Meet Our New M.S. in Business Analytics Academic Director
Associate Professor Ashwin Aravindakshan to guide successful MSBA program in San Francisco
Associate Professor Ashwin Aravindakshan, an expert in marketing analytics and machine learning who joined the school in 2007, has taken on a new leadership role overseeing the curriculum and student experience of a relatively new and influential degree program that will help develop business talent for the data science revolution.
As academic director of the Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) degree, Aravindakshan steers the program coursework and instruction, collaborating with Executive Director Amy Russell and Director of Analytics Strategy Sanjay Saigal.
We asked Aravindakshan about leading the year-old MSBA program in San Francisco, the increasing demand for MSBA graduates and analytical MBAs in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, and what’s new for the MSBA program in 2018-2019.
WHAT ARE YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT AS YOU JOIN THE MSBA LEADERSHIP?
The MSBA degree combines the art and science and business decision making. It is a new teaching frontier for most business schools, and I’m excited because there are many opportunities to innovate.
“Being located in San Francisco, which is at the heart of innovation in data science, we have the opportunity to directly influence the areas of business analytics and data science.”
For example, there are multiple ways we can shape the student experience via their learning, professional interactions and community engagement. And, as part of an internationally recognized public research university, the MSBA program has the potential to enhance the opportunities for faculty research by connecting with companies seeking data analytics solutions. Faculty research can also be driven by problems that students encounter in their studies or after they graduate, so our student experience will also feed faculty insights. This was the vision laid out by the founding faculty of the program. For me, the opportunity to continue to shape this is quite exciting.
HOW WILL YOUR BACKGROUND IN MARKETING RESEARCH PLAY INTO YOUR ROLE?
My background helps me understand the types of problems that companies face and the variety of situations that students are more likely to find themselves in as they progress through the program and once they graduate. This is true not only of me, but also of the other faculty who teach in the program. This experience allows us to tailor the program to better fit the students’ needs, as well as those of the market and the firm.
Taken together, the knowledge of the analytical and organizational side—analyzing the data and developing statistical models that then that helps firms make better decisions—combined with the fact that we work with students every day to help them get better, leads to better outcomes for firms, students and the faculty themselves.
WHAT’S IN STORE FOR THE SECOND YEAR OF THE PROGRAM?
First, Professor Hemant Bhargava took the program from its infancy to a stage where we now have deep and successful connections with multiple firms, and rich academic and practical experiences for the students. The diversity of our charter class showed that students interested in business analytics come from widely varying backgrounds, including work experience, cultures and the strength of their skills. During Orientation this fall, to ensure that everyone starts from a similar baseline, we will cover the basics needed across all courses.
Students will take a new course during orientation called “The Foundations of Analytics,” which will bring them up to speed on the basics, like programming in R and Python, and analytical tools.
In addition to the curriculum foundation, we have several activities planned, because it’s not just about learning. The program is also about students developing as individuals. They’ll become adept at understanding business problems, communicating the solutions that they develop to address these problems to business stakeholders and learning to work in and eventually lead teams. So they get lots of training throughout orientation, as well as meetups and industry engagement to help them understand how business works, and where they can add most value to the firm or client they eventually engage with.
We’re also working on helping the students strengthen their portfolio of skills as they go through the program. We’re exploring partnerships with several large tech firms on certifications in technologies that are in demand by industry. These skills, in combination with the skills students get through the course and the practicum projects, will make students better-rounded and more attractive to firms.
“This type of program is really a new frontier for most business schools.”
WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE THE PROGRAM IN FIVE YEARS?
This is still a new program in a relatively new area. Our location in San Francisco, the heart of the innovation revolution in data science, presents a big opportunity to directly influence how business analytics and data science impact managerial decision making. And our influence will grow as more and more of our alumni join companies that are leading the revolution in data sciences and data-informed decision making.
Five years down the line, it would be rewarding to see our graduates driving business value at these companies and the companies benefiting from our presence in downtown San Francisco – both through hiring talent and the intellectual interactions with faculty at the school. If we achieve this, I believe it would make us a strong program and possibly, one of the top in the nation.
Video: MSBA students share their Charles Schwab experience
HOW HAVE YOU BEEN INVOLVED WITH THE MSBA PROGRAM PRIOR TO THIS?
The program was started by Professor Hemant Bhargava, Professor Prasad Naik and Sanjay Saigal. I’ve been involved with the program over the last year as a graduate student advisor and also as associated faculty. I’ve attended several events and met with our students several times. It’s a great program, and I’m honored to be involved.
“With the fact that we’re placing students in these companies that have led the revolution in data science, the program has the opportunity to become very influential in this area.”
WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS THE BIGGEST VALUE OF AN MSBA DEGREE TODAY?
Over the past decade, ever since data began playing a larger role in business decision making, I’ve seen more and more decision making move from pure managerial intuition to requiring the use of data along with managerial intuition to make decisions. What I’ve seen is that managers are good at the intuition part, but they don’t understand how to incorporate the data-driven side of decision making into their intuition. What makes out program stand out is that we don’t discount intuition. Rather, we show how to augment gut feelings with data-driven decisions. The MSBA program aims to help our students bridge this data-to-action gap, by turning data to knowledge to insights and then finally to managerially relevant actions that ultimately leads to more and newer actionable data—continuing this loop. This combination of the art and science decision making makes the MSBA degree highly valuable to employers and unique in business education.
ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT WORKING IN SUCH A QUIET TOWN AS SAN FRANCISCO?
I was born in the quiet little town of Bombay (it really is not!). When I came to the U.S., I lived five miles from Washington D.C. So I’ve always been a city person. When I first came to Davis, it was a bit of a shock to see no one on the street after 7 p.m. So, I’m looking forward to spending more time in San Francisco over the next few years. I must note though, San Francisco is pretty quiet compared to Mumbai! (laughs)