Queens of Tech Podcast
60+ questions with female tech influencers about their journey into STEM
Data Scientist Manager
Liliya graduated in 2011 from Moscow State University (Russia) with a degree in Applied Math and Computer Science and in 2017 from Boston University with a Ph.D. in Statistics. Upon graduation, she joined Amazon’s Alexa team as a Data Scientist within the Alexa Machine Learning department. She spent two years at Amazon working on the internalization of Alexa devices as well as NLU models. She then joined Tripadvisor as a Senior Data Scientist in their Hotels’ recommender system team. In 2020 she joined Twitter where she manages a Content Health Data Science team. She has 10+ years of professional experience, strong academic background, and a passion for solving business problems using data. Presenter at NeurIPS, public speaker, and mentor.
Lilya is married with 2 daughters: 6 years old Sophia and 4 years old Nellie.
In this episode, I’m very excited to welcome my guest tech queen Liliya Lavitas Data Science Manager at Twitter. Hi Liliya, I’m so happy to have you joining us from Boston USA today. How are you?
Hi Jasmine! I am doing well, thank you.
Now let us dive into your journey into tech. Hope you’re ready for the Queens of Tech’s 60-plus questions.
***FUN FACTS ***
- How would you describe your personality in three hashtags?
I think it should be #familyfirst, #doextra, and #benicetopeople.
- How would you describe your life in three sentences?
I was born and raised in Russia, then I moved to the US where I met my husband, and together we have our two beautiful kids.
- What kind of music stimulates and motivates you the most?
I actually don’t listen to music that much.
- What’s your personal motto?
- What is your favorite book?
I don’t have one favorite book, but I really like classical Russian literature Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky.
- What is your favorite podcast?
I love listening to “Pivot”. It’s a tech podcast about news and technology around the world.
- Mac or PC?
- Say something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know.
I think I’m a pretty open person. People tend to know the most interesting things about me.
- What is your hidden talent?
I’m pretty good at making manicures.
- If you were going to write a book about your life what would the title be?
- Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Russia in a Moscow suburb.
- What was your dream job as a child?
I didn’t have a dream job, to be honest. I didn’t think much about it.
- What was your favorite subject in school?
I really loved maths and history.
- What was your least favorite subject?
Gym. I was a pretty weak and clumsy child.
- What would you say is your earliest memory of technology and the arrival of the internet?
I remember how my parents bought our first PC. It was in the late 90s. I thought it was pretty useless. I didn’t know what to do with it other than play cards and other simple games.
- Which were then the three first technology gadgets you owned?
My cell phone was a very simple cell phone, which I bought very young with my pocket money. Then my walkman and my Tetris.
- Who was your female role model and why?
My mom for sure and she still is my female role model. She’s amazing. She was driving her own business spending tons of quality time with us and taking great care of her family.
- How do you think where you grew up and the school you went to and the generation you come from influence your education and career choice?
I think it influenced it a lot. I was very fortunate with the school I went to. It was an average public school, but it happened to be so that kids in my class and around me were super talented, super strong great friends who influenced me a lot. Many of them now are very successful people working in different areas and industries around the world.
- What did you study at university?
I studied applied maths and computers.
- Who, and what influenced you to get into your chosen field?
It was a very natural choice as both my parents are engineers. So it was pretty clear to me that I will go into STEM. Specifics of STEM I liked maths more than other STEM subjects, and I was ambitious enough to be willing to get into the best program which happened to be applied maths and computer science.
- What professional roles have you had before that led you to the current one?
I have always been working as a Data Scientist even before this term existed. In my first role, my title was Predictive Data Analyst, but it was in the essence of data science so all my career was in the data science field.
- What does your company do, and what is your title?
Twitter is a tech company where people chat about things that are happening in the world. My title is Data Science Manager and I’m in charge of a team that oversees the health of content on Twitter.
- How did you get the job, and what are your main responsibilities?
A recruiter reached out to me.
- What does a typical work day look like for you?
As a manager of a pretty large team, my day is typically full of meetings. I would say at least four or five hours of meetings and supporting my team working on strategic projects in between those meetings.
- What do you love about your job?
I really love working with my team to see them grow. The best days in my role are when my team gets recognition. They really deserve it when people in my team get promoted. It’s something that is really rewarding for me.
- What is the best experience you’ve had in your role so far?
Things around the recognition of my team and their great work.
- What is the biggest challenge you have encountered so far, and how did you tackle it?
As managers, we sometimes need to do unpleasant things such as giving hard feedback or delivering hard messages this is never easy.
- What do you wish everybody understood about your role?
