Pan Yaozhang of Shopee, interdisciplinary transitions: Women in Tech

Pan Yaozhang is the head of data science at Shopee.

It takes tremendous confidence to leave a comfortable job and start anew in another field. Pan Yaozhang did exactly that. Originally trained as an electrical engineer, she joined a research team, setting out to improve the well being of individuals who were in need of relief. But a transition into data science gave her new opportunities to utilize her technical prowess. In all of her posts, Pan’s ultimate goal is to use technology to help others live better lives.

Pan landed in Singapore in 2005 after she left China to pursue a PhD in electrical engineering at the National University of Singapore. After completing her studies, she continued her research on brain-computer interface technologies at the Institute for Infocomm Research (I²R), which is part of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). At A*STAR, Pan led several projects to help stroke and epilepsy patients. One of her projects was iSLEEP, which was initially developed as a program aimed at understanding the mental states of people and help those who have trouble resting improve their quality of sleep. The fruits of this research were eventually patented and turned into a device. The public response to her product, alongside her own experience of developing iSLEEP, showed Pan how her work could benefit many people. It was then that she decided to move from research to a more concrete role in the tech industry.

After a stint at Greenwave Systems, where Pan steeped herself in the intricacies and “new world” of data science, she joined Grab and developed GrabShare, a matching algorithm that pairs two passenger bookings with similar trip routes to ensure passengers reach their destination in the shortest possible time. After leaving Grab in 2016, Pan joined Shopee as a data science lead, and was named head of the department two years later. In this position, she is responsible for expanding and managing the data science team, executing and overseeing projects, as well as ensuring that Shopee’s data science team keeps pace with the latest technologies.

Throughout her career as a data scientist, Pan has revisited a mantra that was originally proffered by her mentor at Greenwave: Leading a data science team is like nurturing a plant—it just needs a little bit of care before it blooms on its own. To stay true to that maxim, she meets with team members during monthly one-on-one sessions to build stronger relationships and connections with each individual. Pan acknowledges that this is “hard but necessary”; it’s an action that sets her apart from many leaders in the industry, and keeps morale high among those around her.

Pan’s initial interest in electrical engineering brought her to Singapore, then the desire to use her knowledge to help people impelled her to switch careers. These interdisciplinary transitions have landed her in a role of leadership, where she leads by example to inspire the next generation of data scientists. Pan’s story tells us that it’s never too late to start something new.

This article is part of “Women in Tech,” a series by KrASIA that highlights the achievements of women who are a driving force behind Southeast Asia’s tech companies.