Interview with Tamar Shapiro, Instagram’s Head of Analytics | by Instagram Engineering
Tamar is Head of Analytics at Instagram. She supports a team of data scientists and data engineers who are responsible for analytics, data science, and experiments. Tamar also heads the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force at Instagram. A passionate advocate of women in technology, she has been a mentor for Minds Matter and Women Unlimited, a speaker for Girls Who Code, and a co-chair of the Analytics Collective.
Tamar Shapiro, Head of Analytics at Instagram
This interview was conducted by Serena, an Instagram technical director.
How did you become an engineer?
When I was in college, data science didn’t exist. I studied statistics and biometrics in my basic studies. Later I went to engineering school.
What was your first programming language?
I used Java when I took my first computer science course, but most of my math and statistics courses required SAS, SPSS, and MATLAB.
What do you hear during your work?
Believe it or not, I don’t listen to any music at all while I work. I think it’s distracting. Plus, I’m not at my desk long enough to listen to music these days.
What do you do when you are stuck with a problem?
I like to talk to people about it. By discussing the problem aloud, I can look at the problem differently and hear from other people who have either encountered a similar problem before or who look at things from a different perspective.
What do you do when you feel a lot of pressure?
I usually like to take a break. When I have the time, I take a stroll through the floors of the NY building or through the fantastic roof garden of our office. When I don’t have time, I just take a break – I take a few deep breaths to clear my head, and that can be very helpful.
Please tell us about your favorite IG project.
It’s like being asked to choose your favorite child! My recent favorite is the private like count test, a product exploration that aims to shift focus from the quantity of interactions to the quality of the interactions in your feed posts. What I really love is that we are challenging the status quo. We think differently about part of the product that has been an integral part of the Instagram experience from the start.
What makes working at Instagram unique?
After two years here, I can confidently say that it is our culture. One of our values is “people first” – that is, we always focus on how to create the best experience for our community. We approach every project through the lens of the people who use Instagram.
How would you describe the engineering culture on Instagram?
Very cooperative. We put the Instagram community first and work together to create the best products. Everyone here is so passionate about making great products for our community, and it’s so inspiring to be a part of.
What do you love about coming to work every day?
Working on a product that will affect the lives of billions of people around the world. It’s incredibly exciting. It’s also amazing to think about the potential impact we can have on every new idea and project we work on. It is a great responsibility that we and I take very seriously.
Your favorite restaurant in town?
I love sushi. Sushi of Gari is my favorite sushi place in New York.
What do you like to eat in the office?
A smoothie from Frozen Palm, our New York office smoothie bar that has lots of great (and healthy!) Options.
What’s your favorite Instagram account?
@girlswhocode, an organization that I volunteer for. They work on (and publish) important research that is relevant to women in technology, and their ultimate goal is to help young women find career paths in STEM. I like to follow to see what programs they are working on and to hear stories about some of the alumni.
Tell us about your happiest day on Instagram
It was my second faceversary (second year on Facebook) and my team pulled out all the stops with flowers, cupcakes, etc. My manager, Adam Mosseri, was out of the office, but Nam, our technical manager, surprised me at a meeting by printing Adam’s face on a piece of paper. We took a selfie with the cutout of Adam’s face pretending he was there and partying with us. It was fun, but also very special to me because it was a great way to think about everything that has happened here over the past few years.
What’s one of the best things you learned while working on Instagram?
The importance of good communication and contextual exchange. We work in such a fast-paced environment that we often assume that people have the context they need to do their jobs well. Sometimes it’s important to slow down and take the time to communicate the bigger picture.
Coolest celebrity sighting in the office?
The cast of Crazy Rich Asians visited the office and many people were excited to see them in real life. We greeted Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong and author Kevin Kwan for an FB Live from our New York office answering fan questions, and @evachen went live with the cast from their Instagram account to answer questions and Answers to get the release of the film. If you haven’t seen the movie, miss it 🙂
What is your desk configuration like?
It’s super clean. I’m a decent freak and also a minimalist. I think a clean space helps me keep my focus. But having a clean desk here is difficult because there is always a new piece of loot that can make it onto my desk.
What career advice would you like to give to female engineers at an early stage in their careers?
So many – but one that I want to address here is the importance of networking. It’s easy to believe that we just have to sit at our desks and do a really good job, but that’s only part of the equation.
It’s important to develop relationships with people who are not on your immediate team or company. Networks can open up opportunities for you in the future, and getting your work across to a wider audience is also important. I think we as women don’t stand up enough for ourselves and we need to communicate our achievements better.
Another is trust. Women, especially early on in their careers, are often prone to self-doubt. It becomes our greatest enemy because we think too much. It prevents us from taking advantage of opportunities to be challenged and grow. How can we overcome it? What really worked for me was the “fake it till you get it” attitude. Observe the behavior of your self-confident colleagues and try to mirror it. On this topic, I recommend The Confidence Gap.
How do you achieve a work-life balance? Do you even believe in a work-life balance? 🙂 🙂
I do! It’s about setting limits and not apologizing for those limits. We have to be very diligent about where we draw this line. For me this could mean leaving the office at a certain time so I can have time with my kids in the evenings, and for others it could be different. The key is to hold on to those limits and work out the time it will take to reach that balance.
Do you think that achieving work-life balance is more difficult as you get older in the company?
I do not believe that. The demand will definitely get bigger, but you can do better at reckless prioritization.
Most of the time, I don’t feel disabled as an engineer as I have no problem speaking or leaning into it. But there are still times – when I’m pregnant, for example – I worry that people will think less of me, and I worry about whether I will still be able to meet the expectations of my colleagues. How can we overcome these thoughts?
It’s a really good question based on the trust piece I mentioned earlier. Creating a human is something to be very, very proud of – it’s amazing!
We need to think more deeply about success in our life than just our work. You are building a family, you are a talented engineer, and all of these things make you.
I find that concerns about performance during pregnancy are often an expression of our own self-doubt. While you may not feel as good or sharp as you are used to, others are likely not aware of this and you are your worst critic. Everyone has good days and bad when they feel distracted or not doing their best. We have to be kind to ourselves and be sure of our capabilities.
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