*APAC Heritage Month* This is What a Technologist Looks Like
Let us introduce you to industry experts in the APAC region and discuss their most pressing issues. Tune in to learn more about today's guest, Akanksha Malik, Data Scientist, Telsta Purple.
Hi there, I'm Gretchen. Today we're going to explore the space around what a technologist looks like.
I'm super excited for this because I think there's so many barriers to entry for technology and it's a passion project of mine to get more diverse people to come and build the technology we use.
So the aim of this series is to show you what opportunities are actually available in the technology industry, what the people who work in the industry actually look like, and it's not what you think or what the stereotypes say, and also how they got to be where they are.
Some people came through with a computer science degree straight from school, some never went to uni, some changed later in life, so I want to explore all these different directions.
But my guest today is a data scientist, she's an international speaker, and she's a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion in tech.
She's also a network director at Women Who Code Melbourne, and she has her own podcast which is designed to encourage more diverse people to find their own pathway into tech.
So I'd like to give a very warm welcome to Akansha, it's so great to have you with us, especially this early in the morning.
Yep, the coffee is here with me and it is my soul right now.
But no, I'm really, really excited to be here and I'm so glad you asked.
I was like, yeah, this is going to be really fun, like of course.
I didn't even have a choice in the end, there was a little bit of bullying.
I think volunteering is a great asset to have for most people and I think more people should do it more often, so it's great.
You have very much fallen told and I appreciate it greatly.
So Akansha, tell me about your current role, what do you do at work today?
So I'm a data scientist at Telstra Purple, which is a tech consulting company, and what we do depends on what our clients want us to do.
So if there's a problem, we go out and help them, whether that's trying to figure out what their problems are, or even it's not a problem, they've got a bunch of data and they know they can do something better with it.
We go out and we help figure out what that could be and then we actually go deliver that kind of stuff.
So my day-to-day is really, really hard to explain and it's, well, it depends, which is like the classic go-to thing for a consultant to say.
It's like, oh, it depends on what you want to do, right? But yeah, for me, it really does kind of change, not necessarily day-to-day, but kind of essentially customer-to-customer at least.
So project-to-project. Yeah, exactly. Do you get any say about which projects you end up on or is it very much based on your skillset, you will go and work with this client?
It's a mix of the two, I think. So we've got workforce planners who essentially are there in a role to make sure the right people get onto the right projects for the right skillsets, but also they're there to make sure you're not hating your life on the project either.
And so it is the same mix of two.
I mean, there's a level of, right, we are a business and we do need to kind of get projects done.
We've got clients, we need to help them out.
But then at same time, they are really, really accommodating to being like, if you really don't want to be doing this, or even if my career goals are starting to change and I'm like, hey, I really want to focus on this aspect of data, they'll try to find a project for me to get onto that instead.
That's cool. I like it.
So you get a whole heap of variety in what you do and some kind of control over the direction of where you want to go to a point.
It's been very supportive.
I mean, they do things like giving us PD leave, which is professional development leave.
So I mean, we literally get to go, I think it's like 20, 15, 20 days, something like that.
Some number of days a year. And that we essentially like, hey, I'd like to learn this new tech thing that's coming up.
I think it will be helpful, even if it's not directly related to a customer you're working on.
But like you get to go learn new things all the time.
So yeah, it's been cool. That's awesome.
And in terms of learning, you haven't spent your whole life in Australia.
Where did you study? I mean, I know I talked earlier about there's all these different pathways into tech and then we're having this conversation and yours is one of the most straightforward pathways I've heard of.
Where did you study and what was that like?
So I, let me just set the scene. I am 17 year old who's just done their like high school exams, like so year 12 exams and I'm yeah, medicine.
That's what I want to do because my mum's a nurse and I've like heard all these things.
God, no, I'm like, I cannot look back now. I'm like, I cannot be a doctor.
Good God, what was I thinking? But the second choice was maths because I was good at maths in school.
I was like, yeah, this I can do that. Right. Numbers, that makes sense.
Maths in college is very different to maths in school. Please remember that.
It was a shock. I agree. But maths for tech is not the same as doing your year 12 maths here.
And just because one works for you doesn't mean the other will or won't.
Yeah, it was a very naive assumption. Let's put it that way. But I ended up studying financial maths and actuarial science.
