I'm An Inference Data Scientist At Airbnb. This is how I got my job. – Jess ZhangFeatured
Hello Elpha!I’m currently a Data Scientist at Airbnb on the Inference track, focusing on data based product recommendation and decision making with experimentation. This is the story of how I got my job.Me Before Graduating UniversityI moved to Toronto, Canada when I was 12 years old. My parents were new immigrants and we didn’t have much money. I got financial aid from the government for “students from low-middle income families” and had a few odd-jobs during the summers. Two of my favorites were selling newspapers for the Toronto Star, one of Toronto’s major newspapers, and calling UWaterloo alumni for donation. My summer jobs taught me how to handle rejections and pick myself back up.I graduated with an undergraduate degree in Mathematics, majoring in Statistics and Actuarial Science from the University of Waterloo. I was doing great in math competitions, and if I knew about Computer Science when I was picking my major at 17, I probably would’ve gone into that. Regardless, I still ended up on a great path!I absolutely love my university, especially because our “co-op” program where I got to work at different companies for 6 semesters. During this time I learned how to write a resume, how to handle an interview, and how to work at a company. I worked for insurance and finance companies in Canada and the US, on my path to become an Actuary. But at the end of it all, I didn’t find insurance that interesting.First Job is The HardestThe first job to break into a new industry is always the hardest. Although I had a technical degree that taught me the skills I needed, I still lacked some knowledge around how to use the tools. Knowing that, I quickly went through all the Coursera courses I can find on Data Science and learned them all. This ensured that I had the toolbox I needed, as well as a couple of illustrative projects in my portfolio.A second, but equally important, part of landing that first job is finding someone who believes in you. Most of us are not the “ideal” candidate (if you are, great) our employer wants. We probably have 70% of what it takes, and missing a degree, a work experience, familiarity with a tool or something else. For me, what was missing was a graduate degree. I networked aggressively in Toronto by attending different data science meetups. Eventually, I met a VC working at Georgian Partners, a fund which specializes in Data Science recruiting. He was well aware of the technical knowledge of Actuaries and how well it matched the requirements of Data Science. He introduced me to a startup his firm was invested in, and that’s how I got my first job.I worked at this company for a year, building multi-armed bandit models for optimizing click through rate of online ads. Afterward I moved to another company, where I had to wear many hats. As one of the three data scientists on the team, I talked to PMs, defined success metrics, designed experiments, analyzed results, fixed pipelines, discovered data issues, and caught fraud. I’ll always be thankful to this company for all the learning opportunities and the unlimited Starbucks. Applying to AirbnbThe slightly embarrassing truth is that, I applied to Airbnb and a few other companies because my friend was getting married in Napa, and I wanted a free flight. I knew I wanted to move to Silicon Valley, but I thought I was not ready, and I was not experienced enough. Yet, I set up a few interviews through my connections, and applied cold to Airbnb. When Airbnb got back to me, I went through the following process. First, a recruiter phone screen. Next, a take home challenge scored anonymously by the interview committee. When I found out that I passed the challenge, I had a strange sense of confidence. The scoring was anonymous, and Airbnb is a reputable company, so hey, I must be good!The onsite interview came next. It took some time to schedule, since I needed to fly in. I did get my free flight (lol), but a month after my friend’s wedding. My onsite interview included a presentation on a different take home challenge, and a series of one-on-one interviews with my manager and cross functional partners. Two days later my recruiter called me with an offer. Some time later, a colleague on my interview panel told me that my interview was the strongest they’d seen.. My biggest takeaway? If you wait until you are fully confident, you probably waited too long.NegotiationNegotiation is always a dance. But since I had a couple other offers in hand, I had the upper hand.The hardest question was how much to ask for. The recruiter insisted I give a first number, so I looked up pay ranges on Paysa (it’s an excellent resource!). If you have personal connections who work in the industry, that also helps a tremendous amount. The most important thing I learned during the negotiation process was to not be afraid of asking for the top of the range. Forget about all the excuses you have in your head. After some back and forth, I got pretty much what I asked for. Had I started in the middle of the range, I’d be stuck there. One article I highly recommend on this topic is “Ten Rules for Negotiating a Job Offer.” DecisionThe final decision was an easy one. Airbnb has a strong brand and their technical blog posts are great to read. On top of all this, three things really stood out to me. The first one is a post by Elena Grewal on Diversity at Airbnb. It assured me that a lot of thought has been put into creating a fair and objective hiring process, and I felt the company will set me up for success regardless of my gender. The second was the people I met during my onsite interview. I had a great feeling speaking to everyone and had no doubt we’d work well together. The third was the absolutely amazing recruiting team. They made sure everything went smoothly for me, and communicated decisions and next steps in a timely manner. And that’s how I got my job! Hope you enjoyed the read. Let me know if you have any questions!Jess is a Data Scientist at Airbnb who recently moved to San Francisco. She loves good food, new adventures, and talking about how amazing Toronto is.
