An Interview with Yuxi (Annie) Zhang

by Amruta Vidwans, Léa Ikkache, and Anna Xambó
Mar 13, 2017

A few words about Yuxi (Annie) Zhang:
Yuxi (Annie) Zhang is a Software Engineer at Pandora and a Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology (GTCMT) alum. She specializes in software programming, robotic musicianship, machine learning, optimization, digital signal processing and violin. Annie Zhang obtained her BS at the University of Science and Technology of China, where she developed a band of seven robotic instrumentalists that performed a symphony automatically. She was a Research Assistant at Dartmouth College in Computing Engineering before doing her master at GTCMT in Georgia Tech.

Why did you choose music tech as a field of study? What fascinates you to be in this area of music tech?
I started to play violin since I was a little kid and in my undergraduate studies I built a robotic music band that plays music, including pianists, drums, guitar, and violin. After college, I was doing my Ph.D. in computer engineering, and I found out that what I was interested is music, so I quit my Ph.D. That’s my path to music technology. It just feels more fun to work on something that you are interested in, and also it is part of my daily life to have music in it. Right now I work at Pandora, so we listen to music every day and create personalized playlists for each listener. I feel like it is more meaningful and entertaining for me.

Do you think that you were attracted to this field because of the interdisciplinary nature?
Yes, I think it is in both ways. I have a computer engineering background that empowers me to do more technical stuff about music like MIR research, and robotics, but also vice versa, the music itself, gives me more freedom to explore other possibilities in the computing field. So it is always a combination of the two, and one will reinforce the other. I think that without one or the other it would not be so much attractive to me.

While you were at GTCMT, there were not that many female students in GTCMT. How was your experience in general?
I didn’t know that before I came here. After I had arrived, I saw that I was the only female student here. I didn’t feel so much different because I felt that I was as capable as other male students and that I can do whatever they can do.

But if you would have got that information before, that there are no female students, would that have affected your decision somehow?
Probably not because I think I am more with a man’s heart inside of my body, so I am not afraid of anything. If I want to do something I just do it without too much thinking.

How was your experience making a transition from graduate school to your professional life at Pandora?
I started at Pandora as an intern in Summer 2014. I knew I wanted to work at Pandora or other music-related companies because it is more challenging for me. I applied for the internship and got the position. After the two months of internship, I got the full-time offer, so I just went there directly after graduating. At Pandora, we also had few women in our team (two women). I had a mentor who guided me through the whole process of the transition.

How stressful do you find it at Pandora as compared to the graduate studies?
Personally, I think that Pandora is a relatively laid-back company. We don’t need to work at night, for example. We have flexible office hours. That’s the cool part I really like. In graduate studies, you pretty much don’t have weekends, but it’s only for two years. In companies, it is always product-driven. When you have a product to deliver, you have to make milestones, deliver each milestone on time. The product manager will supervise your progress. It’s always teamwork with other members, and you don’t need to rush. Especially in Pandora, we focus on the quality the most, other than the speed or time limits. If you think your part needs more time that’s fine, just take your time and finish it according to your pace. Personally I feel that it is more relaxed than graduate school.

Would it have been helpful if there was a support group or discussion among students like currently, we have Women in Music Tech?
Having a support group would definitely help, where members can discuss topics together and help each other. I think there exists women in tech groups in other organizations as well. In the Bay Area, we have a women in technology group in each company. We meet every month. We share ideas, discuss issues, and support each other. There’s also the Grace Hopper conference, where women in tech meet and talk about everything, including babies [laughs].

How did Pandora support you when you decided to have a baby or how was your balance?
Pandora is very generous about the leave policies. We have 12 weeks maternity leave for moms and dads. I took a maternity leave when I had my baby. When I went back to work, my mentor walked me through all the things that I missed during my maternity leave. I think that is the case with most of the tech companies in our field.

What’s your favorite part of your job at Pandora?
I work at the playlist team where we recommend songs for listeners. We collect all the feedback from the listeners and build recommenders. It’s not that far away from what I did in my graduate studies. It just feels fulfilling to see people like your product, and they like what you are recommending, and they love what you created for them. To me, that’s the most satisfying part. Also, working with scientists brings a lot of insights in the research domain because I am doing the engineering work, I know what is the latest, cutting-edge technology in the field of MIR and recommendation.

Given that you are in tech, are you going to educate your daughter in a specific way?
I think I’ll probably tell her to be independent. I’ll probably won’t tell her to work in a particular field like in tech or non-tech, but I think being independent as a woman is critical for her, just don’t rely on anything or anyone, always be strong and support herself, no matter in which field she ends up in the future.

You mentioned that you had a mentor at Pandora. How important is it to have a mentor?
I think that mentoring is the most valuable aspect at Pandora. My mentor is a senior software engineer. Mentoring is supposed to just offer and get nothing out of it. He will offer you anything that you need, and he is responsible for guiding you through all the changes and transitions that you should experience. Whenever I have questions, issues, and I cannot find the way, I just go to him. He will not answer it for me; he will just tell me where to look at, how to think about it. Or if that’s something that he doesn’t know, he will point me to someone who knows the answer. Also, he’s going to help you network within the group. And this summer I will be a mentor for an intern.

Does Pandora have any mentor program?
Yes, we have a mentor program for women specifically. The mentees are all women, and the mentors can be either women or men in the company. We choose mentors and mentees in two directional ways, and once we have that connection, it will stay for whatever you feel like. And you can always change your mentors. If you feel like you have learned everything from this person, you can switch to the other mentor.

What do you think about the Uber issue?
That’s very shocking to me. I don’t even know if that’s true or not. It’s very unbelievable. I think companies won’t last long with this kind of attitudes towards women. And I do believe that’s not the case in most of the tech companies because I feel they are always very friendly and respectful to women.

Women face many challenges in the tech field, but they also bring strengths. What are the strengths that women bring?
I think that women are more artistic and we pay more attention to details. That helps in general for a successful product and project design. Also, women are more sensitive to the whole atmosphere of the group. When our manager assigns projects to each individual, we always try to balance women and men so that we have a diverse group.

Any final thoughts?
Currently, in tech companies, we aim to bring this balance of women vs. men. Every company is responsible for revealing this data to the outside world, and try to keep the balance. We are hiring more women in the technical field, that’s the case for all tech companies. I strongly encourage women, if you are interested in working at tech industries, to apply. Don’t be shy. There will be people out there helping you to make the transition and provide you anything you need. It’s going to be fun!

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