Love tech but not sure if you should switch careers? For Toh Hui Min, what started out as a side interest in coding eventually led to a new career. She shares why she made the jump from finance to front-end engineering and how she picked up the skills needed. (Hint: Don’t self-learn alone)
Share a little about yourself. How did you come to be a front-end engineer at Pebbleroad?
I was not anywhere near the industry five years back. I studied Economics and Philosophy in college. During the last semester in my final year, I took a course in programming for one of my electives. That was how I got exposed to programming.
I came out of that intrigued and interested, as I liked the challenge of picking up something completely new and foreign. Post-graduation, I decided to continue with programming on the side. At that point in time, I wasn’t thinking I was going to become a developer. It was more about exploring my interests, like solving simple algorithms and building simple websites.
I was learning on my own and attended meetups, workshops to get a feel of the tech landscape. In 2016, I got exposed to TechLadies, an organisation similar to She Loves Data. I attended one of their meetups where they were advertising for a three-month part-time bootcamp. In the bootcamp, learners get paired with coaches to develop projects for NGOs. I thought it was really cool, because it was like a win-win-win situation, for the NGOs, the ladies, and the coaches. I applied and got accepted into the bootcamp.
On Mondays and Fridays, I would be doing my usual work as a portfolio management analyst. Then on Saturdays from 1-6pm, I would be at the bootcamp. Our project was to build a web application on Ruby on Rails to streamline the TechLadies bootcamp application process. Even though the learning curve was hard, I came out of the experience a little bit more confident, knowing that it was doable. So I started practising with more complicated projects.
Late last year, I found the Thoughtworks Jumpstart! Programme. This one was a full-time bootcamp, and it took me a little bit of consideration to get into that because I had to leave my job of four years. I thought, should I really just quit and dive into tech without fully knowing what’s ahead? In the end, I decided to take the plunge as I knew I would regret the time lost if I passed on the opportunity. In hindsight, I’m so glad to have taken that step of faith.
I’m now in my first job after the bootcamp. It’s been challenging but very exciting. I focus on front-end development where I get to build the user interfaces that our clients see and interact with. Having worked with our design and content teams to build a product together has helped me better understand the human/user aspect to a tech product. A good product is not just about its features. It is equally, if not more important, that the product is designed in a way that is clean, intuitive, and empathetic towards the user.
When did this career choice click for you?
I don’t think I was ever 100% certain, and there are definitely risks (time, finances, etc.) involved with doing a mid-career switch. I was fortunate to have had favorable circumstances where I was willing and able to take the opportunity cost.
What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking to switch careers but is unsure?
If circumstances allow and fear is the only thing that’s stopping you, I’d say take a year and try it out. The worst-case scenario is that you lose a year off your previous career path. The best-case scenario is that you make the right decision and never look back.
The tech industry might come across as intimidating for various reasons. It will continue to be until we start stepping in and changing perceptions. By stepping in, you have a part in changing those perceptions. In time, your story might just encourage another career-switcher who is at the same crossroads as you were, to take that plunge.
What did you find helpful to the process of picking front-end skills?
My personal learning style is to get dive in head first and find people to work with. While I think self-learning is important to build knowledge, I find that building things and discussing them with others not only helps refine and solidify my knowledge, I could also pick up soft skills like collaboration and teamwork. That’s part of the reason why I chose to do bootcamps. I would definitely recommend bootcamps over self-learning.
I’m a visual person so when I’m self-learning, I prefer to semi-hack my way to a working prototype first, then find ways to refine and improve. I always have a side-project that I am working on that acts as a sandbox for me to play with new ideas and technologies I have picked up from reading.
What’s a common misconception about being a developer that you would like to correct?
I think people might think—and I also thought the same in the past—that to be a developer, you must know everything. This is not true and unless you have a photographic memory, it is impossible to know and remember everything. Personally, I find that the true skill of a developer is to know how to problem solve (with lots of Googling!) with the right tools.
The more I learn about software development, the more I notice the things I don’t know. When I first started coding, I thought there was one ‘right’ way to a solution. Now, when I see a problem, I know there is no one right way to solve it, and that each solution comes with their own pros and tradeoffs. It’s like the more I know, the more I’m aware of what I don’t know.
