Are you a right brain or left brain? Katy Bohinc says: Why choose! We loved speaking to Katy about her two unusual careers, working as both a data scientist and a published poet. Now, if we could just figure out when she finds time to sleep….
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I came to New York in 2013 after living in Washington, DC for seven years. I still miss my apartment there. [Laughs] I moved from this amazing apartment in DC to a terrible place in the West Village, where there were literally cockroaches everywhere. It just wasn’t going to work! I was saved by a poetry connection who allowed me to move into a collaborative artist space in Chelsea. They would have readings, performances, and classes there, and I was able to rent out the whole first floor.
That’s an amazing find!
It turned out to be a really great thing because it essentially helped kick start my poetry career in New York.
Is that why you moved to New York?
I moved for my other career. So, I have two careers: one is poetry, and the other is data science. I had been working for a few years at a marketing agency in DC, and it was time for a change. I interviewed at a bunch of local places, but I knew if I really wanted to get serious about data science then I would have to move to either New York or San Francisco. I needed to be somewhere I could keep progressing, and more importantly keep learning. With this job, you have to keep teaching yourself, because technology is moving so quickly. That’s the intellectual stimulation I love about my job.
Let’s back up! How did you come to work in data science?
I studied math and comparative literature at Georgetown. My father has a background in math and he was fiercely adamant that I had to excel in math, despite how painful it might be! That was fine — turns out I’m pretty good at it — but I always preferred writing. My dream was to be a writer. But there are a few reasons I decided to continue my higher education in math, apart from my dad’s influence. Reason one: As a young woman in this world, I always thought that no one would be able to call me stupid if I majored in math at Georgetown!
Reason two: It’s obviously very expensive to go to Georgetown. I worked my way through school, and paid for it myself, so I wanted to make sure I was studying something that was worth paying for. I loved writing and history, but I can teach those things to myself. Math was something worth paying for.
I’m not sure many people think their university major through that pragmatically.
Well I was paying for it, so I clearly understood the value of it. I was working 40 hours a week to make it work. I was also keenly aware that it was the only time in my life that I was going to get to study full time. That was a gift that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
That said, I did drop out for a year to live in Beijing! I was taking classes in Chinese when I started Georgetown. I really wanted to learn to speak it, but something just wasn’t clicking in my brain. I was failing the class and couldn’t make it work. Again it came down to the ROI. I could have paid to spend my junior year abroad in China, but that would have cost me $40,000, and I wouldn’t be able to stick to my other classes. The alternative was dropping out for one year and moving to China, which cost me $11,000. It was an incredible trip. I studied Mandarin four hours a day. I taught English in the evenings and ended up volunteering with the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group.
How did you get involved in that?
Through a guy I was dating at the time, who did a lot of work for USAID. It was a really interesting time; having Westerners do this work in China was very new. Gathering information, writing down stories, talking to journalists, getting people legal advice, monitoring elections — these kinds of actions are not in and of themselves a big deal, but in the Chinese context they are punishable by death. I would help them write up reports for the UN, worked sometimes as their press contact. We lost a few people I knew working there, who were killed for the work they were doing.
After a year I went back to Georgetown and graduated. For a while I had trouble talking about my time in China, as it was very emotionally difficult for me. I pretty much lived in the library when I came back; I worked all the time and did a lot of math.
In my senior year, though, I also went to a literary event that re-awoke my dream of becoming a writer. I had gotten sidetracked….
It’s so hard to keep up with everything. When you dreamed about being a writer, was poetry always your thing?
Occasionally short prose, but always poetry. So when I graduated, I had two jobs. My day job in data analytics, and my night job of writing. Any spare time I had was writing, going to poetry readings, networking in the literary community.
About a year after moving to New York my first book came out, and I have two books coming out this year.
So New York really did take both your careers to the next level. How do you get it all done?
I’m single and I don’t have kids! [Laughs] I mean, I have friends, of course, but a lot of them are in the literary community, so even when I’m seeing them I’m in the art world. It’s funny, my corporate job and my literary work almost never cross over or come together. That’s something I want to work on this year.
In New York, people want to define you by what you do. The fact that you have two careers is fascinating.
People think my jobs are contradictory. I don’t think they’re contradictory. I think it’s the future.
Let’s talk about your “day job.” What exactly does a data analyst do?
