JoAnne Banner
Inside IDeaS

The Science of Storytelling – My Unplanned Tech Career

By , Marketing Database Analyst

In honor of Women’s History Month, IDeaS’ resident marketing analyst reflects on how her unexpected path into the tech industry took her right where she belonged.

Happy International Women’s Day! As I face Life Phase 3 (better known as “retirement”) and realize I have less than four working weeks left, I pause to reflect on my career journey and how I ended up a “woman in technology.” In a word—accidentally!

When I was in third grade, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and responded “choreographer!” Not because I had any particular talent or interest in dancing, but because I could spell the word. Reflecting on that, I see my early enthusiasm for accuracy might have been an indicator of my future career in database analysis and management.

My early working years were spent bouncing around as a clerk in a gift shop and hardware store and as a cosmetics sales-“girl” until I finally realized my lack of college degree would limit any possibility of moving forward in any career. And so, at the ripe old age of 27, I went back to school for my Bachelor of Science degree—majoring in Business and Communication.

My college experience wasn’t exactly typical as I worked full time and attended evening and weekend classes. Since the school was designed specifically for “adult” students, most my classmates were “older” and already working in one field or another. The unexpected benefit of this was that I learned from my fellow students, not just the professors. These lessons were based on real-life situations and more valuable than any textbook example. College opened my eyes in ways I could have never imagined.

Ironically, it was not the classes you would expect to convert to a successful career that were the most meaningful, but rather those that taught critical thinking skills and logic that have supported me most through any position or task I have had over the years. As an example, I flunked business statistics yet spent most of my later career analyzing business data in one way or another—and I can safely admit this now that I’m retiring.

One of my loftier early goals was to become an author and write the “Great American Novel.” I was pretty quickly disabused of that goal—I don’t have the patience required—however my desire to communicate effectively has remained strong.

A huge “aha” moment for me was when I realized math is a language and can be used to tell a story of its own—to explain something. I regret not realizing this earlier as I do think I would not have suffered so greatly in those geometry, trigonometry, and business statistics classes. Mathematics is the language technology is based on and with great technology, understanding can be achieved.

Like many, my graduation from college did not result in landing my “dream job”—whatever that might have been. But then, when I graduated from college, we were emerging from the Women’s Liberation Movement, which left many women unclear as to what their roles should be. I grew up at a time where my career options were limited to teacher, nurse, nun or librarian!

So while my college education may have “opened doors” for me as a woman—I had no idea how many doors there were and what resided behind them. Certainly, in a time when computers were huge, room-sized machines, the notion of a being a “woman in tech” was completely novel.

From that point on, my career followed a path of undirected discovery—both of my own skills and abilities and what jobs were available at any given time. Mostly, these first jobs after college, while not quite entry-level, were low-level customer service positions. Customer service is typically the last type of position a business adds and is among the first to be eliminated when downsizing. This is especially true for employees with low seniority.

As a result, I was “laid off” from six companies in six years during the late ’80s and early ’90s. I found myself in a cycle of having to find or accept customer service type positions because these were the positions I could demonstrate skill, had experience with and because I just needed to pay the rent. It was difficult to advance on a career path when constantly interrupted by unexpected layoffs.

Nevertheless, as I navigated through all this, some patterns emerged, and I began to see my goal of being a storyteller was being realized in an unexpected way. The part of customer service work I excelled at was taking a problem, analyzing it, and determining the “what/when/where/why/how” and then reporting the results and solution.

My transition from customer service to sales analyst happened when I realized the skill set was almost identical. Instead of the customer bringing the “problem” to me for resolution, it was the sales team that became my “customer” and brought questions forward that I analyzed and resolved in the very same way.

An early lesson from my sales analyst days was that understanding exactly what was being said or asked was critical to providing the answer. I remember a national sales manager saying, “Every time I ask you a question, you give me a different answer.” What he did not realize is that while he thought he was asking the same question—he was not. There would be slightly different nuances in his questions that changed the result.

My experience taught me to listen without preconception—to repeat back what was asked and get clarification—because if you listen with preconception, you apply assumptions, leap to conclusions, and basically get it wrong. And this sales manager also taught me that it was my job—not his—to make sure he understood what he was asking.

Another lesson learned in these first days of analysis work was realizing that the more related information you have, the better your chances were of providing answers, solutions, or predictions. Finding ways to use technology quickly became an essential step to managing the volume of data required.

While writing the “Great American Novel” may not require the same level of accuracy, writing a book and producing analysis of information is, at its heart, the same thing: telling a story. The telling of the story—or the analysis—can make or break a business goal or the business itself. Therefore, it is critical that the analyzed data is as correct as possible.

Over the years, I have progressed from those simple spreadsheets to understanding the architecture of databases, how to cull information from the databases, and how to blend information from different sources by the use of technology.

This is why it has been exciting to spend my final working years at IDeaS, a company at the leading edge of technology in its field. There is an environment here that not only appreciates the value of data for making important decisions but allows and encourages each and every team member to achieve excellence.

In this day and age of Big Data and AI, it feels as if we are buried under data. The news is filled with reports of “Fake News” and misinformation that would have some believe that the volume of data is not only huge but dangerous as well. Technology run amok!

But the story does not end here. Technology can and does serve humankind, and with careful stewardship, we will find ways to overcome the shortcomings and evolve to a better place.

I am profoundly grateful and humble I got the chance to be a “woman in tech” and am exceedingly proud of the achievements I made and the legacy I leave to my talented workmates.

Marketing Database Analyst

JoAnne Plein is a veteran analyst with a demonstrated track record of improving sales & marketing data integrity and performance outcomes. She believes in the undeniable power of data to guide good decision-making—although her natural intuition isn’t too shabby either.

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