“How To Take Control of Your Career”: Ginger Holt, Senior Staff Data Scientist at Databricks (Video + Transcript)

March 19, 2023

Ginger Holt (Senior Staff Data Scientist at Databricks) distills career advice gleaned over a decade of working in academia and corporate / startups. Clarity, consensus and inclusion is key.


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Angie Chang: A talk from Ginger Holt. She’s a senior staff data scientist at Databricks. She develops forecasting and predictive models for revenue, sales, et cetera, and has worked at Meta, Walmart Labs, HP, and BP, and she’ll be sharing with us advice for how to take control of your career. Welcome, Ginger.

Ginger Holt: Thanks, Angie. Thanks to the organizers and thanks for attending my talk on taking control of your career. This is a joint talk with my husband, Haitham Hindi, for this talk we’ve combined our collective knowledge on this topic, which is the result of over 30 combined years of a technical experience in the tech industry. In November of 2019, my husband Haitham was offered a job at Amazon as a principal researcher. We were pretty shocked he didn’t even wanna apply since we didn’t wanna leave the Bay Area, but I encouraged him to do it. I said, it’s really good practice for the job you want. As it turns out through those interviews and conversations that he discovered that it was actually his dream job. I was torn on one hand, it was a really great opportunity for his career. But what was it?

 Ginger Holt: What would it mean for my career? Would this mean I would have to compromise my current trajectory and management? We had two small children, so does this make sense to uproot them from our community and our environment? A few days later, I talked to my manager at Facebook about this decision. I wanted to explore if I could do a transfer to another role in the Seattle office. Mind you, this was pre Covid, so it never even occurred to me that I could do my job remotely from, from another location. But to my surprise, the leader of the organization offered an even better solution for me, which was a geographical change with the same role. And he said that we could make it work because of the team that we had built and the foundation and tooling that we had built, which set us up for success in the near term.

Ginger Holt: And it really hit me in that moment. The work that I had put into growing my career allowed me to navigate unexpected changes that were happening. The reason I share this story with all of you, because you will have, or you have already faced some unexpected changes to your personal or professional life. And if we face that change with a mindset that we can actually have some control and use these lessons, and I’m gonna share to navigate those unexpected situations, both me and my husband have learned some of these lessons the hard way. If I can help anybody navigate those changes, and that’s, that’s my goal.

Ginger Holt: And more specifically, there are five lessons which can help you take control of your career. A little disclaimer there about the opinions being just of me and my husband, not necessarily the companies we work for. Alright, so the first lesson here is to create clarity consensus and inclusion. I thought this cartoon was pretty funny. Let’s solve this problem by using the big data. None of us have the slightest idea what to do do with I’m a data scientist. I find a lot of these big data cartoons and data science looks pretty funny, I wanted to share that one. I’m gonna talk through this kind of lesson in with an example which is some of the work that we’re doing at Databricks.

Ginger Holt: We’re building some data science tooling to unify forecasting across the company. I’ve got a lot of my experience in the forecasting field and building something that’s very generalizable like generalizable across the company or to our customers. It really requires a clear problem statement, which is agreed upon by all the data scientists who’s who are doing the forecasting and all the stakeholders that are using those forecast and converting a bunch of standalone forecasts and processes and models into one unified framework. It requires simplification. For example, building a, a data structure, which can work with lots of different models. You load your data once, and then you can try a bunch of different different models. It also requires unified and notation and visualization so a lot of people who are using this tool can more easily onboard and work more efficiently with each other.

Ginger Holt: And finally, people need to see the value, so they want to be involved in the project. This unified forecasting framework also helps speed up what I call death by iteration, right? You solve a problem and then something changes, so you can quickly update things with new data or new use cases because of your, your clarity and your simplification. It also allows other people to quickly copy other people’s homework. Instead of reinventing the wheel and having many authors and developers involved increases both the quality and the accountability of each person involved. A little bit more on this invent and simplify concept.

clarity consensus inclusion ginger holt

Ginger Holt: As systems grow, you know, complexity naturally grows with it. And when you’re simplifying is going against entropy. It’s definitely harder work to simplify. And it’s often essential to simplify in order to scale. If you wanna do a generalize to lots of different use cases, right? You need to simplify first.

Ginger Holt: Another concept around this is to synchronize your tech code, your tech, your technical documentation with the code you’re writing. It represents best practices and notation. You can catch bugs as people understand the intent of the code, right? Looking at those side by side, it preserves knowledge in the team. With turnover, churn it opens up the system quickly to innovation from non-coders ideas, from PMs, whoever, and then it helps ramp people up quickly.

Ginger Holt: Another example. I’ve got a bullet here. Always try the simple approach first. An example of this in forecasting is, with forecasting models you always wanna compare your accuracy to a very basic or a naive model. You know how much value the complexity you’re adding adds to the problem. All right?

Ginger Holt: Lesson number two is to apologize for and fix your mistakes. Fixing mistakes demonstrates humility, honesty compassion, courage, and trust. And not fixing mistakes either demonstrates a bad leadership or a bad team culture. It can result in increased technical debt recurring problems with your code or your system, and it reduces time that you have to do truly innovative work. It can also damage our relationships and, and careers, some of these mistakes that I’ve made and, and others you know, inappropriate comments or remarks a wrong math or algorithmic step being too harsh with your criticism, right?

Ginger Holt: A lot of times this happens in chat. You know, when it’s, when it’s strictly non-verbal communication, you go back, you read it, and the tone sounds bad or not as you intended. It it’s always good to apologize for those scenarios. And another example is in making a bad investment decision. Like either you invested in a project that was too risky or something.

Ginger Holt: Another example is think about a trading situation – Have you ever held on to a stock for too long after losing a lot just to then lose more? When you make a bad investment, change it, close it out, move on mindset around these mistakes and apologies. I used to have a very, very unhealthy mindset about making mistakes, you know, feelings of shame, fear of looking weak really often held me back from making apologies.

Ginger Holt: Other times I was just too proud of the situation didn’t really seem fair. To the benefit of my career, and even mo more so my marriage, my mindset around mistakes and apologies has shifted to a more, more healthy state. Through past experiences, mistakes not doing, not giving those apologies, right?

Ginger Holt: I’ve learned that being generous with apologies it really rebuilds trust demonstrates humility, courage. And now I try to think of mistakes more as learning opportunities, right? There are also opportunities to express empathy or regret if you’ve hurt somebody’s feelings, whether or not it was your fault.

Ginger Holt: Lesson number three is to actively manage your career, and actively manage and plan your career. And I’ve got a diagram here of a model, predictive control framework, so you don’t have to really know much about optimization, but in this framework you have a plan of what, what happens in the future, right?

Screenshot at .. AM

Ginger Holt: In this case, you have a plan of what you wanna become in 5 to 10 years, and then you work backward from that, and you figure out a plan in the more near term you execute the first step of that plan, and then you step back and you, you evaluate feedback from yourself and also people around you. With that feedback, you then iteratively replant. It’s a very iterative process. You can also do scenario planning in this framework. Different scenarios, A, B, and C, you know, some of the unknown conditions that you could use in this, this scenario. Modeling is different economic conditions, right? Technology shifts industry changes, things like that. And by doing this model predictive control, using this framework, what you end up doing is you, you minimize later regret that you may have, right?

Ginger Holt: You thought through uncertainties and you planned the best way you could with, with what you knew at the time. And once you have that plan, right, share your plan, share it with your manager, your public plan with your manager and you can use it, use that plan to push back on projects that you don’t wanna do or that you don’t think are, are creating additional value for your portfolio or you know, it’s not aligned with what you, what you wanna do long term. And through this process, right? You come, you come to know yourself better, right? What makes you happy? What do you love to do? A lot of times we just don’t spend the time to check in with ourselves and think about these questions, right? Do you like theory or implementation journey or goal oriented, abstract or detail oriented, things like that.

Ginger Holt: I’ve done this in the past is to just at the end of the week, kind of assess how you spent your time that week and kind of rate the different tasks that you had and different jobs and projects that you’re working on to see kind of how your fulfillment is working on different things.

Ginger Holt: Lesson number four is to be an effective self-advocate. And I would say in general women struggle with this more than men. There’s data showing that women minimize their contributions compared to men when they’re doing self-assessments for performance reviews. And as you grow in your career, more of your work will entail advising others or helping junior colleagues. People have a strong natural bias to believe things in their own favor, right? They may think that they came up with an idea when you were the one who was steering them in that direction, or giving them giving them those ideas.

Ginger Holt: Make sure you document those ideas and direction that you’re giving to others. This is a big part of your your value that you’re adding and your years of experience can save others. A lot of wasted effort, and you should get credit for that.

Ginger Holt: Another thing is to increase your visibility by presenting and sharing your work as much as possible. Get face time with the execs. You can sign up for office hours or ask questions and meetings and don’t think of it as, you know, you have to make a big presentation and show them what you’re working on. Just ask them questions, you know, what keeps ’em up at night. Get their have a ability to communicate at a very high level what you’re working on, and get their feedback, feedback on that.

Ginger Holt: Mentorships and sponsorships have helped me become a better self-advocate by learning about what other other people have done. And the person that you’re advocating for yourself should have high standards. You can follow – if you’re in research, if you’re a researcher – follow your research heroes on Google Scholar.

Ginger Holt: Keep tabs of new research problems and ideas that can inspire you and think about your current projects as items in your portfolio that will help you get the next better role or opportunity on high value projects. Do a really beautiful job that that makes you proud of your work. And then on lower value projects, do solid work, but finish fast so you can get to those high value projects.

Ginger Holt: It’s also good to know your market worth. You can, you know, passively job hunt and collect data for that. Lesson number five. The final lesson here is to not do not passively tolerate problems. People probably know what happens to the frog in the boiling water. Many of you may not know about what happens to the red kangaroo. Even though it’s a much stronger and larger than the dingo, which is basically a a 30 pound dog, the dingo can defeat it by nipping at it many, many, many times over a long period of time and eventually tire the kangaroo out. That’s how the dingo is successful.

Ginger Holt: There are many things in life that can nip at you and, and break you eventually. Some examples. Office gossip, right? Office politics, bad managers colleagues that have no integrity, anything toxic to your mental health. Being in a company culture that doesn’t align with your own values. Having leadership that’s not transparent or having a path to career progression that’s not clear or it’s not aligned with your skillset. Instead of waiting around to get nipped to death with any of these things, leave, leave the situation, whether it be leave the project, your team, your company whatever. It’s not a good thing. And thank you.

Ginger Holt: I’d like to say thank you to the organizers. Thank to thank you to the participants. Thank you for listening. I’d also like to thank my company. This is a picture of my team here Databricks, our data science team. Thank you for their support and allowing me to participate in this conference. If you found any of this interesting, you wanna look, look into some of the references, I’ll post these slides on my LinkedIn page.

Ginger Holt: I also dedicate a portion of my time to mentoring and, and helping other people’s other people grow. Please feel free to reach out to me via LinkedIn or email. Also Shout out to Databricks. We’re hiring data scientists, software engineers machine learning engineers. Please out reach out to me if you’re interested, and I can share more information about job opportunities at Databricks. Let me check here the references here. Let me check this, the chat here. If there are any questions. I think we have one minute left.

Angie Chang: Thank you so much, Ginger, for that talk. Yes, it was excellent. There’s lots of great and people cheering you on. And thank you for sharing your, your content on LinkedIn. Yes. All right, we’re gonna hop to our next session now. See you on the other side everyone. Thank you. Thank you.

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