Wendy currently works as the Data Science Manager at Wattpad. For me, she has always been a force to be reckoned with, known for her candor, determination, and hard work. She is a strong advocate of feminism and diversity, and has in many ways pushed me to explore beyond my scope of expertise for which I am eternally grateful! I was excited to hear more about her unconventional journey into the world of Data Science, the various challenges she continues to overcome, and her thoughts on the ongoing fight for equality.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your journey so far.
My name is Wendy Foster and I am the Manager of the Data Science team at Wattpad. I am originally from Windsor, Ontario. After completing my Masters degree in English Literature, I moved to Vancouver to do my PHD and was there for 11 years! I then pivoted from Literature and went into technology – particularly Quantitative Methodology – I was interested in doing data work around video games initially. I moved back to Ontario in 2006 because my partner got a good job back here.
Do you have any people that have influenced you and guided you to where you are today?
One of the biggest influences that comes to front of mind would be my Master’s Supervisor, Barrie Ruth Straus. She was quite fundamental in my intellectual development and was probably the first person to teach me to think critically about the world I live in, particularly how to connect the research that I was doing to practice. She didn’t believe that any intellectual pursuit should be disconnected from reality – we should always find ways to connect back to the real world. She’s amazing!
What is a saying that you live by, or that influences your daily life?
My personal motto is I am my own God.
Okay – I could see that! I like that! What does that mean to you?
What is one of the best decisions you have ever made?
When I got my PhD in Literature, I had thought that I wanted to be an academic for the rest of my life. I think one of the best decisions I made was to essentially defer that track and completely re-orient my headspace into a technology and a quantitative stream, because I always felt like that was an area that was inaccessible to me for a number of reasons. When I was immersed into it, it was incredibly terrifying but at the same time exciting because there were so many pieces of it that I got that I didn’t think I’d be able to get. So it was empowering in that way.
In my About section, I spoke about the various barriers I put up for myself. Is that something you relate with? If so, what is the one thing you wish you could stop doing?
Absolutely. I felt deeply connected to everything in your About page. I wish that I felt more confident in my expertise. I felt more confident about this when I was in the humanities because it was a really niche subject area so I felt like I knew it inside and out and could speak very confidently about it. Where I have difficulty now is that if I don’t feel like I have completely, 100%, mastered something, I am not confident in discussing it. I feel kind of panicky about it even though no one can really be a complete master of their area of expertise.
My mind was blown when I read that you have a BA, Masters, and PhD in English Literature! I’m curious – what drew you to website design, and eventually to Data Science?
I’ve had a lifelong fixation with technology. Even though I would say that literature, especially cultural theory, are my true loves, there was a piece of me that I always connected back to a space that wasn’t exclusively humanities – whether that’s technological or scientific spaces. And I was always a hacker, so I would spend all my free time when I wasn’t doing my research building silly programs, producing my own websites, or designing games. So the switch was not as 180 as it may seem – it was actually just more taking the opportunity to formalize something that I had always been incredibly interested in and did on my own time anyway. Then when I went back to school for Interactive Arts and Technology, I streamed in Quantitative Methodology, and so that kind of took me away from Web Development and funneled me more into a data stream.
There is currently a deficit of women in STEM. Were there any obstacles or doubts for you in particular going into Data Science?
Absolutely. Because I had mostly approached it from the perspective of a hacker – someone who isn’t formally trained in any of these things. So it was kind of terrifying because I didn’t actually really know those things in the way that I was supposed to know them before I went into Grad school for it. It was frightening; I felt like an imposter – I felt like someone sneaking into an industry where I shouldn’t be.
Can you describe what your role entails?
A portion of the work I do is around Decision Analytics – helping stakeholders define key performance indicators, then building tracking and reporting around those things to help them understand how the business is doing. Another large part of the work I do here is supportive of Product Analytics – I help manage and grow our experimentation program at Wattpad, so a very large chunk of my week is in experimental analysis or support around experimental design for product owners. And then another piece is managing the Data Science team, which is a pretty diverse group of individuals who support and build out our recommendation systems and work very closely with product to provide algorithmic solutions to data delivery products.
Thinking back on your career so far and the roles you have held, what are some of the challenges you have faced? Are there any challenges that pertain to being the only or one of few women on the team?
