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For a BCG Data Scientist, Communication Skills Proved Vital

The UCLA Anderson MSBA was the catalyst for Erica Millwater’s (’19) career
  • Anderson alumna Erica Millwater says a solid business foundation and communication techniques were every bit as valuable a part of her MSBA education as data science.
  • “For people to hear you, you have to be able to craft the story in a way that they will understand and believe.”
  • “I wasn’t sure that in 15 months I would fully acquire the skills I needed to come out a data scientist. The MSBA program proved me wrong.”

When Erica Millwater (’19) came across UCLA Anderson’s Master of Science in Business Analytics program, she saw it as the ideal fit for her ambitions. Never mind that Millwater’s grasp of computer programming was, admittedly, rudimentary by the standards of a field that draws heavily on computational skills to build the models and extract the data that guide businesses in making better-informed decisions.

Throughout the bulk of her time as a UCLA undergraduate majoring in business economics, Millwater eyed a more traditional career path. But a course in econometrics changed that. “It was the economics version of data science,” she says. “I started to dabble in programming and found that I really liked having this quantitative toolkit.”

Still, as she prepared to enter the MSBA program, Millwater worried that her lack of technical skills might impede her ability to keep up. So she spent two months immersing herself in common coding languages — R, Python and SQL — to ensure she’d be ready.

The self-imposed boot camp helped, but as she progressed through her MSBA coursework, Millwater learned that a solid business foundation was every bit as important as the data science, and that developing models and making sense of the results constituted only part of the formula for success. It’s a lesson that’s been reinforced in her year-plus as a data scientist with the Los Angeles office of BCG Gamma, the digital and data science powerhouse within Boston Consulting Group.

“I spend a good amount of time doing my own thing, whether it’s writing code or digging deep into analyses,” Millwater says. “But then a lot of the effort for my colleagues and me goes into figuring out how we can communicate what we’ve done. Because, at the end of the day, if people who aren’t data scientists don’t understand how a model works, they’re going to be skeptical about using it and won’t understand the value of what we’re providing.”

UCLA Anderson’s MSBA launched in the fall of 2017 as a 15-month on-campus program designed to equip students with the tools to become leaders in a fast-growing field. Experts in business data analytics are in high demand for their ability to unpack the massive amounts of information now available to companies and, through sophisticated statistical and computational approaches, produce targeted strategies that drive them toward their goals. “This field is typically associated with high-tech companies that have come to be known for this kind of work, but in the last several years we’ve seen a shift to the point that all sorts of business sectors are leveraging analytics and benefiting from it greatly,” Millwater says.

The growth is being fueled by vast improvements in the collection of data across a wide range of sectors, along with rapid advances in the tools used by data scientists and analysts to convert that information into insights. Millwater also points to the concurrent movement within the field to ensure that the machine-learning models employed by data scientists adhere to the highest ethical standards — so-called responsible AI.

At BCG Gamma, Millwater is among a handful of data scientists charged with responsibilities ranging from data integration, preparation and cleaning to building analytic solutions and working with BCG’s internal teams and clients to explain the models they’ve built, why they matter and how clients can integrate these insights into their business practices. BCG Gamma works with a variety of sectors (health care, pharmaceutical, energy, retail and consumer products, to name a few) on applications such as personalization in digital marketing and supply chain optimization. “As a new data scientist, I wanted to get a breadth of experiences across different applications as well as different industries, and this has been the perfect opportunity for that,” Millwater says.

Millwater’s first year as a data scientist reinforced what she learned in the MSBA program about the importance of strong communication skills. Often, the data scientist’s insights will fly in the face of entrenched practices. “If businesses haven’t had the tools to be able to sift through large amounts of information, it’s easy to just rely on legacy knowledge or gut feelings,” Millwater says. “As a data scientist, particularly with a company that’s newer to this field, you often have to present findings that go against that history. And for people to hear you, you have to be able to craft the story in a way that they will understand and believe.”

The newness and ever-evolving nature of business data analytics means there’s never a dull moment. “Much of my time is spent on problems that are both interesting and complicated,” Millwater says. “It’s very challenging, but we’ve also got this cool toolkit that we can use to solve the problems.”

If she had any doubts about her technical abilities going in, they’ve long since been erased. “In retrospect, the MSBA ended up being the perfect next step for me, because in a short amount of time it propelled me forward and got me to where I wanted to be in my career,” Millwater says. “Honestly, I wasn’t sure that in 15 months I would fully acquire the skills I needed to come out a data scientist. The MSBA program proved me wrong.”

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