On data science, culture-add and kimchi

Jenny Sahng

November 1, 2019

I am so grateful to have Jenny as a friend. She is someone whose enthusiasm, creativity, care for others I admire so much. She works as a product data scientist at Xero and was the one who inspired me to learn more about web development. I admire her community and volunteer involvement, as well as her recent undertaking - helping her parents start Mum’s Kimchi. We started Storyo to share inspiring stories and what is better than stories of people around you?

Jenny, tell us a bit about what you studied, your background and how did you get into data science at Xero?

I studied French, Linguistics, and Biomedical Engineering in my undergraduate. Sounds intense, I know, but it was kind of a result of me not knowing what I wanted to do and flailing around a bit. In any case, my journey into data science started a bit further back than that 👶

Ever since a young age, I've been interested in computers and technology. I suppose having a dad who brought home old computers for us to pull apart might have had something to do with it. I started coding when I was 8, because it was my #dream for my Neopet to win the Site Spotlight. Dad noticed me spending most of my computer time typing obscure characters into Notepad, and promptly bought me this cool as book on HTML. From then on, I developed a keen hobby of making random websites throughout my childhood and teenage years.

For some reason, I didn’t choose to study software engineering or computer science. I was pretty undecided about everything, hence the chaotic Arts & Engineering degree. However, as I worked my way through my undergrad at Auckland University, I noticed that the parts of my degree that I enjoyed the most involved tech - using programming to solve engineering maths problems, or learning about speech recognition technology in my linguistics lectures. By the end of my degree, it was clear that my love of coding wasn’t going anywhere, so I decided to take a punt on getting a graduate software developer role.

I applied for over twenty tech companies in my final year, which is quite honestly a great way to give yourself a mental breakdown, and I was pretty overwhelmed with imposter syndrome at times. I was relying on my experience from the two summer internships I’d done - one at Orion Health (because, you know, biomedical engineering) and the other at the University of Canterbury School of Biological Sciences (because... biomedical engineering?), both of which involved a bit of coding. I would also smile really enthusiastically* and say “I don’t know anything but I know I can learn things really fast!”

*a smile that said “please give me a job, I really want to do this, I’ll go back and do another degree if you need me to, but preferably not because I’ll be really poor by the end of it.”

How I looked throughout most of final year. Distracted,    sleep-deprived   , wearing an inexplicable shark hat
How I looked throughout most of final year. Distracted, sleep-deprived, wearing an inexplicable shark hat

After a lot of cramming/interviewing/angst, I actually got a few offers and was accepted into the Xero Graduate Programme. It was the perfect programme for me, because the one-year programme rotated through 4 different specialisations within software, which gave me the foundation I needed to start a career in tech. Through a series of fortunate events, I ended up having a data science rotation in a great team with a really wonderful mentor (@simoncarryer). Honestly, I didn’t even know what data science was at the time - it was still such an emerging field. I loved it though, and a year later, I joined the team permanently as a product data scientist.

For someone who might not know much about STEM or engineering, how would you explain what you do day to day and what excites you the most about it?

Data science is about getting insights and information out of digital data. It’s like a treasure hunt. You have a problem, and you have some data. You dig around in the data, with maths, stats, computer science, and even linguistics as your tools. You wander, uncover, and wrestle with the data, sometimes following false trails or coming across dead ends. But then, once in a while, you hit a real gem of an insight - a number, a pattern, a model that answers your problem, reflects your business context, encapsulates a nugget of human behaviour. To be honest, I don’t even think real treasure gets more exciting than that!

The field of data science seems to be entering its teenagehood at the moment. The industry has kind of self-organised into three specialisations - machine learning, statistics, and analytics. I mostly do analytics (that link is really indulgent, but it explains the three fields really clearly). I mine data for potential insights, and communicate it in a way that’s easy to interpret so that people can make data-driven decisions. However, I’m currently working on a new project which involves a lot of prediction (think Netflix recommendations or email autocomplete suggestions), which leans much more on the other two specialisations. I love that variety in data science. Each subfield is vast, so depending on the problem at hand, I get to explore and to pick the best tools for the job.

Jenny Sahng with a bike with a view of Wellington harbour

Being a wahine in tech space, what are the biggest things from your perspective that we as a society are missing out on to help and support non-males in this space?

We’re starting to see the shift from “culture-fit” to “culture-add” in hiring, where companies are realising that hiring someone just because they’d fit in well with the team is flawed. No one wants teams of similar people hiring more similar people, and then having terribly boring meetings where everyone nods vaguely and wonders why they’re even having a meeting if they agree on everything anyway.

