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Balancing the Grind with Mojan Hamed, Data Science at Shopify

Mojan Hamed is a full-stack data scientist at Shopify, where she works on a range of problems, which includes data engineering, experimentation and machine learning.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

For the past three years, I’ve been working in Data Science and Engineering at Shopify

My academic background is a Bachelor of Applied Science in Engineering at the University of Waterloo (a couple hours outside my hometown of Toronto). The program included six paid internships – so I graduated with a fair bit of work experience.

That, combined with the burden of incredibly high-interest student loans made it all the more appealing to enter the workforce immediately after graduation. I worked a smattering of jobs with the Canadian government, Facebook and eventually made way to my current role at Shopify. 

In these positions, I was always in the realm of data science with titles like “analyst” or “business intelligence”, but it wasn’t until the current one that I truly grew into the full-stack data scientist role.

About two years ago, I started my Master of Science in Computational Mathematics at the University of Washington at night, continuing my full-time work during the day.

Today, I tackle a wide set of problems ranging from data engineering, experimentation and machine learning, but am most interested in specializing in the latter.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

My day normally begins at 7AM, being berated for a walk by my senile Pekingnese, Dash. We live in a quiet suburb outside of Toronto, and starting the day with some fresh air really is a blessing (until about February when the cold becomes unbearable).

My partner works evenings, so we spend the rest of the morning catching up as it’s our only time together during the week. Prior to the pandemic, I would take the train into the downtown core but have since been working from my home office.

I make myself a coffee, get dressed and log on around 8 30 to submit an asynchronous standup, which has been a lifesaver because it forces me to approach the day with intention.

I need a lot of structure and discipline to be productive, so even the larger projects (statistical models, engineering problems, and so on) are broken down into incremental tasks that we plan into two-week sprints.

I catch up with my team, emails, Slack messages and then get organized to start the work day. I typically aim for a 40/60 split between smaller tasks and long-term goals respectively, and spend a majority of my time heads-down or pair programming with relatively little time spent in meetings.

Lunchtime is completely unplugged from work; weather permitting, Dash and I take an hour to sit on the patio and squirrel-watch. 

By 5 30PM, I’m usually wrapping up my work day and heading to the dog park. I make dinner and pack enough for the following lunch, since my hour lunch would be taken up by cooking when I’d rather use that time as a break.

I spend the rest of the evening reading, writing for my blog, running errands or chipping away at our never-ending home renovation ideas. I end the day with a cup of tea and my bullet journal.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

My current role has gone completely remote since March, and will continue to be digital by default for the foreseeable future. The hours have always been flexible within reason. I see the pros and cons of a permanent work-from-home model, and I’m leaning in to the pros. 

On one hand, I’m incredibly introverted and the added social friction that came with this change has been difficult. As with many metropolitan areas, my friends live outside the city and are only drawn in by work, which means we no longer have that as a common attractor.

My partner doesn’t have the option to work remotely and works evenings, so during the week, I have little to no human interaction. He and I were travelling the world, our favourite pastime was attending baseball games – it hasn’t been easy to adapt.

There are many positives, though. To counteract the social aspect, I’ve been more proactive in planning weekends: tennis with my team members on Saturdays, brunch with girlfriends, spending more time with family that live a few hours away.

I used to spend an hour commuting each way – that’s over 700 hours a year – getting that time back is a gift. I had decided to delay motherhood because of the amount of time I spent away from the home, which is a sacrifice I may not need to make with the option to work remotely.

In general, spending this much time at home has pushed me to expand my identity outside of my career and shift the focus to my personal life.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

Work-life balance, to me, means having the confidence and fulfillment to draw a boundary between professional and personal life without being burdened by the guilt of making tradeoffs so that happiness is the priority.

I’m still working on this. I don’t know if it comes from wanting to dedicate my 20s to the hustle and grind, or if it’s the pressure of being a first-generation immigrant, but it’s on me to unravel an internalized belief that no matter how well I’m doing, enough isn’t good enough.

I had an “aha moment” about this last year. I was working full-time during the day, doing my Master’s at night, in the midst of selling our first home and had taken the week off to fly to Berlin to speak at a machine learning conference.

At one point on that trip, I was hunched on the floor at Heathrow, mid-panic attack, trying to submit an assignment before the plane finished boarding so that I could make it back to work in the morning.

I knew in that moment that I was choosing to deteriorate my mental health in favour of feeling successful. The trap of high-functioning anxiety is that the worse it gets, the more productive you seem. 

It’s a process. I’ve found with age and the perspective that comes from experience, I’ve begun to define myself as who I am and not what I accomplish, which is what ultimately will lead to better work-life balance.

Order our Daily Routines ebook today! Featuring first-hand interviews, insights and revelations compiled from 50 of the world’s most successful people.

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I’ve definitely become more health-conscious. About a year ago, I started to learn more about the nutritional content of my food and started to eat for fuel and not fun. For a Persian girl, that’s culture shock. We’ve completely cut out fast food and try to keep our meal ingredients as true to their raw form as possible.

Barring data catastrophes, I also stopped working past 6PM. I had to white-knuckle this at first because my sense of urgency is high no matter what the situation, but it really has taught me that very few things can’t wait until the next day. Along the same lines, I’ve adopted the mantra that someone else’s lack of planning is not my emergency.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

Just One Thing (Hanson) is a fantastic book for finding balance through mindfulness; it’s on my list of life-changing books. 

I’ve also been poring over a lot of stats-based material recently, here’s a shortlist: Statistical Rethinking (McElreath), How to Lie with Statistics (Huff), Trustworthy Online Controlled Experiments (Kohavi et al), The Book of Why (Pearl), and Data-Driven Modelling and Scientific Computation (Kutz).

The Wayfair and Stitch Fix engineering blogs are great as well.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

The Chemex six-cup classic pour-over, with Fahrenheit Coffee Diablo beans served in a KeepCup. It’s oddly specific and I try to resist being a coffee snob and yet here we are.

For the workday, I absolutely need a whiteboard – it sounds simple but it’s upped my systems thinking and overall engineering cleanliness to map solutions abstractly. The rest of my setup includes a standing desk, an ultrawide curved monitor and an ergonomic chair.

I use the Headspace app from time to time, but I don’t have any apps that I can’t live without. I’m more of a pen-and-paper person; I keep a bullet journal to stay organized. I also recently got a Galton board for my desk (I could live without it, but I don’t want to). 

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?  

I’d love to know more career-driven POC moms, and one work perk is that I get organic exposure to entrepreneurs. I recently learned of Denise (partakefoods.com), Patrice (satya.ca) and Arounna (bookhou.com), and it’s been inspirational to see that level of success with female POC representation. 

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About Author

Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.