No, They’re Not Psychics. But This Data Team Can Predict What You Like to Eat.

The taste preferences project is a perfect example of the fun challenges at Peapod Digital Labs.

Written by Brendan Meyer
Published on Apr. 28, 2022
No, They’re Not Psychics. But This Data Team Can Predict What You Like to Eat.
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Karin Chu likes to eat sweet and crunchy things.

That’s why, when the Peapod Digital Labs (PDL) employee grocery shops online, there’s always something in her cart that resembles her sweet and crunchy taste preferences.

That premise got Chu, PDL’s head of data science and digital analytics, and her cohorts wondering: How cool would it be if they could use data to map out an algorithm of her taste preferences, and everyone else’s for that matter? The algorithm could predict what she would buy next and make online grocery shopping more precise and efficient. It could also use her taste preferences to recommend new products that she’d never heard of.

It’s a perfect project for PDL, the e-commerce engine of Ahold Delhaize USA, one of the nation’s largest grocery retail groups. Chu is spearheading the project with the company’s data and analytics center of excellence (COE), and has even volunteered her taste preferences as a guinea pig.

“I’m not normally a popcorn person, but the data suggested I try a particular brand of caramelized popcorn,” Chu said. “And it worked. I loved it.”

A project like this, which uses the company’s cloud-based technology on Azure, is a great example of the innovative and dynamic environment of PDL’s data and analytics team, which is currently hiring.

“You have a full tech stack supporting all your needs, plus a wealth of data,” Chu said. “As a data scientist, this is a dream come true.”

But it’s not just cool projects and cool tech. Unlike the traditionally male-dominated data science field, PDL features an inclusive and diverse team that a technologist might not often find.

Interested in joining PDL’s data and analytics COE? Built In sat down with three women on the team to get a closer look at the culture.

 

Close up of the Peapod logo on the wall in the office
Allison Williams

 

What drew you to the data and analytics team at PDL?

Carina Machain, data and analytics business integration manager: Opportunity! I started working for the companies of Ahold Delhaize USA in 2012, and since then, I’ve held a multitude of roles. I actually went to school to be a high school math and Spanish teacher. After working in the Peapod warehouse for a month, the senior operations manager said he was hiring. I was given an opportunity to work as a training and development specialist. It utilized my expertise of building curriculum, lessons and training materials from education, but instead applied it to the distribution centers. 

Since then, I’ve had so many different opportunities. I’ve worked within the supply chain, marketing, and human resources. I went back to operations quite a few times as they continued seeking my skill set to push different initiatives forward. I joined the omni-channel strategy team. And now, I’m working for data and analytics.

Raina Rusnak, consumer insights lead: My prior jobs were spent on the supplier side of research, but I always felt that something was lacking. I’d do this heavy lift of research, and then turn it over to the client, and I wouldn’t know what would happen with that data. What drew me to PDL was a different challenge. I now work on the client side, which means I get to see what happens next after the client receives data. I’m tied to the strategy. I get to see the insights put into execution. All of this is exciting to me. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning!

Karin Chu, head of data science and digital analytics: Peapod Digital Labs has a lot of very interesting problems to solve for a data scientist. I’m a PhD statistician. I love to deal with data and solve business problems and come up with solutions that are actionable, insightful and influence the business. Also, from a female data scientist perspective, another aspect that drew me to PDL was that it supports diversity and inclusivity. There are many initiatives that help you build your skill sets, both as a people leader and as a professional with diversity in mind.

 

 

The data scientist field is traditionally male-dominated. What does PDL’s focus on diversity look like? How is it closing the gender gap?

Chu: There’s definitely a wider gender gap in data science. When you get to the root of it, I think it starts with our education system. I’m a big believer in providing people with internship opportunities and hands-on experiences every step along the way to close that gap. At PDL, we do a lot of recruiting, both on campuses, as well as hosting hackathons within the organization. We have a robust co-op program, where we recruit with universities, as well as summer internships. We also partner with universities and participate in in-class projects, where students work on real-life examples of business problems that they have to solve from end to end.

Machain: Our data and analytics team is walking the walk. We have four VPs on the team, all of whom are women. They’ve done a great job creating roadmaps and setting up the structure of the team. It’s a great symbol for women looking to join the company or get into the field.

Rusnak: As a company, we are focused on supporting diverse points of view. Having women in leadership roles — even just seeing women in leadership roles — gives us a better point of view in this traditionally male-dominated industry, and make us want to strive for more. It makes our output better. 

 

LEADING WITH DIVERSITY

Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) is a big focus at PDL. In the last year, the company hired a DEIB manager, who has created inclusion networks and partnered with the recruiting team to find diverse applicants. Just a few of the networks founded in the past year include SOUL (African-American), Mind Over Matter (mental health), Interfaith, and PRIDE (LGBTQIA+). PDL also partners with FairyGodBoss, a software company which offers women a career community, expert career advice, job openings and company reviews to help women advance their careers.

 

What formal and informal mentorship programs exist at PDL? 

Machain: I am part of the formal mentorship program. Currently, my mentor is Marc Stolzman, who is the head of finance. I’ve been meeting with him bi-weekly to talk about anything from struggles on projects, strategic planning on the executive team, any recently announced PDL news, and more. I’ve grown significantly from this mentorship program. However, I also have informal mentors like Karin Chu. I have learned so much from her on the data and analytics team. I didn’t have much expertise in data and analytics in my previous roles. It’s amazing to learn from someone like her. She’s also a working mom, and has gone through similar struggles that I can relate to. Karin always takes the time to make sure we understand what she’s talking about. If not, she’ll explain it.

Rusnak: One cool informal opportunity that my team has the chance to do is to visit the distribution centers for our partners. It’s a chance for us to see how groceries get from one location to another person’s home. I took advantage of this opportunity and woke up at the crack of dawn one day to visit the Giant Food distribution center. The logistics that go into a delivery experience surprised me. It’s so regimented and organized, from how the groceries arrive at the distribution center in the different totes, to picking the orders and stocking them in the truck that will deliver them to customers’ homes. It’s easy to get mired in our own comfort zone of our office. This was a cool chance to see how our data plays out in real time. 

 

Three Peapod team members sitting on a couch smiling
Allison Williams

 

What’s the culture like on the data and analytics team?

Rusnak: Fun. We do the traditional things like fantasy football leagues and celebrating baby showers and birthdays. But one aspect that sets us apart is a focus on wellness. PDL brings in nutritionists to talk about healthy eating. We do movement challenges. We did a wellness bingo where the squares represented different activities, such as yoga. Also, at our last virtual leadership off-site conference, we did improv training. It was such a refreshing activity, and challenged us to rethink how we interact with each other. It was great for team building.

Machain: Dynamic and empowering. There’s always a challenge that needs to be overcome in retail. Though it can get hectic, it’s also intrinsically rewarding and motivating to see how much we’ve accomplished and can accomplish.

Chu: Transparent. Everything, from how decisions are made to financial performances, is transparent. We have weekly stand-ups with the entire company, and we have very candid discussions in these meetings. Most data scientists I know prefer to work behind the scenes. This means we miss out on these front-end discussions on how the business is performing. It’s very refreshing for a company like ours to be so upfront about how the business is doing and the different changes coming down the pipeline. 

Also, we have scooters in the office. How cool is that?

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Photography by Allison Williams.

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