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Behind the scenes: Reflecting on 16 years with SSA

22 May 2024 1:10 PM | Marie-Louise Rankin (Administrator)

SSA's Executive Officer, Marie-Louise Rankin, has been the central hub around which the SSA has rotated for the best part of 16 years.  Her faithful service, cheerful demeanour and strong commitment to the SSA are familiar to anyone who has worked with her, on the Executive Committee, Central Council or in other ways. 

I decided to interview her, so we can all find out more about her life, and also to harvest views she has about the Society she has so faithfully served.

Ian Gordon
SSA President

 1.    I assume not many young people leave school with the intention of working for an association. What career path brought you to SSA?

In my last year of high school, I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do career-wise, so I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and entered the German diplomatic service. I obtained a Bachelor of Public Administration (International Relations) and subsequently enjoyed postings to the German embassies in Paris (France), Yaounde (Cameroon), Riga (Latvia) and finally Canberra. During my Canberra posting I met and married my husband who was with the Australian Defence Force, making further postings impossible.

I resigned from the German Foreign Ministry and, for the first time in my life, put down roots. The next few years were dedicated to homelife duties and raising our two children. By the time they were in preschool/school respectively, a good friend of mine, who worked for the Independent Scholars Association of Australia (ISAA), was about to go on parental leave, and asked me to fill in for her, just for a few months. In the end she decided not to return to the job. As I had enjoyed my stint in association work, I decided to continue in the position, which was a relatively small role. When I was advised that SSA was looking for an Executive Officer in late 2007, I saw that as an opportunity to step-up, applied for the job, and the rest is history

2.    When people ask you about your work, do you sometimes get asked “What’s it like working with a bunch of nerds?” (or a similar question)?  If so, how do you answer?

I can’t say that anyone has ever asked me that! When I tell people where I work, I find that they are generally impressed, and assume that I’m a statistician as well. Sometimes I bask in the admiration for a moment before coming clean, explaining that I’m the office manager with no statistical expertise. 

    Tell us about your history with the SSA. I believe you’ve had a long period of service, with a brief interlude at some point where you did something else … is that right?

I started to work for SSA in 2008, when the office was still located in Braddon. Every workday started with a trip to the local post office to get the mail from the PO Box. It would be brimming with mainly membership payments and bills. In 2010 the SSA office moved to ABS House in Belconnen. There, I actually got to see some of our members in person and to enjoy the café serving excellent coffee right on the premises!

After three years with SSA, I thought I was ready for full-time employment and applied for a job with the Australian Crime Commission (ACC). However, the work wasn’t as glamorous there as I had hoped. After a demanding job with SSA I found the work with the ACC not as varied or challenging as I was used to. When I heard that my successor at SSA was also not happy with her new job, and SSA was keen to hire me back, I resigned from the Crime Commission and returned to my previous position at SSA. I had lasted four weeks at the ACC.

    You’ve worked from home now, for some time; what has that been like, for you?

When I worked from the SSA office on the ground floor of ABS House, I rarely had visitors to the office, so it was a bit like working from home already, but without the benefits. In 2015 I made the transition to work remotely (from the Sunshine Coast), and it has been fabulous. I love not having to commute every day, not having to worry about finding a car park or about what I’m going to wear. My husband feeds me cups of tea (during some of our Zoom calls you may have seen his arm pass through, as he hands me yet another cup) and when I need to rant (yes, I do that sometimes!) he lends a willing ear and gives me his perspective, which is usually more measured than mine. 

    What are the big changes that have affected your role, over the period of your employment with the SSA?

Where do I start? I recently overhauled the SSA Office Manual, last updated in 2011, and I basically I had to start from scratch. In 2008, when I started to work for SSA, or SSAI as it was called at the time, we mailed out membership renewal notices by post! We had about six hundred members then and the renewal date was the same for everyone: 31 December. Imagine folding six hundred renewal letters and sticking six hundred postage stamps on the envelopes! Most members paid by cheque then. Thankfully, I have not had to bank a cheque in a long time. These days, renewal notices and reminders are emailed automatically, and 95% of our 1,100+ members renew their membership without any input from me directly through our website.

