Alex Eremia spoke with us about transitioning from student to tech worker.
Selected topics: Finding a tech job right after college, data analysis tools, working at Google
About Alex: Having tried her hand in political science and economics, Alex is now a data analyst. She graduated from University of Toronto and UCLA and continues to take online courses through Coursera and EdX. She enjoys studying how people and companies make decisions, how data can help make more informed decisions, and when decisions would be better left to chance. In her spare time Alex enjoys watching movies and pointing out the extremely low probability events occurring within them. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
Books she recommends:
Originals: How non-conformists rule the world by Adam Grant
The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha.
Erin: Welcome to our very first episode of the WITtalks podcast, a podcast for women in tech! I’m here today with my co-host, Tammy Sanders.
Erin: And my friend Alex Eremia, who is a data analyst for Google Express.
Alex: Correct. Thank you for having me.
Erin: Thanks so much for being our first interviewee! I’m really excited. This should be a lot of fun. For the listeners, the format is Alex and Tammy and I are just going to talk about Alex’s path into the tech world and what she’s doing now, what her dreams are, and a few irreverent questions at the end. I hope you find it really useful for your own career goings-on.
Tammy: Should we set the scene a little bit; say where we are?
Erin: Yeah, go for it.
Tammy: We are on the, as always, amazing Google campus with Alex, where she works. We are surrounded by Google awesomeness, goofy posters and really interesting talks that are going to go on. Do you actually participate a little bit in that? Or do you have time to actually participate in Google culture?
Alex: Every so often, yeah. I like to make time, especially for the bi-weekly meetings that we have as a company, the “TGIF”. There’s also really interesting talks every week. We have, either they bring in some movies that are going to be released and you get a snippet of the actors that are going to be in the movies, or sometimes professors come in and talk about a new book that they’re going to release, so you get to interact with global and US culture.
Erin: Alright. Let’s dive in here. I would like to just start with asking you to share a bit about your life up until now, whatever you choose to share with us, so people have a sense of where you’ve been, which may help them understand where you are and where you want to go.
Alex: Of course, that sounds great. My life started a while back. [Laughter.] I was born in Romania; I lived there until I was about 10. My parents emigrated to Canada, I went to college there, and then I’ve been in California since, most recently working at Google and BloomReach in Silicon Valley. I think in terms of career and academics, my path hasn’t always been straightforward; I’ve definitely gone through a few changes that I didn’t anticipate.
I think in terms of career and academics, my path hasn’t always been straightforward; I’ve definitely gone through a few changes that I didn’t anticipate.
Erin: Cool, okay. You’ve talked about going to college in Canada. Where did you go and what did you major in and what was it like being an undergrad?
Alex: I went to University of Toronto. I had the intention of becoming a lawyer…
Erin: I didn’t know that about you!
Alex: I started out with political science, history, a lot of humanities, French… and I think, after the first couple of semesters, I really got into economics and math and I didn’t get that from my political science courses, so I sort of… Halfway through, I changed. I did a double major in both political science and economics and I really loved that and I thought, “Instead of a lawyer, let me go ahead and become an economics professor,” without really knowing what exactly that would entail. I took that path all the way up to graduate school and, at that point, I think the data science community was growing, people were talking about how that would be the job of the century, so that really took me down the tech path.
Erin: You thought it might be just as secure as being a lawyer?
Alex: Maybe. At the time, the lawyer path didn’t seem as promising; it had changed. I think mostly I was influenced by my mom’s love of Allie McBeal. I don’t know if you guys remember that show; I grew up with that.
Erin: That’s funny. You mentioned grad school. Where did you go to grad school and did you major in economics for that, too?
Alex: Yes. I went to UCLA, majored in economics, particularly focusing on econometrics, which is like statistics but more theoretical. I guess that prepared me for becoming a data analyst, though not necessarily in the same programming way. It was mostly theoretical.
Erin: When you made the switch from undergrad to graduate school, how was it that you came to UCLA? Did you apply to other schools or was there a particular reason why you are drawn to their program?
Alex: I definitely applied to a lot of schools; I think I applied to at least a dozen. I always had this feeling of wanting to go to California for better or worse. It was probably just mostly culture. At the same time, I was reading a lot about Facebook which was big back then, really being inspired by the entrepreneurs then, and then along came Uber by the time I had almost finished college, so it was definitely impact I wanted to be close to, where all of the awesome stuff was happening. I guess California is really the liberal capital of America and I wanted to be close to that, being Canadian and whatnot.
Tammy: I’m really interested in thinking about your family having emigrated from Romania to Canada and a little bit about your parent’s background. When you are 10 years old in Romania and then you’re a teenager in Canada, and now you are an adult professional here in California… did you have this path that you thought about for your life? What was that path like as a child of immigrants? And having your life change over time as a child of immigrants?
Alex: I think that’s a great question. Definitely, my life was shaped by the decisions that my parents made. Both of my parents are engineers and especially my mom, she struggled a lot as a woman engineer in Romania and in Canada and now, in the United States. I was impacted by the things that she saw in her career, I was definitely pushed by my dad’s perseverance to strive for a better life for his family. That’s the reason why he chose to emigrate to Canada; he’s the one that applied for Canadian citizenship, he’s the one that later applied for American citizenship for us, and most recently, we all became American citizens. They definitely achieved a lot in their lifetime and I feel like, if they can move from Romania to Canada to America, then I need to do a lot to live up to that.