Well, I’m actually more in a management position now. I’m Head of Data & Innovation at an experiential marketing agency called Inspira. I manage our data team. My logical math training was so helpful; I love organizing information in a logical way, where answers and patterns can be extracted and analyzed. I’ve always worked for marketing companies, so the sort of data our clients are looking for is how people are engaging with their content, what is working versus what isn’t, what’s selling and what’s not. Essentially we need to give our clients an ROI. Our data is going to tell, but first you have to extract the data, clean it up, and organize it in a very specific way.
What we’re working on now is exciting, because the marketing landscape is changing a lot. Dollars are shifting from paid media to experiential. That’s a fascinating change, but it’s also been historically hard to prove mathematically in terms of ROI for our clients. We’re working hard right now building systems that we hope will lead the way in showing the industry the best systems for measurement analytics in experiential marketing.
Data analytics wasn’t really a job when you were studying, right?
Exactly. Now you can get a masters degree in it! When I first started, I didn’t even really know exactly what my field was. I remember reading the New York Times one day and seeing an article on “Big Data” and I was like, “Wait, this is what I do!”
One of the big things I’m currently working on is pulling data from all areas of business — accounting, HR, marketing — and building systems that speaks to each other. That’s where the “innovation” part of my job title comes in.
I am sort of a unique bird because I go across engineering and analytics, but I think it’s integral that they come together in order to build systems that work. There is a really high turnover in analytics departments, and I think that’s because systems are broken. I want to unify them.
How long have you been with Inspira?
Since November 2017. It’s been a big year so far; I feel like I’m coming out of the closet in a way. I have this new job and role, I’m building new technologies, and I have two books coming out. I feel like things are coming together.
What exactly does your work there entail? You mentioned experiential marketing?
I’m the Head of Data and Innovation at Inspira Marketing and its sister company, Enthuse, where I’m responsible for software and database engineering, analytics and data science.
As for Experiential marketing, it’s in a unique position as the marketing industry is at a cross-road. Traditional media has been shifting for the past decade as television viewership and print readerships have changed dramatically in the digital era.
The big four paid media conglomerates are all down 5-10% YoY as marketers reduce digital spend due to fraud concerns, market saturation and taking their digital media in-house. Experiential marketing is increasingly becoming the best opportunity for CMOs to build quality interactions with consumers IRL. However, this means building out technology and analytics capabilities to ensure ROI can be measured similarly to digital and traditional media strategies.
For us, this means developing the systems to support measuring the value of interpersonal marketing interaction. We like to think our secret tech sauce is a really groundbreaking measurement strategy for the experiential industry, combining surveys, sensors data, field team inputs and data governance to allow for smart and fast analytics, insights and advanced data science.
How do you maintain your passion for poetry, and to keep working on this second career at nights and on weekends?
A while ago, I made the commitment to myself that I wouldn’t write just to write. I would only do it if I really felt inspired. There are poets who write like 40 books. No one in the world needs their 40 books! [Laughs] If I’m writing a poem or releasing a book, it’s going to be because it’s the most beautiful thing I could possibly do. I challenge myself and I work hard at it, but I'm not going to do more than that. If I don’t feel like what I’m writing is worth it, then I don’t worry about it. What’s nice about poetry for me is that it’s decoupled from my financial stability.
My income means that I can approach my art in the way that most artists dream about. I do it by design, and in the way I want to. That being said, often people think that because poetry is my passion, that my day job isn’t also my passion. But I really love my work; it’s not just a job to me. I wouldn’t be happy if I just had a day job for money.
Do you catch flak in the literary community for working a day job?
Oh yeah! Often people don't understand what I do, and they think it’s a completely different world. But everyone has to have an income source. I’m not going to hide my day job. I'm professionally accomplished in two different areas. I'm going to tell people that I do both of these things and that's okay.
I know people can feel like they’ll be punished in their day job if they express a passion outside their field.
I’m lucky that Inspira supports and encourages people to pursue their passions outside of the workplace. Also, I don’t have kids or a husband.My poetry is my family, and that’s how I treat it. People don’t question if you have to leave early for family reasons. I set strong boundaries and not having a family right now is my trade off.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Do not limit yourself by what you think you can't do. It's bullshit. I never thought that I could major in math at Georgetown University. But I worked hard, I learned, taught myself, and opened myself to learning. You just stare at the thing long enough and you hit your head against it enough times and you will be able to do it. So much of what we don't do is because we self-impose limitations on ourselves.
What does New York mean to you?
I love it. I feel lucky. I feel very committed to so much here.
To learn more about Katy Bohinc click here.