What does a data scientist do at a design company?

Having literally just applied for a data science role in at Melbourne-based design company, I couldn’t help but smile when I saw this short blog post about data science at IDEO. Only a few* design companies have integrated data science into their work; IDEO of course, and Dalberg Advisory.

As a global leader in design it’s no surprise that IDEO is leading the charge in this space, and at least once a week I find myself looking at the the IDEO career pages thinking “could I move back to the Bay Area?”. I know most people would probably think “Heck yes! put me on that plan”, but after spending my entire first career moving country/continent every 3 years in order to stay in the field – from Australia, to San Francisco, to Liverpool, Oxford, and back to Australia again – I’m not so sure. Data science was supposed to be the career change that meant I could stop doing that.

So I love seeing articles like this, because a) it makes it easier to explain my data science/design obsession to my family; b) it means that change is definitely coming (“I can feel it in me bones”), and; c) it makes it much easier to convince others about the enormous potential and opportunities that data science brings to design.

Just over a year ago IDEO acquired Datascope Analytics, which is how Lisa Nash started out at IDEO, and why their data science team is still based in Chicago. But it appears they are expanding their data science efforts, with positions advertised in Palo Alto… And while I was in London – working as a data science fellow for a tech startup, IDEO advertised for a Quantitative/Digital Design Researcher, that contained more than a splash of data science. I won’t be surprise me if IDEO London (or perhaps IDEO Europe?) establishes cross continental data science hub.

Meanwhile in Brussels, Dalberg Data Insights is working on a bunch of fantastic international development projects – mainly in Africa, around food security, healthcare, and micro-financing. Dalberg Advisory established their data science arm in 2017. At the end of my data science fellowship I couldn’t help but swing by Brussels on my way home, just to check out the city…. you never know…

Fortunately we have some fantastic design agencies in Melbourne.

Portable recently dabbled with data science as part of a their Design for Justice project, and for at least one of their internal projects. More recently Paper Giant advertised for their very first data science role** which is really exciting. I’ll keep you posted on that front. I have no doubt there will be some tough competition.


So who benefits the most when data and design come together?
The data scientist? or the designer?


The answer…


Both. Equally.

Designers benefit from having a data-driven design approach, where data is brought to the forefront of the decision making process. Rather than trusting their gut, or intuition, they have hard data to back things up. I can imagine scenarios where hard data might be really useful, where user interviews or anecdotes are hard to synthesise, or in cases where they may be misleading, or where there are many different perspectives.


The job of a good data scientist is not only to solve problems, but also to discover the questions worth asking.


Data scientists benefit from having a human-centred approach, where decisions around how to best to select and analyse the data, or to build the right algorithm or visualisation, ensure that the design goals are met. Combine that with rapid prototyping, where feedback can be integrated quickly, and you will undoubtably end up with a better design-driven data science solution.

– A.B.

*based on the two that I know of…

**she says with fingers tightly crossed….


I couldn’t help but love that podcasts made an appearance in her post, and that they’re considered part of her everyday work. About a year ago a friend of mine set up a private Love to Listen Facebook group and my podcast playlist has grown steadily ever since. After finishing Serial Season 3 (amazing — talk about wanting to redesign a justice system… ) I’ve moved on to IDEO Creative Confidence Series and the surprisingly amusing IDEO Futures. Definitely worth checking out…

Design your Death: A Portable R&D Demo Evening


It’s not often that you get to see what goes on behind the closed doors of a design consultancy. But Portable is no ordinary design consultancy. For a start they are based in Collingwood, which automatically gives them a gold star – my old neighbourhood was a just a hop, skip and a jump across Hoddle St.
Secondly, I’ve heard them say that in their early days they aspired to be a kind of Australian IDEO — and doesn’t everyone love IDEO.

I’ve been to a few of their breakfast and evening talks and they are always (a) fantastic, (b) completely packed – standing room only. I first heard about Portable through fellow RHoK buddy and adopted design mentor Zen Tim. He’s possibly the most chilled out and thoughtful person I know. The first time I visited Portable was back in May 2018. Jason Hendry (Partner & Creative Technologist) gave an excellent talk about how they are using a human-centred design approach to building machine learning tools. More recently I heard Joe Sciglitano (Design Lead) talk about empathy in design and what to do with it. Both talks have been brilliant, and since then I’ve been reading through all their design reports. You can check them out here.

We don’t just do design. We start conversations with like-minded and diverse groups of people, whether they have a shared interest in design, technology or inspiring social good. 
— Portable, Collingwood.
At Death’s door

At Death’s door

Needless to say I knew that their R&D Demo Evening would likely be a pretty special event. I wasn’t disappointed.

I had a great time chatting to Portable and non-Portable folks about all things death and ageing and cancer. I also managed to pick a few Portable brains about tech for social good and the value of working at the intersection of data science and design research – thanks for indulging me Tam Ho.

