Geek of the Week: We crunched the numbers, and data scientist Alice Zhao is worth getting to know

Alice Zhao
Alice Zhao.

It doesn’t take a data scientist to figure out that Seattle is the place to be. But a data scientist definitely figured that out.

“I just moved to Seattle in early September,” said Alice Zhao, our latest Geek of the Week. “I spent a summer here interning at Redfin four years ago. Loved it so much that I came back.”

As a data science instructor for Metis in Seattle, Zhao teaches 12-week bootcamps, professional development courses and corporate programs. She joined the company from Cars.com, where she started as their first data scientist, supporting multiple functions from marketing to technology.

“During that time, I also co-founded a data science education startup, Best Fit Analytics Workshop, teaching weekend courses to professionals at 1871 in Chicago,” Zhao said.

With an M.S. in Analytics and B.S. in Electrical Engineering, both from Northwestern University, Zhao worked at Redfin as an analyst and also at Accenture as an IT consultant.

For further geek cred, she blogs about analytics and pop culture on her website, A Dash of Data.

“My blog post, “How Text Messages Change From Dating to Marriage” went viral and made it onto the front page of Reddit, gaining over half a million views in the first week.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Alice Zhao:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “I am a data scientist. I love my job because I get to use data to tell fun and compelling stories. There is more data available now than ever before, and in this field, I get to use my creativity to figure how how to play with and mold a massive amount of data into something that’s never been created before. It makes me feel like an artist, in a geeky way.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “The data science community is one of the most inviting communities that I have ever been a part of. Because it’s a newer field, there’s not one typical path that people take to become a data scientist. Diversity in backgrounds is welcome and encouraged. I’ve seen people from engineering backgrounds all the way to art history backgrounds getting into data science, with bachelor degrees to PhDs, women and men, from all around the world.

“Data scientists know that data on its own is meaningless, and humans are needed to make sense of it. With diversity in backgrounds comes diversity in interpretations, and that results in a better understanding of what’s actually happening. One of the things that I love about my company is that we offer a tuition scholarship of $ 3,000 for women and underrepresented groups to ensure that the field continues to be diverse and inclusive.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “I find my inspiration in everyday things. I love collecting data where others might not think to collect it, and then do analysis on that data. For example, one of my favorite shows is ‘The Bachelor.’ So, I decided to gather data about ‘Bachelor’ contestants to identify the top predictors of ‘Bachelor’ winners. I’m also a new mom, and for the first six months of my son’s life, I kept track of all the times that he was asleep vs. awake, so I could create a data visualization to show how little sleep I was getting during that time!”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “My headphones. I love blasting music on my commute to work and luckily I have headphones so everyone around me doesn’t have to listen to me play dance pop songs on repeat.”

Metis
A panoramic view of the Metis space in Seattle. (Alice Zhao Photo)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “I teach data science bootcamps, so I am in a classroom every day. The Metis space has an open, start-up vibe with a variety of places to work — from desks to stand-up workstations to couches. I am never in the same seat for more than an hour or two, and am constantly moving around to help students. I also love whiteboarding, so you’ll typically see me rolling over a whiteboard to explain concepts to students.”

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “One of the tips that we give students at Metis on day one and throughout the bootcamp is to let go of perfectionism, and I believe that is key in achieving work/life balance. As I’ve gotten older, my responsibilities have increased, and for a while I tried to do everything in my life with the same perfectionism that I strived for when I was younger — triple checking emails before I send them, cooking up Pinterest-perfect meals, making sure my data is 100 percent clean before I start modeling, etc. That was unsustainable.

“Now I strive for MVPs — minimum viable products. Did I get my point across in my email in a professional way? Send. Did I make a meal that feeds my family and tastes pretty good? Here you go, family. Is my data clean enough so that I can start building a simple model to show at my team meeting this afternoon? Great, moving on. It’s a hard mindset to change, but once changed, a lot more free time pops up to just relax and enjoy life.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Mac. I just switched from Windows to Mac this year, and I’m in love! The Unix-based OS makes life a lot easier for a data scientist.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Picard. I always admire a great leader.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Transporter. My family and friends are spread all across the world and it’d be amazing to visit people without having to fly for hours.”

If someone gave me $ 1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Create a better way for people to meet people with similar interests. When I was on maternity leave, I’d go to coffee shops and I’d see other moms with their newborns sitting by themselves, just like me, and I wish it was socially acceptable to introduce yourself and start a conversation. It’d be great if there was either a space, an app or a change in mindset created to allow for these types of interactions.”

I once waited in line for … “A hotdog. Hot Doug’s in Chicago was closing for good, and we waited 5 hours in line to get an assortment of hot dogs the weekend before it closed.”

Your role models: “My role models are working moms. I didn’t realize how much my own mom put into both raising me and having a full-time job until I became one myself. I am constantly amazed by people like Sheryl Sandberg, Hillary Clinton and my manager Debbie Berebichez, who are able to balance rocking their day jobs and pouring their heart and soul into raising their kids as well.”

Greatest game in history: “I have to go with Set. Such a simple, small and smart game!”

Best gadget ever: “This mini projector that puts my son to sleep every night by projecting friendly moons (yes, multiple) and stars onto the ceiling.”

First computer: “I got my first Dell Dimension in high school.”

Current phone: “iPhone 6s.”

Favorite app: “Bitmoji. I send way too many bitmojis in my text messages. They’re just too cute!”

Favorite cause: “Supporting women in STEM through scholarships, societies and mentorship programs.”

Most important technology of 2016: “Smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home.”

Most important technology of 2018: “AI bots. OpenAI was able to create a bot that learned to play Dota 2 and beat the world’s top professionals a few months ago.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “If you’re interested in learning something new, go for it! These days, there are so many ways to learn, from online courses and YouTube videos to more formal trainings and degrees. Find out how you best learn things, whether it’s setting aside 3 hours every weekend, listening to a podcast in the mornings, or joining a study group — and then do it. There’s a quote on one of the boards at work that I love — ‘You’ll never regret a year from now that you started learning today.’ Happy learning!”

Website: A Dash of Data

Twitter: @adashofdata

LinkedIn: Alice Zhao

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