As a leading executive in data and technology, Dr Helen Sun is as an example of someone who is using her career trajectory to inspire new generations of women and positively influence current peers in her field.
A published author of three books, a keen speaker, an educator, she is unwavering in her desire to encourage and empower women to develop their interest and potential in STEM careers.
As chief technology officer of world-renowned sports data company Stats Perform, Dr Sun is helping to drive the company’s AI enhancements that powers data and media to serve teams, athletes, fans and bookmakers.
We talked at length about her career and we started by looking back at the last 12 months in her role at Stats Perform.
You moved to what was then known as STATS 12 months ago, so why the move and what made it seem like an illuminating challenge?
Dr Helen Sun: “A little bit about me, so I came from Shanghai, China to the United States about 20 years ago, advanced my career through different roles in different industries but my last job was at JPMorgan Chase as CTO of commercial banking – a fulfilling job, great company and incredible group of colleagues and talent – but when STATS called me, the CEO of the company called me directly and described to me the depth of data they have and their AI capabilities I was blown away.
“I’ve always been a data person, I’ve done a lot work in machine learning and big data, I’ve written three books on big data, analytics and machine learning, but when I saw the difference AI can make in terms of changing how sports are viewed, understood and played I couldn’t turn down the opportunity.”
The evolution of STATS as a company and through its 2019 merger with Perform, I imagine you’re tasked with a transformational challenge?
HS: “Absolutely, right. Stats has been in the business for nearly 40 years collecting data, started collecting data for Major League Baseball for event data and then pioneered the SportVU system as one of the first systems, if not the first system, to use computer vision to generate and create tracking data which is the frame by frame, XYZ location of the players and the ball.
“Stats has always been a data company, but starting a year ago with new leadership, the company began to transform into an AI-powered software-as-a-business company. With the merger and acquisition of Perform we now have deeper data and more coverage when it comes to football data in particular. More data fuels greater AI growth, so the transformation is about to speed up.”
Machine learning is transformational technology, can you look ahead at the greater potential of machine learning to Stats Perform?
HS: “There’s a couple ways we can look at how AI can help unlock the power of analytics and understand games. We look at our product portfolio based on market segments, we have a fan engagement portfolio, another portfolio geared towards the team performance space and this year we launched a new product called VQ (Victory Quotient) and that is more geared towards the betting market, betting prediction as a service.
“I think AI can help power ideas in each segment starting with team performance. Our Stats Edge product combines event data and tracking data, for example using AI, a coach can analyse the formation of a team or different playing styles and formations.
“Using AI to leverage data to be able to help coaches and teams to understand how to prepare for games, how to draft and recruit players and then also move into fitness and athlete monitoring and peak performance of athletes to help minimise injury. That’s just for the team and athlete performance space.
“In the media space it’s around generating insights. We have a new set of capabilities to rank events in terms of how interesting that particular event at a specific point in the match was and we can rank that event based on how interesting it is and automatically generate interesting tidbits to connect the dots of different data sets.”
Predicting an ever-changing industry is difficult but what may we be seeing from Stats Perform in the next 12 months? What could be trending that has yet to reach the public just yet but could drastically impact sport.
HS: “There is definitely an arms race in regard to tracking data generation using computer vision. There are various hardware solutions to collect data like cameras pointing at different areas of the pitch to get the whole picture and that is restreamed to a local machine to generate the XYZ location of the players. I think how real-time you make it available, how accurate you make it available, not only for team performance but for broadcasters – immediately analysing the play – and availability for coaches, that’s where the technological arms race is happening especially in AI.
“What Stats Perform has done is bypass the physical hardware solution completely. We’re now able to generate the same information through broadcast video. We’re able to use advanced computer vision technology to determine calibration, determine the actual location of the players and in turn we’re able to generate data that didn’t exist today. The more data we generate, the smarter the algorithm becomes and we’re able to provide greater insights for teams so they can make smarter decisions.This is an area we’re investing heavily in, it started in basketball and we’ll go into other sports as well.”
You’ve had a varied technological career for over two decades now, you’ve written three books, what has driven your passion for technology, deep learning, problem solving and strategy and how do you maintain it?
HS: “I recently spoke at Google’s Women Techmakers event in Chicago and shared some career advice to women who are in different stages of their journey and the first story I shared was about following your passion. As I mentioned I came from Shanghai, China 20 years ago and when I was in high school I was very strong with maths and physics and when the time came to pick a college major my mother, who is head of HR at one of the most prestigious engineering firms in Shanghai, told me not to get into engineering because it’s not for girls. I decided to become a teacher and it was very rewarding.
“When I was studying in my doctoral program, I had to pick a minor and I picked information technology. At that point, I realised I could sit at a computer and work on SQL programming for five hours without getting up once and that’s when I realised where my passion was, it’s technology and problem solving. I followed my passion and started becoming a web developer and moved into large scale data processing, ETL’s, business intelligence and now I’m CTO of a data and technology company in sports!
