As you binge the latest hit on Netflix, scientists like Kamer Toker-Yildiz, PhD ’14, are using data to optimize your experience—and that of its 183 million subscribers worldwide—and reach new audiences.
“The most exciting part of my role is storytelling through data,” says Toker-Yildiz, senior data scientist for growth and pricing at the entertainment giant. “In every project, I learn something new about how people behave, and it amazes me how even small things can make a big impact, which we wouldn’t know without measuring.”
After growing up in a family of engineers in Turkey and obtaining a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, Toker-Yildiz moved to the United States to earn her master’s in operations research from Cornell University. She was captivated by her statistics courses and wanted a career in which she could use data to solve real-life problems.
“Learning about the world using data, modeling and experimentation—and seeing how it can help businesses get better and scale—amazed me,” she says. “This made me switch to business school, where I could still be fairly quantitative while working on more applied problems.”
In 2008, Toker-Yildiz joined the UB School of Management’s PhD program, concentrating in marketing. Her final dissertation included two essays: One investigated how friends and anonymous online reviews affect consumer product decisions. The other paper, published in the Journal of Marketing Research, compiled data from a global consulting firm and discovered that social networking was more effective than monetary incentives in driving consumer behavior.
Through the doctoral program, Toker-Yildiz developed her problem-solving and analytical thinking skills, and built a thicker skin, able to reflect and adjust quickly to constructive feedback.
“Tech companies are very fast paced, so things can easily get complicated,” she says. “When I see a hard problem in my job, I don’t panic. I focus on the parts that I can solve and take it step by step, which is something I mastered during my PhD.”
Afterward, Toker-Yildiz joined Nielsen, the global market research company, as a senior data scientist on the digital measurement team. Using predictive modeling, she worked to develop and implement a new ad ratings system for over-the-top devices, like Roku and Apple TV.
Later, in 2017, she moved to Netflix, drawn in by the company’s reputation for data-driven decision-making and the opportunity to work at the intersection of data science and marketing. In her first role, Toker-Yildiz worked with marketing teams to optimize campaigns for various Netflix productions.
“This was a dream job,” she says. “Marketers were asking: ‘Am I using the right channels? Should I invest more in online advertising? How do you measure the impact of a billboard?’ Totally not straightforward, but fun and challenging.”
Last fall, she accepted her current role and a new challenge: using data science to help Netflix grow in emerging markets. Her typical workday includes meeting with product managers, designers and engineers to brainstorm ideas to bring more value to customers beyond the content catalog—and, of course, measure the success of those ideas too.
“Data cannot answer everything,” says Toker-Yildiz, who enjoys skiing and biking with her two daughters in her free time. “The majority of our role is storytelling and how we interpret the data, so building and developing business intuition is equally important. That’s something machines cannot replace.”
Written by Matthew Biddle