Executive Interviews

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Lauren Hawker Zafer - Head of Training and Education at Squirro

  • June 09, 2021

Thank you for joining me today for an Executive Interview. As an intro, Lauren is currently Head of Education and Training at Squirro, which I believe is one of the most exciting emerging technology companies in today’s market. Would you like to introduce Squirro as a business for our audience, Lauren?

Of course! So, Squirro is a dynamic tech start-up that focuses primarily on the development of AI - artificial intelligence -driven solutions, and when we talk about AI-driven solutions, the core solution that we have at the focus of our product suite is an Insights Engine. Now, this is a term that I don’t think everyone is 100% familiar with, yet! I am convinced that many of us have our own preconceived idea about what it may be, but as a concept and a term per se, it is still relatively new. So, let me clarify that first…

An Insights Engine is a platform that makes key enterprise insights accessible to users when they need it. It combines cognitive search with machine learning capabilities to provide timely data that delivers actionable insights. It is a fundament to what we offer as part of an extensive product suite and our ‘vertical specific’ augmented intelligence solutions. There are a variety of these, namely insights apps, and these work for specific industries with specific use cases. Examples would be sales insights, marketing insights, service insights and risk insights.

Coming from my side as a consultant who is in the BI & Data market all hours of the day, I find Squirro so relevant and the thing that I really like is how much of a focus Squirro puts on the right insights to the right/relevant person, at the right time, which, in the world of data today, is so invaluable and I’d say it’s the biggest conundrum organisations try to solve. Most organisations are still trying to solve where data should belong, and as a cause effect to this, what the right or most relevant data would be depending on what their data-driven objectives are.

As Head of Training and Education, would you mind describing what your typical day-to-day position involves and what excites you most about working for a company like Squirro?

Of course, as the Head of Training and Education, I’m responsible for the conceptual learning design and development of the educational content that we offer to partners and clients; that is my primary responsibility and this comprises of many different tasks, depending on the core educational task in focus. One day, I could be starting the consultancy and conceptualisation of a training program that trains end users on their integrated Squirro solution, and on another I may be developing a social media campaign that invites the industry to understand more about what lies at the heart of our AI-driven solutions.

What I’ve also noticed is that, given our own developmental status as a start-up, there seems to be an organic movement around the need to build up a cross-functional learning culture within our own established parameters. So, even though my responsibility is very much making sure that our partners and clients understand what Squirro does, and that they’re fully equipped to be able to implement our product, I’ve noticed that the more we grow and develop as a company and as a product, there is a hand-in-hand organic growth that comes with also looking at creating a learning culture within.

I think that the pandemic has strongly contributed to this necessity as well, in that, although people are still working together in roles as a collective company, the siloed working patterns have simultaneously pushed us to prominently notice that, as a growing enterprise, there is a noticeable need to educate, communicate and nurture continuous knowledge transfer.

Therefore, I am constantly in touch and collaborating with the knowledge experts at the heart of our company. I’m not technically educated to the extent that they are, so our courses and our training come from the experts, and I collaborate a lot with the teams and work on content expansion with third parties as well.

Wow! Certainly a lot more than one would think goes into Training & Education. There are so many different facets to what you have just mentioned goes into your day-to-day role Lauren, and I can’t even begin to imagine how you split your day up among those various tasks. But, among all of what you have just mentioned, what would you say is the most rewarding or exciting aspect to your role and what you do?

I’d say what excites me most maybe comes from a personal drive that I’ve always tried to ensure is present in my professional career, and this drive is visible at Squirro in my colleagues, in their passion and, in particular, in the passion and drive of the CEO.

I’ve worked in a lot of large organisations, small organisations, both internationally and locally, and upon reflection, I would say that I think we tend to try and seek what we see in ourselves, in others. This professional stimulation consequently sparks a natural sense of excitement and fuel when working.

I am a hard worker, too, and I thrive from being in an environment with likeminded people. I don’t enjoy being in an environment where people don’t want to work or there is a visible resilience to really getting stuck in. And, luckily, it is not like that at Squirro; it’s very much about bringing your passion, making sure that you put in the work and, ultimately, reap the rewards of being able to navigate success together, and that’s what I value! This is mirrored in the supportive encouragement from my colleagues and the open culture.

What also excites me is the technology, or the results of the combination of technologies. As a linguist, I think that the fusion of natural language processing, machine learning and everything that has to do with linguistics really energizes me and spurs me on to learn more about the field.

