Interview with Lisa Qian, Data Scientist at Airbnb

Interview with Lisa Qian, Data Scientist

In this month’s post we catch up with Lisa Qian, a Data Scientist at Airbnb, to find out what it’s like to work as a data scientist. Read on to learn about the impact data science has on Airbnb’s success, the programming languages they use on the job, and what researchers need to know in order to succeed in a corporate role.


A: Things happen very quickly and data scientists have a big impact (see answer to next question). At Airbnb, there are so many interesting problems to work on and so much interesting data to play with. The culture of the company also encourages us to work on lots of different things. I have been at Airbnb for less than two years and I have already worked on three completely different product teams. There’s really never a dull moment. This can also be a “con” of the job. Because there are so many interesting things to work on, I often wish that I had more time to go more in depth on a project. I’m often juggling multiple projects at once, and when I’m 90% done with one of them, I’ll just move on to something else. Coming from academia where one spends years and years on one project without leaving a single rock unturned (I did a PhD in physics), this has been a delightful, but sometimes frustrating, cultural transition.


A: A ton! As a data scientist, I’m involved in every step of a product’s life cycle. For example, right now I am part of the Search team. I am heavily involved in research and strategizing where I use data to identify areas that we should invest in and come up with concrete product ideas to solve these problems. From there, if the solution is to come up with a data product, I might work with engineers to develop the product. I then design experiments to quantify the effect and impact of the product, and then run and analyze the experiment. Finally, I will take what I learned and provide insights and suggestions for the next product iteration. Every product team at Airbnb has engineers, designers, product managers, and one or more data scientists. You can imagine the impact data scientists have on the company!


A: At Airbnb, we all use Hive (which is similar to SQL) to query data and build derived tables. I use R to do analysis and build models. I use Hive and R every day of the job. A lot of data scientists use Python instead of R – it’s just a matter of what we were familiar with when we came in. There have also been recent efforts to use Spark to build large-scale machine learning models. I haven’t gotten a chance to try it out yet, but plan on doing so in the near future. It seems very powerful.


A: Successful data scientists have a strong technical background, but the best data scientists also have great intuition about data. Rather than throwing every feature possible into a black box machine learning model and seeing what comes out, one should first think about if the data makes sense. Are the features meaningful, and do they reflect what you think they should mean? Given the way your data is distributed, which model should you be using? What does it mean if a value is missing, and what should you do with it? The answers to these questions differ depending on the problem you are solving, the way the data was logged, etc., and the best data scientists look for and adapt to these different scenarios.The best data scientists are also great at communicating, both to other data scientists and non-technical people. In order to be effective at Airbnb, our analyses have to be both technically rigorous and presented in a clear and actionable way to other members of the company.


A: Beyond taking programming and statistics courses, I would recommend doing everything possible to get your hands dirty and work with real data. If you don’t have the time to do an internship, sign up to participate in hackathons or offer to help out a local startup by tackling a data problem they have. Courses and books are great for developing fundamental technical skills, but many data science skills can’t be properly developed in a classroom where data sets are well groomed.

This interview was first published on the website Master’s in Data Science; thanks to Josh Thompson for permission to reproduce it here.

Understanding the perspective of the hiring manager

I’m pleased to feature a guest post by the awesome James Mulvey from Sell Out Your Soul.

When we’re preparing our application materials for a job, we naturally focus upon ourselves: what skills we can offer and how we’re a good match for the role. But it also helps to look at the vacancy through the eyes of the hiring manager; and James shares some of his insights below, drawn from his new training course about LinkedIn.

The day of the interview: I haven’t thought much about you

You might be nervous for your interview. And maybe you’ve spent the night before preparing and thinking about how it will all go.

The reality for most hiring managers is this: your interview is a small slice in our days. I likely have another meeting right after and one before. I’ve looked at your LinkedIn profile the day before and have a set list of questions that I’ve created with HR. But I’m always short on time.

What you can do:

First, understand that my lack of time is not a lack of interest. I’ll be in big trouble if I make the wrong hire, so my due diligence will start to increase after this first interview.

You can help yourself in this interview by understanding that I might not remember everything about your profile, your accomplishments, your experience.

When I ask you, “tell me about yourself,” I’m actually interested. I want to know your experience, what you’ve done, your skills.

