Faye Zheng’s tech career has gone fully remote over the past 18 months, and she wants to keep it that way.
Before joining Boston-based artificial intelligence chat startup Gamalon as a product lead, Zheng worked as the data science program director at Insight Data Science, where she learned how to build and foster community among academics and professionals in tech. And while she works in artificial intelligence now, she initially studied statistical bioinformatics in a doctorate program at Purdue University, focusing on developing models for differential gene expression.
Now, Zheng works from home, and just moved to Pittsburgh with the rest of her family. While her husband being a Steel City native is a big part of that move, she also shared that she finds the growing tech scene and friendly community here attractive, too. From added time with her family to increased access to some of the city’s natural beauty, Zheng loves working remotely because she feels it allows for a better work-life balance.
Zheng joined Technical.ly on our public Slack this week to talk about both her career path and these new work patterns. You can find the full version of it over in the #ama channel where we cover the AI chat market, keeping your Zoom camera on, how managers can validate their employees in a remote setting and more. Below, you’ll find a condensed version of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Technical.ly: Were you familiar with the tech scene here at all before your move?
Faye Zheng: We have had our eyes on Pittsburgh for several years. My husband loved growing up here, so we always had a feeling we’d move back. I’ve known about the presence of some of the big tech names here — Amazon, Google — and of course, local pride Duolingo. Since entering the AI space, I’ve been very interested in the R&D coming out of CMU and Pitt, feeding into the tech startup space, and have always seen Pittsburgh as having a ton of innovation assets in place.
That’s a common thread we hear from a lot of technologists and entrepreneurs — the talent pipeline for AI/automation/robotics. So tell me a bit about your own work in AI. You work for Gamalon, a startup developing an AI chat platform. Can you tell us a bit about what that is, and what your job there involves?
Gamalon started out in a proverbial basement at MIT in 2013 as a natural language platform that extracts ideas out of conversational language. In 2018 when I joined as a data scientist, we really started to productize this technology into what it is today, which is an AI chat platform. Our customers (businesses) use us to handle all the questions/sales/support that visitors need from their website — and do so in an automated way.
My role there has evolved from building models as a data scientist, to product leadership. I spend all my time thinking about what features we need to build and how to work with a lean engineering team build it.
I saw that you have a statistics background that seems to have focused a bit on bioengineering, too, from your work in graduate school at Purdue and in the data science program at Insight Data Science. How was the transition from that to your work at Gamalon? What skills do you think helped you the most?
These days there's a wealth of ways people can gain technical skills, and you certainly don't need a Ph.D. for it.
I got my Ph.D. in statistics with a focus in bioinformatics — basically developing statistical models for experiments involving DNA data. I knew an academic path wasn’t right for me, but academia can be a bubble, and I didn’t know what to do next. This lead me to apply to the Insight Data Science fellows program (of which I later became a director), which really opened my eyes to all the ways I could use my statistical skills for applications in the private sector beyond bioinformatics.
After several years directing the Insight program, I found Gamalon and was intrigued both by the problem they were trying to solve, and the stage of company they were in at the time. Namely, trying to commercialize a super promising technology. My role when I entered in 2018 was to build custom natural language solutions using our technology, delivering those solutions to our early customers, and using market learnings from those interactions to feed back into making our product better.
In terms of skillsets — yes, the technical skills played a part, but these days there’s a wealth of ways people can gain technical skills, and you certainly don’t need a Ph.D. for it.
If (fingers crossed!) in-person interactions become fully safe again, do you think you’ll continue to work remotely? I ask because Gamalon is based in Boston, but you’re putting down roots here in Pittsburgh now.
I love remote work way more than I thought I would. A big personal reason is that we had our daughter last May at the height of the pandemic, and it was such a (mixed) blessing to be able to spend time with her at home during her first year. I can’t imagine how much harder it would have felt to have to commute every day. Work/life balance is much simpler working from home.
Being able to work remotely while remaining at Gamalon has allowed us to move to where it makes sense for our family. However — I do enjoy meeting and talking with people in person, too, so I would definitely consider a hybrid approach, but maybe when the kids are older.
Has Gamalon always allowed remote work, or were employees allowed special circumstances because of the pandemic?
Gamalon has hovered between 20 to 35 people since I’ve joined. We always had a few key employees work remote, but the core had been in the physical Boston office. When COVID hit, we were like, why are we paying $30,000 per month in rent?! So we gave up our lease, and now still don’t have an office. We have had other employees move away from Boston since last year, and the company’s official policy has been to allow employees to move where they need to move.
I’m fascinated by the idea of building a company without a true office. How did you replicate that entrepreneurial culture that’s needed to grow an early-stage business, online?
There's nothing that keeps the fire lit better than knowing you're crucial for something.
Turn your cameras on!!!! Seriously. I do not understand how anyone can fully participate in a meeting with their cameras off. Or talk to other people over Zoom when other people’s cameras are off.
I think it’s [also] important to find an area of ownership where people look to you and depend on you. There’s nothing that keeps the fire lit better than knowing you’re crucial for something. That’s true remote or in-person, of course, but even more important remote.
I love that answer. We just had a short discussion on a company call yesterday about the importance of validating each other in a workplace. It can certainly be isolating at times, so hearing that validation from coworkers energizes you to do more good work.
Yes. And I really think the onus of this is on managers and leadership — if you are managing someone, you need to make sure that the people on your team feel ownership about what they’re doing. Entrepreneurial spirit is not something you can force on someone, it’s something you have to help them find.
Wondering if you see any downsides to remote work for new companies, though? I ask because we’ve had a lot of investment in physical workspaces in Pittsburgh recently, indicating some companies are committed to going back in person.
New companies depend a lot more on extremely close working relationships which can be difficult to replicate online. Zoom calls are often scheduled for specific reasons, but for startups, there’s often a real need to just spend a whole day in a room together slowly brainstorming in a nonlinear fashion. I guess you can have the camera on all day, but there’s something that just isn’t the same.
Not to mention that remote whiteboard technology isn’t great (or maybe I just haven’t found a good one).
Yes! It’s those unexpected exchanges over coffee or impromptu brainstorming sessions that can really drive a company forward sometimes.
It’s about relationship-building, too. You work better when you know a little bit about the people you’re working with as people. There are ways to be deliberate about carving time for that when everybody’s remote — but even so, I have to say that I miss chit-chatting with colleagues about bad reality TV in our office kitchen.
Is there anything in particular you’re looking to find in the Pittsburgh tech community? What did you like about Boston’s, for example, that you hope to also find here? Or build, if it’s not here already!
Boston had a lot of local support for startups — not just money, but advice, networking, and resources. I’m only starting to explore that here! One thing I’d love to see start happening over the coming years is that we have enough support in Pittsburgh that companies that start here, stay here.
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-