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The Rungs of Learning with Stef Bernosky, Ultra Runner and Geologist Turned HR Data Scientist

I met my friend Stef Bernosky on a run. I can't remember which run or exactly when but I remember being in awe of her status as an ultra runner. The idea to run anything longer than a marathon was (and still is) completely foreign to me and I was intrigued to find out what made her tick.

Lucky for me, her training runs for an ultra tend to be my moderate pace which has made for good company for both of us.

Over the years and miles, I came to discover her fascinating journey as a geologist turned human resources data scientist and from an everyday athlete to one who has completed ten 100-mile runs (yes, you read that right!) and over 100 marathons and ultra races. Needless to say, she's a badass.

In this month's Rungs of Learning, Stef reveals what makes her tick and has some great, practical advice on how to change your career and do things you didn't think possible. Enjoy!

Tell us a little bit about your backstory before we get into it how you climbed the rungs of learning in your career.

Out of high school, I went the standard path that I thought would best suit me in success. Growing up, my dad was reorg'd many times and we went through a lot of periods of unemployment when I was a kid. This drove me toward wanting stability in my career and I thought geology would give me a very linear path: go to school, then grad school and then have a twenty or thirty year career in the field before I retired.

What I didn't know going into it was how cyclical the oil and gas industry is which is where I got started. It's a boom and bust cycle and a long career isn't guaranteed as a result. I could see that the chances of me getting into management weren't great, and, when the industry hit a "bust" period, I was offered a severance package. After nine years, it forced me to think about my longer term career in the industry and what my longer term trajectory was.

So how did you get into data science? And what steps did you take to pivot your career to that field?

Before I knew I wanted to be in data science, I knew I wanted to leave Houston and Seattle had been on my radar for it's tech industry. I knew I had value to add to a company but didn't know how to articulate it to others and what it might mean for employers in Seattle.

I got on the web and found out about this field called data science and analytics which wasn't an option when I was going to school. There were a lot of parallels to what I'd been doing before and decided that it would the best path for me in the future.

When I started exploring the transition, I looked at where my gaps were and created an action plan to close those gaps. I found out that a lot of careers in data science require coding, and while I was good at data modeling, I'd never had to go in and hard code to create a model.

I used my principle of "work hard, recover hard" and went hard on learning how to code for a couple of weeks and then take a three to four day road trip and get outside to take a break from coding.

Through this experience, I found that recreational activities can be a great way to recenter. I've eventually came to think about about recreation as an opportunity to "re-create" myself and that I needed that bit of "re-creation" to take a break from the intensity of learning about coding.

That's deep. How did you get so introspective and come to find recreation as a way to "re-create" and work through things?

I think it's embedded in me but when I started running in my twenties, that's when I actually started to think more deeply about problems.

Before then, I was so focused in school on "the end" - getting good grades, getting through grad school and getting a good career. I was hyper focused on those goals but didn't give myself the space to think and develop a broader perspective on myself. Distance running changed that for me.

How did networking contribute to your learning and exploration about a career change?

Between the summer of me teaching myself to code and getting a job, I went to a sixteen week coding bootcamp in Seattle. I drove up here with my spouse to do a 100-mile race called Cascade Crest and stayed to do the bootcamp and my spouse headed back to Houston. My one goal was to get gainful employment in my new career and to live in Seattle.

In the evenings, I went to meet ups to talk to people, perfecting my elevator pitch and figuring out how what I said landed with recruiters and hiring managers. This helped me gain a better idea of how I communicated my skill set to someone else. I knew my resume on it's own wouldn't get me into a company - I'd be screened out by an algorithm because it wouldn't recognize my skill set and experience as it connects to the job.

While all this networking wasn't ultimately how I got my first role, it did help me learn how to articulate my value to a company.

Note that, during this time period in my life, I was totally out of my element. Planting myself in a new city by myself to learn new skills and going to meetups to meet people with the hopes of changing my career were definitely a brand new experience for me. But having a daily routine of running in the morning, going to bootcamp in the day and going to meet ups to network at night helped me get through it.

What advice would you give others on how to tackle the idea of a career change?

Having time and space to think was a really important to me and is highly recommended.

Tactically, I stepped back to look at how my skills mapped to a higher level and put them in terms that are industry agnostic. I then looked at job postings to see how my skills matched and identified my strengths and gaps. It gave me a sense as to where I needed to get to work and where I was ahead of the curve.

How did your personal purpose come into play with your career transition? What drove you and drives you today?

What I loved about geology was all the technology and really cool stuff that I worked on. But when I peeled back the layers and why I wasn't driven to have a long term career there, I realized that the time scales are so long - a project can drag for years before you make a decision.

In data science, I can deliver value on a much quicker time scale and I'm here to help businesses make more informed people and culture decisions with data.

When it comes down to it, my purpose is about improving the employee experience. If I can make one employee's experience better so they can do their best work and have a better life as a result, I'm fulfilled. We spend so much of our time at work and if people have a shitty experience at work, what impact will that have in other parts of their life? It's the place I can play to have a small impact on society and make it a better place.

Do you see another career change in your future?

I don't think I'll change drastically but I will pivot to more of a consulting aspect on a strategic basis. Some things I'm interested in is showing other organizations how to put together a good data analytics team and how to create an analytics function from scratch.

After I retire, I do want to finish my PhD, probably in atmospheric sciences. Not for a career, but for personal development.

What parallels have you experienced between running and developing your career?

I've learned that when you perfectly prepare for something, you have to know what to do when the shit hits the fan. You have to dig deep and problem solve on the fly.

When I'm running an ultra and I'm feeling cranky, I need to check and see if I've eaten lately or drank lately. If I can't remember, that tells me I need do one of those and then see how I feel.

At work, if there's a motivation issue with someone at work, I similarly break it down and find out what might work, try it and modify it. Similar problem solving skills are needed in both ultra running and work.

What's one thing you're prioritizing your learning on now?

I'm working on how I influence culture change in an organization and use data in an ethical way so it doesn't become weaponized but still drive toward better cultures.

This summer you can find Stef on the trails including running the Wonderland trail (93 miles) around Mt. Rainier and two 100-mile races. When she's not re-creating in the mountains, she's doing data science magic at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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What an inspiration! Thanks for conducting and sharing this interview. I love Steph's commitment to lifelong learning. This is so relevant as a story for navigating change. I'm no ultra runner, but I love the idea of recreation for re-creating.

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