Applying Applied Math
Since 1999, April has been recognized as Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month, a period of observance dedicated to “increas[ing] the visibility of mathematics as a field of study and [communicating] the power and intrigue in mathematics to a larger audience.” You might not have thought math in need of wider appreciation, but according to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United State’s math ranking fell from 28th in 2012 to 35th in 2015, the last time the test was administered. In addition, a different 2015 study by the Integrated Postsecondary Education System (IPEDS) revealed that only about 40% of college math and statistics bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women that year, which is considerably lower than the 60% average for all degrees. Since the business intelligence industry is nothing if not indebted to the mathematically inclined, we at Exago will be doing our part this month to give these fields the boost in visibility and appreciation they deserve.
As Exago is privileged to employ two Applied Mathematics majors from Marist College, we’re going to kick off Math and Stats Month by sharing an interview with one of them. Emma Williams joined the company in May of 2016 as an Intern Support Analyst, working full time during the summer and part time during the school year. She has been instrumental to the development of the company’s new training webinar format, Exago Support Labs, which explore real-world reporting challenges and solutions in short, digestible sessions. She’s also helped produce our Exago Essential Training videos, which will make their debut later this month in our Knowledge Base and on YouTube. Emma will be working for Exago full time upon completing her degree this Spring.
I interviewed Emma to learn more about how her degree has prepared her for a career in business intelligence software.
How is Applied Math different from a standard Math degree? What had you originally planned to do after graduation?
Applied Math focuses more on the logical, real-world applications of mathematics whereas a mathematics degree focuses on the reason behind mathematical processes and the theorems that give us results we use today. Applied Mathematics touches more on math theory and goes one step further to show how we can use math in the world around us. Applied Math includes a stronger focus on mathematical epidemiology and modeling disease eradication as well as a deeper look into the statistical analysis of data. I, along with the majority of my peers, planned to be an actuary upon graduation. These plans were due in large part to not realizing that there were numerous other career options available to someone with a Bachelor of Science in Applied Math. I discovered I could apply my math brain to a fun field for which I hadn't previously considered myself qualified, and am so glad I did.
How do you apply your math and statistic skills in the work you do for Exago?
I use my math skills every day at Exago. Software consists of a series of logical cause-and-effect connections—if I do x, y happens. I was able to view the software differently because of my training. I'm able to better understand the “why” behind the application's behavior, rather than just memorizing what happens. As a support analyst, this is vital. For example, I once had to write a formula for something a client wanted done, and I discovered that my knowledge of group theory helped me better explain the formula structure. I think the most important skill I gained from studying applied mathematics is the logical, problem-solving mindset it instilled me.
How much math does an end user have to know to build ad hoc reports and visualizations in Exago? Should the math-averse shy away from BI?
I don’t believe any mathematical background is necessary for an end user to aptly utilize Exago’s application. The user interface of Exago is designed such that an understanding of the "under the covers" processes is not necessary. In this way, anyone is able to use it without the slightest bit of technical understanding. Math helped me learn and understand the application processes we can't see. What in the code is causing a change in the behavior? How, then, can I make it act so that my desired output is created? This sort of thinking is fundamentally helpful in support roles within the company but not vital for simply creating reports. An understanding of the user interface alone is sufficient to actively and easily use the application.
Are there any new mathematical or logical concepts you encountered once you started learning about BI? What concept(s) can you recommend to power users who want to dive deeper and learn more?
I found a strong emphasis on data relationships come into play in many aspects of Exago. Knowing the setup of the data can only serve to help you optimally structure your report. If there was one concept I would suggest more ambitious end users to brush up on, it would be how joins work. While you don’t need to know how your data is structured in order to create a report, it can certainly help give you a 360-degree view.
In the UI-focused Exago Labs, you walk attendees through some of the finer points of the application. What do you enjoy about this process? What do you find most challenging?
Oh, fun question! I love the entire process of the labs. I get to discuss with my coworkers any new, funky support cases they might have come across and determine whether they’re lab material. Generally, I find myself working within an area of the application that I don’t frequently use, so I get to steadily expand my understanding of Exago in a process that allows me to share what I’ve learned with users who can apply this knowledge in their daily work. Additionally, I really enjoy designing the content for the labs. It’s fun to play around in Exago and find the best report design to illustrate the functionality I am highlighting and start to outline the structure of the lab. I love being able to put so much time into something that people attend every week.
The most challenging part is definitely finding the right order in which to introduce the information. I usually want to jump right into the meat of it, and this is usually the worst way to do it! Making sure I have all of the important preliminary information laid out before diving in is definitely the most challenging part for me but also one of the most vital, given that I want everyone to be able to follow along and get the most they possibly can out of the lab.