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.
“This is how our master’s program is dramatically different from analytics programs in engineering, computer science, and statistics.”
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.
“CBIA serves as a conduit for connecting corporations that have business problems and opportunities with faculty and graduate students who have analytics expertise.”
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.”
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