What did you study at Yale, and what is your current profession/job?
I am a Data Scientist and Software Engineer for HERE Technologies, the global open location platform. I build the geospatial search engine which combines natural language processing and machine learning to help users find places and addresses. I studied Geology and Geophysics at Yale entering in 2005 and graduating in 2010.
What do you like most about your current role? What do you find most challenging and/ or rewarding?
I have an opportunity to always be learning new technologies and skills. If I see a new toolset or technical subject I would like to learn, I can usually find a way to integrate it into my work. Having the ability to constantly learn allows me to stay at the forefront of technology.
My biggest challenge on a daily basis is to be constantly improving upon the existing algorithms and products. A big part of this is identifying the appropriate metrics to evaluate our performance, and developing strategies to optimize those metrics. When you receive user feedback that shows a big improvement, it is a rewarding experience. When the user feedback doesn’t agree with your existing metrics, that is a good sign that it’s time to rethink your approach.
How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory?
My graduate discipline was the first time I really broadened my background that I established in college. Being in a broad-based department helped me see that the world is inherently interdisciplinary, and success required adaptability. I was surprised how few senior academic scientists conduct research on the same topic that they started their careers researching. It was at Yale that I got a good exposure to a broad background of statistics, advanced programming, and research.
Seeing students struggle with funding if they went past their 5-year guarantee gave me context to the academic job market. Those that were “successful” often ended up relocating to small towns that were not desirable to me. This was a strong motivation to find an alternate career track.
What are the main skills that you acquired as a PhD student which help make you successful in your current career?
Working independently on a PhD set my habits learning new skill sets independently. Professional advance is not so different from grad school in the sense that it is often based on developing your own skills. The biggest skill that opened doors is learning how to ask the right questions. Many people can answer questions once they are framed, but it is a rarer talent to be able to define a problem and ask the questions that need answering.
Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school (either through part-time work, volunteering, networking, or other forms of training)?
In my free time I started a website distributing weather data which quickly took off courtesy of a well targeted product and luckily good timing. That website let to freelance work for a major weather information vendor that is now owned by a large tech company. While that topic has little to do with my work today, it taught me to independently come up with commercially viable ideas and execute on them. That experience taught me how to identify technical skill sets that I was lacking, and build up those areas with project-based learning.
What advice would you offer PhDs who are interested in your line of work?
Embrace skills that seem orthogonal to your current field of study. For example, the future of data science will provide huge career opportunities for people with backgrounds in the humanities and strong technical skills. Natural language processing (NLP) is already growing as the way we interact with technology. For those with a background in linguistics and data science, there are going to be lucrative opportunities to work on cutting edge technology. In today’s market that skillset is rare and highly in demand, and that demand is going to grow for years to come.
For those wondering how to land the job interview in tech with only an academic background, post your code online. Open a GutHub account and make your code open source. Add that link to your CV to demonstrate your technical skills. This will answer a lot of questions and relieve a lot of hesitation that an employer will have.