Business analytics: Meeting the need for talent
March 6, 2017
Finding his niche in neuroscience near the end of his sophomore year dispatched the indecision and turmoil Jonathan Briganti had felt — “every path seemed to call to me” — and gave him an academic goal at Virginia Tech.
When he discovered business analytics while competing in a campus hackathon, he acquired a career focus. Briganti expects to graduate this spring and join Pamplin’s master’s program in business analytics in the fall.
Business analytics is the process of using scientific techniques and technologies to extract useful information from raw data to make business decisions. Pamplin’s program would make him more proficient in both data analytics and business subjects, says Briganti, who became CEO of a healthcare tech startup he and others launched in the wake of the hackathon.
The degree, he adds, will also position him well to pursue other passions that might emerge through the course of a career and lifetime.
Forging a new career
Also starting the program this fall is Angelica Melvin (PSYC ’13), who is seeking knowledge and skills to forge a new career she hopes will involve data analytics at a community-oriented business.
Growing up in an “impoverished, isolated Appalachian community, where supporting local business was emphasized,” Melvin recalls learning the value of a strong work ethic and a job well done from various family members. “I worked alongside my mom in her restaurant after school. Later, I worked in a cousin’s auto body shop.”
Currently an administrative assistant on campus, Melvin was previously a sales manager at Goodwill. “Working at a store that was frequented by people of disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds,” she says, “helped me refocus my career goals.”
Accelerating a success trajectory
Robert Lorence spent nearly three years as an engineering undergraduate and transferred colleges twice before arriving at Virginia Tech. Now a senior in economics, he is also enrolled in the business analytics program’s accelerated track, which lets students earn graduate-course credit while completing a bachelor’s degree.
“I felt absolutely positive if I got in this program I would have a faster success trajectory professionally,” says Lorence.
“Having data analytics skills, along with my grounding in engineering and economics, will allow me to pivot quickly and have a really exciting career.”
A shortage of talent
Briganti, Melvin, and Lorence can expect sunny job prospects when they graduate. “There’s a significant shortage of talent in the data and business analytics arena,” says Linda Oldham, executive director of Pamplin’s Center for Business Intelligence and Analytics (CBIA), which runs the one-year graduate program.
The skills shortage is a popular topic of trade journals, industry reports, and executive conferences.
Analytics and data science programs have multiplied (U.S. universities now offer more than 100), but “they can’t crank out enough sufficiently trained people to meet the demand,” says Oldham, citing Deloitte’s Analytics Trends 2016 report.
Especially sought are those with knowledge and skills to manage and interpret data for business decision making — “people who can identify, frame, and solve problems that will also bring high returns on investment,” Oldham says. “Corporations tell me they lack analytics talent with the ability to use the data to build a business case.”
Pamplin’s business analytics concentration gives students a solid education in both data analytics and business, she says. “This is how our master’s program is dramatically different from analytics programs in engineering, computer science, and statistics.”
Meeting the demand
The program is “a great way for students with virtually any undergraduate degree to gain skills that are in high demand,” says business information technology professor Cliff Ragsdale, who serves as CBIA’s academic director. “Our immersive, hands-on curriculum trains students to use the tools of analytics to deliver effective solutions to real-world business problems.”
The curriculum includes core courses in accounting, finance, managerial statistics, organizational behavior, and marketing policy and strategy, as well as courses in business intelligence and analytics, and business information visualization.
Capping off the learning is a multi-disciplinary, team project sponsored by a company, government agency, or nonprofit organization that addresses a problem identified by the sponsor.
“The capstone course offers students the opportunity for experiential and communal education, collaboration, and applying what they’ve studied in class to actual problems in the work world,” Oldham says. By operating in teams similar to those at workplaces today, she says, students are able to experience the process of participating, contributing, and learning as part of a group.
For the sponsoring organization, a major benefit is the first-hand opportunity to get to know the students and their capabilities for potential employment. Another benefit is the expertise of the nearly two dozen faculty members associated with the center.
“Analytics research only matters to the extent that it helps solve problems that people and businesses care about,” says Ragsdale. “CBIA serves as a conduit for connecting corporations that have business problems and opportunities with faculty and graduate students who have analytics expertise.”
Collaborations offer “significant business insights and value” for corporations, Ragsdale says, as well as “rich sources of data and living laboratories” for Pamplin’s researchers. With specialties that include text, financial, healthcare, and operational analytics, center faculty are tackling such research topics as product safety, consumer privacy, expert search efficiency, and data use in federal government agencies.
Establishing the center
Pamplin established the center in 2014 with founding sponsor Deloitte, which contributed $50,000 to the initiative.
