Sophie Benbenek always planned on a career in the public sector, and would be working on policy or for some non-profit if she had not ended up at TrueAccord. But helping people is still very much in her job description. As head of data science at TrueAccord, Sophie was the lead architect for the decision engine that drives self-service collections at the company. Read on to learn more about Sophie, her love of Marvel Comics, and why she likely finished reading this sooner than you or I did.
Name: Sophie Benbenek
Length of time at current company: 4 years
Length of time in industry: 4 years
How did you get your start in the industry?
I heard about a fintech startup trying to do something in debt collection through a connection from the University of Chicago and was impressed by the innovative solution to a very hard and unpopular problem. I was actually intending to continue down a path in the public sector and uninterested in the private sector, but I’d had some historical issues with both medical and student loan debt and was curious. Due to missed calls and frequent moves, missed communications eventually turned into significant issues. I was lucky enough to have the resources to manage the debt once I realized it existed, but the experience was not pleasant.
Ohad eventually convinced me this was an important industry with a lot of opportunity to make a positive impact. After four years I would definitely say I agree! I think there are a lot of people working in this industry to make it a positive experience for consumers and I’m pleased to be a part of it.
What is your career highlight so far?
I was a lead architect in the development of HeartBeat, the machine learning based decision engine that manages TrueAccord’s collections strategy. It’s been pretty amazing to be so involved in a product that is starting to push the boundaries of people’s assumptions about automation and self serve in debt collection. Less than 10% of our customers interact with our human support staff, instead managing to navigate their own way to financial freedom – with help from HeartBeat.
When or how are you most productive?
In the early morning with a giant cup of coffee – the earlier the better. I’ve always been a morning person and for me there’s something really powerful about being awake when very few others are. I find that my creative juices flow better when uninterrupted and not yet muddied with the minor issues and meetings that pop up throughout the day.
Which industry professional do you admire most?
Not debt collection specific, but in the realm of data science – Kate Crawford. Kate Crawford is a researcher in the realm of AI that’s dedicated to studying the social impact of machine learning and data systems in general. She pushes data users and governments to adopt policies of due process, and algorithmic accountability and transparency to mitigate bias or unfairness in algorithmic solutions.
I’m a techno-optimist, and I believe that good data science is about making the data work to improve customers lives. In order to achieve this however it’s vital that we be cognizant of the ways it might not and focus on developing tools to prevent this – especially in financial industries where bad decisions have long term consequences. We take this really seriously at TrueAccord, but I’m glad there are people like Kate Crawford taking it to a larger platform.
What is one thing you do better than everyone else?
I read really fast, maybe not world-record fast, but fast enough that trying to read something over someone’s shoulder is definitely painful.
What do you like most about this industry?
It involves a lot of really complex problems and the solutions have a meaningful impact. It’s a heavily regulated industry, an incredibly emotional industry from the consumers side, and it’s not a particularly well regarded industry from external perspectives. Trying to create a product that consumers are actually willing to work with and trust within the tangled net of state and federal legislation while attempting to break down some of the pre-conceived notions of what debt collection is, is hard. But if you manage to do it, there’s long-term impact on customers financial health and that’s important.
What is one thing you wish you could change about this industry?
I think the industry can tend towards risk averse to the point of making things worse for the consumer. Given the highly regulated nature of the industry, it’s understandable that there’s a desire to stay in the safe zone, but I think it’s important that industries are able to change to help service the changing needs of their customers.
If you weren’t in this industry, what would you be doing?
I’d actually always intended to join the non-profit or public sector. I really like the idea of pushing policy to be more data driven as the final implementation of a well-intentioned policy can sometimes fall flat due to a lack of information on the underlying issues or context on what consumers actually want.
Describe a typical work day.
My team’s job is to help support the data initiatives across the company and develop and maintain our core HeartBeat system. A typical work day involves consulting with the product team on upcoming experiments (we launch all new developments as experiments rather than features as it helps us ensure our creations have a positive impact and don’t hurt consumers), working with analytics to assist with visualizations and understand what data pipelines need to be built out, and developing or fine tuning the models within HeartBeat.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I’m a huge fan of Marvel Comics. I’ve been reading them since I was a kid and have never been able to stop… Typically an X-Men fan, but I just finished the Annihilation Saga – which is what lead to the creation of the Guardians of the Galaxy, which it turns out is very different than what happened in the movies. They didn’t even exist during the original Infinity Gauntlet series!
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
You’ll never do anything if you keep waiting until you have time; you never have time. If you want to learn something new or do something you’ve always had on your list, you have to make time.
What are you currently reading?
The Power, by Naomi Alderman (fiction), and Radical Candor by Kim Scott (non-fiction).
What is one fact you’d like everyone in the industry to know about you?
I love knowing things. I spend a lot of my spare time taking classes online, learning new languages, doing puzzles etc. I’m currently learning German for an upcoming trip to visit family in Europe!
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Tim Collins, Antonia Wong, Julie Hughes