By Ed Brennen
To gain a deeper understanding of his work at Amazon, where he helps protect the privacy of data generated by Alexa smart devices, Varun Bisht ’21 decided to get a Master of Science degree in business analytics (MSBA) from the Manning School of Business.
“I’m glad I chose this program. The tools and the knowledge I’ve gained have given me more insights into my job,” says Bisht, who completed his degree last December — and was promoted to senior information technology audit manager for the Alexa Secure Artificial Intelligence Foundations team six months later.
Bisht is among a growing number of professionals, from a wide range of fields, who are learning how to transform raw data into business intelligence and insights with an MSBA degree from UMass Lowell. Since launching in 2016 with 13 students, the program has awarded 113 degrees — including 18 in its most recent cohort this summer.
Program Coordinator Luvai Motiwalla, a professor in the Operations and Information Systems (OIS) department, says the demand is not surprising given the business world’s growing need for employees trained in data mining, data modeling, natural language processing and machine learning. Data science jobs are projected to grow 31.4% this decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of late August, there were more than 285,000 data science-related jobs posted on LinkedIn.
“Initially, most of the big companies were going after data analysts and data scientists, but now all the small and midsized companies are moving into the digital economy and getting into machine learning to stay competitive and provide a good experience for the customer,” Motiwalla says. An already rising tsunami of data has been fueled by the pandemic, he adds, as locked-down consumers were forced to use digital payments and many health care services moved online.
The 10-course MSBA program has six tracks: accounting analytics, big data, finance analytics, managerial decision-making, marketing analytics and the recently added health care business analytics, which Motiwalla expects to start offering classes next spring. Those courses will be a collaboration with the Department of Public Health in the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, which last year won a $3 million grant to develop new undergraduate and graduate programs in public health informatics and technology.
A major component of the MSBA program is the capstone project, which gives students the opportunity to work in small teams with a corporate sponsor and faculty advisor to provide data analytics solutions for real-world business problems. Since 2017, 13 companies — including MFS Investments, DCU, Dell Technologies, Santander, UKG and Storm Smart — have sponsored 40 capstone projects.
OIS Chair and Assoc. Prof. Amit Deokar, who has advised six capstone projects over the past five years, says he’s been impressed with not only the variety of topics, but also the “sophistication of the presentations.” He calls the program a “win-win-win proposition” for students, sponsors and faculty advisors, who are able to keep abreast with relevant problems that industries are facing.
Joe Piotrowski, director of investment business strategy at MFS, says the capstone projects allow the firm to “front-run some ideas” that may ultimately be factored into parts of its investment process — while also making sure that it’s keeping up with the times.
“You’re learning the latest technologies, skills and software,” Piotrowski told MSBA students and alumni during an event to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the capstone projects earlier this summer at the Pulichino Tong Business Center. “If we’re not working with the technology that you’re learning coming out of school, you’re going to join us and say, ‘What is this?’”
Steven Irish, chief operating officer of Lowell-based Enterprise Bank, says the growing financial institution hasn’t yet hired as many analysts and data scientists as it would like, so the capstone projects help fill an important need.
“When we do look to hire, we’ll have a lot more insight into what’s current and what skills they should have,” says Irish, a former adjunct in the OIS department.
Joe Collins, director of supply chain operations at Dell, says the company has hired close to a dozen UML grads over the past five years, thanks largely to the relationship with the MSBA program.
“The skills that students are learning in these programs are of great value,” he says.
Setting Up for Success
Motiwalla, who begins his 25th year at UML this fall, notes that nearly 80% of MSBA graduates have jobs after completing their degrees — in an industry where the mean wage is around $108,000 a year.
Ryan Joliat ’14, ’21 returned to UML for the MSBA program several years after earning a Bachelor of Business Administration degree with a concentration in marketing.
“I had no background with data analysis or business analytics before that, no coding experience,” says Joliat, who worked with DCU on his capstone project and is now a data analyst intern with the credit union. “Now I’m using Python (a scripting language) for machine learning almost every day, building on the foundation that the program gave me.”
Similar to Bisht at Amazon, Jamie Janvrin ’22 enrolled in the program to take a deeper dive into her work as logistics manager at NxStage Medical in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
“I learned a lot more technical skills like Python and SQL than I was expecting, which I loved. It’s highly applicable to what I do,” says Janvrin, who earned a Bachelor of Science in industrial engineering from Northeastern University in 2012. “I also appreciate how the program wants people to continue having a relationship with UMass Lowell by keeping in touch with the dean and faculty on LinkedIn. That’s a really good part of this.”
Bisht, a native of Nepal who earned a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of New Mexico after serving in the U.S. Army for eight years, took MSBA courses online and on campus while working for Amazon in Medford, Massachusetts.
“It’s an amazing program — very structured,” he says. “The professors are very knowledgeable. The value they add to what’s out in the industry sets you up for success.”