Interview# 12: Math-Dev DYNAMO

Interesting People
A natural at her chosen field, this half-glass full dynamo can pick up virtually any challenge thrown at her and develop solutions to solve and optimize any business problem. Yes, she can fix it like Bob the Builder and she can develop from scratch if you need it.
She’s efficient as she is funny, and would easily make my top 5 of “people that you would want in your group at work”.

Key qualities: Can-do attitude and willingness to try anything new.

Currently: In Sydney working for some bank.

Let’s hear more from the lady herself.

IN THE BEGINNING

When I was young, I always wanted to be one of 2 things; either a vet or a pilot

MMA.  A vet? Where did that one come from? We’ve never really had any conversations regarding animals before. So dare I ask why you ever gave up on that dream?

Jenny.  It was around 1st couple of months of university when I picked up Biology. I absolutely hated it and that was that.

MMA.  Haha. Biology scared you but Maths attracted you. One will never cease to amaze.

Jenny.  I know. Numbers come more naturally to me than Biology I suppose, even at a young age.

MMA.  Fair enough. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. And so what happened with the dream of being a pilot?

Jenny.  Well there was also a problem with that dream. There was only one school in my home town that catered for kids that had ambitions of flying; and that school only accepted enrolment for boys!

MMA.  Alright, that could be a problem. And so you didn’t want to play dress and pretend like that movie “She’s the Man?

Jenny.  Not for me! Hehe. It’s actually a shame as it was one of these top boarding schools. And mind you my results in school were great. Had I been in another country, I would have been allowed in and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. In hindsight, it just wasn’t the right time as that school in particular has since reversed its decision and are now allowing girls to enrol.

MMA.  Can we just quickly cover that point a little more since there’s a lot to a person’s affinity to numbers that I do want to dig deeper into. At what age did you find out that you really enjoyed Maths and what inspired you to pursue it?

Jenny.  Oh sure thing. I was about 15-16 years old when I really found out that I excelled in Maths. My results were quite good you know. But it may be more the case that as you do reach your final years in high school, you start really thinking about the future and what you want to do in life.

MMA.  So can I ask more about that as people tend to be shaped by these critical turning points in life? Was your ability with numbers nurtured by your family or was it something that you personally worked on at a young age?

Jenny.  My mum and dad were not strict disciplinarians if that’s what you’re asking. They were more relaxed about the approach to school as opposed to other families I know. However there was a strong emphasis on the fact that this was my life and it will be what I make it out to be.

MMA.  So I’m guessing this is the same approach you’re taking to your kids, right?

Jenny.  It is and it really goes back to the person even as a kid. I always believe that if it doesn’t come from the person naturally then it’s hard to change them. It must come from within the person. I don’t like forcing anything on to other people. But what I do tell my kids is that whatever they do now will reflect on them when they get older.

MMA.  You had a big family?

Jenny.  I have 3 other siblings and I am one of the middle kids. The eldest would always be the first to do things of course except for one event in our life. My dad bought a computer when we were young and gave me the responsibility of learning how to work it. His rationale, I believe, was that I was more able to explain how things worked than my brothers. So at a young age, I was playing with it more with a sense of purpose.

MMA.  You know that you are the second person that has brought that up. That is, it was an introduction by their dad at an early age to the computer which spawned the later interest in its workings. I guess an introduction to something at a young age can lead into future career path.

Jenny.  Yes, I guess that’s how it turned out for me.

MMA.  So what did you do in university?

Jenny.  I did a Bachelor of Science and Mathematics.

MMA.  So how did you get your first break at working?

Jenny.  One of my seniors in university at that time asked me to join him where he worked. This was within Insurance industry so I basically was an intern, working and studying at the same time. I did that for about a year.

MMA.  Did you get much out of that internship?

Jenny.  It was my first time in the workforce so yes I did learn a lot in the job. The job itself was to develop a database for the Marketing, Actuarial, Operational and IT teams so it was multi-purpose and cross functional.  I was able to apply my background into work through numerous computations and algorithms. Those marketers and actuaries sure asked for a lot!

MMA.  They sure do! I worked for them in my past too.  So the calcs were based on C programming or something similar?

Jenny C programming is more for engineers. It was more Fortran that I used with Pascal for creating the algorithms.  At high school when we first got the family computer and I was entrusted to learn it, I also did some courses on the side to learn programming, which I should have mentioned before. This was over and above school-work so by the time I was in university, programming logic clicked straight away.

My next role was similar. I was a research analyst for this Microsoft vendor or at least that was my working title. In reality I developed a database based in MS Access for one of our clients. I also tested numerous Microsoft products from memory – this was the research bit of my work. I even got into Excel and VBA development which was a lot of fun.

MMA.  Quite an interesting profile. So even at a young age, you displayed an ability to pick up a development language or a piece of software and run with it. I know a lot of people that stick to one or 2 but you are generally more open to try something new. I’m just thinking what is connection between your country and Australia?

Jenny.  Oh that. That was more for personal reasons; I got married and moved here.

MMA.  Well there you go. And you found work here straight away presumably?

