Painting by numbers: Engineering, art and data science
By Chelsea Yates
February 13, 2017
Alumna Susie Lu’s unique double-major in Painting and Industrial & Systems Engineering set her on a career path to data visualization.
ISE alumna Susie Lu.
Painting and industrial engineering may seem like an unlikely pairing for an undergraduate double-major. But for Shan “Susie” Lu (’10), both courses of study were essential; for her, picking between them was not an option, as both inspired and challenged her in different but compelling ways. So, she decided to pursue her B.S. in engineering and B.F.A. in art simultaneously.
Since then, she’s woven skills gained from both into a rich career in data visualization. Currently a Senior Data Visualization Engineer at Netflix, Susie recently spoke with us about how she uses her experience in art and engineering to bring a well-rounded perspective to data science.
COE: Tell us about working in the field of data visualization. What does a data visualization engineer do?
SL: Data visualization engineers present trends, figures, statistics, stories, correlations and so on, in a visual context so that it can be better understood and assessed. These days, companies tend to be very interested in gathering as much data as possible. That’s great, but to make it useful, they need ways to analyze it.
At Netflix, we do a lot of A/B testing and data analysis to better understand our audiences. I spend time programming custom data visualization applications in which I present analytics in a graphical format to help Netflix effectively understand our data. This has the potential to inform many aspects of Netflix’s business — from how users interface with the Netflix app, to which movies are offered through it, to the types of shows Netflix produces.
How did you get interested in data visualization?
After graduating from the UW, I worked at Accenture Technology Labs. I learned how to program on the job and became a front-end developer. I grew interested in visual storytelling and how we could design and build websites and platforms that told stories based on insights gained from data. For example, I developed a visual story that examined NBA teams by assists and each player's shot record. My time at Accenture provided my first dip into data visualization and I enjoyed the challenge.
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From there I worked as a data scientist and data visualization developer for Silicon Valley Data Science, where I created visual stories for clients and internal audiences. A few examples include The History of Rock & Roll in 100 Songs and The State of Gerrymandering. And then I was hired at Netflix.
I didn’t intend to have a career in data visualization when I was in school; in fact, the field was really just forming then. But I’m glad to be here; it’s been a great space for me to draw from both my art and engineering backgrounds.
While at the UW, you double-majored in ISE and Painting. Why?
I had always been interested in math and science but knew I wanted to do work that was more applied than research-based. I was drawn to ISE because I liked the way it integrated information, business and people (among other things) to design and improve systems.
But I also loved painting, and I couldn’t help but enroll in art classes at the UW. Art became very important to me, and after a few years, I’d taken enough art classes to be well on my way to a major. At first I thought I was crazy to consider double-majoring in two very different programs, but my mom encouraged me. I needed to make art, just like I needed to flex the engineering muscles in my brain. My mom saw this in me and gave me advice that I still carry with me today: She told me that I didn’t have to excel at everything but that I should focus on what I cared most about. If I cared about both painting and engineering, she said, then I should pursue both.
To a lot of readers, these two programs probably seem like very different worlds. Were they?
In many ways, yes! There was no overlap in the curriculum, and both had very different requirements for senior projects and graduation. But for me, they presented a balance of intellectual activity and curiosity. I became good at prioritizing projects and managing my time.
For me, art and engineering became complements to each other; when I’d start to feel really uncreative or burnt-out with painting, then I could throw myself into my engineering projects. Likewise, when I needed a break from engineering, I had my art. The correspondent nature of their relationship still drives me today.
What did you like best about your time at the UW?
One of the best moments was at graduation when professors from both the ISE and Art Departments nominated me for Dean’s Medals, and I received one from each college. I also had the opportunity to study art history in Italy through the Art Department — I’ll never forget that.
In addition to these experiences, so many of the skills I learned through ISE have been essential. For example, learning to work collaboratively was a huge part of what I gained from ISE. I was the president of the student group in my senior year. That was such an enjoyable experience because all of the officers took their roles seriously and I was able to delegate, rely on them and give them freedom and responsibility for their jobs.
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Are there any engineering classes that have been particularly helpful?
The human factors class I took in ISE has been very helpful. Since I’m building applications, I often apply the design principles from that class to understand my audience and create thoughtful, easy-to-use applications. All of the statistics, modeling, simulation and design of experiments classes have also really paid off. Many of the dashboards I work on use statistics to calculate if changes in the data we are seeing is significant. Having had the exposure to all of these concepts has made conversations with the users of these applications much easier.
What advice do you have for current students?
Focus on your strengths, and do what motivates you. Find what you really care about and become exceptional at it. For me art and engineering are both integral to who I am, and for a time I struggled with feeling like I had to pick one or the other. Once I realized that I couldn’t choose between them, and instead chose to pursue both, I felt much more motivated. And complete. Yes, it meant more work, but it was work I cared about.