BTU #162 - Navy to Data Scientist & Product Manager (Amanda Cesari)

One of the really nice things that my military background gave me was the ability to look at a problem that seems large and daunting and break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces. I feel like you get a lot of that being in the military, especially coming from the Naval Academy. There’s so many times in the military where you have to figure out how to get yourself and your team from Point A to B.
— Amanda Cesari

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Amanda Casari is a Senior Product Manager & Data Scientist with Concur Labs at SAP Concur, a company that provides on-demand employee spend management solutions that enable organizations to control their costs. Concur customers include over 70% of Fortune 100 and 500 companies. She started out at the Naval Academy, after which she served for five years and one week as a Surface Warfare Officer. She hold an MS from the University of Vermont in Electrical Engineering, is a future O'Reilly author and also volunteers with NASA as a member of the Datanauts.

Why Listen: 

Amanda puts me to shame in this interview, as she is so incredibly gifted at succinctly and vividly describing a variety of topics in this interview, including: her work as a Data Scientist and Product Manager, how to approach work life balance, remote working, and evaluating a company's culture. I really enjoyed talking with Amanda, and hope you enjoy this great interview.

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Transcript & Time Stamps:

Joining me today from Seattle, Washington is Amanda Cesari. Amanda is a Senior Product Manager and Data Scientist with Concur Labs at SAP Concur. Amanda started out at the Naval Academy and then served for five years as a Surface Warfare Officer. She holds a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Vermont. She also volunteers at NASA and is soon to be a published author.


I was an Electrical Engineering major during my undergraduate years at the Naval Academy so the thought of doing a graduate degree in Electrical Engineering sounds daunting to say the least.

It was actually a really good fit for me. It was an interdisciplinary engineering program. I was a Control Systems undergraduate major. When I went back to school after a seven year gap, it was challenging. I felt like I needed to know everything but I later realized that I was there to learn.

I was able to shape the program in a way that allowed me to take specific classes I was interested in. I ended up with a Master’s in Electrical Engineering but I actually took more Computer Science and Applied Mathematics classes than I did Electrical Engineering. So I think the program worked for me because I was able to take classes that I was really interested in.


How would you explain what you do for a living?

On the Concur Labs team, we are focused on looking at things that are not within the road map. There are 2,000 people in the Concur Research and Development team. They are looking at what customers are asking for and what we need to do to support global expansion. My team is tasked with looking at how Concur will evolve and change in the next few years and how we can use prototypes and demos to show customers now what the future could look like.

With that in mind, my role as a product manager expands beyond that as well. Within our team, I look at interactions and partnerships between customers and technology. We’ve been experimenting with bots. We look at how basic computing is changing. We consider how our customers are used to interacting with technology and how that could change in the future. Product managers are known for doing a little bit of everything and that’s definitely true of my role.


I know it varies from company to company but I’ve always thought of the product manager as a jack of all trades type of role. Is that fair to say?

Absolutely. And I would say with my background in the Navy and then into the civilian sector, my career hasn’t been exactly linear and I’ve experimented with different things. I’m by no means a brain surgeon or rocket scientist. But I have worked broadly across this industry so that experience, coupled with my military experience, allows me to bring people together toward a common goal.


Where does the data scientist piece fit in to your overall role as a product manager?

On my team, we like to say that everyone is an “and”. So you can’t just be one thing. We have a product manager who is also a developer. I’m a product manager and also a data analyst. Our team is small - only about 10 people so we all wear different hats.

I was a data scientist at Concur previously so it’s something I wanted to make sure I could keep doing in my product manager role. When I moved into this role, I was able to help shape and define it. It is about a half and half split between product management and data analysis.


What is the typical day-to-day for someone that is a data scientist?

I’m a big proponent that you can do data science with any data tool. I find myself using Python quite a bit. Data science is moving from data into a product or report and providing something that is more useful than the raw data. You’re trying to go from raw data into something that people can use. You can use Excel for this. Our data science team primarily uses Python. I tend to use Python because it is what I’m most interested in. The recent book I got to work on On Feature Engineering.

Python uses open source which is when people create tools that they then share for public use. So anyone can then go use those tools as long as they credit the creator accordingly.

I sometimes work with technologists on our team and work those into projects that we’re working on.  


I like that idea of taking large amounts of data and distilling it down into something that is going to be valuable and usable.

Yeah and I think one of the really nice things that my time in the military provided me with was the ability to look at large and daunting problems and break that down into smaller, actionable steps. I feel like you get a lot of that being in the military, especially coming from the Naval Academy. There’s so many times in the military where you have to figure out how to get yourself and your team from Point A to B. You want people to understand that the problem isn’t impossible to solve.


What does Concur Labs do as an organization?

Two years ago when I first joined the team, it was announced that we were going to be launching an integration between SAP Concur and Microsoft Outlook. My team was the team that owned that product. It’s called Concur on Outlook. This is a way that you can take a receipt from an email and we then can take that receipt and break it down into line items. Usually if you are submitting an expense report to your employer, the employer wants to know the same kinds of things. The amount that was paid, who it was paid to, and what was purchased.  So we take those common fields and pre-populate a form that customers can then use to submit expense reports. We wanted to bring Concur to where people are working and provide a specific functionality to people.

