Diana Ma, this Laker’s data scientist is the NBA’s best kept secret
February 11, 2020 is the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science. As part of the celebration, the United States Chamber of Commerce Foundation is launching the #LightaSpark campaign to celebrate women working in STEM and to broaden the perception of STEM opportunities. Today in the United States, less than 25% of STEM jobs are held by women. For women currently working in STEM and young girls wondering if they can be successful in a career in STEM, today is a day of celebration.
Even though the statistics do not favor women in STEM, many women are successful. They are successful in part thanks to models like Diana Ma.
Diana Ma is headlining the #LightaSpark campaign. She is a data scientist passionate about basketball. She works for the Lakers. She loves to analyze games, movements, positions and performances to help players win.
Unlike many other women in STEM, she discovered her passion for math late in her life. But, that didn’t stop her. She chased him.
Here’s my interview with Diana Ma. Her experience working in a male-dominated sports industry is proof that with the right mindset, any girl with a passion for STEM can be successful.
When did you first get interested in basketball?
In our family, my mom was the one who loved basketball. It was during the time when Yao Ming was in the league. She started watching basketball with my dad. Then it became a family event. We all spent time together and had fun watching basketball.
Were you a STEM kid?
Both of my parents are currently working in STEM. As far as my upbringing, growing up they focused on math and science. Their heavy insistence put too much pressure on me. Initially, I didn’t want to work in STEM at all. In high school I took AP Statistics, AP Calculus A and B. But I didn’t do very well in any of those classes. I remember thinking, “Why do I have to study differential equations?” How will this help me in my life? It was at university that I really discovered on my own that I really liked math and statistics. It was then that I knew I wanted to pursue a career in STEM.
How did you start your career as a woman in technology?
In high school, I took AP Statistics. But I did not enjoy this course at all. I remember I just wanted to finish the class. One evening I exploded while studying for my AP Statistics exam to watch NBA basketball.
Then, at university, I originally wanted to pursue a pre-medical path. Statistics and Linear Algebra are compulsory courses for the Pre-med track. When I took these courses in college, something clicked.
In one of these classes, we had to choose a dataset to try to solve an interesting problem. I thought it might be interesting to use basketball data. I wanted to predict “Who will win the NBA championship?” Because this was a personal problem that I really wanted to solve, I took the initiative and researched everything I could about advanced data modeling techniques. At that time, my teacher helped me with as much literature as he could find. But there wasn’t a lot of published literature analyzing basketball statistics. I really had to go out of my way to research. But my efforts paid off. Eventually, while working on this problem, I learned the point of statistics and mathematics. All the concepts I learned in class came together and made sense.
“Suddenly there was a problem that I really wanted to solve. The way to solve it is through math. It was then that I understood statistics and mathematics.
At the end of this project, did you see the vision for a career in basketball analysis?
At that point, I remember a conversation I had with one of my teachers. I told him, “It will be really cool to work on basketball stats every day.” But, at that time, I had no idea that basketball analysis was even a profession that was available to practice. After the project was completed, I put it away and just considered it one of my passion projects.
“I didn’t have a role model I could look up to, ‘Wow, that person is a sports data scientist. I want to be like them. There was no one like that for me at that time.
When was your first job in basketball analysis?
Finally, at NYU graduate school, someone told me that the NBA teams had hired basketball data scientists. During my graduate studies, I applied and received an Indiana Pacers internship for the summer. It was one of my first experiences as an analysis for a basketball team. I remember telling my parents about this internship. Even they didn’t really believe it was a real job. Entering it, I was quite nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. At NYU, in my masters program, many of my classmates did internships with large companies in New York and Boston. It was two years before data science really took off as a career. Nobody really understood why I wanted the internship with the Pacers. At that point, I really wanted to follow my passion. My passion was both basketball and statistics. I wanted to see what it was like to work with a basketball team.
AT Indiana Pacers, how did you feel as the only woman on an analysis team working in a male dominated organization?
By entering it, I prepared myself mentally. My mom gave me some tips on how to deal with myself as she has extensive experience working in male-dominated teams in STEM. I was really lucky in some ways because the people I worked with at the Indiana Pacers were so encouraging. I didn’t feel like there was a gulf between me and the rest of the team based on my gender. I remember the first day HR gave me a T-shirt with the Indiana Pacers logo on it. It was in men’s size “small”. It was way too big for me. It looked like a dress on me. My manager immediately understood why this was wrong. He took me to the company store and made me choose a more appropriate size. The fact that he went the extra mile to make me feel welcome on day one really set the tone for my entire working experience there.
Eventually, even after I graduated with my masters degree, I continued to work for the Pacers, juggling a part-time remote position and my full-time digital marketing analysis job.
“It was the overall culture of the organization that made me feel supported while working with the Pacers. There were a lot of men and women I enjoyed working with. I am grateful for this first rewarding experience as a woman working in technology.
Have you seen a cultural difference between working as a female data scientist in the digital advertising industry and working as a female data scientist in the sports industry?
Yes. There has been a big culture shift between working in digital advertising and working for the Lakers. In digital advertising, there are many more female technologists. We had several women working in our data science team. On the whole, there were even more of us than the men. But, inside the company, we were able to create a social group and support each other. This kind of culture is definitely something that I miss. When there are more women in the company, the company tends to be more aware of the specific preferences of women. For example, in the bathroom there were always feminine products available. They were always immediately replenished.
Right now, I’m the only woman working on the Lakers’ analysis team. There are very few women in all basketball operations. It is the nature of industry and business that attracts fewer women. Sometimes it can seem a bit isolating.
It is the nature of industry and business that attracts fewer women. Sometimes it can seem a bit isolating.
Have you found any support systems that work for you to deal with this type of isolation?
I have a group of close girlfriends who I lean on. We are all women in STEM who work in different industries. I met some of them during my graduate studies. We have a group discussion. We support each other. Each time, if we run into situations, we like to bounce ideas off each other. Sometimes all you want is someone to tell you if you’re overthinking a situation, validating your gut, or encouraging yourself to pursue a goal, etc. Our group is a safe area for all of us to just unwind and process our feelings.
My parents and my family really supported me. I am fortunate that both of my parents work in STEM fields. My mom, in particular, gave me great advice on how to be the “only woman” and still be successful in STEM.
What would you say to girls trying to find out if they like STEM subjects?
The great deterrent to learning anything is always the first step. When you are in your high school or college, and you learn math, you get your test results, you just passed or you have a 70.
You think, “I can’t do this. I’m not good enough. “You look around in the classroom and everyone seems to be a lot better than you. You think,” I must be really bad at this. I don’t belong here.
I want you to know that there is absolutely no correlation between scoring this math test and your ability to be successful in STEM. I was that little girl who didn’t do well at math in high school. Do not abandon. Keep pushing yourself. It’s hard. Many times you are going to feel uncomfortable. In such situations, it is important to focus on the bigger picture.
I want you to know that there is absolutely no correlation between scoring this math test and your ability to be successful in STEM … don’t give up. Keep pushing yourself.