We are delighted to bring you this interview in collaboration with one of our partners, Contino. Simone Occulate, a data evangelist and principal consultant, believes in empowering through actions and good examples. She shares with us her experience in tech, including lessons learned from mentoring others.
What first got you interested in tech?
When I was little, I was determined to be a ballerina and to have my own gym! Unfortunately, due to an injury, that was not possible, so I decided to work with computers as I was really good at mathematics and physics. It seemed to be a logical path to follow, as well as something challenging with a promising future.
I started my career as a software developer while still studying at a technical high school. I got my computer science bachelor’s degree followed by post-graduate studies in object-oriented analysis as well as in corporate finance, to gain a non-tech perspective. In between these studies, I switched to become an Oracle DBA, before becoming a data architect. I was also a data modelling trainer for a while before starting a job as an enterprise data architect, when an opportunity came up to be a reviewer of DAMA DMBoK on Data Governance and Data Quality chapters. My career has always been focused on data, working across different industries, overseas and in Australia.
I believe that regardless of your position, or the company you work for, you always have to keep an eye out on what’s happening and what’s trending so you can have different perspectives. I’ve always maintained this approach but it’s been especially important in recent years.
I can say the aspects that got me interested in tech are still valid nowadays: It’s dynamic, challenging, forward-thinking, innovative and breaks down barriers.
What are you most proud about in your role as a data evangelist and principal consultant with Contino?
My job is as dynamic as it can be so there are no boring days! The beauty of it is that you know you are contributing, evolving and helping your colleagues and customers to also evolve. We help bring out the best in each other, which is reflected in our results and in the long term relationships we build along the way.
Not long ago, we changed from what I like to call ‘starving for data’ to ‘drowning in data but with scarcity of knowledge’. Each person and each company is on a different stage of their data journey but the pain points or root cause tend to be similar.
Despite the fact that data is always important, most recently, people have become aware of such importance. Who would have thought that a former US president would mention ‘metadata’ in one of his speeches? That showed that people outside IT or non-data-related jobs were now interested and much more aware of the recent changes, and the importance of data being an actual theme rather than just a distant idea.
Looking through human history, IT is very recent. If you compare it to civil engineering for example, I believe we still have a long way to go to figure out better ways of working, tools to be developed, frameworks to be developed. So, it makes even prouder to be working with data..
How do you make personal time and retain a sense of identity while pursuing career success?
One of the things I like most about this industry is the speed of movement and the quick advances in technology. Keeping up-to-date is of course a challenge on its own, but I like to think of it as a part of life! It’s part of who I am – feeling comfortable being outside my comfort zone.
I’ve found the best way to make time for your personal life whilst pursuing your professional goals is by planning. From planning your day to planning your year. Obviously you get better at this over time. Goal setting is one part of it, as long as you put it into action of course. It can’t be just a list of bullet points forgotten somewhere in your computer! This allows you to have an introspective view of who you are and who you want to be, and plan accordingly. It should take into account all areas of your life, like a wheel of life: health, finance, professional, relationships, hobbies, etc.
You can adjust this plan along the way as circumstances may change and as you get a better sense of what has worked versus what hasn’t. At the end of the day, all those areas need to be in balance for you to be well and happy, and therefore to be a better professional achieving those goals.
Drawing from your experience as a mentor, what are some common challenges that women in tech face?
From my experience, especially after founding a voluntary group to help newcomers in IT in Melbourne in 2010, I’ve come across so many different situations, scenarios, restrictions, and of course outcomes.
Sometimes it’s not your answer that is important, it’s the questions you ask them, forcing them to think from a different perspective that they may not have previously considered.
It’s been an amazing experience, being true to my beliefs and using my own learning and experiences to help other women discover different options in their career. It always comes down to a personal choice but I like to think that the final decision is data-driven. It’s based on the facts, rather than on emotion or ignorance of other options.
In this fast paced world, some people are lost when choosing what to study and invest time in a career. I don’t have the answers unfortunately! There are so many things being created that it is impossible for any of us to be across all the topics and subjects. The only way I can help them is by sharing the methods I use, so showing them how to fish rather than fishing for them.
