Women in Digital: Lexi Sydow

Lexi Sydow, head of insights at Data.ai, on the challenges facing women in tech, her own atypical career path and what inspires her today.

Posted 15 May 2023 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?  

Yes, I loved school! Ever since I was a little kid, I took school very, very seriously (perhaps too seriously at times!) University was such a growth period — I had to learn new study tactics and figure out how I learned best. I found I was an audio learner — so I actually never missed a single lecture, because for me, it would take three hours of independent study to make up the knowledge gained from a one-hour lecture. I also learned painfully that I needed glasses — chalkboards and supply curves got me in the end. Unfortunately, I never learned how to kick the ‘last minute’ habit in college. Had to learn to change that quickly on-the-job! Also, I will say, I wish I explored more classes unrelated to my field of study. Just to learn more about topics I’ve always loved like art, history, gender studies and biology! I am a firm believer that this is where the magic happens — in the crossovers of different (and seemingly unrelated) topics, ways of thinking and underlying principles.

What qualifications do you have?  

I have a bachelor’s degree in economics and one in Public Policy. I think the coursework was incredibly useful as a foundation — for learning different frameworks, logical processing, and creative deduction. Truthfully, though, most of the tangible work I do day-to-day draws on skills and industry knowledge learned on-the-job and from some amazing people I admire in the industry. Things like coding, excel wizardry and data visualisation — all of those skills were forged on the job. And the interpersonal side is exceedingly important. I have learned so much from some amazing managers, mentors and teammates on how to be a good colleague. I mean that in the sense of moving forward business objectives, but also being a strong, reliable and compassionate partner to people. The people you work with are 100 percent the biggest asset of an organisation, and shape who you are, and who you become!

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road, or a combination of both?  

I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s been rocky, but it’s been a bit more atypical, I suppose. I wanted to travel and live overseas, so instead of jumping into a job after university, I moved to Australia and tried to get a job in the tech sector — which at the time was pretty small. There was a bit of gymnastics to get a visa to stay, but it worked out and I loved every second of it. Then I travelled around Southeast Asia with my partner for a while and attempted to stay for longer, but unfortunately that didn’t work out. We decided we would continue the adventure in the US and moved out to San Francisco. We drove cross-country, without jobs and dwindling savings. We somehow got an apartment, but found rent was, frankly, bonkers. I think blind optimism got us through, and I landed a job at a growth-stage tech company as an analyst through a referral of a friend from my college dance team (the ‘who you know’ adage felt alarmingly real in this moment). I wanted to learn from smart people and embed myself in data to grow my skillset. That was my first priority: deepening my knowledge and growing strong skills.

I’ve stayed with that company eight years, which in the tech sector, is certainly not your typical tenure – the average tends to be about 1.5 years! I’ve found that as long as I was still evolving and growing, that’s what I was most interested in, and I wasn’t too focused on jumping between roles or companies. (Nothing wrong with that at all — you can get a huge amount of experience and understanding of different business models and company dynamics by doing so. It just wasn’t what my life called for at that time.)

With data.ai, I was also able to move back to Australia and keep my job, which was an amazing benefit. This helped during Covid, as I had already worked remotely for two years so it wasn’t a shock to the system. I felt for people not planning or making life decisions to support a long-term work from home life. It can be jarring and difficult to establish work-life balance. And to do that during a global pandemic, where anxieties and fears and loneliness were collectively high, would have been difficult.

What specific challenges do you see women facing in the industry?

Funding is a particularly poignant one for the tech sector – less than two percent of funding goes to all female teams, and only about 15 percent goes to startups with at least one female founder. Inclusion is important across the board — for all gender identities, backgrounds, ethnicities and neurodiversities. It’s important to foster startups founded by diverse folks and to get more of those people in the room. The world needs this — we need better products that serve more people. Too many products, algorithms, safety protocols are steeped in bias, because they’ve been designed by and for only one gender (or one type of person, ethnicity or lived experience). Invisible Women is a great book that highlights this. Things that have real-life consequences: like seat belt efficacy for drivers, or medical trials, or even bias in machine-learning algorithms trained on a narrow data set. Bottom line is — diversity is incredibly important and the gap in the industry today needs to be addressed urgently.

