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Going Beyond the Data at William & Mary

09 Sep

For Cheryl Ngo and Jamar Jenkins, earning an Online Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) has been about much more than the code—though they’ve both walked away with strong programming skill sets that include R, Python, SQL and Tableau.

Their time in William & Mary’s Online MSBA program gave them a deep understanding of how to bring data analytics to the real world, which means understanding how to communicate their findings to real business leaders.

For Ngo, Jenkins and their teammates, this new knowledge was put to use during William & Mary’s 2020 Data Feast competition. As part of their capstone project, they worked with a real organization who supplied all of their data and asked for help developing strategy from it.

“That's a really critical point for people who are considering getting their MSBA,” Jenkins said. “It's great if someone can derive insight, but it's even more important to have the ability to communicate it to decision makers.”

Over their time in the program, the students learned that those communication skills can take many different forms, from explaining the code itself to creating a clear data presentation. For Ngo, this approach has changed the way she codes. While machine learning programs have gotten more advanced, she’s found herself leaning more on decisions trees and forests, which operate like a flow chart. In addition to being faster to run, they are much easier to explain.

“If you're looking at one decision tree and somebody's asking you why the solution is the way that it is, it's really easy to run through,” Ngo said. “Here the answer was ‘yes,’ and here the answer was ‘no.’ It's something that really follows the way that we think, so it's an easy thing to explain.”

“People don't necessarily want answers that they can't understand: ‘If you can’t explain why this would be the outcome of this model, then maybe that's not the right outcome.’”

Approaching Their Capstone

Four teams competed in the new Data Feast competition at William & Mary, two from the online MSBA program and two from the residential program. They were given real data from a real business and asked to develop insights and strategies from it.

“They had a very general idea,” Ngo said. “Here's some data. Here are some areas we'd like you to look into. Here are some possible questions you might want to answer. It’s very similar to the kinds of problems that you have when you're actually in a working environment as opposed to textbook questions, which would be, ‘here's a very specific question that you have to answer.’”

To her, the biggest hurdle was at the beginning when they were considering these broad questions. They started by exploring the data sets, graphing them and slicing them different ways. They were on the lookout for information that stood out or what seemed like it needed closer inspection.

“Sometimes you can just fact find and see what data tells you,” Jenkins said. “You may go in there thinking you were looking for A,B and C, but come out with X, Y, Z.”

Following that, they divided up the data sets for each of them to hone in on certain issues, including revenue and possible expansion locations. Ngo looked at marketing analytics, specifically the connection between the company’s social media usage and its memberships. Social media might seem like an unlikely place to apply data analysis, but it provided a unique challenge.

“Data analytics is really expanding,” Ngo said. “Marketing analytics is a big field, and marketing happens in a lot of different forms. Combining those together, you still have a lot of data and a lot of insight to be had.”

The business analytics capstone course asks students to draw on what they’ve learned throughout the Online MSBA program. While not every cohort will be taking part in a competition, they will be tasked with using the analytical communication skills to tackle a complex problem and persuasively present their solution.

Throughout their capstone, Ngo and Jenkin’s team met weekly with their faculty advisor and worked together across time zones and countries. Eventually, the team brought their individual work together to build their presentation. For Jenkins, he feels like that presentation, which won them the technical challenge, was the critical component of their capstone project and for the entire MSBA program itself.

“If you can't communicate it and communicate critical insights, then it's going to fall on deaf ears,” he said. “You can run this program on this and that, but if you can't present it in such a way that makes it very powerful, then you’re going to lose it. I'm able to take that data, derive critical insight and then present it in a very powerful way—and that allows me to stand out amongst a lot of people in the room.”

Life After Data Feast

Both Jenkins and Ngo graduated in May.

Jenkins, who currently works as a product manager at Cisco and serves in the U.S. Army, already sees how this program has prepared him for what’s ahead. Earning his MSBA has impacted the way he approaches work, giving him much more unique credentials and skill sets than his peers.

“I look at the world a little bit different,” he said. “For example, if I walk into a room, everyone could look at the problem set the same way. I feel that I'm able to look at it differently—and that's why they want me there.”

Moving forward, he sees that his strong understanding of data will prepare him for what’s ahead in fields like artificial intelligence and machine learning. Eventually Jenkins plans to become a chief marketing officer, but for right now, he knows he has the analytical skills and thought leadership to be a “sound, data-driven decision maker.”

In addition to graduating this spring, Ngo landed a new job as a data analyst at Publix Super Markets. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: When she applied to the role, she was able to speak to her problem-solving experiences in the MSBA program, including the Data Feast capstone project.

“When you're doing analysis for actual companies, you're working with problems that have a lot of different steps to it or multiple challenges,” Ngo said. “The capstone experience helped me realize that there is a lot of work to be done for analytics problems, aside from just the exciting new coding you've learned. There's cleaning to be done, there's questions to be asked, there's a background to be understood, and there are end goals by the business involved. There's a lot of different layers.”

Be Ready for Your Future

Students in William & Mary’s Online MSBA program gain a rich background in four critical areas: business acumen, math modeling, computing technologies and communicating with impact. These four pillars are the basis of our curriculum. Learn more about them and their importance, and start your application today to William & Mary.