What does the career path and a day in the life look like for the Engineering Lead at Wayfair's Next Research team?
We interviewed Rebecca Perry to find out.
Where did you grow up? What did you parents do for work? What was your very first job?
I grew up in Concord, MA. My father worked as an attorney specializing in employment relations law, and my mother worked as an economist. My very first job was at Sally Ann’s Bakery in Concord Center. I mostly worked at the cash register, but occasionally got to learn how to make something from Bill Griffin the baker-owner.
Why did you decide to attend Bowdoin and study Physics?
I finished high school knowing that I enjoyed Math and Physics and was also interested in Engineering. I loved Bowdoin’s campus and wanted to spend four years in a small vibrant community before likely spending most of the rest of my life in cities. It helped that at Bowdoin I would get to continue pole vaulting, which I had started in high school.
As for studying physics specifically, it was a summer internship with a physics professor that hooked me. Someone recommended me to Professor Mark Battle who had been away on sabbatical. I am still thankful for Professor Battle and the anonymous person who made this connection for me.
What was your first job out of undergrad?
I worked as a Data Technician for a wind energy consulting firm. I was attracted to the job by the opportunity to make an impact in clean energy and because it involved lots of data and graphs. I assumed that the role would tick the right boxes to keep me happy as a quantitative person. I quickly learned that the parts of physics that had kept me engaged were not just the numbers and graphs but more importantly the creative and problem-solving aspects. After one year, I moved on to a different job that was a much better fit and led to grad school.
You went back to school to continue your studies at Harvard. What did you study and did you work on interesting research projects?
My Ph.D. is in Applied Physics (think physics with an engineering bent). I studied the three-dimensional motion of solid plastic spheres so small that thermal motion of a surrounding liquid is enough to move them appreciably. While small, these spheres are actually big enough to see with an optical microscope, and you can actually watch them carry out real random walks just like those used in mathematical modeling! In the course of my research, I learned to code in Python and particularly enjoyed coding for image analysis. Hopefully one day my dissertation research will contribute to leveraging random motion to construct desired tiny structures.
What prompted you to pursue a career in software engineering and how did you land at Wayfair?
I was looking for a role where I would be able to continue writing code to analyze images. I was volunteering at an MGH research lab working with CT scan data when I applied for a data science role at Wayfair. During an initial phone interview, I explained the kinds of three-dimensional problems I hoped to work on and was kicked over to interview for a brand new engineering group, Wayfair Next. As the second member of this fledgling team, I was tasked with evaluating and improving 3D scanning tech and taking on other research and image-oriented projects.
Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position and any interesting products you are building?
The team has grown, and I now lead the Research team within Wayfair Next. I am responsible for evaluating promising technology for use at Wayfair, supporting my team so that they can make creative connections to solve challenging problems, and identifying research projects with ambitious goals and potential for many smaller secondary wins.
Day in the Life
Coffee, tea, or nothing?
Typically tea, but what I really love is hot chocolate!
What time do you get into the office?
Every day is different, but can you outline what a typical day looks like for you?
Morning: Answering emails, checking on output generated by computers overnight, and making small code modifications based on the output. Each morning, our team of 12 or our subteam of four has a standup meeting to discuss current projects.
Afternoon: I might have a short meeting or two with another team to discuss a project. Outside of these, you’d be able to find me at my desk working on code to improve current projects that we are sending off to production or crafting new engagements to make sure my team always has interesting projects coming in.
Evening: Sometimes at the end of the day, when meetings are over, and people have started going home, I delve into the more research-focused projects that have no predictable timeline for return-on-investment, but could be really exciting if they work out!
What time do you head out of the office?
Between 5:30 and 6:30.
Do you log back in at night or do you shut it down completely?
I bring home the parts of work that I actively want to keep thinking about. There’s a great 3D scanning Facebook group that produces a ton of interesting content to read. Preparing for presentations is one thing I find I can only do at home.
Any productivity hacks?
I make a calendar event for anything that needs to get done, even if there is no good reason why it has to be done on that day or at that time.
What are the 3 apps that you can’t live without?
Google Maps, OpenMBTA, and Lyft. Phones are transportation devices, right?
What professional accomplishment are you proudest of?
Deploying 3D scanning tech to the two Wayfair photo studios is an accomplishment I am very proud of. I didn’t do anything like that during grad school.
Who do you admire or call upon for professional advice?
There is a leader of an adjacent group at Wayfair whom I highly respect and look to as a role model. I also highly value what I have learned from my grad school friends and friends-of-friends who are successful in their careers in software engineering, scientific research, academia, and clinical psychology. I’m thankful for this group of peers who provide outside perspectives on difficult situations and happily bask in each other's successes.
Images courtesy of Rebecca Perry.