So it was just very heavy in the maths.
We had a few programming languages in there that we did like R and Python, just very, very little.
Like we had a classier kind of a thing. But yeah, that's what I did as a degree.
And over the degree, I essentially just figured out the things I don't want to do.
Same thing as medicine. I was like, no. It's like actuarial science, no.
Investment banking, no. Stockbroking, no. A lot of those kind of no's.
But I did like consulting because I did an internship and Redify was kind enough to have a conversation with me when I was in Melbourne.
And so this was all back. Sorry, a conversation with them.
They're like, yeah, look, we've got a data consulting role.
And I'd liked all the data stuff we did in my degree. And they were giving me the consulting side of things, which I'd enjoyed in my internship before.
So it was kind of the best of both worlds. And I was like, I don't know much about this, but they're willing to take a shot even though they know I know nothing in tech.
They're like, so just on this, you studied financial. Yep. A range of financial things.
Did an internship in consulting. Talk to a random company in Australia that did consulting stuff.
And that was it. Yeah, I think it was a case of, and they were really care.
I mean, I was just like, I do maths on paper. That's all I know.
That's all we were taught. But I did like all the programming stuff we did.
It was very minimal, but it's very maths, like statistical programming that we did.
And they were just like, look, we can see that, you know, how to problem solve and think in that specific way that we needed data.
You can communicate. Like, I mean, I'll still stay to this day.
My communication skills are the only thing I have going for me anymore, but I'm like, yes, this will get you through anything, honestly.
But they're like, we can teach you the tech. The tech is teachable. I think it goes across everywhere.
It's like the tech is the teachable part. Everything else, like your curiosity and all that kind of stuff is the kind of thing you need to bring to the table.
I heard a talk by Jeremy Howard, who was the founder of Fastmail recently.
And he was talking about deep learning and how he thinks that perhaps instead of us, for example, teaching technologists to understand, I don't know, lung cancer or how to diagnose that way, to teach people with the medical skills, how to do deep learning models, which is what you're saying Telstra or Redify were suggesting to you.
The tech is the teachable component here. I agree. And I think especially the Jeremy Howard approach, like that was the first foray into machine learning.
Like fast AI is how I learned anything about machine learning in terms of how do CNNs work and how do kind of image recognition things work.
And that was literally just watching their course and understanding it because it really is built for people kind of coming in, not from tech.
So, I mean, if anyone's out there thinking about data science, great, great shout out to that.
Like, honestly, it makes such a big difference because the coding part is like very secondary to them because they've built out their own libraries and stuff where you don't need to code too much, but you really understand the basics of it, which is super important, I think, especially moving into tech, kind of understanding the basics, not necessarily the code, because hey, you've always got Google, like that will always be there.
Everyone's done the same problems. Everyone's had the same mistakes.
You'll be fine. That's a great point. So if someone was watching and interested in machine learning or data, well, he goes quite deep into deep learning, funny enough.
The fast AI courses are really good. You can just Google that and work your way through.
I've done a few of them and they're so much fun.
But if you do go down that route, the best way I've found of doing them is you get a little study group together and hold yourselves, catch up once a week and hold yourselves to account and have to talk through the stuff or else the timelines tend to drag out a little bit.
And it's way more fun that way too. But definitely fast AI has got to be the best ways to start learning this stuff.
So after you got qualified in finance, you then entered a graduate program, right?
So it wasn't straight into a, I don't know, a junior dev kind of role.
It was into a graduate program where there was an agreement that they were going to continue educating and supporting you.
Do you think grad programs, would you do a grad program again in that time in your career?
Or do you think there's other ways? Would you recommend a grad program?
I would. I 100% would. I think there's a difference. I would recommend a grad program if it's already established and existing.
That's where it makes the difference.
They know what they're doing with a grad program, right?
And I say that even as like, so when I joined Vedify, sorry for anyone confused, Vedify turned into Telstra Purple and we just rebranded the same company.
So when I joined in, it was, I think it was like the second data grad they've ever had.
It's like the first data grad program wasn't even really a program. It was just a hire.
So it was built kind of very much with me. Like we worked together to build it out and that worked really well for me because I was kind of the only person there.
But if it's more than just one, it will not work because everyone has their own different needs and stuff.
So definitely, I mean, I'd recommend a grad program if it's there, it's established and they know what they're wanting to do with it in terms of this is how we're going to help you support.
And this is what the progression will look like. And this is what the kind of projects will get you onto.
Those kind of, I mean, look, especially with consulting, it's not like they promise everything they can.
If there's no work, there's no work.
But that, like at least that level of like, you know what we need to get to like get you into, to get you to a stage of being consultant.
That's really important.
But if it's like a really, really small company where it's only 10 or 15 people, that place doesn't need a specified program in place to hire a grad and actually help teach them up.
So a junior developer in that scenario will probably thrive in that area too, as long as the culture is great, they're really supportive and they want to help you like learn and teach new things.
So I think it really kind of depends on the place.
There are hundreds of grad programs, some great, some not so great, just because it hasn't been put, there hasn't been enough pop and pros put into it as there should be.
But yeah, I think for me in Ireland, at least like that was just the next thing everyone did.
Like you went into a grad position, like it was just the norm.
A little bit of it is obviously because I did not tech or not computer science.
So it was kind of just, if you're doing anything in my area of things, it was, you either did a grad actuarial position, you did a grad investment banking.
Like it was always just a grad position. So it was a pathway and no one ever really questioned it, I think either.
So when I got here and they're like, yep, this is a grad program we've got.
It'll be about a year to two years.
We'll work with you and figuring out, I mean, when you're ready, you're ready.
Like we'll get you out of it, no problem. But that was great, I think. And I needed it because they understood that level of, I will need to learn a lot of tech.
I need to learn how to write code. Yeah. I mean, I remember I got, I feel like this is now becoming synonymous with a Contra Malaga.
It's just like, I remember the first week I started and they're like, hey, have you heard of SQL?
And I'm like, I don't even know what realm of things we're talking about right now.
How did they react to that?
Because I mean, it's such a fundamental thing, but I like that they ask whether you knew it or not.
This was, I mean, in the interview, they kind of were like, I was just like, I know this and this, that's all I got for you.
Like, I don't even know what other things are. And I mean, in the interview, I remember them asking things like, have you done visualization stuff?
And it's kind of a little embarrassing looking back to that where I'm just like, I said, no, I was like, I don't know what that means.
I was like, I don't think I've ever done it. And I look it up after I left that interview, visualizations are graphs and charts and bars.
I did a degree in maths and like, I'm like, yes, of course I've done that.
Like my whole degree was around that. Like why would I said no to this? And it was just because I didn't know that specific term.
So also that's the other thing, like as a, just to shout out, if you don't, if you feel like you don't know anything just because you see and hear all these terms, you probably do.
You just haven't heard that specific way of saying it, but yeah, SQL thing.
I mean, and this was someone who has like lived in, like, he's done SQL workshops for women, the code for us, like Bernard, like, and he's just like, have you heard of SQL?
I'm like, no, couldn't tell you what it is.
Like, what are we talking about? And he's like, okay, let's sit down.
We sat down in the conference room and he just went, a database is a store for data.
Like that's where we started. Like, and he's like a table, it'll sit inside a database.
And like really worked it through and like got that fundamentals and like the next week I just spent learning how to write SQL.
So what you're saying is that they looked at your potential and your interest in your desire to learn and went with that, because what I'm hearing from you is that you said you were confident enough and honest enough to go, I don't know what that is.
Can you please show me? And I think that is one of the fundamental skills in technology that you have to have the ability to go, can you please explain that to me?
And also if it's explained the first time and you're like, I've got nothing to go, can we do that again?
Maybe with some different words, because so much of it is around, you need to be able to ask for help.
And it's not even help necessarily.
I think you need to be able to say, I don't know that. Can you bring me up to speed?
And I think tech sometimes does these mad, wonderful things where it's complicated.
So we have all these fabulous names and acronyms, but they can be a bit gatekeeping and people get a bit put out because you don't want to say, I don't know what SQL is.
I had a fabulous moment at Cloudflare where we use a few acronyms and one is JDC.
And everyone who works here will know exactly what that is. But I had no idea.
I thought it was some other process I'd never heard of. It's actually just the letters of our CTO's name.
And I thought it was some process I just missed and not understood.
I mean, sometimes they are dumb questions, but they're also worth asking.
Like, I mean, at this, and it's such a thing, like the higher up you go in a bigger organization, because people are so entrenched in using these on a daily basis.
They don't even see or hear them because when they're reading it, they just read the full name, right?
Or they just know what it means. So every time any of the executives do kind of like shout outs or like explanations of announcements or anything at work, it's just littered with three letter acronyms that none of us understand because we just don't hear those kinds of things, right?
I mean, even things like EBITDA, which is like your earnings before tax and depreciation.
It's just a number for revenue, right? That's all it is. But if you've never done finance or anything related to it, you don't know what it is.
So people will see these numbers and they're like, yeah, your profit is based on this.
And you won't get your bonuses if you don't hit this number. And no one even knows what that number means.
Everyone's just like, what? What is this? But yeah, that context is really, really important, I think.
At times, people forget. But I think most people are fairly appreciative of the questions being asked of what is going on, what does this mean?
Let's go. As always, I find it a great reminder to pull things back sometimes.
So I know that you're super interested about diversity in technology.
And I mean, we've talked about acronyms and language being a bit of a gatekeeper, right?
And you do a fair bit in that space. You're a director at Women Who Code Melbourne.
Tell me a bit about why you're doing that and what that does in the universe.
So yeah, let's just take another step back. Let's set the context again.
I keep saying that, don't I? But it's more around, look, I mean, when I got the job as a grad position, I'd essentially accepted and there's a few issues with the thesis and stuff.
But I was in Ireland and it was a case of, OK, I'm moving to Australia next week.
Nice knowing you all, the people that have been such a support system for me for the last four years when I lived alone in college with my family here.
And I was just like, oh my God, bye? Like, why no? This is so weird.
I mean, I just moved to the, I got up and literally moved to the other side of the world.
And I knew nobody here. My family was here and that was essentially it.
I had no friends. They moved here after a bit. So I did exactly, even when I came home to visit people, it was like I came home to visit the family and I didn't really particularly want to go meet other random people.
It's like, no, no, no. I get three weeks at home in a year.
I'll spend three weeks literally at home. So I moved and I go to work and they were super, super great about a work life culture.
So I mean, coming out of a degree where you were working 14 days a week, hour, 14 days an hour.
I like that. It was a day. For a consultant, that kind of billing would go well.
Oh, I would just be unreal with the 10 X consultant. Is that what it would be?
But I came home, I came here and it was like, they would literally kick me out of the office at like four or five.
And I'd be like, oh, don't do that. I have nothing to do.
Like I literally don't have anywhere else to do anything. So I'd come home and I'm like, it was so lonely.
And I think someone would say, look up meetup.com.
Like you might find a few people, you might find things. So I started going to things at the start, which was really weird.
Cause I just kind of just show up there alone.
And it was like, I don't know. I can't even remember now, to be honest.
And it was almost like, I'd see an interesting talk back then. And I was like, oh, that looks kind of cool.
And I'm pretty sure it was like more related to finance than anything else back then, because I was definitely up at the KPMG building at some stage, listening to a finance thing.
But I was like, this makes sense to me and it's still an interest.
I mean, cause I just got out of college, but slowly that's what happened.
And then I met Rachel at work who actually got Women Who Code Melbourne back up and running back then.
So it was sitting dormant for a little bit while I'd moved.
But in the next couple of months, it started going back up and I was like, oh, this is kind of cool.
These are people in the same boat as me.
Like, I mean, not everyone was in the same boat as me starting new, but there's a lot of people there.
And I was like, this could be it. But essentially, yeah.
I mean, we just got really involved and then another one of the founders left.
I kind of just stepped up a little bit and started helping out. Oh my God, my voice just broke.
Don't know what happened there. Started helping out and just kind of stuck around then, I think.
And Rachel moved around and yeah, now it's just us running it and it's like all the great things about us.
Just so proud.
So is it just for women? No, I would never say that because the whole point of it is to not feel excluded at work, right.
And not have that thing, but it is a safe space for women to not feel like they are a minority and there is more than just themselves to come have a chat with other people like themselves, which isn't males, like, or isn't men or whatever you classify yourself as.
But at the same time, we're always looking for allies.
We need people to understand what it feels like to be a minority and what it feels like at work and the problems we face and actually how they can help.
So more than welcome for them to come along just to kind of take a back and just listen is what we would ask instead of anything else.
