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Crunching numbers

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: December 7, 2020 12:00 a.m.

Max Schmeiser, head of data science for Twitter, photographed near Seattle’s Pacific Science Center. Its trademark arches can be seen in the background. The Center was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the Dr. John Archer Library, Classroom Building, and Laboratory Building, and was the architect of New York’s World Trade Center.
Max Schmeiser, head of data science for Twitter, photographed near Seattle’s Pacific Science Center. Its trademark arches can be seen in the background. The Center was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the Dr. John Archer Library, Classroom Building, and Laboratory Building, and was the architect of New York’s World Trade Center. Photo: Joshua Huston

Max Schmeiser has always been in a hurry. From zipping across hockey rinks in his youth, to racing  through his education at the University of Regina, he is always chasing his goals. 

Growing up in Regina, he was a serious kid who knew exactly what he wanted to be—an economics professor. It was, after all, the perfect melding of his parents’ occupations: an agricultural economist (his dad) and a schoolteacher (his mom). He sped through his undergraduate career at the University of Regina in three years, not because he wasn’t enjoying what he was learning, but because he only knows one speed—fast .

Multiple degrees followed—a Master of Arts in Economics from McMaster University, and both a Master of Science and PhD in Policy Analysis and Management from Cornell University—and just like that, he realized his dream. Schmeiser became an assistant professor in the Department of Consumer Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching classes on topics such as family economics and risk management.

He was still in his 20s and had accomplished everything he set out to do. Young Max was right: being a professor was a wonderful job. But it turned out there were other careers beyond the dreams of even the most ambitious child interested in economics. Little did he know back then, as a kid running around the wide-open spaces of Saskatchewan, that he would one day live in a much hillier city, playing an instrumental role in the success of one of the world’s biggest social media platforms.

Long before Schmeiser became the head of data science for Twitter, he was a student at the University of Regina, taking every economics class he could pack into his schedule. “It was 
a small program, and I appreciate the connection I had with the professors,” he says. “I had the good fortune to get a research assistantship position with Dr. Marion Jones, and I got to be a teaching assistant as well while I was there, which really helped set me up for grad school.”

From the beginning, he knew his long-planned major was the perfect fit. Even behind a mask—the default accessory these days in Schmeiser’s current home base, Seattle—his face lights up when he talks about economics. He finds it offers a way to view the world, a lens that filters out the chaos and puts the spotlight squarely on the facts. Schmeiser loves how it explains so much about our lives, from how many children we have to whom we choose to date. “Everything just made sense to me as I took the economics courses, and I knew this was the right field for me,” he says.

12-071.jpg

According to recent statistics, Twitter, the
company that U of R graduate Max Schmeiser
works for, has about 1.3 billion account
holders and 330 million monthly active users.
Photo by Joshua Huston

Schmeiser became a professor just before the global financial crisis wiped out many of the jobs in academia. Still, budget cuts were leaving holes at the university where he was teaching. When a colleague let him know about an opening at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., Schmeiser was ready to leap at the offer. There, he could continue his research on financial literacy, mortgage defaults and foreclosure, now adding a regulatory component to the mix. 

As a principal economist in the Microeconomic Surveys section and a senior economist in the Consumer Research section, he worked on consumer and housing finance research and regulation. He was responsible for launching two recurring surveys on consumer financial well-being: one on mobile financial services, the other on household economics and decision-making.

Although it’s not a transition he anticipated making, he thrived in an environment where everything he did had practical applications for people’s daily lives.

“I like seeing a direct impact, and that was slower to do as a professor,” he says. “You would get government contracts or do consulting work or do research that would eventually get picked up and inform policy, but there were several steps in between. This was getting a little closer to having a direct impact on the world in the sense that I was creating regulations and my research got more prominence.”

Five years later, Schmeiser’s next career move to the Seattle-based behemoth, Amazon, continued that trajectory of making a difference—and fast. “At the Federal Reserve, I could affect Americans through policies I helped to inform, but at Amazon I could make changes and the next day be affecting hundreds of millions of customers or hundreds of thousands of businesses, so the scale and the immediacy of the impact I really appreciated,” he says.

At Amazon, he found a great fit with the culture, which emphasizes data-driven decision-making, impact-oriented solutions, and making reversible decisions quickly and irreversible decisions with considerable thought (and knowing how to distinguish the two). “I can’t imagine there’s anywhere you’ll learn as much in a short period of time as you will at Amazon,” he says.

After holding multiple data science leadership roles there, including head of research, analytics and machine learning in Amazon Connections and chief economist and head of data science for Amazon Lending, Schmeiser joined trucking logistics startup Convoy just as it was primed for rapid growth after a Series C fundraising round. He’d always wanted to work at a startup, and he relished the challenge to not only leverage data science to optimize the freight industry, but to have a hand in creating the company culture and structuring teams. In the nearly two years he spent at Convoy, he grew the data science group from eight employees to more than 80. In working at one of the fastest-growing startups in the U.S., with the chance to inform product direction and strategy, Schmeiser had every box ticked on his job wish list.

