International Day of Women and Girls in Science, meet Heather Walker

Meet the woman with a PHD in Astrophysics who used to work for the cycle/triathlon online retailer Wiggle CRC and Carnival Cruises UK, has a real passion for data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence and enjoys snorkelling and photography in her free time…

Hi, my names Heather Walker and I joined Specsavers in January 2020 as the Global Head of Data Science, Analytics and Visualisation.

What does that mean? I lead a team of data scientists and analysts who use maths, statistics, artificial intelligence, and fancy visuals to get value from data. We have worked on initiatives that make sure our customers receive relevant communications, ensure patients get the best care possible, and help our store and factory colleagues run their businesses efficiently. Our goal is not just to deliver these kinds of projects ourselves, but also to enable our colleagues in the business to take the data into their own hands and get value from it themselves.

Tell us a little bit about yourself…
I live in Hampshire with my husband, Rob, and our cat, Loki. I’m a massive nerd. I love reading (Brandon Sanderson is my fave author at the moment, and I’m loving the Warhammer 40k Ciaphas Cain series). I play video games (management games like Surviving Mars and Jurassic World Evolution 2). I also play violin & piano, and enjoy running, snorkelling, and holidays in the sun.

What was your background before joining Specsavers?
My commercial career has focused on customer behavioural data science – building machine learning models and artificial intelligence (AI) systems from data on how customers behave, what they are interested in and what motivates them.

My last role was lead data scientist at Wiggle CRC, the cycle and triathlon online retailer. I developed Wiggle’s data science strategy and built AI systems to support personalisation in marketing. Prior to that I worked as a senior data scientist in the customer analytics team at Carnival Cruises UK, where (among other things) I was the data science lead for the marketing effectiveness programme and built the customer loyalty forecast AI system.

My educational background is somewhat different – I did my undergrad in Physics and a PhD in Astrophysics. How did I go from that to customer behaviour? My first role out of university was working for a company that used the physics of mobile phone signals (not wildly different to the physics of telescopes) and some AI systems to track people’s locations in shopping centres. It turns out customer behaviour is far more interesting than electrons!

Tell me a little bit about your journey at Specsavers?
I joined early in 2020. What a whirlwind it’s been! I started out in the office with a small team, when the Global Data function was relatively new and the Global Analytics team was very small. We were still getting our core technology systems set up, and we didn’t have access to all the data from the organisation. Fast forward two years, my team is three times bigger than it was when I started, and we are a thriving analytics community with over 100 analysts across the business using our state of the art technology. We can access and analyse data from over 70 core systems, from appointments and prescriptions to orders and manufacturing.

How has Specsavers helped and supported your development?
I was relatively new to people management when I joined Specsavers. I had mentored several people over the years, and fed into strategic discussions, but still wasn’t the typical experience profile you might expect for a Global Head of in such a large organisation. My manager Helen Mannion put her faith in me to take on such a critical role in the organisation’s data journey. I’ve had great support from her and from other Specsavers colleagues in building my skills as a manager and leader. My role has evolved as the transformation programme has progressed. That evolution has allowed me to develop along the way from being very hands-on, writing code and analysing data when I started, to fully hands off leadership now, giving opportunities to my team to develop their own skills and become the next generation of data science and analytics leaders for Specsavers.

What gives you pride in your role?
My proudest moments have been seeing my team grow, become more skilled, and take on more responsibility. This can be a bittersweet pride when your team members move on to take the next step in their career journey elsewhere, but I am happy to have had some influence and helped them get closer to their “dream job”.

I also take pride in the influence and changes that have taken place in the organisation as a result of the work that myself and my team have done. The appetite and excitement for data has increased significantly, people are using the data products that we have built and it’s making a real difference to people’s lives, both our customers’ and our colleagues’.

What have you learnt during your time at Specsavers?
I’ve learned a huge amount about the optical industry and Specsavers specifically, about manufacturing and about eye health – my background is not in optical at all so it was a steep learning curve! Everyone is willing to help though, which has been lovely.

I’ve also learned how much I value working for a truly people-centric organisation.

What would you say to encourage someone thinking about applying for a role here?
Definitely apply! Because of our business model, we have many interesting areas to work in, from Marketing and Finance to Clinical and Manufacturing. There is a lot of variety and complexity that makes it a very stimulating place to work. The business cares about its staff and provides great opportunities for career development – many people have vibrant careers moving from role to role at Specsavers.

Why do you love working at Specsavers?
The people are fantastic – lovely, kind, funny, and competent. As a data professional, Specsavers has one of the most interesting data landscapes I’ve seen. We have such a variety of systems and processes that I’m still learning new things every day. We have state of the art cloud data technology, which allows us to deliver best in class solutions for our colleagues and customers. And it feels great to work in an award-winning data team!

What one word would you use to describe the Specsavers culture?

Want to learn more about Heather? She recently did a podcast with ‘How AI Built This’, have a listen here.

Our data team are growing again so if you want to work with Heather Walker and her amazing team, check out our latest opportunities below.

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