We were invited to test out and provide feedback on the four prototypes they’ve been developing over the past year. It was a such a privilege to talk to their designers about their though processes, what they define as a success, and to hear more about their plans moving forward. Sarah Kaur (Partner & Chief Operations Officer) then launched their most recent report: The Future of Death & Ageing – 81 pages and 17MB of design goodness.

The highlight of the night was catching up with the lovely Martina Clark, founder of Carers Couch (@carerscouch) – I have no doubt her app will be an amazingly good resource for cancer carers. I also meet Sally Coldham, founder of Airloom (@AirloomSocial) and a She Starts alum, who is also doing amazing work in this space.

An all round fantastic night talking about all things data and design.

– A.B.

In case you missed it…

Empathy. Everyone's talking about it. But who's actually doing it? And what do you do with it once you've felt it? Our Human Centered Design specialist Joe takes us on a journey to discover the what, how and why of empathy, and how it's transformed his design practice. Hear all about how feeling stuff can help you win arguments, how to innovate by implementing the radical practice of listening to other people, and how an empathetic approach will not only help you understand your customers, but give you and your team the natural drive to solve some of the trickiest problems they face. With plenty of storytelling, animated GIFs and pop culture references along the way, you'll laugh, you'll cry, but that's kinda the point, ya feel me?

Worth watching this one too…

To initiate the re-boot of Portable Talks, we look at how a human centred design approach can be used to build AI and machine learning tools. Our Tech Lead and AI enthusiast Jason Hendry will cover the basic principles of machine learning and show you how anyone with a computer can begin the process of creating a basic machine learning model.

Data Science at is a UK-based online retailer with an award-winning business model. Foregoing traditional storefronts, Made has only three UK-based showrooms and works directly with designers and manufacturers to produce high-quality, thoughtfully designed furniture at remarkable prices.

As a made-to-order online company with furniture moving from ship to lounge room, leveraging production and customer data is critical to managing their supply chain. If too many products are made the company loses money is dock or storage fees; too little and customers wait longer to receive the orders. Made also prides itself on keeping ahead of trends, so predicting customer behaviour is vital to their business.

What I love most about is their TalentLAB crowdfunding platform. It’s a place to discover new talent and unique products you won’t find anywhere else. TalentLAB was born out of the MADE Emerging Talent Award – an annual competition for up-and-coming designers to break into the industry, and get their product made and sold.

We believe that great design is for everyone. It surprises, tells a story and makes the everyday a little less ordinary. At MADE we design for how people live today. No champagne, no private view, just affordable high-end design at your fingertips.

An evening of networking & talks

We had the privilege of spending the evening with Made’s CEO, Talent Acquisition team, and Data Science team. Being a design focussed retailer, it should come as no surprise that visiting Made’s London Headquarters was a really lovely experience. We were welcomed with drinks and nibbles, and more food following talks from Made’s leaders. Talks focussed on Made’s current and future data science aspirations, and why growing their team is critical to their future success.

Where does Data Science fit in?


Understanding the Customer Lifecycle

  • Considered purchases means long sales cycles.

  • Cross device browsing is hard to track – but here to stay

  • User journeys do not start at their site, they start in search engines.

  • There is untapped potential to drive repeat purchases.

Supply Chain

& Forecasting

  • Accurate sales forecasting is key to good lead times

  • Predicting forecast hits at the design stage could be game changing

Customer Service

  • The customer service team currently scales with sales

  • Advances in AI means many simple customer service queries should be able to be automated.

Visual Analysis
& Recommendations

  • Visual search – finding products of a similar colour, shape, or style.

  • Identifying products that work well together.

  • Learning to understand a customers style.


Going deep vs. Going wide

I spent most of today learning more about the various schools of thought around design thinking, reading Tim Brown's Design Thinking blog, writing up a short case study about designing for a circular economy, and thinking more about the intersection between data science and human-centred design. In a perfect world I would be paid to do this all day, every day.

One blog post; The Career Choice Nobody Tells You About,  really resonated with me. It's short and contains a simple message, but it was a nice reminder for why I wanted to "leave" astronomy research and pursue new opportunities.

Going deep requires incredible focus, lifelong commitment to a single cause, a willingness to be patient towards achieving success, and the confidence to follow a path others may not understand or value...

Going wide, on the other hand, is about making connections between what you already know and what you’re curious about discovering. It requires systems thinking in order for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. It means developing the skills to collaborate for the purpose of learning. It’s about seeing the creative possibilities in breaking down boundaries and describing the world, your organization, the problem in new ways.
— Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

Data science offers researchers in academia an opportunity to go wide, to explore problems across all sciences, the arts, across business and technology, and even the not-for-profit social sector. While many researchers leave academia because of negative experiences or job insecurity, I suspect that most (like myself) leave because there are just so many more equally exciting things in the world to discover (or make, or teach) and a whole new community of amazing people to learn from.

