Taking a Nontraditional Path to Finding Your Career

Rachel Lu, Data Science Product Manager at FactSet

When coworkers and interviewers categorize me as a STEM person especially when they see Applied Mathematics & Statistics as my college major on my resume, they assume that I’m great with numbers and logic. But I think the key element that ties Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math together is actually experimentation, and the willingness to use experiments as a means to make a decision. As a product manager, my job is to define and manage a roadmap for where our product should head, and I have often viewed my own career as an ever-evolving product with myself as the customer. The data scientist in me has created experiments almost every year to test and optimize for my own happiness and skillset. Experimenting with my own career has led me to explore the professions of pediatrician, investment banker, actuary, consultant, data scientist, product manager, and has allowed me to create an ever-evolving career.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be my mom – a mother, a home chef, a grocery shopper, an accountant by trade. What I have since realized is that I want to be someone who matters – whether that be making an impact on the society at large or being that person for my own future children, or finding a way to do both of those things! In high school, I wanted to be a pediatrician because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, even if just one life at a time, and I did well in my chemistry and biology classes. I volunteered at the hospital and shadowed nurses and admired how selfless and caring these heroes were. The next summer, I went to a pre-med summer program to sit in on college-level courses, and that summer, I fainted during a lecture on the human eyeballs.

The next fall I started writing college application essays and pondering what I would major in – I learned from that summer experiment that I wouldn’t physically make it through pre-med classes if I get light-headed and nauseous every time a professor walks through the anatomy of an organ, so I wrote about my next best high school class; calculus, and how all those numbers magically work themselves out to make sense of the world. By the time I was choosing which university to commit to of the few that accepted me, I was choosing between a scholarship-funded top pharmacy program near my hometown or an expensive but academically well-rounded school where I could experiment with a math major and still get a wholesome education if it didn’t work out. After weeks of procrastinating on making this life-trajectory-changing decision, I chose the open road, the university where I could experiment with my major and career options.

The natural question that arises when you start college with a major is “what am I going to do with this degree?” I took personality quizzes, I read lists of jobs for Applied Math majors, but what helped me cross things like investment banker and stock trader off my list was my involvement in on-campus organizations like our Student Investment Team. I joined the team fully intending to pursue a career in finance, but the experience was an experiment that saved me years of grueling work that I time-and-time again found myself unable to truly feel passionately about. My peers were enthralled in picking the next big company that was creating more value than their price reflected – to them, it was the thrill of finding a discount on the last pack of donuts tucked away at the grocery store, but for me, I got more thrill out of just eating the donut.

When I talked to my advisors and professors about what else I could try, one of them encouraged me to take the actuarial exam associated with the material we covered in class. Having one passed exam under my belt opened the doors to my next experiment – an internship as an actuary!

I will forever advocate for summer internships as one of the most valuable parts of college and being labeled as a student because it is the ultimate life and career experiment. When else would you get to try out a job to see if it’s a good fit for your skillset and what you want? Ultimately, I started my career after college graduation as an actuary at a consulting firm after deciding consulting would open more opportunities than the typical insurance actuarial role would – not dissimilar to how I chose between two universities 4 years earlier.

But when I started my career at Mercer, I didn’t realize that I would continue my experimentation in working on different types of projects and pursuing the ones that interested me most. When I asked to join a team that I had collaborated on a project with because the work was more interesting, the reaction from the group leader was not a simple “yes” acceptance or “no” rejection as college applications had been. The response from my boss’s boss has stayed with me ever since, and it was to “find business goals that align with your skillset.” Over the next five years, I joined the three different teams because I wanted to work on what the next most interesting team was working on and develop more skills. I had pivoted from being an actuary calculating how much money employers need to hold now to pay out their retirees, to being a consultant who knew a little bit of everything there was to know about employee benefits, to being a data scientist weaving people data into stories that business leaders could use to make decisions to offer different benefits, to building and interpreting machine learning models that our client managers could use to predict which clients needed their attention the most. For each new journey on a new team, I took some of what I already knew from my previous role, some of what I knew I didn’t know yet, and tried to bridge the gap to develop my toolkit of skills and evolve my career.

Last year, I paused and gathered the data on myself and took inventory of what I was good at – organizing and analyzing data, communicating, and applying the blend of data and communication to tell a story that drives a decision to address a difficult problem. I also recognized what I wasn’t good at – knowing all the ins and outs of a programming language, which I learned from my time frustrated with debugging my own scripts as a data scientist; learning how pieces of a tech stack can connect, which I found myself zoning out in my most recent role which reminded me of my disinterest in some Student Investment Team meetings; and my annual goal to “build x just for fun” which never came to fruition. Finally, I thought about what I wanted to do: learn how things work, strategize to solve problems, and not spend hours deep in code.  I sought out my next experiment; what are the biggest, most interesting business problems that align with my skillset?

I’m happy to share that one year into my current experiment as a product manager, I have the flexibility to define my own role and touch on both the technical and strategic aspects of the product team I’m on. I’ve always felt the pressure to be able to finish the sentence “when I grow up I want to be…”, but I also hadn’t heard of a product manager or data scientist when I was in high school or college, so any answer I gave wouldn’t have panned out. So while I didn’t pursue this career from the beginning, I’ve taken bits of new skills from each role I’ve had, learned what I wasn’t good at or didn’t enjoy by trying new things, and continually pursued something that was a mutually beneficial fit between what I wanted to do, what I was good at, and what the world (or my company) had a need for. I wouldn’t label my story as “how I became a Data Science Product Manager,” because next year I might have a different career.