In hindsight, the confidence that came with the ignorance pushed me to find a job. Now that I’m in software development, I am just in the beginning of an upward journey of learning.
What are the challenging parts of your work and how do you deal with it?
I think it’s a very humbling thing to start out without any traditional Computer Science training as I’m constantly learning and being challenged. I have to constantly tell myself, that I don’t know everything but I can get better. That’s the personal part.
The tech industry has predominantly been male. Although the gender scales are slowly but surely balancing, perceptions are still catching up. It’s a struggle we have to overcome and I try my best to bring more awareness that our input, opinions, and contributions are equally important.
What’s a passion project that you want to share?
Outside of work, my main interest is coffee. It’s such a beautiful craft, fluid and creative, yet logical and systematic at the same time. I feel the same way about coding. To me, coding is a creative pursuit. While math and logic set the framework, creativity gives me the freedom to build solutions that are designed well and fit for purpose. This is exciting because there are multiple solutions to a problem. It is also empowering because (within the defined structures, of course) we all have creative freedom to build anything we want, in any way we want.
We caught up with Shibani, our amazing volunteer who opened a new chapter in Los Angeles after moving there from across the Pacific Ocean. Here, she gives the inside scoop on the chapter’s origin and the wonderful team behind it.
SHE LOVES DATA IN THE US TOO!
I’m pretty sure you’ll agree with me when I say: The gender imbalance in the tech world is REAL.
The She Loves Data movement continues to make strides worldwide. We’re excited to start the US chapter in Los Angeles, California. Unlike our tech savvy counterparts a few hundred miles away in the Silicon Valley, there are still quite a lot of women here who are new to the world of data and tech. But they are very interested in learning more!
How did you first get involved with She Loves Data?
On my first day in the corporate world working as a BI consultant, I quickly learnt I was the only girl on the dev team. Fast forward four years later, that hasn’t changed a lot.
I was introduced to She Loves Data in 2017. My professor invited me to be a mentor for a workshop in Melbourne. The following quarter when he couldn’t make it, I was asked to present the data viz session to a group of 70 women. I was incredibly nervous as I hadn’t spoken to such a large audience before. But the atmosphere at the workshop was amazing. The women were eager to help each other out, connect and ensure they’re staying relevant in a rapidly changing world.
What was the inspiration behind starting a chapter in Los Angeles? Any shout-out to the folks at UCLA?
I decided to move to LA to further my technical skills (currently working on my AWS certification). I signed up for a certificate program at UCLA Extension and won a scholarship. The recipients had a scholarship dinner where I “networked” with the right people. That’s when the doors opened. I was introduced to some of the most amazing tech and business professionals at UCLA and all over Los Angeles who loved She Loves Data’s vision (who doesn’t?). We wanted to organise an Intro to Data Analytics workshop and UCLA Extension offered to host it – and that’s how things got rolling.
One of the awesome people I was introduced to is Raffi Simonian. He not only shared our vision but also volunteered to be an instructor and has played a key part in this workshop. Raffi is the kind of person you want on your team. With an exceptional background of over 25 years in business and technology, Raffi is the bridge that connects core technologies to the human side of IT. One would think having such a stellar background would make him an intimidating person, but I was pleasantly surprised. He turned out to be the most approachable person who goes out of his way to mentor upcoming talent.
Tell us a bit about you and the team.
We have a fun team of instructors and volunteers who are passionate about tech and strong advocates of the “human” side of tech. Apart from Raffi and myself, we have Daraiha Greene and Dr. Vandana Mangal coming in as speakers for the day.
Daraiha is the Global Head of Strategic Partnerships at Google; she also leads the Digital Coaches Program as well as multicultural engagement for the Computer Science in Media Initiative. Outside of Google, she is an actress, dancer, keynote speaker, and the founder of Rays of Sunlight, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the quality of life for teens through mindfulness and creative expression
Dr. Vandana (Ana) Mangal specializes in the education of technology and data across all sectors, for those with or without tech backgrounds. She is currently working in data and AI, and studying disruption in the mobility sector. She has served on the board of the UCLA IS Associates, UCLA Extension TMP and the Women’s Initiative Network (WIN). Before UCLA, Dr. Mangal worked in big tech (Intel Corp) and consulting (AE Business Solutions). She has taught at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Since January, we’ve been to a fair number of fairs/conferences/workshops to introduce LA to She Loves Data. The reception has been incredible. It’s great to see this movement of empowering women spread across the globe! UCLA and Extension have been very encouraging and they do all they can to support women. A huge shout out to all the people who have helped along the way in the short 5 months since we started. And we’re just starting… Stay tuned for future workshop details as we’re working on workshop 2 already!