Tammy: Very interesting. It also sounds, too, like you had this core of support for going into math and economics and tech. It sounds like you had a really good support system for that.
Alex: Definitely. I would say that they hoped that I would go into math and the sciences. I don’t think they saw economics as something that I would pursue, though, after I had chosen that as a second major, my father told me that my grandfather was an economist. I hadn’t known that and it just sort of happened to come out afterwards. But they were definitely very supportive when I chose math, yeah.
Erin: Let’s talk a little bit about your transition from being a student to being a working professional. When you were in grad school studying economics, what did you think you would be doing after that? You mentioned becoming a professor, that didn’t happen, so maybe you could tell us how you made the leap from student to your first “real job”?
Alex: When I was applying for jobs, I didn’t really know what I was getting into and how to make that transition.I had no real clue what part of my skill set could be monetized or useful to employers, or what type of positions I should apply to, or where I could be of help to an employer. I tried to match what I learned in school and pretty much applied for jobs that had economic consulting in them, because that matched the environment that I had been in. After interviewing with a couple of economic consulting companies, it didn’t go very well. I think, at one point in time, I even interviewed for Wall Street trading jobs to see if that would be a thing I could do. I think I just happened to stumble upon the BloomReach job and an analyst position being something I could do. I think, at the time, I was a little bit intimidated by data science positions because I didn’t feel I had the advanced programming or machine learning that was required for those positions having only a theoretical economic background and some applied economics as well.
I had no real clue what part of my skill set could be monetized or useful to employers, or what type of positions I should apply to, or where I could be of help to an employer.
Tammy: Do you still have that sense of being a little bit intimidated by those jobs or do you feel like there’s an evolution in your thinking around that?
Alex: I definitely feel like I am more prepared for those jobs now. I think, at the time, the biggest hurdle for me was the programming. At the time, I had only taken one Python programming course, which, at most, I would consider was a basic class. If I had to explain any sort of advanced algorithm or way to do machine learning, I would have stumbled in an interview. I think, now, I would be able to get through it.
Tammy: What in particular has changed about your skill set that makes you feel a bit more confident now?
Alex: Being able to really practice the things you’ve learned in a class makes a world of difference. With my first job at BloomReach, it really made my skin. It’s one thing to learn things in a class; it’s another to be able to apply them to questions that are being asked of you by a peer.
Tammy: We should probably say what BloomReach is.
Alex: Yes, of course. Great point. BloomReach, the first company I worked for, they have, I think, three or four products. The one I worked on at the time was called Snap, which provides an e-commerce search platform to retailers. For example, if you go to target.com or macys.com, they have a search bar. That search algorithm could either be built by engineers that they hire or they could be outsourced to somebody like a company like BloomReach. At the time I worked on improving the search algorithm by finding areas where customers were not pleased with the results, so figuring out, in our funnel, why are people leaving? Why are they dissatisfied? How can we improve things? That’s what I primarily worked on.
At the time I worked on improving the search algorithm by finding areas where customers were not pleased with the results, so figuring out, in our funnel, why are people leaving? Why are they dissatisfied? How can we improve things? That’s what I primarily worked on.
During that time, I worked a lot with many, many different engineers and being able to see them work and pretty much just learning the ropes from them—what it is that they do, how do you go about taking a log file and analyzing them on your command line rather than exporting it through an Excel and doing it the traditional, I guess, student way of looking at the data—is really what I learned through the process, what made me feel more comfortable at having something to show for my work rather than just, “Here’s my diploma. It looks nice.”
Tammy: “Here’s how I can think.”
Erin: The first part of the question is did you struggle at all, personally, with feelings of intimidation or inadequacy when you were suddenly thrown into these groups of engineers, who were probably doing pretty complicated stuff, and here you are, fresh out of school? My first question is just, did you feel that way?
Alex: Initially, yes. I think part of that came from just seeing everybody around me knowing so much more than I did. I think, over time, I was able to, I guess, for lack of a better word, better rank folks amongst themselves and being able to say, “This engineer is actually a superstar. This one… I thought was a superstar because I didn’t quite know that area myself, but now, perhaps less so.” I definitely learned over time. I don’t think that came about in every aspect. I had something to bring to the table in that I knew how to analyze data, I knew a lot of statistical methods, and I was able to help to that end and I didn’t feel so intimidated from that side. I think that helped a lot with my self-esteem at least initially.
Erin: That was the second prong of my question, which was what did you do, immediately or over time, to overcome those feelings? It sounds like, really, what you’re saying is you were able to identify your value and really stand by that even if it was a different value than what was being provided by, let’s just say, the more technical people on your team.
Alex: Yeah, definitely. I knew I wasn’t hired to be an engineer; I knew I was hired to be an analyst and what I needed to provide was, how do I provide the most help? In the end, I went down the statistical analysis side, which is what I was hired to do and what led me here.
Erin: Awesome. Do you mind talking a little bit about that kinds of technologies that you used in your role as a data analyst?
Alex: Yes. At BloomReach, I analyzed the logs, I wrote a lot of Python scripts. For shorter analyses, I would use something like Awk or Sed to do a quick command line analysis like counting the number of times a certain event happens.
