"I never dreamed of finding a job that combines technology with animals. It’s exciting to work with world-leading technology in a field that is yet to be fully explored.”
NAME: EMILY MELHUISH
GREW UP: KAPITI COAST AND CANTERBURY
ROLE: LEAD DATA ENGINEER
PATHWAY: BACHELOR OF ENGINEERING (ELECTRICAL & ELECTRONIC)
You grew up with your heart set on being an equine vet. How did you end up being a data engineer for the agritech start-up Halter?
I studied science at school and started a Bachelor of Veterinary Science but I didn’t enjoy biology. I liked working with computers and playing computer games so I applied to study a Bachelor of Technology. I enjoyed the physics, maths and computer science but I didn’t get to build anything real. A friend’s brother told me about mechatronics which I explored for a year but I loved discovering electrical and electronic engineering and haven’t looked back.
Were there any lightbulb moments or key people who influenced your study decision?
I loved calculus which is needed for engineering but I didn’t love statistics or biology needed for vet science. A friend suggested I shouldn’t stick with vet science just because it was my original plan. One of my lecturers also told me it was never too late to change my course, and so I did. No one in my family knew what a career in engineering or technology looked like, especially for girls, but my mum was really supportive.
Did you know much about engineering before you started?
No. I pictured people wearing hard hats on the side of the road, building bridges or tunnels. If I hadn’t met the right people at the right time, I might be a vet now. Through school and my community, I had a very narrow view of what I could be: a vet, an accountant, a lawyer. It’s important for young people to meet real people in real roles. My job is proof that you can love what you do and make money.
How useful has your study been?
My engineering study has been invaluable because it taught me how to solve problems. In the world of tech start-ups, my passion for solving problems with whatever skills I have is essential. At university, I learned all the theory and science, and how to apply my knowledge to real projects like Halter. The start-up’s solar-powered collar and mobile app enables farmers to shift and manage their herd remotely, set up virtual fences and monitor the health and wellbeing of their cows. Even though I work with software, I could apply my problem-solving skills to any engineering role in any sector.
How did you get your current role?
In my second year at university I worked on an engineering project with fellow student Craig Piggott, Halter’s founder and now CEO. I worked for Rocket Lab for six months and once Halter secured some funding and developed its smart collar for cows, there was an opportunity for me to have a bigger impact on a smaller business. I could be staff member number 15, not number 100.
What do you do on a typical day?
I manage all the data we collect about the cows via Halter’s smart collars and app. Every day I review the data dashboards to see how the collars are performing. I also identify any issues for the cows and anomalies in the data. I constantly think about how I can display the data in ways that are useful and easy to understand for farmers and our support teams. I also manage our AI and machine learning pipelines so the collars can predict a cow’s behaviour. For example, is she happy or sad, ready to mate or calve?
What attracted you to apply your engineering skills to a food & fibre sector? What do you love most about your role?
I love having problems to solve every day and working with world-leading technology in a field that is yet to be fully explored. You can’t google what we’re doing!
I never dreamed of finding a job that combines technology with animals. I thought I’d have to find a job during the week and then spend time with horses on the weekend. My job gives me the chance to help farmers and their cows.
My days are flexible - I’m not in front of a screen every day and I regularly get to spend time on Halter’s test farm in Morrinsville. I love the Kiwi ingenuity that comes with start-ups. I have the freedom to speak up and make decisions about how we build our products and team. I can work remotely and wear what I like, for example, Red Bands over high heels!
How do you manage some people’s perceptions of the dairy sector?
Unfortunately, the dairy sector doesn’t have a great reputation, so I was tempted to find out more about what was really happening. Since joining the dairy sector, everyone I’ve worked with has been committed to environmentally sustainable farming and cow welfare. It’s in everyone’s best interests.
What would you say to someone considering a future in food & fibre?
It doesn’t matter what your interests are or what your skillset is. More than ever, the food & fibre sectors need diverse minds to solve so many problems. Your work can benefit the real world – from managing cows in paddocks to turning trees into wood.
Have you felt well supported in your role?
I’ve been well supported but I’m doing a job that didn’t exist when I was at high school. I’m lucky to have mentors in other data science and software engineering businesses. Auckland’s technology community and initiatives for women in tech are great supports.
What are your plans for the future?
I’ve always grabbed opportunities as they’ve come along. Before Covid-19 my goal was to work and travel overseas but that’s not possible yet. I can imagine starting my own company one day or joining another early-stage start-up. I’m passionate about data ownership and governance. People collect a lot of data but it’s only useful if they can understand it; that’s what I want to keep doing.