I’m interested! Where can I sign up for the workshop(s)?
Check out the event page here for our 18 May Intro to Data Analytics workshop and sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of the page to get future workshop updates!
Welcome to Real People in Data, a new interview series by She Loves Data! If you’ve missed our first release, read it here.
Céline Le Cotonnec is living proof that there are many pathways to a career in tech, including by following one’s passion in Chinese culture and language. As a chief data officer, she’s helping to transform AXA Singapore to be more data-driven. As a mother to three young kids, she makes time for family and is upfront about the challenges.
Share a little about yourself. How did you come to be Chief Data Officer (CDO) of AXA Singapore?
I’ve spent the last 15 years in Asia, mainly in China. After my studies in Sinology, I started working in a Taiwanese mining company when I was 21 years old in sales and marketing. Then I was hired by the French Consulate in Shanghai to support French companies to implement their business in China. I was working in the Industry and New Technology department. This was how I got into tech pretty much in the beginning.
Following this, I worked for a car manufacturer starting as a purchasing manager as I knew a lot of actors in the automotive industry in China from my previous job. My role evolved, and I became in charge of innovation in the R&D department. Then later, I was asked to create a new business unit in marketing. This unit was in charge of developing new business models in the field of mobility.
With the arrival of autonomous vehicles, you will have more expensive but fewer cars to produce. Car manufacturers need to find new sources of revenue to support the connectivity of the vehicle. My job was to try and monetize data from car manufacturers by launching new services and value proposition for the driver. This was how I met AXA, as one of the main use cases of connected car data is for insurance. So I started some pilots in China with AXA, and there came this opportunity to move to Singapore. That’s how I became a chief data officer from a Sinologist.
When did your career choice click for you?
I’m a big believer of the word yuan fen (緣分, destiny) in Chinese. All my life has been a succession of opportunities. Extraordinary meetings with some extraordinary people, and working with giant digital players such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent. I don’t really think that anyone from the millennial generation is able to answer the “what do you want to do in five years?” question. Things are changing so fast, new technology is emerging everyday. I knew I wanted to work in innovation. What I liked was to start new things from scratch.
The term ‘Chief Data Officer’ did not exist five years back so I don’t think I would have thought that I would become one. I’m just a big believer in self learning, that you can learn everything if you just put in the right effort. Even though I’m a linguistic or business person by education, I have always loved working with tech and engineers. I’m bringing some other skills to the team even though I don’t know how to code: understanding the use of the data and how to improve the customer experience or the business model. My strength is to be creative, question the status quo, and always put the human—the customer or the employee—at the center of what we do. I guess it’s the main value I can bring to the team and the organization.
Cool, so it’s more about grabbing opportunities that come your way. What’s a workday for you like?
Rather than describing my day, which is spent a lot in meetings, stand-ups and calls as with everyone, it’s more about what we are trying to achieve here. The data team of AXA Singapore has developed a strategy to transform the company to become data-driven. Apart from data architecture and data management, one key pillar is the people and culture. Being data-driven is more about attitude than the technical skills. You need to have this culture of asking the right questions, tracking your actions, making decisions based on data, and monitoring them.
Just last week, we started a SMART® data awareness challenge, where every employee receives four questions daily about data for a week, and the first fifty to complete the challenge get a reward. This year, we’re going to train about 150 people, super users, in basic Python programming and data visualization related to insurance so they are able to produce their do their own analysis, leveraging on data, whenever they have a question. We have a partnership with LinkedIn Learning. The data team is crafting content, then pushing videos to this community on a weekly basis. To up-skill our executives and heads of department, we just started a two-day crash course in Python with Empire Code, a local NGO teaching coding to kids and disadvantaged youths. End of the year, we are planning to kickstart some ‘lunch and learn’ activity so that parents, especially mothers, can get involved too as they can’t always take classes on the weekends or after work.