So, that’s what excites me, but I think the reward itself reverts back to why I started in this field and maybe my own professional journey through learning and education; being able to provide and offer a possibility of empowerment, which learning fundamentally is. Learning is about growth, it’s about control, it’s about responsibility, and it’s being able to create an opportunity for someone to undertake that.

Everything that I do is about providing the possibility for people to train, to learn more and, despite how cliched the expression may sound, knowledge is power, and this power fosters change on various levels. Primarily, it is cognitive development, but it is also an emotional and social one, and we see that again with the importance of technology and the necessity to push for the importance of using AI-driven solutions, as well. I strongly believe that no one ever has regrets about learning something, but they always have regrets about not learning it, so that’s what’s rewarding for me.

I’m also quite creative, and being able to push my own boundaries and think about cognition obviously as a core is stimulating. Is there a difference between how we approach learning in a corporate environment for maybe arts and humanities? And how we approach tech? And can you umbrella everything under the same learning modalities? I think being able to explore that and the interaction patterns nowadays, as well with the whole push of social learning, social media and organic knowledge exchange, that’s a richly rewarding component of my role.

I must say I really buy into a lot of what you have said there in so many different ways. Being from South Africa myself, I have always loved the core of what Nelson Mandela’s beliefs were, in that education is the most powerful tool that can be used to change the world.

I also am so fascinated by how your role/field ties into tech, despite, at a glance, seeming so far away from tech, when it is actually so closely aligned, as you mentioned. Touching on natural language processing and how that ties into linguistics – but, as well, constantly changing as a result of the changing environment and use case for it.  

Yeah, it’s certainly something that is being explored more and more, and I think that’s what makes it challenging but rewarding, at the same time!

Speaking of rewards, Squirro has been up for some awards as well, I believe, and, if I am not mistaken, there’s been three most recently that you’re certainly quite proud of?

Yes, they seem to be having a lucky streak, or maybe it’s just a little bit of recognition for the investment that’s gone into the product over the last few years. It has certainly been a culmination of effort, blood, sweat and tears, for a while.

Let’s start with the biggest award. So, this year, Squirro was recognised as a visionary on the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Insights Engine, for the first time! Now, this is obviously huge, given all the other players that are listed on the quadrant and many people will assuredly be asking when hearing this, ‘oh, they’re recognised as a visionary, what is a visionary?’ 

Gartner themselves define visionaries as combining their understanding of the Insights Engine market with strength and innovation. So, they say that we are suitable for organisations who are looking to modernise and transform themselves by tackling familiar problems in new ways, and I think this has been proven in the success that we’ve had in building relationships with companies and partners that are really curious about how our AI can be put to work to gather data, search intelligently, deliver analysis, contextualise that analysis and visualise the data that’s been found. Plus, ensuring, as you said at the start of the conversation, that you’re delivering the right insights to the right people to aid their efforts in trying to find opportunities – where 80% of the time, those opportunities are found in completely unused data, whether it be structured or unstructured.

Amazing! That is serious recognition and certainly well deserved. It almost seems like you guys have got the golden key to unlocking organisational data potential, and the beautiful thing about it is that it’s across so many different industries and domains, as well. Second to that is that AI is a field that is very broad, and often a misunderstood field that still has a long way to go before organisations can say, with a degree of certainty, that they know how to use it in all ways possible and beneficial 100% of the time. To have that as your core product and for it to work so well is impressive.

It is, and even if you silo search behaviour and think about that, looking at enterprise search and how you use search on a daily basis - for the majority of end business users, I think only about 3% or 5% are using advanced search. People don’t know how to really find that information, so that’s why it’s so inevitable and almost mandatory that there is this type of technology to be able to provide people with the insights that they need.

Exactly, and in addition to the Gartner award, there was also the Asset Triple A Award as well for Best Digital Collaboration Project, I believe?

Yes, we won that, and a combination of awards. Triple A is an American institution that does global research around companies that display innovation excellence. So, we won the 2021 big innovation AI excellence award in the natural language processing category for Best Digital Collaboration Project, in partnership with Synechron, Standard Chartered Bank and SC Ventures, for our work on client insights projects.

Now, just to tell you a little bit about that, the solution itself combines the vision of Standard Chartered’s global banking team, the business domain knowledge of Synechron and, obviously, Squirro’s Insight Engine technology to be able to deliver frontline sales with created client insights, extracted from both internal, external, unstructured data, to unlock new opportunities.

I can’t tell you how many organisations I speak to on a day-to-day basis that really struggle to align corporate strategy, as well as how to best achieve the KPIs driven from that strategy through the use of insights from data. To many, it still seems a mystery and a mess at the best of times, so I would say it is almost like you guys have showed up at the perfect time!

