As of late 2022, I am no longer working as a Machine Learning engineer at TikTok.
Coming out of college, I got what seemed like a college CS student’s dream job: a mid-level position at TikTok. To spice up the background, the offer package I got in August 2021 (for summer 2022 start) was the first of its kind given to US hires. In China, ByteDance hires top talents from Tsinghua, Peking, and other top universities straight into mid-level roles (2-1). There was no precedent in the US, and I aced my 5 technical interviews to create this precedent for the first time. It would also require bilingual communication abilities, perfect for me since I’m fluent in both Chinese and English. I’m also bicultural and lived a large portion of my life with my family in Shanghai, so if anyone was in their element within TikTok’s workplace culture, it was me. I used TikTok almost regularly during college, so I had my skin in the game too. I really talked myself into the role, and ignored some signs during the interviews that I wouldn’t enjoy the job.
First reason: The skillset required to perform the job responsibilities had a minimal intersection with my own skillset. TikTok was already mature as an app, and most engineers start out with repetitive tasks, like monitoring AB experiments or updating a model to a different server. When I talked to team members, I couldn’t see where down the line I could make my impact. At best, I could own a vertical (e.g. music, videos, live) and be the key person, but that would just be maintenance work.
Second reason: I also realized the process of doing so would require a lot of (Chinese) communication with the headquarters in Beijing. All the managers there expect fast and fluent pitches, presentations, and rebuttals in Chinese, which I couldn’t do since my K-12 and college technical education was in English… I was asked to do this immediately since my level was mid-engineer coming in. I didn’t feel comfortable doing this in front of more senior members much older than me, who didn’t communicate fluently in English. If the above were the only reasons, I would have lasted a bit longer. It would just be a must steeper learning curve, both on the technical and soft-skills side.
Main reason: At the time, I was still juggling three research projects detailed here. My responsibilities were heavy, especially for two of the projects which I was the lead contributor for. I did let my mentors (and manager) know about my situation, but I was walking on a tightrope. We were submitting our work to conferences, and the last mile required even more effort. I really enjoyed the work I was doing but knew it wasn’t practical to juggle that along with a full-time job. I eventually had to make a decision about which to drop, and I decided my long-term enjoyment of doing research over this job outweighs all the attractive factors that blinded me in the first place. I thought… money didn’t matter if I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. The experience helped me better understand myself. I am applying to PhD programs in the 2022-23 cycle. Hopefully, things will work out in the future.
(This is a personal anecdote, and doesn’t reflect the team or TikTok at large.)