Refreshed knowledge can open new doors

Making a switch in career focus can feel a bit daunting – where to go, what to do? Sometimes even new language and terminologies are difficult to understand, particularly in industries that are digitising rapidly. How do you make a change in the ‘digital economy’ without feeling like you’re throwing away years of knowledge and networks you’ve built up?

Postgraduate in Connected Environments graduate

For Kelly Rummins, a seasoned market researcher with a corporate and consulting background, making a shift was made smoother by first choosing to study Connected Environments with Tech Futures Lab. Now she’s working a dream job with a local startup that has an environmental sustainability purpose.

“When I first saw the programme I admit I didn’t actually know what IoT meant or what it could do.” (IoT stands for the Internet of Things). Kelly’s husband encouraged her to take on study and she’s so glad she did. 

“For someone not too ‘techie’, IoT is really great – mini bits of hardware you can learn about and figure out how the hardware relates to the software. I went on to build a breadboard, connect wires on it – just stuff I never ever would have considered doing. It was really cool, very satisfying to actually prototype a physical piece of technology.” 

Kelly’s study on the programme played a part in her successful switch to take up the Product Marketing Manager role for Starboard Maritime Intelligence a remote sensing technology startup. “It definitely helped me get the role. They specifically spoke to me about it in the interview – I actually submitted my third assignment as part of the technical challenge [set as part of the recruitment process].”

At Starboard, the focus is on fisheries and maritime biosecurity, using connected systems to monitor and inform compliance requirements for boats coming into port as well as vessels on the high seas. Quite a shift for Kelly, who comes from a career primarily grounded in the financial sector. 

“When you build out the environment of all the information around it… you start to create real meaning.”

What’s unique about Staboard’s approach is the layering of various location data points with algorithms and machine learning, to inform a wider picture of a boat’s journey and activities. This information is then connected directly with inspection teams to enable them to prepare for the best inspection approach in advance of the boat’s arrival. This data layering strategy was where Kelly’s existing knowledge was expanded on programme. “You can collect data points but it’s when you build out the environment of all the information around it that you can start to create real meaning.”

Big data calls for clear focus

Because of a strong market research background, data isn’t new territory for Kelly. But she was still amazed by the potential it can offer when it scaled up to ‘big data’. “We’d look at data layering to some degree [in market research] but it wasn’t about the environment these customers were in when interacting with products and services. And the data sets were still small. With IoT, the data sets are impressively large.”

Connected Environments has the capacity to bring in huge data sets, but with size comes complexity. This volume makes it all the more important to keep focused on the ‘why’. “One of the big things [in the programme] was the ongoing focus on the problem you are trying to solve.”  

And what surprised Kelly about IoT, is how it can help solve problems in the compliance and regulation realm. It fits perfectly with Starboards’s ability to ‘increase productivity for those working to protect our oceans and environment’. 

Not a problem, just an opportunity

Using IoT to focus on compliance is really about solving problems in a much more efficient and evidence based way. “Compliance is there to solve a problem of course. With IoT and tech in general, rather than slow development down or create a pile of documentation, it actually speeds things up. It changes the conversation to become ‘how can we support [an industry] to solve problems in a really creative way’.”

Compliance is merely an innovation opportunity for tech minded people, and IoT and connected environments can be part of the solutions that help to make a positive difference. On larger scales, even global ones where, as a world we’re trying to solve problems of mass proportions, gathering information and sharing it is key. Likewise, monitoring and reporting is able to be done real time, opening up the opportunities to spot bottlenecks or patterns not previously visible with infrequent or scheduled monitoring processes. 

That information sharing point is important. Because in this world where digital is rapidly becoming the primary method for information transfer, cyber security awareness is also increasing. This brings the ancient yet significant discipline of Ethics into sharp focus.

Doing it for the right reasons

“I remember in my Marketing Degree, Ethics was one paper. But in the Connected Environments programme there is huge focus on it. And it made so much more sense because if we’re going to share data, we need to understand privacy, we need to understand the ethics behind it; why is it being used, how are we protecting people?”

“We need to understand the ethics behind it…how are we protecting people?”

IoT is exciting for many because we’re able to track and sense all this information we haven’t previously been able to see or understand. This is exactly why having your product design grounded in ethics matters.

“With Connected Environments the question was always asked: ‘OK, you’ve built this thing with good intent to solve a problem, but what does it mean when you put a camera on a street or in a playground?’ You need to notify people and then the question becomes ‘will people engage with what you’re offering if they have privacy concerns?’ You may be defeating the whole point of what you’re trying to do if people don’t feel comfortable about their privacy.”

Kelly now has a keen awareness of why getting that balance is important. “You can get pretty excited thinking ‘oh we can monitor this and do this thing’ and then you kind of realise that yes, people want the outcome, but how do they want to get there? How do they trust you to know that what you’re trying to do is right?”

New knowledge opens up new pathways

The final assessment of the Connected Environments programme is a project roadmap and business case of a connected system using IoT and data layered with machine learning, artificial intelligence or automation technologies if relevant. For Kelly, it was an ideal opportunity to focus on a personal passion to do something in the sustainability arena, at a community level. You can read about Kelly’s project ‘Urby’ here.

For Kelly in her role at Starboard, aside from a keener understanding of creating contextual meaning with data and always coming back to the ‘why’ of the product, the programme has helped her shift into the ‘startup’ mindset after years in corporate and consulting companies. 

“One thing I most enjoyed was all the founders [of tech startups] that came and spoke about their challenges; finding a problem and pivoting to different types of customers. It was helpful because being in a startup and all the quick thinking you need to do, it can feel a bit muddy sometimes. But those founders reassured me with their stories of ‘we started here, went over here, moved back here and this is where we are now!’ You can look behind and say ‘it all made sense, it felt a little full on but there was a path and there was a journey’.”

Since graduating from the postgraduate certificate programme, Kelly has been focused on her role at Starboard. But she’s still tinkering with her IoT hardware prototype and intends to keep on developing it. “My kids love it, they’re always asking me when I’m going to take it further.” 

And although the lockdown restrictions have prevented get togethers with her cohort, she remains connected through the dedicated programme Slack channel. “It’s cool to see new cohorts coming in, commenting and sharing on topics covered – it serves as a great reminder of what I’ve learnt. When I look back to before this programme, I realise I understand this space so well it’s hard to imagine I ever thought ‘what’s IoT?’.”

Kelly is evidence of how plunging back into study doesn’t just refresh your knowledge, it can open up a whole new perspective on what you thought you had sussed.

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