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Big data a big deal for USC Marshall students

When MBA candidate Jeffery Lu created the school’s Data Analytics Club, he didn’t expect the response: Nearly 200 dues-paying members eagerly signed up

Call it a perfect storm.

When Jeffery Lu MBA ’15 decided to create a Data Analytics Club for his fellow USC Marshall School of Business MBA students, he thought he might be onto something. But even he was surprised at the response.

The 1-year-old Marshall Data Analytics Club now has nearly 200 dues-paying members, making it the fastest-growing student organization at Marshall.

It also has made a strong corporate connection, with network solutions leader Cisco Systems providing club members hands-on, real-world experience in data analytics.

We’re catching a wave right now.

Jeffery Lu

“We’re catching a wave right now,” said Lu. “Data analytics cuts across every industry, and students are seeing that everybody wants people who can interpret the data.”

Data analytics is the science of analyzing data to generate insights and make predictions. The Marshall Data Analytics Club aims to teach students the skills they’ll need to become data-driven leaders through training such as boot camps, lecture series, real world consulting opportunities and even “hackathons,” social events through which club members meet and engage in collaborative problem solving using various computer programs.

“The skill to interpret, analyze and communicate the data is now important in every field that a business student would be interested in,” said Michael Areen MBA ’14. “We offer training sessions in Excel and other statistical tools. Right away, we show students that we’re trying to improve their resumes.”

The Cisco connection

Highlighting the club’s early success is its partnership with San Jose-based Cisco.

Marshall MBA students traditionally spend winter break on a “trek,” visiting companies in the Bay Area. Through the Career Resources Center, students were invited to meet with executives from Cisco, who told them of challenges they were facing in the data analytics space.

Elaine Sommers, senior associate director of Marshall MBA Career Services and club adviser, followed up with Steve Berberich, senior director of finance at Cisco, and a summer consulting project was hatched. A handpicked team of five data club members with complementary skill sets was chosen to work on the project.

The audit group wanted to predict and identify “non-standard” sales coming out of its sales force. Cisco provided the team access to its raw data, and over the course of 10 weeks during the summer, the student team built a predictive model that identified trends and patterns to predict discounts on non-standard deals.

“When you consider how many billions in sales Cisco, a multinational corporation, has, correcting even the relatively small percentage of non-standard sales we identified meant saving them many, many millions of dollars,” said Lu.

The strong results impressed senior executives at Cisco, particularly CFO Frank Calderoni, who asked to see the students’ presentation. James G. Ellis, dean of Marshall, Sommers and Areen presented the findings to the CFO and his senior staff.

Berberich also invited the students to present their findings to a closed group of 30 directors from companies such as Facebook, Intuit, Visa, Adobe, Google and Apple. It was the first time an outside group had been invited to make such a presentation, according to Sommers.

Calderoni in the fall came to USC for an informal meeting with MBA students and members of the data club at Town & Gown on Oct. 7.

I am immensely proud of our MBA students. They impressed a team of senior executives with their initiative, their professionalism and their findings.

James G. Ellis

“I am immensely proud of our MBA students,” Ellis said. “They impressed a team of senior executives with their initiative, their professionalism and their findings. The positive feedback I received validates what I already know about the drive and intellectual caliber of our MBAs here at Marshall.”

The connection with Cisco continues in the spring, with Cisco agreeing to sponsor the flagship case competition, the Marshall Global Consulting Challenge. “Over the course of our project, one very basic thing that stood out: data integrity,” said Lu. “In the classroom, you get a perfect set. In the real world, that won’t be the case 99 percent of the time. Yet you will still be asked to interpret it and make a decision based on that data.”

Providing students with imperfect, real-world, on-the-ground challenges is a central tenant of the Data Analytics Club, he said.

The numbers game

With “big data” impacting businesses across industries, students able to identify the signal from the noise are in increasing demand. Interest in one-year business analytics programs have increased dramatically as well, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, which mentioned USC Marshall’s new one-year Masters of Science in Business Analytics degree. There are 30 students in the first class this year, and between 50 and 60 students are expected next year.

Big data will only be getting bigger.

Yehuda Bassok

“Interest in this program has surged, as students realize that analytics is a desirable — essential, really — skill set they can offer potential employers,” said Yehuda Bassok, professor of data sciences and operations and department chair at Marshall. “Big data will only be getting bigger.”

Data Analytics Club members know that all too well. “We’re preparing data-driven leaders here at Marshall,” said Lu. “It’s a good time to talk to us.”

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