Erin: Just for the listeners who may be new to the tech industry, can you explain briefly what is a log and what are those last two things you said?
Alex: Sure. A log file is a file where all interactions that a person has with a particular page or a site that you’re looking to analyze are entered into that file. Say, for example, you go to facebook.com. Every button that you press is entered as, say, your user ID, the time you clicked on the button, and the particular button that you clicked on.
Alex: Definitely. Most of the time, it’s not analyzed by a real human, so there’s that.
Erin: That’s comforting.
Alex: There are certain tools—like one of the ones that I mentioned was Awk—where it’s a very simple and, I guess, a very stupid rule in the sense that it can do string matches. You can… say the third column is a count of something, like the number of times you clicked “like” and you really want to see how many times Erin clicked “like” on cats or something. And you sum that up across the columns. I guess it’s a tech-friendly way of doing Excel in one line, if you have to think of it in any particular way. It prevents you from having to export the file to a different software.
Tammy: That sounds like it lets you work faster, get more done.
Erin: Thank you for that segue. I realize it may have cut you off. Were there any other technologies? I imagine you probably use SQL.
Alex: Yes, I use SQL. After you analyze the logs, or you clean them up if you want to do a repeated analysis on the same data, then you probably import some sort of table and then you do different aggregations and write SQL. Other technologies that I used for visualizations were Tableau, basic Excel, though the most of the time it was Google Sheets, presentation files, PowerPoint etc.
Tammy: I have a question about learning the technologies because, if I remember correctly, you said that, when you came out of college, you really only had basic Python. What was the speed at which you had to learn? Did it feel too fast? Did it feel too slow? How did you actually learn while… Because you also have to deliver while you’re working, so how did you manage to balance learning and working and how did the speed of that feel for you?.
Alex: It was definitely fast-paced and there was a large growing curve in the beginning. Stack Overflow became my best friend. When I was starting out, I didn’t know which tools to use so I would play around with one. I would ask around. Someone would see me working on this thing and I would ask, “Is this what you would do?” and they would say, “Maybe I would do it this way. It would be faster,” and then next time I would do it, it was like, “So-and-so said this one might be faster, let me try that out and see how it works.” I’m really a big advocate for asking people how they would do things just because you can learn from everybody. Even something that you already know, they might show you a really cool feature that you don’t know about. I always rely on my peers for learning new things and I find they provide great input.
Stack Overflow became my best friend… I’m really a big advocate for asking people how they would do things just because you can learn from everybody
Tammy: How has that been… I imagine BloomReach is a little bit smaller than Google. How has that been, in terms of peer learning, at Google, where there’s just a lot more people, a lot more going on? How have you managed with peer learning here?
Alex: The peer learning at BloomReach was… I guess it can go both ways because the team that I was working with was primarily in India, so there was a time difference I had to address. Here, most people are local and, while it is a bigger company, all 40,000 of us don’t get in one room and yell at each other. We have our smaller, individual teams and the team that I’m working on with Google Express is about the same size as BloomReach. Granted, there are additional sales and BD [business development] teams that are way bigger, but I feel like the community feel, at least with the engineers, and the relationships you can form are still there because it’s a relatively small team. I imagine much larger teams, say like at YouTube, are core search. At Google, it might be different, but I feel like I joined a team that’s small enough that it hasn’t quite lost that startup-y feel.
Erin: Now that we’ve shifted to talking about Google, let’s backtrack just for a moment and tell us how did you then step from BloomReach to Google? What was the impetus for that and how did you make it work?
Alex: That’s also a great question. It was definitely a big change. Despite the fact that Express is a small team, Google is a giant company.
Erin: Just to be clear, you work on the Express team within Google?
Alex: Yes. I work on Google Express, which is Google’s counterpart to Amazon Prime, for folks that don’t know. I guess the reason why I made the change was I was ready to focus on one part of data analysis specifically. At BloomReach, to provide some context, as an analyst, you really take things from very early stages, the logging, all the way up to presenting to customers, which is a long path. You do data cleanup, you do analysis, you do visualizations, then you present your findings. In a bigger company, you have more people working on different parts of that spectrum so you need to specialize on one particular field and I felt I was ready to specialize on the last part, which is analysis and presentation, and really show how I can be helpful in making people understand what the data means and what to do with the data.
As an analyst, you really take things from very early stages, the logging, all the way up to presenting to customers, which is a long path. You do data cleanup, you do analysis, you do visualizations, then you present your findings.
Tammy: Does that also include the visualization part as well?
Alex: Yes. That was my decision for making the change. At the same time, I knew I didn’t want to join a very, very large team at Google, which is why I chose the team that I’m currently on. I think there’s definitely differences and I can understand that some folks might feel… They might have hard feelings about making the switch, but I think there’s definitely opportunity to have impact in both worlds.
Tammy: I’m always really curious about how people find their opportunities. Being a data analyst or a data scientist or an engineer, sometimes the opportunities come and find you, but I’m always curious how people find opportunities and, even if an opportunity has found you, how do you figure out that’s the right opportunity for you? How do you do that?
Alex: I definitely agree that, with engineering and analysis, there’s more opportunity for opportunities to find you. I am a strong proponent of making your own opportunities, though, and I think having that feeling of staying constantly hungry and thinking of things that other folks might not have time to think of or answering questions that might not be top-of-mind for other employees is something that is important to me.