“That’s why I’ve kept telling people, if I can do it why can’t you? Follow your passion and don’t let people say no to you.”
We recognise that we need to do more to bring more women into leadership roles, technical leadership roles and encourage internal and external entrepreneurship. Given your experience what are some potential ways and learnings that can be done to widen that funnel?
HS: “I think about this and a part of it is to come out and be very vocal about it. I think earlier in my career that I always had this fear that I didn’t want to be perceived as a woman in technology, just a technologist. Now I’m comfortable with it because I don’t care if it comes to define me. I’d rather be out there showing other women there are actually people who are role models, people you could follow, and even surpass, and there are plenty of opportunities to do that.
“You have to be intentional about it. At the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in February, there were 4600 attendees and a total of 216 women. That ratio is not okay.
“When I started at Stats Perform, we only had one female in the engineering team, one data scientist and one in design and that needed to change. I helped bring more female engineers into the business, but again you just have to make it intentional. If you encourage diversity, opportunities will arise to gather more female engineers and engineers with different backgrounds, different socio-economic backgrounds.
“So we started a Diversity and Inclusion Council, we kicked off an event initiative with different committees focussing on recruitment, development and some are focussing on branding and metrics. We work with local companies and try and share ideas of how to advance that. We need to open up the pipeline, no question about it, but there are plenty of women, minorities that we can actually help now instead of kicking the can down the road.”
What skills and attitudes women should be developed and encouraged to ensure they’re kicking down doors in tech, leadership, engineering, data, entrepreneurship?
HS: “It’s both, you have to have the know-how, but with know-how it doesn’t mean you have to be just one thing, it can come in many different shapes and forms. Each of us are like a ‘T-shape,’ we need to be broad and understanding of the industry and different technologies from UI, to backend, to data science. And then you take one leg and go very deep, you need to have the depth and ability to deliver and then look left or right to see where your strengths are and then you can move into those roles.
“You need to find where your passion lies and combine it with your skillsets that you’re interested in developing. That’s from a skillset standpoint and again you don’t have to be one thing, talent and a technology career can come from any background, I came from education!
“When I joined Oracle I was the only female in the architecture group and I was the first female engineer who received an Oracle Enterprise Architect certification. So what I remember is it was heavily dominated by males and at the time it wasn’t the most friendly or supportive environment. When I first joined I was very shy about speaking up in conferences or meetings and when I did most people wouldn’t even look up so it wasn’t the most encouraging environment initially but I can tell you a story where I really turned it around in terms of my career at Oracle.”
HS: “I was a consultant at Oracle and there was a large financial customer who were going through a full transformation of their financial systems and they had a lot of data. They asked me if Oracle had a data management framework that they can use to establish their data strategy and I wasn’t sure. Then they said IBM, HP and Microsoft had a framework so they were sure Oracle had one. So at that point I wasn’t going to tell them no, so I just blurted out, ‘yeah, we have one, I’ll get you something,’ then I felt sick to my stomach.
“As much as we claimed to be a data company there wasn’t a framework in place, so from there I gathered a number of engineers and architects and we developed and delivered Oracle’s first information architecture framework. We published a couple whitepapers on it, did webinars and people were so eager to utilise and adopt what we produced I ended up becoming the face at Oracle on information architecture. It came from experience, and thinking and learning and developing from the field but it’s that can-do spirit that drives me through my career and continue to push forward.”
Who have you drawn inspiration from and it need not be in the technological field?
HS: “Oh there’s so many! Melinda Gates for one!
“There’s another Bonnie St. John, I met her briefly and she is the first African-American Olympian to win a medal in skiing. She didn’t win gold and she said this is why, ‘every skier fell during their run, but the gold medallist got back up the fastest. What cost me the gold medal was the moment she regretted falling.’ She wrote a book called Micro-Resillience and she says everybody falls, but it’s about how fast you get up and I found it extremely inspiring to me.
“I think the most inspiring person to me is a friend of mine, in our high school years. We were in a KFC, which was very much a treat back in the day in Shanghai, it was really crowded and there was a guy who cut the line in front of us and I was quite angry, and when he got his food he ended spilling it all over. My friend, Mae, jumped in to help him and I asked her why she helped him? She said, ‘I do not let what others do change the way I am.’ That stuck with me and was my biggest inspiration because there’s always adversity no matter where we go. There’s always challenges, difficult people to work with, but I always remember, ‘I am who I am,’ and it’s integrity that will define me, and with my family, myself, the people I lead, the people I work with, so she is forever my role model.”
Dr Helen Sun will be speaking at the Sports Tech World Series in Dallas on October 4th. Tickets are on sale NOW.