I think data science is such a buzz word and many people have different understandings of what it can mean. It actually can mean different things so I think it will be nice if people will grow in the realization of how diverse data science can be.
- What is one of the common myths about your professional field that you want to disprove that everybody has?
That all work we do is super fancy it’s not we do also non-fancy stuff.
- What do you love about working in the tech industry?
Impact first and foremost. We are doing work that impacts millions of people across the globe on a daily basis and we see the fruits of our work in a very short cycle.
- What has by far been your biggest achievement in your career?
I think the biggest achievement so far is the moment of my Ph.D. graduation. I arrived at my Ph.D. graduation with my two-year-old daughter pregnant with my second child and as a full-time research scientist at Amazon. It was pretty good.
- What’s the biggest factor that has helped you be successful? Any success habits?
My family, my husband, my parents, and my friends. It won’t be possible without them.
- How do you measure your own performance at work?
Against my goals depending on what my current goals are. Do I make progress towards my goals these goals change every year I revisit my goals frequently?
- What is your biggest failure in your career, and what did you learn from it?
I don’t think I ever had significant failures, but I did have an unpleasant experience where I had experience working in a pretty toxic environment. I didn’t end it sooner. I was trying to make it work and rather I should have stopped it without trying to make it work.
- What is inspiring and motivating you the most in your role and career right now?
Impact! The impact we are making for Twitter users for global conversation.
***MENTORSHIP AND ROLE MODELS**
- Do you have a mentor today?
I do. Somebody I work with. They inspire me to be bold, to be explicit rather than implicit, and to be honest with myself about what I want.
- Who is the female role model you look up to in your field?
There is somebody, who I don’t know in person. She is the CEO of VISA. This is a lady also from Russia, she’s a mother of three and I’ve been listening to some of her interviews and I think she’s amazing.
- How important do you think it is to have a role model and mentor during one’s career?
I think it’s very important to have a role model somebody to copy from basically.
- What does leadership mean to you?
Making sure that people like me benefit from it.
- What do you consider a good versus a bad leader?
A good leader cares about their team and is honest with them with good and bad news. A bad leader cares about themselves and is not open with their team.
- Who would you say is your favorite female tech leader?
CEO of VISA the person I referred to previously. Her name is Yakiti Pichelina.
- How would you describe yourself as a leader?
I’m very compassionate. I’m very inclusive and I try to make sure that everybody on my team feels included and feels been taken care of.
- What values are most important for you as a leader?
Inclusion and equality opportunities.
- What leadership lessons have you learned that have formed you into the leader you are today?
To be kind. To treat people the way I want to be treated myself and that everybody is different.
- What would you say are your three strengths and three weaknesses?
I think my strengths are around being a people person. I am very supportive and very adaptive and I care about the people who work with me. My weaknesses on the same spectrum are, that I’m sometimes being too adaptive and sometimes not pushing people hard enough which prevents them from achieving some.
***DIVERSITY, EQUALITY, INCLUSION & BELONGING***
- What do diversity, equality, and inclusion mean to you personally?
I think diversity, inclusion, and equality mean to me supporting people who I lead to bring their full selves to the workplace and to be able to grow the way they are organic.
- What do you consider to be three to five signs of good company culture if you were to join a company?
People love where they work. That people feel secure where they work. That people feel that they can express their opinions openly and safely. That their opinions will be valued, that they will be heard and that they will be respected.
- As a woman, what has been the most significant barrier in your career, and how have you overcome these challenges?
I don’t think I ever had a barrier as a woman, but at the same time as a mother of young kids, I’m sometimes thinking of a quote from Ruth Ginsburg, that you can have it all but you cannot have it all at the same time. There are certain times and there are certain phases where a career cannot be prioritized at the same time as other things.
In my own experience with my first daughter, I was on maternity leave for six weeks only. I came back to work after six weeks. I was doing my Ph.D. at the same time and I was working. It was a lot. It was difficult and I do think that I pushed myself too hard with my second one even though I had longer maternity leave. I had 12 weeks which is pretty typical for the US. It’s not unheard of. I had a two-year-old back at home, I was a Research Scientist at Amazon and a mom of an infant. It was too much work. I was pushing myself too hard and I was not asking for the help I needed at the time. When kids are that young it’s important to prioritize your mental health, and your family and to be fine with having your career slow down to the bare minimum.
- Why do you think it is important for more women to join the tech industry, especially as leaders?
Because we’re great! Women are great! It’s so much fun to work with women. Women are compassionate. Women are super efficient. We do so many things at once, we can multitask much better than many men it’s awesome to work with women.
