The Mathematics of Union Organizing

May 18, 2022

A recent grad used her data visualization skills to rally colleagues at The New York Times.

Class of '22 Shay Culpepper
Shay Culpepper graduates with a master’s in Data Analysis and Visualization in the Class of 2022. (Photo courtesy of Shay Culpepper)

Ten years ago, when Shay Culpepper first came to New York City, she was working as a trainer for a Christian nonprofit. At the time, the 20-something-year-old Texan had no idea that her life would soon take a 180-degree turn.

Fast forward to today. Culpepper works as a software engineer for The New York Times, where she also serves as a union organizer. She’s about to graduate with a master’s degree from the Graduate Center’s Data Analysis and Visualization program. An alumna of The City College of New York, she’s a proud bisexual and open about being bipolar. And she credits much of her success in the union to the skills she learned at the Graduate Center. 

Recently, Culpepper spoke with the Graduate Center about her work as a software engineer and union organizer, her thoughts on being bisexual and bipolar, and how she took her love of math to the limits. 

The Graduate Center: Have you always been a math whiz? 

Culpepper: I was bored with math because I was good at it. All through school, I would sleep through a class and then wake up and tutor my friends, who were actually there for the lecture because they were having trouble with their homework.

That was my life in high school. And it wasn't until I started taking calculus in college that it started to get interesting.

GC: What was interesting about calculus in college? What did you like about it? 

Culpepper: I heard calculus once described as the mathematics of infinite behavior. It's just so cool. Like, what happens if you take something to its limits? What if this operation is done a million times, what happens? Does it actually approach something? It's just fun. 

GC: You’re from the Dallas, Texas, suburbs. How did you end up in New York City?

Culpepper: I got priced out of Southern Methodist University. I just couldn't pay for it anymore. So, I went to work for a Christian nonprofit. They sent me to New York to work with college students. And I said, “I should finish my degree, shouldn't I?”

GC: When did you know that you wanted to work with numbers?

Culpepper: I was in a calculus course during my first semester at City College. It was Calc I. Every engineering and math student has to start there. It was really basic, but I just loved it. Then over the winter break, I taught myself Calc II. I asked my professor for her syllabus and then I really just followed that. I tested out of that class and hopped straight into Calc III. 

GC: What exactly do you do as a senior software engineer at The New York Times?

Culpepper: My job is to build tools for the newsroom to monitor traffic on their stories. Part of it is building dashboards that allow them to quickly review and scan metrics. Then part of it is building a platform so that other teams can do that, too, so they can build dashboards on our platform. 

GC: Is there something specific that you really like about your job? 

Culpepper: I love taking time to think through the user interactions with the dashboard. Making a visualization is not that hard. You can plug numbers into a charting library and get a really cool line chart out of it. You may need to spend some time fiddling with it to match the designs.

But what is really complex about data visualization is how people interact with those visualizations. They only want to look at this subset of the data. So, how is that user going to communicate that this is what they want to see so that it can get filtered out?

That's a common function of so many apps that we all use online, right? Like if you're shopping for something and you want to look just for towels and then you want to look for towels that are pink, then you're working with filters to do that. But every site does it a little bit differently.

GC: I understand that you’re a union organizer at The New York Times. How did that start? 

Culpepper: One of the members of my team informed us that there was going to be a walkout because of this whole thing that management had done. They’d messed up and there was going to be a walkout because of it.

I turned around and started sending the petition to everyone in the organization that I knew. And I said, “We're walking out, you've got to join. Here's the petition.” I sent it to managers … and I said, “We need to send an email about this and get people to walk out with us.”

So, she sat me down and said, “Okay, I just want to let you know, we're unionizing and I think you'd be a good member of the organizing committee.” It fit with my background of evangelizing. It was a very similar skill set. I joined within a month or two. I would say the rest is history, but there were so many things that happened during that campaign. That was two years ago.

Fellow organizers allowed me to redesign a map of our workplace. We affectionately called it “the bubble chart.” It showed, in a single graphic, every single person in the unit, which at that time was 700 people. That was our bargaining unit, the technology employees at New York Times (Times Tech Guild). That visualization allowed us to see where there were pockets of the organization that we hadn't really reached yet. 

Then we could start prioritizing groups and finding leaders within groups. We were able to tell almost every single member of the unit about the unionization effort within a couple of months.

GC: Do you have a job title with the union? 

Culpepper: I'm the member data chair. I didn't have that title before we were recognized in March 2022. It's been so exciting. 

It was very handy to have the bubble chart once we were recognized. … We've been using the chart to map out who we need to do outreach to and who has a steward, and who's a leader in their organization. The reason I keep mentioning the bubble chart is that it ended up being my capstone project. We use it all the time. 

I’d have organizers from other campaigns see it and say they wanted it for their workplace. But ours was so specific to us that, for my capstone project, I made a generalized version so that any union can use it. They just have to go to this website and the application is there. They upload a CSV file and then they're able to map out their own workplace.

GC: Can you describe what the bubble chart is, exactly?

It’s an organizational chart that uses circles that are nested to show groupings of people. Each person is a small circle. It might be that their manager is a bigger circle, so everyone that person manages is within the same circle. And then their department might have a lot of manager’s circles. So you can have 50 workers in one department and it would be grouped by manager. Then when you zoom all the way out, you can see each department. 

GC: What would you say were the most important skills you learned in the data visualization program? 

Culpepper: What I walked away with more than anything else is an eye for design when it comes to visualizations. I’ve always loved visualization. I work for New York Times. We're amazing at them. But there are a lot of details in visualization that are nuanced. Being able to see those choices more clearly and then knowing how to make them myself in my own visualizations, that's a skill that has to be honed over time. The courses that I got most from were the ones where we were making a lot of visualizations. We got to critique each other's work and through that ideas came out. 

GC: In your Twitter bio, you identify yourself as bisexual. Is this something that you feel is important for people to know about you? 

Culpepper: I do, actually. I went to a church where they literally said that being bipolar is not a thing. It doesn't exist. It's a sin problem. It's a heart problem, whatever. Being bisexual was also frowned upon. 

I think it's important that people feel comfortable sharing that part of themselves. Not that anyone should be required to. But I feel like being really honest about who you are makes the people around you more comfortable being honest about who they are, which makes for deeper relationships.

GC: Was it difficult growing up in the Southern Baptist Church and being bisexual?

Culpepper: I used to journal constantly because I would be praying and I would write it out. And I found this journal entry a few months ago that was just me finding myself disgusting. I wanted to go give little Shay a hug. It was the saddest thing that I had to hold that. 

It’s been several years since I've left the faith, so sometimes I forget how visceral all of that was. And I was also undiagnosed bipolar. So, I was feeling things in very extreme ways because I wasn't medicated and I wasn't getting proper therapy. I internalized it more than rebelled against it. I thought the faith was right and it was me that was wrong.

GC: Do you have advice for people who may be bipolar?

Culpepper: If you think you're bipolar, find a therapist and find a psychiatrist. I cannot overstate the importance of that self-care. If you had bad eyesight, you’d go to an eye doctor and you’d get glasses because you need them to be able to see clearly. For me, I needed both the therapy and the medication. Medication was not enough on its own, but with therapy, those two things together really changed my life. 

GC: What advice do you have for current or future students in the Data Analysis and Visualization program?

Culpepper: Study excellent visualizations. If you can find a set of visualizations from the same creator, study them and see if you can find the common threads, because that will help clue you into their design thinking. 

If you're there for visualization, take every opportunity you can to turn your projects into visualizations, because so much of design is practice, practice, practice. If you’re doing something new, throw things against the wall.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing