Beyond the jargon-filled job descriptions, do you sometimes wonder: what does someone in a particular role actually do day-to-day? Well, you're in luck: in our series Day in Z Life, get to know the 9 to 5 shuffle of individual members of our herd from what makes them tick to the purpose behind their work. Today, we're celebrating Data Science Day by featuring Chris Morgan, Head of Data Science at The Zebra.
Why The Zebra?
My background is in statistics and I have spent the past decade of my professional career in various insurance roles. Trust me in saying that insurance can be a very complicated industry – I can still find it confusing when shopping around for my own policies! When I discovered there was a company devoted to not only making that experience easier for shoppers, but also educating them in the process and allowing them to compare quotes in one place? That was something I could really get behind.
In addition, I was impressed with the company’s use of data and data science to deliver an impeccable user experience. The Zebra’s commitment to data was what really excited me about the Head of Data Science role. As I learned more about the maturity of data science and data science engineering here at The Zebra, I was interested in the opportunity to lead this space in the company.
How did you get into data science?
I like to say that I’ve always been doing data science — but in the beginning, we just called it statistics. Going back to my undergraduate days, I had an affinity for math but felt the coursework was very theoretical with limited real-world applications. I remember signing up for a stats class on a whim and to me it was applied math in action; I absolutely fell in love with it. After graduating from St Olaf College I pursued my master’s degree in statistics from Purdue University and started working as a statistician.
After being in the workforce and witnessing trends in my field, I realized I needed to elevate my programming skills which led me to a data scientist role with The General. In that position, I grew to a people manager and have been honing my skills ever since.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
My responsibilities at The Zebra are two-fold. First is my day-to-day people responsibilities. I lead a team of data scientists and machine learning engineers and it’s my job to ensure we are working on the right projects and adding the most value to the business. I am passionate about developing team members’ technical and non-technical skill sets.
The second is the broader scale of bringing insights to market. For example, if we’re building a predictive model to provide some business insight, then it’s our responsibility to take that information to the next level and put it into production. Our models are often responsible for making real-time decisions and need to be integrated into our funnel and quote flow. We are always striving to impact a specific and measurable key result.
Tell us about your team and org structure
The two roles in the data science team are data scientists and machine learning engineers. Though they operate in the same department, the two roles require very different skill sets.
The data scientists are responsible for understanding the business problems that we’re trying to solve and it’s important for them to communicate with key stakeholders and business partners. Our data scientists are responsible for collecting their own data, engineering features, building and validating predictive algorithms, and measuring performance.
The machine learning engineers take the model created by the data scientists and put it into production. Their job is to actualize those insights and bring them to market so that real-time business decisions can be made from them. What separates machine learning engineers from traditional software engineers is their unique understanding of the data science lifecycle and predictive models as well as their components. We’re creating software that brings a prediction to life and hopefully has a positive impact on our customers.
Why is analyzing data so important to The Zebra's product?
The importance of gaining insight from data applies to any company, industry, or product. Instead of working from hunches or gut feels, it’s imperative to really listen to the data and find historical patterns to make predictions about the future. The more strategic insight you can gain from your data, the more you’re going to differentiate yourself in the market.
Specific to The Zebra and our product offering, the insurance industry is ripe with historical data in terms of what goes into calculating rates. It can be very complex! The more data we can collect to analyze and gain insight, the better position we’re in to provide an exceptional customer experience at the end of the day.
What's something you want others in tech to know about data science?
Often when business owners look to data science, they see it either as advanced analytics (which it’s not) or as magic. It’s not a silver bullet that’s going to solve all your problems.
We see many stories in the news right now about the unintended consequences and biases from algorithms. It’s important we understand the ethical elements so we can bring a human component to validate and check for potential bias.
What’s something you want those interested in getting into data science to know about the field?
I want those interested in exploring data science as a career to know that imposter syndrome will always exist. I think there’s a barrier to entry that makes many feel like they aren’t capable or don’t know enough. But let me tell you – I still have imposter syndrome and it never goes away! You have to start somewhere.
Don’t try to be an expert in everything. Thinking of the “t-shape” model of learning, gain a cursory understanding of several topics and pick one particular lane you really love and are passionate about to go deep on. Whether it’s a technical skill or a non-technical one, I think this mindset applies to all facets of life.
What has been your favorite part about working for The Zebra?
Since joining The Zebra earlier this year, I’ve truly enjoyed meeting everyone and getting to know their diverse backgrounds. Our motto here is ‘All Stripes Welcome’ and from what I’ve seen we really embody that in our company culture.
The word ‘candor’ comes to mind when reflecting on my work experience thus far — fitting as ‘candor’ is one of The Zebra’s core values. I’ve seen this value in action within our leadership teams. It’s not uncommon for C-levels to ask for feedback — and it’s the honesty of the feedback that blows me away. It’s clear that our team feels free to express themselves openly and that’s been special to witness.