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getting to know alex shabala, head of data science

We caught up with Head of Data Science Alex Shabala to learn more about who he is and what his job involves.

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Alex Shabala recently joined us to head up Data Science and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the role.

Can you tell us more about what you’ll be doing?
An important part of my job is to drive Capitec’s data science and machine learning strategy. I’m heading up the data science team, which plays an important part in the business. We use data for personalisation, to improve relevance and provide our clients with simple, transparent access to banking. We also utilise advanced analytical methodologies and continually work towards building solutions that are innovative, creative and drive change. 

What excites you about data science?
Building things that matter and are used by many people both excites and motivates me. When I worked at Zoona, I found it incredibly rewarding to see the impact that data science initiatives can have on real people. At Amazon, I had the opportunity to work on projects at massive scale, where even small improvements could deliver significant business value.

I’m really excited about joining the Capitec team because my role combines both these elements. We have the largest client base in South Africa, but we put simplicity and our clients’ needs at the core of everything we do.

Looking ahead, what do you believe the future of banking holds?
The bank of the future will have intelligent algorithms in all parts of its business. In particular, the areas ready for disruption are those that rely on human intuition. Machine learning algorithms can find deep patterns and insights in large amounts of information, that are beyond human capabilities.

But both these elements are complementary because by harnessing data to do repeatable tasks, people can focus on higher levels of abstraction. This means machines can do the detailed but boring ‘grunt’ work, while we focus on innovating and creating systems that will help the business and our clients.

A challenge faced by financial services, however, is knowing which problems are ready for machine learning or artificial intelligence solutions. There’s a relatively high upfront cost to building machine learning or artificial intelligence solutions, so it takes commitment to deliver on them.

And the future of machine learning?
Leveraging data helps us better understand and anticipate our clients’ needs. I see machine learning as essential to providing a personalised experience that continues to improve the financial lives of our customers.

This will be key in areas such as product personalisation, behavioural incentives and proactive fraud detection.

What did you study?
I was always curious as a child and was fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to question everything I didn’t understand. This led me to choose physics over computer science because it was all about the ‘why’ and gaining a fundamental understanding of the world.

I finished my Bachelor of Science (and BSc Honours) in Physics and Applied Mathematics at the University of Tasmania. After that I was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to complete my DPhil (PhD) in Applied Mathematics at Oxford University, in the UK.

Studying Applied Mathematics gave me a toolkit to apply to a range of real-world problems. I believe that to solve a problem successfully, you not only have to upskill in a new area (for example climate science or finance), but also deliver a useful end-to-end solution.

My focus on computational modelling, which combines statistical data with theoretical assumptions, led me down a path of big data, intelligent algorithms and machine learning, long before the term ‘data science’ was even coined!

What career advice can you share?
What I’ve learned is that there is great value in stretching yourself, especially in your career. When you’re comfortable, you’re not stretching yourself and are therefore not learning. My advice is to surround yourself with people who know more than you, take on challenging work and make time to upskill yourself.

How do you manage a healthy work/life balance?
Running lets me completely switch off from the work day. I also enjoy South African wine, and love nothing more than spending a day at a wine farm with my family and friends.

I have two young children and I speak Russian as a first language, so I’m also spending my time teaching my eldest to read in Russian, while my wife is taking Duolingo lessons in Russian to keep up.

My colleagues tease me about my lack of Afrikaans knowledge, so perhaps that’s my cue to start learning a new language and upskill.

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