Meet Gemma Elsworth, Head of Data Science & Analysis, DWP Digital

Gemma Elsworth

Gemma is Head of Data Science & Analysis at DWP Digital. In this piece, Gemma talks to us about her career journey, the challenges she has faced along the way and shares advice to her younger self.

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

My whole background is in digital analytics. I started my career in credit analysis which I found quite dull and quickly moved into marketing analysis, which then led neatly into digital analysis. I’ve been doing digital analysis now for about 15 years.

That has shaped a lot of what I do, I ended up specialising in AB testing or conversion rate optimisation when I was in the private sector and took lots of opportunities to make improvements to the places that I work and the websites that I worked on.

I also spent some time as a product owner in a previous role and that was fascinating because I was the only person that was working between marketing and development, we were working in an agile way and I went on some agile coaching courses. So that was an enlightening part of my career and that helped me to think about strategies and stakeholders and that side of things.

That eventually led me to DWP Digital. I started here just under four years ago as a senior digital performance analyst. I was part of a small team working across a lot of services that we’re building digital products for. We tried to do digital analysis for all of them, but obviously, it’s very difficult when there are only a few of you and there’s a lot for a very small team. When my predecessor decided to move to a different role, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to take it on and set the direction of the team. It was a good chance for me to change some of the strategy and put my own stamp on the work.

That’s how I ended up where I am now as Head of Data Science and Analytics. I worked in the role on a temporarily basis for a short while and when it was advertised permanently, I applied and was successful. The digital performance analytics team has evolved while I’ve been looking after it to become a federated community rather than a team. We’ve got people that are embedded out into business lines, working directly with them, with links into the central team rather than everyone trying to cover everything. Lots of positive change that worked well, this led to me being asked to do something similar for the data science community. That’s how I came to look after both digital performance analysis and data science in DWP Digital.

Did you ever sit down and kind of plan your career?

I originally wanted to be a dentist when I was at school. Then it turned out that I wasn’t actually very good at chemistry. I really loved business studies, and I was annoyingly good at maths, which I didn’t really like. I ended up taking those two subjects because I did well in them. I loved business and I went to university and did business and management studies. Then it was being good at maths that drove me down this this career path.

I would say I haven’t planned out my career. In all honesty, I didn’t think that I would be a senior person in a business when I was starting out. I had this vision of having kids and giving up work, and that was how I thought my life would be. However, it hasn’t worked out like that as every time an opportunity came along for me to better myself or to do something more interesting, or challenging, I’ve taken it. So, when I see an opportunity I grab it with both hands.

A few years ago, I worked in a team of analysts, and we were all given redundancy notes at the same time. The person managing me at the time was so supportive of me and my ability, and he told me, “You can do so much more than you think that you can” and he encouraged me to go for a management role at the travel company that I used to work for. I got it and I was so nervous about moving into that role and about the responsibility, but when I got there, and I just loved it and I thrived on having that responsibility and doing those things. That’s how I ended up moving into product ownership, running the analytics team and spearheading conversion optimisation.

I realised that I really love thinking about how we’re going to do things strategically, how we’re going to improve things. Not just for me, but for everybody else. When I saw the role at DWP advertised I was already thinking that I was ready to move on. Again, when my predecessor moved on, it felt like the right time. It was the challenge that I wanted and so I applied for it. I went for it and that’s how it’s almost accidental that I’ve ended up where I am. It’s a case of taking the opportunities when they arise and then working really hard at them when I get them, striving to be the best that I can be.

I think I’ve got much more confidence to do things now than I ever had before, and that step a few years ago – when I moved into that managerial role – made me face my fears of finding it too hard. So having done that once, doing it again doesn’t feel as scary.

Have you faced any challenges along the way in your career?

I think my biggest challenge of all the time has been my own confidence. I got divorced about the same time as I got made redundant, and that ended my thoughts about giving up my career and having kids. It made me think a lot about what I really wanted and about being independent and being able to look after myself, and rely, on myself. So, while it wasn’t specifically about my career, it was a hugely challenging time. It was challenging just to get up and go to work on some of those days. Then going through the process of getting a new job at the same time was immense. I changed my whole life plan and it was a really hard period. It would have been easy for me to throw in the towel and say I don’t want to do this. “I can’t do this. I’m going to go home and live with my mum and not pursue a professional career”, but I didn’t. It took a lot of strength to push through really hard times, but I’m so glad that I did. I’m so glad that I was able to come out of the other side of it feeling confident and empowered and independent, keen to never put myself back into that situation.

