Driven by Data: Kristen Kehrer

By: Yadira Y. Caro

Data Science has become very popular term in the world of technology careers. But what does this term really mean? How can you start shifting your skills to become a data scientist? Kristen Kehrer wants to help with that.

With a Bachelors in Mathematics and a Masters in Statistics, Kristen has worked in fields such as Health, Communications and eCommerce. Her roles have included analyzing data, conducting research and developing technical models as coder. When she started, she did not knew these were roles would be ascribed to a Data Scientist.

Today, as a founder of Data Moves Me, she focuses on teaching others about the field through online courses, speaking engagements and helping people build their resume towards a job in Data Science. She is also a Data Science instructor at UC Berkley Extension and EMERITUS Institute of Management.

In this interview she describes what Data Science is and shares some of the required skills to get into this career.

How do you describe Data Science and what you do?
This completely depends on the context and who I’m talking to. The definition I typically use for data science is: “It is the understanding and utilization of tools, data and methodologies that enable you to effectively solve problems utilizing data.” Someone who self identifies as a “data scientist” is often using machine learning and writing code, however the umbrella of the “data sciences” also involves analysts and other data wranglers.

It is certainly a multi-disciplinary field including a bit from programming, statistics, and business. There are no unicorns, everyone has their own strengths in the field and may be doing quite different tasks depending on industry.

What are some of most common misconceptions about it?
Again, the misconceptions depend on who you’re talking to. There are people who think everything is “AI”, there are the people who aren’t as data literate but still making decisions based on data, potentially the most dangerous (people). There are those who do not understand what the real pipeline looks like and only focus on machine learning.

I think there are a whole lot of misconceptions and it’s exacerbated by the “hotness” of the field. Lots of buzzwords and hype that make it difficult for people to fully grasp what the reality looks like. There is a huge focus on machine learning, but this is one tool.

I often hear people say “I need to hire a data scientist.” This is an incredibly broad statement. Think first about what you really need someone to help you with, nail down how they’ll contribute to strategy and what skills that will actually require, and then hire for those specific things, rather than listing the kitchen sink in terms of skills on a job description.

Why did you choose it as a career?
I definitely didn’t know that I was seeking out “data science.” The term wasn’t really being used when I started my career. I had finished a BS in Mathematics in 2004, realized I was in a dead-end job and decided to go back and pursue a MS in Statistics. I had seen that statisticians made good money. Then it was through a series of job changes and career moves that I really found myself in the data science space. It also involved some rebranding, as I considered myself a statistician who does “advanced analytics”. Then one day it was “oh wait, I’m a data scientist”.

Can you describe a project you worked on which you enjoyed or learned from?
The amazing thing about this field is that I’ve found most of the projects enjoyable. This industry requires continuous learning. Even after I’ve implemented an algorithm one way, the next time I go to do something similar there is probably a new library or package that makes data cleaning or model building easier, so I learn those.

One of my more favorite projects was using customer’s subscription data to find customers with seasonal usage patterns. So instead of saying “hey, these customers are using our product less and may be a retention risk,” I was able to say “hey, this customer has a seasonal business and we expect less usage from them in these months, we can use this information to speak to them differently and infer there needs.”

I used the TBATS algorithm to take these people as seasonal or non-seasonal. Although I’m very well versed in econometric time series analysis and forecasting, this was my first time researching this algorithm and the pros and cons that went along with it. It was also sort of an off-label use case for the algorithm. That is where I find the most enjoyment: developing a methodology that will work for a problem I haven’t solved before.

Because Data Science is so interdisciplinary, there are many competencies that transfer well from other careers if you position them for the Data Scientist role. I want to educate others to be able to use this to their advantage.

Kristen Kehrer

What drove you to focus on helping others with resume building?
I was laid-off in 2017 a week and half after returning from my second maternity leave. Although I was quite happy with my resume as is and was frequently getting calls from recruiters, I picked up some amazing additional tips from a career coach. I saw so many people trying to “rebrand” themselves or make a career change to data science. These people would ask me to review their resume and it was clear that they were highlighting the things they had done previously, but not how that would translate to them being an effective Data Scientist.

Because Data Science is so interdisciplinary, there are many competencies that transfer well from other careers if you position them for the Data Scientist role. I want to educate others to be able to use this to their advantage. People often bring fantastic skills to the table that they’re not highlighting to their full potential.

What trends do you see coming up in the field?
Well I hope that there will be more of a standardization between terminology, roles and responsibilities so that we can all use a common language and understand each other. I think as Data Science matures it will be clearer that it is a team sport and not a single person sport.

