Worlds Collide

At Spotify, Brian Pei ’13 melds his affinity for data with his love of music
by Katie Williard
When Spotify introduces you to something great, you can thank Brian Pei ’13.

Pei helps write the code that propels the technological wizardry of the popular audio streaming service. “The code I contribute to tells the app what song to recommend to you,” he says. “We use data from content performance analytics to make your personal experience better.”

Brian Pei in office
Photo: Kristof Pusztai
Brian Pei ’13 gained two key skills from his lifelong love of music — patience and practice.
He speaks passionately about his work, but couldn’t have predicted his career path. His first love is music.

Growing up in the New York City suburbs with two musician parents, he studied violin and voice — his mother and father’s instruments. But as the only son of first-generation immigrants from China, Pei was advised by his parents to study music only if he paired it with “another versatile major.” At Bucknell, he found the opportunity to continue performing — with the Bison Chips, chorus and orchestra, as well as at open mics on campus — while double-majoring in math and economics.

His first job — a consulting role — pitched Pei headfirst into coding. “The lead developer quit, so I spent two weekends watching hours of YouTube videos on coding,” he says. In his flood of learning, Pei realized a surprising parallel — he could equate writing code with writing music.

“It was a bunch of random letters and numbers to me at first; not English,” he says. “But music isn’t English either, and learning to view music as its own language gave me confidence to learn programming.”

Pei invested himself in becoming a programmer, and eventually joined co-working company WeWork during its meteoric rise. “As soon as I was on a data team, I noticed that I was surrounded by incredibly smart people, who almost all had different majors,” he says. “The colleagues I learned the most from had studied English, classics or pre-med.”

The move to Spotify — triggered by WeWork’s famed crash — landed him his dream role: combining his love of music with his penchant for coding.

Now, Pei pays it forward. In partnership with Bucknell’s Center for Career Advancement, he recently spoke to students about the breadth of data as a discipline. “Whether to Bucknell students or at the high school career fairs I’ve attended, I make sure to cover around 20 data-related job titles, specifically explaining their function and importance,” he says.

Ultimately, he credits his desire to help others to his parents. “I think a little bit of mentoring is in my blood. It gives me a sense of purpose.”