Solmaz Shahalizadeh’s unexpected journey to Shopify’s doorstep

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Shopify vice-president of data science and engineering, Solmaz Shahalizadeh. Photo provided.

Before she was leading Shopify’s data science team, before she was working at one of the world’s biggest investment banks and before she was researching breast cancer predictors in university, Solmaz Shahalizadeh was a girl watching her mother feed a punch card into a Fortran reader.

Before the days of text editors on a screen, the pioneering programming language understood commands by reading markings on an oddly patterned paper. Watching her mother, who studied statistics, painstakingly code the information through the cardreader was process all at once confusing and fascinating to the young Shahalizadeh.

“I asked her, ‘Are you doing crafts?’ And she said, ‘No. This is a way that, by making these holes in this card, we can tell the computer to do something,’” Shahalizadeh recalls.

“I learned I liked it before I knew what it was.”

Today, Shahalizadeh is the vice-president of data science and engineering for Shopify in Ottawa where she leads the e-commerce giant’s machine learning teams. She tells Techopia that the example set by her mother and father – a university professor in operational research – inspired a lifelong love of science, tech, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

From cancer research to commerce

Shahalizadeh followed her love of computer science into a series of master’s degrees at McGill University in Montreal, where she delved into the interdisciplinary field of bioinformatics. She applied this newfound knowledge into medical research, publishing her findings on predictors for patient outcomes related to breast cancer.

Her STEM career took another unexpected turn after graduation, however, when she landed a job making financial statistics applications for Morgan Stanley. Shahalizadeh says she soared at the massive investment bank, and gives credit to her mentors there who saw her potential.

“I had excellent managers. I always felt like they were giving me wings to fly.”

“I had excellent managers. I always felt like they were giving me wings to fly,” she says.

It was in 2013 that Shahalizadeh quite randomly found herself at Shopify’s doorstep. She attended a Random Hacks of Kindness hackathon at the company’s Ottawa headquarters, and while she’d heard of the growing firm, this was the first chance she’d had to talk to the team.

Shahalizadeh never submitted a resume for the job, but rather spoke about some of her projects and experiences in machine learning. That was enough for her to join the Ottawa firm as its first financial data analyst.

Shahalizadeh and her team’s fingerprints have covered Shopify’s financials over the past few years, including preparing numerous financial models for the pivotal prospectus that would see the firm go public in 2015.

One of Shahalizadeh’s proudest accomplishments has been the launch of Shopify Capital, a program that gives merchants access to financing that they only pay back once they’ve started making sales. It’s her team that constructs the machine learning models that can predict a merchant’s success, ensuring that Shopify is giving money to the applicants that will benefit the most from its use.

Encouraging young problem solvers

Shahalizadeh says her STEM path is a direct result of her curiosity and the support she received from employers throughout her life. Her story aligns with the message Shopify has promoted in its own recruiting, that degrees and prerequisites are less important than potential.

“I think by having an eye for growth of people, they helped me a lot,” Shahalizadeh says of her previous managers.

The Shopify VP says her team, with members from non-traditional tech fields such as astronomy, reflects the diversity of backgrounds the company prides itself on. She notes that the commerce space, which demands both creative and economic approaches, benefits from more than just a computer science lens.

“Commerce is just so wide and so fascinating. So there's also no shortage of opportunities. And I think that combo is what has made Shopify successful.”

Thinking back to her own STEM beginnings, Shahalizadeh encourages young women to take a leap into a field that, from the outside, may seem intimidating. Rather than focus on becoming a coder and finding a good job, she emphasizes problem solving as a segue into STEM.

“People don't necessarily have to be interested in coding itself,” Shahalizadeh says, reflecting on her mother’s “crafts.”

“It's more showing them what can you do once you know how to code.”