Featured Research Engineer: Jeff Yuan
Research Engineer Jeff Yuan was born and raised in Canton, China. During his childhood, Yuan enjoyed disassembling things and putting them back together. “I loved taking apart toys or machines and then challenging myself to make them work again,” he said.
At the age of 12, his family emigrated to New York. Yuan attended Brooklyn Tech High School until a fellow student was robbed and killed during a PE class. A few weeks later, the family moved to Woodbridge, New Jersey, where Yuan completed high school.
Because of his love for building things, Yuan majored in electrical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. Yuan described his program as “very rigorous” -- he specialized in digital hardware instead of analog or power supply or communications, which are more typical EE programs.
After graduating from the Stevens Institute of Technology, Yuan moved to Upstate New York and started a job at IBM, during Lou Gerstner’s stint as CEO. “That’s when he made the elephant dance again,” said Yuan, referring to IBM’s crumbling period before Gerstner stepped in and turned things around. Yuan designed mainframes at IBM as an engineer. He found the work to be slightly stagnant after a while since the architecture was fixed and not dynamic. “Everything there is built virtually, so you don’t get to touch the real thing,” he said. After two years at IBM, Yuan left and started graduate school at Boston University.
Yuan shifted gears and studied cognitive and neural systems in graduate school. The objective of the program was to study the brain and create systems that could emulate some of the brain’s functionality. “We studied neural networks – everything from vision, language, smell, hearing, motor control and built systems for audio processing, speech processing, vision processing, etc.” said Yuan.
Yuan worked at a company in Boston called Artificial Life after he graduated from Boston University. The company was a small US subsidiary of a German company. There, he worked on data mining and forecasting using machine learning. He left after four years and started a job as a software engineer for a company called Lumapath – a desktop search engine company. When the company folded after two years due to the dot com crash, Yuan decided to change things up and move to California.
With all of his belongings in his car, Yuan drove across the country and landed in Los Angeles. He enjoyed some time off and acclimated quickly to life in L.A. He even applied for some roles as an extra to various production companies out of curiosity about Hollywood. He eventually started working as an engineer again – this time for Overture in Pasadena. There, he worked on building a keyword recommendation engine. When he joined Overture, the company was already part of Yahoo! through an acquisition.
In 2007, a fellow Overture employee who had joined Yahoo! Research convinced Yuan to do the same. Wanting to do bigger things and be exposed to a broader Internet world, Yuan agreed and officially became a research engineer with Yahoo! Research.
Today, Yuan works with Yahoo! Labs scientists to build prototypes for various projects. He is currently building platforms for display advertising, sponsored search, and behavioral targeting. What Yuan loves the most about his job are the people. “The people here are exceptionally intelligent,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot – beyond just software engineering – about finance, economics, and other areas.” He enjoys what he does at work and sees it as a full circle back to his childhood. “Just as it was when I was a kid, I liked to build stuff then and that’s what I’m doing now,” he said.
In his spare time, Yuan enjoys hiking, biking, rollerblading, and catching up on sleep.