Recently, I've been thinking a lot about human centred design, and how the past two years I've effectively re-designed (or re-engineered?) a career change path that better reflects my values, enables me to stay involved in select, web/data-science focussed astronomy projects, and enables me to work on new challenges with the aim of making a positive impact on the world. It's rare that people have the opportunity to that. Some may see it as completely self-indulgent, others may see it as finding a new calling, others might call it a mid-life career crisis.
But the more people I meet, the more I discover that I'm not the only one who is forging a new and unique pathway to a successful career. Every other week I meet people who are eschewing the well-trodden career path and flipping their lifestyle and careers in unexpected ways. For academic researchers this can be a challenge. Leaving the field is often seen as being negative – a failure of sorts, and proof of the "publish or perish" mantra. It can also lead to somewhat of an existential crisis, since much of what you do quickly becomes your identity whether you meat it to or not – the friend who is the "rocket scientist".
For me the past two years have been an unexpected adventure. I would not have had as many different experiences and opportunities had I not taken a leap into the unknown, and allowed myself to take a break from full-time work. Although I knew I would be ok – at least financially, this was a very bold move. Throughout the year I said "no" to a number of good opportunities, that would have meant settling for the same type of work. Melbourne's growing startup ecosystem and the need for universities and academics to innovate, as well as the rise of data science in academia and tech, have played a major role in re-designing my career. So was the growing realisation that if I were to leave astronomy research – which to a large extent I already had.... it had to be for something amazing. Something meaningful. Purposeful.
There was another reason for this new mindset. Early 2015, my dear friend Jo was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She had already gone through round one of breast cancer five years earlier so I knew this was bad news. while the brain surgery was successful, the cancer had already spread to her lungs, liver and bones, so I knew that the next year or two was going to be a really tough time for her, especially with two boisterous kids. She wasn't about to go down without a fight, but I wanted to be in a position where I could help and started thinking about taking some time off.
Then in late 2015 my mum was told she needed major heart surgery. We knew she needed a heart valve replacement so this was nothing too dire. The procedure is quite straightforward, but the recovery time is a good month or two. So when my contract at Swinburne ended in Feb 2016, it made complete sense to take a good 6-month career break. It meant I could take time off to help look after mum after her heart valve surgery, and I could help out Jo and her family, and be available at the drop of a hat should they need some extra support. I could drive her to and from the hospital, keep her company during chemo sessions, support her during oncology and x-ray appointments, hold her crutches, take her out for morning coffee, take her out for lunch with friends, do the kinder drop off and pick up, make cups of tea, gossip about friends and talk rubbish about seemingly inconsequential things, and help her figure out her kick cancers ass! action plan.
It also game me the time to explore new opportunities in astronomy that focussed on tech and data science, and it enabled me to reconnect with a city that was fast becoming a mecca for design-focussed tech, start-ups, and co-working spaces. A few months in I realised I could potentially make a career as a freelance consultant. I was also already volunteering my time as co-organiser, analyst, and tech consultant for Random Hacks of Kindness. I was starting to think about the techsavvyastro.io project and had made plans to attended a conference in Oxford mid-year. I had just started my two-year term as an advisory committee member of Astronomy Australia Ltd and I had been approached by the ARC CoE for Gravitational Wave Discovery to do some consulting work. I also had the opportunity to combine travel with work.
The first 6-months off turned into a year of seeking new experiences and saying yes to opportunities
- I spent time working at Inspire9 – Richmond and One Roof – Melbourne soaking in the startup freelance culture and meeting talented and interesting people, relentlessly pursuing their passions. I did a couple of consulting jobs for the ARC CoE for Gravitational Wave Discovery, and began working with Kids Meditate.
- I spent considerable time learning about and understanding Melbourne's startup ecosystem. I attended numerous Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP), Melbourne Conversations, Startup Vic, and Launch Vic events, and digested white papers & reports.
- I indulged in my love of design and ceramics and spent a week in Copenhagen, before flying to the UK for the .Astronomy8 conference in Oxford. I presented the Day Zero – Skills Training Introductory talk. I also had the opportunity to reconnect with friends from Liverpool.
- I created techsavvyastro.io a website that brings tech skills, tutorials, and industry knowledge to astronomers; promotes blue sky and community developed software and tools; and empowers researchers to re-design their careers.
- In July 2016 I had the very great honour of not only meeting, but staying with the wonderful Mike & Shuna Dickson in their Notting Hill home. Mike is the founder of Whizz–Kidz and the Rainmaker Foundation, and the author of the book; Our Generous Gene. Together they are a force to be reckoned with. Incredibly generous and inspiring, I hold their words of wisdom close.
- I had the opportunity to spend a month in the Bay Area reconnecting with old friends, astronomers, and data scientists. I spent a week at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS), learning about data science techniques and tools in academia and industry, machine learning algorithms from an astrophysical "big data" perspective, code optimisation and various other bits'n'bobs. As part of this I had the opportunity to spend a day working at GitHub HQ in SOMA, on new creative coding projects, and to gain insight into what it's like to work for a world leading software company.
- I worked with Astronomy Australia Ltd (as a member of AeRAC) to develop a 5-year national computing and infrastructure investment plan, to ensure continued access to HPC facilities, sustainable data access projects, and delivery of computing, data science, and tech skills training. This resulted in a new Astronomy Data & Compute Services (ADACS) initiative, funded at ~$1.5M/yr.
- I had the privilege of speaking at the Astronomical Data Analysis & Software Systems (ADASS XXVI) conference in Trieste, Italy. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I spent a month exploring northern Italy.
