Finding Your "Niche" in Data Science

We at Revive have been working very hard recently to launch our new mentorship programme as a means to link up budding tech professionals with the right kind of mentor: someone who can steer, ask the right questions, and inspire. We know that mentors come in all guises, but were we to clone one, Karen Jean-Francois might just be our choice. She believes in following dreams, she can run faster than anyone you know, and she can articulate what it takes to work in data analysis better than most, in her second language. She also does a lot of work supporting other women working in the tech industry through Women in Data, a network and event for which she hosts a podcast. Karen talked to Revive about juggling her career with other pursuits, dreaming big on a small Caribbean island, and her all-important advice for inclusive working environments.

Hello Karen. Thanks for speaking to Revive. When and why did you decide to become a Data Analyst?  

Growing up, kids tend to play at being a doctor, a teacher, a cashier, a cook, an explorer…. They never go “oh let’s pretend we are technology professionals” ... well, not that I am aware of! I was no different and I wanted to be a maths teacher, just like my granddad. This led me to study mathematics.

While my parents were extremely supportive, I grew up on a tiny island in the Caribbean, and there, it felt like everybody had an opinion on the choices you made. So, most of the time, the narrative was “you are wasting your time studying maths, it only leads to teaching and there aren’t even that many teachers' jobs available”. But as I said, I wanted to be a teacher anyway, so I kept going.

Back home, we didn’t even have a computer and it’s only when I chose to do an MA in Applied Statistics that I became fascinated by the applications of data analytics and predictive modelling and started to consider a career in data analytics.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a career in data, or wants to transition to data? 

Today, it’s very hard to find an industry that doesn’t use data. This means data professionals are very sought after. There is so much to tell someone seeking a career in data, but because the field is so broad, I would say that before you take the leap, you should ask yourself two questions. The first is what exactly do you want to do? It’s important to know and understand the career choices available. Do you want to go into data analytics, data science, data engineering? And within this, are you interested in building reports, insights analysis, machine learning engineering? And secondly, what industry and type of companies are you interested in? When the answers to these questions are unclear, it’s very easy to get talked into a role that will not match your expectations or lead you into a career path that is not the one you seek. 

Why did you decide to start your podcast Women in Data? What are the goals of this podcast? 

This is a story with two faces. When I graduated with my MA, I had absolutely no idea about how companies were using data and just accepted the first job that came my way. Speaking to other data professionals, I realised that there were many others in this situation. But people are curious to know more about how others use data. This was proven by the high attendance of the WiD meet-ups last year. Moreover, I believe sharing knowledge and tips across industries is key to innovation and to allowing data analytics to really make a difference. Let’s imagine that you work in streaming services and are trying to understand what artist or movie people could be interested in. Other industries are addressing similar business questions. For example, retailers analyse customers’ affinities with products. Talking to someone working with a retailer might help you come up with different approaches to the issue.

The other reason is that the WiD community is amazing. It’s full of women who happily share tips, careers and offer mentoring. I wanted to put the spotlight on them. To allow them to share their stories and inspire others as they inspired me.

The podcast is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Castbox.

How have role models and mentors helped you in your professional career and personal life as an athlete?

Just like everything else in life you realise the importance of mentors and role models when you need them.

I was 19 when I arrived in Paris to do my MA and train for the selections to the European championships of athletics. Far from my family and immersed in a different culture, I was training 12 hours a week while studying full time. I reached a point where I started questioning my abilities to do both. If it wasn’t for one of my friends, at the time a world champion, who helped me realise that I had done both for years and showed me how far one could go with determination, I would have probably gone back home and wouldn’t have made it to the team. This shows that mentorship doesn’t have to be formal. In some instances, a mentor could simply be a friend.

In terms of professional career, we don’t learn at school nor at university how to have a fulfilling and healthy career. This is when role models and mentors become essential, sharing experience and tips to show what’s possible.

What are the best tips you've heard from women in data to help talents flourish in their careers?

A mentor once told me “You focus too much on your weaknesses, you should focus on your strengths”. This simple sentence was a game changer for me, and I hope it will help others. It does not mean that we shouldn’t work on our areas of development, but that we should not forget to use and seek to improve our strengths. Another precious tip was that networking shouldn’t be put on the backburner.

What do you think companies can do differently or better to attract and keep more women in their tech teams?

A lot can be done in this area, but I will stick to 3 points: writing gender neutral job descriptions, making sure team-bonding activities are inclusive and supporting women in the organisation. I am by no means expert on the topic and can only speak from experience. 

Often we hear team leaders talking about the fact that they would like to diversify their team, but are not receiving any CVs from women. Over the years, there have been studies addressing gender bias in job descriptions, resulting in women less likely to apply than men. For example, it’s been proven that women will be less likely to apply to a job if they don’t match all the requirements on the job description. The choice of vocabulary also plays a role here. HBR has quite a few articles on the topic. Making job descriptions gender neutral is not an easy task and I have met people hiring specialists to help with the matter. 

In terms of keeping women in tech teams, I would like to address the topic of team activities. No one will deny the benefits of team activities. They increase team cohesion, are great to improve communication and productivity and more. Many companies have on-site areas dedicated to breaks and offer a range of games and activity. Unfortunately, often the choice of activity can result in women feeling excluded from the team. Picture a team where there is only one woman. If every day the team choses to do a FIFA tournament during breaks, the team will bond and, unless they are a FIFA player or football fan, she will feel left out. I am obviously generalising here, some women will be first in line to play FIFA. But you see the point. The same thing will happen if the team is female dominated and the activity is very stereotypically feminine. I believe that providing gender neutral activities is important to retaining women in tech teams.

Lastly, mentors and advocates are key to helping women have successful careers, no matter what their definition of success. Having a mentoring program in place could be very attractive. 

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