It’s not often that you get the chance to create a career for yourself that’s never existed before. Many graduates have planned their college years around jobs they want to have in the future, but for Hilary Mason ’00, carving out a place in an existing field just didn’t cut it.
A pioneer of the growing data science movement, Mason has combined her computer science background with statistics, engineering, and technology to make sense of the massive amounts of data that pile up in businesses and other enterprises.
“It’s a very rare thing to have the chance to be at the leading edge of something that has become a fairly significant movement,” Mason says. “It’s been really interesting to see it evolve.”
After working as the chief scientist at bitly.com, a well-known URL-shortening service, Mason has quickly become the face of data science. She’s been interviewed for Fortune Magazine and NPR’s Science Friday, and even cofounded a nonprofit called HackNY that connects hacking students with startup companies in New York City.
In 2014, Mason finally decided to take a leap and start her own business called Fast Forward Labs. She and her team analyze large amounts of data from their client businesses and develop prototypes for innovative technological products. The goal is to inspire their clients and show them what kinds of options are available to them.
“I saw an opportunity to add value by providing expertise to people building real products around data technology,” says Mason. “It’s a win for all, because we’re working on the most interesting technology that we can come up with at any given time!” A recent prototype they created was a program that identifies and categorizes users’ Instagram photos to provide more information about their interests.
For Mason, the Grinnellian spirit of combining multiple disciplines and thinking critically about the world we live in helped her to be a leader the field of data science. “Grinnell teaches you to think critically, communicate well, and analyze the world,” Mason says. “It’s an excellent grounding for entrepreneurship. Being able to think in that way is really helpful no matter what you end up doing.”
At Grinnell, students take classes in a wide variety of disciplines rather than just sticking within their majors. This makes them the perfect candidates for a world where thinking innovatively and combining multiple fields of knowledge is the hallmark of many of the most interesting jobs out there.