- Do you, and how do you speak with your female colleagues and male colleagues about diversity equality, and inclusion challenges, especially salary gaps?
With my team, I don’t make any difference, whether I speak to a woman or I speak to a man. I try to make sure that the message is exactly the same and that the way I’m saying things is also the same. About salary gaps we don’t speak much about it I have to be frank with you, but I also don’t hide anything that can be shared.
- There are many public and internal discussions about the barriers women face from reaching higher positions in the tech industry. How do you feel it has affected and is affecting you, and what is your advice on how to best unlock these roadblocks?
I think Twitter is a great place from a diversity and inclusion perspective. We have so many strong female leaders in the area. Where I work I have more female leaders than male leaders actually so I think Twitter is doing a great job in that space.
- As the tech industry finds it hard to attract and retain women, what is your best advice on strategies for how companies can work to build a stronger corporate culture that engages gender diversity?
In my personal experience, the most challenging time where there is a really big difference in experiences from the female and male perspectives is the time around maternity leave and paternity leave. So making sure that the company provides sufficient maternity and paternity leave so that people are encouraged to take full advantage of this benefit is very important.
- What would you say then are the few challenges and possibilities of implementing diversity, equality, and inclusion in a workplace?
I think there are still some challenges around educating and informing people about the importance of this subject. There are tons that’s done in the past, but there is still more work in that space that needs to be done about educating and informing people. Talking to people about unconscious bias talking to people about their blind spots. We all have biases it’s a natural mechanism to have bias, but it’s very important to work on it to correct them acknowledge them and make improvements in that direction.
- Why, and how do you think companies would benefit from having workplace gender diversity, especially better gender representation at C-level?
I’ve heard of somebody talking about it, but I don’t remember who that was. If you have a board of 20 people with the same background it’s as good as having one person. When you have 20 people coming from different backgrounds you can hear 20 different perspectives, 20 different voices, and 20 different points of view. This is why you want to have 20 people, not one.
- How much do you think the tech industry has changed regarding this subject since you joined?
I think the industry is making great progress. People start to realize that they want to serve a diverse population and to serve diverse populations. They need to hire a diverse population to have it represented properly among the workforce.
- Looking back on your career, what one thing would you have changed in your working environment to break the bias?
Be more explicit and not make assumptions.
- Looking forward, what will you do as a leader to improve the bias for the next generation of women in tech?
From my position, I try to do mentorship a lot. I try to mentor young female and male people early in their careers and we talk about it so it’s important to keep talking about it.
**MENTAL HEALTH AND WORKPLACE BALANCE***
- I’m sure without a doubt you have a busy lifestyle, so how do you take care of yourself to maintain good mental health?
A lot of sport. Prioritizing and making sure I do have time for myself. I block my calendar also on my calendar I do have blogs for my kid’s time where I’m not available for work.
- Have you ever experienced burnout?
I did not. I’m lucky not to have it.
- What motivates you every day to get out of bed?
I really love my job. I really love my kids. I really love my husband and I love my day-to-day life.
- What is your advice on how companies can create a more mentally healthy workplace in the new now?
Encourage people to prioritize their mental health. Provide tools for mental health. I can give you an example, I was actually surprised to learn that Twitter as a benefit has counselling. So everybody on my team has access to help if they feel that they need help. We need to make sure that people know about this benefit and that this benefit is being utilized people also need to be respectful of other people’s calendars and priorities we’re working across different time zones so to be very mindful of other people’s time other people’s calendars and other people’s needs.
**WORDS OF WISDOM***
- What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given that has helped you during setbacks in your role and career?
Do extra! Always try to run the extra mile. Sometimes it’s not obvious, why shall I be doing this? In the future, it always gets rewarded.
- What is the worst advice you have ever been given, and how did you tackle that?
- Is there something you wish you would have known or a skill you wish you had when starting out in the tech industry?
I don’t think it’s tech industry specific. It’s more of a general understanding that everybody is in charge of their own career. No manager will take care of your career for you. It’s your responsibility to think about it consciously to make long-term plans to evaluate yourself against your goals to revisit your goals it’s on you to take care of it.
- If you had the ability to go back in time when you were just at the beginning of your career, what advice would you give to your younger self?
As I just said, be responsible for your career.
- What advice would you give to young girls and women, wanting and trying to break into STEM fields today?
I don’t think about it as breaking into this field. There are so many female leaders and not only leaders in this field already. Don’t build this barrier, it’s artificial.
- What is next for you in your role and career in tech? What are your career aspirations?
There’s so much to learn being a manager as it is such a different skill set from being an individual contributor. I have times to learn and I’m looking forward to keeping improving it.