Lynn thank you so much for meeting with us, could you give us an introduction to yourself?
Sure, my current role is Head of Data at St. James’s Place Wealth Management, and I am busy meeting the team and learning the business. Before this, I was Client Services Director for Mango Solutions a Data Science Consultancy. I will talk to anyone who will listen about data topics, and I am convinced everyone needs to know what it is all about. My 3 children are a testament to that as I have dragged my oldest to many a data science meetup, and my 8-year-old is an avid Python coder!
You have just started a new position, so congratulations! How are you settling in?
Two weeks in; we are going through a huge admin platform migration at present. That’s my immediate focus, ensuring that runs smoothly and goes to plan.
Longer term it is aligning the strategy, continuing our MDM project, and potentially improving the Data Architecture moving forward. We need to tighten all these processes before we start to properly leverage analytics. We know we have the migration first, but it won’t be long before we are ready to really use analytics.
How did you decide to pursue a career in Data?
Back when I was looking for my first role, we had to go to job fayres! I had no clue what I wanted to do, I had a degree in Computing and Economics, and I knew I liked both. I not only wanted to be involved in Computing, but I also wanted to change and impact how things work. At those career fayres, it was big names, big companies who were looking for people to join their Graduate schemes, more pure IT schemes, and I didn’t want to pursue a purely technical career. So, I ended up looking for something different, and focussing on less obvious opportunities, as at the time, it certainly wasn’t as easy as it is now to meet great new exciting companies at meet-ups or anything similar.
That was when I came across a small company called Amadeus Software who were in Oxford, and about 20 people at the time. The CEO interviewed me and spoke to me about this language called SAS which I had never heard of! I was honest with him, I didn’t have the best academic record, with the best A levels, however, he didn’t mind, he could see something in me. He spoke to me differently, the process was very different from the careers fayres previously, we had a great conversation and I ended up having a great 5 years there in SAS Consultancy of all things and that’s how I started in Data!
There are much better routes now, you can take advantage of meet-ups, you have companies doing events, so you get to go and talk to employees, and really get a feel for a business, and companies get to showcase their work. It is so different now, in fact, you could argue there is too many to choose from! You could go to a meet-up every night!
That demand has created a different problem for candidates now, in that due to the number of opportunities, and candidates, how do you stand out in your application?
The difficulty will always be that every company will more or less have different opinions on this. I can only really answer that from my perspective. When I have been looking for an individual, whilst I am often in awe of those who can do incredible Phd’s, I never did one myself. So of course, I am looking for these amazing skills, however, I am looking for something extra, looking for individual initiative.
So maybe they have been to meet-ups, conferences, extra courses, something that is more proactive. As an example, one of the placement students I hired previously was a Maths undergrad, but he runs Bath ML meet-ups and has fantastic blog writing skills. Suddenly that has now become more common, so the bar keeps raising!
At that point, I might start asking different questions. Looking into their part-time jobs, hobbies and how they interact with customers or teammates. Did they do anything that was really customer focussed? In my previous role I was recruiting for consultants, I am looking for how they can communicate, as that is as important as the technical capabilities, but not just for consultant positions, you need to be able to communicate the data to internal stakeholders, so I would advise candidates to demonstrate all extracurricular activities and evidence of outstanding communication.
Similarly during my time at Mango Solutions we brought in a development programme called the ‘Trusted Consultant’ and we put all of our placement students and graduates through that, so hopefully, when they left Mango they have something tangible they could take with them.
Can you talk us through the ‘Trusted Consultant scheme’?
Happy too, Mango used Belbin as a basis, it is a variation of the Myers Briggs or Insights, but Belbin is more about the team fit. So we started with that, everyone got a team profile and that in my experience is normally as far as most companies do. We wanted to go further, we created a number of workshops, centred around communication and team building, and we didn’t just do this with Data Scientists, we did this with all senior management too. The whole company did this. We looked at how to build trust with customers, how to deal with customers, how to build trust in a team, and group activities etc. Some people liked it, it wasn’t all perfect, but even if they took a few things from the programme, and it helped improve their confidence, then it was a success.
Are you aware of any other good initiatives from companies trying to support graduates or develop more junior staff?
During my time at Target Group, they did a 5-day induction scheme, which drew the usual groans. But actually, it worked really well because you would be sat with people from all company functions. I was sat next to a 17-year-old who was coming into the call centre, and an individual that was a Viking in his spare time! We learnt about the company, and the products but also, they focussed a lot of teamwork, communication, culture and team activities.
They then followed it on by doing a more traditional graduate scheme where they moved around functions. We adopted a data specific version of this to give our graduates as much exposure to different data roles as possible. This grew into similar style leadership programmes. I think quite a lot of companies do different variations of this.
But in the smaller companies, I have worked in, they are trying to develop their own way of nurturing young data talent and that is what excites me. Helping to build and develop that function. They know they need to do something, but they don’t know what.
