Business is the story of numbers, data is the science of numbers, and mathematics is the foundation of numbers !

Dr Deepmala Sharma, our next pathbreaker, develops Operational Research models in the area of Supply Chain, E-Commerce and Logistics management to address business problems .

Deepmala talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always having a fascination for numbers and calculations, being strong in Maths and pursuing an honors in Maths followed by a PhD in Operational Research to apply Mathematics in the Industry.

For students, dont decide your career based on future opportunities. Instead, choose your career based on a strong foundation of interests and skills which will automatically lead you to your dream career !

Dr. Deepmala Sharma, tell us about your background?

I am a mother, a wife, an artist, a friend, a mentor and a tech executive, working as a Scientist and Head of Operation Research for an e-commerce, supply chain company. I was born and brought up in Delhi suburbs.

I love helping people cultivate compassion, for themselves and for others. This is our true link to each other and the key to empathy for others.  

“At its core, an important equation; Radical Honesty + Self-Compassion = Transformation.

This is how we uncover our brilliance and what we have to offer the world.”

I would probably describe myself as a risk taker. However, on the flip side, I also tend to second-guess myself. I’m a visionary who processes things out loud. I am known to have very high expectations, and I expect people to be very rigorous.

Well, I look at myself as a flexible, innovative person and personally, a very caring individual. I’ve also learned that money isn’t important. People need to feel valued, their input needs to be encouraged, whether you want to give it or not. You need to help people find their own intelligence and help them embrace their own passion, so that’s what works for me. I always knew whether I joined academia or a corporate, I would make enough money to support my family.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

After completing my schooling, I enrolled myself for a Bachelor of Arts (Honors) in Mathematics from University of Delhi. I was always Math savvy and doing honors in Maths motivated me to pursue a career in the same stream. After completing my degree, I opted for the Operational Research field for my Master’s, which was again from the University of Delhi.

In 2008, when I got shortlisted to pursue Masters of Philosophy in Operations Research from the Department of Operations Research, University of Delhi, I made the decision to discontinue my job at RMSI and pursue further education (M.Phil.).

My M.Phil. coursework was based on Mean Variance Tradeoffs in Discrete time Markov Decision Process (MDP) models which have been widely applied in the healthcare area. Basically, the sequential nature (MDP) of healthcare problems arises because patients have multiple opportunities to make decisions throughout their lifetimes and each decision depends on the situation and the decisions made previously. 

By the time I enrolled for my PhD, I was already married with a year infant daughter, and pregnant with my second child (son). Those have been the most difficult periods for me personally, because I had to balance my research work at the University with taking care of my daughter as well as myself.

My doctoral dissertation, “Some Optimum Accelerated Life Testing Sampling Plans“, was conducted under the direction of Dr. Preetiwanti Srivastava, and looks at the use of a relatively new methodology for the design of some statistical models of optimal accelerated life testing sampling plans for highly reliable materials (Aircraft parts), products and degradation mechanisms such as insulation life, conductive particle-filled adhesives that have been widely used for flex-to-rigid board interconnections in calculators, multi-layer ceramic capacitors and power capacitors. 

This study which investigates the optimum sampling plan obtained using bilevel programming approach, focuses on finding optimum sample size and optimum stress change point by minimizing expected total cost per lot (comprising warranty costs with respect to acceptance or rejection of the lot), sampling cost and testing cost. Finally, I have seven internationally published papers with good H Index scores.

I believe that pursuing a Doctorate in Operations Research has been one of the most challenging periods of my life. And that too from University of Delhi, since I managed to crack the entrance exam. Now, when I look back and think of those days, I do recall all the challenges I had to overcome. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

It has been all about an uncommon path, the demonstration that we are always on the lookout for our passions and transforming them into the engine of our work life. 

As mentioned previously, mathematics or in general, I would rather say, numbers and calculations, have always fascinated me. I’ve got that trait from my father since he has always been really good with numbers, and in fact, now, as part of my genes, my son also has got the similar traits on the mathematics side.

Nevertheless, I’ve always loved mathematics even before doing my Maths’ honors. During my school days, most of the students in my class used to take my help on maths. And enrolling for math honors for my graduation from University of Delhi just sealed my professional career towards Statistics and Operation Research.