What are two of the absolute must-have tools you use in your day-to-day for your job?
I always say that SQL is a must. People often get distracted by shiny objects, learning new algorithms, etc. But on your first day as a data scientist you’ll most likely be told about your new job’s data warehouse. That is where you’ll extract your data from. Although you can do joins and connect to a database from R or Python, you’ll still need to understand relational databases to navigate the schema where your data lives to be effective.

I also like to stress the importance of communication skills. Give your deliverables love and care, think about how to best present to a non-technical audience. Your ability to build relationships where stakeholders trust your work and see you as a valued partner will be instrumental in your career.

What are some of the plans for near future?
I’m currently working on a book Mothers of Data Science with Kate Strachnyi. I expect the book to be available in 2020. I’m also teaching a course through UC Berkeley Extension called “Practical Data Science.” This is a foundations of Data Science course in R. I’m also currently consulting and offering in-office training for Analytics/Data Science teams that want to take their skills to the next level. I also intend to keep blogging at https://datamovesme.com.

What resources (books, podcast, websites, etc.), do you recommend which have helped you in your career?
I try to give useful tips on my personal blog https://datamovesme.com. I also think finding a community on LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social platform helps you to keep up with the trends, new programming libraries that will make your life a little easier, and help you to gauge what might be most relevant to learn next. Because again, it is continuous lifelong learning as a Data Scientist that will help you stay relevant. You can also become involved in things like “Makeover Monday” or “Tidy Tuesday” and the community will give you feedback on your work. This is one of the greatest forms of visibility, and networking is diving right in and contributing.

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!

Government Communications in the Magic City: Interview with Nannette Rodriguez

‘There is always breaking news on Friday after 3 o clock”’ said Nanette Rodriguez, half jokingly, half serious, during a Friday interview at her office in the City of Miami Beach where she has been leading communication efforts for almost two decades. As the now Director of Communications prepped for a day of possible issues ahead, she chatted enthusiastically with me, a Miami Beach resident, about the lessons she had learned to ensure the city can communicate effectively and its citizens and its employees, while earning the city several recognitions along the way: in 2011 the Miami Beach Twitter account was named by Code for America as one of the top three city accounts to follow just behind New York 311 and Minneapolis Snow Emergency. The City of Miami Beach products include MB magazine, MBTV (including online channel), and use of existing platforms with their YouTube channel, Flickr and Facebook page.

The passion of this native Floridian for her job is contagious as well as her interest for learning the latest trends in social media and ways to communicate.
Note: Interview has been edited for space.

How did you started in communications?
Let me go back in my childhood: when I was very young I used to write stories, and illustrate books. I was also very in tune with the news, current events and my favorite show was 60 Minutes. Here I was this child in second, third grade, watching 60 Minutes and writing fictitious stories and illustrating. I’ve always had a knack for the written word… Historically in our family, my father, my grandmother, my great grandfather, they were all photographers… All of those interests kind of intertwined in my interests, so when I went to college I first studied Art… I was an Art and Business major.

So you thought about that early on, to make money from your art? 
(Laughs) Early on I thought ‘you have to make money on what you like.’ I did go into Communications and graduated from the University of Miami and did a degree of Communications and Marketing. From there, while I was still in school, I was working for a cable company, working for the family business in the photos industry, then finally got a job on TV. I worked on WPBT, public television, for 10 years and got to get my hand on many different very creative jobs, did advertising campaigns, we did publicity with other media, doing national campaigns across the country on new programs, also working with the local news at the station… (That experience) actually became the perfect fit when I was asked to work in the city of Miami Beach.

So you’ve been with the City for about 20 years?
It will be 20 years in November.

What was your plan or vision then and how has it changed throughout the years?
Miami Beach was in the Madonna phase of Miami Beach, I guess you can say. The international film stars were here, Bird Cage had just premiered, it was the post Miami Vice (era), star studded, the clubs were coming of age, it was that type of Miami Beach. Government wise things were changing, things were moving forward… In my career in communications we started with the type writer (laughs)… Actually when I came to the city of Miami Beach I was used to using higher level tools (in my previous job)… When I got here we got a computer, but we did not have email! I was used to having email prior to that, I was like ‘oh my gosh, we are going back to the dark ages, but its ok, I’ve been there’ (laughs)… One of the first initiatives that I brought to the city was develop a website. Of course that took a couple of years in the coming, there were not a lot of people that actually knew how to develop websites at the time.
(…) We were actually one of the first few government stations that were doing original programming… We were also the first station to go live on the web via live web streaming. We were also the first station to do close captioning and do close captioning in Spanish.