How would you approach onboarding a graduate? That first commercial role can feel like such a big jump from Academia, so how would you go around supporting that?
The way I have done this before is to give them a personal project and also to provide them with a Mentor. That could possibly be a team leader, but also other individuals within the team like the mentoring, but not so much leading a team. So, I advise managers to look outside direct managers, as sometimes in my experience that is where you can find excellent Mentors!
As an example, I had a graduate whose personal project was to investigate p0. He had to apply it to something relevant and present it back to the team. That allowed him time to focus on something, and slowly integrate with the team, as opposed to throwing them straight into the deep end.
Throwing them straight into dealing with internal or external customers data can lead to a drop in performance, so I think it is important to slowly integrate them so that they feel confident and can be themselves. As it can be quite scary! Not only do you need to learn the task, but you need to learn the do’ and don’ts of the company, who to go to for certain things, where to get certain things. All of this is embedding is super important! A trip to the pub works well too!
Do you think we do enough in Universities to prepare students for the ‘jump’ into commercial work? Is it even their responsibility?
That is a really interesting question.
In the past, I think no. In a bizarre way, the 3 years I took between my A Levels and going to University, probably best prepared me for work. Because I had been out and done various things.
I think that is definitely changing now. I was at a meet-up hosted by Cardiff University recently and they were there trying to build relationships with companies to help do exactly that, support students in the move. They wanted students to get industry experience and therefore gain confident going out into the workplace.
Do I think it’s their responsibility? Why not! They teach them a lot of other things, at least to a certain level. Part of the role you will have to learn on the job, and people will, of course, learn from their mistakes. But anything the Universities, or the student can do to bridge the gap, I would encourage it.
When I was recruiting, I would ask questions around meet-ups, self-study and things of that nature. For example, have they looked at our website, do they know anything about me? Just to test how proactive they have been. To me and you that is obvious because we have been and done it, but if it is their first job, it may not be so obvious.
Another important thing for me is giving feedback. I value giving feedback so highly because it is so important for people’s development. It is something that should be a given, but it is not always the way. If they haven’t been given feedback, how do they know what to work on next time?
How important is the role of a Mentor? And how do you know if someone is the right Mentor?
Interestingly I have never had a ‘formal mentor’, if I think about it my partner is a mentor, and I take any opportunity to learn from others when I can. However, a good mentor is often able to see areas we can improve, it can be hard to spot these when you are heart and soul in a project. They encourage you to keep going when all you want to do is give up. They understand what you are going through; often they have been through the same experiences, so they can impart learnings and knowledge. They are great sounding boards, whether my partner likes it or not I talk at him and draw on his advice! So, for me, a mentor can be an essential part of your career development.
How do you know if you have found the right one? I would say that they help you find a path but leave it to you to decide whether you take it. They solve problems with you, not for you allowing you to develop these skills and own the outcome. They challenge you and they tell you the truth which can be difficult at times, especially for me when I live with that person!
What is your favourite thing about working with Data?
I have gone back in at a more granular level in my new role at St. James’s Place, at Mango Solutions I was at the point where I was more about helping with the company, and looking at business strategy. But I just missed reading a systems admin manual, I am much more of an Engineer at heart!
Data Science is great, it’s cool but I started my career essentially in the basement with my little Oracle- On-Premise, running my team of 3 people and no one else would talk to us! My passion is in Data Management, the Governance, the quality and understanding how that flows through the business. The best way I can describe my love for Data is that I moved away from it, and missed it!
You mentioned Data Science has evolved greatly, partly because of its popularity, but how much have you seen the Engineering side develop in your time?
A lot! I think Data Science is great, everyone went and recruited an awesome Data Science team, but in a lot of circumstances the Data Science team said: “Fab, what do we do”. And so for 4 days of 5 they ended up having to manipulate and move the data because it’s hidden everywhere, its’ not governed, its bad quality and they can’t do any Data Science yet!”
In the last few years, the Engineers have risen in prominence again because businesses need the Engineers to work with the Data Scientists. We also shouldn’t forget MI! It is as important. But the data needs to be in the right place to utilise!
It has changed from going out to one supplier when it would be end-to-end. Now it is much more component based, more platform-as-a-service. If you think of something like Snowflake, you still need Data somewhere. And I think it is great.
But the Engineer is no longer just moving data from A to B, it’s not just ETL anymore. We are now working much closer with different functions to increase accessibility and efficiency. The role has taken on far more recognition.
What do you think will be some big Engineering breakthroughs this year?
Great question, engineers are a vital part of organisations they figure out how to build pipelines to move the data, cleanse and implement services to ensure data is accessible and clean. Cloud technology will continue to play an important role, I was recently speaking to Mark Sellors Head of Data Engineering at Mango Solutions and we were discussing that the demands of cloud will likely see an increasing focus of data ops personnel (DevOps for data). Mark has seen an increased demand for engineers who can marry the technologies offered by cloud vendors e.g. kubernetes, to the increasingly demanding data engineering space.