Having said all that, I’d like to highlight these common challenges for women in tech:
- Not having a voice and feeling you are not heard
- Depending on the professional environment, mostly in the male-dominated ones, women feel they are not heard
- For some, it’s to ‘think outside the box’.
- We need to develop the capability of thinking from different perspectives especially after moving to a new country with different languages and a different culture. Just the language being different means a different way of thinking and perceiving things.
- Difficulty to go back to work after maternity leave
- Even though many organisations have changed their policies on it, the majority haven’t, so women may change to a different career because of that.
However. I believe as a society, these challenges and many others should be talked about and solved with all parts of the equation, both women and men participating. Otherwise, the probability of not solving them, but creating other problems, is high.
What can we do to inspire and empower more women to flourish in tech?
I believe it must be through actions and good examples, as words alone are not enough.
As I like to say ‘Knowledge is NOT power, Knowledge in ACTION is POWER’.
We can use meetups, training, workshops, and share experiences of what worked well and what didn’t. More organisations could open this conversation up and launch initiatives to put these changes into place and share their experiences.
As an example, Contino hosts a great meetup, FiiT (Female Influencers in Tech), which helps empower the tech community with inspiring speakers and topics.
Perhaps you’re giving a big presentation about your passion project. You’re feeling great about it, and you’re in peak performance mode, talking up all the cool details, all the thrilling plans. You’re practically bouncing on your feet.
Eager to share more, you ask if there are any questions. Dead silence. Finally, somebody from management asks something so irrelevant, you wonder if they actually heard you at all.
Huh? What went wrong?
Very likely, you haven’t been on the same page since the beginning. And your fundamental mistake? Assuming that your layman audience has your same expert, insider point of view.
So how can you bridge this communication gap?
Create a jargon ‘safe zone’
Jargon is the specialised language used by experts in a certain field. Often, it’s unavoidable, because it helps communicate specific concepts with clarity and precision.
But what if your audience are not experts?
The average person actually fears jargon, because they don’t like looking ignorant. Sometimes, management will pretend that they understand, and start using terms like “machine learning” and “deep learning” and “AI” interchangeably.
Nope, don’t show your frustration. You need to keep a straight face. Actually, you need to make them feel safe and therefore receptive to your ideas. Your job is to explain.
- Explain the term simply, once, and preferably at the beginning. When talking, check their understanding. When writing, include a definitions page, an appendix, or even just footnotes.
- Watch out for jargon bloat. Choose your non-negotiable jargon terms, and stick to them. Try not to over-explain with additional technical words. Remember, less is more.
- Remind as necessary, and correct gently. Egos are fragile, so you have to be subtle about this. But it’s your job to check in at various stages, to see if you’re still on the same page.
Explain benefits, not features
As a product owner, engineer or specialist, you’re rightfully excited by your awesome product, and can’t help sharing all the cool features.
“Our accounting and payroll app has plug-and-play support, is designed for cloud, mobile and desktop environments, and even has a user-researched intuitive client interface!”
Cool! Er… so what?
This is a very common mistake that hides in plain sight. Technical communication is full of exciting features, specifications, and details. But technical people often forget to tell their stakeholders why that information is important.
They forget to explain the benefits.
- Features: surface facts about your products or services; what something is
- Benefits: how your products or services can improve their lives, or why they should buy it
To convert features into benefits, ask yourself “Why does this matter?”
For the example above, imagine selling the app to a boss of say, an import and export company. Yes, go ahead and list the features. But then follow up with:
“This means that you can install this app easily and use it everywhere, with no additional staff training cost!”
She’ll prick up her ears. Because true benefits connect to your users’ deepest desires, such as saving money, saving time, reducing hassle, being more productive, getting good value, solving their pains, and generally leading an easier, happier life.
Engage your audience with storytelling techniques
In fiction writing, it’s usually said: show, not tell.
What this means is that instead of simply informing a reader about information, you have to paint a picture that they can see in their mind’s eye.
By doing so, you’re getting them to visualise, conceptualise, and recognise, instead of passively accepting your words.
It’s like a light bulb going off in their heads. An emotional response will always keep an audience engaged.
So how do you do this?
- Use metaphors. Vivid language helps engage the senses. By associating words, you can link concepts and communicate a complex message. For example, “Data is the new oil” clearly shows data’s potential value, plus its status as an untapped resource. But be careful not to do overdo it!
- Use pictures, visuals, infographics. Over 90% of communication is non-verbal, so imagery is one of your strongest communication tools. But imagery doesn’t mean schematics, flowcharts or graphs taken straight from your specs. Ask yourself: does this image help to explain, convince, or make a point? If not, don’t use it.
- Catch attention with stories they can relate to. For example, think back to the beginning of this article – ever found yourself in a similar situation? If yes, you’re likely to read on. For bonus points: emphasise the emotional pain, for greater impact.
And finally, for one catch-all tip that applies to all persuasive communication: always start with the end in mind.
If you know your desired outcome, you can come up with a clear message to drive that outcome.
“Fund this project – it’s going to have benefit x, y, z”
“Give me a pay raise – I’m fantastic because (list reasons)”
“You need to buy our widgets – they’ll help you double productivity!”
Consistently apply that message across all your communications with management. Repeat over and over in various forms… and you might just sneakily get them doing what you want.
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.
She Loves Data and Development Beyond Learning (DBL) are delighted to partner to champion women to develop their full potential and to orientate themselves into new and growing industries and create more diversity and inclusivity in the workforce.
As industries grow and are ever-changing, the need for companies to ensure diversity and inclusion and foster diversity of thought is ever increasing. She Loves Data focuses on equipping women to be successful in an increasingly data-driven world supported by our community of like-minded women and DBL’s programs aimed at developing soft skills enables individuals to develop behaviours and mindsets, identify strength areas, create awareness of alternative career options, and coach them through the change process.
Together we offer the opportunity for women to Learn, explore alternative career options, and equip them with the soft skills and (community) support to help them on their journey of change.
To Launch our partnership with Development Beyond Learning (DBL) we are presenting an exciting workshop on 22 August 2018 (2-4:30pm) focused on:
Generating your Personal Brand and adopting a Growth Mindset
With social media making our lives more transparent, a competitive marketplace and personal development high on individual and business agendas – brand has never been more important for us to stand out.
A great personal brand is authentic, visible, consistent, reliable and resilient – in person, on paper and online. It’s about bringing who you are to what you do and how you do it. If we don’t willingly create this, others will do it for us – and that’s not a risk worth taking!
How you deal with setbacks, critical feedback or new challenges is also part of your Personal Brand.
We all have the ability to choose the way we think, and how we act accordingly. Adopting an optimal ‘growth’ mindset by recognising our ‘fixed’ mindset triggers, can help to consciously choose more helpful, positive beliefs – and therefore behaviours – that align with what we want to be known for.
Join us for an interactive session and learn how to:
- Identify attributes you want to be known for
- Consciously cultivate a personal brand that reflects your core values
- Identify actions for actively communicating your personal brand
- Identify opportunities or areas of life that are important to you, that will benefit from developing a stronger growth mindset
As we launch this offer a special promotion price for She Loves Data Community members: $60 (normal price: $100)
About Development Beyond Learning (DBL)
In today’s world, Everyone is organisations continue to be impacted by increasing volatility in the markets, ever-changing customer needs and technology-led disruptions. The future of business and the future of work is changing fast which means all of us need to become more so people have to be adaptable, effective and collaborate more than ever! And further developing your Soft Skills are a critical part of this , meaning soft skills are critical.
Development Beyond Learning (DBL) are passionate about learning and development, and have specialised in training the leaders of tomorrow for the last decade and a half – 2018 marks our 13th year. We understand how to help you develop the right soft skills and prepare you for the design and futureproof businesses and careers to ensure the talent required is attracted and retained, to succeed in the workplace of the future and for you to future-proof your career. .
About She Loves Data
She Loves Data was born out of the belief that women have many talents, virtues and value to bring to the table when it comes to data, technology, and analytics. We are passionate about Education and Community and the magic that happens when you bring people together. She Loves Data educates women and equips them with the relevant knowledge and skills they need to transform their personal and professional lives. Our local communities provide a safe space for women to come together to learn, connect, and support each other.
Our signature “Introduction to Data Analytics” workshop provides women from all walks of life the opportunity to learn the very basics of data analytics from experts, no experience required, with the aim to encourage more women to consider a career in data analytics, where diversity is so needed!