What volunteering as a firefighter taught me for my career in data science

Thomas Zehelein, Data Science People Lead, 04.05.2022

Who are you and what are you doing at KONUX?

Hello, I’m Thomas. I am a person that likes to deal with technical challenges, help people and make our world a better place. But since superheroes are pretty seldom in reality, I am looking for small parts where you have an actual impact and improve our world in this small part. At Konux, I am working in the analytics team. As a Data Scientist, I try to understand the physical relations of railway switches and build data models that generate insights into the health of the railway switch based on the data that we collect when trains are passing the switch. Recently, I took over the responsibility of being one of our Analytics People Leads. My job as people lead is to ensure that the company’s needs and the people’s needs fit together. Accordingly, ensuring that people at Konux can develop further, are motivated, and find meaning in their work.

Tell us a bit about your hobby

My biggest hobby is being part of the voluntary firefighters in Munich, who support the professional firefighters at bigger incidents. While for the professional fire brigade fighting fires is their job, we do this in our spare time without getting paid. When starting at the firefighters, you first go through a lot of trainings to get taught how to extinguish fires, rescue people from wrecked cars, or how to handle leaking containers with hazardous substances. During the years, I got more and more experienced and took over more responsibilities, such as taking care of the handheld radios, being a youth trainer, or fostering the development of people as their team lead. This also means investing more and more time into the firefighters. Currently, I probably spend about 10 to 15 hours a week on that hobby. And it’s totally worth it.

What do you love about it?

I like it when you worked hard during a firefighter training or an actual alarm, and you know that you did your best to do a good job. But what I also like is, that you will always find details that you can do better, faster, or more efficient. Besides getting better at your task, I love the aspect of helping people. To mention one recent example: We built up camp beds for refugees from Ukraine. When the first refugees arrived, you could see their thankfulness. This is a pretty nice feeling.

How has it helped your professional development and career?

One skill that you gain from the firefighters is to plan and monitor your actions. After collecting some information about the current situation, you think of a plan and put it into action. But you need to monitor if your plan is working as it was supposed to and plan counter-measures if required. And all that within seconds. These general steps are very similar in the professional career and especially in the area of data analysis. Just the timeframe of that loop is a little bit longer.
Another skill that you learn at the firefighters is to prioritize tasks and plan your resources. At the firefighters, I am currently doing a training on being a group leader. This means you are responsible for one group of people within one vehicle. When you and your vehicle are the first to arrive at a large fire, there are more tasks to do than one group is able to do. Therefore, the group leader’s job is to decide what has the highest priority. Then you plan and manage your resources accordingly. This also means you need to react calmly in demanding situations. You need to have precise and clear communication.
A nice example: When the medical ambulance is asking how long it takes until a person is rescued from a wrecked car, you should not say “in a moment”, but you should give precise time information like “10 minutes” so that the medical people can base their work on your estimate. Precise and clear communication like this definitely also helps in other professional contexts. And lastly, being at the firefighters shows you that there is always room for improvement of your abilities.
Overall, there are quite many similarities between being a firefighter and working in a dynamic company such as KONUX. Both areas benefit from each other. And all that while making the world a better place.