At Google, I’ve been here three, four quarters now. Every quarter, I make a goal for myself to come up with something that is a project just for myself that I can showcase something new to the team. To provide an example, something that I did last quarter was I created an analytics blog where, every Friday, I provide a very short little tidbit with an insight about some awesome statistic or analysis that’s happening with our users at Google Express. People have reacted in a positive manner to it primarily because we are all hungry to create this data-rich culture and to really keep people talking about data and not just once a week or twice a week. I think there’s definitely opportunity to create these moments for yourself. I think if you only take the ones that are given to you, you might be selling yourself a little short in that you don’t always get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate. You definitely need to fight for yourself and make opportunities.
Erin: Were you approached by a recruiter at Google for this role or did you have to go on their site and find it and apply for it?
Alex: I applied for the position; it wasn’t specific for this team. I think, when you go through the application process, they ask you about which of the Google products most excites you and I had been a Google Express user for a long time and the thing I told them is that sometimes I go on the website and try to break their search and be like, “How can I enter search terms that screw up the search results?” Apparently, that was a good thing to say.
I told [the recruiter] that sometimes I go on the [Google Express] website and try to break their search and be like, “How can I enter search terms that screw up the search results?” Apparently, that was a good thing to say.
Erin: How data analysts have fun on a Friday night.
Alex: Exactly. To be fair, I did that with other websites as well because of the work I did at BloomReach, so it was ingrained in me to figure out how to make the search results look bad.
Erin: Out of curiosity, what does it actually look like from the user’s perspective when they break a search?
Alex: Usually, it just has no results or very bad ones. Imagine if you search for… Which queries are really bad? Something seasonal, like Mother’s Day. Generally, if you try searching for that at macys.com or target.com, you might just get products that have “mothers” or “day” in them, which is sometimes fun to see.
Erin: Got it, okay. Can you give us any sense of what your workday is like or your work week or your work month? What are you typically doing now that you’re only focused on that last bit of the analytic spectrum?
Alex: I’ll start with the work week. My typical work week involves prioritizing a list of projects from different PMs, product managers, to work on, and that usually means thinking about which questions to answer. Usually, when an analysis comes up, a product manager comes with a question for you, they try to narrow it down to what they think the data you have access to can answer. They have a much broader question, but they’re like, “Can you get me this tiny morsel of data so that I can infer this bigger question?” I guess my role in thatis trying to get them to step away from the very tiny data that they want, to make sure that the question they’re answering is the correct question. That usually involves doing a lot more analysis than just, “Can you pull the data across these days and metrics?” I think that’s the biggest part. There’s obviously meetings you attend, there’s one-off analyses that you have to do just because there was a fire drill or something of that sort happening. But every Friday, I carve out, for the project I mentioned, time for the blog with analytics insights.
My role… is trying to get them to step away from the very tiny data that they want, to make sure that the question they’re answering is the correct question.
Erin: Do you do that as part of Google’s famous “20% time”? What is it called?
Alex: It is 20% time. It’s not part of that. I think it’s still in the scope of my position in that the leads are excited to circle analyses for the entire group to see. Although I have been shopping around for some 20% projects.
Erin: For those that may not be aware, Google employees have the opportunity to spend 20% of their paid time at Google working on personal projects. The caveat is that Google then becomes owner of any intellectual property or physical property resulting from this project. But it is a really great way for people who work here to use the resources that Google has at their disposal to just come up with cool stuff.
Do you use the same… We went through the list of technologies that you used at BloomReach. Do you use the same technologies here? Are there any new ones that you’ve had to take on in your role here?
Alex: Yeah, the bulk of them are the same. I end up using Python, SQL. SQL more so than Python. I think Google, and other people at Google, have done a great job of making sure that analysts can be very productive so they spend very little time battling with infrastructure, but more time on being able to analyze data. If you have a question in mind, you can sit down for a few hours and get an answer. I feel that, being able to have that fixed ability of not reinventing the wheel every time, is very crucial. In terms of data visualization, there’s a lot of proprietary Google technology; it’s not that different from everything else so long as you know you can tackle one [technology], you can pretty much make do with the others.
Tammy: Is there any technology that has challenged you recently and/or do you want to be challenged by technology or do you want the technology to be easy so that you can get on to other things?
Alex: I think the technology part is there to help with the analysis, so I would probably say I would prefer it to be easy in the sense that you can focus on the analysis and what it means for the larger company strategy. The strategy and the execution of what comes after the analysis is the crucial part. The technology part and coding it up is very, very important, but it should be simple enough for most people to do.
Erin: Just to wrap up talking about Google, there’s a lot of mystique surrounding the Google culture and the Google life. I would like to jump on this opportunity, now that I have a captive Googler, maybe you can tell our listeners some of your favorite things about working here and maybe answer some of those burning questions that we know they have.
Alex: Sure. We’ll start with the bad things. There aren’t that many. I guess the bad things… Let’s see. There are meetings. I think there are… There aren’t that many meetings if you’re an engineer, but there are meetings if you’re a PM. What other bad things? Sometimes you have to walk a lot to a bus stop. That’s not a bad thing. I lied.
Erin: As long as you’re wearing your Fitbit and get credit for those steps.