I mean, even getting an admission into one of India’s top educational institutes, ‘University of Delhi” was already quite an achievement from my parent’s perspective, especially my father. Moreover, in addition to kindling my own passion in that particular area of study, my father has always been the encouraging and motivating factor to me.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path.

My choice of this particular subject (OR – Operations Research) wasn’t inspired by future professional career opportunities, because those days operation research and data analytics weren’t known or in demand. Despite all that, I had an ambition to excel and had a strong belief that I would have success in the field of my choice. I didn’t choose the career, but yes, I did choose the field of study, which brought me into this path, where I am, and enjoying the challenges and successes alike.

In a field like data science, it’s easy to focus on technical skills: lines of code, programming languages, algorithms, and data types. While it’s important to have proficiency at tasks related to these skills, it’s often the other attributes that enable job satisfaction and advancement.

After completing my post-graduation in 2006, I got my first placement as a Risk Analyst at RMSI Pvt. Ltd. I was fortunate enough to be part of RMSI’s first Risk Analyst team in India. It was the very first step in my professional career. Basically, we had to deliver actionable data analytics to risk underwriters through modelling and catastrophe support services. The key learning for me was to relate statistics to the world of catastrophes, for example, creating risk analysis reports with substantial in-depth statistical analysis and proper assessments of peril risk including the results of the analysis performed on each and every location and insurance structure. 

At RMSI, I learnt about Geospatial Analysis, including how to simulate and predict estimated losses due to different underlying perils (Earthquake, Windstorm, Hurricane, etc.). During that time, I also got hands on experience on VBA, SQL database, MS Access, tools to perform all kinds of data manipulation and data diagnosis tasks. Finally, we integrated all the output using ARCGIS and Risk Link to generate a risk analysis report for each portfolio.

While working at RMSI as a Risk Analyst, I kept trying to gain more knowledge on statistical and mathematical modelling; Actuarial Science was one of the areas that I studied during my stint at RMSI. In fact, I’ve cleared one of the Actuarial Science papers CT-3 (Probability and Mathematical Statistics) from the Faculty of Actuaries, London. You know, I still have the same hunger for gaining more knowledge, especially on the practical side. I really have a great appetite to learn, which is like “tomorrow never dies”, as I keep learning new things till date and hope to do so in the future.

While pursuing my PhD, I discussed with the Senior Professor at University at Delhi and took her permission to start a new chapter on academia. In parallel, I started working as an Assistant Professor in a B -School at G. L. Bajaj Research and Management Institute. Soon after, I realized that I wasn’t happy being a lecturer and was not satisfied. By the way, the reason wasn’t that it was a lecturer job.

Basically, I constantly felt that my “world of learning” had come to a stand-still, which I always adored. The static nature of my learning was making me breathless, and I was feeling out of place. As soon as I completed my MPhil, I got myself enrolled for the PhD program in the Department of Operations Research, University of Delhi.

How did you get your first break?

After completing my post-graduation in 2006, I got my first placement as a Risk Analyst at RMSI Pvt. Ltd. I was fortunate enough to be part of RMSI’s first Risk Analyst team in India. It was the very first step in my professional career

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

As I have mentioned earlier, the biggest challenge for any mother, wife and working women is to balance both sides. I’ve dealt with all kinds of adversities, but I think you have to put those things in perspective. Although my early childhood had been a walk in the park, my PhD and career weren’t exactly a cakewalk.

Your friends will doubt you; your family is going to urge you to make the reliable move, and strangers will plan on your downfall.

The business world is quite competitive, the way I have experienced and lived it. Nevertheless, even with the unpleasant parts, I have learned a lot. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, and I enjoy where I am today and the work I am doing now.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

It’s been almost 12 years into my career that has spanned academia and the corporate world. There is still a long journey to experience and enjoy at each stop. As mentioned earlier, I am working in the area of Supply Chain, E-Commerce and Logistics management. Prior to that, I have worked in the aviation domain. In aviation, I was heading the Operation Research department and developed an Air Cargo Network Revenue Management System and Pricing Optimization solution for one of the well-known international airlines from the Asia-pacific region.

Some of my projects included cost optimization, containerization of applications, Windows application migrations, development of Infrastructure as Code solutions, and evaluation of architecture through the Well-Architected Program.

What are the skills required for your job?

It takes time to develop data ethics to make data more practical and actionable. The objective is to come up with models/algorithms to address business problems and then provide the directions to the software development team to integrate the data ethics. This approach not only addresses the problem with a concrete solution but also wows the business community, thanks to storytelling with great visualization.