Personally, committing a lifetime to academic research wasn't enough for me. Although my research was exciting and I had the opportunity to work at world-leading academic institutions, with incredibly clever and talented and researchers, there was always something missing. Perhaps it was a fear of missing out on all the other wonderful things people were doing?

Fortunately I've managed to have found a way to find aspects of astrophysics research where i can make significant contributions, and in the meantime work with data and technology within a completely different industry. There is a stigma around leaving academia so choosing how and why you leave matters.






Re-designing Life & Career


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 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 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.


  • It’s not that I had given up on astronomy per se, but the culture is slow to change, very slow...

  • I started looking at data science opportunities locally, and specifically how others were moving into roles. In terms of data science fellowships and R&D roles, Australia lags noticeably behind the US, UK and Europe. So it can be tricky to prove yourself.

  • 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 (in hindsight I wish I had spent even more). The reality was that I just couldn't concentrate on, or prioritise moving back to full-time work while she was really sick. A little self-indulgent too perhaps, but I could afford the time off and seeing what was happening to her made me want to adjust priorities. For this reason I also decided not to apply for the 2017 London S2DS Fellowship. I just wasn't in a position to move back to the UK. London would have to wait. Jo was going through a really bad patch. She was switching treatments more frequently and was in a lot of pain (only much, much later would I realise how bad it really was). Her bones were becoming more brittle and she was losing a lot of weight. But she remained a trooper. She wasn't about to give up. 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 continued working with Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK); or more specifically with social enterprises and non-profit organisations to develop tech solutions for social challenges. 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, taking time off after leaving Swinburne was the best (not quite) decision I could have made. 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.  In the next few weeks I’ll be applying for the 2018 London S2DS Fellowship program.

 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.

What I've learned...

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.



IDEO just acquired Datascope Analytics


Ok, so this is kind of huge.

“Today, the design consultancy IDEO announced that it has acquired Datascope, a Chicago-based data science company “ read more…


Why? because it opens up new opportunities for designers to create a whole new design-focussed data science practice and ecosystem tools that enable them to build tangible, intelligent, data-driven applications and services.

The type of research and development that is normally dominated by organisations such as the World Bank, the UN, and the World Health Organisation.

Yes please!

The Rise of Digital Richmond

Last night I had the privilege of attending a very special event at 99designs, a celebration of sorts with a panel discussion about Melbourne’s thriving startup community and in particular the rise of “digital Richmond”. Once a gritty industrial area, Richmond and Cremorne emerged as the stomping ground of choice for Melbourne’s established tech-companies, aspiring startups, and co-working working spaces.

Giants of Australia’s homegrown tech scene, Seek, REA Group, and MYOB, as well as globally minded businesses such as 99designs and Vinomofo, share the precinct’s narrow streets with start-ups, venture capital funds and industry groups such as Startup Victoria, as well as local retailers, small businesses, and iconic music venues. Cafes and restaurants abound. In fact you’re probably more likely to bump into angel investor in a cafe, than in a pitch meeting. 

The event was held at 99designs in the old Australian Knitting Mill (AKM building), an iconic landmark for every Melbournian. The manufacture of hosiery and other knitted items began in 1899 when the first knitting mills were established and by the end of the war period. The Australian Knitting Mill was established in  August of 1899 by Thomas Murray and Co. Right up until the site was taken over in 2006, it continued operating as industrial warehouse, refurbishing coaches and carriage for Melbourne’s transport system. It now houses a bunch of tech companies and startups, notably 99designs, and the Inspire 9 co-working community.

The night was a celebration of 99designs’ return to Australia (new HQ), a celebration of Richmond and its flourishing tech industry, and a discussion about community and the challenges that come with building a successful startup ecosystem. The discussion was opened by Philip Dalidakis, Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade. The panel was made of up Rachel Neumann, Startmate Partner and Launch Vic Board Member and former Managing Director of Eventbrite Australia; Dr. Jodie Auster, General Manager of UberEATS; Patrick Llewellyn, CEO of 99designs; Nigel Dalton, REA Group Chief Inventor; Cameron McIntyre, Managing Director and CEO of Carsales; and Eloise Watson, Investment Manager at Rampersand.

Rachel began by introducing everyone and talking about how they met over the years – as co-working individuals at Inspire9, as neighbours in the East Bay, through fellow aspiring entrepreneurs – and how this helped each develop their careers within a well supported environment. I loved this story and it was such a nice surprise to hear that their careers started though a fairly tight grassroots network. It also reminded me that you cannot start new ventures on your own. It was also really nice to see that nearly all had spent time either in Silicon Valley or the East Bay. A nice little reminder of my own fortunate life and past opportunities.

