From social work to data science: why she made a career shift in her mid-forties

Written by Aziza Sheerin Published on     6 mins read

Seeing opportunities to problem solve using data during her time in social services, Bhavana made a career hop with her goal to create social impact.

Disclaimer: This article was written by a community contributor. All content is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the writer. If you’d like to contribute, email us at [email protected]  

One of the most rewarding parts of my role leading General Assembly in Asia is following the amazing journeys that our students pursue. I’m constantly inspired by their perseverance and tenacity as they learn new skills and shift into new careers at all stages of their lives.

For example, I was deeply moved by the story of a student who took a GA course to build skills that would augment the work she was doing in communities.

Many years ago, Bhavana Rao, now in her late forties, trained as a civil engineer. After a break to raise her young family, she wanted to go back into the workforce to focus on her lifelong passion of helping others. She joined the non-profit sector in Singapore, working in social services and community care where she stayed for 12 years, supporting vulnerable members of the community including seniors and persons with disabilities.

During that time, she was aware of the broad range of services provided by the various social service agencies in the ecosystem but had also begun to notice the uneven take-up rates by members of the community. People were not taking full advantage of the services that were available to them, and at the same time were requesting new services to meet their needs. This led Bhavana to start looking into how data could be used to better plan and develop appropriate social services. She began exploring various technology applications in other industries and wondered how she and her colleagues could use these learnings to implement a data-driven approach to community care. She became interested in learning more about how apps were built and the ways in which product teams were able to tailor content to the specific needs and preferences of each user. Being a self-starter, she took it upon herself to see how she could gain this knowledge in data and technology.

In her research, Bhavana came across the Data Science Immersive program at General Assembly. It’s a 12-week course that we offer for people who want to enter the Data Analytics /  Data Science fields, and comes with career coaching. The course covered what she was looking to learn, and at 12 weeks, it provided the quick transition she was looking for.

However, leaving her career to transition to a completely new field was a big decision for her.  She shared that she felt a sense of apprehension, and going back to the classroom after many years felt like a jump into the unknown. With the support and encouragement of her family, she decided to take the plunge.

Bhavana felt overwhelmed at the start, but came to appreciate the supportive environment formed by the community of staff, instructors, and fellow students. She got used to the pace after the initial weeks, and one of her high points was being able to apply what she was learning to her real-world experience in social care. GA’s courses are project-based and encourage application vs. just theoretical knowledge. Bhavana’s capstone project focused on understanding the various profiles of volunteers who contributed their time and efforts at a  senior volunteer organization. She could see how applying this solution could solve various challenges in her industry.

After graduating, Bhavana set about looking for opportunities that would combine her newly acquired data science skills with her passion for creating social impact. While her search was primarily focused on the social service/community care sector, she decided to expand her options to include other companies that leveraged tech for good.

She came across an opening in the data team at Yara International. As she read more about the company, she found herself impressed with the social purpose underlying the business and initiatives to develop digital products for small-holder farmers in developing countries. This deeply resonated with Bhavana’s desire to use technology for good, and she knew this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Bhavana was initially told that the role she had expressed interest in required a more senior candidate, but she didn’t let that stop her. She persisted and joined as a trainee, transitioning after six months to Associate Business Analyst.

In her role, she uses both her data skills and her knowledge of providing services to communities to uncover the needs of farmers in places like Asia and Africa. She analyzes how their environments and resources vary – for example, how much access they have to mobile technology – and works with her team to bring the most useful products and services to help the farmers gain agricultural knowledge and increase yields.

Making this shift has been an interesting journey that Bhavana believes she is still on. Working in this role has opened her eyes to the ways in which technology plays a role in encouraging people to take certain actions. In social services, Bhavana and her colleagues were consistently trying to nudge people towards taking action to improve their lives and were sometimes – but not always – successful. However, the inherent lack of manpower and resources in the non-profit world means Bhavana’s team wasn’t able to undertake or apply research or technology in these areas. Now, she sees the ways in which technology and data underpin a lot of what people do,  particularly in areas like e-commerce, and she remains excited about the ways this can be used to help people who need critical support.

I find that many of our graduates search not just for jobs, but for careers that give them a sense of purpose. Many want to find ways to use tech to create a positive social impact, and some even look for these opportunities outside of their day jobs. It’s great to see communities like Better.sg that provide a platform for tech professionals who are interested in applying technology to social good.

Bhavana loves her work at Yara serving the global small-holder farming community, and her passion for social care has kept her connected to her former industry. She looks forward to seeing how technology and data will continue to help advance social services, particularly in  Singapore which is overall seeing continued growth in technology applications across almost all industries and of which the government is very supportive.

Bhavana had three pieces of advice to other individuals that are going through a mid-career switch, especially into tech, and after spending many years building a career in a very different field. She first encourages seekers to get clarity in what they want to learn and move forward in pursuing it. For Bhavana, it was clear: she wanted to leverage data to improve people’s lives.  Additionally, she reminds people to keep their minds open – the path you end up on may have many twists and turns and you might find yourself applying your skills in slightly different ways than you initially anticipated. Finally, have a growth mindset. While any past experience you bring to a new role will no doubt be valuable, you won’t know everything at first, or possibly much at all! However, with dedication and hard work, she believes that you’ll get there. At first, it may feel daunting to be starting afresh, but Bhavana is confident that, as it has been for her, in the long run, it will be worthwhile.

Aziza leads General Assembly’s business in Asia across the consumer, enterprise, and government verticals overseeing P&L management and growth. She joined the company when it launched in Singapore in 2015, and since then more than 110K people have attended GA courses, workshops and events. Aziza leads GA’s partnership efforts with the Singapore government and the broader tech ecosystem to bridge the tech talent gap in the country. Before GA, Aziza worked on market expansion in emerging markets in Asia and building partnerships with governments, international development organizations, and stakeholders invested in advancing education and economic growth in emerging Asian economies.


Aziza Sheerin


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