Despite not having had a planned it, Yasmeen Ahmad’s career is working out pretty well. She now works as the chief of staff to the CEO at Teradata, a data and analytics software and services company she joined in 2013 as principal data scientist.
Her current role has two aspects. The first is to combine her previous hands-on knowledge from working with customers in the consultancy arm of the business with Teradata’s products and services strategy. The second is to leverage skills to look at how the company can be turned into a “sentient” organisation that makes use of data and analytics. To this end, they have developed the ‘customer zero’ programme which aims to have Teradata be the first commercial users of its own products. “Those should be the use cases that we speak to our customers about because we’ve already lived it, driven it and proven it,” said Ahmad.
She was encouraged to take this job by CEO Oliver Ratzesberger who is one of a number of managers and leaders who have pushed, encouraged and supported her to take on new and more challenging roles. She feels she’s been lucky to have had great leaders that have seen her potential and pushed her out of her comfort zone.
Prior to Teradata, Ahmad had worked in fields related to medicine and life sciences, a natural choice given her PhD is about the management, mining and visualisation of proteomics data. Proteomics is the study of proteomes and their functions, with a proteome being a set of proteins that can be expressed by a genome.
She explained: “Genes are a set of instructions for creating proteins in our body and it is the proteins that actually do stuff.” She said her lab was working on sequencing the human proteome by figuring out all the proteins in our bodies that come from genes. “It means billions of data points. We were producing 10 gigabytes of data every 60 minutes. My job was to build data pipelines that could capture and process data and perform analytics and insights for the biologists.”
Having studied in the UK but moved to the US upon taking on her latest role, Ahmad is well placed to compare attitudes to data on both sides of the Atlantic. To her, the biggest difference is the greater level of conservatism in Europe when it comes to data regulation. She mentioned the declaration of France’s digital economy minister that any algorithm used by the French government must be published to the public and explainable, as an example of this.
In contrast, she sees a lack of regulation in the US has allowed businesses to flourish and new ideas to develop. She said: “In Europe, we regulate much more quickly to prevent whereas in the US they let technologies evolve and then look at what the implications are and regulation comes in after the fact.”
But is it a Pandora’s box or can that technology, once implemented, ever be brought under control of regulators? Ahmad feels that regulation after the fact is a challenge because once a breach of personal identifiable information happens, it can’t be undone. She added that even punishments would be difficult to implement if the perpetrators are too big to sanction. She posed the question “Are you going to say to Facebook, ‘You have got to shut down this part of the site’ when it is all interconnected? It gets much more complex to reel it back in.” However, she does see some more regulatory concern about consumer privacy in the US coming by way of the California Consumer Privacy Act which was signed into law in June 2018.
Originally from Dundee, Ahmad is now one of the California residents protected by the privacy act and her international trajectory is a source of inspiration to younger family members. “I’ve got female cousins who, prior to me being in this role, would never have thought about a career in programming or tech but now they hear my stories of what we do with customers and they are like, ‘that’s so cool and you get to travel around the globe. I want to do that when I an older’.”
Ahmad feels it is important to get schoolgirls excited about possibly working in technology so that by the time they reach university or enter the workforce, there are large enough cohorts of women with STEM skills to make a profound impact on the industry.
“Part of ensuring that algorithms don’t make really negative unethical actions is having diverse people building these things to think about problems from different angles. For me diversity is super important,” she said.
She has also found that she is herself an inadvertent role model to her female colleagues at Teradata. During an evening reception at the Teradata Universe conference in Denver, Colorado, she was approached by a female data scientist who expressed how exciting and inspirational it was for her and her peers to see Ahmad on stage delivering a keynote presentation on scaling up enterprises.
Ahmad has been at the company for six years, and one of her roles was in the consulting business which allowed her to work across many industries such as financial services, telecommunications and retail. An enjoyable part of this was being able to take a solution to a problem in one business area and apply it to a different industry.
An example of this was a marketing mix model to assess the impact of marketing touchpoints at a retail company which Ahmad subssequently used to help a Turkish telco company look at customer behaviour, especially churn. “I found that I could take this marketing mix model and apply it to interactions for telco customers who were having interactions on their network, and look for patterns.”
Looking forward at her career in the data industry, Ahmad has no idea what she will be doing in five years’ time, just as she had no idea five years ago that she would be in her current role. But she does know that it will involve the strategic thinking and data storytelling which she loves. As for data and analytics, she sees it having a major impact on healthcare and pharmaceuticals in the future.
“With big data and analytical capabilities we can get to the point of personalised medication, where doctors have your genome, your proteome on file and they can say which drugs will and won’t work for you. So we can release more drugs to the market. Use cases like that will completely transform entire industries. For me, that is exciting.”