Berlin Geekettes attended the TNW Conference a month ago and caught up with Hilary Mason, Chief Scientist at bit.ly, to learn more about her tech background, her non-profit hackNY and to seek advice on how women in Berlin can better support one another.
Interviewed by Jess Erickson
You were at the TNW conference in Amsterdam recently, how was it?
It’s was pretty exciting to be in Amsterdam and it was really fun to meet some of the European tech community.
Do they often come to NYC or is this the time to meet Europe?
The beauty of living in New York is that eventually everyone comes to New York. But this is an opportunity to meet people I don’t see at a lot of American events.
Can you first begin by telling me a little bit about your background and what led you to become a data scientist?
Sure, I studied academic computer science particularly algorithms and machine learning and always loved it but started to realize eventually that a lot of the interesting problems were in working with data and data exist out in companies and not in academia.
At the same time, it became clear that companies really didn’t know how to deal with the data that they had and so we’ve seen this discipline of data science emerge. Sort of blends mathematics, algorithms and the ability to understand a business and understand humanity. Also to ask questions of data and actually produce useful intelligence out of it.
For those of our readers who don’t know about bit.ly, what is it and what is your main role at the company?
bit.ly is a platform for sharing content on the social web (many think of it as a URL shortener) but we’re really hoping to move beyond that perception and so bitly tracks and analyzes all of this content about what people are sharing across all of the social networks.
My role there is the Chief Scientist, so I lead our data science team and that means we take all of that data and try to build interesting and useful things out of it.
What have you learned from bit.ly datasets? Anything interesting that stands out?
We learn lots of interesting things. For example .3% of all links are just about the weather. We’ve learned that people share very different things than what they click on which has lots of implications for all the people who are trying to study twitter data around products. There is a silent majority that may holds many different opinions than what you can gather from a vocal minority. But we see that because we see what people pay attention to as well as what their sharing.
We’ve learn things that are little depressing about humanity, like 3% of all clicks in 2011 went to pages about top 100 celebrities. That’s 3 out or every 100. Which I find pretty amazing. I could just keep listing silly facts and stuff. There are more photos of dogs than cats on the social web. Things like that.
What are the challenges of building a data driven organization?
So the challenges are really first understanding how the data fits in and what you can potentially learn from it. Second, structuring a person or a team such that they can work with your product and business. To actually spend the minimum of time solving the most problems. There is no greater insult than to say someone has a brilliant solution to a useless problem. And then to also work with engineering to actually construct these sorts of things.
You have another side project called hackNY, can you tell us a little bit about it?
A non-profit that I co-founded with Evan Korth at NYU and Chris Wiggins at Columbia about 2 years ago. Now its going into its 3rd summer and its a non-profit designed to funnel talented engineer students from around the world into the New York Creative Technology ecosystem.
And the tag line (and unofficially of course) is “to save kids from the street, meaning Wall Street” and provide other career opportunities and it’s been a pretty great success and I’m pretty proud of what hackNY has accomplished.
We need something like this in Berlin:)
Its just the matter of finding the right people and the right time and getting them to agree that it should happen. It doesn’t take that much resources.
I mentioned to you yesterday, that a couple of weekends ago, there were a number of people who enrolled in a Rails Girls workshop and I was wondering if there is something like this in NYC where women are exposed more to science and coding.
There are tons of opportunities for women to learn to program in New York. There is Girl Develop It which was started by a woman by the name of Sarah Chipps, and offers similar workshops. I’m really not an expert on these programs but I’m impressed with the tech community is offering opportunities for everyone to learn to program and there’s been a movement to change it from people either thinking its too hard or too nerdy to making it something accessible to everybody. And so if someone is interested in learning, there is Code Academy, which can teach you in a really lightweight way. It won’t so much teach you to be a programmer but it will give you a sense of whats possible and impossible and how the pieces work.
Then there is things like “Learn Python The Hard Way” which is the best way to jump into programming, it’s a self-guided way that works well in a study group. He presents challenges that gradually get harder and you have to puzzle your way through them Which is why it really works if you can get a small group of people together to go through it. I know a bunch of people who are meeting up once a week just to talk about it.
I heard Etsy in NY is now funding women’s scholarships who want to go to the Hacker School.
Yeah, this is an effort put on from some guys who are helping to change how recruiting works. So Etsy is providing scholarships.
There is an Etsy in Berlin, so maybe I can convince them!
Last question, what advice would you give to young women all over the world who are considering a career in the tech industry?
I think the tech industry offers a lot of opportunity for people who want to make things. It’s intensely creative, people are really adventurous and willing take risks in ways that perhaps they aren’t in other industries.
So I’d also encourage everybody to think about it. I’d also encourage people to follow their own curiosity and to work on the kinds of problems that are interesting to them and not to just get a job because it’s cool or pays well. Because ultimately the best opportunities come out of that. And then to realize also, that when you get a job with a startup and if that startup fails, its OK because you’ve gotten a job in a startup community. And if you’ve done good work at that startup, another will happily hire you immediately and so if you might worry about stability, or in my case, have parents who were very concerned about working at a company that could go out of business in 6 months, you have to realize that you’re not building a career in one company but the industry.
You can follow Hilary on twitter at @hmason
Note: Hilary Mason will be speaking at this year’s DLD Conference in Munich on July 11th-12th. For more information click here.