Meet Dr Janet Bastiman, Chief Data Scientist, Napier

Dr.Janet Bastiman

Janet started coding in 1984 and discovered a passion for technology and problem solving. She holds degrees in both Molecular Biochemistry and Mathematics and has a PhD in Computational Neuroscience where she started her work in Artificial Intelligence.

Janet has spent 20 years in industry pushing the boundaries of data science in telecommunications, marketing and the financial sector, where she has helped both start-ups and established businesses implement and improve their AI offering prior to applying her expertise as Chief Data Scientist at Napier.

Janet is a committee member for the Royal Statistical Society Data Science Section and treasurer of the IEEE Stem Strategy Committee.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I started coding in 1984 and discovered a passion for technology and problem solving. I have degrees in both Molecular Biochemistry and Mathematics as well as a PhD in Computational Neuroscience, which is where I started my work in Artificial Intelligence.

I’ve now spent over 20 years in industry pushing the boundaries of data science in telecommunications, marketing, and the financial sector. I’ve helped both start-ups and established businesses to implement and improve their AI offering, and am now applying that expertise to my current role as Chief Data Scientist at Napier, a leading provider of anti-financial crime compliance solutions. I’m also a committee member for the Royal Statistical Society Data Science, AI Section and treasurer of the IEEE Stem Strategy Committee, and I’m now currently undertaking my fifth degree – an MSc in Finance – to help further my fintech and finance knowledge.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I did… but then I completely deviated from that plan. I actually have an ‘I deviated from the plan’ t-shirt that I sometimes wear at conferences! I do think plans are great, they give you focus and I had one throughout my teenage years before changing tack at university to follow what I enjoyed most. There’s a quote I like from the astronaut Chris Hadfield:

“Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction. Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow, and the day after that. Look at who you want to be, and start sculpting yourself into that person. You may not get exactly where you thought you’d be, but you will be doing things that suit you in a profession you believe in. Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become.”

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

I was very lucky in my first industry job to have a female boss which showed me that it is possible to progress. I never had any concern that I couldn’t go all the way to the top but yes, there have been challenges along the way. Unfortunately, I have been subject to sexism, as probably all women in tech have, and there have been a number of male peers who have deliberately tried to hold me back. I have found throughout my career that men can often get away with being arrogant, over-confident, and bolshy- but a woman can’t. When you experience challenges like that, you have to decide between trying to get the issue resolved, or moving on from the company. It’s unfortunate but at every company where I’ve experienced it, I’ve had to move on. You can effect change up to a point and I always think it’s worth doing, but in companies where people are tolerated or in senior positions with that behaviour, the culture doesn’t change. More often than not, you have to vote with your feet and those companies tend to go downhill after a while.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I think one of my biggest achievements has been reaching a point of seniority whereby I can effect change in the industry, particularly empowering women early on in their careers and contributing to initiatives and groups such as the Royal Statistical Society’s Data Science and AI Section. I am also proud to be an industry voice and to be invited to speak on complex topics such as explainable AI. I really enjoy helping people to understand the subject, whether it’s colleagues, talking at conferences, or even individuals looking to begin their careers.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I think the sheer belligerence and stubbornness that I knew I could! To be honest I’ve been very lucky to have always had strong female role models in my life. My first boss in technology was female, my mum re-trained in IT while I was in junior school, and her mum was a great role model too. She just got on and did things, she didn’t accept mediocrity and always strived to be everything she knew she could be. I’ve always seen that there are women in senior positions. Being a child of the seventies, we even had a female prime minister during a lot of my formative years, so I believed that if I work hard and show that I can do the job well, I can also reach those senior roles and lead. Having that confidence has been a major factor in getting to where I am and having amazing female role models is what fed that confidence early on.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

This is a hard question because I go out of my way to encourage others not to do all the things that I did to excel in my career. The main one being that I completely overworked- I did ridiculous hours to try and get twice as much work done as everyone else, just to show that I could do it. It was exhausting, it was too much. I think my advice really would be to take a step back and be wary of burning out. You can definitely push yourself too fast too quickly and I was very much in danger of that, particularly in my 20s, because I just wanted to get to a certain point and to achieve everything as quickly as possible. I was treating stages in my career almost like GCSE or A-Level exams, where you have a book and I’m thinking if I read through the book quickly enough, I’ll have all the information and I can move on to the next thing. Careers don’t work like that.

You’ve got to be aware of what opportunities there are but also be able to assess those opportunities, because just saying yes to everything is not helpful. In financial terms, it’s looking at the future value of the investment you’re making in yourself if you take on a particular project or accept a particular role. Will it take you to where you want to be? This is going back to the Chris Hadfield quote and is really about thinking how to invest your time, energy, and skills in a way that helps you get your career to where you want it.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, I think there still is and part of it comes from being taught from an early age to be quieter, to be demure and not bossy. I see it now even at my daughter’s school. The behaviour that allows boys to be confident – and even arrogant – is nurtured, while girls are given subtle reinforcement to be calmer and to be not as ambitious. Some of the horrendous biases that were out there are now disappearing, thankfully, but there are still difficulties, and it will take time for this to change.

From a company perspective, in order to overcome some of these barriers, I think we need to be more open to looking at hiring candidates who have potential, rather than those with specific experiences or a specific degree from select universities.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

I think this varies for people in different stages of their lives but overall, I think offering flexibility and a good work life balance is important. And that’s for all employees, not just women. One example of that is a member of my team who is about to go on three months’ paternity leave rather than just the traditional couple of weeks. Flexibility in work location is another example. I am loving remote working as, for the past couple of years, I’ve been able to walk my daughter to school and pick her up. When I was commuting into London for the five years before that, I’d be out of the house before she was awake and I’d be home as she was going to bed. I think by giving employees a good quality of life, workplaces will naturally attract more women anyway, but will also help all employees to be happier, more productive, and focused in their careers.

There are currently only 21 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

If we look into that stat, I think it will mostly be skewed towards the lower levels so if I had a magic wand, it would be about first rebalancing that 21 per cent over all the different levels of seniority. That would cause more women to join the industry because they’d be able to see that progression pathway like I did and also be less likely to drop out. I have read about women who work in tech that then leave the industry, either because of burn out or because they feel like they’re not progressing. Obviously, we need the whole industry to be more accessible and attractive to women, but we also need to get them to see that it’s not just those lower levels.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Obviously, We Are Tech Women, but there are also a lot of women-specific conferences that I think are worthwhile, for example, Women Who Code. They do lots of conferences which are not women-only, but they have predominantly female speakers to really encourage a more accepting environment for any women who might normally shy away from speaking at a conference because of the stereotypical instance of an audience member who says ‘Well actually, I think you’ll find…!’ to promote themselves rather than asking a question. I would recommend doing this as it will help women to build their careers and their speaking portfolio. Honestly, I think any women-specific events are useful as you’ll be able to network and find kindred spirits. I would also recommend looking at women in tech job boards where companies are deliberately trying to get more female talent in and specialist recruitment agencies too.