“With the continued dramatic growth of data creation and collection, analytic applications to deliver this information, and the shortage of these skills in the market, we saw a natural synergy between Deloitte, our analytic offerings, and CBIA,” says Robert Torpey (BIT ’02, COMM ’02), senior manager of analytics and information management at Deloitte Consulting LLP.
His own learning experiences at Virginia Tech reflect what has come to be called the “VT-shaped student” model, Torpey says. He says he was “well prepared to enter the workforce,” armed with a business degree with a technical focus and a liberal arts degree, as well as experiential knowledge gained from a business study-abroad program and the cooperative education program.
“I started at an analytics software company, immediately leveraging my technical degree, but eventually, I wanted to get to the front lines of the most challenging business issues. That’s when I made the move to consulting, with a focus on business intelligence and analytics. A ‘VT-shaped’ education has allowed me to play an integral role translating the business needs of my clients into technical approaches that enable them to make actionable data-driven decisions.”
Torpey notes that Deloitte already had a well-established relationship with Virginia Tech, with annual sponsorship of and participation in a wide range of campus events, membership on several advisory boards, and designation of Virginia Tech as a high-priority school for hiring.
Deloitte helps guide the center’s strategic direction, helps fund faculty and graduate-student research in data analytics, and jointly sponsors the annual business analytics symposium.
Confronting real-world challenges
The center has also attracted sponsor funding from Leidos. “The volume of data that is created each and every day related to key business challenges is ever expanding,” says Jerry Hogge (EE ’87, M.S., ISE ’91), senior vice president of Leidos Defense, Health, and International Solutions Group. “As a result, the ability to create actionable business intelligence in these complex, big-data settings requires the very best in analytics, methodologies, and approaches.”
Pamplin’s center, he says, offers an innovative environment that combines the best academic capabilities with real-world challenges.
“Our experience in working with CBIA has allowed my defense, health, and international healthcare businesses at Leidos to address highly complex problems with very big data sets,” Hogge says.
“It has been a highly successful partnership that has delivered powerful, insightful, and practical solutions to multifaceted business intelligence and analytics challenges. We look forward to continuing this relationship as we tackle important issues across a spectrum of markets, business sectors, and industries.”
Such challenges will also occupy Lorence, Melvin, and Briganti as current and prospective students and future business analytics professionals.
Lorence, who has started his job search, hopes to land at an innovative company in the technology or space industries. Visiting one such potential employer recently, he says, “I could really see myself working there and how my skills could fit into this organization.”
Her life experiences, Melvin says, have shaped her interest in enterprises that emphasize community support and outreach, and a business model that serves the greater good.
“I want to bring lessons I’ve learned from my personal background, master’s studies, and work experiences into the business world and work to improve the lives of others.”
As for Briganti, it took him a while to figure out his future, but he now relishes the prospect of one based on developing novel approaches to business analytics for scientific and healthcare businesses. He notes that as a neuroscience student, he studies neuronal connections on an extremely small scale: “understanding how each neurotransmitter affects the brain and how each action results in an endless cascade of neural activity.”
Focusing on the parts can result in not perceiving the whole. “I wasn’t seeing the brain through all the neurons.” Learning about big data and its possibilities “was like finally seeing the forest for the trees,” Briganti says.
“Data analytics lets me see large pictures and work on a scale not previously possible.”
In his own words: Jonathan Briganti
Thrust into a big new world
My first exposure to big data and the master’s program in business analytics was during the Mobile Apps for Global Good in Healthcare Analytics Hackathon last spring. My team and I went with an idea for a new type of preemptive screening for dementia using smartphones.
As a neuroscience major, my role was ensuring that the app was scientifically and medically sound, along with diving into literature review to find the best methods to accurately test an individual’s cognition. Winning this hackathon brought us a partnership with Carilion Clinic and thrust me into the world of large data.
Opening doors to any field
CBIA executive director Dr. Linda Oldham was so enthusiastic about the MSBA in business analytics and all its benefits that one can’t help but get excited alongside her. Dr. Oldham answered all my questions and sent me articles and books that I might find helpful.
One of the major draws is how applicable it is to any field. This program would open doors to places I never thought possible. I love neuroscience and always will, but an advanced degree in neuroscience allows me to do neuroscience jobs, primarily in a research capacity. Data analytics lets me enter any field and still find a niche I can fill.
I have always been drawn to working more with the data than the collection of it. I enjoy concatenating the thousands of files we have into easily digestible results. I like spending time writing scripts and improving our workflow to make our team more effective. Looking into this program also helped me fully understand that what I love about research is data analytics.