I think the next step that needs to follow is to welcome new employees into an environment where they feel that their whole self will be appreciated at work. I think Alix Klingenberg illustrated it well when she said, “There’s no point in fixing a pipeline if it leads to a sewer.” So how can we create environments where people don’t feel pressured, implicitly or explicitly, to hide parts of their identity? I’ve been intrigued by the scale of this problem since I read this recent speech by my friend Julie Zhu:

“We’ve heard that cliché that diversity is inviting someone to your party and inclusion is asking them to dance. My problem with this metaphor is that by asking someone to dance you are still the one with the power, as the host. You determine the music, the venue, the context, the rules. If they don’t adhere to the rules, you always have the power to kick them out. So, to me, if you’re being inclusive then you’re not changing power.”

The rest of her speech is gold too, I’d highly recommend it. It refocuses the problem so clearly, relating it right back to power dynamics. It’s about who has the power to impose their norms as the status quo, which places pressure on others to conform to that status quo. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I imagine it involves guiding those in power to intentionally, willingly give up that power. Not gonna lie, it sounds really hard, but I don’t see any shortcuts here.

Jenny Sahng at the book market

We all struggle sometimes with finding our worth, our value, our place but we don’t talk often about it. We tend to compare ourselves to others a lot especially in the age of internet. What does your personal journey with it look like?

I certainly haven’t always known what I wanted to do. My vision keeps changing, which I guess is a good thing, albeit disconcerting at times. My journey as I currently see it is to hone my craft as a data scientist. I know that data is hugely powerful, and I’d love to one day direct it towards the space around climate change or inequality. As an example, I’m interested in how we harness data for natural language processing and speech technology. Often with voice technology, it’s the minority languages and “non-standard dialects” that get left behind, which broadens the technology gap between powerful and less powerful communities of language speakers.

Outside of data science, I’d love to cultivate more discipline so that I can chip away at hobbies that stretch my creativity. This is kind of embarrassingly sad, but I have a Trello board with over 100 side project ideas on it - everything from data visualisation to game development to painting, any and every small, silly idea that pops into my head. I haven’t completed very many of them. They get me so excited, and then I kick myself for doing nothing to channel that excitement. I like how your question brought up comparing ourselves to others on the Internet, because I find it especially true in this space! With the Internet, it’s easy to feel small when the beautiful works of so many people’s labour - breath-taking drawings, wonderful writing, ingenious ideas - are able to be consumed in such quantities. I want to relish the joy and inspiration I get from other people’s art, and to channel that into my own projects.

One project I did actually finish - the classic fish and chip shop poster! It’s on    RedBubble    and you can also get it as a    tea towel     🐟
One project I did actually finish - the classic fish and chip shop poster! It’s on RedBubble and you can also get it as a tea towel 🐟

You have recently started this amazing enterprise - Mum’s Kimchi - with your family. Tell us more about it!

Wheeee yes! So recently, we noticed kimchi popping up everywhere in mainstream food. Kimchi burgers, kimchi poutine, kimchi juice?! It’s so cool to see people appreciating this cornerstone of Korean culture. However, store bought kimchi often comes in small quantities, and sometimes they're quite different from traditional Korean kimchi varieties (of which there are over a hundred).

My parents, who have lived in Christchurch for 25 years, buy Chinese cabbage in bulk each year and spend a few days preparing all the kimchi for the winter and the coming spring. We eat it with every single meal. We even have a kimchi fridge, and honestly, that’s not even weird for Korean families.

We figured that since we’ve got this kick ass recipe that our family’s been using for generations, why not share it around so people can enjoy kimchi in whatever gargantuan quantities they like? So we started running kimchi making workshops, where people can come along, BYO jar, and learn to make kimchi. They get to take home a whole cabbage worth of kimchi, plus a couple of tastings to give examples of how it can be incorporated into simple, healthy meals. I do the admin, Mum runs the workshops, and Laura (my little sister) does a bit of everything.

At first, Mum didn’t think anyone would come. “Jenny, you might be living in hipster-ville Wellington, but people here aren’t into this kind of thing,” she’d say. But as it turns out, there is some interest in good ol’ Christchurch for a bit of fermented cabbagey goodness! The last eight months have turned out to be a great experience in starting a family business together, sharing our culture with the Christchurch community, and meeting some amazing people in the fermentation / food / small business space. We’re hoping to continue it into our second year, learning from our pilot workshops and seeing how we can improve and diversify the experience. Our focus is to always provide a warm, authentic, intimate experience, where participants can go away having learnt a skill that they can use for life and share with others.