Miami Beach has been a pioneer in many of these things. The city has also won awards such as the Savvy awards. Are there any other examples of awards the city has won?
As far of communications, there is a slew of awards that we have been awarded or recognized as top 10 of something: awards for our Florida Government Communicators Association, 3CMA which is the City-County Communications and Marketing Association awards, our magazine is finalist for an award again this year, some of our videos have won awards, we actually have submitted this year for the Emmys… It’s not just about the awards, it’s great to be recognized… If we are communicating the message effectively, if we have people talking about the result of that message… that to me is more of a result than someone giving you a gold star here, your trophy. No, I want to see results of our effort. To me, that is the award.

What is some advice you can share in terms of what governments may be doing wrong or share simple practices they can start doing?
I would not say they are doing it wrong. First of all they need to start using (social media); you need to be where the conversation is… How I explain it to many other government agencies is to remember the town square back in the 1700s when our pioneers would try to get information from town to town about American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, whatever important documentation needed to go out there. There was somebody on a horse that would ride from town to town and post something in the town square. Now everybody has a town square because everyone, well not everybody, but most people have a Facebook page. And your Facebook page has posts, it’s your bulletin board, it’s also your bulleting board where you can talk to other people and post on theirs but everybody sees it.
(…) Older generations, yeah, they still tune in to the 6 o’clock news because they know at 6 o clock they are going to receive that information. But even the older generation is now on social media. We see our demographics that are following us on social media. We had My Space before had Facebook, that’s how long we’ve been on social media (laughs)… Of course the followers on there were very young. But when we went to Facebook and more people were clinging on to that, our demographics pretty much evened out.
Anybody on social media will tell you the older generation is the largest growing group on social media and that that is a reason why any government agency needs to be on there. It’s not a thing for the young anymore, its cross generational, and cross cultural as well because you can speak in many different languages on social media. We’ll put Spanish messages up as well and electronic news list serve which we have been doing since 1999 doing e-blasts and emails… I want to know what the next means of communicating is because we need to be there.

How does that translate to internal communications? Is there a similar approach to that?
On internal we do a lot of email plus internally we have our quarterly publication which actually we tried to do away with because we had our intranet, an internal website. Like we do with our community, we did an internal survey and it showed that the majority of our employees are not at a desk or an office. We have public works employees that are out on the street, we have parks and recreation employees that are out in our parks, we have firemen and firewomen and police officers that are all out on the streets. The majority of our work force, I would say only about 300, are on an office out of close to over 2500 employees. Although some of them were getting the printed version, we did away with it. (We thought) ‘now we have an internal website, we don’t need to print this anymore.’ Oh my goodness, everybody was like ‘what do you mean?’ We don’t have access to a computer and we love to see the pictures!
We had to totally reevaluate how we were doing things. Again, you can’t just depend on one type of communication because people not just receive but comprehend information in different ways.

I wanted to ask you about the branding of the city. It seems it has a pretty clear use and approach. Was it difficult to shape that branding?
Boy that was fun! We did that about 12, 13 years ago. After 99, we did the general obligation bond and with that bond we were going to be doing a lot of infrastructure work in our neighborhoods and public facilities. Between our Planning department and our City Manager’s office they thought ‘while we are doing that, maybe we should come up with a way finding, a signage branding for the city.’
(…) As part of that way finding signage identity, came our identity Miami Beach, the Beach being the book bold, the more emphasis on it and not separated, together, but the emphasis is on the Beach, not in Miami, because if you see them separate you may think ‘oh its Miami,’ ‘oh it’s the beach. ’ No, we are Miami BEACH. And on the celebration of our Art Deco and our MiMo (art style), the firm (we hired) came with a whole graphic identity package for the city.

Being a native Floridian, what do you think is the biggest misconception of the city?
We are not your typical beach city, although that’s the first thing a lot of people think of: South Beach, the nightclubs, the nightlife. But we are more than that…We are really a trendsetting community not just in the tourism industry and what you see in entertainment but in technology. A lot of the things that we do in our city as far as infrastructure, policing, fire; people from other communities, actually cities from around the world, come and visit us to see how we are starting to do things. It’s not just that glitz and glam that you see that everybody thinks of us as Miami Beach.

