Nyala NoeMy name is Nyala Noë and I am a data scientist. I am Dutch, but was born in Germany and grew up in France.

I completed my Masters in Social Psychology at the VU Amsterdam (The Netherlands) in 2014 and my PhD in Computer Science and Informatics from Cardiff University (Wales) in 2018. Since 2018, I have been working as a data scientist, first at Centrica, then as a founding employee of Empirisys, since January 2021.

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

I have been working in STEM-related fields since 2014 and before that graduated with a psychology degree. I have lived and worked in six different countries and speak four languages. I recently took the biggest plunge of my career by becoming a founding employee of Empirisys, a new tech startup focused on culture and safety. Empirisys is geared towards high hazard industries (oil& gas, manufacturing, constructions, chemicals, etc), but any workplace can benefit from a strong safety culture.

During my masters in social psychology at the VU Amsterdam, I developed a particular interest in human relationships and culture. I mostly learned how difficult it is to influence human behaviour, especially in such large groups as a workplace, but that is why I took up the challenge with Empirisys. What I did learn is that there are many different ways of measuring behaviour and attitudes, both directly through surveys, and indirectly, through observations. The environment or nature of the work often traps humans in committing errors they otherwise would not have made. Identifying these human error traps is the first step towards addressing them. Safety is also not just physical, it is also the psychological safety to being able to speak up and point out problems with an asset or being able to stop working when an employee perceives there is a safety risk. It’s this interplay between physical and psychological safety that fascinates me most, with one influencing the other in a continuous feedback loop.

But before joining Empirisys, I truly started my career as a data scientist 3 years ago at Centrica, where I was part of a large team of data scientists, supporting the business with business insights, process improvements, and even fraud detection. However, I soon realised that I wanted a different challenge, and more importantly I wanted to work for myself. This is how I came to work for Empirisys who fulfilled all those criteria: a small team involved at all levels of the business with a goal I could fully get behind. I learned to program during my PhD in Computer Science and Informatics at Cardiff University, which I finished as I had already started working for Centrica full-time. It is during my PhD that I learned to program for the first time, unlocking a new way of manipulating and analysing large amounts of data I had not come across before. It is in my time in industry that I learned how to effectively apply these techniques, in ways that can actually make a difference to people.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

My career in data science was mostly accidental. I had always thought that I would stay in academia and become a researcher. My ambition at first was to become a professor in social psychology. However, I wanted to give industry a shot, because I didn’t want to rule out something I had not tried before. As I was finishing my PhD and no longer benefited from PhD funding, I started looking for a job and was lucky to get accepted to Centrica as a data scientist. At the beginning, I thought I would do this for a year or so, and then return to academia. Working as a data scientist really suited me, I enjoyed working in a team (which was a big change after mostly working alone on my PhD!) and the structure given by agile and being part of a development team. During my time at Centrica, I got a mentor who guided me in thinking about my career and where I wanted to end up. Also talking to my peers and my managers helped me formulate bit by bit what I wanted to get out of my career.


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

When I first joined industry, I had to adjust to the way the corporate world worked. There was no room for perfectionism in the environment I worked in. Everything I did had to be useful to the business in some way, so I had to learn to work quickly and efficiently to deliver. I set myself really high standards, not wanting to compromise the quality of my work or my time spent researching what the best technique would be. However, I quickly learned that this was not sustainable. As data scientists, we each have our specialities, whether that is a stronger background in statistics, stronger software engineering skills, or expertise in specific algorithms, such as neural networks. I learned that I did not have to be the expert in each of these domains, and that I could rely on my team members for support where needed. In return, I was able to help them in the domains they were less confident about. It’s thanks to our complementary strengths and weaknesses that we were able to address many different challenges as a data science team.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

One of my biggest achievements to date is getting my PhD in Computer Science, despite having come from a background in psychology and only having a very rudimentary understanding of programming before becoming a PhD candidate.

More recently, I was part of the 4-member founding team of Empirisys. I would have never thought that I would be part of setting up my own business, and to be able to do this so soon after launching my career in data science feels like a great achievement.

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

I am adaptable, which has helped me switch career paths from psychology to computer science, despite having no idea about computers or knowing any programming languages. I never saw obstacles, but rather new things I needed to learn in order to achieve my goals. It has also helped me feel comfortable moving around for my studies, which has been a very valuable experience. When it came time to look for a PhD, it was very easy to make the decision to come to Cardiff, as I had no doubt that I would be able to adapt to a new country rapidly. As a data scientist, it has helped me throughout my career as I learned to work in a larger team, after having worked mostly on my own during my PhD.

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

I think your ability to learn and your ability to adapt are the two skills that are most important in a career in technology. The field is moving so fast, that it is essential that you learn to quickly switch gears when something is not working, and that you stay on top of the latest trends. It is also important here to be able to distinguish between what is a genuinely useful new technique or programming language, and what is just a fad. This will come with experience, but also talk to your peers. Join meetups or networks or have regular get togethers with the other tech members of your company to discuss new things you learnt and share this with your colleagues.

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

I have been lucky enough to not have experienced direct barriers so far in my career. I have noticed a lack of women in leading positions, so I wonder how I will feel about this question once my career progresses. I was lucky to have a very driven female mentor, who helped me be aggressive about my career. This has helped me be more pro-active about what I want, but also understanding what I value and want to get out of my career.

I think things are moving in the right direction, but there are still unique challenges such as maternity interrupting women’s careers and unconscious bias that might be barriers to hiring and promotion.

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

I think that the culture of the company is important in making sure that everyone in the company is listened to and taken seriously by all levels of the organisation. An open and inclusive culture can help with this. However, it’s a concerted effort to change the workplace’s culture from all people involved. I think especially peers are important to set examples and rectify unwanted behaviours, such as discrimination or lack of respect for employees. I also think there is a responsibility for recruiters to consider whether the values and soft skills of the people they are employing match the culture they want to develop at the company. A sense of responsibility from everyone to make the workplace a pleasant and productive environment, where diversity of experiences is valued.

There is currently only 17 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?

Having recently been involved in recruiting for our new startup, I noticed that we had much less women apply to our positions than men. This already narrows the pool down. So there definitely is some work to be done on the pipeline of talent coming through. One important aspect is to demystify a career in technology and make it seen as accessible to everyone. I think there might still be a bias where some people think: “Oh no I would never be able to do that”. In high school, maths was one of the subjects I struggled with most and I felt like it was just not the subject for me. However, thanks to my very supportive family, I was able to overcome this mentality, and gradually improved in the subject and passed my final year exams very comfortably. I will never be a maths genius, but I have learned that I can achieve things by working hard and staying dedicated. It’s this mentality that I want to foster in students in high school or university who are thinking about their future careers.

In the same vein, I want people to consider a switch to a career in tech as an exciting challenge. I was part of a panel for university students where 5 speakers, all women, explained how they had turned their careers and gotten into tech without having gone through the more traditional pathways. I think the panel was a great inspiration for everyone present that a career switch is not only possible, but also often an enjoyable experience where we get to discover a whole new set of skills, but also apply all the things we have learned from our previous roles.

At the end of the day, I just want everyone to be encouraged in going down the path they want to, whether that is a career in tech or not. I don’t want to be a women in tech, I want to be in tech.

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