Leaders’ Insights: Bronagh Riordan, CarTrawler

27 Oct 2016

Bronagh Riordan, CarTrawler. Image: CarTrawler

Bronagh Riordan is the head of data science at CarTrawler.

With a BSc in mathematics, statistics and computing from Ulster University and a masters in statistics from the University of Sheffield, Riordan has worked in the data science sector for over a decade.

Future Human

In her current role, she drives the use of data science within the organisation.

Describe your role and what you do.

I head up a team of data science specialists and business intelligence experts tasked with building scalable, automated and intelligent machine-learning algorithms for optimising CarTrawler’s pricing, supply and content.

Most recently, my team and I have developed an end-to-end price and supply optimisation capability, with the power to price thousands of our product items in real time, in a highly personalised way, and all in a very dynamic online market.

Our unique approach allowed us to build predictive algorithms and develop ways of dynamically pricing and filtering the most profitable and relevant products, in order to present the customer with the right product, at the right time and at the right price.

Using a pricing and supply solution like this has changed the way CarTrawler operates and has been one of the biggest innovations and risks we have undertaken as a business. With the flick of a switch, our intelligent algorithm enabled the company to move from manual control of base rate prices to one optimal price covering 75pc of our priceable product.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I couldn’t survive without the Outlook calendar on my iPhone and iWatch – I am a true advocate of using technology while on the move.

I am also a to-do list kind of person and always make a prioritised list of what needs to be done at the start of each week and the beginning of each day.  I get a certain satisfaction in ticking tasks off the list.

I like to tackle the more challenging projects first so that I can end the day with the quick and easy tasks.  I do try to set realistic deadlines for myself and keep the 80:20 rule of workloads at the front of my mind. I’ve recently switched off my instant email alerts and allocate regular time slots to check my inbox instead. I find it helps me focus the job at hand.

I also have a great team so I can delegate and pass certain tasks on. This has helped us to create a more productive, competent and confident team. Effective teamwork is crucial to our success.

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

I think one of the biggest challenges (and opportunities) facing our business is the transformational shift in how customers search and shop online. Invisible boundaries that used to exist between products and services have now all but vanished; opening up new opportunities across every segment of the travel industry.

For a travel business like ours, this development has meant that we have had to get smarter and adapt, as customer expectations rise. The era of personalisation is upon us and there’s so much opportunity out there in being able to meet the needs and wants of different types of customers, by offering them the right product, at the right price, when they need it.

We’ve been tackling this phenomenon with the help of our intelligent algorithms – they give us the power to develop a journey-centric range of personalised merchandising techniques.

What are the key industry opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Personalisation: Customers increasingly expect businesses to provide a personalised service that’s tailored to their specific needs, in terms of information and product, and this expectation has shaped our business strategy. The very nature of our business as an aggregator means that we provide our customers with the widest choice of ground transport solutions at every touchpoint of their online travel experience, as we know that every customer is different and a “one size, fits all” adds little value.

Big data and insight-led innovation: By investing in our big data capabilities and utilising the information we already know about our customers’ behaviour and characteristics, we can now deliver the relevant products at the right time in their user journey.

Clever UX: We advocate UX as fundamental to product in approach and practice – with tech, design, research, content and QA all part of one team to ensure we capture all of the components of the finished product in the one workflow – and ultimately a focus on the end user. We embrace all levels of UX as component parts in a user journey – making changes as simple as altering the colour of a button, to changing the entire booking funnel.

Merchandising expertise: Well executed cross-selling techniques are a crucial component of effective online merchandising. Our research and continual testing strategy means that we are consistently refining our approach to create the most relevant content, display, message and price for our users at every point in the booking journey.

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

My first real-world analytical role was as a trainee statistician for the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer. Pfizer run a 12-month undergraduate trainee placement scheme where you are given the opportunity to work on and contribute to live and hugely impactful clinical trial projects.

It was a fantastic opportunity to gain an insight into how one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies operate, whilst at the same time, advancing my professional skills, academic knowledge and technical skills.

I had always very much enjoyed and relished working in the mathematical and statistical arena, however, this role really gave me a new sense of motivation and passion for applying analytics and statistics to real-world problems.

I have to say that this role really did shape my future and served as an excellent springboard for my professional future in data science.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, believed that everything happens for a reason, and that every experience in your life was designed to shape you into the ultimate and greatest version that you could ever imagine yourself to be. This is how I live my life and as such, no decision is a mistake. Instead, I see it is an opportunity to shape a better you and learn through experience.

In saying that, buying a property in Dublin at the height of the property bubble probably wasn’t the best idea I have ever had!

How do you get the best out of your team?

As was reported by Silicon Republic last August, ‘Ireland is on the edge of a data science tsunami’ and having the privilege to be part of the most significant transition in business and technology history is both challenging but also very rewarding.

I think that it’s then about developing valuable projects for my team that have the power to really add to the profitability and success of the company. It’s very motivating if everyone on the team can see how much of an impact a project they’re working on has on the business, and see that it’s adding real value in terms of profitability. My team is extremely ambitious and they’re always keen to hit the ground running, so it’s important to challenge them. I really believe in their ability and their potential to deliver impactful results.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?

Career guidance at school needs to be improved. I think there’s a lack of understanding amongst educators, at secondary school level in particular, as to the kinds of jobs that exist in the marketplace today and requirements of the jobs market. Greater support is required in helping students to match their interests and abilities with the right course and ultimately, [the] career that follows.

I think there should be more of a focus on maths and science at a very young level. We need to bring it to life, make it fun and interesting in primary schools. Through my involvement with Junior Achievement Ireland and Enactus Ireland, I aim to spark an interest and understanding of STEM subjects – with female students in particular. In my regular classroom visits to schools, I particularly enjoy capturing children’s imaginations with the fun aspects of maths and science and inspiring them to study these subjects.

I will be mentoring one of CarTrawler’s female graduates in this year’s intake, which I’m looking forward to as I hope to inspire and encourage them in whatever ways I can.

Who is your business hero and why?

Jeff Bezos is my business hero because he’s a trailblazer in the area of customer-centric online retailing.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World, by Christopher Steiner. It’s about how the rise of computerised decision-making affects every aspect of business and daily lives.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

If I were to think of the most essential tools and resources, I would have to name the likes of Excel, Slack, and my Outlook email and calendar at the top of the list, as they help me to plan, prioritise and estimate. I’d also like to add that my team are a wonderful and willing resource. I couldn’t get through the working week without their support.

Bronagh Riordan was a judge at Ireland’s inaugural DatSci Awards, in which CarTrawler sponsored which took place in Dublin on 22 September. Visit www.datsciawards.ie or follow @DatSciAwards for more information.