Alice Mortlock

Data Scientist for Mallzee

Tell us about your background and the journey to your current role
I’m an astrophysicist by trade! When I was a kid, I was always into Star Trek and space and all that.
After school, I ended up going to university doing physics and astronomy then a PhD in astrophysics at the University of Nottingham and then moved to Edinburgh and I started a Post-Doc in astrophysics at the Royal Observatory. That was big data and data about galaxies and stars. When I finished the Post-Doc, I realised I found academic research a tiny bit slow. You spend six months to a year to a publish a paper so I decided to come out of academia and go in to industry and look for a job where I could play with data and get insights from messy information, applying my skills to more real world situations.

Can you tell us more about what you do now?
The company I work for now is called Mallzee which brings together all different clothing retailers. It’s brilliant because you can go and you can find a T-shirt from 150 different brands all at once and you can buy – I’m not actually a big shopper! – you can browse. The main feature is that you can swipe on the clothes. It’s Tinder for fashion.

My job is to get together all the insights, from the way people interact with clothes to the way they interact with the app, what they are doing around the app to find out why people use the app, and what they would like to see. The insights also help retailers understand the market and understand what people want from the market, so they’re not wasting time and money making stuff that nobody will buy.
My day-to-day is very varied – I can say I am officially a part of the commercial team. So part of my job is when the very clever commercial people say “I have a great idea”, I can say what it might look like from being able to perform insights together. Then I have the technical ability to dig in the data and get an idea of what’s possible. I can help them produce information that they can give to retailers.

I also work closely with the product team looking at where users use the app, why did they leave, why did they come back. I work with the development team looking after the database, wrangling the data into a way that makes it usable as fast as possible and empowering people in the company who are not necessarily practical and politically minded but analytical minded to use the data as well.

What part of that job is your passion?
I really, really enjoy the collaborative aspect. I have my skills, the people in the commercial team have an understanding of the retail world, the people in the data team who have their own very technical and coding understanding. You watch it all come together and make something actionable and alive.

Sounds fantastic. Can you tell us a little bit more about the organisation?
There are about 26 of us and we are pretty much 50/50 male and female split! We’re a little bunch of people and we’re a good mix. The technical team is more heavily male-dominated. The data team is just me and my colleague, both women. We have a management team which is pretty much 50/50 male and female too!

Do you find your work supportive of women?
My current work is more so. In astrophysics, a lot of the top-level professors have been in the field a long time, and got to that position before there were many women in astrophysics at all. Astrophysics now is actually not bad for male/female split for a science, but because many of the top-level positions were filled a long time ago there are very few women in those roles. But I would still say my current role has a better male/female split. I definitely feel more at home at a modern and more balanced company.

That’s great to hear. And can you tell us a little bit more about specific projects that you’re working on at the moment?
Yes! We just started our new financial quarter, so there are loads of interesting projects on the horizon. Me and my team are basically going to work on new and interesting metrics to understand preferences. I love how the company gives us time to really understand the product, what we’re doing and what its potential is.

Can you give us more detail on how you handle and process data?
We handle it from the very beginning, such as raw data in the domain and in the back-end. We then clean that data using database handling tools so we can make it into something sensible and useful for us. From that point, we would use SQL and Python to manipulate the data, looking for different insights and make plots and graphs. We also use this little tool called Redash, which is a dashboard-making tool that works on top of SQL. It is kind of a language that helps you look at tables of people’s information. That’s something we have set up for the rest of the company, so they don’t need to know SQL, because it’s a technical thing. It gives them little widgets we’ve built and gives them, again, that kind of empowerment.

What are your hopes for the future in your work and in the field?
I look forward to problem-solving and being right at the heart of ideas or maybe standing on a total blank canvas. We have the data and it’s fascinating to look at what is in it, playing with that, positing x against y, thinking “that doesn’t show me anything” and then “oh! Maybe there is this bias in the data”. I love that element of discovery in my work, it’s really fun.

What would you say are the biggest challenges left for women in data, in astronomy and tech?
There is the cultural side – that maybe standing out and speaking out is not something that women do, or do well. In astrophysics, you’re expected to attend competitions, ask questions during conferences and talks. This disadvantages women and is inherently harder because we’re taught not to behave that way. That is one of the major challenges. Sometimes my stomach churns and I think “argh, should I say something?!” I think this is a longstanding problem and one thing that really has to be tackled when girls are young.

And what would you recommend for women and girls who would like to be you and go into a similar career to yours?
If you really enjoy something, go for it. I remember when I was at school and I signed up for GCSE electronics. They said, “that’s fine but you’ll be the only girl in class”. As if that matters. People have these preconceived notions about electronics or technology and if it excites you, then it is for you. If you’re having trouble, I promise there will be someone out there you can talk to and that understands, like a classmate or professor or a mentor.

Is there anything that you wish you could do more of in your work?
I wish I could learn more new things. If I could get a day to just sit down and digest all this. However, this isn’t a problem with my organisation – it’s about actually carving out time to dedicate to yourself professionally.

It’s a struggle of modern working life, isn’t it?
Yes. I remember as a PhD student having endless Chrome tabs and piles of paper, thinking “one day!!”

Do you have any fun facts about yourself?
I was co-author on an astrophysics paper which was once mentioned on an episode of the TV show Luther. It was on the number of galaxies in the universe.

What do you do when the working day is over?
Hmm, I get my bus (laughs). I sometimes run and do Pilates, which will make my profile sound like I’m so sporty and healthy, but I’m not!

Do you have a hero or heroine?
When I was a kid, I was really influenced by sci-fi and Star Trek. I got thinking about this question: are my heroes actually all those that worked on the Star Trek Enterprise?!

Image of Alice Mortlock
Picture by Lesley Martin, interview Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

I love the element of discovery

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