Welcome to Women of Datamattic—conversations with some of the remarkable women working all over the world to build, maintain, and explore Automattic’s data landscape and make the web a better place. Today’s interviewee is our Head of Data, Anna Elek.
Who are you, and what do you do?
I lead the central Data function at Automattic (A8C). We work on data infrastructure and tooling, from clusters and tracking systems, through the experimentation platform & ML pipeline all the way to data governance & discoverability.
Automattic has a mostly federated data organization: a big part of my job is also to ensure embedded data teams across the business have the information, support and tools they need to succeed.
Your career seems quite interesting, spanning various roles and areas. Has data always been your passion?
I got into data before I knew it was a “real job”, as I was studying for a Ph.D. in economics with a focus on empirical econometrics (applied statistics for economics): a colleague got hired by a fashion company as a data scientist to predict clothing sizes in an online store, and none of us really believed this was actually a thing one could do for work. But it was!
That said, the path to realizing this was the career path for me was not a straight line. I worked in consultancy & politics after my Master’s, then went back to school to start that Ph.D. for a change of scenery and avoid burnout. I left the program after three years to start a freelance business, primarily focusing on content localization & social media; not data. After a few years and an increasing desire for stability, I started working in a similarly content-focused role at an online travel company. I ended up doing a lot of reporting and analytics work “on the side” in that job, picked up some additional tech skills, and eventually transitioned into a full-time analytics position in the same organization – about 4 years after I left academia. For most of my working life prior, I’d considered myself a communicator & strategist who happened to be rather analytical. As it turns out, I’m an analyst with a knack for communication and strategy. 😉
You started at Automattic in 2019 as a Senior Data Analyst and became the Head of Data within two years! Can you tell us more about your path and experiences along the way?
My experience prior to Automattic included a lot of project management, coordination, and communication, quite a bit of it async and distributed. When the opportunity arose during my first 6 months at A8C to take over the leadership of a major data modeling & ETL project, I was very excited to take it on! The project lasted about half a year and was a chance to explore how to coordinate and plan efficiently in our environment. Given it was a rather high stakes, broad-impact project to build out topline metrics for one of our largest business units, it also gave me a lot of additional insight into stakeholder perspectives and unmet needs.
My then team (central analytics engineering) was left without a lead soon after that project ended, and I stepped into the role, excited to see how I could use the learnings I’d gained to increase the team’s impact and help us scale & evolve together with the business. We grew the team, improved communication and processes, and worked to integrate more closely with our stakeholders and peer teams.
At a wide, federated organization like Automattic, one of the keys to success for a team is understanding the broader landscape and avenues for efficient prioritization & collaboration. Leading a central team gave me a lot to think about when it came to our organizational model for Data overall: what the best choices for our business would be, where to centralize and where to encourage a federated approach, and how to keep communication aligned. When I eventually moved into my current role, I knew my North Star would be to improve this model intentionally: to create an integrated organization where each central and embedded team, analyst, and engineer has both a clear mandate and strong support – a data org capable of scaling with Automattic efficiently and impactfully.
There are many women engineers I connect with during my recruiting hours and I’ve been asked frequently: Is a degree a must to get hired in A8C?
Absolutely not. A degree is a proxy, an indicator of familiarity with & commitment to a craft. It can be a relevant signal, but there are other equally valid ways to send the same message: a portfolio, work experience, volunteering, passion projects, etc. One of the best software engineers I know has no degree. He was shipping code and building products at the age when school would’ve been on the schedule, and he just never stopped.
That’s it for this edition of Women of Datamattic! Stay with us as the interview series continues next week! And if you’d like to do more than just read about these great people, consider working with us! Join our team of diverse, global perspectives building a better web, and connect your career to the power of Open Source.