Let the data do the talking: Careers in business data analytics

Using data collected about bikes stolen on campus, students in the Master of Science in Business Analytics (MS-BA) program created a map for ASU Police showing where to patrol — on what days and what specific times — to prevent thefts.

Using data collected about bikes stolen on campus, students in the Master of Science in Business Analytics (MS-BA) program created a map for ASU Police showing where to patrol — on what days and what specific times — to prevent thefts.

Neeraj Madan (MS-BA ’15) noticed the many bike thefts on campus and decided to dig into the data and look for patterns. He collaborated with campus police, the parking and transit department and fellow classmates.

“I have an eye to see the problems around me and see how I can solve them,” he said.

Today data is collected on everything — from a customer’s online shopping behavior to how weather patterns in a specific area impact a store’s walk-in traffic and sales. That data, sometimes called big data, is already vast and complex, and growing in every industry across the globe.

But to be useful it must be analyzed: inspected, cleaned and modeled so that businesses can discover insights and solutions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for business analytics specialists who do this work is expected to grow to 1.5 million jobs by 2018.

Meeting market demand

The W. P. Carey School of Business answered that demand with the launch of the Master of Science in Business Analytics (MS-BA) in 2014, offered jointly by the Department of Information Systems and the Department of Supply Chain Management. The program is available to students as a nine-month, full time, on-campus program or a 16-month online program.

Some students choose to tackle business analytics while enrolled in the Full-time MBA program. That can be done by choosing the business analytics concentration, or by going for a dual degree: the MBA/MS-BA.

Whether full-time or online, the MS-BA focuses on sharpening students’ analytical skills to gain value from data and answer critical business questions — giving their employers competitive advantage.

The five V’s

Hina Arora, clinical assistant professor of information systems and co-director of the MS-BA program, said data collection, mining and analysis are exploding in all industries — for good reason. “You have the ability to make decisions based on data instead of gut.”

Arora described the characteristics of data as the five V’s: variety, velocity, volume, veracity and value. “That value piece is so critical to data,” she said. “That’s what we bring with our students, that they’re able to actually go out there and derive value, actual value from data.”

Arora, who earned her doctorate degree with a concentration in information systems at W. P. Carey and worked at Microsoft for the past seven years, returned to the Department of Information Systems to teach this year. She likes to cite famous statistician William Edwards Deming, who has been quoted saying: “In God we trust, all others bring data.”

“I love that quote,” she said. “That’s become so true in the industry today.”

Finding patterns in ambiguity

In the bike theft project, Madan and his team let the data do the talking when they presented their findings to the campus parking and transit department. The students were able to advise them where to put a new bike valet.

Madan, who is an analytic specialist at IBM, said after the MS-BA program he looks for patterns in everything he does now, instead of seeing data as simply abstract.

“I think this whole program has changed my point of view, the way I look at things,” he said.

Arora points out that there are two tracks to big data, but many businesses are covering just one. The engineering side includes the extraction, collection and storage of large amounts of data, but the analysis side is where the business applications are found. Many companies have the engineering muscle but can’t close the loop by analyzing the data and getting answers from it, she said.

“This is where I feel that graduates of our program and our degree can be hugely successful in the industry,” she said. Closing the loop and using data to answer questions is what gives companies the competitive edge.

“One of the big challenges to making superior business decisions today is uncertainty,” said Jeffrey Laub, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Supply Chain Management and faculty co-director with Arora for the MS-BA program.

Because many business decisions are not intuitive, the large amount of data available now gives managers both opportunity and competitive challenge to use that data to deal with that uncertainty, he said.

“One of the greatest values of the program is the fact that the industry has recognized the value of data and how it can be used to make more intelligent, informed business decisions,” he said.

Wide world of opportunity

Another advantage of the degree is that business analytics can be useful in many different industries. “The wide applicability of analytics to business competition are where this program really excels,” Laub said.

Bobby Hunnicutt (MS-BA ‘14) was in the first graduating class of the program. He said the MS-BA degree differentiates graduates from other job candidates. “This program teaches you how to think,” he said.

Hunnicutt got his undergrad degree in finance and was in the working world feeling unfulfilled. After researching the new business analytics program, he said, “wow that sounds interesting, let’s give it a go.”

He was the first of the graduates to be offered a job, as a business intelligence and data analytics developer for General Motors IT. He focuses on plant productivity systems and works to make processes more efficient and faster to save the automobile maker money and aid employees.

He uses the skills he learned in the program every day on the job. “When you work for one of the biggest companies on the planet, everything you do has to be really good, because a lot of people are going to use it,” he said.

“It’s a beautiful blend of IT and business,” he said of his career. “To make the bottom line better, that’s kind of the overall goal.”

Ayushi Agrawal (MS-BA ‘15) was also seeking the perfect blend. She earned her engineering degree in India and was working in computer programming and coding, but recognized that she needed analytical skills.

“Collecting data is one thing but once you have it, what then? You need the tools to analyze it,” she said.

So, she came to the U.S. and the W. P. Carey School of Business for the MS-BA program. “I saw the business analytics program to be in line with my career goals and to be in line with what I actually wanted to learn,” she said.

She said attending ASU and the W. P. Carey School of Business was a life-changing experience for her. Now she is a business data analyst at Apple Inc. in Austin, Texas, and said her career is the perfect blend of technical and business.

“I got my dream job here,” Agrawal said.