In Conversation: Tamara Lottering (Design Researcher)

Creating technology products that will be widely adopted requires designing them with the user in mind. As a design researcher, Tamara's job is to study and uncover user behaviours in order to facilitate the design and building of products that will add value to users' lives. In this interview, she speaks more on her interesting field as well as other topics including gender representation in tech!

In your own words, please tell us who Tamara Lottering is?

Hey BW TechZone! 

I’m Tamara, and I’m a huge fan of human-centred data science. I work at the intersection of Design and Data Science, where I use data to understand user needs and identify opportunities for products and services that users love and that fit into business objectives. I thrive when working in multi-disciplinary teams and collaborating on creative challenges.

Briefly take us through your journey to a career in tech

My undergraduate education is in Cognitive Science, at the University of British Columbia. Through my degree, I studied existing systems (e.g., perception; language), the design of new ones (e.g., machine vision; machine intelligence), and the design of interfaces between different forms of intelligent agents (e.g., human-computer interfaces).

After my Bachelor's, I worked for 4 years in business analytics, on cross-functional teams at both small but agile startups, and large enterprises like SAP. These work experiences helped me understand how businesses work and how to grow them at scale.

I then decided to do a Masters in Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh because it was focused on designing & building embedded systems for better human-data interaction. From this Master's I learned applications of data science and machine learning.

Currently, I work as a design researcher for a US venture-capital-backed stealth startup focused on streamlining global freight procurement. 

What motivated you to pursue this career path?

I’ve always been interested in understanding human behaviours and motivations, coupled with their interaction with technologies. This is a compelling field that is in high demand. All products and services involve humans, and it is important to understand their goals and pain points in order to build innovative solutions that work for them. A good example of a company that places emphasis on user experience is Google, their motto is “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

Unfortunately, tech still has a big gender gap problem with a paltry number of women participants in the sector. As a woman in the field, what has your experience been in such a field and how have you dealt with the challenges that come with such a wide gender gap?

Tech can sometimes be a ‘boys club’. This lack of representation is a contributing factor to the imposter syndrome I experience on a regular basis. To tackle this, I have built a strong community of fellow female engineers, designers and scientists. I have read a lot of literature on gender bias in AI and data science, and strategies to mitigate this to educate myself. 

Some of my recommendations for everyone in tech, not just women, are:

Furthermore, in the workplace, I am very vocal when I see instances of sexism or racism. 

What do you think can be done to reduce this lack of representation?

I really could go on about this, but here are a few suggestions with regards to female representation in STEM. This does not address non-binary or racial/cultural representation.

The root problem of the lack of representation in STEM is that girls are conditioned to be ‘prim and proper’ by society from a very young age. Therefore, when it comes to working on complex problems that require you to fail multiple times before you succeed, as is often the case in STEM fields, most women tend not to do well because they are perfectionists. This is a problem. It kills creativity and leads to high levels of anxiety. I am working on unlearning perfectionism every day, and it is very challenging.

At the industry level, hiring managers should hire for potential vs only focusing on experience. This way I believe more women can have an opportunity to have a foot in the door. In addition, all countries should make paternity leave in addition to maternity leave compulsory. A lot of women don’t make it to higher leadership roles because they either have to pause or altogether abandon their careers to raise children. Raising children should not be a limiting factor to women’s career success if it is not to men’s. 

Lastly, another problem is unconscious bias, particularly in recruitment. More often than not, without knowing, hiring managers tend to hire men over women for tech roles because tech is typically a male field and women, even in the 21st century are ‘atypical’. The same applies to awarding promotions. Furthermore, the data used to train algorithms used by tech companies for hiring have been shown to be biased to men, even if women have the same qualifications.

You have been based in the diaspora for most of your career. What have been your experiences working in tech abroad?

It is very fast-paced which is great for learning and growth and as a result, can be quite challenging.

If there have been any challenges, how have you been able to surmount them?

For me, it has been trying to establish a work-life balance. I think there is an obsession with productivity these days and busyness is seen as the ideal state of being. I have experienced burn-out in the past, and to address this, I have worked on mindfulness and meditation to live a  more grounded life that is not only defined by my career but by mental and physical health, social connection and play.

On the other hand, what have been some upsides of being based abroad? 

It is very fast-paced which is great for learning and growth. Furthermore, the people I have worked with have been independent and driven problem-solvers. This has been infectious - a huge motivator for me to keep learning and tackling complex challenges. Furthermore, there is just a lot more opportunity to work on complex problems using cutting edge technology.

Compared to countries like Canada and the UK where you have been based, Botswana’s tech industry is what one could call archaic. What learnings do you think we can get from such countries to grow our tech industry?

One of the ways to tackle this is by taking an entrepreneurial approach to tech. We need to build companies that are solving problems in business, agriculture, health or education using technology. This requires not only having the technical skills, which a lot of people already do but having an entrepreneurial mindset to apply them.

Please tell our readers what your job entails

My job is focused on uncovering user behaviours, needs, and motivations in order to design products and services that provide value, using various qualitative and quantitative (data science and ML) research and analysis methodologies. 

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

I got an offer from MathWorks, a creator of software that is designed and used by world-class scientists and engineers for system design and simulation. Some of their clients include NASA, Boeing, Tesla, and universities around the globe, including the University of Botswana. Unfortunately, I had to turn this offer down because of the limitations of the Chevening Scholarship. Nevertheless, I was very happy to know that I was qualified to work among top designers, engineers and scientists from universities such as the University of Oxford, Cambridge and MIT.

What’s something you know now that you wish you knew earlier in your career?

Perfectionism is a hinder to success. The best thing is to just start, or present a first run of what you have, instead of waiting for it to be perfect. Feedback helps good ideas become great.

If any, what is the best advice you have received in your career?

The above.

What advice can you give to young girls who are interested in pursuing a career in tech?

My advice to all women who are breaking into tech or are currently in tech is to just have a go! Turn problem-solving into a game so that learning is enjoyable and even a little bit of progress is celebrated. 

Another piece of advice is to just apply for that job that you think you are not ‘qualified enough’ for. Various studies have shown that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. Have faith in yourself and throw out perfectionism, the majority of your learning happens on the job anyway!

Lastly, practice, practice, practice. Want to be a software developer, data scientist, or designer? Practise it, and believe that you are one. There are so many free resources on the internet to help you learn your trade and there are platforms like Fiverr, Freelancer or Upwork where you can practise your skills and get paid as a contractor. You don’t need an expensive education or to wait for a company to hire you.

Lastly, please share with our readers your contact details in case they want to get in touch with you.

I’m happy to give advice, and collaborate on interesting challenges in tech - reach out on LinkedIn.

NB: Interview has been slightly edited for clarity

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