Interview with Iqra Munawar

Professional headshot of Iqra

Meet Iqra Munawar, Class of 2020. Iqra entered the MSA program with a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Appalachian State University and experience with financial companies through multiple internships. Upon completing the MSA, Iqra worked as a Biostatistician/Data Scientist at Wake Forest Baptist Health and is currently working as a Data Scientist at IBM.

I was interested in her career experience and wanted to know more about her story. In addition, I believe it could greatly help current and potential students who want to be data scientists after graduation. Recently, I interviewed Iqra, and she shared the story of her data science journey and offered many suggestions for potential data scientists.

Peijia: From accounting to analytics, why did you want to be a data scientist? What made you change your career path from finance to data?

Iqra: Funny Story, when I started college, I was majoring in chemistry at first, and I wanted to go to Pharmacy school, but once I started, I realized that it was not something that I had a passion for. I enjoyed the classes but wasn’t very interested in going into the medical field. I moved from Pakistan when I was fourteen years old. I was weak in English and courses where English is required, but I enjoyed math and science. My advisor recommended that I major in accounting. 

In my undergraduate studies, I did accounting internships, which I enjoyed, but then I missed the challenge with science and math. Therefore, I took a break from college and worked. I was still unsure whether I should completely change my career path or if I should still get the CPA certification. I had a job in an accounting firm where I was helping them change their software. It took them 8 hours to transfer one client’s information, but I found a way to do it faster and more efficiently, which only took a few minutes. I shared the method with my colleagues and presented it to the company. I realized that I wanted to go deeper into this. I am interested in automation. Instead of looking at the past, I wanted to discover what could happen in the future based on past information. 

Peijia: You have mastered many programming languages, such as R, SQL, Python…What programming language do you prefer and use for your daily work?

Iqra: It depends on which area you want to go to in your career. When I worked for Wake Forest Baptist Health as a biostatistician, I used R a lot because the tasks required statistical analysis. R is suitable for statistical analysis, but it was hard to put it into production; if you want to put it into production, Python works better.  

Currently, at IBM, our long-term goal is to put our forecast model into production, so I mostly use Python. If you are working in a research field or banks and pharmaceutical companies, most likely you will use SAS and R because, for them, the long-term goal is to do analysis and present and publish papers on it. But companies like IBM or Target often use Python so that they can put it into production and provide your model and forecast to stakeholders. My preferred language is Python. 

Peijia: Can you describe a typical day working as a data analyst at IBM?

Iqra: My day-to-day is different depending on the exact date. However, my typical day starts with talking to my team and updating them on where I am on a project. If I’m struggling with something, I will let my team know, and then they will make sure someone can help me. Then, I will work on my parts of the project. Sometimes, we will meet with stakeholders to see what their needs are. 

I work in the finance department, and we are the internal team. Basically, we help other IBM teams within finance. When the other teams come to our team with questions and problems, we will help them by having a team discussion first, and the team leader will assign tasks to the team member. If I see a very tedious project and think it can be better, I will tell my team that we should do this project in a certain way so we can cut our time from 10 hours to 5 minutes. 

I can even learn more skills and gain additional knowledge after I have done my work. My team is very supportive. We have a great learning platform where I can go and learn new skills, such as the IBM cloud. 

Peijia: How did the practicum experience prepare you for your career after graduation? And what have you learned from this experience? 

Iqra: My practicum was working with a primary school. As for how the practicum experience prepared me: 

First, I would say I learned how to be comfortable with dirty data. I have worked for two years, but there’s never been a situation where I looked at the data and said, “this is so clean.” It was always dirty and not ready for modeling. The practicum project taught me how to be comfortable with data that you will see at the workplace.

And the second was communication. We were presenting to stakeholders as well as working with a team. You have to be comfortable talking to your team members. For example, sometimes you might have a conflict at work about what programming languages we should use to solve a problem, what model we should use, how to analyze it, or even what color we should use for the presentation.

The practicum experience taught me how to be comfortable and understand other people’s points of view.

And I learned that teamwork is not just about myself, but that it involves learning to listen to others and expressing ideas clearly and concisely. Being clear and concise is crucial when you try to convince others.

Iqra has great advice for current and future MSA students. 

IAA does not teach you everything but teaches you how to prepare and not be scared of new tools and technology. Data science is a technical field, but you also need many soft skills.

  • Always be prepared to have a demo to support you when you want to convince others or make a change. 
  • Make sure other people can understand your code. Document, format, and comment on your code.
  • Be efficient with coding. When you write code, check the time it takes to run it. People at work will appreciate the time saved. 
  • Take everything seriously but don’t be overstressed. Enjoy the process whenever you can.
  • Don’t stress too much about the interview process because it is part of your journey. 
  • Make sure you are comfortable speaking with stakeholders and that your point is concise and clear: use BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front)!

Columnist: Peijia Wu