Karen Church, Intercom
Karen Church, senior manager of product analytics at Intercom. Image: Karen Church

If you want to work with data, you need to get your hands dirty

7 Jun 2017

Data is an important part of everyone’s life, and data scientists are becoming more and more vital, especially when it comes to human-computer interactions.

It will be a long time before data science isn’t considered one of the hottest sectors for jobs. With ever more industries calling for data scientists, the opportunities out there are only multiplying.

As a data science leader, Karen Church knows all about the many ways data can be used in the world, along with the trends that are coming over the horizon for anyone entering the data science sphere.

Currently, Church is the senior manager of product analytics at Intercom, a messaging platform that helps businesses connect with customers. “I lead a team of product analysts, data scientists and data engineers at Intercom, who use data to uncover insights, drive decision-making and inform product innovation.”

Church said the data science side of things helps to design, develop and measure the success of Intercom’s products. “By asking the right questions, we are able to explore patterns, behaviours and trends in our product data,” she said.

Before working at Intercom, Church was a research scientist at Yahoo Research and at Telefonica Research. While there, she investigated how people interact with mobile technologies so the companies could design new and improved mobile experiences.

“During my time in both Yahoo Research and Telefonica Research, I was fortunate to work alongside and lead some of the best scientists in the world,” she said. “It was a wonderful and really rewarding time in my career.”

With technology, and particularly AI, advancing at breakneck speeds, human-computer interactions and how well they’re optimised is becoming an essential part of all business models.

Want to be a data scientist?

Church has a rich background in data science, but she’s also a huge advocate for women in tech roles.

Aside from coaching women who are studying computer science and mentoring female PhD students, Church founded XX+Data, a community for women who work with data to connect and support each other.

For women who want to become data scientists, Church advises them to go for it because the tech world needs women.

“The technology sector is one of the most innovative, creative sectors in the world. It directly affects and influences how people connect, communicate, interact and behave. How cool is that? We need more women to be part of designing and building the future of technology,” she said.

Church also said the best way to learn is by doing. “Whether you want to be a designer, researcher, data scientist or engineer, start by getting your hands dirty!”

She advises budding data scientists to create a portfolio and start small with something they feel passionate about. “If you’re looking for some creative inspiration for data projects, check out initiatives like Dear Data, DataSketch.es and Oddityviz.”

Church also advises aspiring data scientists to make connections and get out of their comfort zones. “There’s a range of amazing meetups and communities in Ireland for programming, data science, research, user experience, design, content and product management,” she said. “By connecting with a community, you will learn more, get advice and exchange valuable experiences with others.”

‘Some of the best things happen when you try and fail’

She said it’s important to remember that no one has a clue the first time they do anything, and the people that look like they know what they’re doing are often faking. “Some of the best things happen when you try and fail. It’s how you learn.”

When it comes to skills, Church said a good sense of products, strong technical and programming skills and a solid grasp of statistics and experimental design are important. “Depending on the project, expert knowledge in areas such as applied machine learning, recommendation systems, information retrieval and user modelling is also relied upon.”

However, soft skills are an essential part of data science too. Church said the most critical skills are innate curiosity, passion, strong communication skills, a growth mindset and an insatiable appetite for learning.

Messaging bots and wearables are the future

Not only does Church know all about the importance of how humans interact with computers, but she sees what’s coming down the line.

“The rise of wearable computing and the promise of self-driving cars and unmanned flying vehicles, or drones, means fundamental changes to how people interact with technology,” she said.

“This opens up a wealth of fascinating research questions, such as: How does culture impact on drone interactions? How does human cognition influence trust in self-driving cars? How can we build intuitive interfaces to these technologies while maintaining privacy, security and ethics?”

Messaging bots and conversational user interfaces are also on the rise. While chatbots such as Siri and Amazon Echo are far from new, Church said they can still lead to disappointing user experiences.

“I think we’re going to see more research into detecting the underlying intent and context of a user during their experiences with conversational interfaces and understanding social and cultural factors influencing these interactions. Most intriguing to me is how we design interactions with conversational interfaces that disappear and seamlessly integrate with the world around us.”

The final trend Church sees coming is the human-computer interaction of machine learning. “Most data scientists are trained to apply machine learning models or build new machine learning algorithms without really thinking about how people interact with, interpret or perceive those algorithms,” said Church.

“A more human-centred approach – where we think about human goals, human perceptions and human biases while designing and implementing machine learning algorithms and interfaces – will make machine learning more usable.”

Karen Church will be speaking this summer at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEMBook now to get your Early Bird tickets.

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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