For professionals in communications, what do you think they should learn more about to further their careers?
Keep yourself relevant, don’t become a dinosaur. Communications is a constant learning profession, as many professions are. You always have to be on top of what the latest is and know it, learn it, become it, be in the know… If you don’t keep yourself relevant you are going to keep as old as a transistor radio.

Or a typewriter.
Or a typewriter (laughs).

Follow the City of Miami Beach on Twitter @MiamiBeachNews

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

She Likes Long Text Messages Because She Appreciates a Complete Thought: Interview with Alex Wall

The title of this blog captures the beginning of the career of Alex Wall in digital marketing. The Lead Marketing Strategist at Roar Media (and Muay Thai fighter) started delving into this field while in college at University of Central Florida using a variation of the text above (read on to learn more). In her career, she has continued searching for the latest trends and applying new approaches, including tactics learned from science.

During a recent presentation during Social Media Day Miami on ‘Social Neuromarketing,’ Alex used images, quotes and stats to tell the story of what social media does to our brains and how can marketers and content developers use it to their advantage. In our interview we talked about applying science to advertising, how Internet has been her tool to learn and connect, and her love for ads. She wants people to love ads too as a “meaningful experience or exchange, not a corporate apparatus.”

In terms describing what you do, how would you describe your roles?

I am a full stack digital marketer so I manage the digital department at an integrated PR marketing communications agency. More or less if it happens on the internet is something that I have some purview over. I cut my teeth on the bread and butter of SEO (search engine optimization), social media, web design, and copyrighting… I build out from there with a really heavy emphasis on persuasion marketing using psychology to increase conversion and analytics using math. I think I take a pretty scientific approach to it.

What is your background? Do you have a background in all those fields or is it a passion of yours?

It’s kind of funny. I don’t really have a background in marketing prior to actually doing it… My degrees are in English Literature and Philosophy. I was not ever really in Business or Marketing or Advertising, but I started building websites when I was 11 or 12 years old. My first website, I think I was 11, was a Pokémon website. I had some friends on the Internet who also loved Pokémon. The weakness of the gateway system at that time was that in order to be able to play against somebody, you had to be standing right next to them. I was like ‘that’s garbage because I don’t have a lot of friends in my immediate periphery because I am a weird little kid, but I have lots of friends that I can stand on the internet’ because I think I was like one of the first kids on my block to have computer.’ So I built websites where I could host my Pokémon data and then run simulation Pokémon matches against other nerdy children out there. I started coding when I was about 11.

How did you learn?

I just looked it up. There were a bunch of tutorials on the Internet and I just looked it up…There was no WordPress; I just coded in just straight HTML, XHTML because that was the thing back then and I was into that. I had fun with it. I played around a lot. Then I moved on to college and studied the Humanities and I studied classics and I studied communication. I was a debater. I was also a speaker… and I did copywriting to make extra money.

Then one day I was fucking around on the Internet on Facebook, which was a relatively new thing back then. It was before it was opened up to everybody and it was just for college students. So I was messing around on it and this was back when you could make Like pages, just like anything, like the cool side of the pillow…you could make these Like pages so I made one. Just being a condescending English major, I should have made some trademarking around it because you now can Google it to this day and find it everywhere, I wrote ‘I like long text messages because I appreciate a complete thought.’ I just thought that was hysterical and I liked it, 13 of my friends liked it and that was cool and I walked away from it. You know I won’t do like a slow build up here but within 3 or 4 months that page had 1.6 million people following it.

(…) This was the precursor to Facebook pages as something that was done for businesses or brands or locations.. So I had all these people following me and advertisers started reaching out to me… offering to post links to their online t-shirt shops… The ecommerce sites that were sarcastic in nature, these smart ass t-shirts shops… would say ‘we’ll give you X dollars to order, we’ll give you 15% commission and kick back.’ So I basically started doing affiliated marketing through that Facebook page, just goofing off and I ended up making a substantial amount of money figuring out affiliate marketing and running that page.

Is that page still available today?

No, I actually got out at a good time because Facebook completely changed the way they do their pages now. You are no longer able to create a page that represents an idea or sentence…That taught me something important abut social media and about Internet marketing and making money on the web which is don’t build your house on someone else’s land… If you build your model around someone else’s platform like Facebook and they change their platform and they disrupt your model, you’re screwed. Sorry.

That’s why email has always been such a dominant format cause you always own our email list. If people subscribe to your stuff or whatever, you always have your email list…. It was an accidental breakneck speed education I would say.

 Is your specialization neuromarketing?

