It is not just about technology

I started my summer intern as a Data Scientist this week at Tapad, an AdTech company headquartered in New York.  Besides the amazing start up environment and cool meeting rooms, enthusiastic and welcoming colleagues, unlimited snacks and coffee, and exciting frontier research on Device Graph, one thing that completely changes my understanding about technology is that: the success of a tech company is not just about technology.

Without doubt, technology is the foundation and core of any tech company, especially in AdTech.  For Tapad, it is the star product Device Graph. However, what I did not realize in the past is that, having a good product is only the beginning. In the first week, I attended orientation meetings given by various teams at Tapad and had lunch with colleagues, and started to have a holistic perspective of the company: How to monetize the product, attract users, promote and extend functionality, how to manage the company with increasing number of different types of employees, how to integrate various departments/teams to achieve the mission and goal of the company, how to allocate budget so that the R&D team can keep developing and exploring new frontiers and the sales team can keep increasing the coverage, how to be both focused and experimental, how to sell your product in a way that the customers’ expectation is best met so that they are always engaged, how to manage product portfolio and manage financial risks, how to best protect privacy and build the reputation and public figure of the company, how to recruit the best talent, how to create a work environment that is healthy, encouraging, and friendly… Most importantly, how to prioritize.

Current advanced degrees in STEM focus on particular research fields, yet such academic education does not prepare students for the complex and adventurous real world. School environment for students is all too protective and narrowly focused. There is little cross-function interaction: as long as I finish my own homework, my own experiment, my own modeling, my own thesis, I am done! Maybe there are a couple of moments when you collaborate with other researchers, but the chance is rare, and such collaboration is still quite narrow. We as students usually do not have any responsibility or opportunity to see the big picture of a group. I am lucky to be the president of a student group Women In Science at Columbia, which presents me tons of training and practice on how to integrate and manage different activities and interact with people from different background.

It is a totally different story in a start-up company, when all of a sudden, people you meet in the elevator do not usually speak your language. This is particularly challenging in my first week, since my knowledge of the company was still developing. Tapad has 2 offices on the 3rd and 12th floor, so people use the elevator quite often to go up and down across offices. The chance of meeting a colleague in a small space and having a small chat is higher than average. I greeted people, tried to remember their name and face, and was asked what I studied in school and what I would do for my internship. I realize giving such elevator pitch to people outside my particular research field needs preparation and practice. We only have about 20 seconds for the back and forth conversation, and there is no way I can fully explain my PhD project or fully understand other senior employees’ work.  “Focus and target your audience” I start to realize what is said matters less than what is heard given people’s vastly different background and expertise, and this applies not only to elevator pitch, but also to group meeting and business presentation.

At the end of this first week, I feel even more excited than before I started, and I look forward to another week of mind-blowing experience at Tapad.

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