I want to work for or with hospitals to increase the usability of data collected on each patient. As our world switches over to electronic healthcare records, the amount of data we can keep on a patient is constantly increasing. I want to help hospitals discern what patient information is important to keep, how to access and store that data in the most cost-effective manner, and build programs or train the professionals on how to use the data in increasingly better ways. I could help make the quality of care for every patient better than ever.
We are in the process of forming a company focused on the core ideas we presented at that hackathon. We are working closely with Carilion Clinic and hope to have clinical trials this spring.
Core members of the company include Brian Elliott, who was the computer and software engineer for the hackathon; Dr. Anne Brown, our research advisor; and Dr. David Trinkle, a geriatric physician at Carilion Clinic. As CEO, I am in charge of the executive aspects, along with the neuro side of it: organizing and shaping the company’s direction, with heavy input from the other members, and developing the tests going into the app that will be given to test for cognitive concerns. This is definitely a team effort and would not be possible without all the amazing work, ideas, and support from everyone involved.
It’s the most exciting part of my life right now. I never envisioned a life that included owning a company and meeting with legal counsel about patent and copyright law. We saw a need in the medical world, and with the help of the hackathon, we are actually trying to fix that issue. We have garnered a lot of interest from a number of different entities, and I cannot wait to see where this goes.
Capstone projects: practicing skills, solving problems
Business analytics student Robert Lorence would like to reach out to Ben Carson, nominated to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to hear his thoughts about housing and running the department.
“I have heard him speak about how housing ties into health, which I hadn’t considered before,” says Lorence, whose team capstone project in Pamplin’s master’s program in business analytics is to create a tool or application for an unbiased performance score that would aid HUD officials in awarding grants for homeless support programs.
Lorence hopes the HUD secretary nominee can “share some of his goals and give us his perspective towards developing a solid and viable project path forward.”
The capstone assignments are aimed at solving a problem selected by a sponsoring organization, which provides relevant data and identifies success metrics and expected benefits, says Linda Oldham, executive director of the Center for Business Intelligence and Analytics.
“Topics should be complex enough to be challenging, yet contained enough to allow for meaningful results. Each project should strike a balance between technical issues and business concerns.”
Lorence’s team project is sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which is providing support for HUD’s information technology initiatives. HUD holds a competition annually as a way for local governments and organizations to vie for federal grants that specifically assist homeless people, notes Hewlett Packard’s capstone project proposal.
Due to a recent shift in criteria, such grants are now awarded to programs that show positive performance. HUD, however, lacks a universal scoring system for assessing performance, the proposal notes, and its officials have been relying on the scoring systems created by the grant-seeking groups.
To create its own scores, HUD needs a tool to aggregate, organize, and better interpret the data from the local organizations. The tool could help HUD better allocate financial resources to areas with the most success as well as target areas in need of changes in policy and operations.
“Our project is focused on trying to create a standardized grading system for HUD so federal funding can be allocated better, based on elements such as critical housing classifications and need-based scoring,” Lorence says. “Right now, groups seeking funds self-grade, so without other comparisons, they can be pretty insular in their value knowledge.”
Lorence says he enjoys the process of teamwork. He set out to make it a big part of his college experience, signing on at engineering teams at Auburn, where he began his studies, and Virginia Tech, where he joined the Astrobotics team.
“The capstone project is an excellent practical application of the skills we are learning in the program.”
IBM Cloud, another capstone project sponsor, asked students to “create a startup lifecycle model, using big data to identify candidate companies for acquisition and the optimum time to acquire.”
The team must analyze “historically successful and unsuccessful acquisitions, using big data and analytics to find statistical differences in likelihood of success, and apply the statistical models to not yet acquired companies.”
The company’s proposal notes that a “disciplined, big-data approach for identifying ideal candidates (and ideal timing) for acquisitions could potentially save IBM tens of millions of dollars on acquisitions annually, while creating billions of dollars in new revenue streams.”
Other capstone project sponsors are Carilion Clinic, which asked the students to investigate a number of demographic questions related to its planned expansion of telemedicine infrastructure and services; Beyer Automotive, which sought help with questions aimed at creating a better buying experience at the dealership; and Altria, which sought insights into data collected from its manufacturing equipment.
Continuing a family tradition
“I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve been working since I was nine years old. By going into business, I feel like I’m continuing a family tradition.My maternal grandfather was a small-business owner during a very poignant time in history, the Civil Rights Movement. He had only a fifth-grade education, but he became a well-known and well-respected auto mechanic in a small Appalachian town.
Through the quality of his work and business practices, he was able to cross racial lines and gain the business of white customers. Not only were they loyal customers, but he considered them friends. I feel like, in his own way, he made people question their stereotypes and preconceived ideas of who African Americans are and what we’re capable of.”
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