I am a specialist in it but I am not practicing specialist. I sort of moved on to broader topics and here’s why: there is not that many people in Florida talking about neuromarketing. I think that a lot of people in marketing come from two angles: they come from a communication and a journalist angle, or they come at it from a sales angle, and neither of those is sufficient to really grapple with the complex problems that neuromarketing tries to solve.

(…) I’ve spent a few years as part of a passion project really getting into neuromarketing and learning as much about it as I could. I even consulted with a neuroscientist in California. But there is really nobody else talking about it.

I became fascinated by it and the reason that I originally became fascinated by it is because I thought it was bullshit. I was part right, because what people say about neuromarketing and what people think about neuro-marketing is mostly bullshit. Someone posted a video a few days ago about subliminal marketing and how advertisers found the ways to hide the word ‘sex’ in Coke cans and that make Coke cans sell more. No, it doesn’t! Nobody thinks that. They experimented with shit like that in the 1960s and 1970s… Unless you are selling condoms there is no business advantage in trying to show dirty stuff in your ads, so when I see stuff like subliminal messaging, trying to get you to buy stuff by showing stuff about sex, that’s garbage, that’s total pseudoscience and that’s garbage.

There are principles though that we learn from the study of neuromarketing. Neuromarketing really is not a practice, the practice is in learning from neuroscience and occasionally being able to conduct real tests, which are very costly… Some of the principles that I went over in my talk like contrasts, things like narrative instead of statistics, pain marketing, fear marketing, show people what their life is like without your product and then show them what is like with your product. I guarantee you, if somebody is not doing that and starts doing that, the sales are going to double. The sales are going to double and if they are not, call me Sally.

 It is interesting and it seems like a topic that should be addressed more. People want to know what the foundation for all of this is. They want science to be behind this. They want the evidence.

John Wanamaker said once ‘half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don’t know which half.’ I only think that neuromarketing combined with analytics seeks to answers that question…With either one, with good data analysis or with neuromarketing I think you can figure out where you are wasting money because with neuromarketing you learn which messages are more effective before you send them out, whereas data, metrics, analytics… can help you understand on where you are making and losing money once your campaign is live. And that’s helpful with an ongoing digital campaign, with something you can start and stop and turn on and edit. But if you are doing a study because you are going to spend 30 million dollars to run a Super Bowl commercial or whatever it is, you kind of want that information up front. You can’t turn it on and adjust it on the fly. You need to film that shit way, way in advance. It’s those types of campaigns that benefit the most from neuromarketing tests…Pretty much everything else you just learn from what is already being learned.

From your particular experience, what do you see to be the trends to look out in the future?

I’ll tell you: chat app marketing, for messaging apps. You are going to see brands trying to get on WhatsApp, on Kik and other one to one messaging apps.

(…) Video has been blowing up year over year, its still headed in that direction. The best investment a small business owner can make right now or somebody who wants to be a digital marketing consultant or start an ecommerce or retail business, the best investment they can make right now is invest on a nice camera. Because visual content is the future for the Internet, absolutely.

How do you see yourself in the future? Are there are aspects of marketing that interest you more?

What I like to do is being involved at developing new types of ads, new types of marketing messages, new ways to communicate with people… When you go and you spend money to place ads on the Internet, that is where the money of digital advertising in. It’s not in SEO or organic social media management. It’s in content and good content and it’s in paid media. That’s where 95% of the money is. If anybody else tells you differently they are either lucky or lying.

I love marketing, I love digital marketing, I love the Internet, I’ve always have. I have a very philosophical take on the Internet and the opportunities it presents and part of it is sentimental… (Growing up) kids would come up and say, ‘can Alex come out and play’ and I would go tell my mom ‘can you say that I can’t go out and play’, ‘can you say that I am grounded so I can’t go out’? I did not have the spine to say ‘no fuck off.’ I do now.

I wanted to be liked but I also did not wanted to hang out with them. I wanted to do my own stuff. The Internet to me gave me a lot of opportunities to get in touch and to learn stuff. Almost everything that I’ve learned about marketing, media and social and everything, I learned online, I learned by doing. I’ve taken online classes, I’ve gone to seminars, I’ve gone to conferences, done a couple of workshops. But mostly I just read, and tried and failed and tried again, failed and read and that’s just it. That’s it. And I failed Algebra 2 twice in middle school and high school so if I can do it, absolutely anybody can do it.

I think I am just so stubborn that I won’t stop doing something until I get my way.

Follow Alex Wall on Twitter @AlexlWall

Follow the author @yadicarocaro