What is the best career advice you can give to others? 

  • Set your own barometer for success.  Titles, companies — they are not everything. Success for you could mean a flexible lifestyle that allows you to live overseas or work a four-day week. Or it could mean hitting a salary goal. Whatever it is, follow your own barometer. Your journey will not look like others, take Linkedin updates of peers with a grain of salt. And be flexible on what success means — what is important to you at one stage of your life will not necessarily be in the next. You may find yourself moving into roles or fields that you never thought you’d be in. Or you may have a reckoning with what you truly love. Keep moving forward to the things that speak to you.
  • Trust yourself — while it’s great to get outside counsel, it’s more important you follow your gut and your heart. Parents, family, friends — they will all have opinions of what you do, but truly the only one that matters is your own. Follow what interests you, and work with good people that you respect. And if you are in a situation that feels ‘icky’ or ‘off’, trust it.                                                                                                                                                                          
  • Your job is something you do, not who you are. We often get our sense of identity wrapped up in our jobs. But you are more than the job title you hold — don’t be scared to set boundaries, pursue hobbies, rest, take care of yourself. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in work and feel you are giving all of your energy to your job. This is a hard lesson to learn and can be a one-way ticket to burnout. Be sure to prioritise you in your life! And don’t be afraid to deviate from the plan and take risks!

What would it be if you had to pick one moment that had the biggest influence on you? 

This is a really hard question for me. I’m not sure how to measure the biggest influence to be honest. The analyst in me wants to make a weighted matrix! I keep going back to a conversation I had when I was 21 and pursuing moving overseas, but feeling guilty for turning down a really nice job opportunity in the US. I think to overcompensate for that I was trying to network with anyone I could to get me ahead in the job market in Australia — so that when I landed I could ramp up quickly and try to get an ‘equivalent’ job there (equivalent in my mind at the time was a similar fancy title and pay, which was more about how I was perceived than what I actually wanted  — it took a long time to learn this lesson, so this was lesson #1 that surfaced from this moment).  I was talking to a successful mentor — he was going to connect me to a colleague at a division of a bank in Australia. He asked me ‘why do you like money’? I was a bit thrown. ‘Is it a game? You like money to continue playing the game? It’s fun for you. Or do you like what money buys you?’ I remember thinking, is there option C? I said, more the latter. I don’t care about accumulating money or being rich. I care about being able to travel, to pursue interests, to live a life full of experiences. He did not agree. Which was ok, and actually a welcome indicator that this may not be an aligned mentorship (lesson #2!) But also this really stuck with me. Money and wealth generation is undeniably important, but I found it didn’t driveme, which was an important thing I learned about myself (lesson #3!). It’s funny how this conversation keeps coming back to me through decisions in my life, and affecting me in new ways.

From where do you draw inspiration? 

Ooh, this is a good question. I draw inspiration from nature — I do a lot of trail walking with my dog, from art (I have a soft spot for oil pastels and pencil), from lessons from the stoics (on year 2 of reading The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday nearly everyday), from podcasts (I’m loving The Happiness Lab and Ologies right now) and from books — currently wrapping up On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and just finished Boy Swallows Universe. I also draw a lot of inspiration from gardeners and local small-scale farmers — closeness to the earth and navigating nature’s unpredictability to bring something nourishing to life, is incredible! I am also very inspired by folks who are looking to change the world for the better: innovating, creating new technologies and products to solve the climate crisis. The women of One Roof (a community of women-led entrepreneurs) who are starting their own businesses inspire me every day. And the people in my life that are living their authentic selves — quietly confident in who they are and what they want. I draw a lot of energy and inspiration from them. I also love World Economic Forum videos — data-based, short and sweet. So much to love, and they pack a punch!