Not many people can say their job brings joy to 140+ million people around the world.
Christopher Steger '08 can.
He is director of product innovation for personalization algorithms at Netflix. This means he leads several areas within the Netflix product, including page construction and search. “We follow an empirical path to give members the best Netflix experience,” he says.
Steger received a B.S. in electrical engineering in 2001, a M.S. in electrical engineering in 2004, and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 2008 — all from Rice University.
Analytics help companies, such as Netflix, learn about their customers so they can tailor a product to match their preferences.
“Knowing the level of impact my job has gets me up in the morning,” he says. While 140+ million is the current published number of Netflix subscriber accounts, the actual number of people Steger’s team impacts is much higher due to factors such as account-sharing.
Netflix’s recommendations are highly personalized, based on what people watch. “The algorithms that drive those recommendations are very advanced,” he says.
“Incredible amounts of time and energy are needed to develop a great recommendation system.” Some estimates value the personalized recommendation engine at approximately $1 billion per year.
“We want to build an experience that is meaningful and yes, brings joy,” he says. “I have a great job, I work on a product I believe in, and am proud to deliver that kind of value.”
Steger spoke to the Rice ECE Corporate Affiliates Day in March 2019. His presentation, “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistical Learning,” offered insight into who builds the Netflix recommendation system, how they do it, and the indispensable skills needed for the job. “There is great importance on image optimization to accompany videos, who is playing after seeing which image, and preferences in a genre based on a customer’s playing history.”
Steger grew up in Blacksburg, Va., and assumed he would go to college on the East Coast. He chose to visit Rice “on a whim” because it offered national merit scholarships. “The campus is beautiful,” he says, and it was love at first sight.
“I thought I wanted to pursue physics at Rice but my interest evolved into electrical engineering,” he says, “and I learned to appreciate the richness of theory underlying electrical engineering.”
The importance of fundamentals can’t be over-emphasized. “There is a set of foundational skills for engineering students and it’s not initially obvious to students that foundational elements and theory help you learn what you need,” he says. “Often, students complain about not getting hands-on experience but those skills are the easy part. Foundational elements don’t become obsolete.”
Steger describes Dr. Don. H. Johnson as an “amazing teacher” who got Steger excited about the field. “As a grad student, a lot of my work was rooted in his detection theory class, and that aligns with much of the foundations and machine learning technology that I use today.”
Under the tutelage of Behnaam Aazhang and Ashu Sabharwal, Steger focused on information theory for his Ph.D. After graduation, Steger worked at Skyhook Wireless for six years where he helped develop algorithms for location estimation and organic bootstrapping of a positioning system based on wi-fi access points. After the wi-fi positioning market was commoditized by the entry of a succession of technology giants, Steger moved into product management to lead new offerings by mining mobile location data.
“Careers evolve and fields we never imagined come into being,” he says. “For example, my career is not one I could have predicted at Rice. I work in machine learning and data science, fields that have grown exponentially since 2008, and I credit fundamentals for allowing me to pivot with changing markets and technology.” He joined Netflix in 2015.
“I recommend students not pigeon hole themselves into one career,” he says. “I thought I would be in wireless communications until it began to dry up as I graduated. Because Rice gave me strong fundamentals, I could work in areas I couldn’t have predicted would exist. My background gives me faith I can keep up with course corrections.”
His other advice to students? “Learn to understand statistics, linear algebra, and learn to write. Also remember to thank your professors.”
One of his passions is Project Classical, a non-profit he and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Schumann, an internationally-recognized concert pianist, founded in 2012. He and his wife find ways to support the arts that encourage appreciation of classical music and integrated arts.
His interest in Netflix was first piqued when he was in grad school. “I learned about the Netflix Prize, a $1 million grand prize to a winning team that would substantially improve the accuracy of predicting how much someone will enjoy a movie based on their ratings history. It took tremendous effort and several years for a winning team to improve the algorithm by 10 percent.”
Steger didn’t win that grand prize in 2009, but life has a way of coming full circle. In the end, he may have won something much bigger.