On Friday morning, finalists in the Accenture-sponsored Northwestern Analytics Competition delivered their presentations to senior executive judges from Accenture, Microsoft, and Aruba Networks. The competition is the first ever big data contest at Northwestern and challenged students to analyze Wi-Fi usage data and submit proposals based on their findings for a chance to win a tablet computer and a $1000 prize. The three final teams consisted of an all MSIA group, an all MEM group, and a mix of the two. In the end MEM students James Du, Francisca Valenzuela, and Shengyang Li emerged victorious.
“It’s definitely been a surreal journey for me, capping off a second win in two quarters in two completely different competitions,” states James Du, who, in case you forgot, also won the MEMPC Business Simulation competition in March. “My teammates’ hard work and dedication was undoubtedly instrumental to our success. Our humble beginnings started merely with the goal to not embarrass ourselves and the MEM program.”
The team did far more than simply not embarrass themselves as they competed in the first round with ten teams, about half MEM and half MSIA, and submitted a set of deliverables that pushed them into the final round. Aruba Networks provided the data and two conference calls opened up the floor for discussions, but otherwise the students had only the knowledge they learned in their IEMS courses and what they brought with them from their careers.
“Sometimes it was kind of hard to actually go through the data. Francisca had experience with big data when she was working with Airlines. They did not give us many directions of what we might look in to,” shared Shengyang Li. The team turned to their MEM course work for guidance. Shengyang and Francisca were both enrolled in 490 Social Networks in the spring. “We were trying to come up with some ideas about the social networking and the network itself . . . so we had two parts to our analysis.”
The social networking discussed in 490 has nothing to do with Facebook or LinkedIn, but refers to the communication and knowledge flow within a company. It is a very new tool but has huge implications in terms of innovation and productivity. According to Shengyang, “It’s a quite useful concept, a very strong tool, for organizations to improve their productivity because it is about the network between people in the company, who is talking to whom, who interacts with each other, so when it comes to innovation or knowledge flow or to adapt change within a company, the social network or what we call the informal network, within a company, works in a very important way.”
The team also turned to their MEM network for help preparing for the final presentation. “We approached the professor and the TA of the social networking course and the teaching assistant met with me and she also gave some very useful insights into how we could link the wi-fi data with social networking analysis.” They also approached Professor Werwath a few days before the competition and asked for feedback on their presentation. “We also ran into Sue after we talked to Professor Werwath and she told us to ‘practice, practice, practice,’ and we did.”
On the day of the competition the groups waited in separate rooms while each team gave their presentation. The groups waited patiently while the judges deliberated for about half an hour and then announced the winner. “After meeting the other two finalists, I was thoroughly impressed at the depth of analysis and level of quality we were all able to achieve—and I think the judges would agree,” states James. Shengyang believes the group’s dual approach lead them to victory, “Interesting thing,” he shared, “one time worked with social networks and the other team from MSIA went to simply the wi-fi based data approach and we covered both directions.”
“In the end, we got some great experience presenting in a high-stakes environment, connecting with some high-level industry executives and experts, and also made some new friends along the way,” James offered as a final analysis of the competition. “The whole process was fun. The team spent a number of hours together. We spent the whole night together at Francisca’s apartment before we submitted the deliverables and we had pizza together–that was a great evening as well. We definitely learned a lot. The day we went to the Accenture office the gentlemen really gave us productive feedback and I think we also learned from our competitors. The whole process was fun and great learning process,” shared Shengyang.
Read Accenture’s press release about the competition here and be sure to keep checking in for information about the next competition in the Fall.
Update: Photo credit: KaiserRoll Productions.