Time will tell!

Very exciting indeed. The world of emerging technologies and emerging markets is fascinating, but for you, with regard to education and training within this field (which I already feel is so niche, as you and I have discussed on quite a few occasions), why do you feel this area you are working in is so important in today’s emerging tech market? And how do you feel companies should be looking to leverage Education and Training to its full potential in today’s dynamic market?

I think there’s a multitude of answers. I think what we may place prominence on is that AI, machine learning and data are key contributors in an emerging, but ever evolving field. They are not necessarily at the start of an emerging journey, but in some ways, from a knowledge perspective, it could be labelled as being that. There is a presumed and unspoken assumption that those active in these fields, especially those that are thinking about implementing some sort of AI or data-driven approach, is that they have quite a deep-rooted understanding of what these terms encompass, as well as their possible applications and how they should be applying them.

When, in reality, with experience, we’ve seen that this is one of the biggest challenges that comes with selling this type of software and technology, and it’s about supporting the development of a strategy that comes with this ambiguity, and misrepresentations around the terms and their application. It goes back to language once again, and investing in the beauty of these technologies and how you can’t do that without having a semantical understanding of the words themselves and their uses.

It frequently occurs that our delivery team or engineering team has to go in and clarify the difference between AI, machine learning, and what an Insights Engine is and how it can be used. There is an ever-pushing requirement for training and education in general, in the field.

As for the future of education and training? I mean obviously the pandemic has had a huge impact on answering that question, in maybe a way that I would not have answered it a few years ago. I think that Ed Tech is transforming learning and the rapid acceleration of digital transformation in the past year has put Ed Tech in this focus at the very heart of learning.

Technology helped improve content before. I mean, everyone was looking at how technology can be used to improve the content and we’ve been doing that for a good decade, prior to the development and the emergence of the pandemic. Despite that, it didn’t really change the way we consumed the content.

Recent digital innovation and the propelling prominence now of tech is really changing the way that we learn. I mean, you can take it from every level. From teachers who were forced to put that into everyday use when schools were closed, or trainers or corporations who are working with those currently training and needed to educate in a home office format. They were thrown into taking these linear paths that could no longer be implemented in the workplace and asked to make more customisation, provide more blended opportunities, show that there’s social collaboration - because there is not much collaboration going on elsewhere.

Given that, and being asked to do that digitally, students and trainees have become far more empowered. You can almost manage your cognitive load ten times better than you could prior to that. You have the ability to say, ‘okay, I want to step out of that’, ‘I don’t feel comfortable with what I have absorbed’, ‘let’s re-watch that video’, or ‘let’s take part in that webinar or workshop a little bit later because I’ve already done this’. It seems that there is far more empowerment on the side of trainees and learners nowadays because of this digital push.

Do you feel that, although it’s empowering, there are some dangers with this change as well, especially when we think of the social aspect of learning?

Very much so. I mean, you can even go back to the Socrates times of a teacher transmitting preparations and standing at the blackboard, and realise that you can’t replace an in-person experience. Some might argue against it, but I still think that you need that emotional input in a passive way. There is quite a lot of popular courses on Coursera or Future Learn about digital body language, and it is questionable in itself, but I think that you can’t replace physical human interaction and the positives that are married to it. I think there should be a balance; it shouldn’t all be digital.

We’ve had this crazy year that no one ever saw coming, but would be quite happy to see the back of - how do you feel the general workplace will have changed once we finally emerge from this global pandemic?

I think if you had asked me that question three or four weeks ago, I would have given you a different answer, but I’ve read a lot of things quite recently about the trend for so many people being in this momentaneous phase of romanticising the past. The daily drives to the office, the productive face-to-face meetings, stress-free business travel, and I think it’s quite a healthy component of the emotional processing that we need to go through, especially when experiencing a pandemic. I think, because of that, a lot of us will really emerge with a more realistic expectation on how to work and how to balance our workload, and I think that will benefit people that were really unable to do it prior to the pandemic as well.

From the recruitment perspective, it’s certainly also brought around its joyous moments with regards to interviews, as an example. Which has brought me to the question of wanting to ask you what the best or worst interview experience you’ve ever had was?

It is a really interesting question; I can’t say that my interviews have ever been bad. I mean, they’ve all been unique, and I think with every interview you have the opportunity to reflect on what went well, what went badly, or what could have gone better, and as much as interviews are hopefully supposed to be the start of new chapters and larger chapters, I think they’re always the start of mini chapters, as well. Do not get me wrong, it is not like I would like to go and aimlessly do 15 interviews, but I always feel that you do have these really intensive opportunities of reflection that you wouldn’t get at other points of your life.

