The Lady Data Gurus - Vol. 1
Date posted: 14th Dec 2015
As a head hunter in the ever-sexy predictive analytics and ‘Big Data’ space, I often attend networking events and find myself surrounded by the industry’s current and future leaders. In the past 3 years, I have attended everything from casual Meet Ups where Data Scientists and Engineers talk the latest ‘Big Data’ shop, to full-day conferences in which industry leaders debate how to attract the best quantitative & engineering minds to their companies.
Regardless of the scale of the event, one consistent trend prevails: the dudes outnumber the ladies at least 5 to 1. And, in my humble opinion, it is getting a little old.
This is not a ground-breaking realisation. The lack of women in this space is clearly a function of the minority of women in technology jobs in general. But as a woman who gets just as excited about the ever-extending frontiers of data science as the next guy, I realised it was time to join in the conversation.
Feminism has had a strong presence in our collective conscience in the west throughout 2014 and 2015, with no signs of relenting. Hence, I thought it was high time that I personally join the parade and invite my fellow techies to fall in step. And so came the inspiration for ‘Lady Data Gurus.’
This is a series of interviews showcasing leaders in Data Science who are changing the tech landscape, one data point at a time, who also happen to be women. I am pleased to introduce our first Lady Data Guru: Katie Russell, Head of Data Science at ONZO. Katie sat down with me recently and answered my burning questions on how she got to be the leader she is, and where she hopes to go next.
Why Machine Learning and Data Science? What inspired you to follow this path?
Mathematics has always had a strong pull factor for me. I enjoy the logic and patterns in algebra and geometry, but for me it is about more than just the numbers. Mathematics and logic work best when they have an application. And so data – as well as the logic and patterns around it –seemed a great fit.
I actually got into it through some side projects. I did some programming as part of my Mathematics PhD which initially got me interested, and I then got involved in an open source project. After completing my PhD, I joined Teccura, with the aim of exploiting data in a different way, primarily looking at . ONZO, with its focus on enabling customer engagement and insight in the energy industry, was a natural progression from there.
What part of your job do you enjoy most?
I enjoy working with the Data Scientists in my team, approaching tricky problems and figuring out how to solve them. I try to promote a collaborative approach and do my best to connect with people working on different parts of the problem in different ways, pushing them to bring something additional to what they have already developed. This kind of collaboration is really fruitful, and helps us to share with clients what we can achieve. It is a joy to work with such smart people every day.
Do you believe there are underlying barriers preventing women from ascending to leadership roles in Data Science? Have you ever met any personally?
I don’t think there are any particular barriers against women succeeding in this space. As with any team, it is the differences we all bring to the table that make us valuable to a business. Alongside commitment to success, I bring passion to my work and I care for people, which means I am rather personally invested in what we do. I see these things as strengths, although not necessarily specifically female traits. I encourage people to come to decisions by consensus, and my leadership style is about integrating people and collaborating, rather than bashing people over the head with a specific vision. Again, I don’t believe the latter is a specifically male trait – we’re just all different. I believe a diverse data science team, made up of individuals who bring variety of styles and skills, is a strong one.
How big is your team at the moment, and with how many women Data Scientists do you currently work?
We’re a medium sized Data Science team, and exactly half are women! ONZO also has fabulous female employees in Engineering and the wider company too.
There is much talk of sexism in Silicon Valley and a persistent glass ceiling. Have you felt the effects of this in your career?
Not especially. As a part of the female minority, I actually feel I have had the opportunity to stand out more, whether that is at conferences or at university. Also, there is also always a shorter queue for the ladies loos, which is nice.
I have chosen a career path where I have had the chance to work for smaller companies, which in turn has afforded me positions where I can influence others. Also, women in this space can do a great deal to help each other. I try to look out for other women in leadership roles and learn about their leadership style. Success breeds success.
Where do you hope to go from here in your career?
I prefer to remain in the moment rather than focus on what will come next, as this has always worked well for me. That said, I definitely want to see ONZO continue to grow and develop. The company has grown tremendously since I joined 2.5 years ago and I want to continue to be a part of that. I have done a few Q & A’s recently and started to act as a voice for what ONZO is accomplishing, and I like that. It’s an exciting time.
What advice would you give young, aspiring female Data Scientists?
The advice I would give to anyone, not just women, is to just learn as much as you can. Take Coursera courses, go on Kaggle, make sure you apply yourself to what you are doing and taking every opportunity possible.
Above all, never let anything put you off. When applying to jobs, so much of it is a numbers game. If you have the skills and the drive, you will make it. Sure, take advice from experts, but also just go for it. Put yourself out there. It works.