Alex: There’s something to be said about managerial structure. I don’t know if it’s Google-specific because I’ve encountered it at BloomReach as well. Sometimes there’s disconnect between what employees do, what managers do, and how they keep track of one another. I think that’s across companies, not necessarily Google-wide.
I definitely would say that the best things are the peers. Every day, when I have a question, if I just want someone to look at an analysis and have someone poke holes in it, they are more than happy to take 20 minutes to an hour to sit down [and look at it]. I definitely feel that it’s a very inclusive culture, even… In the wake of the election, we’ve had several group therapy sort of meetings where we come together and vent and give hugs and feel happy that we are around great people and that’s definitely been comforting. It’s actually one of the things that, I guess, I took for granted while working here; not really being aware of it until the past week.
Other good things… Definitely the food, definitely the desserts, definitely coffee, baristas, everything, game nights. There’s a lot of good things. I think the most important thing is being able to be happy with the work that you’re doing. And striving to do better, and having people to challenge you to do better, and expecting more of you than what you’re currently doing.
Tammy: I think there’s also this notion that Google is such a big important company, and it might seem like an obvious place for people to want to work, but I’m wondering, now that you have been here for some time, do you think that there is a particular way that people should think about themselves as being a fit for Google? What makes someone a good fit for Google? Just being able to step back and think, “Is that really a company where I would fit and that company would fit for me?” What do you say would make someone a good fit?
Alex: I definitely think being a team player makes you a good fit, and I know that’s a generic answer. Of course you want to be a good team player, but here more so than ever. There are superstars, but they’re not superstars because they’re lone wolves, so to speak. They’re superstars because they work well with a team and because they bring out the best in their team. It’s never the case that you have one person that goes off and does their own thing and, because of that, this great project took off. It’s more because you enabled a lot of people to do a great job, and you brought out the best in them, and you challenged them to do their best. I think that’s a very important part, and I guess it’s a part I didn’t really appreciate when I was coming out of college, for example. I thought it was more of a zero-sum game; if I do better and someone else does worse, that’s okay, but that’s not really the case. That’s probably something that I’ve learned with age. Perhaps it would come out at other companies as well, but it’s definitely become more apparent at Google. Definitely the team aspect.
There are superstars, but they’re not superstars because they’re lone wolves, so to speak. They’re superstars because they work well with a team and because they bring out the best in their team.
Besides that, I think you should be in a place where, as I mentioned before, you’re still hungry to achieve more. When I was deciding on a position, I had other folks that were thinking of joining a different company and the mentality was you would only join Google if you had really plateaued in your career, you’re not really sure where you’re going. You join a startup if you’re really a go-getter. If you want to take names and just go at it. But there’s still a lot of really, really cool products that are happening at Google and they are growing at a pretty good pace. They’re not doing really bad. I definitely didn’t feel that, once I joined Google… I was also interviewing at Uber and they also really… Google really takes care of their people as well, so that came across in their recruiting process. The short answer to your question is it’s a place where you will definitely be challenged, it’s not a place to be complacent in because it will show and it won’t be appreciated by your peers.
Tammy: One more Google question and then we can probably move on. The Google hiring process is notorious for being really difficult to get into and challenging to get through. If someone is lucky enough to submit their resume… First of all, I’m just imagining you applied and then someone actually called you. How did that happen? It sounds like magic. Like you just hit a jackpot or something. People who are thinking about, “I want to apply to Google. I want to work here,” how do you think they gain traction and get into the process and then what advice would you have for them, once they’re in the process?
Alex: In terms of how it happened, I think it pays off to show that you really want to work here and it’s not a thing that you’re looking to check off on your resume. When I applied, as I mentioned, I showed that I really cared about… Or I was looking to contribute to the product Google Express because I used some of my spare time to play with the site. I think having interest in a product and having an idea of how you can contribute to that product is important because a lot of people want to apply, a lot of people do apply, and it’s more or less the same thing. “Google is great. I watch YouTube. It’s awesome,” but how are you going to contribute to this great community?
I think having interest in a product and having an idea of how you can contribute to that product is important.
Tammy: Did you put that in your cover letter for example? Or did you stand outside with a sign that said, “I will make it better”? Or what did you do?
Alex: I don’t think I said, “I will make it better.” I think there’s an aspect of knowing your own, I guess, limits to that extent. I think I mostly just put in the fact that I spend a lot of time trying to play around with Google Express search.
Tammy: Got it, okay. So you just made it clear that you had engaged?
Alex: Yeah, and probably being specific helps. I imagine if you say, ‘I spend my entire weekend watching YouTube,” as just a consumer of things might not be as specific as to what you will do to improve it or finding faults in what is there and what can be improved.
Erin: What’s very next for you professionally? Where do you go from being a data analyst on the Google Express team?
Alex: Very next, I guess I would be looking to go out for promotion; that would be the very next thing. We’ll see when that happens, perhaps in the spring. I feel like I have, in the past few months, I have gotten a sense of what it takes to grow at Google Express and Google in general. While I’m currently part of the team, I don’t necessarily… I wouldn’t limit myself to one particular team. Most recently, I’ve been contributing to the Google Home project as well, which, for folks that don’t know, is similar to the Amazon Echo, an assistant in physical shape in your living room or kitchen. That team is very different because it’s not really an e-commerce platform, so it’s very different than the past three years of my career and that’s been exciting as well. I feel like, so long as you have the skills and passion to contribute to a team, you’re not really limited to one particular area. And, because the teams are collaborative, you have opportunities to pitch your time to other teams as well. Besides that, I think I will continue having this quarterly goal of making something different that will empower other folks to see areas of improvement in the product.
