Why a Neurosurgeon became a LinkedIn Data Scientist

December 23, 2010

Ed. note: Data scientists have received a lot of attention these past few weeks. If you found the secrets of LinkedIn data scientists interesting, get ready to hear from our very own Simon Zhang - a neurosurgeon turned data scientist. Here's his story.

My experience as a neurosurgeon taught me a lot about dealing with intricate challenges. First, with enough time and hard work, there’s no limit to what you can learn. Also, no matter how complex a problem is, if you really focus you have a good chance of solving it. Most importantly, if you want to be exceptional at what you do, you have to love what you’re doing.

Life as a neurosurgeon

I did enjoy my time as a surgeon, performing over 300 operations at the medical university in my hometown of Tianjin, China. I specialized in oncology, so there were long hours and many heartbreaking cases. The real problem for me, though, was that I just wasn't inspired by it. From the time I was 2 years old, my family expected me to be a doctor. When I was old enough, I followed the path into medicine, but I had already found my true passion in technology. Growing up, my favorite hobbies all centered on my computer; I was able to build websites and set up gaming competitions that spanned the whole country. It was a very big deal for me at the time, and I never lost that enthusiasm, even though my career choice was leading me elsewhere.

In China, once you complete medical school, it’s almost guaranteed that you will spend your entire career in medicine. There is a proverb, though, that says you can never be great at a job you do not love. For that reason, I knew that medicine would never let me realize my true potential. I shocked my family when I announced, after two years in the field, that I was leaving the hospital. I couldn’t see myself doing it for the rest of my life, so I promptly quit, and began learning English. I knew that to pursue my dream in the way that I wanted, I would have to come to the U.S., and so that’s what I did. I accepted a position as a database intern and began teaching myself analytics from scratch, watching the people who were building models and learning everything I could from them.

My experience working at LinkedIn

I like data. I like logic. Working in medicine, you have to build up a tremendous amount of knowledge, so it’s there when you need to use it. In analytics, I’ve found a whole new way to apply that approach. I’ve been able to explore the potential of datamining, which offers a much faster turnaround for applying information. Since I’ve been at LinkedIn, I’ve been very impressed by how quickly my efforts pay off. Most of my work here involves helping our marketing or sales teams make use of our massive database, by building models and straightforward  interfaces that save them valuable research time. We put these models together very fast, and can often get substantial feedback in the first weeks of a project’s development. It’s very exciting to see results that soon, because we have a wealth of information and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface for innovative ways to use it. LinkedIn has an unprecedented perspective that spans almost every industry, and we have enough data to potentially track and anticipate a slew of trends, from personnel migration to tracking overused resume buzzwords and more. There’s almost no limit to what we can do.

I don’t consider myself a statistician, though, looking only at numbers since I get to see how what I do helps move the business  forward. Much of that insight comes from principles I learned while pursuing my MBA, and an understanding of how it all fits together is a major part of what motivates me. As much as I enjoy my analytic projects for their own sake, nothing compares to the sense of accomplishment that comes from contributing to the company as a whole.

Simply put, I came here because I want to be a better analyst. Working at LinkedIn sharpens my skill set a little more each day, and I’m thankful for the challenge and the opportunity to learn. Like a neurosurgeon, an analyst has to work hard to stay on top of what’s new, to make sure he has the best available tools to do his job. I get that here, and at the same time I get to provide the best available tools for over 85 million professionals on LinkedIn today, letting them stay on top of what’s new in their professions. I know I’m always at the forefront at LinkedIn, and I get to see the fruits of my labor as we improve every day.

Interested in working at LinkedIn?