lifelong Learning on the Road Less Traveled with Relativian Ivan Alfaro

Ivan Alfaro

One of the most exciting things about life is you never know where you’ll end up.

Look at me. When I was finishing undergrad in Bogota, Colombia, I never thought that five years later I would have moved to Chicago not once but twice, started a PhD program, and spoken at several conferences in Europe.

Similarly, when I completed my PhD, I never said, “e-discovery—that's where I want to be.” Like many of you, I didn’t even know what e-discovery was before I got into this industry.

How did I get here? It wasn’t a straight path, that’s for sure. In fact, I zigged and zagged many times to get to this point. And it taught me a lot about the value in trying new things.

Learning Is a Long-Term Investment ...

When you start a PhD program, they tell you that your goal is to become an expert on one very specific topic. All the classes and seminars you take, all the research papers you read, all the conferences you attend, all your publications—they should be carefully planned with the goal of building that expertise in mind.

My initial dissertation topic was on global software development teams and the impact that cultural, temporal, and spatial differences among team members could have on the outputs of those teams. Seems like more than enough to focus on, right? But I took many classes and attended many conferences that weren’t specifically related to that topic.

During my first year I attended PhD seminars on organizational behavior and leadership and classes offered by the department of political science. I worked as an assistant for a research lab focused on examining how the use of social media affects work practices and outcomes in the United States. I even took two years of French and one year of German classes.

... With a High Return

None of this was related to my initial dissertation topic, but what I learned during those courses became invaluable for me in other parts of my life.

From the seminars on organizational behavior and leadership, I learned about motivation and goal-setting theory, and I applied that knowledge to understand how to keep myself motivated during days I was feeling low and blue. The classes I took from the department of political science helped me understand how people form their political views and why some groups are more likely to change their views than others. That was useful when trying to find support for a local charity that helps kids in rural areas get access to educational materials.

From the work I did on corporate adoption of social media, I learned about topic and clustering analysis, which are machine learning techniques that analyze, categorize, and organize large collections of text data. Having these skills helped in my professional career and has opened up career opportunities I’d never imagined. Plus, my two most-cited academic publications come from the work I did on that research center.

These experiences taught me an important lesson about the value of knowledge for knowledge’s sake: Learning something new is always worth it.

Resist the Peer Pressure

There were people who thought I was wasting my time—even jeopardizing my career—by putting so much work into topics that weren’t related to my dissertation. But I cannot be more grateful I made those choices.

In the end, my dissertation was on a completely different topic than the one I initially planned. I ended up studying the impact that working on multiple teams at the same time could have on individual creativity. And all those different classes and seminars that were not related to my initial topic? In one way or another, they helped get me, and my dissertation, over the finish line.

Maybe you’re a lawyer who attended that improv session at Relativity Fest 2019. It may not have seemed directly relevant to your work at the time, but perhaps you picked up some tips about staying cool under pressure. Or maybe you’re an engineer with a passion for fiction. That class you took about writing YA novels might spark an idea you can bring back to your day job.

So, pay no mind to anyone who says you’re wasting your time pursuing an unusual path. Maybe they just can’t see the possibilities.

Pursue a Lifetime of Learning

After I finished my PhD, I continued to be interested in topics that seemed, on the surface, to have no relevance to my work. I worked on some side projects where I used Python and R to analyze the qualifications of thousands of product management job postings, and I took some online classes about artificial intelligence. The skills and knowledge that I learned in those projects eventually led me to my current role as product manager for our new artificial intelligence service group.

As I look back on my lifetime of learning—and look forward to all the learning I have still to do—one lesson is clear: Take every chance you have to learn something new. You never know where that knowledge may take you.

Dive into our Data Discovery Law Year in Review for 2020


Ivan Alfaro is a member of the product management team at Relativity, specializing in AI services. He is from Colombia.