Such an inspiring and candid story! Thanks for sharing, Jess. :)
This is a very inspiring story, Jess.I would like to create a video story from this with your permission?
Hey Jess, here's the video we created - https://vimeo.com/342950658 password is jess Would love to hear what you think :)
Thanks Jess, I really enjoyed reading your background and can relate to 1) wishing you knew about comp sci, 2) going through a co-op program, and 3) going to California for a wedding and hoping to interface with a few companies while there :) I'm interested in hearing more about your experience with coursera. I'm currently in a similar situation, I'm educated but not in data science. I've been taking the online courses through coursera but am wondering if you have any tips on the following:1) Best courses you've taken related to data science?2) How did you integrate that education into your resume? (did you list specific data science skills under a skills section, list exact classes you took online, etc) <- I'm struggling how to start highlighting my new, non-formal education3) When did you feel like you really "knew" data science enough to begin highlighting it as a skill?I have a background in biomedical engineering and am currently completing my PhD in biomedical engineering but would like to pivot some of my research as my interests are changing as well as get more involved with research I think can 10x biotech. Thanks again for sharing your story! - Andrea
Hey Andrea! Hm..I'm considering writing a seperate post on this. This is actually the most frequently asked question I get.With your background, it would be really beneficial to consider bootcamps. The 2 reputable ones I know about are Insight and The Data Incubator.
Thanks for sharing this Jess! Also pls come work for me @ Optimizely (I’m SVP product there.) We love what you’re doing at Airbnb and would love to have you on the team building solutions like this for thousands of companies who want to experiment as well as y’all do 🙂 I’m mega 🤰🏻but would love to hang out anytime! Again, awesome post!
Thank you so much for sharing your story, Jess! This is really inspiring and cool to read. I myself am interested in going into Data Science and am currently working towards that goal by sharpening and obtaining the skills needed. If you don't mind me asking, what were the take-home challenges like in your interviews with Airbnb? Also, how well did your experience at the first companies you worked for prepare you for your current job?
Thank you, Jess, for sharing your experience and welcome to Bay Area! That is really amazing, you really worked hard to achieve your goal I'm switching my career from economics/finance to data science and currently finishing my Master's degree in Data Science at USF and looking for jobs. If you have some time, I'd love to catch up with you in San Francisco or in Silicon Valley and learn more about your work as a data scientist. I'd also be glad to introduce you to the Bay Area :)
Hi Jess!Thanks so much for taking the time to share your impressive background and experience with us. "A second, but equally important, part of landing that first job is finding someone who believes in you". This really resonated with me. Having an individual or team of people that believe in you and are in your corner is crucial to helping your growth as a professional. I'm curious to know if you have any advice for fellow Elphas who are finding themselves in similar situations looking for someone to be their "champion"? How do you advise putting yourself out there when this can be new territory or uncomfortable for some?Thanks for your time!
Hey Whitney!The first part is always be very prepared for the job you want. A lot of prep goes into that. Finding someone who believes in you - honestly, for me, it was a numbers game. I didn't have any technique when I started out, probably like everyone who's a new grad. Go to all the meet ups, talk to all the people, put yourself out there. I had at least 10 dead ends that I thought were solid before I found the one that worked out. I actually think back to the newsletter selling days :) When I first met this VC, I acutally thought secretly it's dead end. When he asked for my resume the first time I didn't send it to him, it was only when he asked the second time I realized there's a good chance. So yea, I don't have too much technique to offer! Get out there and get the numbers. If it's not working out after a while try to get feedback on why. Try to find one person who can honestly tell you why they wouldn't consider interviewing you (it's probably because you are not showing enough signal in some way), then think about how to fix it. Good luck!