The spring 2020 semester is underway, which means a new round of student teams are gearing up to work on practicum projects with the SCRC’s partner companies. At least one or two of these student teams will have the privilege of working with Walt DeGrange, one of the SCRC’s executive advisors who helps guide the students in their efforts as they work to find solutions and create recommendations for their sponsoring organizations.
In this interview, DeGrange, a U.S. Navy veteran, discusses how his unique experiences from his time in the field and thereafter allow him to help students define expectations and prepare quality deliverables for clients.
What is your professional background?
I spent 21 years as a Navy Supply Corps Officer specializing in logistics and analytics. I served on three ships and multiple tours both in the US and international. I retired from the Navy in 2014 and am now the Director of Analytics Capabilities at CANA Advisors. CANA is a virtual analytics company providing high-end custom analytics solutions. We have provided models to the United States Marine Corps, commercial mining companies, and professional sports teams. My role is to provide CANA with the ability to provide analytics through talent acquisition, tech stack strategy and training. I am also actively engaged in INFORMS and the Military Operations Research Society (MORS) through leadership roles in societies and being a director of a MORS professional development class.
What has been the highlight of your career?
I am very fortunate that the biggest highlight of my career happens almost daily. I get to collaborate using cutting edge data analysis technology with fellow analytics professionals. Many of them are former students.
Can you describe your role as a practicum project advisor?
My role is to be a guide for the students, the partner organization, and the Poole College of Management. I am constantly balancing the requirements for student learning, partner organization value, and the Poole College of Management investment in the class.
How did you hear about the executive advisor opportunity, and what made you decide to share your knowledge and expertise with students?
My last tour in the Navy was teaching on the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Monterey faculty. I was on the presentation team that won the INFORMS UPS George Smith Prize for NPS. This award was for excellence in a program that prepares students to practice analytics in the “real world” after graduating. The SCRC was putting together a package to compete for the award in 2015 and had seen that I had been a presenter and author on the award winning nomination for NPS in 2013. I loved everything that I learned about the program, students, and faculty while assisting the program prepare the awards package. The next year I was hired to advise projects.
Can you give a brief overview of the project(s) you advised last semester?
My team last semester worked with John Deere to create a should-cost model for thermoforming plastic piece parts. The team did an excellent job researching and develop the model. This project was a great example of having lots of sources for some data elements, such as labor and material, and limited data for other elements such as machinery. The mode that was developed quantified the uncertainty for the lack of data and provided lots of value to John Deere.
What challenges do you often find students facing when working on their projects? What do you advise them to do?
With data analytics the most important aspect of the project is time. Most data analytics projects at the scope of what I have seen in the past four years would take a full-time team of experienced analytics professions four to six months to complete. It is very important to take the client scope and communicate what’s possible in the first few weeks to set expectations. For example, I have had several projects that the client provided a nationwide dataset. The student team had to first understand the dataset and develop a model. The math model may not scale up to the nationwide dataset so there was a negotiation between the team and the client to a good data subset that would provide the most value to the client considering the twelve to thirteen week time constraint for the student team. My fifteen years of experience performing numerous analytics projects comes in handy advising the students.
Why would you recommend taking a practicum course to students? What do you think is the most valuable skill or opportunity gained by completing a practicum project?
There is no substitution for doing. Doing data analytics in the real world is scary, and the answers to the even-numbered problems are not in the back of the book. In most projects, there are tens if not hundreds of ways to approach the question analytically. Until students experience this themselves, they usually won’t believe an instructor that tells them this in a non-practicum class.
What advice would you offer to students to help them become better candidates for professional positions or graduate school?
Do as many analytic projects as you can. If the results or models of your projects are implemented and get good results, then get proof. It doesn’t mater if the project was for a partner organization, non-profit, NC State organization, or church. I would hire an analytics professional in a heartbeat that had proof of two to five analytics projects that were implemented and produced positive results.
What has been the highlight of your experience as a project advisor?
Advising a team that had a former student as the partner company representative. When this occurred, I saw the value maximized and the partner company received an awesome deliverable.
In your free time, what do you enjoy doing? Do you have any special skills or talents?
I play sand volleyball and video games on both the XBox and my computer in my spare time. Apex Legends and iRacing are my two current favorite games. I also provide presentations to undergrads and graduate students at universities all around the country on what analytics professionals actually do and how exciting the field is currently and will be in the future.
Click here to learn more about Walt.