Jenny.  Yes I did actually. I applied as a contractor for this investment firm. I developed a code to automate Superannuation life expectancy. This was all based in Excel-VBA and was used by Sales primarily as a mobile application during client visits. Although this was heavily used by our Sales team, the requirements still were heavily influenced by the accountants, IT and marketing.

Outside work I had some friends that were actuaries so at the very least I had a sounding board that understood what I was dealing with at work. A network of support always helps at every point in your life.

MMA.  Words of wisdom from the ‘secret actuary’. Did you develop any more systems for this guys after that?

Jenny.  Well after that I actually went into media for a company that is one of the largest in Australia and New Zealand for their target market. I developed a data base for accounts which would tell management key information like their Sales numbers, Salary they pay employees etcetera. This system was used internally and externally and what I mean by that is that head office had the main application and staff who were “on the field” therefore were “external” also the application albeit being a different look and feel. The data was sourced from several systems across 2 countries.

 

A CLOSER LOOK: Garbage in, Garbage Out

 

We’ve all heard about the garbage in garbage out principle in business, defined in Wikipedia as follows:

Garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) in the field of computer science or information and communications technology refers to the fact that computers will unquestioningly process the most nonsensical of input data “garbage in” and produce nonsensical output “garbage out”.

It is also commonly used to describe failures in human decision-making due to faulty, incomplete, or imprecise data.

 By no means do we want to trivialize the work involved in the last paragraph. In order to give it a little bit more meat and bring it to life, let’s have a look at what’s actually involved here:

  • database is an organized collection of data[1]. Depending on the situation, the IT professional (Jenny) would have had to make sense of business concepts and their relationships, and represent those real world concepts in the database.
  • Once the model is complete, the IT professional (Jenny) would have had to elicit the reporting requirements[2] i.e. “..key information like their Sales numbers, Salary they pay employees etcetera”.
  • And once that feedback loop is complete between IT development and the business, real data is used and can sometimes present some strange results back to the business from the aforementioned GIGO. There are usually a lot of data cleanup activities in practice.

The 3 steps above are quite broad and vary in practice. It is my own interpretation of work involved.

MMA.  Sounds like you had a good time over there.

Jenny.  I was there for about 4 years on contract and developed that system with several enhancements after the first release. You know how projects go; you put a system in production successfully and it’s inevitable that the business will want to enhance it over time as their needs change.  I should say that the database was developed in Access. It took inputs from Excel-VBA files. At this point I was managing a team and trained a couple of employees to write and query using SQL.

And I should also point out that I was travelling 2 cities in Australia to get the job done; one was the city where I worked and the other was where I lived.

MMA.  That sounds exhausting.

Jenny.  It was to begin with. I had my family on one end and I had work on the other. It was very hard to give up that job as I really enjoyed working there and I was focused on delivering the system to them. In the end we came to an arrangement where I could work remotely from home and I had the best of both worlds. But that was at the end after I delivered the first system in production and proved myself to them.

MMA.  And so that was 4 glorious years huh. What was the next challenge after that?

Jenny.  Then I worked for a credit vendor and this was my first taste of SAS which I have been using to this day. This was a more marketing focused role.

MMA.  Hey, I can vouch for your expertise in SAS. There’s been many a time that I have had to ask you about the source and derivation of x and y variables. Did you not find it hard to understand a new language?

Jenny.  SAS is the easiest language to understand! I have used a lot of languages in the past that have taken me longer than others to understand. Logic is different in every language from the point of view that some languages work from A-Z order whereas others will do it from Z-A. Others still may start it from M-Z or M back to A. Once you figure out that logic, how the tree structure works etcetera, it’s not that hard to pick up. It also helps if you’re doing it on a daily basis[3].

But I can honestly say that SAS is very intuitive in how it’s structured and the easiest by far.

MMA.  So sorry, you were saying that it was for a credit vendor?

Jenny.  Yes it was and at this stage, it was a simple application to a job advert and was a straight interview–job offer process.

The role itself was for the marketing team checking a scorecard for one of their clients.

 

A CLOSER LOOK: Credit Scorecards

 

Credit scorecards are mathematical models which attempt to provide a quantitative estimate of the probability that a customer will display a defined behavior (e.g. loan default, bankruptcy or a lower level of delinquency) with respect to their current or proposed credit position with a lender.

 There’s obviously a lot more to it than this and there’s a great deal of resources out there in the net. But the big data question comes into play once again: your model outputs are only as good as your model inputs.

That entire scorecard build process was using SAS. I built a UI based in Access with VBA. I had a reporting component using SAS, Business Objects, SQL and other resources.

But yes the job was to run a code, check the results and investigate the exceptions. This is where the analysis had to come in; I needed to explain things were the way it was. At times the client would ask us why they were getting these results.

 

THE PRESENT

MMA.  So at the moment you are working in risk. How are you finding that 

Jenny.   Yeah, pretty good. I still have a job after all the restructures! Haha.  But you know what it’s like; all project based work can go on forever and a day.

MMA.  Yes I do know what it’s like. And I do know that working in a bank can be very challenging at times.

