INFORMS News: Recap: Fall 2017 Roundtable meeting in Houston

Houston hosted the Roundtable meeting in conjunction with the 2017 INFORMS Annual Meeting. Source: Thinkstock

Houston hosted the Roundtable meeting in conjunction with the 2017 INFORMS Annual Meeting. Source: Thinkstock

The fall 2017 Roundtable meeting was held Oct 21-22 at the Hilton Americas Hotel in Houston with a meeting theme of “Academic-Industry Partnerships.” To help facilitate networking opportunities valued by Roundtable members, a guided tour of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was held on Saturday afternoon followed by a reception.

No Roundtable member company can be successful without the talent pool that it hires. With the fast-paced change of the analytics field, Roundtable members wanted to hear what INFORMS and some academic institutions are doing to address the challenge of maintaining the analytics talent pool and the evolution of the academic curriculum to focus on valued skill sets (technical and soft skills) that make a successful employee.

The day was broken into four sections: 1) examples of successful academic-industry partnerships, 2) the INFORMS Masters in Analytics Program Directors (MAPD) program and changes in curriculum to address practitioners needs, 3) introduction to the Ford Academic Alliance program, and 4) new hire expectations from their jobs.

The day was kicked off by Ravi Ahuja, president and CEO of Optym, who talked about his experiences in consulting for several railroads, trucking and mining companies. According to Ahuja, industry has a mixed experience with optimization or black box solutions. He advocated the need to focus on interactivity and graphical solutions relying more on heuristics. He also emphasized that successful O.R. practitioners need not just strong math skills, but also strong programming skills. Academics need to teach these skills to their students. He also called on practitioners to provide sabbatical opportunities to faculty and provide students with real data and internship opportunities.

Martin Savelsberg, the James C. Edenfield chair and professor at the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial & Systems Engineering, Georgia Tech, followed with a talk about various partnership arrangements with practitioners such as contract research, private consulting and research grants. The factors that need to be balanced in these engagements, he said, are the needs of students with the needs of the company, including intellectual property and the transfer of code and knowledge. He spoke about his experiences with DayJet, Saia, UPS and Grub Hub. Each project was structured differently in terms of intellectual property and the roles of his team (idea generator versus responsibility for the code base).

After a short break, the Roundtable members moved to the next section of the day – learning what academic institutions are doing in response to the shortage of analytics professionals and changes in the technical landscape. Melissa Bowers (associate professor, University of Tennessee) and Jeff Camm (associate dean, Wake Forest University) tag-teamed in this section.

In the past seven years Bower’s survey results have shown that masters in analytics programs have grown from a handful to nearly 200 in the U.S. alone. These programs have strong industry partnerships and industry advisory board members, and they focus on soft skills and hands-on experience. Each of these programs have a requisite capstone internship requirement that teaches students to create insightful results and communicate to various leadership levels. Bowers also talked about an INFORMS-sponsored program, the Masters in Analytics Program Directors (MAPD) meeting, that was attended by more than 40 program directors to discuss the common challenges.

Jeff Camm, who has had several decades of successful experience with industry consulting as a University of Cincinnati faculty member, talked about his new master’s in analytics program at Wake Forest University that is focused on three principles: the voice of the customer, program benchmarking and faculty subject matter experts. Based on these principles, Camm designed an 11-month program; first set of 37 graduates were hired within 60 days of graduation. The program emphasizes technical skills, business acumen and impactful professionalism.

Camm’s talk was followed by a “What does the Roundtable think?” session in which the Roundtable members were divided into two groups to focus on academics and practitioner strengths and opportunities. Each group was assigned one of two roles – academics or industry – and each group had both academics and practitioners. The goal of each group was to identify a couple of strengths in how academic institutions are working currently along with a couple of opportunities to improve. The same exercise was repeated for industry. What are practitioners doing well and what can be improved?

In the third section of the day, Tim Maull, University Programs manager from the Ford Motor Company, talked about Ford’s industry alliance program that provides a framework for different teams and organizations within Ford to collaborate with universities.

After lunch, three newly hired analytics professionals (Sushil Raj Podel, UPS; Nathaniel Richmond, BNSF Railway; and Hadi Panahi, Monsanto) talked briefly about their expectations at their respective companies. Their talks provided insights on some simple policies and conditions that provide meaning and energy to young employees.

The Roundtable meeting concluded with a short business meeting conducted by Kathy Lange.

– Pooja Dewan