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My Interview with Superlinguo: Linguists in Careers

This is cross-posted from an interview I recently did with Superlinguo, a language and linguistics blog by Lauren Gawne, for her excellent linguists in careers series.

From Lauren:

A lot of tech people I know say “the best skill a programmer can have is knowing how to look up the right answer on Stack Exchange” It’s one of those websites that people use every day, but perhaps without thinking about how it gets built. Megan Risdal is one of the people who make Stack Overflow happen, as a Product Manager leading Public Q&A. As Megan mentions below, there’s even a Linguistics Stack Exchange (you might just see some old answers from me there). Megan has not only forged a career for herself in tech, she helps demystify the industry for other linguists who might follow in her footsteps, on Twitter (@MeganRisdal) and her blog.

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What did you study at university?

My undergraduate degree is in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire where my interests were in individual differences. I also did a minor in French and this is where I first learned about linguistics as a field of study. My combined interests in language and individual differences psychology led me to completing a senior thesis project on variation in attitudes towards linguistic diversity. Just last year this work was published with my then advisor, Dr. Erica Benson, as a chapter in Language Regard: Methods, Variation, and Change.

From here, I did a Master’s degree in Sociolinguistics at North Carolina State University. Building on my statistics background from studying psychology, I dove deeper into quantitative methods, learning R along the way, while focusing on sociophonetics and laboratory phonology. For my capstone project, I measured articulatory (ultrasound tongue imaging), aerodynamic, (nasal/oral airflow), and acoustic variation in coarticulatory vowel nasalization strategies among Anglo-American and African American (Vernacular) English speakers.

Finally, I started a PhD at UCLA where I intended to continue studying laboratory phonology. I only ended up finishing one year which was spent on theoretical foundations, articulatory phonetics, and learnability before leaving with a second Master’s degree in Linguistics. I ended up deciding to leave academia because I was disillusioned already with the prospect of the job market and the limited potential for my work to have impact beyond academia. I made my mind up when I applied for a job at Google and got an interview. I ultimately failed, but this was enough for me to feel confident my resume was “good enough” (completely incidentally I ended up later getting hired and working at Google for a couple of years prior to my current role).

What is your job?

For the past six months I’ve been working as a Product Manager at Stack Overflow where I lead the team working on public Q&A. If you’re not familiar with Stack Overflow, it’s a site where anyone who codes can come to find answers to their programming questions. We also have the Stack Exchange network which has similar Q&A sites for other topics like cooking and anime. There’s even a Linguistics Stack Exchange site.

In my day-to-day, as a product manager, I work closely with our developers, designers, researchers, data scientists, community managers, marketing, and leadership. So, it’s a lot of meetings and a lot of Google Docs. My job entails taking many, many inputs and synthesizing them into a strategy and product roadmap that the team executes on to make Stack Overflow a more useful, engaging place for all developers. On a given day, you could catch me writing a new feature specification for a developer, reviewing results of an experiment with our data scientists, or dropping in on user interviews. One of the things I love the most about my job is the variety. If a project is slipping or we just don’t have the resources for something important, I’m the person who can step in and do what it takes to make sure the work of my collaborators adds up to something successful.

How does your linguistics training help you in your job?

My training in linguistics absolutely helps me.

First, and most importantly I believe, my background in sociolinguistics has taught me the significance of diversity among groups of people (like users of a product) in so many ways. For example, Stack Overflow sees many millions of users every month, but we know that not everyone is equally likely to participate on the site. There are huge, intimidating barriers to participation which disproportionately impact different groups of people depending on things like their background and experience coding. So every day I think about how changes to the product will affect different types of users. Me and my team are constantly striving to better understand the important ways our users vary in their backgrounds, motivations, and pain points and how we can better meet their needs. Especially in a globally diverse online community like ours where users interact and community with each other it’s extremely important for me and my colleagues to think about always.

Second, and more concretely, the quantitative methods and experimental best practices I acquired while studying linguistics are highly applicable to my day-to-day job. We make use of a lot of different qualitative and quantitative research methods at Stack Overflow and having training in this area allows me to leverage these resources effectively in my product decision-making. Before I joined Stack Overflow, I had also spent some time as a data scientist, so my background in statistics and R was extremely relevant there. Without this training, I don’t think I would be where I am today.

Do you have any advice do you wish someone had given to you about linguistics/careers/university?

Overall, I’m very happy with my trajectory. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who supported me at every stage and I would not be where I am today without all of these experience (yes including dropping out of a PhD!). That said, some thing that I wish I had encountered sooner are:

  • Seriously, build a public portfolio. Make your work visible. Curate an online presence. Having even a just a modest Twitter following and some publicly discoverable content with my name on it has helped me immeasurably in my career. Oh, and learn git.
  • Pay some attention to what’s going on outside of your academic bubble. I fully intended to stay in academia when I started my PhD at UCLA. Had I thought somewhat ahead of time about the possibility that I would end up industry, I may have prioritized different classes or perhaps even chosen a different PhD program altogether. For example, if you have a choice between learning OCaml and Python, maybe see what non-academia has to say, too, as an input to your decision. Then again, hindsight is 2020. I would have seriously regretted not taking statistics/research methods under any circumstances, though.

Any other thoughts or comments?

I think every tech company should look to hire people trained in linguistics. There are so, so many ways in which a background in linguistics is relevant to so many careers in tech. From user research to data science to (apparently) product management, a background in linguistics adds a unique and valuable perspective. If you’re not sure what you’re qualified for, carefully tailor your experience, cast your net wide, and seek out advice!

Read more interviews on Superlinguo!

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