I think it’s important to have goals outside of work as well, so I’ve been trying to keep learning about the data science community, keeping up to speed on the latest technologies, and taking online courses.
Tammy: What are some of the courses you’ve taken?
Alex: Recently I have been mostly focusing on entrepreneurship and sales-y courses. I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone, like making a short survey and then picking, say, I don’t know, 100 random phone numbers and calling people and just doing a fake survey with them just to create my voice and not be afraid to speak to random people.
I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone, like making a short survey and then picking, say, I don’t know, 100 random phone numbers and calling people and just doing a fake survey with them just to create my voice and not be afraid to speak to random people.
Erin: That’s a big deal because—
Tammy: Let me get this straight. You created a fake survey so that you could call people to ask them fake survey questions? That’s pretty amazing, actually. That’s really clever.
Erin: You just went up 20 points in my mind. I’ve known you for a little over a year now, and we have very similar personalities, and I feel like I need to start paying attention to what you’re doing for your own growth because it would really help me.
Tammy: Yeah, that’s actually really… Essentially, find your voice, make sure you’re not afraid to talk to people, to pitch people on things. You are finding these really unconventional ways to practice.
Erin: Did you think this up yourself or was that an idea in one of your—
Tammy: Of course she did.
Alex: I won’t take credit for the entire idea, but… I’m not sure if you guys go to these farmer’s markets, but there’s usually… Similar to Blue Apron, there’s folks that are selling boxes of fresh produce, and there’s usually a person there that’s trying to pitch you on it. I always like talking to the person because I realized I could be in their shoes one time with whatever product and sometimes they feel nervous and I can see that in their pitch, and that’s where it came about. I was like, “Could I stand here and talk to somebody about your produce? You probably don’t want me to because I’d do a horrible job.”
Erin: Wait. So you would ask them if you could—?
Alex: No, I was thinking about it but I realized they probably wouldn’t want me to because I would be very rusty at first, so I came up with this. It was a very, very… I wouldn’t even call it a survey…
Tammy: How did you even find people to call? This is incredible.
Alex: Come on, you pick your phone number and go increment one at the end of your phone number and just call people and they will be like, “How did you get my phone number?” and I’d be like, “I just randomly called your phone number. Do you like pepperoni or cheese pizza?”
Tammy: That is so great. I love that. That is really great.
Erin: You are actually an undercover extrovert I think.
Alex: I don’t know about that. I was very nervous while doing it, but I feel like…
Erin: But you did it.
Alex: I did do it, right.
Erin: I’m serious, that is really impressive. And now Tammy is probably going to light a fire under my bum to do the same.
Tammy: I think it’s actually very clever. I spent some time, in my early career, as a journalist, as a reporter. I am, by nature, introverted, and it was, I guess, maybe no accident that I ended up in a job where it was my job to walk up to people and ask them questions and get them to tell me things. Maybe things that they didn’t want to tell me, but I had to make myself go do that. So I just really, deeply respect this notion that you are trying to push not just your professional growth, it sounds like you’re trying to push your personal growth as well.
Alex: Yeah. I have definitely been uncomfortable in the past talking to strangers, so it’s been a struggle getting comfortable with that. I don’t think I’m quite there, but hopefully, soon.
Erin: Thanks for sharing that. That’s really powerful. What big dreams do you have for yourself, professional or personal?
Alex: I can see myself as being a CEO of a company. At the same time, I can see myself running for office. I would probably, if I had to draw a spectrum, I would probably see the company side being more attainable, which is crazy in itself that I can think that because I… Say two years ago, I wouldn’t be able to say that that’s a thing that I could achieve.
I can see myself as being a CEO of a company. At the same time, I can see myself running for office.
Tammy: What do you think has shifted you to think that you could run a company? How do you think you’ve gotten that shift in mindset?
Alex: I think the shift in mindset has come from seeing a lot of other people’s experiences either through listening through podcasts or seeing that anyone that really has an idea and starts something and just keeps going and keeps thinking about it and keeps iterating can go somewhere. And I think having had a family who has mostly been employed by others, and not necessarily created their own business, has, in previous years, limited my mindset in what is actually an attainable job. Is it a real job? When I tell my parents, “I’m starting my own thing,” will they think it’s a joke? It’s like, “You’re not really employed. You’re in this weird little world.” I think that’s probably what changes; seeing a lot more people that are doing it and, obviously, being in the Silicon Valley culture has impacted me. I imagine, if I were in the New York culture, maybe I would be more into banking or something.
Tammy: But it sounds like your environment has opened up more possibilities for you.
Alex: Definitely, yeah.
Erin: On the one side, you have founding a startup and running that, and on the other hand, you have running for political office?
Tammy: I would vote for you Alex. You’ve definitely got my vote. What are we voting for you for? What are you going to run for?
