Alexandra’s Career Change Story

Share a little about yourself.

When I was younger, my curiosity in unpicking the invisible forces that shape the world drew me to study International Relations. It was the same curiosity that later led me into data journalism and data science. Today, I’m a self/community-taught programmer and data viz geek working as a data scientist at Synthesis, a specialist in growing audiences and changing preferences.

What was your job like before transitioning into data science? What prompted you to make the transition?

I started out with the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, working on international maritime affairs. This gave me an inside view of diplomacy and policy-making in a global industry. Later, as part of the strategic planning team, I researched key trends and developments that affect Singapore’s future as a maritime city.

I didn’t realise it then, but discovering journalist sites like Fivethirtyeight and the Pudding was the beginning of my career pivot. It blew my mind how they combined code, data, design, and story to uncover and bring to life the larger patterns in socio-economic, cultural, and political issues. I was fascinated and wanted to learn how I could do something similar.

What is your job like now? How different or similar is it to your previous role?

I create custom datasets and use tools from network science and natural language processing to help build a picture of people’s preferences and behaviour.

It was a huge transition in several ways: I moved from a government agency to a fast-growing company with a startup feel; from an industry with centuries of history to a new world of open data and marketing insights; from a policy role to a data science and engineering role. However, it really wasn’t a sudden switch.

So how did you go about making the transition?

Whatever I was learning on the side—computer science, Python/R, new data visualization techniques and statistical analysis—I tried to apply it in my job or personal projects. I also got more involved with communities like She Loves Data, Singapore’s Hacks/Hackers meetup group, and the Data Visualization Society.

Then came a point where I felt a need to add more structure to my learning. I took a sabbatical and went for the Metis Data Science bootcamp, with support from IMDA’s Tech Immersion and Placement Programme.

But how I found my current role was rather fortuitous. I first got to know the people behind Synthesis when I joined a data storytelling challenge that they co-organised. My entry, which re-imagined and visualized popular wedding songs as cupcakes, made an impression and I won a commendation. Shortly after, they were expanding their data science team, and one thing led to another.

What were the major challenges?

Learning to silence my inner critic when it’s not being helpful. In my first two weeks, I came close to a burnout because I thought I needed to grind it out in a new work environment when I didn’t have to. It was tough but I had to learn how to be kinder and more patient with myself.

The fact is, when switching careers, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and it’s OK. You’ve got to accept that it will take you longer to understand and figure out things that may be second-nature to more seasoned professionals.

Were there any pleasant surprises?  Maybe you were shocked at how easy some things could be?

In a way, simply pursuing my interests and skilling up led to open doors. I didn’t have to search hard to land my current role. Even before entering the data science field, there were always ways to practise aspects of it in my day job as long as I kept an open mind.

In my new role, I’m fortunate that my more experienced colleagues are super supportive when I reach out for guidance or simply to bounce some ideas off them. Even though my background is non-traditional, I feel very much part of the team.

If you were to go back in time, what advice would you give yourself on this journey?

Making the switch is only the beginning. I don’t think we talk enough about what comes after the switch as well as the non-technical skills needed for a happy, healthy work life in the data/tech industry. Aspects like self-advocacy and self-care are important too.

Has volunteering at SLD helped you in your transition journey?

As a blog editor with SLD, I came to know and interviewed many accomplished brave women. Their own career transition stories inspired me and I learned from their wisdom, hindsight, and experience.

Being part of SLD also means being surrounded by other women and male allies with a can-do attitude who cheer each other on. It’s so uplifting!

Anything tips or advice you wish to tell all our readers? 3 tips you would like to share with our readers who are considering switching roles & industry? 

  1. Don’t worry if you don’t have a passion to pursue. Instead, stay curious and focus on mastering skills. I didn’t start out with a fixed idea of what I wanted to do or have some burning passion to begin with. That used to trouble me, but eventually I learned it didn’t matter all that much.I would recommend reading Cal Newport’s books So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. He makes a compelling case that it’s ultimately people’s skill-set and not necessarily their passion that determines their career path.
  2. Beyond skills, things not obviously connected to work like your social habits and lifestyle choices will shape your career transition. Guard against toil glamour and burnout. The You Got This network is a great resource.
  3. And remember, your job is not your career. In the words of Earl Nightingale: Jobs are owned by the company, you own your career!


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Editor: Alexandra Khoo