A Place of Opportunity and Chance: The INFORMS Business Analytics Conference 2024

Soham Agarwal
MS-BAIM Purdue University

The Early Career Professionals Network

I had the pleasure of attending the Early Career Professionals Network (ECPN) event after being nominated by my professor, Matthew Lanham. The event was a gathering of highly renowned Operations Research and Analytics professionals and students from across America, looking to share heartfelt conversations about how their pitfalls could help shape the younger generation. Dr. Erick D. Wikum emphasized the importance of looking beyond the technical toolbox and constantly considering the ‘Up-Down’ approach. The strategy of enhancing this learning through consulting skills was exemplified by Robin Lougee, who highlighted the amount of time we spend writing emails.

The speed mentoring session that followed entailed 10-minute discussions with each of the experts, talking about the key factors they’ve unlocked over the years. From discussing how companies don’t have their act together despite the industry thinking otherwise, to how power dynamics within an industry shape a company more than the work itself, to me giving elevator pitches that went on for minutes, there was a lot to work on!

"By interacting with leaders and elevating your thinking, you can expedite your journey to the top, developing deep industry expertise and interactions with workers who could facilitate this learning."

Unexpected Events, Favourable Outcomes

The lunches and dinners at INFORMS offered much more than just delicious food and the table etiquette that I had to memorize from a PowerPoint presentation. On the first day of the conference, my colleague from OR/MS Tomorrow, Kara Tucker, ushered me to a seat coincidentally next to the keynote speaker of the day, despite my not having attended the morning events.


An Unexpected Outcome

This encounter proved to be one of the core takeaways for me.

Thomas Koulopoulos, founder of the Delphi Group (noted as one of the fastest-growing private companies), a futurist, and author of over a dozen books, shared his extensive experience during our lunch. Our discussion ranged from the impact of generative AI on behavioral change and its potential penetration into various industries, to Indian mythology and how religion influences the principles of large language models like ChatGPT and Bard.

This conversation was pivotal for me and highlighted the importance of how chance, mixed with effort, can sometimes be more beneficial than merely utilizing the resources at hand. Engaging with the stories of others can prove more meaningful than pursuing immediate gains, whether for a job or a short-term business advantage. It all starts with a bit of communication.

Following up on our conversation, I have communicated back and forth with Thomas multiple times, extending our discussions to topics like delegation and defining personal goals. These interactions have been challenging for me and have reaffirmed his role as a mentor.

Networking, Networking, How to Make a Genuine Connection

A significant portion of the conference was dedicated to multiple events, including speeches, formal discussions, and special segments like Women in OR/MS, where female leaders discussed overcoming hurdles not only from a professional standpoint but also from the complications that arise throughout a person’s life. Additionally, high-level executives from some of the world’s largest conglomerates participated in the Franz Edelman competition, aiming to solve major problems in the fields of operations and supply chain.

During this time, the essential need to interact with others became apparent. Although daunting, this skill is easier to master than most people think. The solution?

Simply ask questions that interest you.

Being genuinely interested in the conversation and maintaining a curious mind, as Thomas K puts it, can help you develop connections that last long after everyone else has left. By focusing on what others discuss and using conversational threading, you can engage people for much longer than they initially expected.

The importance of this approach was highlighted during the poster presentation on the first day of the main events. INFORMS provided an opportunity for my team to present our project on using large language models in the financial domain. During this session, two analyst professionals from Universal approached our poster, keen to dive deeper into the problem statement at hand. While engaging Taylor Szafran, a strategy analyst at Universal Studios, in a friendly conversation, I casually inquired about the possibility of obtaining tickets to Universal, having long desired to visit their theme park after a trip to Disney. What I thought would be a jovial remark turned into an actual trip to Islands of Adventure the very next day!

The End of the Journey?

Returning from an outing on the last day of the conference, all the exhibits, discussions, and workshops had left a lasting impression on me. Yet, the magic of the journey was far from over.

Frantz, our cab driver during the ride back to the hotel, turned what could have been a typical Uber ride into the highlight of my trip, thereby binding the analytical experiences in Florida into a profoundly human one. Unbeknownst to us, Frantz had been featured in multiple news articles and media outlets. He began our journey by speaking in the voice of a Disney narrator, complete with theme tracks, games, and personal stories, asking about each of us in turn. He then shared his own poignant story of caring for his sick wife, losing her, and subsequently finding love again at Disney with a woman who inspires him to continue spreading joy.


Meeting Frantz

This experience underscored the importance of seeing data not just as numbers but as real connections between events in life. The data points around us are imbued with meaning and are not merely a barrage of information waiting to be input into a machine learning or a large language model. By understanding the data and the people behind it, we can advance the field of OR/MS in ways that might surprise even the most seasoned experts.

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Sen Li for taking time to review this article. The header and footer photos were provided by INFORMS.