Ep 45: Amy O'Connor and Danielle Dean: Inadvertently Marching in Her Mother’s Footsteps

Diva Tech Talk interviewed the data-driven duo of Amy O’Connor, Big Data Evangelist at Cloudera (www.cloudera.com), and Danielle Dean, Data Scientist Lead at Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) --- a dynamic mother/daughter team, embracing technology, organically. Amy hails from the era where punch cards reigned supreme. The younger Danielle experienced the dichotomy of both more complex and paradoxically easier data, in some ways, to explore.  Both share a common fascination with how data helps humans make better decisions, in business and beyond

“When I first entered technology, I was much more focused on writing software that was used to run mainframe computers. Since then, my career has taken many, many different turns,” Amy explained. When she started, it was well before computers became ubiquitous. “In my high school, there was one computer --- in the janitorial closet,” and Amy thought: “I might as well just go in that direction. It’s something that’s new.” She went on to obtain dual undergraduate degrees in computer science and electrical engineering, and returned to graduate school, later, to get her MBA, “so that I could really figure out how to apply technology to business opportunities.” Amy characterizes her career as “a twisty path” migrating from software development to IT program management to engineering leadership to business strategy roles and marketing. She finally “landed” in the field of big data. “I fell in love with it, when I saw the types of opportunities that people had.”  In her current daily work, at Cloudera, Amy works with customers all over the world, in diverse industries, advising them on big data strategies to achieve successful goals. “I spend the majority of my time directly with customers, discussing how they change their people, processes and mindset to do things in a different way.”

While inspired by her mother, as she warmly notes later in this podcast, Danielle did not initially envision emulating Amy, at all. “I didn’t purposely follow in my mother’s footsteps,” she said. “I was super interested in psychology and human behavior: how people think and learn. And I really loved math, and statistics, so I studied both psychology and math and figured out how you could discern patterns.” That drew Danielle to data science, “the next big thing as I was finishing my undergraduate career. Which is kind of funny!”  Danielle had the opportunity to create her own major field of study, while getting her degree at the University of Massachusetts. “I began to think how you can use data to understand individual behavior on a larger scale, which is exactly the kind of work used by data scientists,” she said. “That led me to pursue a PhD at the University of North Carolina in quantitative psychology where I really learned how to apply data models; how to use survival analyses to understand how social event processes unfold; looking at social networks to determine how people forge relationships.  I looked at how all these things can be combined.”  

Danielle began her tech mission with an internship at Nokia (www.nokia.com) where her mother was also working at the time (after Amy having spent years at pioneer tech company, Sun Microsystems, acquired by Oracle – www.oracle.com - in 2008).  “I was a data scientist at Nokia, for a few years, and then moved over to Microsoft,” Danielle explained, “where I am now looking at different industries and applying data science in lots of different ways. I work with Microsoft customers using analytics products, building real things to solve real problems --- from things like predictive maintenance models to models in healthcare, and finance, to term prediction, to recommendation systems, and lots of other different use cases.” Danielle and her team operate directly inside Microsoft’s product development teams to provide customer feedback, and improve the company’s offerings. “We can leverage so much data that was collected from the past to improve the future,” she exclaimed, describing multiple projects that positively benefit people. Both women, in their respective companies, are working on projects that predict best processes in the future for everything from diagnosing the maintenance cycle of automobiles to better navigating maps to assisting financiers to better predict lucrative investments to helping physicians more accurately predict the cycle of optimal healthcare.

Mother and daughter discussed exciting future tech developments, including the democratization of data. “We’re moving into a world where most data is going to be created by sensors and machines,” Amy explained. “That will enable all of us to interface with the physical world, around us, in a much safer, healthier and more convenient way. We’re going to see the emergence of ‘smart cities’ and people able to go down healthier lifestyle paths, because they’re going to have the types of information they need to have at their fingertips to make the right choices.” Danielle is particularly mesmerized, currently, by developments in “deep learning”, a subcategory machine learning technology, based on algorithms inspired by the structure and function of the brain, called artificial neural networks.  She explained how much easier it is now going to be to “get started, and do really cool things with artificial intelligence.”  Amy also highlighted the predilection of “people from all walks of life to create data, capture data, analyze data, and use that data to automate decisions and create better products and services, that impact all aspects of our lives.” She pointed out that a much greater multitude of people will be able to use data “for much more productive, positive outcomes.”

Amy and Danielle shared career development and leadership lessons for our audience. “Don’t get stagnant or complacent in any role,” Amy advised. “It’s important to do something, every single day, that is new. These don’t have to be big things, but it’s really important to keep your mind growing, to keep on top of what’s happening in the world.”  She also mentioned that sometimes you must take a risk and move on, when your role or project feels stagnant. Danielle exhorted professionals to “keep the end goal of the project in mind,” ensuring that the impact of your work meets its objectives, by fully understanding those goals at the onset. Danielle also discussed the importance of technical leaders “being able to simplify very complex topics,” for teams, constituencies and audiences, and “really looking at the big picture to make sure you are making transformational progress, rather than really getting stuck on little details.”  Amy is grateful that “leadership, these days, is much less about hierarchy and much more about influence.”  As a result, she noted that “communication skills are essential -- the first skill being able to listen to people, and the second being the ability to consistently communicate even when it’s a tough message for people to hear.” Amy also noted how important it is to have very good collegial relationships.

Both women have learned fundamental lessons from each other.  For Danielle, her mother has taught her the importance of collaborating with “people from different backgrounds, and different roles. Being able to listen to people, to understand their perspective, work in a cross-disciplinary manner, is super-important.”  For Amy, Danielle is her role model for organization, and the resultant calmness and peace that this creates. “I admire her ability to prioritize and find balance,” Amy exclaimed.

Some very practical tips Amy and Danielle shared for other women striving in the tech field include:

  1. Lean on other people for assistance (“it’s ok to say ‘yes’ when other people offer help “)
  2. Simplify your wardrobe (“it’s really helpful when you travel for work”)
  3. Have set routines for the everyday challenges (like finding your keys, as an example or having a separate set of chargers for work and home)
  4. Read obscure information, take advantage of all tech information that comes your way

For younger women creating newer career paths, Danielle exhorted them to “always continue learning, really broadening yourself, looking across disciplines,” and “take opportunities that will purposely force you to grow”, potentially those that seem “just out of reach.”  Both agree that taking risks and “keeping your eyes open” for other opportunities, and new approaches are paramount to success.

Both Amy and Danielle are very active in community organizations.  Amy suggests that any professional be methodical and serious about creating a robust professional network.  Danielle mentors girls through the nationwide Girls Who Code organization. “I am always amazed by what these students are doing.  They are really an inspiration.”  They also recommend several external resources and two books:

  • www.deeplearning.com
  • The Economist (www.economist.com)
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
  • Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg

Amy has truly inspired Danielle to achieve, and Amy said that “I am lucky to have Danielle in my life, every day.”  Please feel free to connect with either at their respective Twitter handles: @ImAmyO, and @danielleodean.

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