Then, Twitter came calling in early 2020. Schmeiser thought about the potential impact he could have, particularly during an election year and in the COVID-19 era, and felt it was 
too good of an opportunity to pass up. With more than 300 million active users, Twitter is a worldwide watercooler for 
the exchange of ideas and information. As entrepreneur and author Charlene Li put it, “Twitter is not a technology. It’s 
a conversation. And it’s happening with or without you.”

Schmeiser wanted it to happen with him. Of course, starting a new job during a pandemic is not without its challenges. He’s only virtually met the 60 members of the team he manages, and the transition to a new company was somewhat anticlimactic in comparison to pre-coronavirus days. “I just exchanged laptops and different people showed up on my screen,” he says, laughing.

The work he gets to do, though, is exactly what he hoped. As head of data science, Schmeiser leads a team that performs analyses and runs experiments to better understand the impact of product launches on the public conversation happening on Twitter. They use a full set of tools under the data science umbrella to accomplish their goals, from developing metrics and success measurements to A/B testing and offline evaluation to prototyping and forecasting. 

While data remains at the heart of what Schmeiser does, many of his responsibilities involve managing more than numbers. As he’s progressed in his career, he now has people to manage too. “Maybe this comes from where I grew up, but I really care about my team members individually and their well-being,” he says. “I’m looking out for them, I care for them, I want to support them, and I have their best interests at heart. People don’t necessarily always get that sense from their bosses and their boss’s bosses.”

He also finds ways to bolster people beyond just those he works with directly. In January 2020, he began volunteering with Co.Labs as a mentor for early-stage tech startup founders in Saskatchewan. Given the challenges that the province’s economy has been facing the past several years, he felt his experience and insights could be of help in fostering a robust tech community and assisting companies as they scale their data science teams.

Although Schmeiser isn’t sure whether he’ll one day move back to his hometown—that would depend on the needs and desires of his family, including wife Maria and their 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son—he does fondly remember the big sky, the never-ending horizon, and the summer sun that stretched long into the night. Scraping the windshield in 30°C temperatures  is something he admits he’s forgotten how to properly gear up for.

In gratitude for the strong foundation he received as a student at the University of Regina, he recently created 
a scholarship for the domestic student with the highest GPA in the Honours program within the Department of Economics. 
He hopes others will get just as much out of the degree as he has. “A degree in economics is a wonderful basis for a whole range of careers,” he says. “It offers a good framework for thinking about the world and business and policies. This is why you see economists everywhere, in government, academia, tech and consulting roles. It’s a wonderful education to help you be very effective in a number of circumstances.”

Even though a future career at Twitter certainly wasn’t on Schmeiser’s mind as an undergrad—the social network was still a twinkle in the founders’ eyes back then—the beauty of studying economics is that it can be applied to a wide range of situations. “Once you have those basic tools and know how to think through business problems, it doesn’t matter what the business problem is,” he says. “The tools are the same; it’s just a matter of changing what you’re analyzing.”

The frenzied pace that Schmeiser favored in his youth may have slowed  a bit , but that laser focus on efficiency is still there. “When it comes to work, I have a sense of wanting to get things done quickly, while balancing speed with appropriate levels of rigour, and wanting to see accomplishment and progress relatively quickly,” he says.

To do that, Schmeiser is decisive in his choices. That doesn’t mean he isn’t willing to reverse course if the data supports it, but he has a good sense for what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. 

For someone who had his life mapped out when he first stepped onto the University of Regina campus, he’s amazed that once his vision was fulfilled, another one came along to supplement it. He is a textbook case of loving what you do and doing it well. When you excel, others can’t help but notice, and that will always open doors. “It’s surprising that a lot of what I’ve done is in no way directed,” he says. “Whatever I’m doing at the time, I do the best I possibly can at it. I’m never looking for the next thing; it just seems to happen and make sense.”

Tech, as it turns out, is an ideal fit. It’s just as hurried as Schmeiser tends to be, with real-world results that fulfill his overarching career mission: to have a positive impact on the greatest number of people possible. Plus, he gets to geek out all day long on those things he loves the most, including ensuring that every decision is informed by accurate data and rigorous empirical analysis, separating out correlation from causation, and using statistical and empirical techniques to solve business problems. He brings this same approach to his personal life. He jokes that he annoys his wife by talking about opportunity cost, allocating resources to their most efficient use and time value, like when he points out the time she spends returning something costs her X dollars in time, and is ultimately not worth it.

The only downside to working in tech is that it doesn’t leave much time for Schmeiser’s first love, teaching, but he plans to return to the classroom one day. There, he will continue sparking that same joy in others that he first felt when he realized he can use economics to answer so many questions that apply to the real world, such as figuring out what incentives people respond to or pinpointing when someone will get married.

Maybe you can’t hurry love, but as Schmeiser knows well, you absolutely can hurry the statistical analysis that predicts it—and that carries an excitement, maybe even a romantic notion, all of its own.  

This story originally appeared in the University of Regina magazine, Degrees. You can read about more interesting alumni and others associated with the University by visiting the current issue of Degrees.   

Follow Schmeiser on Twitter @Max_Schmeiser