If you’re addicted to Pinterest you’re likely going to be very envious of Larkin Brown’s day job. She works as a User Researcher at Pinterest’s head offices in San Fransisco, and is also their in-house stylist. It’s unusual to see someone balance such a technical role with fashion styling, but Larkin has hit the jackpot, finding a position that speaks to both of her passions. She shares her story in this month’s #My9to5. So if you’ve ever dreamed about working in Silicon Valley start taking notes…
When did you first become interested in research and analysis? And how did you get your start in the tech industry?
I went to school right outside of Chicago, at Northwestern University, and majored in communication studies. In my third year I took a class called Social Network Analysis, which is a really narrow field that combines systems engineering with communication, sociology and phycology. You use networks to predict things that might happen in the future, and to test existing theories with data. It’s questions like, “How is swine flu going to spread across the world?”
I totally fell in love with Social Network Analysis, and badgered my professor every week until he finally gave me a job in his lab. I worked in the lab throughout my final year of undergrad, surrounded by PhD students, and I was so fired up. I wanted to do that kind of work, and asked which companies used Social Network Analysis. Everyone suggested Google, so I applied for a job there.
Google looked at my resume, which said communication studies, and offered me a job in the sales team. I knew I would miss research, but figured sales was a way in. And as soon as I got there I asked everyone I met where social network analysis was happening. I planted a ton of seeds, and within a year I was able to transfer over to User Experience Research. Which, at the time, was the very beginning of Google+.
Why did you decide to leave Google and move over to Pinterest?
During my years at Google I also started freelancing as a personal stylist. I had always been afraid to turn my creative hobby into a business, in case I eventually grew to resent it, but I started to wonder if there was a way I could combine my love of research and style.
Whenever I had five minutes to spare during the day I would log onto Pinterest. And I suddenly realised – Pinterest combined both of my interests, and it was a smaller company that was just beginning to build out its research team. It seemed like a great opportunity for me and I quickly set my heart on working there. Luckily they had a position opening, and it was the perfect fit.
What does your role as User Researcher and In-House Stylist entail?
Everything we do at Pinterest is with the Pinner in mind. So it’s my job to work out what would make the user experience better, and then help implement those changes. An average day for me really depends on what we’re launching. Sometimes I’m brainstorming with the design team and other days I’m digging through data with Pinterest’s team of researchers. And, as the in-house stylist, I’m responsible for styling our brand shoots.
What does your typical day at Pinterest look like?
Pinterest has a great workplace culture. You need to get your work done, but you can go about it in the way that works best for you. Everyone on my team is different. Some have young kiddos, so they prefer to come in early and leave earlier to be with their families before bedtime. But I’m the opposite. I’m not much of a morning person, so I prefer to sleep in and get into the office for 9.30am.
We’re served lunch every day, and there’s also a fair amount of food around in the mornings. So I usually make my breakfast at Pinterest. I’ll have a greek yogurt or some oatmeal with dried fruit and a cup of coffee. One cup of black coffee every day is all I need. But I definitely need it!
My preference is to get meetings out of the way in the morning, because in the afternoon I’m better heads-down. I can put headphones on and focus properly on any reports I need to write. And I’m totally obsessed with this Bollywood fitness class at the moment. So sometimes I’ll break at 6pm to go to the gym, then return to the office afterwards, work a little more and then head home.
What daily challenges do you face in your 9 to 5?
Well, one challenging thing is the fact it’s so easy to get distracted by the product. Because you’re always finding things that are interesting. So it’s very common to pull up Pinterest in a meeting to describe a user experience and suddenly have a moment where you’re like, “Oh, one second, just let me pin that… Great, so back to what we were saying…”
And the other challenge for me is balancing the researcher and styling roles, because I care about them both so much. They feed into each other really well, because it’s the insights about our Pinners that enable me to represent them truthfully in photos. But trying to support two different sides of the organisation at all times can be tricky.
And, on the flip side, what are the biggest perks of your job?
It has to be the people. There’s such an incredible community at Pinterest, and being surrounded by so many talented and creative people is a real joy. When I first joined the company there were around 170 people in the San Francisco office. And now we’re up to 800. So I’ve watched it grow really quickly. And we now also have an offices in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, São Paulo and Tokyo.
How do you unwind after a long day at work?
I’m learning how to play the ukulele. It’s just for fun, and it’s something I’ve been working on for a few years. I also have a pet rabbit – a feisty, floppy-eared bunny named Fiona. So if I’m headed straight home after work I’ll just go and hang out with Fiona and my fiancé, and maybe play the ukulele. They’ll often be a glass of wine involved too. And on the weekends, my fiancé and I love to have date nights at our favourite movie theatre. It serves artisanal popcorn, wine and craft beer while you’re watching the movie. It’s definitely our favourite way to unwind.
Which other women working in the industry inspire you?
On the tech side of things I’m really inspired by Tracy Chou. She’s really big in the women in tech movement, and she worked at Pinterest for a long time before starting her own company. Tracy inspires me because she was able to juggle two important and time-consuming jobs… One, being a big face in the women in tech movement and doing a lot of work on diversity. And, two, being an incredible software engineer and tech leader.
And, on the styling side, I find Stacy London really inspirational. Stacy focuses on matching her clients’ outward appearance to their inner selves, and I really appreciate that she’s been able to bring that perspective to American television.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?
When I was growing up I always used to tease my dad for giving us business advice in metaphors. But now I find myself quoting them all the time, so they were actually quite helpful. And he always used to say, “Feedback is everything.” You have to learn how to receive feedback gracefully, because if you’re defensive people will stop giving it to you. And then you won’t learn how to develop your skills further.
So the golden phrase when someone starts giving you feedback is, “Tell me more.” And then you just have to sit back, breathe and listen.
And, finally, what advice would you give to any women out there who are curious about working in tech?
My mom always teases me by saying, “You’re a bit of a hustler.” And what she means by that is when I want something I just move on it. That often means setting up a lot of conversations, because most people will be willing to talk to you for half an hour. People love talking about themselves – I’m loving this right now – and most can spare 30 minutes to tell you how they got to where they are.
Every time you have one of these conversations the most important thing to ask is, “What do you recommend I do next?” Often the answer might be, “You need to find a mentor – like me!” Or, “You should talk to these people…” And you just have to keep planting those seeds, because initially it’s hard to know which ones are going to grow.
When people tell stories about how they got to where they are it sounds really linear. Because people rarely tell you about the paths that didn’t lead anywhere. But when I got that first job at Google I had planted zillions of other seeds. That just happened to be the one that grew.
You can catch up on the previous My 9 to 5 interviews here >>