Angela Lillis enjoyed maths and politics while at school, overcoming challenges to find an an answer and win a debate. So it’s no surprise she wanted a career that could combine those skills.
Her ambition and drive have paid off: She was recently honoured as one of Women in Data UK’s Twenty in Data & Technology.
Lillis started out as a marketing analytics assistant at the BBC before moving to Marks & Spencer, explaining that the public broadcaster lacked the opportunities to fully push her technical and insight skills.
“I was at the BBC before you had to sign into iPlayer, which completely changed the data available and therefore the possibilities of what you could understand about viewers,” she recalled.
“I’ve now found a home in retail – the pace, data and resulting changes you can drive by generating insights from customer behaviour has drawn me in for five and a half years now.”
Lillis and her team are responsible for all analytical customer insight for the clothing & home division of M&S. Her work involves coding and statistical modelling, as well as ensuring the right numbers are being discussed in the right meetings.
“One minute we’re trying to understand more about how people purchase bras, the next evaluating the impact of store trials going on across the country,” she told Retail Gazette.
Lillis noted that delivering the first in-house econometric modelling and then seeing it influence marketing strategy was a moment that is “definitely going to stay with me.”
“It was a learning curve for me to discover the ins and outs of market mix modelling,” Lillis explained.
“Now we’re making customer-led decisions on campaigns and marketing channels which makes it all the more satisfying when seeing M&S advertising.”
She went on to discuss why she’s fond of her job with the heritage retailer.
“I enjoy the creativity. I know that’s not normally a word associated with data, but there are so many approaches you can take to a data problem which means you can always try something new to get to the answer,” she said.
Lillis attributes her career success to two things: “Knowing who I am and what my skill sets and passions are”, and “always striving to do that little bit better than before”.
“On the first point, I realised a few years ago I loved working with data, but knew I wasn’t the sort of person to spend all my time coding,” she expanded.
Lillis said she wanted to use numbers and statistical techniques to tell stories and drive impact in an organisation and described her current role as “the perfect place to put my technical skills to good use while also making the most of my passion for storytelling”.
“The tide is turning though in the industry and at M&S”
“The second point comes from something I heard years ago that has stuck with me: ‘If you look back at yourself a year ago and don’t think you were an idiot, you haven’t grown’,” she added.
“Maybe I don’t think I was an idiot, but I certainly look back at my work and can see how I could have done it better.
“It hasn’t always been the easiest journey to embed data into decision making.”
Lillis explained that years ago, the role of data teams was primarily focused on reporting because people hadn’t realised its potential and the difference between reporting and insight.
“This didn’t sit well with me and I struggled to feel at home in this, in part because I don’t fit a lot of old school data professional stereotypes,” she said.
“I’m often wearing the thick rimmed glasses and can be often be found coding.
“However, I’m a woman, and the glasses are more often than not teamed with a leopard print, floral or otherwise bright dress and I do enjoy getting out and talking to people.”
Over the years, she’s managed to carve out her role into one that focuses on insight and storytelling, adding that the recent creation of the data and digital function at M&S has “pushed the importance and potential of data a lot further up the agenda”.
While there have been obstacles for Lillis, she has also been inundated with success.
These include being named in the Twenty in Data & Tech showcase last year.
“I knew my colleagues had nominated me which eased the surprise, but actually getting named as one of the 20 did take some time to sink in,” she reflected.
“It was fantastic to be recognised in the UK data and technology community – being part of a brilliant movement alongside 19 other fab women.
“If we can convince more women and girls to consider a future in data, I’ll be so happy.”
Lillis was also featured on Women in Data’s billboard campaign, which was placed in public places all over the UK.
“If we can convince more women and girls to consider a future in data, I’ll be so happy”
“The campaign looked to challenge the role models and celebrities society place focus on, by giving prominence to myself and some other fantastic women in data,” she said.
“No maths teacher ever told me that this career path would lead to 10 foot billboards of me all over the country, so I still haven’t quite got my head around it.
“In short, I’m excited and overwhelmed whilst trying to style it out and seem cool.”
Women currently make up only a quarter of those working in data in the UK.
However, Lillis boasted that M&S was ahead of the curve, at 43 per cent. However, she explained there was still a way to go, and that only 21 per cent of data management roles are filled by women.
“In order to work towards gender parity we need to address the imbalances seen at every stage of a girl’s life – at school,” she said.
“Four times more boys are encouraged to take a career in engineering; at university, only 12 per cent of computer science graduates are women and then only 11 per cent of tech executives are women – we need to tackle this from the bottom up and from the top down.”
Her advice to those interested in a career in data was clear.
“Find what you’re passionate about and go for it,” she said.
“Data and technology is a really interesting, forever evolving area.”
She added: “And if I can help other people discover what they want to do, and push themselves and have fun along the way, I’d be even happier.”