Women in Big Data is spotlighting amazing women during Women’s History Month.
Sarah Fawcett is Senior Data Scientist at DSpark Singtel.
This post starts with a journey, and like all journeys there is a start. But like many journeys the path doesn’t traverse in the manner that you imagine when setting out and much of the story is in the smaller steps that have made up the whole to date.
Working now as a Senior Data Scientist for a geospatial mobile insights team within Singtel, DSpark Australia, I can’t honestly say that I envisioned this wonderful work when I applied for a multimedia design and developer position over 20 years ago. At the time, building interactive CD-ROMs and some of the first commercial websites in Australia was an exciting new vista, having crested the hill from completing high school and studying Multimedia at Sydney Uni (when data was still being transferred on a 28k modem).
The lure of this exciting new technology was strong and has cultivated an endless enthusiasm to patiently try, try, try again to discover the boundaries of what can be achieved in the partnership of hardware and software that makes digital content and communicating with it possible. There have been so many times, looking back from where I currently find myself, that I have been faced with a challenge of delivering a commercial project (using a technology in its infancy where product releases were arriving weekly) using my core skill–that is, the foundation of my technical experience–which is harnessing inquisitiveness into problem solving.
Scripting websites before CSS was a thing, and learning how to build in tracking code to quantify investment, with the requirement to analyse user engagement both qualitatively and quantitatively, both with human discussion, testing and analysis of statistics, led me to realise the thrill of designing, building and improving a product that people could interact with and learn from and use in their day-to-day lives. I studied Business Communication at night after many long hours of the day, but absolutely loved learning the theory behind what I was seeing in the digital products I was helping to build, understanding motivations and hierarchy of needs, consumer behaviour and how to achieve business goals.
In order to bring this together, and in a lot of ways to validate what I had learned on the job and what was missing in my understanding, I undertook and completed a degree in Information Management at the University of Technology Sydney. I learned how to build data bases and knowledge management repositories, and how to store information in logical diagrams and relational databases, in order to retrieve that knowledge as required. This meant that I could program structures to link information together and delve into the stored data for insights. I realised when I was working in this field day-to-day that what I truly loved was the challenge to unpack this information to solve problems and gain insights about the best path to take.
The Masters of Data Science that I applied for (and was granted access to study in a newly formed degree at the UTS) focused on this cross-discipline, bringing all the diverse parts of making a decision together, from working out what the question was, what information might inform the answers to that question, whether the data was robust enough to be relied on and how questions and answers might be formed at scale. Honing these skills into tools to utilise on a daily basis is what I love about education and problem solving. Making informed decisions about important choices is definitely what we all can strive to achieve with hard work and desire.
Now, as I wield the amazing technologies of distributed networked databases and the power of quantifying insights from millions of data points a day with such scripting languages as Scala, R, Python and SQL, in tiny fragments of time, I am passionately thankful that I have found what I love to do, as well as for the perseverance developed through crashed software and broken scripts to achieve this destination.
My favourite quote, which I think of quite often, is from John F. Kennedy. Contemplating setting the destination of the moon as a goal, and not knowing how and when it might be achieved, he said, “We choose to go to the moon.” Yes, of course, it was a commercial and political manoeuvre, but it was also a romantic notion which, with energy, bravery and determination was achieved.