Halee Mason is defying the odds as one of the few women in esports. Her path to becoming the lead data scientist at Cloud 9 was anything but straightforward. Learn how she carved her own path in a competitive and male-dominated industry.
Halee Mason is defying the odds as one of the few women in esports. Her path to becoming the lead data scientist at Cloud 9 was anything but straightforward. Learn how she carved her own path in a competitive and male-dominated industry. In this episode, Halee candidly explores her journey to the top. One of her tips? Never compromise and always unapologetically be yourself. Listen on to learn more.
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Taylor Trudon: You're listening to the In Culture Podcast. I'm your host, Taylor Trudon. I'm speaking with women from age 12 on about the pivotal moments that inspired their paths, the grit and determination that powers them forward, and where they're headed next. I'm really excited to share these inspiring conversations with you on the podcast.
Taylor Trudon: For this episode, I'm speaking to Halee Mason. She's the lead data scientist for Cloud9, a top esports organization based in Los Angeles. Data analysis is key these days to how athletes and teams gain an edge in competition, which makes Halee a crucial part of Cloud9's success. Halee's had a lifelong love of gaming and science, and a pretty serious work ethic since she was a kid. But when Halee and I sit down to chat not far from Cloud9's headquarters, she explains that her path to the forefront of her field hasn't been a straight line.
Taylor Trudon: So I'm a journalist, and I've always considered myself to be pretty lucky because from a young age, I knew that's what I want to do. I'm curious. Is your career something that you always want to do since you were young or thought about when you were younger?
Halee Mason: It's actually I think the opposite for me where when I was younger, I didn't really know exactly what I wanted to do. So I didn't have it all planned out, and as I grew up, I was trying different things, and seeing what I really enjoyed doing, and going from thing to thing where I would get a taste of something and be like, "Oh, I really like that or I'm good at that," and continue down that path until I ended up where I am today now doing data science for Cloud9 in the esports industry. So it's crazy how I got here. My background is very windy in terms of different places I traveled growing up. But yeah, along the way, I just discovered what I really enjoyed doing.
Taylor Trudon: Was there a certain point where you realized that you wanted to go into this certain industry, that you wanted to go into data science?
Halee Mason: Yes. So after I finished my undergraduate degree, I was working at a hospital in the clinical laboratory environment, and part of my roles and responsibilities included a data analysis component where the initial setup would happen on different types of specimen, and then we would analyze the results, and try and determine what leukemia or lymphoma the patient might have. It was during that period I realized I'm pretty good at this and I really enjoy doing this, and I started taking the steps I needed to, to shift into the data science world. I was in Charlottesville, Virginia during this time, and Charlottesville is a really great tech hub because there's a lot of startups and there's a really good data science community there. Part of me getting ready for that switch involved doing a lot of self-study and teaching myself how to program, and then eventually, applying to a master's degree after finishing the prerequisites for it to pursue a master's in data science.
Taylor Trudon: I love that you realized that you are into data science and that route a little bit later in life. To your point, it's like you can find inspiration in unexpected places, and it's okay to pursue something a little bit later.
Halee Mason: Yeah, I think that is a great way to summarize it. I had no idea that I would end up here, but I just continued on, and dove into what I really enjoyed doing, and realized it was data science.
Taylor Trudon: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about the younger Halee and what you were like as a kid growing up in Western New York.
Halee Mason: Growing up as a kid, I was really into animals and also gaming. Those were my two younger passions, and that manifested itself in spending a lot of time outdoors, whether it was playing with the dogs or hiking around the pond looking for frogs that are just interesting animals, and then gaming in the evening. I played different types of games growing up. Dog showing quickly became something that I realized I was good at and I enjoyed doing. So it started very early on with our family golden retriever, and I would set up plastic buckets in the backyard and put a broom over them, and that would be a jump that I would then instruct my dog to jump over. Eventually, I realized I wanted to start showing competitively and actually train a dog to do this from puppyhood. It was a really good sense of seeing your hard work pay off when you made it through the course flawlessly or you did it the fastest, and we had a lot of success at that.
Taylor Trudon: Do you think there is any overlap in terms of your passion about gaming and dog training, and what that taught you at an early age?
Halee Mason: I think that potentially there is some overlap. For dog training, it was working together with my dog to achieve something. Then in gaming, I think that the competitiveness of working through a problem, or winning a game, or achieving a mission or an accomplishment in game is very similar to doing well out on the agility course.
Taylor Trudon: Now, here you are. You're the leading data scientist at Cloud9, and certainly, you've probably experienced a little bit of challenges as a result of being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Can you speak a little bit about that?
