• Home
  • >
  • Heather Walker, Global Head of Data Science, Analytics and Visualisation, Specsavers

Heather Walker, Global Head of Data Science, Analytics and Visualisation, Specsavers

What has been your career path to date?

My commercial career has focused on customer behavioural data science, building machine learning models and artificial intelligence (AI) systems from data on how customers behave, what they are interested in and what motivates them. My last role prior to Specsavers was lead data scientist at Wiggle CRC, the cycle and triathlon online retailer. I developed Wiggle’s data science strategy and built AI systems to support personalisation in marketing. Prior to that, I worked as a senior data scientist in the customer analytics team at Carnival Cruises UK, where (among other things) I was the data science lead for the marketing effectiveness programme and built the customer loyalty forecast AI system.


My educational background is in Physics, with a PhD in Astrophysics. My first role out of university was the transition point for me from physics into more commercial data science. I worked for a company that used the physics of mobile phone signals (not wildly different to the physics of telescopes) and AI systems to analyse people’s behaviour in shopping centres. It turns out customer behaviour is far more interesting than electrons!

What made you choose data as your career focus?

I wanted to do something with the skills I learned in my PhD – I really enjoyed analysing data, finding patterns, discovering new things, and telling stories with data. I found some data science roles while hunting for a post-PhD job, found them interesting and haven’t looked back! As a career path, data science has allowed me to hone my technical skills and become a better scientist while also bridging that gap between technical and non-technical audiences. The outcomes of my work are much more tangible than what I did in my PhD – I find great satisfaction in the influence and changes that I see in organisations as a result of my work.

How aware were you of data as a career opportunity during your education or early work experience? Does this need to be heightened?

I wasn’t really aware of data as a career until I started looking for jobs towards the end of my PhD. University careers fairs focused either on the industrial applications of physics, which were not related to my PhD, or on a complete career change into something like finance. I suspect that has improved in recent years, but there are so many data jobs and not enough people to fill them, I think any more awareness that could be brought at a younger age can only be a good thing.


What are your key areas of focus for data and analytics in 2022?

As a global data team our purpose is to transform Specsavers into a data-driven business – our goal is to enable everyone to get tangible value from data. I lead the analytics transformation, driving adoption of sophisticated analytics, building a centre of excellence, and running a central team who deliver high-value analytical products. We’ve made great progress on this in 2020 and 2021, and now have the technology in place, a fantastic core for my central team and a growing analytical community across the organisation. This year, we’ll be expanding the global data team to facilitate transformation activities and faster delivery, and introducing a training programme which aims to elevate our practise and grow our own expert data practitioners. 


Tell us about any ambitions you have in terms of becoming a data leader.

I enjoy using data and analytics to deliver positive change that makes people’s lives better, whether that be customers or colleagues, and my ambitions build on that foundation. This is part of what attracted me to Specsavers – we are a values-oriented business whose primary goal is to help people see and hear better. My role at Specsavers already involves input into the data strategy and data transformation – I plan to continue inspiring other business leaders to use analytics to solve more of their problems. My vision is to lead the business to a place where analytics sits at the heart of everything, and we are capitalising on the potential of our data to get great outcomes for our customers and improve people’s lives.


What key skills or attributes do you consider will be essential your success in this role?

Leadership for me is about unlocking potential and inspiring others. This means bridging the gap between technology and business, remaining focused on action and outcomes. Data and analytics are a rapidly evolving field, so constant learning, the courage to try new things and the ability to capitalise on set-backs to become more effective for the future are also critical.


How did you develop – and continue to develop – your current skills or attributes?

Throughout my career, and in my educational choices, I’ve focused on what I find most interesting. I think that’s really important as it’s much easier to spend the time needed to become good at something if you are enjoying yourself along the way. As well as formal education, I use online courses, conferences, roundtables, journal articles, blogs and magazines, and I try to make sure the things I’m learning are relevant in my day-to-day so I get plenty of opportunity to apply what I learn.

How do you keep pace or stay in touch with your peer group? Do you see it as important to have an active professional network?

I see an active professional network as critical to keeping my ideas fresh, challenging myself, and keeping up with best practise. Working in-house is fantastic because I get to see projects go from their inception to completion and the benefits that they bring to the business and our customers. However, the disadvantage is that I don’t see how my peers do things differently in the way that a consultant does. That makes conferences, roundtables, my professional network, and other opportunities to meet with my peers in other organisations super-important in keeping me sharp. 

Heather Walker
has been included in:
  • Future Leaders 2022 (EMEA)