November 09, 2017

Getting to Know: “Dr. J” Hongyan, Senior Director, Data Science at PebblePost

Dr. Hongyan Jing

Your nickname is “Dr. J.” How did you get it?
When I joined my first startup, a nice colleague said to me, “We can’t remember your name and it’s hard to pronounce. Can we give you a nickname?” I’m agreeable. So, they started to brainstorm, and one person said, “You’re a doctor and your last name starts with J. What about ‘Dr. J?’ He’s my childhood hero and I had a poster of him on my wall.” Everybody liked that name, but I had never heard of Dr. J and had to look him up on the internet. The funny thing is they bought me a Dr. J jersey and it came down to my knees. Dr. J is 6’7” and I’m 5’2”.

What exactly is a data scientist? Is it anything like a mad scientist?
Nothing like that! Pretty normal. People use the term “data scientist” in many ways. In general, it refers to a position where people extract knowledge and insight from big data. But it means different things at different companies. Some are really referring to data analysts, some refer to data engineers and some refer to what I do, which involves using machine-learning techniques for predictions and optimizations.

What do you like about applying data science at PebblePost?
It’s a little bit different from the work I did in the past, which was in the adtech space but was purely online. What PebblePost does is quite unique. The optimization work involves both online and offline activities. I enjoy that challenge. 

How did you decide to become a data scientist?
I did my Ph.D. in computer science focusing on using machine-learning techniques for natural language processing, and I worked for a few years in industrial research laboratories. After that, I had a strong desire to work closer to production systems to actually use my expertise to make a direct impact on the product. That’s when I left the research lab to join a startup. I went into the adtech industry because I figured people were spending more and more time online and this was a promising industry that involves a lot of data. That’s when “big data” started and the term “data scientist” caught on.

Have you ever injured yourself tackling heavy mathematics?
No, but I do stumble onto problems sometimes!

When you’re not trying to solve problems, what do you do for fun? 

namibia-2.jpg
Dr. J in a Namibian desert,
on one of her many excursions.

My number-one passion is travel, when I have time and money. I’ve visited over 30 countries. My most memorable trip was on safari in Africa. Tanzania is the best. It was a magical experience. Watching animals returning from the night hunt or birds waking up in the morning is fascinating. There were animals everywhere — to the end of the sky, there was no end to them. That was the trip of a lifetime.

What advice would you give to students considering a career in data science?
The most important thing for a data scientist is really paying attention to your data. You need to understand the data thoroughly and also understand what you are trying to do with it. Don’t do cargo cult science. It’s an interesting metaphor about presenting things that look right but are not fundamentally sound.

What advice would you give to non-data scientists to help understand data?
Have you heard of the book “How to Lie with Statistics?” I would recommend that everybody read that book. I often have that feeling when I read news stories involving data. I’ll think, “I wish the reporter had read that book.” You really need to be aware with any data reporting how skewed the results might be.

What’s your favorite math joke?
An engineer, a physicist and a mathematician were on a train in Scotland. And they looked out the window and saw a sheep that was black. The engineer said, “Look! Sheep in Scotland are black!” The physicist said, “No. You are wrong. All you can say is, ‘Some sheep in Scotland are black.’ And the mathematician said, ‘No. You’re both wrong. All you can say is, ‘At least one sheep in Scotland has at least one side that is black.’” I thought that was funny. Well, not funny, really, but it shows how strict people in different fields are about definitions, interpretations and generalizations.

Why did you decide to come to PebblePost?
There are two reasons. The first is that I had read about PebblePost and liked the idea of the challenge of Programmatic Direct Mail®. Also, I had worked with Dave Peterson and I really enjoyed working with him. And there are also some developers on the team that I had worked with, and I knew they were great team members. It’s important to enjoy the people that you work with every day, and I knew I would have that at PebblePost. 


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