Alex: I’ll have to decide. I think that’s probably the biggest hurdle in that sense. During the past election, I volunteered and I became more involved than I saw myself in the past. It’s reminded me of core things that are important to my life and what I want from the world. There’s a part of me that wants to take that on, there’s a part of me that wants to start a career, there’s a part of me that wants to create a not-for-profit or a charity, but choosing one and sticking with it for some time is probably the hardest step.
Erin: Awesome. We are getting towards the tail end of our podcast, so I want to ask some questions about advice and wisdom, and, as promised, we will get to our two fun questions. Not that the rest of it hasn’t been fun. I would like to know, at this point now, you’re a couple of years into your career, you’re probably been helped along by many people. Is there any piece of advice or any mentor you’ve had that’s been particularly impactful and could you tell us about that?
Alex: Yeah. In terms of mentorship, I guess the biggest piece of advice I’ve gotten is around how to answer questions and how to go about fulfilling your job and not to narrow oneself in scope by only looking at the very, very small questions that people ask of you and really thinking about the broader strategy and challenging yourself to do that. In terms of concrete advice, the most concrete one I’ve gotten is, if you don’t like where you are, take steps to change that because you’re not a tree; you’re not stuck in the place that you’re currently at. And, if you don’t do so, things aren’t necessarily going to be handed to you and that’s okay. You should take the steps to make things better.
If you don’t like where you are, take steps to change that because you’re not a tree; you’re not stuck in the place that you’re currently at.
Recently I was reading a book, The Originals, I’m forgetting the author at the moment, and they had this study about employees and the browser that they use on their computers. They noticed a trend where folks that use the default browser end up quitting their jobs more often than those that end up downloading something better, which was something that I had never thought of, but it makes sense. If you’re willing to make something better in your position, then you’re probably going to stick around for the long run rather than being frustrated with the status quo, so I would definitely advocate for that.
In terms of advice for women in general, I think it’s important to not be shy about voicing your opinion even though it might not seem like the right thing to do. I think there’s definitely something to be said about speaking out when you have something that you’re passionate about or something that you think is right.
In terms of advice for women in general, I think it’s important to not be shy about voicing your opinion even though it might not seem like the right thing to do.
Erin: I’m a big fan of Instagram and Pinterest and I have a bunch of inspirational quotes that I’ve collected. One of them is… Because I think I’m challenged by shyness sometimes too, and one of the ones that I found says something to the effect of, “You only have to be radically brave for a few seconds to do something that you’re afraid of.” That has definitely helped me when I have felt insecure about speaking up. I’m curious to know, though, how do you get yourself through those moments when you’re feeling afraid?
Alex: When I’m feeling afraid, I… I hadn’t thought of that quote before, but it’s a very good one; I will keep that in mind. Back when I was in graduate school, we had this professor during our very first week, I guess it was orientation or boot camp or something, and he said, “If you have a question about something or you’re unsure about something, most likely everybody else in the class is too, so ask it because you won’t look stupid.” That mentality has stayed with me throughout my life and I usually adopt that. And you see people behaving positively to that. Besides that, I think the culture is fairly open and folks aren’t going to look down on you for speaking, obviously. We want a lot of diverse opinions and we definitely want people speaking up. I usually feel encouraged. Although you’re going to meet difficult people in all walks of life, a few years in, I probably have slightly thicker skin than when I started out. Having experienced or seen other women speak out has definitely improved where I am.
Tammy: Do you have a more formal relationship to the notion of mentorship? Do you say, “I’m going to go find a mentor,” or is it more organic, you learn from whomever happens to be around you at the moment, or a mix of both? How do you approach relying on people to help you grow?
Alex: I’ve definitely asked for mentors in the past. I wish I could say that I have a very rich set of female mentors. I don’t think that that’s right where I want it to be, but I’ve definitely approached people and asked, “I’m struggling in this aspect. Have you encountered this before? What would you do?” I feel like, in the past, I’ve learned a lot through that. Or at least originally, when I first did it, I thought the person is not going to want to talk to me, they probably just won’t have time, but people are very open. And maybe it’s just something that I’ve picked up on, but the older you get in your career, you’re more likely to want to share with others and make others grow and sort of brag about your wounds and your battles, so I find that very helpful.
I’ve definitely asked for mentors in the past. I wish I could say that I have a very rich set of female mentors.
Tammy: You actually found that, even though maybe you were thinking people won’t have time or interest, it was the opposite, actually?
Alex: Yeah, exactly.
Erin: Can you share with us any words of wisdom, either from these mentors or others, that you’ve encountered in your career so far? Any wisdom for women just getting into the tech industry or even for women in the tech industry, generally, who may need some support to stay?
Alex: Yeah. One of the words of wisdom that I received early on is to put a lot of effort in creating a relationship of trust and making sure that the person you are collaborating with understands that their problem is your problem and you have their back and you’re going to get through this together. Even though you’re just starting out, you’re new, but you’re going to put all of your effort into making sure that their problem is top-of-mind for you and you will get the best results for them. I think, obviously, you’re going to do your best work when you’re starting out, but really going above and beyond and making sure that people feel at ease and people understand that you really are taking the situation seriously is important. Because, at the end of the day, they’re going to remember how important you made them feel and, really, the importance of the problem at hand rather than how fast you got it done or whether or not it was error-free. There can be back and forth, but so long as you really make them feel that the thing that you’re working on is the most special thing in your heart right now, is going to go a long way.
