Leader’s Voice: Zana Pekmez

Zana Pekmez is the Head of Customer Intelligence Analytics Products at the Raiffeisen Bank. Apart from having extensive experience in the field of finance, economics, and analytics where she has held key positions in financial institutions and tech companies and in academic institutions.

In our conversation, Zana talks about the unique features of data product development, the current innovation in financial services, the parallels between the current economic conditions and the 2008 financial crisis, and more!

SDD: Zana, you have extensive experience in the field of finance, economics, and analytics where you have not only held key positions in financial institutions and tech companies but also in academic institutions.

Can you describe your journey so far and what was your first encounter with data science like?

ZP: During my Ph.D. studies I took a course Innovation Management thought by Prof. Ajay Vinze. I remember it was in 2013 that Prof. Vinze explained to me the concept of Big Data and the accompanying toolkit which could bring tremendous business value. Since then I became an influencer and have been driving this topic further. I am most proud of my work with Data Science Conference in Belgrade which is a community and a tech event with an aim to inspire IT communities from Southeastern and Central Europe to professionally develop, network, and innovate in the fields of data science.

I am also a very hands-on person, and I am interested in how things work. I am now working on my Ph.D. research project so analyze data every day and play with different models. I am also the kind of manager that creates a docker image and containerize it to make sure I also understand how the process works.

SDD: Based on your experience, what do you think are some unique features of the product development cycle for data products? What are some of the challenges and opportunities?

ZP: The data product development cycle is very much dependent on the type of use-case, the goal that we want to achieve with this product, and the business problem, more precisely what do we want to solve for. For those products that we are building with an aim to continuously bring monetary value and have an effect on the revenues, we need a plan on how to integrate them within existing business processes. This will require business processes re-engineering which is realized through some means of digital transformation. For these data products to be sustainable and bring intended value there needs to be a symbiosis between business, IT, and analytics.

In addition, I would like to mention the importance of DataOps for E2E management and the operations of data products. DataOps is important during the build and ship process, deployment but also more importantly to monitor the lifecycle of our analytical products and their performance in production. We must keep in mind that data products are not meant to be long-term and they need to be re-trained, also new technologies are arriving faster than we can keep up. Having a stable DataOps framework also means that we can experiment, prototype, and deploy faster.

SDD: As you know, the innovation in financial services is booming with hundreds of fintech startups getting the attention of investment firms. What is your opinion about innovation in the fintech ecosystem?

ZP: These times are also a golden opportunity for traditional financial institutions to make the right decision and become a vital part of fin-tech eco-system by means of active partnership with fin-techs and start-ups. These new companies are flexible and have faster innovation cycles from which the traditional companies (banks or other industries as well) will benefit from. In partnership, large companies may have an agreement with start-up to work together on their product roadmap and actively co-create together according to mutual priorities. This is truly an opportunity for both worlds to create value together.

SDD: Are there some of the new research papers or projects in AI for finance that caught your interest recently, if there are can you share with us?

ZP: In my spare time, I try to reconcile my professional interest in my academic curiosity. My academic research interests are sustainability, smart technology, and Industry 4.0 as sustainable growth factors. Currently, I am researching the advantages of green computing and saving energy through technology and smart cloud architecture. I am also fascinated with this emerging phenomenon of community cloud computing. There was a recent article published about SAP donating unused computing power to accelerate the speed at which protein simulations run to help fight the COVID-19 virus. I was thrilled about this news. This is the future.

SDD: Your Masters Thesis was titled ‘(Re)evolution in theory and methods of risk valuation and risk management after the global financial crisis 2008’. From the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been seeing several parallels being drawn between the crisis of 2008 and the world economy after the lockdown. What are your thoughts on this? And how do you think innovation in tech can help?

ZP: This is a great question! The financial crisis of 2008-2009 has been triggered by flawed risk valuation practices and shadow banking. My hypothesis was that VaR metrics are outdated and for sophisticated modeling, we may no longer rely on models that rest on Gauss curve for valuation purposes. The recession in front of us has a different cause. However, as an economist these both crises have a common cure which rests on the postulates of aggregate demand and spending. Here I would like to mention the importance of symbiosis between digitalization and sustainability as a definite growth driver in many aspects.

SDD: What inspires you every day?

ZP: I am inspired every day by small and simple things! I am inspired when I see my daughter excited about helping my plant the flowers on our balcony garden. I am inspired when I see my team excited about our projects. I am inspired when my students reach out to me and I see them grow into professionals. I want to do more of that kind of work in the future where I will be able to contribute to the education, sharing my knowledge and experience and influencing young generations.


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