In 2008, the SSA website was static. Updates required knowledge of how to write code, so they were outsourced and had to be paid for. Since then, I have overseen the implementation of two new websites for SSA, allowing me to do the updates myself. In 2008 I would not have dreamed that I’d be capable of doing that one day!

When I started working for SSA, our monthly Executive Committee meetings were held by teleconference. I had to learn very quickly to distinguish the voices to ensure that I was attributing decisions and comments to the correct committee member when writing the minutes. Long before Zoom was a thing we changed to videoconferencing, and it wasn’t cheap at that time. However, apart from being able to see the committee members during meetings, it allowed me to launch our first ever webinar series in 2013.

In 2008 the SSA newsletter was published in hardcopy, four times a year. Over time it changed to hardcopy plus digital copy and from there to digital only. The newsletter then morphed from quarterly to monthly and from there to weekly. It developed from a publication looking back to past events to a bulletin listing upcoming events.  Somewhere along the line we lost our newsletter editors, and the role was absorbed by the Executive Officer.

Another major change was the employment of our Event Coordinator, Jodi Phillips in 2020. Suddenly I had a colleague, available most days of the week, to share the workload with, and to bounce ideas off. We had wonderful office administrators in the past: Liz Jermyn when I first started, later Peng Xu, Sonia Cowdroy and finally Irene Kiely. They provided wonderful support, and I always looked forward to the day of the week when I would have a colleague in the office, but a single day wasn’t often enough. 

    What’s been the most enjoyable aspect of the SSA job?

I  really enjoy the flexibility that working for SSA offers, and being able to work on my own, in my own time, only answering to myself, most days. That’s a luxury you generally only get if you are self-employed.

I love compiling the weekly newsletter, and forever foraging the internet for interesting topics. I enjoy writing and I’m particularly proud of the fact that I’m doing this in English, which is a second language for me.

And then there are the people, of course: I work with some great individuals and have made special connections with many of our members. 

7.    You must have some advice, specific or general, for the SSA, as you approach retirement. Now’s your chance to let us know!

Over the past few years, I have listened to the many discussions on the emerging field of data science and to me, as a non-statistician, it often sounds like statisticians and data scientists are being pitted against each other. I feel that the Society should embrace data science, making data scientists feel welcome in this community. In fact,  I would recommend that SSA change its name to “The Australian Society for Statisticians and Data Scientists (ASSDS)”.  That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Or let’s go one step further: Why not make it the “Australasian Society for Statisticians and Data Scientists”? Why limit yourselves to Australia?

More income is needed to be able to implement all the initiatives outlined in the SSA strategic plan. The revenue is right there: broaden the membership base to include data scientists. Otherwise, another association will. Or the data scientists may start their own association.

Many years ago, Scott Sisson suggested holding “Joint Southern Statistical Meetings”, as our answer to the “Joint Statistical Meetings” in the Northern hemisphere. We sent out requests for expressions of interest to statistical associations in the region and got a terrific response. Plans were underway for such an event to be held in Darwin, when the pandemic put an end to this ambitious attempt. I hope that down the track someone else will pick things up again where we left off.

And finally: SSA’s accreditation program is a valuable asset to the organisation.  I think that SSA should try to market it more within the region, beyond Australia, and target the universities especially. 

    You must have thought about how you hope to spend your time in retirement, even if it is sipping cocktails by the pool. Do you have some general plans that you can share?

Actually, sipping cocktails by the pool sounds great! On top of my list is doing more exercise – getting out for a walk most days and continuing my passion for pilates and line dancing. Then there’s travel. My mum, who lives in Germany, is 93 years old, and I want to be able to spend as much quality time with her as I can  over the next few years. I’m also looking forward to getting busy in the kitchen as I love cooking.

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