Erin: That reminds me of a quote I heard once. It goes something like people might not always remember what you said, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.
Alex: Yeah, exactly. I definitely keep that one in mind a lot.
Tammy: Why do you think, though… I think you said something to the effect that you don’t have as many women mentors as you might want. Why do you think that is and what, if anything, did you feel like you can do about it?
Alex: That’s a great question. I guess the reason why I don’t feel that, at the moment, is I haven’t encountered a lot of senior data science managers, and most of the managers I’ve had have been in business development or product management, which is good in a sense because I get to learn about the field that I’m not as close to and I’m not as developed in. But at the same time, I feel like I would learn a lot more from someone that’s been in my shoes at some point in their lifetime as a woman. I don’t know. The reason why can probably be said for a lot of other industries, especially in engineering, is just there aren’t that many women in data science, there aren’t that many women in engineering. But that doesn’t mean that the encounters we have with our male counterparts aren’t something you can learn from; I definitely have. It’s usually comforting when someone that’s close to what you identify with has gone through something you are experiencing.
Especially in engineering, there just aren’t that many women in data science, there aren’t that many women in engineering. But that doesn’t mean that the encounters we have with our male counterparts aren’t something you can learn from; I definitely have.
Tammy: Got it. It sounds like the barrier is just a lack of available women to help. Well, maybe you’re going to be one of those women someday.
Alex: We’ll see.
Erin: Let’s switch gears. Tell us what is your favorite book and why.
Tammy: Of all time or just right now?
Erin: I’ll let you do both. Pick which one you want to go first.
Alex: My favorite book right now is The Book Of Awesome, which is written by Neil Pasricha; he is a Canadian author. It’s pretty much a book of very small things that make people smile. Think of pressing the elevator button, the elevator being on the floor that you’re at.
Erin: That does make me happy.
Alex: Being the first person to walk on a fresh patch of snow. Very small things that bring a smile to my face. I like to read it every so often to remind me of the things that I usually take for granted that are the small things in life.
Erin: I just looked that book up. For the listeners, it’s available for one cent plus shipping on Amazon, used. You might want to check it out. I also actually did Google the book Originals: How Nonconformists Move The World; it’s written by Adam Grant with a foreword by Sheryl Sandberg, and that one is available from $9.24 on Amazon, used.
Tammy: One cent sounds like a pretty good deal.
Erin: Yeah. I might have to…
Alex: Canadian or American?
Erin: I think it was American. That was your…
Tammy: That was the favorite one right now?
Tammy: Then the favorite one of all time?
Alex: Favorite one of all time, if we’re going to go by the times that I’ve read the book, it’s definitely going to be the Harry Potter series.
Tammy: All right. I think we have a couple of dichotomies for you to work through. Are you ready for these?
Alex: Yeah, I think so.
Tammy: All right, here we go. The first one, beach or forest?
Alex: I think this one is more straightforward for me. I am like this human form of a salamander or a cat sitting in the sun, so probably beach.
Erin: I’m sorry, I just don’t get that reference. What do you mean by being a salamander or a cat sitting in the sun?
Alex: Cats like to find the sunny spots and sleep and lay in them and salamanders like to lay in the sun.
Erin: Okay. Reptilian things which are cold-blooded like to sunbathe. Got it.
Tammy: You are a cold reptilian thing that prefers to sunbathe, okay. We got it.
Erin: Yeah. Also, surprisingly furry.
Tammy: All right. Books or movies?
Alex: Books, though I’ve definitely started reading a lot more into how actors act in a way that appears very human. I know it sounds weird because they are human, but trying to portray emotion in a way as if you were yourself going through it.
Tammy: I think you mean method acting.
Tammy: The last one, money or fame?
Alex: That’s hard.
Erin: That’s why we’re asking you.
Tammy: We warmed you up with easy ones.
Alex: Yeah, that was great. Fame would be would be cool, but also a bummer because you can’t really go anywhere. Google is such a big company that you could have lunch with your friends and talk about things, but you can also go and be a complete nobody at a different campus where nobody knows you and be like, “I’m a random Googler.” I would probably choose money just because you can be anonymous and stealth.
Tammy: Spoken like a true introvert.
Erin: If you had $10 million to blow, you had already bought your parents their house, and you had already donated to the 10 charities of your choice and all of that, what would you do?
Tammy: You had already paid off all of your friends’ student loans, what else would you do?
Alex: What else would I do? Probably invest. I would definitely invest.
Erin: I’m giving Alex a real-life fist bump right now. Now she’s speaking my language!
Alex: I try to invest, every year, at least a few thousand dollars.
Tammy: [Pause to transition] Thank you so much.
Erin: Thank you so much, Alex. This has been really, really fun. You’ve been just a perfect first interviewee in all respects.
Alex: Thank you so much for having me. I hope to hear a lot more of these podcasts.
Erin: Thank you. I’m Erin.
Tammy: And I’m Tammy.
Erin: Thanks so much for listening to our very first WITtalks podcast, a podcast for women in tech.
The best way to connect with Alex is via LinkedIn. Visit our website, WITtalks.co to find a link to her profile. You can access this audio file and a transcription on our website, too. If you’d like to recommend someone to be on our show, have press and media inquiries, or want to make a suggestion or comment, please send an email to hello@WITtalks.co. Thanks for listening!