4 minute read

Tech Careers in Profile: an incurable optimist

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Hannah Fagan
21 August 2020

Every day we produce enormous amounts of data, from customer smart meters to wind turbines to the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems that monitor generation assets. In the same way we take care of our sites, assets, and people, we’re focused on protecting our data and ensuring it’s accurate, secure, and reliable.

Finding the value within all this data is an art and a science that Sarah Dods, Head of Advanced Analytics at AGL does every day.

Finding a way forward


Sarah leads a team of data scientists and machine learning engineers in AGL’s Data & Analytics Centre of Excellence.

‘Data scientists are a little different from IT, our job is finding patterns in data that create business value,’ said Sarah.

‘Our AGL experts have some ideas about what will drive that value and we investigate the data, analyse the complexity, and winnow out the truth, using the scientific method.

‘Sometimes we confirm the hypothesis; sometimes we get astonishing new insights that link unexpected factors; and sometimes the outcome disproves a hypothesis, meaning we confirm it’s wrong – which gives us useful insights on where to not invest further effort.

‘While there’s a huge amount of uncertainty, finding a way forward is all part of the process.’

Making a difference


‘My background is in the Australian innovation system, in deep technology. I love figuring out how to do really hard things that haven’t been done before.

‘The biggest thing I’ve learned is that the only way to find out what will work is to get started, learn as you go, and be ready to pivot.’

Sarah began her career in industrial research, improving design and operations in aluminium smelters and alumina refineries. She did her own pivot into a PhD in communications engineering, working on understanding what could go wrong in a national broadband network (NBN). This was followed by a stint in academia before co-founding a Silicon Valley start-up that monitored problems in NBN networks.

‘I learned a lot about product-market fit. Really understanding that it isn’t what we – the engineers – think is important, it’s what’s going to make a commercial difference to a customer. Why would someone pay money for what we do? How does what we’re doing more than pay for itself in value creation?’

Sarah then joined the CSIRO as a Research Director.

‘I led the implementation of a program that enabled scientists across the business to make the shift from why do I think my work is important to what is it going to take for my work to make a difference to the world?

‘As these very smart scientists became aware of a whole new way of thinking about the world, it profoundly changed the way they worked. It was humbling and empowering to be part of their journey.’

A futurist


While at the CSIRO, Sarah also spent time as a Futurist – someone who systematically explores predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present.

‘It’s looking at a big spectrum of what could change in the world, thinking about the system drivers, and then working through scenarios,’ Sarah said.

‘One really interesting aspect of the digital revolution we’re living through is the impact of COVID-19. It has sped up the jump to digital with working from home and telehealth en masse. Up until this year, these things were all in the “too hard” basket – and yet they were transformed overnight!

An incurable optimist


‘I believe everyone acts in the best interests of their worldview. I may not be able to see it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real for them. When you shift to wanting to understand what’s going on for the other person, it changes the whole conversation.

‘It’s the same when you’re working with 95% uncertainty. There’s a lot of unknowns, but it doesn’t mean the answers aren’t staring you in the face. You just don’t have the knowledge or understanding – in your worldview – to see them yet.

‘I’m reading Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz, which challenges our expectation to always be right, and embraces errors as beneficial learning opportunities. This approach removes the need to have a right and a wrong, and it transforms the situation into a learning moment.


‘I love taking this approach with my teams. It’s wonderful when they know something that I don’t, and even better when our diverse insights come together to create a solution none of us could have done on our own.

‘Bringing together diverse teams is the best way to unlock the path forward.’

Staying connected


Sarah joined AGL at the beginning of COVID-19 and while she met her team in the first week, she has since relied on virtual connections.

‘AGL has been wonderfully welcoming, although onboarding remotely has been quite different. Most of my team is quite new, so it’s been important for us to find ways to connect beyond just our work.

‘Having a weekly afternoon tea with a theme or a costume – for example – is a fun way to learn about everyone’s interests and the non-work side of their lives. It’s been great for building that sense of connection.

‘As we go through this next stage of lockdowns in Victoria, it’s more important than ever to keep that connection alive and well.’

In many ways, broader life has begun to resemble Sarah’s work.

‘To succeed in 95% uncertainty, you have to be an optimist. There’s always uncertainty; you need to trust that there will be a way. Just because I can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.’