Inspirational Woman: Maria Apostolopoulou | Data scientist, bp

Maria Apostolopoulou

I have always had a passion for sciences – maths and chemistry in particular – and this pushed me to pursue my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering in Greece, where I am originally from.

After this, I moved to London for my PhD in chemical engineering at UCL, where my research was focused on developing and improving stochastic simulations – a type of simulation where variables change randomly with individual probabilities – to better understand how fluids are transported underground.

After many years in academia, I felt like it was time for a change. I wanted to be part of a team and feel the buzz of people around me, but I never imagined myself as an engineer working on-site with a hardhat. I also knew that I wanted to contribute towards helping the environment – climate change is something I think about a lot. So, I applied to bp’s Challenger programme.

I joined as a software platform engineer initially, and as part of my second rotation I am now a data scientist. At the time, bp was one of the first energy companies moving its data to the cloud. To me, this was a strong sign that it was truly committed to using technology to have an impact, and that it was committed to acting now.

My team works on different projects that come to us from all across bp, and never before have I felt such a strong sense of teamwork. We are currently working on a project to aid the decision-making process for our operations. By looking into historic data collected from sensors in our sites, we try to predict when equipment maintenance will be required. Knowing when our systems will stop operating at optimal conditions can help us schedule our maintenance activities without impacting our sites' efficiency or compromising operational safety. This kind of optimisation also reduces costs, which in turn allows for greater investment elsewhere, including our low and no carbon energy businesses. To me, this is the perfect example of how, in their own way, everyone at bp has a role to play in creating a net zero future.

Outside of work, I love arts and crafts! One of my recent works is a water fountain which I designed, assembled and decorated from start to end. I also really value mindfulness and doing things which bring me close to nature. With COVID-19 restrictions, I regularly go running or cycling.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Yes – it’s something I do quite frequently actually! I like to have a general idea of where I would like to go. For the short-term I like making plans, setting goals, and having aspirations as it drives me to continuously improve towards my long-term goals. As with everything in life, sometimes I get it right, sometimes I need to take a step back and re-evaluate before trying something different. As I grow older and gain more experience, I find it easier to adapt and manage my expectations, but it hasn't always been easy. Having mentors and people I look up to has also been a very valuable resource and has helped me recognise that everyone’s career pathway is different and often non-linear.

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

During my PhD, I studied something very specific. When it came to my area of research, I knew that I was truly on top of my game, and I had my own ways of working which worked well for me. Moving away from academia and joining the Challenger programme at bp, I suddenly no longer felt this way. I had to learn everything about this new environment and figure out how the teams operated. I invested time in learning new skills and familiarising myself with the business environment and terminology, and the structure of the Challenger programme gave me the time and tools I needed to overcome the hurdles I was facing. I also attended development courses that helped me adapt to the new ways of working. This career challenge helped me grow both personally and professionally, and I was able to make new friends along the way.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I am very proud of the trust I rapidly gained from my colleagues. From day one, I got to work on actual problems with real implications for my teams and for bp. In particular, I was involved with the migration of our repositories and pipelines to Microsoft’s Azure DevOps platform, which helped the team improve its efficiency and increased the reliability of the services we provided. Having a close team meant I could learn from them quickly to deliver what was needed – I was therefore given a lot of responsibility, which felt great! As part of this, I am proud of how I handled challenges – big or small – through clear communication and proactive thinking.

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

My mother has been my biggest role-model. As an entrepreneur and natural problem solver, she showed me that through hard work and consistency, you can achieve anything you aim for. This mindset has helped me overcome difficulties along the way and pursue a career in an industry that has historically been dominated by men.

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

Don’t let fear or doubt stop you! Even if there’s something that scares you – just say yes. Without this attitude, I would have missed out on so many unique opportunities and I wouldn’t be the data scientist that I am today. The best way to learn something is by doing it.  We live in an era where information is easily accessible and often free and there are so many great open source tools to help you get started. It’s also important to follow tech-related discussions on social platforms as you can get a good idea of the emerging trends.

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

Although improving, women are still underrepresented in tech. In my opinion, the lack of flexibility in working arrangements contributes to this. A significant proportion of jobs in tech can be done remotely, so maybe it’s time to challenge the traditional ways of working. And one thing that the recent pandemic has taught us is that we have the framework and tools to support flexible working, while maintaining productivity.

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

I think having a structured career development pathway that engages all employees would help address some of the gender inequality, especially in more senior positions. Proportional representation is important as role models can influence career aspirations. Companies should also have dedicated senior leads that act as advocates for the progression of women and other underrepresented groups within the company.

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?  

It’s fundamental for young women working in technology to have female role models they can look up to. When I went in for my technical interview at bp, I was really surprised to see a female interviewer. It was so inspiring and energising to see a woman in a leading tech position; unfortunately, it was something I had never come across before. It made me feel like bp was a company that would be fully supportive of me exploring my passions and ambitions. There is still a lot that needs to be done to increase the representation of women in tech – and having female role models is an important starting point.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Wired and Towards Data Science are my go-to resources for anything related to digital developments. They’re great ways to be on top of current and future developments in the tech and data science world, and to exchange ideas on these topics. For those who prefer podcasts, I highly recommend the Data Skeptic, which is one of the longest running and a personal favourite. Finally, to get hands-on experience, Kaggle has tutorials, free datasets, numerous competitions, and a vibrant community of data scientists – all the ingredients you need to get your career started!

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