Life at Shopify

Why Shopify is Interested in Journey Over Resume

By Solmaz Shahalizadeh, VP of Data Science and Engineering at Shopify

I first realized how much I loved solving problems when I was in kindergarten in my home country of Iran. There was a kid in my class who was bothering everyone, and the teacher asked us, “What should we do? Raise your hand if you think we should move this kid to another classroom.” Everyone raised their hand except for me.

My teacher asked if I had a better idea. I said, “If we tell him why he’s bothering us, he might change his behaviour.” I wasn’t trying to be kind, I was being practical. I realized that we couldn’t continually move him from class to class, so I asked myself what else we could do. The teacher and my classmates liked this idea. Ever since then, I’ve loved solving problems and following my curiosity to look for unconventional solutions.

That curiosity has taken me around the world. I studied Computer Science in Tehran even though I’d done very little programming prior to that. I moved to Sweden where I completed my first masters degree in bioinformatics — a field of science that combines biology, computer science, mathematics, and statistics to analyze biological phenomena. I started working in a lab, and realized I was horrible at it. In computer science, you try to understand the why. In biology, you often try to accept many of the whys. We may have no idea what causes something to happen, we just know that it does. That was interesting, but it didn’t give me the satisfaction I got from solving computer science problems.

After graduating from my program in Sweden, I pursued a machine learning degree at McGill University in Montreal. On my first day as a teaching assistant, I was talking to someone about all the places I’d lived. They asked me, “Are you planning to stay in Canada?” This was a refreshing question. In other countries, people had asked me, “When are you planning to go back to your country?” But in Canada, I felt welcomed immediately. I fell in love with the country’s multiculturalism and, as an added bonus, I met my partner here. Canada quickly became the country I wanted to call home.

When I graduated with my second masters degree, I started work on a PhD but the pace was too slow for me. I got a job offer from the investment bank Morgan Stanley, which was a great fit at the time. I was using data to solve problems every day. Being part of a large organization taught me the importance of work ethic and being reliable. I had good managers that helped me grow, but after a year and a half, I started to look for a new challenge.

In 2013, I met someone on Shopify’s data team at a Hackathon hosted at their Ottawa headquarters. He asked if I’d be interested in learning about the team, and I agreed to come in and meet them. When I did, I was struck by how passionate everyone was. They had a deep understanding of the problems they were working to solve.

They were curious about the problems I had solved, too. We talked about the projects I’d worked on, and I sent them my research papers. Shopify never asked for my resume — and good thing, because I haven’t updated my CV in years. They were more interested in whether I was able to talk intelligently about the projects I’d worked on. I appreciated that. We tend to ask for resumes now, but Shopify’s interest in journey over resume prevails.

I officially joined the Shopify data team in October 2013. This was an exciting time for Shopify, and for me. The team was rebuilding its data platform and the company was preparing to go public. I was immediately involved in both of these things. I had experience in financial data reporting, and led the team building the financial data warehouse. Every number you see in Shopify’s prospectus (a document required to go public) was analyzed by my team. It felt incredible to make an impact at the company so quickly.

After some time, I was ready for new problems to solve. I initially worried that people might say, “You’re good at this; stay where you are.” Instead, Shopify’s Chief Technology Officer said to me, “So how are you going to work your way out of your job?” I thought to myself, What does that mean? Is he unhappy with my work? But he said, “I know you’re not going to stick with the same role forever. You need to find your replacement so you can move on to a new challenge.” That perspective was so refreshing.

From there, I had the opportunity to bring machine learning to our products at scale. We started with Shopify Capital, where we provide cash advances based on probabilistic models driven by machine learning so independent businesses can access the cash flow they need to grow. Next, I got to build teams to integrate machine learning into new domains like fraud prevention and payments. There were always new, interesting problems to solve.

In 2018, I was asked to lead Shopify’s entire data team. I knew this would be a massive responsibility, and I did everything I could to prepare for it. During this time, our CEO Tobi Lütke said something to me I’ll never forget. “You didn’t get this role because you know everything. You got this role because we believe you can figure it out.”

Today, a large part of my role is hiring a strong leadership team to work with me. In the spirit of the way I was hired, educational degrees alone aren’t important to me. Instead, I want to know about the problems people have solved. I learned very quickly that individuals from surprisingly different disciplines have dealt with a lot of data and know how to communicate it clearly. We hit the jackpot when we figured that out! Instead of chasing after computer science graduates exclusively, now we interview all kinds of people. We have several astrophysicists on my team; we have mathematicians, biologists, economists, and the list goes on. Many of them have PhDs, and some of them are self-taught. I have no idea who has what degree.

“Educational degrees alone aren’t important to me. Instead, I want to know about the problems people have solved.”

What I’m more interested in from candidates is curiosity, and the technical skills to follow that curiosity. The benefit of focusing on potential over education is that we end up with amazing people who rise and shine given the right structure and opportunities. It’s gratifying to see people grow into their roles. We’ve taken a chance on people that haven’t worked out, but hiring people from various backgrounds who think differently and bring a fresh perspective to the team is never a bad idea.

“The benefit of focusing on potential over education is that we end up with amazing people who rise and shine given the right structure and opportunities.”

I’m grateful for the problems I get to solve at Shopify every day. I have so many ideas in my notepad, hypotheses I want to check in the data to see if they hold. There’s never been a day without questions I want to answer; questions that help solve a problem for our merchants or Shopify.

“There’s never been a day without questions I want to answer.”

Commerce is such a fascinating world, and we’ve only just scratched the surface. Every single domain we’re working on has a rich portfolio of problems to solve. The entire universe is a curiosity to us.

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