Sounds like a lot is on your plate. What are your routines or hacks for staying on top of things?
It’s really a team effort. We’ve got great talent in data science, engineering, and architecture. We also have a great digital team with whom we’re working on a daily basis. We have each other and we’re always stronger together. Becoming data driven is not only my strategy. It’s an overall company strategy, so it needs to be supported by the whole organization.
We do use agile to deliver project quickly, and we have an agile coach helping to support the team. We have regular meetings among various teams, a strong governance with a regular steering committee, and a data board involving our top executives that meet every month to take the right decision on data projects, infrastructure, and policies for the company, and support our ambition of building data-driven capabilities.
What’s a common misconception about being a CDO that you would like to correct?
I have to be very honest with you. When I first got this job, I went to some panel and was pretty much the only one without a background in programming or IT. I knew some basics from working in connected cars and digital, but not that deeply. I asked my boss: “Are you sure that I’m the right person for the job?” And he told me that actually he hired me because of my energy, vision, innovation, and the fact that I cared for the people. I’m very grateful to have such a visionary boss who had the courage to hire someone with such a different profile from what was written in the template JD, coming from outside the insurance industry. I guess it was a big bet for him too.
As a chief data officer, I think that our mission is to be a change-driver in the business. With my colleague from the digital team, we are always joking that within five years, our job won’t exist anymore—everybody would be enabled in the company with analytical skills and basic programming, and data scientists would be in all the departments.
For me, being a chief data officer is not a technical job, it’s much more about trying to foresee what could be the issue of the future such as ethics in algorithm. We need to make sure that there is proper governance and a data privacy framework around the usage of data. For this, you don’t actually need to be a programmer.
What would you say are the most understated skill-sets for people looking to get into data and tech?
I would say there are several types of profiles. Some require technical skills, such as Python, SAS, hive, and so on. For super users, you need to have analytical skills. Having the data and studying it is one thing, taking the right business action to transform the company is another. Being able to use tools like Tableau, Qlikview, Power BI or Excel is a skillset that everyone needs to have if you want to be data-driven. A new position emerging now is a kind of business translator, a mix of project manager with knowledge of the business and who can help support understanding the results of models from data scientists and drive within the business the industrialization of the model. Data management is also a new job that is emerging and of paramount importance with new regulations around data protection and data privacy.
Any specific advice for working mums or anyone else who have to juggle with multiple responsibilities outside of work?
It always is a tradeoff. I’m lucky to be in a company that promotes work-life balance and remote work. I myself have a mentor, another colleague who is a single mom. I have a lot of appreciation and respect for her. She is mentoring me to make sure that I get to see my kids every evening from 6 to 8pm. I usually go back home early and work again once they’re asleep. My European colleagues are sometimes surprised when I refuse a call at 6pm and ask them to move it to 10pm, but frankly speaking I don’t mind working in the evening. I do mind coming home too late to see my kids. That’s my work-life balance.
Nothing is more important than your kids and family at the end. If there’s something urgent, it’s going to wait until 9pm or I can answer via Whatsapp or delegate it to someone. It requires strong self-training to balance having three small kids under five years old and the CDO job of transforming your company.
As part of the values we’re promoting at AXA, we’re empowered. We can work from home and don’t always need to be physically at the office as long as you deliver. I’ll give you an example: This morning, there was an event at my son’s school so I went there from 8:00 to 9:00am, then worked from the nearby cafe, and came for the interview to meet you.
We often hear that it’s important to get a mentor. But if you don’t have one yet, how should you go about it?
I’ll give you my traditional answer, yuan fen. You need to feel something and have admiration for your mentor. With my mentor, I went to her and said, I respect you so much for being a single mom and handling your job, overseeing a hundred people; how do you do it? I asked her to mentor me, and she said yes. She sent me an invitation to block my calendar the whole year from 5.30 to 8pm, time for me to see my kids. She sends me WhatsApp messages when she leaves the office, “I hope you’re not still there.” Sometimes you need to ask, but first you need to feel it.
I meet people who inspire me and I don’t even have to formally ask them to be my mentors. I’ve told them they are mentors to me and they go, “really?” But it’s true. We share a lot on a personal and professional basis. They give me advice. Sometimes I don’t agree. But discussion and debate are also part of the mentor-mentee relationship. It’s not only one way. As a mentor to other younger women and men in the organization, I find there is always something that you learn as a mentor. You reflect on what you would have done at their age if you were in their position. This is always an opportunity to grow.