So full disclaimer, I'm also involved with Women Who Code Melbourne and that's how I met Acantia.
I think for me, part of what I get out of it is, I mean, we catch up once a month and one month we'll do a technical workshop and the alternate month we'll do a professional development program of sorts.
And they vary depending on what people are looking for and needing at that time.
But I think for me, and you alluded to this, Acantia, it's that sense of belonging that it gives you and kind of camaraderie, like there is a group of people, not particularly like you at all, actually, but doing the same kinds of things as you and probably hitting some of the same kind of speed bumps and chaos points and having the same challenges.
And I find it, for me personally, I think it's just lovely because if I'm having a rubbish day or something's tricky or I need some advice on something, it's kind of like the ultimate no-fault retro.
You can turn up and go, I've done something dumb, what should I do now?
And there's no malice or angst or judgment.
It's just like, oh yeah, maybe you could think about doing this or looking at it from this perspective.
And that sense of belonging, I think is what it gives more than anything else.
And I guess if you're in a minority group, in some kind of structure, it is nice to feel like you belong without having to also be performative.
Like you'd actually get a whole nother angle, sorry. Is that how you feel about it as well, Acantia?
It's interesting and it's tough because I mean, I'm happy to speak about these things and I'm happy to be that person to be like, no, this is not okay, let's make change about this.
But not everyone's comfortable doing that, right?
And not everyone wants to do that. There's people who just want to go to work and do their job and be happy in a team and like, yeah, support the team culture, but they don't want or have the mental space to put aside time to be like, this is what everything is wrong about the way you're running your diversity or your inclusion stuff and change it.
And it's just that onus of having that pressure on you to do that because you're more, I suppose, like, and I think I've definitely faced that where I'm like, there's times where it's like, Acantia knows what to do about this and they'll tag me into a thread.
Like that's a hundred comments long already.
And I'm like, I don't know, I've got like 18 things I need to get done today.
I don't have the time for this. We have people who literally run our diversity and culture teams, go reach out, that's their job, let's go reach out to them.
So I think it is really important for that space to exist where they can just come in and hear things and not have to feel like they have to go to work and do the work for them as well, if that makes sense.
They just want to do their job.
Exactly. Like they can just go to the job, but hey, they're still interested in these kinds of things so they can come along, sit down and have a listen to other people and get some ideas, but not necessarily have to go back to work and be like, these are how we're going to implement these and change the world.
But yeah, I feel very strongly about that, especially because I've seen women at work get pulled into that reign of like that job title of like, yeah, you'll do all the diversity stuff, right?
Because you talk about it a lot. You can get burnt out of it, I think.
Yeah, and you're like, that's not how it works. We've gone in a few directions, I guess.
We've talked about what you do at work and how it's varied.
And pretty much the short version is you take some fabulous data and try and make sense of it for clients.
And that came about because you studied finance, of course, and then ended up in a graduate position where they acknowledge and recognize that they could teach you the programming side of things and make it useful.
And then we kind of briefly touched on the fact that if you're a woman in technology, you are going to be a minority for a while.
And that is changing.
And that it's actually, it is starting to change quite significantly. I've ended up in teams now where I'm not the minority.
And it's great. You can just look around and observe it and carry on.
And I think touching on that point that there's community groups there to support you through this is really good.
In some ways, I feel like tech was so, the minority groups were so minor, like so small, that they've had to actively change what they're doing.
And it's actually, it makes it a better spot to be.
But you've also, like, you're so passionate about this diversity in tech.
I know you've created a whole podcast around exploring how people got there and why.
What is the craziest story you've had so far? Oh, God, I actually don't even think I could choose.
And just because, it's like the whole premise of it was like, I loved hearing those kind of biographies and autobiography stories of people, right?
Like Zuckerberg and stuff. Like you've heard, like, you've seen, everyone's seen Social Network and things like that.
That was very, like, exclusive of like people who haven't. Like, it's like, everyone knows about it.
Like most people have seen it. And it's interesting how that happened, right?
And it's crazy, the story. And it's like a little bit like, this is so problematic.
We'll come back to that later. But those stories, those stories get shared.
And it's only ever, like, the top 0.1% of the people that get shared about, right?
And it's like, there is literally 99% of the people still in the thing, doing really, really cool stuff every single day, and having those bizarre stories, but they just don't get to share it.