Laura the squishy little cupcake on the left, Mum in the middle, me on the right. I don’t remember what was so funny, but I expect Laura was throwing a goof
Laura the squishy little cupcake on the left, Mum in the middle, me on the right. I don’t remember what was so funny, but I expect Laura was throwing a goof

What are some of the challenges you are encountering with Mum’s Kimchi? If you could ask for any help from people reading this, what would you ask?

Hmm, great question! I guess having family members as business partners when there’s a language and cultural barrier (yes, we have a language and cultural barrier with our parents, it’s a whole thing) is challenging. We have different expectations about running a business, and since none of us are particularly well versed in entrepreneurship, it’s hard to know what's the best way forward. We could try to emulate other small businesses, but the difference in marketing / pricing / operations between a hipster millennial cafe and a local Asian takeaway favourite is vast, despite them both being successful models. I can’t just google it either, because business strategy is so contextual.

Another challenge is the apparent gaps in my knowledge around marketing. As a data scientist, I want hard evidence for business decisions, but the real world (especially the non-tech world) doesn’t always work that way. If we only fill four out of six spots at our workshop, is that a sign that interest has dwindled, or that we just hadn’t marketed well enough? How much social media engagement a good amount for a fledgeling business our size? How do you A/B test or measure success when feedback is qualitative and the sample size is tiny? I don’t even know if you’d call that marketing - gut feeling, business acumen? Whatever it is, I certainly don’t feel like I have it, yet!

Finally, keeping the momentum going alongside a full time job is just plain tough. I don’t always feel like sitting in front of the computer again after a whole day of work, and things like maintaining a social media presence saps my energy. I think it’s a discipline thing - until Mum’s Kimchi gets to a point where it’s worth hiring someone or cutting down my hours in my day job to pursue it part time, I need to set aside regular evenings and put the work in. Pretty basic stuff, I’m just finding it really hard at the moment.

As a child of immigrants in New Zealand, what has you and your family’s journey been in terms of cultural differences and dealing with racism?

Growing up with racism was a norm. It was upsetting, but in the same way that bullying was upsetting, because I didn’t distinguish it as something particularly insidious or systemic at the time. My parents could tell, obviously, but although they did their best to equip us, they often felt limited in how they could respond due to their language barrier.

I remember Mum telling us when we were young that if we wanted to succeed in any given arena (job interviews, school leadership positions, getting into sports teams, getting picked as the lead in a school play), we had to be much, much better than our Pākehā fellows, because if we were merely “just as good”, a Pākehā will be picked over an Asian every time. We were starting behind the start line, so we’d have to work harder to keep up. It’s a pretty sad, competitive, zero-sum lesson to teach kids. But while it certainly wouldn’t have always been the case, I think it was and still is largely true.

I think one of the most insidious things that racism does is it turns minorities against each other. It pressures you to “present” yourself in a particular way, and as a result, you’re forced to distance yourself from parts of your identity in order to fit the required mould. That distance made me vulnerable to racist ideology. I constantly compared myself to others, trying to tread the line between “white enough” and “asian enough”. But when you're immersed in an environment that others your heritage, you start to believe that any amount of Asian-ness is a flaw. I would try to be as un-Korean as possible, hiding mum’s beautifully homemade lunches and asking for my hair to be curled. It’s only very recently that I’ve come to appreciate my heritage as an inescapable and wonderful part of who I am.

Mum’s Kimchi has also been a turning point. Granted, the West’s opinion of Korean culture has been shifting (thank you BTS, K-drama, and that time James Shaw said they were serving kimchi kebabs at the Green Party headquarters on 2017 election night), so kimchi is kind of super cool right now. But, being proud of this pungent, orange, probiotic cabbage dish that would wrinkle the noses of my fellow classmates in primary school, to the extent that I would start a business around it? Five years ago, I would have laughed! Now, I see it as cultural empowerment. How often do people in Christchurch have the opportunity to visit a Korean family home, share food and conversation with a barely-English-speaking Korean lady, in a city where Asians are a distinct and rather isolated minority? Mum’s cooking classes build relationships and break otherness. I am so passionate about that. I just need to keep reminding myself that that's the end game.

Jenny Sahng as a child with her family all wearing traditional Korean wear

And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?