To answer that question, I’d say that probably my worst one was being let down by my own ability to read people, because I think I’m quite good at reading people and reading how people have maybe responded to something I said; as well as trying to pre-empt the outcome of the situation. There was one interview where I thought that it had gone extremely well and it hadn’t, so I think that that was probably one of the least enjoyable experiences I have had.

You’ve obviously been living in Switzerland for some time now - it’s one of our main markets at EMEA Recruitment - and I just wanted to hear from you on why you would consider Switzerland an ideal place to live?

Again, a good question. I think ideal - it’s the word ideal - as we know, ideal for one person is not necessarily ideal for another, but I think in terms of maybe standard sort of tick boxes, then it would be a flat out yes.

I think that, personally being enveloped in a vibrant city, towering alps and lake-lined horizons each morning you wake up means there’s certainly little to complain about. The thing that I enjoy the most is being surrounded as well by so many different nationalities. I like that you can stand in a queue waiting for your coffee and you can hear five different languages simultaneously, that you can, without any major concerns, send your child to school and they are provided with a good education, an opportunity to have a voice. I certainly would say that, for me personally, it is a very ideal place to live.

The natural beauty to Switzerland maybe does tie into how enjoyable life can be outside of work, and a lot of people have written many books, participated in podcasts, etc. to discuss this thing we all like to call the healthy work-life balance. I was just curious to know, how do you like to relax outside of work and what approach would you say you adopt to achieving this healthy work-life balance?

I think that this one certainly comes with years of experience. I think you learn to acknowledge more and more the importance of trying to have that balance, and it may coordinate itself with certain stages of your life and what you personally place emphasis on. I think that people who are extremely career driven and career focused may be less inclined to be open to encouragement around the importance of finding that balance. And, in this respect, the pandemic has helped a lot of people realize that they need to look at what is important and bring this balance into their life.

Personally, I have experienced the positive and negative of maybe spending too much time or too much focus on work and then missing out on certain elements that maybe I should have dedicated a little bit more time to, at that particular point. However, it’s always that double-edged sword of maybe it was supposed to be like that at that time to go to the next step, so I think it’s about trying to look at the momentary and consciously assess what should be important at this stage.

And, given that I do have a family and a small daughter, I try to remain with that focus and invest my time wholeheartedly at work when I am at work, and then try to ensure that, out of work, I can give her the attention that she requires and deserves, obviously.

I think that’s where most people, particularly early on in their career for the most part, struggle to find that balance. When you are in the formative years of your career, it is difficult to make the distinction of work is work and when you are outside of work, it’s time to do the things for you, as well as the surrounding people in your life that depend on you.

I think sometimes some people have learnt the hard way. I speak to a lot of senior role models who have often come out with regrets about not having done it differently. It’s okay if one person vocalises this, or if it’s two people, but if you have multiple voices that are expressing the same kind of concern or narrative around trying to place the focus on knowing what’s important, then I think it’s only right that you start looking at doing that for yourself.

Out of interest, do you have any books, blogs, podcasts that you’re currently busy working through that are really interesting and you’d like to mention, and perhaps why?

I think nowadays there’s a lot of pressure on people to read blogs and listen to podcasts. I like music, I love music! I like to seek a lot of comfort in lyrics and I used to read a lot of poetry as an undergrad; I think it comes with the territory of studying languages. But as I got older, I started to favour musical expression more.

I certainly like to read though, don’t misunderstand me. I try to read every day at least a little just to expand my own mind and, when I do, I like to read about countries and the foreign. At present, I’m reading AI Superpowers, China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order and also the other book that I sort of chop and change between is The Gendered Brain; this one’s a new neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain. Talking about the hysteria around women and women’s brains, stereotypes, ‘whack a mole’ theories.

What sort of music do you like listening to?

My taste is quite eclectic, it goes from rock, to dance, to classical - a wide spectrum.

If there was one piece of advice you could offer your younger self in your career, what would it be?

I think this is the hardest question. I’m a huge believer in trying to embrace what’s given and what you have to strive for, but I think that if it came down to it, it may be advising myself to choose the right role model. Try to focus on the bigger picture, and really give yourself the opportunity and chance to network more, to find that right role model, to grow more, to learn more from the right people.

Thank you to Lauren for speaking to us.

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment.