From Dancer Extraordinaire to Data Analyst
Some careers follow a natural course. When a retired athlete becomes a sports commentator, no one is surprised. Ditto the star chef who opens a restaurant.
But then there are professional paths that pivot in a direction no one saw coming, not even the person on the journey. Heather Arentson is one of those, taking a road not only less traveled, but perhaps taken by her alone. She is a model of the philosophy that it is never too late to completely change your career---and your life.
From childhood, Arentson trained to be a dancer, spending long, arduous hours in ballet classes. Later, when she became a professional ballerina, she put in even longer hours in rehearsals and performing on stage. Dancing with Ballet Palm Beach and Ballet Southeast, among others, she advanced to roles as the Snow Queen in The Nutcracker, the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, and her personal favorite, the lead in Coppelia.
Cut to today, and she is leading projects to transform executive dashboards and rearchitect data tables and schema structures at the international enterprise strategy organization Atlassian. “If you had told me five years ago that I would be a principal data analyst at a global technology company, I wouldn't have believed it,” she says, a little surprised but completely thrilled at her career transformation.
Arentson shares about her her unique career pivot and how completing Georgia Tech’s Online Master of Science in Analytics (OMS Analytics) program helped her transform from premier ballerina to big data analyst.
What prompted you to make such a big career shift?
Emotionally, I was ready to leave ballet. The subjectivity and toxic work environments had begun to rob me of my joy in dancing, and being in my mid-20s, I knew I was quickly aging out. So, I began exploring what my next career options could be.
I had always loved math and science, and although I excelled in them in high school, I was never aware of or encouraged to pursue a degree or career in STEM disciplines.
Now, here I was years later, and while I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, I knew if I was going to invest in a graduate degree, I needed a field that would make me highly employable upon completion.
What led you to data analytics?
My undergraduate degree was in environmental economics and management, and I knew I wasn’t interested in any of the career paths that were applicable to that degree. I had been reading about how data was a growing field, and the Master's in Analytics program seemed like the perfect fit for my background since it focused on math and statistics.
How did you handle being an OMS Analytics student while continuing to dance and teach full-time?
The flexibility of the Online Master's in Analytics program was phenomenal for me. I was able to do my homework and listen to lectures from a ballet studio while I was waiting my turn to dance. Then, when I got my first internship in an analytics role, I was able to do my classes in the evenings after a full day of work.
[That flexibility] took me through many life changes. It carried me through getting married, moving, and changing jobs. I just can't imagine how it would've been if I hadn’t been able to fit my classes and homework around my schedule. I could study ahead when I knew there was going to be a busy time at work or when I was planning my wedding. I was able to flex my schedule around these other commitments, and everyone in the program was so supportive. From working with other OMSA students on group projects to conferring with the professors, there was just such support. It was a really incredible experience.
How did you finally transition from your dance career?
When I began the OMS Analytics program as the inaugural class in 2017, I was dancing and teaching ballet full-time. Then I landed a data science internship in the summer of 2018 and was eager to apply all the knowledge and skills I was learning in the OMS Analytics program and focus on that internship. I hung up my pointe shoes and left the dance world with no regrets.
Aside from the obvious, how do you find the work atmospheres differ between the dance and data worlds? You mentioned the negative aspects of the dance environment - how does that compare to what you see in the data realm?
As a corporate employee, I now have health insurance, a 401(k), and protection against discrimination based on my appearance -- all things I never had as a professional ballerina. There are certainly challenging environments, subjectivity, and competitiveness in the corporate world, but they pale in comparison to the negative experiences that are sadly too commonplace in the dance realm.
I have increased my income sevenfold since my dancing days and afforded myself and my family the stability and flexibility that would never have been possible in my previous profession. Since starting my career as a data analyst, I have received a merit raise or a promotion every six months across the three companies I have worked for.
That's quite an accomplishment. To what do you credit your stellar success?
I have zero doubt the skills, knowledge, and professional network I gained at Georgia Tech are the reasons for my rapid career growth and the reason I am where I am today. I am truly indebted, and I am so grateful to everyone who has been a part of my journey---at Tech and beyond.
What do you ultimately feel about your career path and major career pivot?
I am pretty sure mine is a one-of-a-kind. It has included climate activist, policy fellow, environmental consultant, professional ballet dancer, and finally data analyst. I have defied convention by taking different paths to achieve my goals. While it’s not one I planned per se, it is one I am so grateful to have had. I have emerged with confidence in my ability to figure most anything out and provide value wherever I land.
Writer: Laurel-Ann Dooley
Editor: Teresa Daniel
Digital Producer: Shannon Helton-Amos