Halee Mason: Throughout my career, I think that as I have progressed into different roles and responsibilities, I have maybe seen that I'm surrounded by more and more male-dominated environments. But even so, I feel that I've been able to navigate my way through it. In school, there was equal male-female population. But then, in my first job working in the clinical laboratory space, that was also a fairly balanced workplace. But as I've switched into the tech industry, I did start to notice that shift. One thing I feel very fortunate about having during that time is strong female leaders who I could rely on.
Halee Mason: So my first position was at Elder Research, and I was a data analyst. I was able to find people who I could talk to, and learn from, and follow in their footsteps along the way. During my time at Elder Research, Miriam Friedel became the director of data science there. She was a very good role model for me to show that I'm new to this industry. I might not know or have the confidence in myself to be an amazing programmer or be a future leader, but I could look to her and see the steps she took and the path that she went on, and learn from her example. I've taken that with me as I have come now into the gaming industry where it's even more lopsided in terms of the male-female diversity. So I've taken what I've learned in previous positions with me into this position.
Taylor Trudon: That's great that you had that director that you could look up to and that could help you navigate the workplace. Unfortunately, there are so many young women who are probably listening to this and they're like, "Well, I don't have any women that I can necessarily look up to because they don't exist." Like maybe all of the executive level people at their company are male or maybe they're on a completely male team. What would you say to those young girls who maybe don't have that support system or those resources?
Halee Mason: That's a tough situation, and one thing that I was able to learn was in Charlottesville, Virginia, we had this conference that the University of Virginia held yearly called the Women in Data Science Conference. This was an amazing opportunity where I think it originally stemmed from Stanford where they had a Women in Data Science Conference that was at their university, and the University of Virginia picked up on that and held the conference there. That for me was just an amazing experience where so many amazing talented women came together and shared their experience, and showed me that there's a lot of support out there. Even if it's not in your office or right there for you, people will come together and offer their assistance, and those conferences can just be really good avenues for that.
Taylor Trudon: Exactly. Your vibe attracts your tribe is what I like to say.
Taylor Trudon: I want to talk a little bit about success. I think success means something different to everyone. For some people, it might be a certain job title, achieving a certain salary bracket, or making it on to some 30 under 30 list. What does success look like to you, and do you think that you've achieved it?
Halee Mason: So I think that those three examples you listed have all been things I've thought about throughout the year. But as I continue on in my career more, I learned along the way that I am most happy and feeling most successful when I'm finding enjoyment in what I'm doing. So it has taken me a little bit of time, as I was alluding to earlier with my winding career path, to really hit my stride and find what I love doing. But I feel extremely fortunate because now I'm able to do data science in the gaming industry, and that brings together two of my skills in both professional sense and then my passion in terms of what I love doing is gaming. Now, I can do that together. So having thought about what success looks like, I think that I can say that I'm successful because I'm able to be in an environment where I can flourish and do something that I enjoy doing.
Taylor Trudon: I totally feel that. I think that's such an important point to make, and continuing off of success, I think that also we've been so trained to think that success looks like someone on the cover of Fortune or Forbes magazine. You see someone on the cover and you see all the bright spots, but what about all of the crap that they have to sift through? I'm wondering if you could talk about a time where you experienced a setback or a failure and how you dealt with that.
Halee Mason: I think that in the tech industry, often, setbacks occur in different ways. For me, I can think back to a project where it was an opportunity for me to lead this in... I was a data analyst, so this was earlier on in my career, but it was a time where I could step up more into the project management role and also have that technical component. The setback in this specific example was that I was nervous about taking on these new roles and responsibility, but also trying to manage the technical component. I was really stuck on the technical component, and then also having additional... level of the roles and responsibility increase. So I ended up working really hard, putting in a lot of extra hours, and eventually, how I overcame it was asking for help.
Halee Mason: It was surprising to me because I wanted to do it, and I wanted to overcome it, and I wanted this to be my achievement. But then, I realized sometimes you need to ask for help and that it's okay to ask for help. The help in this case was just having a meeting with my chief data scientist at that company and talking him through the problems that I was having and explaining the situation. Then, he would ask really good questions about, "Have you thought of it this way?" or, "Did you consider approaching it from this angle?" or trying to understand my approach like, "Why are you coming at it from this direction?" Just having that sounding board and being able to talk through the issue opened my mind to different angles, and I've always remembered that because when I get stuck now, I stop and just ask myself those questions like, "Is this the only way to solve this problem, and have I considered other methods for overcoming this obstacle? Then finally, is there someone who I can ask for help?" because it's okay to ask for help. Sometimes I just have to remind myself that.
Taylor Trudon: Looking back on your journey thus far, you're almost 29? So looking on your relatively short, but successful journey so far, is there anything that you would have changed or have done differently?
Halee Mason: I think for me to change something or do differently could have put me in a completely different field now, so it's hard for me to say that I would have changed it. What I would have hoped is to learn that I really love programming and working in the data science space earlier, but I didn't know that at the time, so I didn't pursue that in undergraduate and get that that training earlier. But it's fine because it worked out now and I learned along the way.
Taylor Trudon: Is there anything in particular that you would tell a young girl who is interested in pursuing STEM or interested in pursuing a career in data science or just a field that isn't often female-dominated and they might be a little scared?
Halee Mason: Yes, I would say don't be scared. If this is something you're interested in, the best advice I can give you is just to be unapologetically you. If you love technology, or you are excited by data science, or you want to build those predictive models, you can just go for it and know that it's not just for men to do that, and that's fun, and that you can do it too. Different ways you can do it can be finding a meetup where you can collaborate or work on projects with teams, and just dig in, and start coding.
Taylor Trudon: That's great because I was also going to ask, what's like a good starting point? Where do you literally start? Because I think that's a question that young girls have a lot.
Halee Mason: Yes. So for getting started, for me, it was finding a dataset that I was interested in. A dataset can have many different forms. It could be an Excel spreadsheet that has rows and columns, and contains all of the information you need, or it could be a database in the cloud or locally. So it can take on a whole type of different look and feel, but essentially, it's just information. If you're aspiring to break into this field and you have an idea, you find a dataset and work on it as a side project, or find someone you can collaborate like a meetup, or a group online, or just friends who are also interested, and really just start trying to exercise those skills. That helps you learn what you need to learn, which is part of the battle. So my advice would be just to get your hands in the data because I know I learned best when I'm doing it.
Taylor Trudon: As women that are working and that are trying to climb that ladder, which I don't even think that there is such a thing anymore. It's more of a crazy gymnasium. It's not a straight forward way up, but there are days that are long that are frustrating that I'm sure sometimes you're like, "Wait. What am I doing? Like nothing makes sense right now." But how do you ultimately stay passionate and excited about the work that you're doing? What fuels you forward in those moments?
Halee Mason: For me, what fuels me forward in moments of extreme hardship, or it's very long day, or I'm just struggling to see the point, what really keeps me going is I get a great sense of satisfaction when I see something that I have delivered to the team, or to a client or a previous customer, and seeing how it helps them. So having them use something that can improve their process or give them that little bit of information that can give them a competitive edge or help them make a decision is what keeps me going. Knowing that the work that I'm doing is valuable and helping people.
Taylor Trudon: I think that there's a lot of misconceptions about the world of STEM that it's boring or dry and that you can't be creative. What do you have to say about those misconceptions?
Halee Mason: I think that STEM itself as a degree might have those misconceptions about being really boring or dry, but one thing that I would encourage people to also consider is that you can open up a lot of future doors by getting a STEM degree. It also can support the creative side or lead to art or fashion if that is what you're interested in. So I would encourage people to be open-minded and not think that, "STEM is not for me because it's too technical or it's too math-heavy," because there's a lot of different ways you can come at a STEM degree.
Taylor Trudon: So it's interesting that you said that because we, as part of this podcast series, interviewed a coder named Anna Miller, and she's currently working on an amazing app to make buildings, and entrances, and other things more accessible for people with disabilities. She told me, and I didn't even ask her, but she said that she loves STEM because it's a way of creative expression just like photography, art, or writing. I'm curious. What advice would you give to Anna or even to your 11-year-old self?
Halee Mason: That is really awesome to hear what she is doing with her app idea, and the advice that I would give to her. It sounds like she already is excited and coding at age 11. I would just encourage her and also my younger self to stay curious because what you're interested in today can lead to amazing things in the future. When you find something that you enjoy doing, just don't be afraid to pursue it. Jump in wholeheartedly. If coding is a way of expressing your creative self, that is amazing, and just keep following that passion, and see where it takes you.
Taylor Trudon: Well, thank you so, so much. This was such a great conversation, and I'm really excited to watch what you do next.
Halee Mason: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
Taylor Trudon: To learn more about Halee, visit microsoft.com/inculture or follow us on Instagram at Microsoft In Culture. This episode of In Culture was hosted by me, Taylor Trudon. The podcast is produced by Jordan Rothlein, edited and mixed by Nat Weiner, and features original music by Angular Wave Research. In Culture is a production of Microsoft in collaboration with Listen, a sensory experience company in New York City.