Being a data scientist isn’t all hard stuff

26th April 2018

When I tell people I’m a data scientist, they often say “wow, you must be clever” or “that sounds hard”, but the role is so much more than being good at technical skills. Technical skills form a good foundation, but what really helps me in my role are social skills and analytical thinking; you need to be able to learn new things, communicate clearly and work well with people.

I work with big data and the tools available to assist me are always changing. This means there is always a lot to learn, which I really enjoy. I have been involved with the domain categorisation project at Nominet, and have loved exploring ways of automating the process of categorisation – asking: how can we teach computers to do tasks that, as humans, seem natural?

My mum is a software developer, and I think that has encouraged me to follow a similar path. She would often talk about her work and share some of the challenges – it all sounded so interesting. My dad is a lecturer and teaches statistics, and they met studying operational research. That said, they never pressurised me to do anything particular; they just want me to be happy.

I liked maths and sciences at school, and enjoyed studying them at A Level. There were usually fewer girls than boys in these classes but it wasn’t something I was particularly aware of at the time. I went to university to study Mathematics, and then did a PhD in Statistics. I enjoyed computing and considered it as a degree subject, but my mum advised me that maths was more useful as a foundation – computing was an additional tool I could pick up along the way. She was right.

We always had computers around when we were growing up; my mum used them for work, and would frequently need to buy a new (higher spec) computer when her latest one was taken over by the rest of the family. I did my first basic programming on those machines, and liked the way it allowed me to create things. In the early days, because there was no operating system, you had to type instructions in to make things happen. Children today have a very different experience with technology, and a familiarity that will hopefully make them curious to understand how it works and enjoy the discovery process as I do.

You can expect a good salary when you work in tech, but I have never been driven by money. If I’d wanted a huge salary I could have gone into finance but I thought data science was more interesting. Happiness is more important to me than money or career progression. I like working in a sociable atmosphere with friendly people and knowing I am being paid appropriately for what I do. Having a good work/life balance matters more than anything, and this is definitely a nine-to-five thirty role, and so this ticks that box for me.

I’m about to go on maternity leave and I have never experienced any negativity about my desire to start a family. My boss was delighted for me, and just said I would be missed! My only slight concern is that things will change in my absence, but I will look forward to coming back to work and getting to know the new systems and people.

The technology industry is constantly changing. That’s part of the reason I love it. In some of my previous roles, I worked with nice people but the work could be repetitive, or slow. It’s rewarding to work in an industry that moves quickly and to be involved with creating solutions to some of the challenges we face due to our human limitations.

For any young person thinking about their future career, I’d highly recommend the tech sector. Maths student or not, you can find a niche for yourself as there are so many roles that require a variety of different skills. Seek out advice from your teachers, family and friends so that the subject choices you make at school, college and Uni can help you on your way.

Bryony Hill, Technical Data Scientist at Nominet.