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5 Questions with Engage3 Data Scientist, Practicum Lead
MSBA team partners on machine learning models for retail pricing

The backbone of the Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) program at UC Davis and the primary reason I joined the program is the client practicum experience.

It’s a year-long engagement between students and industry partners, and it’s unique because it mimics the real, collaborative problem solving process in the private sector. At the same time, it’s a safe, simulated environment to learn, fail, improve and repeat, which translates to success.

My practicum journey this past year was a team collaboration with Engage3, which is where we met Sahar Pirmoradian, our mentor who helped us from start to finish with our project.

Engage3

Engage3 deals in price optimization for retail stores and grocery chains. Pirmoradian is one of many data scientists on Engage3’s team. She earned her bachelor’s in computer engineering from the Sharif University in Iran and later earned a Ph.d. in neurosciences from the International School of Advanced Sciences in Italy.

In an earlier blog, I shared more details about our project for Engage3.

Recently, I had the opportunity ask Pirmoradian five questions about her practicum experience and the joys of working with the MSBA program.

WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED IN OUR PRACTICUM PROJECT?

It was a few months after starting my work as a data scientist with Engage3 that I was assigned to deliver a critical project to a client. It was a large-scale, complex project, for which I needed a team.

Sahar and Amy

Ken Ouimet, the CEO of the company, suggested that we should define our project as an MSBA practicum and work with students at UC Davis.

Initially, because of the critical nature of the project, the idea was opposed by some of our top-level executives in the company, however Ken assured us about the expertise of MSBA students. He had participated in a great collaboration with the MSBA program the year before.

HOW DID MSBA STUDENTS HELP ENGAGE3?

In the beginning it was a bit challenging. The six students working on the project were coming from different backgrounds, each with different skills, so it was a bit hard to coordinate everything. However, after a couple of weeks we asked them to choose a project manager among themselves to coordinate the teammates.

Having a student project manager made communication with the team smoother and the implementation of the tasks quicker. I used a project management platform that our company uses to assign tasks with the students and it helped us keep track of our goals.

During our weekly meetings, I reviewed each task for them, asked who volunteers to own the task, and made sure they understood the details of their task. They could use the same platform to communicate with me any problems or questions they were facing. During the 10 months of our collaboration with them, they all proved to be competent and decisive to get the job done well and on time. They were hard-working and self-motivated.

As I mentioned, the project they worked on was important to our start-up company and it would have been very hard to meet the requirements of our client without having such well-trained and hard-working students.

WAS THERE ONE THING YOU ADMIRED ABOUT THIS PROJECT?

One particular observation I had was how much our students’ skills improved over time. In the beginning they behaved more like students that were receptive. But after a few months they started behaving like consultants, asking intelligent questions about their tasks, focusing on the big picture of their project. They even challenged me to think differently about how things should be implemented.

MSBA Students at Engage3 with Sahar

I was particularly impressed with the extensive training the MSBA students get in the program—everything from how to work in a team to how to communicate with industry partners. They also hone their analytical and programming skills. The only suggestion I would have is for the program to offer some of their analytical courses closer to the beginning of their program—which I believe that has already been considered for next year’s curriculum.

COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR FONDEST MEMORIES WITH THE TEAM?

My best memories come from the week the students visited us in Davis for a five-day boot-camp that the company organized. We had such intense days. The students were supposed to give a presentation on the work they had done for us for the past couple of months, and several top-level executives from the company would join us for those presentations.

That presentation was not only a test for the competence of the students, but also for me to show my ability to deliver on such a critical project.

On the first day, I told them what we need to present to impress our audience, however we were getting unexpected programming bugs and errors. Under such tight deadlines, I saw the students effectively work together to accomplish their tasks. They were self-organized, deciding who should do which tasks and reached out for help when needed.

Their hard work paid off, and we got impressive results. Their presentation went so well that I got various emails from top level executives who praised their work. I was very proud.

COULD THIS PRACTICUM HELP OTHER ORGANIZATIONS?

Certainly. One hundred percent, it could. Our company has already defined other projects with the program for next year and we’re excited about that continued partnership.

Throughout their practicum project, the students are tracked and offered support. They work hard to meet the challenges they face, and they’ve proven to meet the milestones assigned. That makes the experience of working with these students so pleasant.

To learn more about the benefits of partnering with MSBA students on a practicum project, contact MSBA Executive Director Amy Russell.