My Data Science with Laura Weiderhaft: September 2022
Updated: Sep 21, 2022
A HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE TECH CAREER GALAXY
Insights from WhyteSpyder’s new Director of Insights and Strategy
THERE ARE MANY paths to success in the tech world, and I’m living proof of it. In 2012, after graduating from the University of Arkansas with a B.A. in Economics and International Relations, I didn’t feel like there was a clear next step. I dabbled in too many things getting my degree: student government, freelance graphic design, tutoring, all in addition to a double major. When I began interviewing for jobs, I’m sure I came across as a dilletante, someone interested in too many things and so nothing at all. Thinking back on that time, I’m reminded of a passage from one of my favorite writers, Douglas Adams, author of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
"I care about lots of things," said Slartibartfast, his voice trembling partly with annoyance, but partly also with uncertainty.
"Well," said the old man, "life, the Universe. Everything, really. Fjords."
Having found no job that fit my fragmented interests, I started taking on freelance projects. A few friends and I even launched a startup designed to help small business owners find freelance designers and developers in their area, but we couldn’t raise the capital to scale. Building a startup, even if it wasn’t successful, gave me great experience. I thought about market strategy and crafted our strategic goals, wrote a business plan, and pitched to local angel investors. I think of that experience like getting an alternative MBA.
Eventually, income from freelance work became inconsistent and, like many an errant college grad before me, I joined the restaurant industry and started bartending. If that weren’t cliché enough, I also started performing standup comedy, oversharing my harebrained ideas to local bar rats and mostly other comedians.
BY NOW, YOU’RE probably wondering why you’re reading this in the newsletter of the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences. Well, here’s the punchline: Intense customer service and stomach-churning stage fright actually helped prepare me for a career in tech.
At the start of 2020, I decided it was time to revisit my career plan, to get back to spending my days doing something I had gone to school for. I started temping and eventually found a permanent position as an office manager at a small manufacturing company in Springdale. A little over a year and a half later, I was able to advance to the position of Business Analyst. As soon as I started building reports to audit and improve processes across different teams, I knew I had finally found what I wanted to do.
Then, in the spring of 2021, I saw an ad from ACDS saying that WhyteSpyder was hiring data analytics apprentices. They emphasized in their job description that it was “good for people looking for career changes,” which appealed to me as someone in the midst of a transition away from half a decade in the restaurant industry. Ashley French at ACDS helped place me as a Data Analyst apprentice, and I started in April of 2021.
At WhyteSpyder, we work with clients who want to sell their goods on Walmart.com. So not only must our account managers be experts on Walmart.com, but we as a team must demonstrate that expertise. That means we have to have the data to back up everything we talk with our clients about. During my year-long apprenticeship, I focused much of my energy on developing our foundational data setup, such as creating a data warehouse to help support some of the analytics we were doing. A lot of our previous work had been on a project-by-project basis, and I wanted to help prepare us for consistency and scale.
In fact, we’ve grown tremendously over the past year, and in my new role—since July—as Director of Insights and Strategy, I’m now leading a team of people who’ll do a lot of what I did coming into this role. My team’s role is to focus on all of the data engineering and data pipelines that support the account managers on the consulting services side of our business — essentially providing all of the reporting, dashboards, and data enablement to set up the rest of our team for success. We’ve established a foundation of reporting, but now we need to keep adding layers of granular detail and create the framework to answer new questions
BUT BACK TO how the restaurant business and standup comedy helped prepare me for success at WhyteSpyder.
After working for five years in every kind of service industry role from waitressing to cooking in a food truck, I realized that working in restaurants wires your brain differently. You’re having to process a constant stream of requests, many of which are happening simultaneously. I often compare the restaurant business with air traffic control, where there’s a bunch of different flights coming in at the same time and you have to say, “This is the priority. This one lands right now.” This is completely different from the measured, long-range thinking required for analytics work, so I thought it would be impossible to adjust to working on long-term projects.
Thankfully, I was wrong. Restaurant work taught me so many skills that I use every day. Customer service made me more empathetic, and it made me better at reading people. It also taught me how to work really, really hard. The fact is, customer service is a part of every job. Whether you interact with clients or just people on the inside of your company, someone is always your customer.
And standup comedy taught me a lot too! It’s one thing to write jokes, but it’s a completely different thing to get up on stage and perform them. I learned to trust myself and take a chance, even when I didn’t feel confident. I’m glad I made myself get up there so many nights, even if I never fully felt comfortable performing. I remember having similar feelings when I got into the tech world. I felt like I didn’t stack up, like my skills weren't good enough, that there were people who knew way more than I did about data—and that’s absolutely true, of course. But I finally realized that I didn’t need to feel intimidated—everybody has to start somewhere. Fortunately, at WhyteSpyder I’m surrounded by so many supportive people, both my colleagues and even our clients. Everyone is so collaborative that I have the confidence to keep growing and doing great work for WhyteSpyder.
My advice to others starting on their career path is: Don’t Panic. Keep learning and don’t focus on the fact that the path isn’t what you thought it would be. Life, the Universe, Everything—it works out in the end. And don’t forget the fjords.