Data ceases to be just a numerical value and attains a new meaning when it is viewed in context, across the organization, helping decision makers uncover new trends and new markets to explore.
Susan Mani, our next pathbreaker, Data Scientist, works with organisations to help them realise value in data-driven decision making, by leveraging data in structured or conventional form as well as tacit information derived from research to address real-world challenges.
Susan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being introduced to the combination of Statistics and Economics and acquiring a strong grounding in quantitative techniques to help businesses generate key insights through Data Science.
For students, the beauty of data is that it can be used in virtually every facet of life. No matter what area you opt for in terms of your formal education, you will need some level of data literacy to complement your core skills..
Susan, tell us about Your background?
I am a Bangalore girl who was born in Kerala but spent the first eighteen years of my life in the city. My parents always emphasized that education was super important while encouraging my brother and myself to pursue other interests such as quizzing, music etc. to be well-rounded individuals. My mother is an economist and my father is an engineer, but they helped me explore various options such as textile and leather technology before I finally settled on the rather mundane option of statistics in university.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I pursued Statistics for my undergraduate degree and an M.Sc. in Economics at the Madras School of Economics. Since I was academically inclined, I went on to do a M.Phil. in Economics at the University of Cambridge which, just for your information, is a taught programme as opposed to a research degree. I was a Shell Centenary Chevening Scholar. It was awarded by the Royal Dutch Shell Group of Companies in association with the Foreign & Commonwealth office of the British Government. This particular shared scholarship does not exist anymore, but the Chevening Scholarship scheme is still available to students who are considering studying in the UK. I quote from the Chevening website “ Of all the UK scholarships on offer to international students, Chevening is one of the most prestigious and competitive. As well as offering fully-funded master’s degrees, it is a unique opportunity for the next generation of leaders, influencers, and decision-makers to develop a relationship with the UK that will grow throughout their careers. Chevening Scholarships are awarded to individuals with demonstrable leadership potential and strong academic backgrounds. The scholarship offers full financial support to study for any eligible master’s degree at any UK university whilst also gaining access to a wide range of exclusive academic, professional, and cultural experiences.”
Each university administers scholarships differently, but the University of Cambridge has several excellent funding options, many of those opportunities close up to a year before the programme of study commences. Applications for the scholarships should be handed in to the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust (for Indians) which will then be shortlisted and handed over to the funding body which is my case was Shell and the FCO. I was then interviewed by the then Chairman of Royal Dutch Shell India before a final decision was taken.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
When I was in Standard 12 I had a math teacher called Mrs Vasantha Krishnan. She had done a M.Stat. at ISI and had worked in Statistical Quality Control for several years before giving up her career in the corporate world for personal reasons. But teaching young students was her passion and her window to meeting young people. The year I spent with her actually showed me how exciting a career in the field could be. It was not just about doing well in the exams but about understanding basic principles and being able to adapt my skills to the problem at hand.
For me I feel that my M.Sc. and M.Phil. were important to who I am today, as a professional. The focus was on building skills as opposed to a singular focus on grades. I believe that each of us has very unique skills which we need to identify to grow our talents. Another key aspect is identifying our interests and being able to match our talents with our interests which would make (at least in my eyes) for a more fulfilling professional life. Life is too short to be pursuing something because it is the current rage or to follow a family tradition for the sake of it.
Tell us about your career path
My first job was as a research assistant at IIM, Bangalore. I had and continue to have an interest in development and policy related matters. So I decided to take on this project which was funded by the Ford Foundation to be able to pursue these interests at the Centre for Public Policy. However the best opportunities in the field were based outside the city and I was unable to make the move for personal reasons.
After two years I decided to make a switch to the corporate world because the data boom was just beginning at that point and there were several promising career options. My first couple of jobs were in the service sector which helped me get my head around the practical applications of all I had learnt in the classroom. This is crucial – real life experience is just as important as academic training. When I was fairly confident about the skills I had worked on for about 8 years, I was keen to understand how all of this data and analysis fit into the real world decision-making.
It was then that I decided to switch to the “client side” working with Tata Motors at their Sales HQ. Based in the commercial hub of the country, working with leaders to understand how data could impact strategic business decisions was fascinating and it really helped ground me in the reality of doing business. Data and analysis is applicable to virtually any area. As an organisation embarks on this journey, there is potential as long as the data is available and in this case there was data relating to customers, marketing, finances, HR, supply chain, manufacturing etc. The challenge was to prioritise and generate value based on organizational goals and the most pressing challenges. Needless to say, it was fascinating exploring data from the engine room, for instance, which was not an opportunity which everyone got.
Three years ago, I came back to Bangalore to explore the startup world. I worked in Analytic Edge Pvt. Ltd. which is a technology enabled marketing and sales analytics firm. Most of my experience has been in this area and for anyone considering a career in consulting and data science, they have to walk the fine line between depth and breadth of experience based on the demand in the market as well as personal interests. For the last year or so, I have been freelancing to be able to explore some of my interests.
How did you get your first break?
When I look back I realise that I did not get my jobs through my network or through my university. It was just through contacting people who I thought did interesting work and identifying suitable opportunities for me to contribute.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
There have been several challenges, but then it would not be life if there were no tough times. I have always enjoyed wandering off the beaten track to ensure that I am challenged and grow no matter what stage I am in. It is in seeing difficult times through, that we grow as people and professionals – so I try not to obsess about challenges.
What do you do currently? Tell us about your work
Well, to put it in a nutshell, I solve a mix of problems. I work with organisations to help them realise the value in data-driven decision making. The skills needed in a field such as mine are a strong grounding in quantitative techniques which could be obtained from pursuing degrees in statistics, computer science, econometrics and even disciplines such as psychology which can be highly quantitative in nature. Recently I spoke to an academic from one of the newer private universities in India who said that even their liberal arts students were required to pursue data related training. We live in the big data era which means that data pertaining to all areas is being generated and no matter what area you opt for in terms of your formal education, you will need some level of data literacy.
At the moment, I have just begun work on my blog which is called Relator (Latin for Storyteller) which is now live at https://www.susanmani.com. I hope to address how data could be used to provide insights and address challenges. I also review books and speak to leaders about how they leverage data etc. Apart from my blog, I also work on freelance projects and teaching assignments. I love being able to use data in structured or conventional form as well as tacit information derived from research to address real-world challenges.
How does your work benefit society?
The beauty of data is that it can be used in virtually every facet of life. One of my first projects after I began freelancing was with an agricultural social enterprise. This organisation was a distribution and marketing start-up which was looking to secure the livelihoods of farmers in a dry and semi-arid part of the country. This is a very simple example of how data can be used in all contexts. I look forward to working on many such opportunities.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
It is difficult to identify a single project but, in my experience, it is the most challenging projects that end up being the most exciting. If I had to choose one, I worked on a project in 2008 with a senior colleague who had created a superb yet complex analysis framework. I had to spend a lot of time reading academic publications to understand it but having a supportive colleague, strong fundamentals as well as working hard resulted in a very satisfying outcome to the project both in terms of client satisfaction and personal fulfillment.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Work hard, learn basic principles and get ready for a lifetime of learning to be really good at what you do and this, I believe, would work no matter what you pursue academically and professionally. My mother always quoted a part of a poem to me when I was growing up which was “Things done by half are never done right.” This has been my personal mantra.
Well I don’t really have anything set in stone. I believe in making the best of opportunities as they come along.