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Analytics Magazine

Analyze This! Mathematics: The gift that keeps on giving

July/August 2016

business analytics news and articles

30-year reunion reinforces appreciation for popular major at small, Midwestern liberal arts college.

Vijay MehrotraBy Vijay Mehrotra

In the late 20th century, I was an undergraduate at St. Olaf, a small, Midwestern liberal arts college. Earlier this summer, I returned to campus for a class reunion, excited to see my classmates and to hear about where their life journeys had taken them.

We had hoped for blue skies, but instead we got mostly puffy gray clouds and scattered showers with the occasional patch of sunshine. Still, even when the sun was hidden, our old school seemed to shimmer, not only with its elegant white limestone buildings, tall trees and green grass, but also with the memories that flashed out from behind nearly every corner. On that glorious June weekend none of us felt all that far removed from college. Had it really been 30 years since we had graduated?

In our graduating class of approximately 700, more than 100 of us majored in mathematics. Why was mathematics so popular at St. Olaf? While there are many reasons, the root cause is surely the faculty. Since the 1970s, the St. Olaf mathematics department has been full of enthusiastic, energetic teachers who believed that math classes should be fun, that mathematical literacy is an essential part of a liberal arts education, and that all students should be encouraged to take math classes, even those who have no intention of becoming “real” mathematicians by going to graduate school.

Over time, the results have been remarkable. From 1980 to 1989, St. Olaf graduated more than 500 students with mathematics majors, and more than 50 of us from those graduating classes ultimately completed Ph.D.s in mathematical sciences fields. This strong tradition continues; mathematics remains one of the most popular departments on campus, with about 10 percent of each graduating class majoring in mathematics.

Returning to campus for this year’s reunion, I wondered about my classmates, especially my fellow math majors. Where had they gone over the past 30 years? How had the digital revolution shaped our lives and careers? Where did software, data and models fit into all of those vocational adventures?

For some of us, the math department’s influence on our career was obvious. Thomas Halverson (Wisconsin) and Tamara Olson (Courant Institute) went to graduate school in mathematics and became math professors, Tom at Macalaster College and Tamara at Michigan Tech. Many other classmates became math teachers at the elementary and secondary levels, including Susan Ahrendt who now educates future math teachers at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

Like me, Hai Chu (Clemson) and Karen Donohue (Northwestern) studied operations research in graduate school. Hai’s distinguished career has featured stints with American Airlines/Sabre, Amazon.com and most recently the Walt Disney Company. Karen has been a business school faculty member, first at Wharton and most recently at the University of Minnesota. Today, Hai leads an internal consulting team at Disney that focuses on analytics and revenue management, helping bring solutions to both traditional problems and new domains. Meanwhile, Karen’s research is in behavioral operations management, sustainability and supply chain coordination, topics that were barely on the O.R. agenda when we were graduate students but are now viewed as important and fertile research areas.

Another classmate gave me a visceral sense of how advances in supply chain management have impacted the business world. Joel Anderson is the CEO of Five Below (www.fivebelow.com), a publicly traded discount retail chain, the most recent leadership role in his 20+ year-career in retail. In addition to discussing the rise of e-commerce (he had recently completed a stint as CEO of Walmart.com), Joel also described just how much real-time information is delivered to him today (“I get real time sales data delivered to my phone three times each day for all of our SKUs and all 400+ stores”) and how this data supports supplier collaboration and inventory management (“So much stuff that used to require a pile of spreadsheets before is really easy today – and optimized too.”).

This observation produced a wry grin from my old roommate Jim Ford. After starting his career with Anderson Consulting (before it was rebranded as “Accenture”), Jim has spent much of the past few decades running complex IT projects. He knows just how challenging it can be to implement the systems that make things look “easy” for executives like Joel. Jim noted that while he had cut his teeth on customized corporate system development projects early in his career, his projects today feature more standardized commercial packages and/or open source components integrated, producing different flavors of technical and managerial complexity.

John Haugen, another college math classmate, has spent the last 25 years at General Mills, where he has seen a steady shift away from mass marketing, monolithic distribution channels and high barriers to entry – and toward specialized food brands and direct-to-customer channels. His current job is vice president and general manager of 301 Inc., General Mills’ venture capital arm, where he leads General Mills’ strategic investments in emerging start-ups. The existence of such funds – several of General Mills’ traditional competitors have similar groups – reflects the fact that in today’s world smaller companies are far better equipped to more rapidly develop new products, to reach statistically identified customer groups through social media, and to leverage specialty (on- and off-line) distribution channels. None of this stuff existed when we graduated from college.

Another classmate, Paul James, is an industrial designer who has been running his own studio [1] for the past 14 years. While CAD software and 3D rendering models have been around for a long time, Paul pointed out that the way in which designers use them has changed dramatically. “It used to be that software like CAD was mostly for documentation of what had been designed and produced. But today, this kind of software is central throughout the design process, from initial idea generation through manufacturing, which often features mass customization and/or 3D printing.”

He credited his mathematics training not only for helping him reframe and solve technical design challenges, but also for enabling him to effectively organize logical explanations for elegant design solutions. “It’s a lot like writing a proof,’ he mused.

Long before the New York Times [2] and the Harvard Business Review [3] mentioned it, we were regularly told by the St. Olaf math faculty that what they were teaching us would be valuable, directly or indirectly, in careers we could not yet imagine and in ways that we could not anticipate. And long before there was a plethora of academic programs in data science and analytics, the St. Olaf mathematics faculty was partnering with companies to provide its students with practicum projects that brought us into the joys, and terrors, of real-world applications. And while some of us have put our training to use in traditional roles, many classmates who chose different career paths have found their undergraduate math training unexpectedly valuable in today’s increasingly digitized and data-driven world.

To my classmates, especially the math majors, congratulations on making it this far in your life’s journey. I’m proud to be in your company. Best wishes for the next 30 years and beyond.

To my professors, especially the math teachers, thanks for those precious few years. Looking back from the middle of middle age, I am incredibly grateful.

Vijay Mehrotra (vmehrotra@usfca.edu) is a professor in the Department of Business Analytics and Information Systems at the University of San Francisco’s School of Management and a longtime member of INFORMS.

References:

  1. http://www.gunlocke.com/DesignerPages/PaulJames.html
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/06/technology/06stats.html
  3. https://hbr.org/2012/10/data-scientist-the-sexiest-job-of-the-21st-century/

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