Oh gosh, this list got really long but there are just so many people whose stories I would love to hear! Here’s a list of people who I know, don’t know, and kind of stalk through social media, all of whom inspire me 💖

  • Julie Zhu - independent producer, filmmaker, and advocate for racial equity and tino rangatiratanga. I worked with her briefly at this educational charity that we were part of. I’ve quoted her in this interview, and from the things I’ve seen her speak out on, I’d love to read about her story.
  • Jade Leung - Jade is an AI governance specialist, Rhodes Scholar, entrepreneur, founder / trustee / executive member of countless not-for-profits. I worked with her in my second year at university, when we were on the exec team for a youth-led charity that aimed to reduce educational inequality in New Zealand. She’s one of the smartest, most compassionate, and focused people I know.
  • Dhanya Herath - Dhanya has been a wonderful friend through my years in biomedical engineering, where we spent many a late night smashing out lab reports and many an early morning pondering ethics over a jar of overnight oats. She’s one of the co-founders of this awesome online community called Political Hatchlings which aims to help Kiwis better engage with politics. She’s also a developer at Sustainable Solutions, a NZ-based company that aims to provide quality open-source software to low to middle income countries. One of their major products is mSupply, a pharmaceutical supply chain software. I don’t know how to properly convey how cool this is because I’m not 100% on the details, but empowering lower income countries to better manage their vaccines and generics sounds hugely impactful on public health - I’d definitely want to hear about it! She’s had some incredible experiences travelling to countries like the Cook Islands and Nepal to teach local communities how to use the software that she has helped build.
  • Zoë Higgins - I met Zoë in our first year engineering class for students doing conjoint degrees, before she headed to Cambridge University on a full scholarship to study Geography. A researcher, writer, theatre creative, and advocate in the NGO space, I would love to hear about all these beautiful threads of her story.
  • Eliza Webster - artist, art gallery manager, curator. I met Eliza in first year when we were in the halls of residences together. Since then, she’s gone on to create some amazing spaces for art and creativity in Hamilton. She’s worked her butt off to do this, at times largely on her own, and I really admire her for that.
  • Keryn Kalyan - a fellow grad from my cohort at Xero, who has recently self-published a Gujarati cookbook with her mum to pass on the stories of their family recipes. She’s put in a tremendous amount of work for it, and I think it’s such an inspiring mother-daughter endeavour!
  • Lisa McLaren - National Convenor of the Zero Carbon Act campaign for Generation Zero. Her leadership, expertise, and tireless efforts in this campaign, along with all the other volunteers at Gen Zero, is what got this critical piece of legislation in front of Parliament. I honestly think pushing for this kind of top-down policy change on climate impact is the most important thing that anyone could be doing right now.
  • Elisha Watson - Founder of Nisa, an organic cotton underwear brand that provides employment for women from refugee backgrounds. I bumped into Elisha at a couple of events, and was a little starstruck because gosh darn I really love those undies. I find it super inspiring to hear her story of leaving a career in law to start this beautiful business for a cause that she believes in.
  • Brittany & Johanna Cosgrove - I came across the work that these sisters do one of their upcycled fashion events. They’re behind NOPESISTERS, this amazing label that makes powerful clothing for causes like Sustainable Coastlines and the Breast Cancer Foundation. The designs are so punchy and kick-ass, it’s great.
  • Rachel Smythe - At the moment, I am obsessed with this beautiful Webtoon called “Lore Olympus”, which reimagines the Greek myth “The Taking of Persephone” in the form of an exquisite, sassy, otherworldly cartoon. It’s the top Webtoon on Webtoons, with like over a bajillion followers. On top of that, I recently found out that Rachel Smythe, the creator, is a Kiwi. Amazing.
  • Anna Pendergrast - I met a lot of people at NetHui recently (it was fully catered; 10/10 would recommend), including Anna. I attended her excellent session on “An Environmentally Sustainable Internet”. I found her to be such a warm and inclusive presence. She does some fascinating work with her sister on distilling and communicating on complex issues like climate change, technology, and social change.
  • Merrin Macleod - Merrin co-faciliated the session on the Internet and the environment with Anna. I really loved her passion for the subject, and the way that she made sure everyone’s voices were heard in the discussion. She’s President of Ruby NZ, so I’d love to hear about her own journey into tech!
  • Anjum Rahman - Anjum is the spokesperson for the Islamic Women’s Council of NZ. I haven’t met her personally, but she spoke on the panel on the Internet after Christchurch (discussing the impact of and response to the Christchurch attacks) at NetHui, and I think she’d be an amazing voice to have on here.

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