- I spoke at Future Assembly – Australia's emergent technology festival. I met the incredibly clever and innovative team behind Saber Astronautics. I test rode a Tesla. I met many of the influencers throughout Melbourne's tech community, including the amazingly talented people behind Girl Geek Academy, Fitzroy Academy, That Startup Show, Pause Fest, and Future Assembly.
- I applied for the Insight Data Science Fellows program. I wasn't sure if I really wanted to do this and I wasn't too keen to move back to the US. At the time there was so much going in Australia and I was keen to see where my astronomy/tech projects would lead. There was also a lot of talk about the potential for an Australian Space Agency, and it seemed like the whole of Australia was in start-up mode with several new University Innovation Precincts, major renewable energy and emerging technology initiatives, and a lot of discussion around designing cities of the future.
After a year of exploring opportunities at the interface of astronomy and tech, I began thinking more seriously about moving away from consulting towards a career in data science
- In terms of Data Science Fellowships and Data Science R&D, Australia still lags behind the US, UK and Europe.
- Nevertheless I spent considerable time learning about data science roles and teams in business and tech; understanding what the priorities are, what companies are driven by, how to build effective data science teams, how data scientists work with product and engineering teams, and the value of building cross-functional teams.
- Thanks to the Fitzroy Academy, I had the privilege of attending Pause Fest – Australia's premier Creative, Tech and Business conference.
- A couple of months in I decided to stop working completely and spend as much time as I could with Jo. The reality was that I just couldn't concentrate on, or prioritise moving back to full-time work. For this reason I also decided not to apply for the 2017 S2DS Fellowship. I just wasn't in a position to move back to the UK. Jo was going through a really bad patch. She was switching treatments more frequently and was in a lot of pain. Her bones were becoming more brittle and she was losing a lot of weight. She still wasn't about to give up and while the rest of us worried and fussed, she was busy planning her epic 40th birthday party and making travel plans for later in the year.
- I worked with social enterprises and non-profit organisations to develop tech solutions for social challenges. I was particularly excited to work with
- I continued working with Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK). During the 2017 Winter Hackathon I worked with Free to Feed, a social enterprise based around a pop-up cooking school, where all classes are run by highly skilled refugees and asylum seekers.
- In the lead up to the 2017 Summer Hackathon also had the privilege of presenting to technologists at Zendesk (one of RHoKs three national sponsors), alongside fellow RHoK organiser Cal Foulner. I also had the privilege of meeting Martina Clark from Carers Couch and helping her kickstart her RHoK journey.
- I had the honour of presenting at the .Astronomy9 conference in Cape Town, and working with incredibly talented and fun research students and postdocs from South Africa, the UK and US. I learned about Cape Town's tech and startup culture, including the Silicon Cape initiative – a catalyst for tech in the cape, and joined the Future Females movement. I met South African and Kenyan astronomers leading numerous education and development projects throughout Africa and in other developing countries, by leveraging emerging technologies. Cape Town, like many other cities in Africa, is a city of contradictions. Of all the the opportunities I've had in the past two years, it was South Africa that made the most profound impact, and made me realise what type of data scientist I want to be.
- I also had the opportunity to explore the Western Cape. I toured along the south coast, visited Addo Elephant National Park, kayaked through Wilderness, and visited several conservation game reserves. I also hugged an orphaned African elephant, or rather he hugged me.
- I've learned a lot more about the Science to Data Science (S2D2) fellowship program through fellow my astro colleagues and S2DS alums Diego Capozzi and Amy McQuillan. Diego also introduced me to the CEO Jason Muller (originally from Melbourne) which led to a few email exchanges about the impact S2DS – the wins and challenges, and how the London and Melbourne data science communities compare.
- I've learned a lot about product and UX; how teams are built (or rather, how effective product teams should be built); where product sits within startups and more established tech companies; the relationship between product and UX; and where data science teams fit into the mix (product development? evaluation?)
- I had the opportunity to learn and practise human centred design methodologies in a variety of contexts; mainly through my work with RHoK partner organisations and non-profits, and working with a small team as part of my IDEO +Acumen Human Centred Design course. I also figured out that it is possible to have a successful career in both data science and human centred design (my ideal role), and was excited to discover that many organisations (including IDEO) are embracing this already.
Re-designing for purpose
In terms of taking control of my career, the past two years have been the best. The time off gave me confidence to jump on new opportunities that I otherwise would have had to turn down had I been engaged in full-time work. It enabled me to explore potential career paths and opened the door to new experiences and new people. It allowed me to let go of past projects and unfinished work and it enabled me to take greater control of my career.
All that was required was a shift in mindset – admittedly this was not easy, a change of perspective, the ability and willingness to get out of my comfort zone and say "yes!" to exciting new opportunities. Along the way I learned the value of saying a polite "no" to things that had no real benefit to life or career – as a consultant this can be tricky.
Self-directed human centred design is a great way to figure out what elements of your life and career are the most important, what satisfies you most, and what a fulfilling career might look like. This is also a great way find your story – to arrange the details of your life into a narrative that helps you move forward and keeps you on track. This is really important when you're changing careers. You need to to be able to tell a story that convinces employers that you are not only capable, but willing to embrace everything that comes with a changing career.
Re-designing your life and career is not always easy. You need to have some level of financial security – I had a year's salary of accessible savings behind me. You also need a good level of self-awareness; a sense of what type of work drives you and what makes you get up in the morning. This is incredibly important and will help make the most of your time off. It also helps if you have side projects that you're passionate about – regardless of whether they are attached to a pay check, and new opportunities locked-in for example conferences or workshops.
You also need to be comfortable bucking social norms. Not everyone will be supportive. While many claim to "work to live, not live to work" the idea of not working can be baffling to some. It's just not something people do, unless of course they are taking maternity or parental leave, a sabbatical, or long service leave. You need some mechanism for continually growing your CV while re-designing your career. Perceptions are important.