Jenny.  The work itself is quite good. It’s the politics that gets to me. I like to get on with things with no fuss.

MMA.  Well that was actually going to be one of my questions; what is your pet peeve at work. And you just answered it.

Jenny.  Like you, I like coming to work and just getting on with the job.  I really have no interest in office politics and maybe it’s the case that it’s more amplified in a bigger work environment.

My actual work at the moment is really similar to what I was doing for the credit vendor and what I’ve been doing in a lot of other places which is, analyse the code and explain how things work and why they are working the way they do.

But unlike other areas I’ve worked in, it’s easier for me to explain myself to the guys in risk as they are more in tune with how the business works.

 

TO INFINITY AND BEYOND

 

MMA.  So that’s actually a good cue for my next question.

Upon reflection, is there any one job that you were most satisfied in?

Long pause.

Jenny.  You know, I really can’t tell you about any one specific job, project or company. For me, if the end user can get some value out of my work then I am personally satisfied. If I give something to them that they cannot live without then I am happy camper.

To add to that, I must say that I have been able to deliver quicker results in smaller teams as control is more focused to a smaller set of individuals. Timelines do tend to drag out with a bigger group.

MMA.  Good observation. Thanks for adding that in. It’s certainly something that we all have experienced, I suppose. 

Here’s something I am curious about: Who are the easiest group to work for and who are the most difficult? I mean, you have worked for Marketing teams, Accountants, Actuaries, Risk, IT etcetera. Who stands out as being the easiest and the most challenging?

Jenny.  Well the guys in risk are quite good because they do tend to know their business. I am surrounded by both business and system experts so I am finding that we are all on the same page when we talk about things. At least most of the times we, are!

The most challenging? Marketing. A lot of people will tell you that. It’s such hard work to try to explain anything to those guys! Haha.

MMA.  So can you tell me, what trends can you see in the market?

Jenny.  Outsourcing and offshoring[4]. It’s happening now where I work where model development is outsourced to a specialist company. They can always try to outsource me, that always a possibility. I sure hope it won’t happen though!

MMA.  Now how can they do that to you? You’re a godsend of a person to work with in terms of your “Can Do” attitude, professionalism and dedication.

Jenny.  Haha. Thanks for that. You know me, ‘everything is possible’.

MMA.  I do know you, hehe.  And I guess at this stage of your life, with so much experience, you can pretty much apply for a role and get the job right?

Jenny.  Well, assuming that I get the interview, I do just sell my skills and experience. I try to highlight things in the interview that’s relevant for the job they advertised. But if your question is “is it easier for me to apply for a job now and get something as opposed to when I was younger?” then I would have to say “yes it is”. Only because of my experience.  It was more difficult to sell myself early on in my working career even though I know I could do the job.

MMA.  And what can you see in your own crystal ball?

Jenny.  Can I say that I am seriously looking into doing my first dream?

MMA.  A vet?

Jenny.  Hahaha! You are so funny! That was my first dream when I was a little girl! No, no I want to pursue being a pilot and flying in the air! I am giving myself a 5 year horizon of potentially doing just that.

MMA.  Good on you Jenny. That is fantastic! It takes a lot of courage to switch careers when you already have a successful one in place. I am sure that you will get there with your hard work.

Jenny.  Thank you. When I do get my license to fly, I’ll let you know.

MMA.  Final question: How do you wind down after a busy week?

Jenny.  I usually go for drink s with colleagues. There’s no one particular place that we go to. You know me, wherever in Sydney is possible so long as it’s easy to get to. Sometime I meet up for drinks with people I used to work with. With this again, so long as it’s easy to get to then no dramas.

MMA.  Not a problem Jenny, thanks again for your precious time. You better get back to your numerous projects on the go!

Jenny.  Haha, I better.

Personal note: this interview has actually been sitting in the pipeline for some time now. I knew it needed something more after I completed the draft last year.

It wasn’t until I caught up with Jenny a week ago that I realized what it lacked; a little bit more details on her work. Hence, the “A Closer Look” inserts within the body of the interview.

Even with this, I am still not fully satisfied that I have captured everything I want. It’s almost like the Apple versus Microsoft debate; do I quality assure and release a near-perfect product like Apple, or do I release it and improve it along the way like Microsoft does[5]?

Well, I have held on to this interview for a while like Apple would have and have now released it with a view to making some updates in the future (like Microsoft does). So I am really the middle ground with my approach.

This interview has focused more on the journey rather than the interviewee’s current position as I like to place more emphasis on the journey rather than the destination.

Jenny’s identity has been masked upon her request.

This blog uses real people in the Australian Banking and IT industry.

Market Measures Australia


[1] As Wikipedia explains. You just have to love the fact that they have most of everything in there.

[2] Take a bow one more time Wikipedia for explaining Business Intelligence.

[3] Practice does make things “perfect”.

[4] You can outsource without having to offshore. The Wiki explains it best “The definition of outsourcing includes both foreign and domestic contracting

[5] Simply because Microsoft has the habit of releasing systems like Windows 8, with less QC and more releases to fix bugs.

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