Or, well, I mean, they probably do still, but I'm like, hey, this is a joint platform where it's all in one place that we get to come along and see them.
That's kind of how it all started. I just loved hearing them.
And I always thought they were really motivating to myself. Or I'm like, oh my God, you did this?
How? Like, what? I'll go away and I'll be like, really motivated for the next couple of days.
After I recorded the podcast, I'm like, oh, this was great.
It'll happen again. Because it's every two weeks. It's great.
Works out really well for myself a little bit. But like, I think the, I mean, we've had investment bankers go to Microsoft and become product managers and technical, every super technical people from nothing.
Kind of the same path that I had, essentially.
And then we've had people like Kim that I had on. She was great.
She's now a product manager. She literally moved to Australia from a wealth management boutique firm from Canada.
Literally pulled the same thing of, I'm just going to move to the other side of the world, because I like Australia.
It's sunny all the time.
It was literally the reasoning. And then just came She looked into the weather a bit more than that because she'd been here before and really liked the lifestyle, I think was what it was.
But like, she literally came and worked in a sailing club for three years as a manager there.
Like, cause she was like, well, this will get me the PR that I need to get like, as in was just like, yep, well, this will do the job.
Worked in Lululemon. Next thing she's working at Twitter.
And I'm like, excuse me, like explain yourself a little bit, please. What happened between, between the yacht club and Twitter?
And there was a Twitter and like, and then was asked.
So I mean, all those kinds of things of like, what made you make that decision?
Or how was that move? Or how did you settle into this?
How did you find that? Like the networks? So all those kinds of decisions we talk about, not so much about the actual tech of like, what did you do as a product manager?
We don't really focus too much on that. It's more, how did you as a person in tech feel about this decision that you made and how did that impact your life?
And we've had great points of, so I mean, another person, I mean, this one was the coolest one.
I feel like he was there throughout like the creation of history, I swear, of Internet.
Like he was like, I mean, at one stage he was like, oh yeah, in 1996 I was working on like AR, VR technologies.
And I'm like, I was born, like I was literally born then.
I can't stop you making me feel old. It was, I mean, he laughed it off because it was just, he was such an interesting person.
Like, and it's just so cool.
I mean, he was just like, yeah, well, look, I failed that.
So I moved back to here. And then we did this. And then I did a master's when he had literally just had twins and he went and did a master's in data science.
And I was just like, oh my God, the dedication to do that.
But, and that was just like six years ago in his unbelievably long, great career.
He's like, yeah, I'm going to pivot now.
So you're talking about people just make a decision and go for it.
If you, so if someone came up to you today, let's say I've got a 16 year old who, I don't know, likes doing origami.
How would they get into tech?
What would you tell them? Keep doing origami. Like that teaches you skills.
No, no, no. It teaches you skills. I don't know. Literally the last episode I had on was Bill.
He went and did a degree in painting. Like he was in college to be a painter.
Like he learned how to do all the techniques like arts and was like, yeah.
But I mean, he's like, well, anyone who did arts back in the eighties, seventies, eighties, I can't remember when he went to college.
He talks about it, but he's like, we knew we were coming out of that without a job.
So he went and did that.
And then it slowly turned into graphic design when computers became a thing, which slowly turned into hacking things because he liked doing that and figuring out how things work, which turned into software dev.
So I don't think necessarily leave your interest because they will show themselves up in some stage to help out.
Don't worry about it. It's not a straight pathway. I really would like to thank you for being with us today at Cancha.
I always love having a chat with you.
So it was great. You could be here and thanks to everyone for listening. So our next episode in this series of this is what a technologist looks like.
It comes up on Thursday.
So in two days time in Australia, that's 8.00 AM. I know it's not the same for the rest of the world.
We look forward to having you all there and we're going to be chatting with Cooper Victor.
So he is a reformed banker. It seems I've got two from finance in a row and currently he's a software developer at Grace Papers and his journey into tech is not quite as linear as a Cancha's, but I think he did the banking thing and then saw the light, but not to say I don't like bankers within.
Anyway, thanks again, Cancha and thank you everyone who's watched.
I think this has been a great example of what a technologist looks like and what they do and I really appreciate you being here.
So we'll see you all again on Thursday at 8.00 AM Australian time.