Ashlee Edwards Brinegar ’07 recently spoke at Middle and Upper School assemblies about lessons she learned at Spence, her time at UNC-Chapel Hill earning her bachelor’s and Ph.D. in Information Science and her new job as a product researcher at Instagram.
Head of School Bodie Brizendine introduced Brinegar as someone her former Spence teachers described as “deeply committed, resilient and knows herself well.”
At Instagram, Brinegar’s research is focused on how individuals use and respond to the product, which is helpful information in growing the user base. She gathers details on research needs (e.g., how do people respond to and use Instagram stories?), then creates a plan of action, executes it and reports back to stakeholders. She creates surveys, organizes focus groups and interviews people in emerging markets, as well as certain populations such as teens, people with disabilities and those who speak English as a second language. She also travels internationally to places such as India, Russia and Japan. On a recent trip to India, Brinegar discovered that many people think of Instagram as a platform suited for celebrities or people with beautiful lives and perfect moments, which discourages them from posting about their “normal” lives. Brinegar also learned about storage and data issues in India; some people reported that they have only 500 megabytes of data to use per day, which means they can use Instagram sparingly. Plus, installing apps and keeping photos on their phone can be hard with little storage. All of this information is helpful for Instagram to know so that the company can improve the product to help address these obstacles.
Brinegar highlighted a few of the lessons she learned at Spence that she still uses today. For one, she thanked her English teachers at Spence for helping develop her reading, writing and comprehension skills.
“When I was at Spence, one of my favorite subjects was English,” she said. “I learned about how you understand an argument, how you unpack a complex set of ideas and how you write about those ideas and make sure other people understand your perspective. Sticking to those basics has really helped in my reporting because I’m able to communicate ideas very clearly and keep things concise.”
Brinegar said it was an interesting transition to go from writing a 450-page dissertation in graduate school to thinking of her research in terms of the phrase borrowed from Reddit: TLDR, meaning “too long; didn’t read.” She gets creative with her reporting and uses bullet points, quotes, interview clips and even a podcast to keep readers’ attention and deliver a powerful message.
In the Q&A portion of the talk, students asked how Instagram makes money, who are the company’s competitors, how does it handle body image issues among its users, what is Brinegar’s coding experience and what is Facebook’s influence on the company.
One student asked what it was like to work in the field as a woman and if she experienced sexism. Brinegar said Instagram was not immune to those issues in the male-dominated field of technology, and she recalled one experience where she had to speak up for herself in a meeting and assert that she had a valuable perspective. However, in the time she has been at Instagram, the company launched Be the Ally training, which Brinegar said helps people understand different perspectives and advocate for others.
“I’ve seen a marked difference in how people interact with me and in how meeting dynamics work,” she said.
Overall, Brinegar described Instagram’s office as relaxed, but focused and hardworking.
“I’ve met some of the most dedicated people I’ve ever worked with in my life at Instagram, so it has been great,” she said.