When I ask you, “do you have any questions for me?” I’m interested in your perspective. I want to know your intent, ambition, and whether you have the raw material that can be adapted to the job.

This is a critical interview to give me more information. Come prepared with tangible examples. Help me understand your background. Ask questions that show:

  1. You understand the job description
  2. You’re thinking about the skills required to be successful in the role
  3. You have passion for the industry and dedication to increase your expertise in this field.

If you take a passive role in this interview, it’s much easier to pass on you. And because I haven’t spent a ton of time prepping, I could be missing exactly what makes you qualified and special for this role.

Understanding the perspective of the hiring manager — including the mistakes to avoid— as well as to make sure your LinkedIn profile is relevant and highly visible to employers, is the theme of my new video training on LinkedIn.

You can learn more about this training here. Use the promo code TOAST at the checkout for 50% discount for Jobs on Toast readers (affiliate link).

When it’s time to renew your relationship with your work

When it's time to renew your relationship with your work

Companies helpfully write to us when it’s time to renew our relationship with them – asking us to commit to another 12 months of gym membership or resubscribe to their anti-virus software. But how do we know when it’s time for us to renew our relationship with our own work? In my experience this feeling doesn’t show up like an email or a letter in the post – it’s more complicated and nuanced than that.

Sometimes you just get get a low-level feeling that things aren’t quite right. Looking back, I felt this way (although I didn’t quite appreciate it at the time) while I was doing my post-doctoral fellowship. I felt that I was logically on the right career track, given everything that I’d done previously (my Master’s and PhD). And yet something didn’t sit well with me about the academic job search.

At the time I interpreted my unsettled feelings as the insecurity that comes from not having a permanent position. Reasonably enough, I was looking for clarity about the next step for me and my family. On the other hand, looking back now, I can interpret my feelings as a desire for a deeper change – in fact, a whole career change.

How do you know when it’s time to refresh your employment situation, to find work that’s more fulfilling and better aligned with your personal sense of purpose? And which more fully rewards you for your skills and experience?

Have a look at this list of symptoms and see if one or more sound familiar to you:

1. You experience a day-to-day heaviness or tiredness. You feel restless without an obvious direct cause. Nothing is actually wrong, and yet somehow nothing feels quite right. This can be very frustrating to those close to you, like your partner! In my experience these can all be physical and mental symptoms that it’s time for you to make a change. Not just a logical change perhaps, but something more fundamental – which for researchers, can mean leaving academia for another career path.

2. You get distracted by ‘non-core’ activities. During my post-doc I was busy reading business magazines, listening to radio shows about business and technology, and embracing new ways of doing things, like moving my banking online. My attention was telling me the way to look, the direction to follow, not just in my spare time but in my life more generally. This formed the kernel of my Plan B, which eventually became my Plan A, when I came to the end of my academic job search in the final year of my post-doc.

3. Activities that once energised you, now drain and exhaust you. Tasks that you once found effortless, like reading and research, start to become really hard work. You used to be able to read and reflect for hours – and now you’re feeling sleepy after the first page! These are all signs that you need a revival, a break from the routine you’ve established. You need to get a sense of novelty and wonder back into your life – which may come from a change career.

4. Any process that you need to follow seems a total drag, and you can’t help being conscious of every single step along the way. On the other hand you really notice it when you ‘get into the flow’ on something. You realise how much you’ve missed that sense of losing yourself in the moment, and how good it feels to be in the zone again.

So take some time out to listen for these symptoms in your own life. Are these feelings telling you to make minor adjustments to your working life, to improve your self-care for instance, or take some quality me-time? Or are you actually craving full-scale career renewal and rejuvenation? Don’t be shy of embracing it if you do. I did, and I’ve never looked back.

Take action now: Send yourself an email, requesting that you renew your current employment position! Type ‘Annual renewal notice -‘ in the subject line and after the dash, put your present job e.g Doctoral Researcher, Post-Doctoral Researcher, or Professor. If you’re on a temporary teaching contract, you’ll already be familiar with this situation, as your teaching gigs will expire and you’ll be seeking the next one.

As you would with any other renewal invitation, take some time to reflect on your relationship with your current work situation, and where it’s going. And consider carefully what the alternatives are.