A Physicist of Online Groceries


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Emmanuel Turlay says “the modeling behind fundamental physics and the science of finance is similar.”

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Jason LeCras for The New York Times

Emmanuel Turlay, 32, is a technical lead manager at Instacart in San Francisco.

Q. What is Instacart, and what do you do as a technical lead manager?

A. Instacart has shoppers who buy groceries and deliver them to consumers who order them through the company’s website or mobile app. I help write the software programs that calculate customers’ charges and provide the technical framework to help the engineers on my team make good programming decisions.

What is your background?

I was born and raised in France, where I got a bachelor’s in math and a Ph.D. in physics. As part of my Ph.D. program, I developed software for the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator in Switzerland that delves into the beginning of the universe. Afterward, I worked for several software start-ups in France, and in 2014, I was recruited to work for one in the United States. Instacart recruited me the next year after a rigorous hiring process.

What did the hiring process involve?

I had a phone interview and then had to complete a technical challenge. As one part of my challenge, I wrote an app for a questionnaire to use in hiring shoppers. I was hired as a software engineer and promoted within a couple of months.

How did you become interested in physics?

In high school, I didn’t care why water boils or why apples fall from trees, and I did poorly in it. But in college, I started reading books like Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” which turned me around.

What is one of your challenges?

Making sure we charge customers correctly for an order. Every day, we fulfill thousands of orders around the country with items from retailers in dozens of areas that have different sales-tax regulations. Other variables include promotions and price reductions, and different tipping and fee structures related to our shoppers, so the programming is quite involved. I need to identify patterns as quickly as possible.

Is your current work a big switch from programming a particle accelerator?

Actually, the modeling behind fundamental physics and the science of finance is similar. I had to debug some gnarly pieces of code for the accelerator, but it all came down to rapid pattern identification, as in this job.

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