This is an interview with Leif Durley, search quality analyst at Glassdoor, done by Naomi House of INALJ. This is part of INALJ’s 2020 series on non-library jobs for library workers.
On Search Quality Analyst, Business Systems Analyst & Taxonomist Work :
an Interview with Leif Durley
Q1: Thanks so much for taking the time to help us better understand what Search Quality Analyst work & Taxonomist work is and how LIS folk can get into these fields. First could you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you got your MLIS (or your educational background) and what you do?
My name is Leif Durley (pronounced like those things hanging from trees). I’m from Fresno, CA and live in San Francisco. I completed a BA in History at the University of Redlands and then an MLS from the University of Maryland. My first job out of library school was at the World Bank as an information assistant. From there I worked as a taxonomist at eBay and I currently work as a search quality analyst at Glassdoor in San Francisco.
I thought I wanted to teach at the high school level after my undergrad but for a few reasons my interest shifted. I honestly didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do so I taught tennis for a few months but quickly realized that I wanted more from life. I had to have one of those honest and scary conversations with myself to try to figure out a little more about what makes me tick. Long story short, I looked at my history degree and realized that what I really enjoyed about the program wasn’t so much specific events in history but more the digging, discovery, and learnings that come from thinking critically about the past. So, how do I turn this passion into a career, I thought to myself. A few hours of googling programs that would help with research and information retrieval in general and I landed on the archival program at the University of Maryland MLS program. I worked at the National Archives in D.C. during my program and had various internships in archives of all sorts along the way which were some of the coolest experiences I’ve had professionally but I’ll save those stories for another time.
Q2: Now can you tell us how You personally got into doing this type of work?
Flash forward to a year out from receiving my MLS and I’m doing catalog work at the World Bank as a contractor, which was really my first professional step into the world of information classification and retrieval. This was my first ‘working world’ experience where I got to be part of structuring information in a findable way and seeing the benefit it has for institutions which use data to make decisions and power products. Looking back on the experience, what I probably take most from it today is that it opened me up to a career path outside of traditional library/archival jobs.
I am from California and I’m familiar with the allure of the tech industry and thought that being close to my parents as they get older would be a good idea. So, after learning so much browsing jobs on INALJ.com I understood that finding myself a spot in the tech world with my MLS was not a far fetched idea at all. I began floating my resume. Yes, honestly, sent my resume cold to an agency that places information professionals in California. When the recruiter contacted me saying that she had something I would be a really good fit for I was a mixture of excited and surprised. It seemed like such a scenario from generations gone to land a job that way but I was elated to be getting to go back to California and start using my MLS to create and power websites, apps, and beyond.
So… what these tech companies all need, it turns out, is people to structure and architect their data in ways that products can be built on top of them to serve their users/customers with the most precise and complete set of whatever they are looking for that a company has. This is known as taxonomy or the classification of [insert product] often using metadata to further differentiate for better findability. At tech companies you’ll often hear the term “structured data” associated with roles fit for MLSers because this is of course what we do as library professionals; structure data to begin using it.
At eBay, where I worked for nearly 5 years, this meant categorizing every single thing under the sun that you could conceive of selling…legally of course. Then creating filters (metadata) for each category for the seller to describe their item and the buyer to use to find the item they want. Let me tell you it gets very interesting when your only constraint is legality. We had people selling “jars of air from Kobe’s last game.” It’s possible but buyer beware, right?
What the role at tech companies turns out to be is usually along the lines of, “help us build a taxonomy with as much metadata available about each level and category for our products as possible so we can build super useful products or features of a website. My fellow taxonomists (we had a decent size team for a company with 10k+ employees) each owned a different area of the taxonomy on the eBay website and basically had ownership of the browsing ability and played a large part in the search functionality as well.
Currently, I work in search quality at a company that specializes in creating transparency into who companies are, insights into what it’s like to work there, what specific roles pay what, and of course what roles companies are currently hiring for. Right away I want to say that this is a great example of a way a previous job (which I didn’t really even consider until a recruiter “thought I would be able to do it”) led to a new area of information work. Search quality has to do with just that: making sure that the user is finding jobs, companies, and insights about companies that are relevant and correct. How might we do that? Taxonomies!! Though it is much more than just taxonomy work. I am learning to work with datasets in order to irk out the best result for a search someone may query on our website and working with machine learning teams to come up with quality data to train their model. But the taxonomy for which jobs are classified and insights attached to are most definitely at the heart of much of the work I still do. My director told me after hiring me that my background in taxonomy was the biggest X factor they were looking for in the role.
Q3: What makes this a great field for LIS workers and likewise, what do you think makes LIS workers strong candidates for hiring managers in this field?
Personally, what I think is really cool about working as a taxonomist and search engine professional in the tech industry is that it’s an incredible way to break in with no coding abilities and very basic technical skills. I describe the nature of the work I did at eBay and currently at Glassdoor as more of an art than a science, yet we are of course working with the architecture and classification of information which takes place on the backend. You will be hard pressed to find a tech company that considers these roles on the content side of the street vs the engineering side. In each of my roles at different companies I reported into the engineering organization but am clearly in the only unit of the engineering department that does not deal with writing actual code. So, the point is that you get to feel what it’s like to be an engineer and learn from engineers tangentially. Even if you don’t want to code, and to be honest my interest level is not that high, you inevitably pick up bits and even lots along the way which is nothing but helpful in potentially getting into other types of roles if it turns out you want/need a switch. At the very least, coming out of the experience with some understanding of how software and machine learning engineers work will pay dividends making you more attractive to companies.
I think LIS workers are particularly suited for taxonomy work because there is so much research involved. Who checks their sources and makes the most well informed decisions based on the information as we do?! In both of these roles I’ve had, you are not expected to come in knowing everything about a product but you are expected to immerse yourself and become a subject matter expert in order to own the taxonomy. Having said that, I’m not sure I’ve met an LIS worker who wouldn’t get butterflies to hear they will get paid to research a subject and be an authority on how it relates to all other products of the same kind. If you can find a company trying to solve a problem or address an issue that you can really get behind and believe in you’ll literally be getting paid to research something you are passionate about and have the satisfaction of knowing that at the core of the categorization, classification, and attribution that you do, products are being built to address those issues you and your company care about. If you are like me, there are some subjects that are more interesting than others, but I am happy to work with many different types of content. The hunt for information to understand is what gets me going.
Q4: What is the best way to get your foot in the door or your first search quality analyst job? Business systems analyst job? And your first taxonomist job?
This is a good opportunity to explain the job titles above. I was a business systems analyst at eBay in terms of how our positions are understood at a more macro level. It’s a job title that companies nearly all understand to some degree and often times companies will have more specific roles that they will qualify with BSA. I was a BSA – taxonomist. We do work with the systems that power the business technically but still a sub optimal classification in my opinion.
My current role is as a search quality analyst but remember, with the taxonomy focus to it. My actual job title is (again a qualifier) Sr. search quality analyst – taxonomy. I perform search quality functions in addition to updating and architecting taxonomies.
Ok sorry for the tangent but felt it was important given this is for job seekers.
My two cents about getting your foot in the door with taxonomy work is to say that there are a lot of tech companies in particular that hire for these roles. Some have small armies if the taxonomy and attribution are large enough. Usually there will be a few full timers with a larger number of contract taxonomists all reporting to a manager. The point is that for those trying to start their taxonomy careers, the general structure at tech companies is conducive to contract to hire, full time, and even management if you so desire.
Companies hiring for roles that have to do with taxonomy love seeing your MLS or MLIS. That right there puts you on any recruiting companies radar of who they’ll reach out to fill contract roles. “Taxonomy” is so unique a word/skill and our MLS or MLIS qualifies us to think about information in a way that companies understand is taxonomy. Even if not studied directly in our programs, they know a person with our degree can excel. If you see, “MLS or MLIS preferred” on the job posting you should at least be getting a phone call.
I would encourage you to use Glassdoor.com to research companies. Lots of insights including finding out real salaries from employees at specific companies and regions. It’s good for understanding your worth in different markets and can help in your salary negotiations.
Q5: Finally what are some of the most important skills / certifications / etc that LIS folk can do to prepare them? Any last tips?
- MLS or MLIS
- PMP (Project management professional certification)- many jobs will require you to perform project management duties as part of the work.
- SQL – not required to do the work if there is an analytics team available to you in your role but if not, understanding how to query your company’s database makes you not only self sufficient in finding the data you need to make better decisions but also faster and more productive.
I’ll leave you by saying how I feel about my progression since library school.
I am very thankful for where I am today. Without a doubt, obtaining my MLS paved the way for all of this to happen. I can say that it is a respected degree outside of library and archival work and it can open doors you may have never thought about to industries that you want to be a part of.
It has financially provided me a lifestyle that I enjoy, the ability to do for others, and the job satisfaction that you get from making a foundational difference in the way that information and data are structured.
Fresh out of my program 6 years ago I could not have seen myself where I am today and that is fine by me. If you entered your program thinking you wanted to do one thing and now your mind has completely changed to something else don’t get frightened that it doesn’t fit in with your plan. Be mindful of what it is. If you learned it in library school your MLS or MLIS will get you some looks in the world outside of libraries and archives.
Leif graduated with an MLS in 2014 from the University of Maryland. He has worked in the Silicon Valley of California’s tech industry in eCommerce and job/company insights for the last 6 years as a business systems analyst and search quality analyst focused on harnessing information with taxonomies and metadata. He enjoys spending every free moment being as active as possible be it tennis, ultimate frisbee, bike riding, hikes, running, etc.
Views expressed are those of the interviewee and not INALJ or their employer. Photo provided by the interviewee and permission granted to use it for this interview.