Coming from an Operation Research background, I particularly enjoy writing blogs on machine learning and data related topics and am also actively involved in mentoring other girls/women aspiring to be in a similar domain.

Without going into the details, I would say that failures are distinct from mistakes. Every professional will make some mistakes during his/her career, but these are normally easy to recover from. These mistakes serve as important lessons for what not to do in the future. Anyone who can improve from a total failure is somebody with whom you want to have a conversation.

The knowledge you will gain from this particular conversation will help you face difficult times, and you will be equipped and prepared to dig yourself out of the hole and keep on working towards prominence.

We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so we can know who we are, what we can rise from, how we can still come out of it.

How does your work benefit society?

I can definitely remember how my professional work has indirectly benefited the society. At the beginning of last year, when COVID-19 struck, things were suddenly not the same. There was strict lockdown enforced in most parts of the world and in the early days, there was a huge shortage of masks and protective medical gears in each country. At that time, one of the non-profit companies reached out to our company to quickly implement innovative solutions in place, which could remove the supply-chain bottlenecks they were facing during that time.

Basically, I had to design a model to optimize the network considering geographical information, demand, country specific embargoes and several other factors due to COVID-19. For this non-profit company, I created a network optimization model and deployed it in no time, which helped them ship millions of masks and protective medical gears required during COVID-19 times.

I believe, on the society front, the ability to be part of something which helped so many lives is quite satisfying. Supply Chain Management is quite a complex and technical field, which really captures the imagination, raises engagement and leads to much greater recognition with immense efforts.

Also, for my own self-confidence, it made me realize that this is the career pathway which gives me immense pleasure when business problems are addressed using the solution I built. There’s a joy that I get in return for being the Head of Operation Research and that comes from being the mind for the solutions built, which is really quite fulfilling. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Few years ago, I realized that there was no high quality, free online platform to help students preparing for the IIT-JAM exam (for admission into a Post Graduate program and PhD. courses in institutes like IITs and IISc). I got into action with a couple of my friends and we created a community for students preparing for Masters in Statistics or related courses. That was a non-profit platform providing guidance and mentorship to the aspiring girls/women students preparing for Statistics related courses as well as sharing useful study resources which are not always easily accessible to everyone.

Now, it’s been three years since the platform is running, and till date the group has grown from 2 girls to 55 girls, thanks to the support from my friends from IIT Kanpur, IIT Bombay and ISI Kolkata. It’s very inspiring to see students giving their best in spite of financial and other difficulties. I’ve also made some very good friends while running this community. This is something close to my heart!

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would say that it’s really important not to lose faith when you don’t get any results for quite a while. It can be quite a slow process right at the start, it takes a while to catch fire. You could put quite a bit of effort into making a post and get zero engagement. Bit by bit it catches up, one step at a time. So, I think it’s important to be patient, believe that it will come in good time, but it requires commitment, dedication and consistent application. It can’t just be “right, I’ve done my part, I’ve ticked the box for the month, I’ll go and do something else now”. It’s got to be a consistent process. 

Retain the faith and know that it will come out good. I can point to countless people from my office as well as my friends that tasted tremendous success. But never forget the most important fact, they all have started somewhere, at some point, with zero engagement and with a lot of struggles.

“Be like the oyster. Accept the unlikely and build your value on it. Follow your inner calling and be brave. Failure will come, frustration will be a companion, but beyond that fog, lies what we are moving for.

Build your reputation instead of your popularity. Inverting them could be the biggest mistake”.

Future Plans?

I am a determined, very determined professional woman, I never give up and always fight to the end. I think it’s the real key knowing why you want to do something, and not because someone else is doing it, but you know something that comes from within. Anyone who is consistent, hardworking and willing to make sacrifices, one that comes with an open mind, can always learn more and grow.

I will continue to work in the e-commerce, logistics and supply chain area. Currently I am working on a research analysis technique, an innovative idea I have planned to use in our supply chain solution with some minor manipulations in the existing mode. I’ll further develop models to support cognitive optimization with an objective of democratizing the whole framework, obviously with parametric differentiation by each business problem/by each industry in the most cost effective, scalable and secure manner. 

I hope that I will have an interesting thing to talk regarding cognitive research in the near future.