Another example of what Concur does - at Reinvent last year, Alexa for Business and Concur established a relationship. Users can link Alexa for Business and their Concur accounts and then receive realtime information about their upcoming itinerary. We try to help people get information more efficiently.

Travel and itinerary updates are two of the most needed items by voice assistants. For example, people are packing for a trip and use a voice assistant to help make sure they didn’t forget anything. Ultimately we want to provide useful information to people in the location where they need this information.


What does your typical day-to-day look like?

I have two kids at home so I get up with them in the morning. Usually I’m in the office by 9:30. I spend the first few minutes of work catching up on emails. I check Twitter in the morning as well but I’ve cut back on social media. We use Slack quite a bit at work as well. Our team has stand-up at 10:45 which is when our team gets together for 15 minutes to talk about the projects that we’re working on. We also set up Zoom platforms for people on the team that are not in the office. My days do vary a little bit. Sometimes, I have meetings which I try to keep to under 45 minutes. Other times I’m driving to Seattle to meet with partners. In the office, my team has an open work space. I’m usually the one that sets up working sessions. My team likes to go out to lunch together. I also sometimes to get a workout in during the day. I tend to leave the office around 5:30 to get home. I sometimes do work in the evenings but not every night. I have a few side projects like to book I’m working on and volunteering with the Datanauts. The culture at SAP Concur is very human centered. They make sure people feel like they are cared for.


Could you describe the company policy regarding remote working?

The day that I checked in at Concur, I already had all the information I needed to be able to work from home. This signaled to me that the company valued my time and that it wasn’t expected that I would spend all my time seated at a designated desk. I think that this means a lot to people that have responsibilities outside the company. And I think this goes into company culture and team culture. Two years ago I knew I was going to be going on maternity leave about six months after I joined the team. I made it a personal project of mine to make sure we could still work closely if we weren’t all together in the office. I read a lot of blogs that talked about more effective interaction amongst team members.

Another thing that we do is always have a call-in number for all meetings that are happening across the company. Our company has 12 development centers so we really work hard to make sure everyone feels that they are included on the project.


I love that description of how you knew immediately what type of a culture you were getting yourself into at Concur.

Yeah I would love to see us as a mindset thinking about communicating more effectively with one another. Really figuring out the best way to direct communication to the most appropriate channel. You can often open up your inbox and be overwhelmed by what is in your inbox. There are some great startups working on projects that would allow you search information across multiple products and teams.


What are some indications that someone might be a good fit for data scientist work?

A lot of data management is information filtering and putting it in the right places. It’s getting people on the same page and bringing them to the same place. You have to be aware of cross business collaboration. I find it’s very effective to communicate in person with people from other teams. If you don’t like math, data scientist work might not be a good fit for you. I don’t think anyone is bad at math, I think it’s something you work on and a skill that you aquire. Right now, most people that are data scientists have Masters and PhDs. There are undergraduate programs as well as veteran transition programs. If you can see the projects data scientists are working on and you’re interested in them, that’s a good indication that it might be a good fit for you.


What are common entry points for someone going into a role like this?

Product managers in technology tend to be valued most when they have a technical background. The engineering teams are asking for someone with a technical background because they want to know that the person will understand what they are trying to explain.

If you’re interested in this type of work but currently working on something else, you can express an interest through personal projects or volunteering to work on various projects.

As far as data scientist, it’s an evolving role. A good place to start for this is to have a STEM undergraduate experience. If you already have an MS or a PhD there are some great programs like Insight Data Science Fellows. They look at helping people with advanced degrees become data engineers. IBM and SAP are also great companies that like to hire veterans.


You’ve been working on publishing a book and also volunteer with NASA. How do you make time for this?

The book is about feature engineering - the first one of its kind. My co-author and I wanted to help people move from raw data to machine learning models. For Datanauts, I saw that NASA wanted to get more people involved in their program. I’ve applied to a lot of different programs even if I didn’t ultimately get accepted. I just like to always be putting myself out there.


I really admire your ability to be flexible and nimble and just see where those opportunities take you.

Thanks. And of course it doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to. I’ve definitely had failures along the way. But it keeps me interested in things that I want to be involved in.


Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?

I’m a veteran, parent, and women in tech. My first experience was not fantastic. My experience now has been wonderful due to the great leadership at Concur. If you are someone that has external commitments, look for a company that encourages that. If you have mobility, don’t put up with your life being miserable. There are probably other positions that could be a better fit for you. Especially for veterans, if you feel like you’re in a place that you’re not happy, reach out to other veterans.

And my other advice would be for new parents. If you possibly can, try to give yourself or your spouse one night off. I think that gives the other parent the opportunity to be in charge of the kids without the other person’s opinion. And for the person taking that time, it’s important to maintain that sense of who you are as an individual.

I think you find out very quickly that kids know the dynamic that exists depending on who is in the room. But you’re absolutely nice, it’s really nice to give the parent that’s not the primary caregiver the freedom to figure things out for yourself.


I’m so appreciative of your time and perspective. I know this is going to be so helpful to the veteran community.