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Ryan Sweeney, Data and Analytics Portfolio Manager, Transport for London

What has been your career path to date?

Apart from a summer placement as a GIS analyst before my Masters, I’ve worked at Transport for London (TfL) my entire career. I joined as a graduate transport planner, excited about the vast opportunities and the chance to work on the upcoming London Olympics. I undertook a range of placements, from designing and installing traffic signals to performing spatial analysis to support policy and planning. From these varied placements I knew data analysis was for me and I joined a team as a GIS analyst helping to inform investment plans. I loved the variety of work and the challenge of solving significant problems and responsibility of defining the approach.

 

My next role introduced me to business intelligence (BI) and, based on my GIS experience, I was given the challenge of better integrating our spatial data with our BI systems. This enabled me to work with many different teams looking at how we could better use the vast amount of data generated on our road network, much of which was untapped or manually processed. I was able to work with colleagues to build interactive reports, dashboards and data visualisations that helped to transform their capabilities and improve performance. I delivered a mechanism of integrating spatial and BI data that provided new insights into our data and became critical to many of our systems.

 

I ended up as a team leader and then moved to a role working for our chief data officer, looking at how we can become more data-driven and use analytics to improve our capabilities. I now manage a team of data product managers and service managers who work to transform business capabilities through bringing together the skills of our data architects, data scientists, data governance specialists and development teams across TfL. A real focus of my role recently has been changing the data culture at TfL and helping teams to adopt self-service business intelligence – the growth I have seen in this area has been phenomenal.

What made you choose data as your career focus?

My university background focused on GIS. However, as part of the graduate scheme, I had many career options available. Some of my graduate placements let me demonstrate how data could help solve long-standing business challenges and I loved the buzz I got from this. I enjoyed the variety of opportunities working with data presented – some days were very technical writing code and performing analysis, but others were spent with colleagues, understanding their problems and discussing how we could solve them. I get the most satisfaction from the business change and transformation opportunities, seeing how TfL can apply data to solve problems. Travelling around London to see my work making a real-difference – sometimes obvious to customers, but often hidden – I know I have chosen the right career.

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

I have two excellent school geography teachers to thank. I scraped by at GCSE maths and struggled to see its relevance to the real world, but loved geography and learnt that applying data wasn’t just about being able to develop algorithms and solve equations. I studied Geography at university and deliberately chose a course that focused lots on data and analysis – this opened up opportunities that have helped to shape my career journey so far.

 

I think we need to change the perception that excelling at maths or information technology are the only routes into a data career and make people aware of the range of skills and roles available. This needs to go beyond education, though. I lead an excellent team of data product managers who have a diverse breadth of backgrounds and have started their data careers at different life stages – it’s never too late for a career in data!

 

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

Our strategy at TfL has three components: data products that use analytics to generate insights from huge volumes of data; continuing to grow and improve self-service capabilities; and developing our product and data catalogues so that colleagues can easily find and best use data. Within each of these there is so much to do, but two things in particular cut across all three components that I am focused on. One is accessibility and democracy of data: ensuring that data products (reports, dashboards, visualisations) account for those with a cognitive, motor, visual and hearing disabilities so that we can make data and insights accessible for everyone. The second is enabling business change and transformation to make the best use of our data and consider how we apply our data. Our growing data capabilities offer new opportunities, but often we need to look at how we do things and change our business processes to realise the benefits of data.

 

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

I love playing around with data, which comes in handy when I am working with stakeholders to demonstrate what could be done. The most satisfying part of my role has been helping colleagues across TfL make better use of data to help us deliver out targets, plans and outcomes. I want to continue to develop into roles that drive business change and transformation, but also ensure that we have strong data ethics and can demonstrate how we deliver social good. I have benefited immensely from working with colleagues who have disabilities and understanding how they have been excluded from consuming data because a lack of awareness of their needs. I want to change this and ensure that we remove barriers to data.

 

I want to encourage people to consider a role in data and payback the support and opportunities that I have been afforded. There are so many roles in the data industry and helping people to understand the different options and routes is important. It’s easy to focus on that data scientist or developer who does things you cannot dream of, but it is essential to recognise that you have skills that others might not have.

 

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

Strong data ethics and ensuring that we use data appropriately is a must. Being able to respond positively to all feedback is important – we get some things right, and other things wrong, and those who use all feedback will succeed the most. The ability to communicate the complex and technical to non-data professionals is key in leading data transformations. A bit of determination is also useful – often data analysis itself is the easy part, but ensuring business adoption requires commitment.

 

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

I have been lucky to have great managers, peers and colleagues who have provided feedback on what I did well and what I needed to work on. Focusing on what you need to do better is important and prevents you from getting carried away with your success. I am always willing to try something new or work on things that are ambiguous. This gives you some great opportunities, but also challenges you to learn things quickly and realise your mistakes. And, with the huge call for data, you are given great opportunities to develop a range of skills. Outside of this, I try to participate in community groups, both internal and external, to share knowledge and experience ensuring that I stay aware of tooling and technology changes, too.

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?

There is so much demand for data at TfL that finding time for professional networks can be difficult, however, participating in these networks is key to my role. I’m an active member of several technology-focused groups where organisations share their experience and challenges – the problems we face are similar, and through an active network, we can help each other. It also keeps you sane – too often you can become frustrated or feel like only you are experiencing these problems. Through keeping a professional network you realise that this is not the case and often you are doing better than you thought.

 

I really value my internal and external networks and continue to stay in contact with colleagues who I have worked with over the years. It has become tricker since the pandemic, as these things are often suited to in-person informal settings, but hopefully the return to normality will make things easier.

Ryan Sweeney
has been included in:
  • Future Leaders 2022 (EMEA)