Change is a constant. Perhaps those who work in analytics know this better than anyone. The advances and sheer number of ways to amass and examine data grow seemingly by the day, and the implications affect everything from business strategy to human behavior.
Changes have also come to the McIntire School’s Center for Business Analytics (CBA). In addition to appointing new leadership for the Center with the naming of Professor Trey Maxham as Director, CBA partnered with Commerce Career Services to co-host the inaugural Careers in Analytics event. While CBA’s annual fall Colloquium of student-facing industry and employment panels is being updated for a planned spring 2021 relaunch, the first installment of Careers in Analytics took place virtually on Aug. 28, 2020.
The event welcomed 250 registrants from across the University, including nearly 190 students who participated live and represented Commerce School undergraduate and graduate students, pre-Commerce students, others enrolled in programs with the School of Data Science and the School of Engineering, and Economics and Statistics majors from the College of Arts & Sciences.
Getting Down to Business
Maxham welcomed attendees and guest speakers in a 45-minute panel discussion delving into the “Business of Analytics.” Panelists included CBA members EY Senior Manager Arun Balasubramanian (McIntire ’10), Analytic Partners Associate Vice President Kristin Moody, and Pfizer Director, Oncology Commercial Excellence, Business Analytics Michelle Snyder (McIntire ’92).
CBA members shared information about their career paths and the work that they currently do, and explained the types of situations students might expect to find on the job. They also spoke at length about the necessary skills for a successful career in analytics and gave advice on crafting long-term plans for advancement in the field.
“In this stage of your career, I highly recommend getting comfortable with the uncomfortable, which means that every few years you should be looking for opportunities to go into a new position to learn something different,” says Snyder. “This is the time when you can get a lot of experience across a broad spectrum and really figure out what you want to do. The job I have now didn’t exist when I was looking for a job, and the jobs that you will have in five years probably don’t exist right now. But the way you prepare yourself for them is to try to get as much experience as you can by looking for different opportunities and taking advantage of them.”
Another theme present throughout the panel discussion concerned storytelling with data. Nadjad Nikabou-Salifou (M.S. in Commerce ’21) says that it was the most important takeaway for her.
“Data does not exist in a vacuum. This may sound like common sense, but sometimes we’re under the presumption that data will just magically tell the story for us. That’s clearly not the case. We must use effective storytelling skills to inform our audience about the data. Additionally, the session further emphasized the fact that one should fuse their soft skills and their acquired hard skills even in technical roles.”
Nikabou-Salifou says that while she is learning to effectively interpret data with both types of skill sets through the M.S. in Commerce Program, the panel reinforced the idea that “data can only inform decisions, not dictate it.”
“McIntire is incredible at sharpening the foundational skills you may not get anywhere else,” says Balasubramanian, “but I would ask students to not shy away from the hard skills. There is no substitute for truly understanding technology or having the ability to get your hands dirty with a tool or language. The good news is that when you learn something technical, the chances are that it will make learning the next skill just a little bit easier.”
Breaking Out with Brands
For the second part of Careers in Analytics, students had the option of choosing from five specialized breakout rooms featuring representatives from some of the biggest names in their industries, including Amazon (Kelly Chi Nguyen [McIntire ’07]), Analytic Partners (Timothy Carpenter [A&S ’18]; Moody), CapTech (Gabriella Baum [Engineering ’10]; Wendy Greene), CarMax (Leslie Troxell [McIntire ’96]), Disney Streaming Services (Jane Hegeler [A&S ’13, M.S. in Commerce ’14]), EY (Balasubramanian), IDC (Nabila Popal [McIntire ’04]), Ipsos Public Affairs (Robert Petrin), Netflix (Olivia Walker [A&S ’13, M.S. in Commerce ’14]), and Pfizer (Snyder).
McIntire Professors Jeff Boichuk, Natasha Foutz, Brent Kitchens, Jingjing Li, and Rick Netemeyer moderated interactive sessions focused on business analytics, digital media, analytics consulting, healthcare analytics, and marketing research and analytics consulting, respectively.
Lois Lo (Batten ’20; M.S. in Commerce ’21), who attended the digital media session, says she was surprised by how Hegeler characterized the atmosphere at Disney+ as a startup environment when it was being launched. “I wouldn’t have expected Disney, as an established company, to have that same startup energy, but her explanation made sense and shed light on that aspect,” Lo says. “It also made me think about how the streaming arm likely acts more independently than others.”
Lo also notes that the conversation from the breakout room confirmed her interest in working in the entertainment industry, as she says that both Hegeler and Walker appeared to truly enjoy their work, despite the common themes about churn, retention, and ongoing demands to help a potential employer meet its bottom line through analytics.
Nikabou-Salifou, who was also in the session, says she was heartened to see the adaptability of analytics.
“I loved the fact that data can be used in creative spaces. I think it’s easy to narrow the importance of data in very technical roles. However, data is applicable across so many disciplines. Additionally, our guest speakers shared that there’s a strategic component to analyzing data, and that is the ability to make data actionable.”
The continued significance of coding was at the center of many discussions throughout the event. Nikabou-Salifou says that she left the analytics consulting breakout session with helpful advice on the subject, inspired by panelists Balasubramanian and Baum to learn a programming language, such as Java or Python. “These types of languages are applicable in almost any analyst position, and so they are easily transferrable skills.”
An Insightful Afternoon
Lo says that the first Careers in Analytics was beneficial for a variety of reasons that included gaining insights into different corporate environments, understanding the responsibilities of those in analytics roles, and lessons in best practices that they’ve learned in their experiences working with data.
Likewise, Lo found value in the opportunity to network, ask targeted questions of professionals, and hear managerial perspectives about what a leader looks for from analysts who stand out by going the extra mile.
The arrival of the new Zoom-hosted event resonated with Balasubramanian: “The annual fall Colloquium has been one of my favorite events at the University, but this year’s pivot to a virtual forum showed the resiliency and flexibility of McIntire and the students. I particularly enjoyed being on a panel with both Trey Maxham and Brent Kitchens; they’re both incredible leaders, and I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the facilitated conversations.”
Maxham was satisfied with the outcomes of the day and grateful for the participation of the CBAs guest panelists: “We are very fortunate to enjoy meaningful relationships with so many leaders with deep expertise across a broad spectrum of analytics. Our event was largely successful because of the remarkable commitment by our alumni and corporate partners to share their relevant insights with our students. I’m also grateful for our brilliant staff, which was meticulous and thoughtful in organizing the sessions. I think the event highlights our dedication to helping our students explore a wide variety of excellent career opportunities.”
To find out about future Center-sponsored events and updates on research findings, publications, and news about McIntire analytics initiatives, be sure to follow the CBA on LinkedIn.