There’s a couple of reasons for this – I think partly, it’s a gender issue, and partly it’s that the work I have tended to do has been adjacent to a more conventional data science that’s practised in industry- but in terms of my technology work that I’ve done at previous workplaces, I’ve at times been, I feel, undervalued both economically and positionally. Strategic Analytics is usually one of the last places a company tends to build out, so there are instances where I have been the lowest paid on my teams, or have been the most overworked, and have felt undervalued because of that imbalance. When I worked in academia there was economic parity – I was paid what everyone else was paid [laughs]. Because it is public sector, you are paid for the level you come in. When it comes to the private sector that’s not always the case – you are usually paid what you negotiate and I don’t negotiate because that’s not something I’ve ever felt comfortable doing.
From your experience, what would you say are the advantages of diversity in tech?
It’s fundamental – it’s a requirement in any workplace. For example, where we work, you cannot build a successful product without having the input of diverse voices and diverse experiences; you can’t have a productive and valuable conversation with people without a diversity of experiences. The idea of likeness or sameness is, to me, functionally useless. Diversity of perspective is crucial to not only building a product but also in your life.
Can you speak on maintaining a work/life balance?
No. Not at all. It’s definitely not a condition that is demanded of me by my workplace… it’s just how I set myself up. I don’t like leaving things undone, which creates an imbalance because you always have more work incoming than you can do and you can never clear your queue or task list and be 100% successful. However I am internally driven to do those things, and so I try to do them which upsets the balance. I’ve done that at every job – I don’t take care of myself. I have good intentions to do something about it but it doesn’t happen. It’s something to work on.
What advice would you give the younger you?
I feel very strongly that the experiences I had for the decisions that I made were crucial to where I am now. So while I feel like I wish I knew certain things better – like I wish I could program better, I wish that I had a deeper knowledge in this particular topic so that I could do my job better – to be honest, it’s fine. I guess my only advice would be – don’t stay with people who make you unhappy. What I didn’t know when I was very young is that it’s okay to be alone.
What do you want to accomplish with the next phase of your career?
Something socially meaningful. I don’t know how I’m going to get there yet but I want to die having made some real impact on the world. I don’t want to have done nothing for the world.
What is success to you?
Success would be… a completed circle of internal and external validation for something you’ve done. I look at it like a puzzle – in terms of life events, not just that I’ve made a decision that I’m happy with, but it’s a decision that has been externally validated in some way to make it worthwhile.
What is your definition of a feminist?
A feminist, to me, is someone that makes visible the structural inequalities that prevent a woman, differentially, from participating fully in the world. It’s important to me to think of it that way because I’ve been increasingly irritated with pseudo-feminism and this idea that feminism is being nice to other women or liking all women. It’s not that – feminism is a social justice movement. If we can’t unearth and make visible those structural inequalities, we can’t progress.
What do you think is the most significant barrier to female advancement?
Imposter syndrome. Not feeling like you have confidence and mastery over your domains. It’s so common! Being perceived of as inherently weaker because you are female – when you ask a question, you are stupid; when you show strength, you are aggressive. Those are cliches but they are patently true. As a woman in a working world, that is how you are perceived.
What role do you think women play in our advancement?
I hate the idea of mentors and that we think that we should have mentors to be able to grow, develop, and be successful. What we need is a community – a diverse community of women who share experiences and give the opportunity not to lean in, but help other women push up.
What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women after you?
Never, ever think the work is done. The US election race right now is exposing to us that the work of the Civil Rights Movement was not done, the work of the Women’s Liberation Movement was not done because you have someone who has been nominated by one of two major parties in the US, who is a racist, sexist, classist, and homophobe. That is absolutely telling us that the work was not done and that we have a substantial portion of the US population who believes those things.
What advice would you give girls/women looking to pursue a career path similar to yours?
Not to feel like there is one set route into that path. If you like telling stories, that doesn’t mean that you’re not capable of doing Mathematics. There are interconnections there that are meaningful and valid, so you should be able to pursue all the things that you love without feeling that you are trapped in one disciplinary, narrow route. If you love programming and you love storytelling, those things are connected.
Do you have any book or blog recommendations that have inspired you as a woman in tech?
I encourage everyone to watch Code girl. It surfaces the difficulties that women face in a predominantly male environment. Hearing shared stories about the experiences and how women are treated in technological environments is really important. I was also really excited to see, even if it’s a small minority, girls starting to program when they are really young.