I don’t live near my parents, so it would have meant leaving my community and friends. I also play hockey, it would have meant leaving my hockey team and they didn’t want me to go, so I was encouraged to stay by them. I looked for jobs and I actually went for eight interviews. I got 7 of them and they were all better paid than I was currently getting. They were all more senior jobs too, so that made me realise, that yes, I can do this. People do want me to do these jobs, that encouraged me.

My dog got me out of bed every day because I had to walk him so that really helped. Then and then when I move jobs and I moved house everything was different because it was a different job and I made new friends. I was in the city centre rather than on the outskirts, so everything changed for me. It felt so much more professional to be going into the city to go to work and I just loved everything about it, so it proved to me that I made the right decision by staying in Leeds.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

The thing that I am most proud of is building the digital performance analytics community. When I stepped up and took on the team, we were in quite a dark place. The new cookie regulations had just come out and we had to remove all of our web analytics tracking from everything. So, we were having conversations about whether we could even do our jobs. We were concerned about how we could continue to make a difference as digital analysts if we couldn’t even track people through their online journeys.

When I came in, I decided that we needed to take a community route. We followed it through, and worked really hard with people from other disciplines, for example content designers, software engineers and other teams that were going to be impacted by this loss of data. I empowered some of my team to go away and work with these people. We came up with a compliant consent mechanism that would enable us to put the tracking back. Whilst we wouldn’t get the same level of tracking as we’d had before we would be able to do our jobs. We also expanded the way that we thought about how we measure services, we started to look at what offline data we had that we could use. For example, do we know how many people phone us, do we know how things work in processing? Can we get more of that data?

The team went away and found out as much as they could about all of the different areas of the business. I think the thing that helped was explaining where we needed to get to and giving them the autonomy to get there and empowering them to work the way that they wanted to. I saw the team’s morale improve hugely with the change in the leadership style. People wanted to come to work and wanted to work in the team.

The team offering improved and the business started to see the value of working with the digital performance analysts.

We didn’t have headcount to be able to get more digital performance analysts. So, we started to develop a federated community model where we have linked embedded people out in the service teams and the digital performance analyst community has grown. We’ve gone from 9 people back in December 2019 to 30 people now. We’re a thriving community that loves to be together and supports each other and solves problems together.

It’s such a great place to be. It’s really good now to be able to stand back and think that this grew out of a team that were really struggling. People who left the team before I took over came back when things improved. I think that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of; seeing the team people thrive in their jobs. It’s what I come to work for.

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

Believing in my own expertise and in the expertise of others. Having the confidence to know that I’m an expert in my field. It means that I can go in and say I come from a place of experience and say this is the wrong or the right thing to do. At the same time, being aware that I’m not an expert in everything and that there are people out there that are better than me at things. It’s important to give the people who are the experts the space and autonomy to do their jobs.

How do you feel about mentoring and have you mentored anyone before? Or are you someone’s mentee?

I’m not a mentor or a mentee, and it’s something that I would really like to get involved in. We do have a mentoring scheme in the data practice and DWP. The people I know that have mentors are doing really well and thriving under their mentorship. So, it’s definitely something that I want to do in the future. I worry personally that I can’t give enough time to be a mentor, but I think it’s important enough that I need to make the time to do it.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for gender equality, what would it be?

To encourage women. To hold each other up. When I was younger, professionally and personally, I saw other women as competition rather than as being on the same team, and I think I think society pits us against each other. I think that’s one of the things that held me back.

I think it’s important that we learn to support each other and shout up for each other and encourage each other to be the best that we can. We are stronger together than we are divided.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

It would be to trust myself that it will work out and that I can make good decisions.

What’s your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

My biggest challenge now is that I’ve just taken on the data science community. So, my goal with that is to try bring the data scientists together and nurture a community that’s thriving as much as the digital performance analytics community.

My goals are to foster the relationships in the community, to enable the separate teams of data scientists to work together and solve problems together. Building up that community so that it can thrive without me. I think the important point, when I look at the digital performance analytics community now, is that it would be OK without me. It can self-sustain. At the moment I’m still working on the data science community and still have a long way to go in breaking down some of the existing siloes and encouraging everybody to be involved.

We recognise that the data industry is still heavily male-dominated, so we’ve started a ‘Women in Data network’ to create a safe environment for our female data colleagues to go to for support.  I’m looking forward to what’s come for the network and growing our community of female data specialists.