Wan Ting Poh, director of data science at Allianz Asia Pacific and director of Girls in Tech Singapore, photographed at District 6.
“The first time I came into contact with programming was in university, and I still remember the first time we had to do this lab test. We had to build a Tetris game on the spot in two hours, and I could do it, and it could work really well. And it was like this high that you feel when you get a program working."
For Wan Ting Poh, director of data science at Allianz's Asia Pacific office, the moment was a defining one. “I was just hooked to that, and I love programming."
Wan Ting, who is also the director of the Singapore chapter of Girls in Tech, has a foundation in programming and statistics with a masters degree from the National University of Singapore. She began her career working in bioinformatics, which is an interdisciplinary field that combines different math and science fields to analyze and interpret biological data. Her areas of study included dengue fever and the human genome, among others.
About that time, the term data scientist became popular.
She liked it, but the pace didn't fit. “That was cool. That was fun, but it was very long," explains Wan Ting. “You cannot see the results of it immediately." On some of her projects, the results would not become clear for a decade.
So, for a change of pace, she headed for mobile advertising, crunching user data for pop-up and banner ads in mobile ads. After three years of that, around the end of 2015, she moved into insurance at Allianz.
“[About that time,] the term data scientist became popular," she recalls.
Experienced dogs, new tricks
Wan Ting has been with Allianz in her role for about three years now. While the company doesn't sell insurance in Singapore, the Singapore office offers support for other markets. Bringing data science to such a traditional industry piqued Wan Ting's interest, but it also brings inevitable challenges, not just for Allianz.
“I think it's a lot of mismatch in expectations. Companies are trying to engage data scientists because it's cool to have a data scientist on their team," she says. But the role is not so well-defined. A company's criteria for a “data scientist" can be, as Wan Ting says, “confused." There might not be so much programming involved at all, and it might be a business analytics kind of role.
“[The role is] so new. You hear about people doing it, and you try to apply it in your business, and it's very challenging if your business is not in digital or not in data, and you try to force data science. Magic overnight is not going to happen," she says.
Magic overnight is not going to happen.
Big challenges can also mean big rewards, though. She describes a time her team was able to make a project team understand a decision model they were working on - then get the model implemented. The data team's work doesn't always get implemented, and part of the reason is that data science is still a burgeoning industry that Wan Ting describes as “very confused."
“It's not going to be planting a PhD data scientist in a data company. You need to be able to structure it to give permission to move things forward," she says.
For startups beginning with data science, even more backtracking may be required. Jumping straight into crunching data doesn't mean anything if there's no data to crunch. “Collect data, and collect a lot of data," Wan Ting advises. “Build your promoters, and then after you get your A or B series, talk about data science - how you can do analytics, build different models."
Being able to help define the field, Wan Ting says, is part of the fun.
The New Year's resolution
Wan Ting has directed Singapore's Girls in Tech for about a year and a half now, something that began for her as a New Year's resolution: she wanted to give back.
“I signed up to be a mentor at one of their bootcamps," she says. The Android bootcamp never happened though. She was the only mentor who signed up, so the event couldn't take place. At the end of the day, she found it boiled down to who stepped up.
“There was a huge gap: how do you get female leaders to really step up and be role models for other people?" Wan Ting asks. She, like many women, had had only male mentors in the past.
“After Girls in Tech, it opened my eyes to think I should be aware of," she details. Having that one female mentor, even if she's not in the same industry, can help. When the position vacated, she stepped up again as managing director. The organization is currently running a six-month mentoring program, in which mentors and mentees are strategically matched and track their progress through a lightly structured program.
The key to balancing her work with her other responsibilities is simple time management, she says. Other than that, it comes down to passion and where she feels she can help - whether that's doing her day job or helping build the community around her. “Data science is something I find I can really help with - helping startups to talk about data and use data to accelerate growth," she says.
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