It was really pleased to hear Jodie’s thoughts about Melbourne’s place in the tech industry  In 2016 she moved from San Francisco back to Australia for her partner, leaving her position as head of talent acquisition at Thumbtack. Entrepreneurs rarely talk about life outside of the their product or company at these types of events, so that was really refreshing and led to quite a candid discussion about talent retention. With no position in place upon her return, she worried that Melbourne might not offer the same opportunities. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to hear this and for someone with connections also falling into the trap. It seems this is a common misconception. A week or two ago I started considering moving back to the Bay Area, to search for opportunities not present here. Perhaps my worries were unfounded? 

It turns out that while Melbourne is a hotbed for startups and global tech companies keen to make Melbourne their Asia-Pacific HQ (e.g., Slack, HIRED, 99designs), there is also a severe shortage of talent. As a job hunter with a relatively unique career path, this was music to my ears. 

So perhaps not surprising much of the panel discussion then focussed on talent retention, finding ways to better prepare graduates for careers in the tech industry, finding ways to bring established talent in from other countries to ensure a diverse community, and bringing homegrown talent back to Australia. It was amusing to hear Rachel’s advice, which was to grab talent before their kids start school. Her savvy, somewhat tongue-in-cheek advice was to hunt down people on LinkedIn with kids between 2 and 5 years, and entice them back. Indeed many of the questions following the panel discussion were about retaining talent. 

Richmond has a lot to offer. It’s a major transport hub and a lively, diverse area — a mix of residential and small and big business. Lots of cafes and restaurants, old warehouses and plenty of co-working space, only10 minutes from the CBD, and a few minutes from the M1. However their some challenges. How do you grow an ecosystem that supports growing tech companies, but doesn’t serve to alienate and displace local residents? How do you keep a balance between finding new space without pushing retailers, small businesses and indeed residents out when housing prices inevitably rise? How do you manage fast growth and the need for larger office space? And what are the responsibilities for Local and State government with respect to transport and local services (e.g. childcare facilities for working parents)

More IT grads are coming out of Victoria than any other state, and just like research, many are moving overseas to places like Silicon Valley, New York, and  Singapore. Many believe that the opportunities abroad don’t exist in Australia. Part of the problem is the disconnect between what universities teach and the tech sector. Part of it is also cultural. Universities can sit in bubbles, although this has changed a lot over the past few years.

I couldn’t help but wonder whether part of the problem stems from traditional tech roles, recruiter expectations, and the rise of relatively new roles, or rather labels, such as “data scientists” and “UX research/design”. It seems to me that many companies still don’t really understand what data science is, what data scientists can do, the importance of a having a data science strategy, what backgrounds and skillsets make for good data scientists , etc. In the US and UK the situation is much better, with the Science to Data Science (S2DS) and Insight Data Science Fellows providing much of this advice to companies and preparing transitioning academics for tech careers. A lot of the training and leg work is done. I asked the panel to share their thoughts on this. I also brought up the issue of the lack of internships.

Only Rachel seemed to be aware of these programs and she had a really interesting take on this that I hadn’t considered. Since university education in the US provides students with a boarder skillset — first year undergraduates study a broader range of subjects that include arts, humanities and sciences —  tech recruiters  in Silicon Valley tend to focus on transferable skills (e.g., strategic thinking, critical analysis and communication skills) rather than just discipline specific knowledge. Apparently in Silicon Valley it’s far more common to work in a role that may be completely different to what you trained in at university. It’s also really common to jump from company to company on short timescales (a year or two) and to take up very different roles at each in order to acquire new skill. In Australia we think differently. A software developer is expected to have trained as a software developer and here they are more likely to stay with the same company for many years.

It was great to hear that event bridging courses (e.g., the 12-week courses offered by General Assembly and MOOCs) are good enough that graduates can successfully transition into new careers. Patrick seemed to favour this model. In fact there was a general consensus that if you can attract talent early (even straight out of high-school), you can easily train people on the job. This was somewhat alarming. To me it indicates a growing bias against experience and people transitioning into new careers after 10 or more years in the workforce, in favour of young recruits that can be easily moulded. Not that this is a bad thing. 99designs sees its workforce as the birthplace for the next great business.

The rest of the discussion focussed on the problems associated with raising capital and the reliance on bootstrapping. There was also a discussion about diversity and building an ecosystem that supports young families (the average age at REA is 36), that also supports women returning to the workforce. He also brought up the need for local services (“open East Richmond station for God’s sake!”) and for local government and councils to be able to keep up with changes. Patrick shared an interesting observation. While 99designs faced a lot of red tape setting up in Berlin, the office flourishes because of Berlin’s strong social infrastructure, its open border policy for attracting talent, and the high priority it places on investing in education, which is mostly free. There is no shortage of design talent in Berlin.