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'Find the right mentor'

Photos by Evan Krape and Kathy F. Atkinson

Director of Facebook analytics addresses UD students, faculty, community

University of Delaware alumnus Chandra Narayanan returned to campus Thursday, Feb. 9, to discuss his unusual journey from a career in oceanography to analyzing data for Facebook, the most influential social media company worldwide.

“We are proud to have members of our alumni visit their alma mater and bring a message of success through hard work and being open to change to our students that are striving for excellence at UD,” said Mohsen Badiey, acting dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (CEOE).

“Your story illustrates the versatility of a UD education, and specifically the interdisciplinary, research-driven, hands-on education shared by the many students who learn critical thinking skills in our college.”

Narayanan earned his doctoral degree in oceanography in 1999. He went on to conduct postdoctoral work with the Naval Research Laboratory and spent time in academia and with the National Weather Service tackling multiple types of problems, from high performance computing to weather forecasting, before joining PayPal in 2009.

Today, as a director at Facebook, he oversees analytics for Core App and Instagram.

“Analytics is primarily about providing actionable insights and recommendations to help a product succeed,” said Narayanan.

While the leap from oceanography to analytics may seem unusual to some, Narayanan said the key to his success was remaining flexible in terms of what he thought his career should look like.

“The work is the same whether you are trying to understand how storm patterns develop in weather or what motivates Facebook users to continue using the product — you need to understand the phenomenon, identify a hypothesis and validate with data,” Narayanan said.

Reflecting on his time at UD

Narayanan credits his UD professors with mentoring him and creating opportunities for him to network and grow. These relationships remained long after graduation, providing important touch points as he navigated career opportunities and challenges.

“The University of Delaware has had a profound influence on me in so many ways,” Narayanan said.

“I learned from the very best at UD — Rich Garvine, my adviser, among others. These amazing professors inspired me; they taught me how to frame problems, ask the right questions and interact with experts.”

Good mentors, he said, come in all shapes and sizes. A good mentor doesn’t solve the immediate problem but illuminates the broader road ahead and inspires the person asking for help to think bigger.

Today at Facebook, Narayanan pays this idea forward by offering weekly office hours where anyone in Analytics can stop by for 15 minutes of his time.

Addressing the students in the audience, Narayanan said, “Not knowing enough is OK. Getting stuck is normal. It’s the willingness to ask questions and the open-mindedness to learn that is important. Find the right mentor, stay humble and have the humility to say, ‘I need to get better.’”

Succeeding in any job, he continued, requires passion, a growth mentality (or desire to continue to learn) and the ability to embrace failure. Sure, hard skills like coding and analytics make a difference in Narayanan’s field, but softer skills like relationship and team building are equally important.

Narayanan encouraged students to surround themselves with positive people, to look for ways that their skills and strengths can help others, and to be open to feedback from those above, alongside and below themselves.

“One of the things I have learned from interacting with very senior leaders at Facebook is how to react to failure and quickly rebound,” Narayanan said. “Feedback is a gift, and rebounding from failure is how you grow.”

Charting the future with a UD degree

A question and answer session followed the lecture. One immediate question on the minds of many in the audience was how to get hired at Facebook.

According to Narayanan, successful job candidates come from a variety of disciplines including oceanography, sociology, mathematics, English and more. Degrees vary too; some employees have bachelor’s degrees, while others have earned master’s or doctoral degrees.

“In fact, one of the people on my team who is crushing it right now is someone with a bachelor’s degree in English who learned on the job and demonstrated himself to be adaptable,” Narayanan said. 

To view a recording of Narayanan’s lecture on Feb. 9, click here

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