What’s a passion project that you want to share?
Ten years ago, when I was in China, I set up an NGO called Shanghai Young Bakers. Every year, we’ve been helping about 30 orphans and disadvantaged youths get bakery training for one year in Shanghai and then find baker jobs in five-star hotels. It’s one of my biggest achievements. I’m not operationally involved in the project anymore but it’s something that I’m still very dedicated to.
What separates a good talk from a mediocre one?
Whether you’re giving a presentation or making a pitch, being an effective public speaker goes a long way.
A while back, She Loves Data teamed up with KeyNote – Asia’s Women Speakers to decode the craft of public speaking, with JustCo as our gracious host. We had the benefit of having professional speakers, Ivana Fertitta, Kaumudi Goda (KG), and Sheila Berman, as our workshop instructors.
Public speaking is hard work but here are five actionable tips I got from the workshop.
1. Know yourself
If you’re uncomfortable speaking in front of an audience, try to understand why. Is it the fear of saying something stupid and losing your credibility? Is your lack of experience troubling you? Once you know what it is that makes you uncomfortable, it will be easier to tackle the problem.
For example, to minimize the chances of saying unintended things, take time to practice and get comfortable with your speaking material. To gain experience, start small. Consider participating in a brown bag lunch or holding a talk among friends.
2. Get to know your audience beforehand
Do as much research as you can on your audience’s needs, expectations, and even how they are likely to dressed—Ivana recommends that you dress like your audience or a little bit more formal.
KG offers some aspects to consider, such as the context of your talk and the profile of the audience. This way you can better establish the kind of talk you are going to deliver, including the level of technicality. Knowing your audience also helps you to anticipate and prepare for possible scenarios or questions they may raise.
3. Be clear on your core message
Once you have your audience’s needs in mind, KG advises to focus on a core message or unifying theme. The body of the talk would then be about supporting points. There are several ways to sequence your talk, be it in a chronological or spatial fashion or going from broad to specific.
Experiment to discover what works best. Consider writing down your points on post-it notes, then arrange or discard the notes as needed to map out your content structure. Remember not to lose sight of your talk’s objective and end with a call to action.
4. Help yourself by having the right frame of mind
Feel your heart beating faster when you are thinking of speaking? Ivana suggests to think of the adrenaline rush as energy that can help you come across as more passionate and convicted in your talk. The trick is to not let the energy morph into full-blown anxiety and overwhelm you. Here are some ways to keep calm:
Before you give your talk, take some time to visualize your success. Imagine a scenario where you are performing well, and take in the details and emotions.
Memorize the first sentence of your talk. This reduces your mental load when you’re likely to be most nervous—at the start of your talk—and a smooth delivery helps with creating a strong first impression.
During your talk, adopt the mountain pose in yoga or Tadasana. This is an active pose for improving posture and keeping a calm focus.
Try to remove any unnecessary source of stress. If the talk is really important, bring an extra set of clothes in case of emergencies.
5. Don’t wait till you begin your talk to engage your audience
Do it before as well. On the day of the talk, especially if you’ll be speaking to people you’ve never met, try to arrive early to get to know some of them. According to Sheila, it’s one thing to be speaking to a crowd of complete strangers, it’s another doing the same to some friendly faces. Find your allies in your audience, the people who are likely to return a smile when you make eye contact instead of a stone-faced expression.
At the start of the talk, help your audience warm up to you by having some interaction. For example, ask a question and invite them to respond by raising their hands. If it feels too intimidating to have direct eye contact, Sheila also suggests to direct your eyes to people’s foreheads, one individual at a time.
After the talk, don’t rely on your internal voice to evaluate how your talk went, ask for feedback. Often times, you can be your own harshest critic and what you experience in your mind can be worse than how others perceive it.
If you’re interested in public speaking, don’t stop here. Why not let 2019 be the year you break into public speaking or bring your skills to a new level?
Alexandra enjoys being at the intersection of data, design, and code whether it goes by the name of data journalism or information visualization. Sometimes she finds it more comfortable to be on a rock wall than the ground.