Spotlight: Mark Allen

Mark AllenRole:
Director, Business Analytics




Hire Date: May 2013




Fun Facts: Has a deep knowledge base of Pre-1992 American Musicals

“I’m very excited about the diversity of things we have going on. I think we have the one tent pole business going on that’s doing great, keeps the lights on, but we have this fire hose of students that come to our site and we have an opportunity to create a portfolio of different services that students would be interested in. Creating a sort of ecosystem designed for college students is really cool!”

What did you do before coming to Chegg?

I worked at a small education start up, first in Palo Alto, then Menlo Park, where I was a Data Scientist. In fact, I was the only data scientist there, so I was responsible for data science, business intelligence, along with a little bit of engineering. Both of my parents were in education. My dad was my elementary school principal, my mom was a teacher, and my brother is a teacher, so it just sort of fit.

Why did you decide to come to Chegg?

I liked the interesting problems that Chegg has. I liked all of the people I met and I was really interested in a place that was growing. I didn’t want to go to a very large company. I wanted to go a place where I felt like there would be a lot of problems to solve and just start hammering through them. There were places where they already have a 98% solution for everything and just need you to get it to 99%–that’s great and some people are into that.

Here at Chegg, we probably have two types of problems on a regular basis:

A. What is going on here? Which is a lot of problem solving and it’s almost like playing 20 questions because the more questions you ask, the more you exclude and the more you can drill down further and further to what the answer might be, which is the sort of problem I think is fun.

B. The other thing I think is fun is changing the way people think about things and creating new processes. For example, I really enjoyed creating a new process for forecasting the textbook business and understanding what’s the right way to carve out the puzzle pieces so that they fit together nicely as opposed to taking a bunch of different stuff and trying to hammer it altogether. With any sort of process, the more hands on and touching people have to do, the more problems and moving pieces there are, which makes it that much difficult to solve. The idea of removing moving pieces and just sort of getting into it is a very powerful thing.

What are you most proud of?

The one thing I would say that I am proud of is I think when it comes to our textbook rush, it’s a lot more calm than it used to be. I’d like to think I played a hand in getting there. I think we generally make better decisions when we’re calm, and I’m by no means the only person who helped getting things that way. I think this rush we went through, no one seemed to be running around like they did in the past. I think we’re getting better at everything. I think we do a much better job of diagnosing—you know when you see something that’s unexpected, we’re doing a much better job of remaining calm and going through a series of questions and narrowing it down. I think we’ve gotten a lot of things sorted out.

What have you been working on lately?

I’ve been working on a lot of stuff, but the one thing I’ve been trying my best to focus on more than anything else is learning more about Chegg Tutoring and understanding how that business works.  There’s a formal business integration plan, but really the way our group works is that there is a person associated with each part of the business and in the case of Chegg Tutoring we have Jessica up there, who can help us learn about what they think is interesting, how they solve problems, and how they go about running that business. One of the things I think is really interesting about Chegg is learning about all of these different businesses, how they subtly affect each other in different ways, and understanding the tradeoffs. I know that we have the textbook rush at the beginning of the semester quickly followed by Chegg Study getting really busy and Chegg Tutoring just keeps getting busier throughout the year. There is this interesting sort of complement among the three businesses. The next step is to see how we can streamline our products to better serve our users, the students.

Has anything surprised you about working here?

I would say that I was generally surprised at how few bad apples there are here. I think everyone is basically fine. There are some people where you see the same situation and you disagree about it and that’s fine; you get a couple hundred people in a building, that’s bound to happen. But generally speaking, there’s no one I find extremely unpleasant, which is not the case at my previous job, so maybe that’s why it was so surprising.

How did you get into your field?

Blind luck. I was a physicist for 10 years, PhD in Particle Physics, Post Doc in Astrophysics and it became clear that I didn’t want to keep doing this. I started looking around for jobs and I figured that I had skills that must be useful to someone; I just didn’t necessarily know what those skills were and what people called people who had those skills. At the time, a lot of physicists were moving into Finance, which occurred so often that it became a stereotype. It was 2011, which was only three years after physicists broke the entire financial system; sorry about that!

I knew that I didn’t want to be go into Finance, but knew the applicable skills I had would be just working with data, because that’s what I’ve been doing since I was 19 years old. I spent a lot of time looking at job listings and talking to various people and eventually discovered this thing called “Data Science”, which is a fancy version of a Data Analyst, but that’s basically what we are. I think a lot of it, just like any other job, is that it’s a craft and I’m used  to looking at data and graphs and pulling out things that are what we should be paying attention to because it’s something that I’ve been doing for forever. It’s just not what everyone has been doing for forever. That was actually the thing I found the hardest was that when I left, is that when I started showing people the results, I expected everyone to see the same things I did. I’ve been staring at plots for 10 years and the hardest thing I had to learn was that people aren’t used to seeing information presented to them in that way. The first time I showed a plot my first time out of academia, I spent a lot of time on it and thought it was going to be great since we were a data driven company. So I put it in up in front of everyone and I showed this plot very quickly, said two things and was about to move on when everyone stopped me and asked me to walk them through the plot. It was then I realized not everyone sees what I see. It’s the same thing with an engineer, who has tons of code, or one of our recruiters who looks at resumes, after doing what you’ve been doing a lot, you just pick up that skill. John, (one of our Principal Recruiters) can flip through resumes faster than anyone like that I’m sure.

What advice do you have for someone looking to start in a role like this at Chegg?

Just go after it. There’s no substitute for just taking the initiative and going and getting it. Whatever it is, just go get it done. I’ve always believed in the making copies test and I almost feel like we should do this with people we interview. “Here’s a stack of papers, the copy machine is over there, give me copies on my desk in 30 minutes.” Basically there are going to be people who can do it or not. I think for people to be successful at Chegg and anywhere else is that it’s not just going to come to you; you have to go get it. You need to go read the manual if you’re a manual reader, or you need to start talking to people if you’re the person who can do it. Everybody has their own style but you just have to figure out the right way to make copies for you. There are people who will have copies on your desk by the end of the day and people who won’t.

What excites you most about Chegg’s future?

I’m very excited about the diversity of things we have going on. I think we have the one tent pole business going on that’s doing great, keeps the lights on, but we have this fire hose of students that come to our site and we have an opportunity to create a portfolio of different services that students would be interested in. Creating a sort of ecosystem designed for college students is really cool!