VOLUME 25 #2

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Facebook's chief of data analytics Chandra Narayanan, EDE94PhD, dispenses words of wisdom to current students.
Facebook's chief of data analytics Chandra Narayanan, EDE94PhD, dispenses words of wisdom to current students.
Photo by Evan Krape

Words to grow by

ALUMNI & FRIENDS | We feel a fascination gazing up at the stars, so imagine our wide-eyed joy when the stars occasionally come down to gaze upon us.

That joy was plain in the faces of UD students and would-be entrepreneurs who gathered earlier this year to hear the career lessons of one of UD’s top Silicon Valley success stories, Chandra Narayanan, EOE94PhD.

As the chief of data analytics at Facebook’s Core App and Instagram, Narayanan is responsible for examining users’ behavior and translating that data into product improvements, giving customers the experience they crave and more reasons to stay logged on.

“Facebook Live would not have happened without my team’s involvement,” he told students.

But his journey into the digital realms of the social media mega-giant has been as circuitous as it’s been successful, winding from oceanography to shipbuilding to weather forecasting to risk management.

He credits UD’s multidisciplinary, hands-on approach to learning for making that trip so rich. His research has pushed the edges of high-performance computing by simulating ocean weather patterns and examining global warming. He has been on top teams at the Naval Research Laboratory and the National Weather Service. And at online payment giant PayPal, he worked to guard against the growing threat of cyber-crime.

Such bold wanderings allow us to break out of our too-timid expectations and find destinies we never imagined, he told the students. At UD, he says, a faculty that’s legendary for its mentorship helped foster such adaptability.

“The professors I worked with were amazing rock stars, people you could truly look up to. And I learned a lot from the students around me. It was an amazing group of people.”

As students headed off from their starry-eyed encounter, they took with them a rich assortment of Narayanan’s wisdom:

• The most successful people, he says, tend to embrace a “growth mentality.” “Learn from the people who have your best interests in mind, who are willing to spend time with you to make you better.” Use their feedback as a gift—as a tool for growth.

• Embrace and chase your passion, but never believe it’s the only passion you can or should have. “You can have passions for multiple things in life.”

• “Find the right mentor. Find someone who cares about you. But while you’re doing that, find a way to stay humble and learn.” For Narayanan, that mentor was UD Prof. Richard Garvine. “He could drive and motivate you to bigger things. These amazing professors taught me how to frame problems, ask the right questions and interact with experts.”

• Whatever your field, find out what its experts define as “greatness”–then learn everything you need to also be great.

• Don’t be afraid of change. Be flexible and be open-minded about possible careers and new directions. “There are no boundaries for any of you,” Narayanan said. “The boundaries are all in your head.”

• Join a team where you can have a passion for the product. Don’t link your destiny to money alone. “Otherwise, you’ll find yourself not having a soul,” Narayanan says. “Having the passion, and seeing it as more than a 9-5 job, will make you successful. The people at Facebook aren’t there for the money. They are there because they care, and they want to make a difference.”

• Seek out the hard skills offered by academia, but also nurture the “soft skills” of building networks, sustaining relationships, asking the right questions of the right people.

• Be introspective. Be aware of what you know, but also recognize what you don’t know, Garvine would tell him. And: When you do encounter success, be humble.

• Allow your mistakes to be your teacher. When you sense gaps in your knowledge, fill them; remember that every step back can actually push you forward. “These are the people who end up being most successful,” he says.

• When things go wrong, or challenges seem insurmountable, resist the urge to give up. Get help. Keep pushing at the problem. “Never ever leave when things are going bad. Fight. Fight for what you believe.”