Interview with Aqsa Awan, Technical Project Manager for BBC Datalab

We talk to Aqsa about machine learning, her career path into Datalab, remote working, and the difficulties of being a female in the technology sector.

Interview with Aqsa Awan, Technical Project Manager for BBC Datalab

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?

Hey, I am Aqsa! Currently I am working at the BBC as a Technical Project Manager on a team called Datalab.

Datalab is a new and emerging team that specialises in building Machine Learning capabilities for the likes of BBC News, Sounds and Sport. One way we do this is to build recommendation engines using data. Building recommendations engines is just one part of machine learning. Machine learning is capable of doing so many things and we have a long way to go, it can often scare people but it is one of the most exciting and ever-evolving environments to be in. 

What does your job involve? Give us the typical outline of a day?

My day is almost always very hectic but super interesting! I manage the project delivery of building, developing and deploying recommendations across BBC’s online products. This involves working with Data Scientists and Data Engineers who build the engines, train algorithms and deploy both content-to-content and personalised recommendations onto BBC’s online products through the use of data.

Being responsible for the delivery means you have to be exceptionally (and I mean exceptionally) organised, be aware of timelines, manage and remove risks whilst simplifying dependencies for the team to reduce any ambiguity. I have to ensure that everything is clear for the team: what we’re doing and how we’re going to do it. This may sound simple but can get complicated if you don’t seek out the in detail in everything. 

As a result, my day is back-to-back meetings with external and internal stakeholders, communicating our progress whilst planning our strategy for the upcoming months ahead: what we plan to do and where we plan to be. 

What’s great about your job? 

So many things but I’ll pick my top 5:  

  • The thrill of my team achieving success (personally and professionally).

  • The support I get from my team. 

  • Building strong connections and meeting new people.

  • Scaling Machine Learning within Public Service and upholding ethical standards. 

  • Learning something new every day!

I love working with like-minded passionate people who are constantly striving to become the best at what they do and where everyone supports one another to get to a common goal. 

What are the bits you find challenging? 

Being a woman in technology has been very challenging and I am aware most women have come across this at some point in their careers. I feel that there is a gender gap in the technology industry, and in the past I have found myself working in an environment where women are in the minority. However, at BBC Datalab, I’m working in an environment that continuously challenges norms and it’s a place where women can speak up and share ideas. We all help create a place for more women to contribute, and stay to develop the team and careers. 

We have more women within BBC Datalab and BBC Design & Engineering now than we did three years ago before I joined the BBC. The BBC also advocates a strong WISTEM community and we are working towards leading a diverse working environment and workforce within technology. 

Another challenge is remote working. As the world becomes more technology focused we are becoming more inclined to work from anywhere, which minimises human connections. For a person like me who thrives on human connection, building relationships online can be very challenging and I find it can affect and complicate communication. 

I have now found my own way of overcoming this by getting the remote teams together for hack-day’s and have “no-work” meetings where we catch up over coffee and not talk about work. This has helped a lot! 

What are the highlights of your career to date?

Everyday is a highlight of my career!

What is something you’re currently working on that has you excited?

Together with the BBC News team we are exploring new ways of serving younger audiences with more relevant content with the aid of machine learning – watch this space!

What was your career path into this job?  Have you also worked outside the industry?

I studied Law which is as far away from technology as possible. I’ve worked in many jobs since a young age but I came to a point where I realised the core aspects I love about what I do is working with people and building, creating and delivering something purposeful to the masses, while working in an environment where I’m consistently challenged to grow and out-grow myself. 

I can proudly say I do a job now that ticks those boxes and beyond. I am an action-orientated person, which means I always look at the job that is right in front of me and solve any problems. This has led me to work on many projects and be spotted by many people throughout my career who have asked me to join their team and projects. 

You’ve been granted the ability to send a message to 16-year-old you. What do you say?

  1. Find out what interests you – explore as many options as you can and want! Passion will follow you through which you explore.

  2. Don’t try to figure it all out and put too much pressure on yourself, the road ahead is not always clear and full of hurdles but you will arrive when it’s your time.

  3. Make a positive impact and help people out wherever you go.

  4. Last but surely not least, keep on moving forward, life’s too short to sit on your backside. Learn, learn and learn but – have fun whilst you’re at it!

Do you have any advice for young people interested in doing your kind of job?

My best advice, research the industry as much as you can and find a way to get yourself training in your field of interest. Be bold and be brave, reach out to people or find a mentor, take them for a coffee and ask them to guide you, they could potentially help to pave a path.

I also mentor, reach out to me via Linkedin or my email: [email protected] 

Happy to help in any way I can! 

If you’d like to find out more about BBC Datalab or you are interested in any vacancies for Data Scientists and Data Engineer, find out more on: https://datalab.rocks/

Header Image Credit: Provided

Author

Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe..

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