STATS’ Dr Helen Sun: ‘We collect the richest data in sports’

7 Jun 2019

Dr Helen Sun. Image: STATS

STATS CTO Dr Helen Sun forecasts that the future of data and analytics in sport is predictive.

As chief technology officer (CTO) Dr Helen Sun oversees STATS’ (Sports Team Analysis and Tracking Systems) product, engineering, artificial intelligence and data production teams in developing the next generation of products and services that will revolutionise the performance and experience of sports.

Prior to STATS, Sun was CTO of JPMorgan Chase’s commercial banking division. She has a proven record as a technology strategist and thought leader with previous roles including vice-president of cloud computing, information management and architecture at Motorola Solutions; senior director of global enterprise architecture at Salesforce; and director of enterprise architecture at Oracle.

‘I kept telling people that if I could do it with no formal training in computer science, become a CTO in a male-dominated field, so can you. Everybody can’

Sun also has a PhD in education technology and information systems from the University of Toledo.

Last year we reported that STATS was on track to employ 150 full-time and part-time staff by 2020 at its new offices in Limerick.

In the last few years people have come to understood the value of data and analytics. How does STATS add value in terms of its data collection?

STATS collects the richest data in sports and then we aggregate and transform that to different analytics and data capabilities, and companies such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple, and large media broadcasters for fan engagement experiences.

In addition to that, we partner with 200-plus leagues and clubs to help them prepare matches, analyse the matches as well as players, and recruiting as well as fitness monitoring.

Core to this is deep analytics – our ability to collect that data, transform it and turn it into meaningful insights for both fan engagement experience as well as clubs for team performance.

As CTO, do you feed into the product journey? What kind of a team do you lead in terms of R&D and creating the product?

When I started, STATS was mostly a data company. Our revenue and our investment in R&D were mostly in the data space. Where we are now is we’ve turned from around 20pc of R&D spend in new innovative solutions to now over 70pc of R&D in new products.

We went from one new product last year to now going to market with seven new products this year, spanning fan engagement, prediction-as-a-service, team performance as well as our revolutionary AI technology called AutoSTATS.

Limerick is one of our key production centres and Gráinne Barry leads that team. We collect the deepest data in soccer and football. We also have some engineering resources in operation in Nice. I have data scientists and product people in London as well.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

AI, machine learning, computer vision, global positioning systems (GPS), internet of things (IoT) and big data.

Our existing collection and distribution methodology is based on a set of collection tools, aggregation technology, relational database and API strategy for data distribution. For analytics to work, we are implementing large data-lake solutions and using cloud-native data storage as well as microservices architecture to enable this vast, iterative approach in delivering the insights to our customers. For example, we combine this data architecture with IoT and the GPS solutions that we collect during training for the athletes, for the clubs and leagues that we partner with.

What do we need to do to encourage more women to excel in the tech industry?

This really speaks to my passion as a technologist, as a female tech leader. When I was back in China during my high school years, I was always extremely strong with maths, physics and science but, by the time I was ready to pick a major in college, my mother – who was head of HR at one of the most prestigious engineering firms in Shanghai – told me to stay away from engineering because that is not a career for girls. She advised me to take on education and become a teacher, which was a very rewarding career.

But my passion was in technology and engineering, and I found that when I came to the US to study I [was] working on programming tasks for five hours at a time. That was the pivot for me career-wise. I kept telling people that if I could do it with no formal training in computer science, become a CTO in a male-dominated field, so can you. Everybody can.

I was at an MIT Sloan sports analytics conference a couple of months ago. There were 3,400 people at the conference and only 216 were women. That percentage was just mind-bogglingly, shockingly disappointing. So, I think we have a long way to go.

But just me being vocal and outspoken is not enough. What defines me is to be a female leader in technology. If we can show role models for women who can see that as a possibility for a career in sports, to be in analytics, to be in AI, to be in cutting-edge technology, I’ll feel very fulfilled to have done that.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years