Analytics Skills Gap: It's Nice to Tie 'Billion' to an Accomplishment

A persistent skills gap plagues employers in all major industries, spurring the creation of SAS Analytics U, a program for developing the next generation of analytical talent. But we know the skills gap can mean different things to different people. This series features interviews by SAS's Trent Smith with those who employ, possess, and educate analytics talent.

Involved in predictive analytics and data mining for two decades, Dudley Gwaltney is the manager of the predictive analytics team in the Marketing Information Group of SunTrust Bank, a top 15 financial institution headquartered in Atlanta.

Dudley Gwaltney of SunTrust Bank
Dudley Gwaltney of SunTrust Bank

With a background on both the consulting and client side, Dudley has extensive experience in a wide array of data mining areas, including predictive modeling, segmentation, implementation and maintenance of data repositories, and program analysis.

Dudley works with SunTrust’s marketing and product management departments to improve overall performance to enhance existing direct targeting programs and creating new ones. Currently Dudley’s team is implementing a real-time data repository of all client interactions with SunTrust. These include online, mobile and tablet banking, branch, integrated voice response (IVR), call center, clickstream data from, and outbound direct marketing. This data will be used for real-time predictive analytics, understanding client preferences, and omni-channel analytics to mention a few.

Trent Smith: You have degrees from North Carolina State University in Business Management and Economics, but “just” a minor in Computer Science. How has that background led to a career where analytics is central to your role?

Dudley Gwaltney: After graduating from NC State in 1983 with degrees in Business Management and Economics, I returned to school in the early 1990’s and completed NC State’s two-year Computer Science Certificate program. The program consisted of over 30 hours of course work and was closer to a minor in Computer Science than a full major. Shortly after completing the program, I joined a small, startup consulting firm that specialized in applying data mining and predictive analytics with marketing.

The certificate and the knowledge it gave me have proven invaluable in my career. I realized pretty quickly that the ability to manage data and understanding how data is processed was crucial to data mining. At the consulting firm, we were receiving datasets of over a million records, which at the time was almost unheard.

Having an understanding of computer science and data management is even more crucial today than it was when I started 20 years ago. We are dealing with datasets in the billions. The environment for storing data has evolved from basic databases to database appliances and non-structured data on Hadoop. Data miners no longer access well-established data systems but are creating their own environments for managing data and performing analytics.

Trent Smith: What advice would you give someone coming from a business background who wants to add analytics expertise?

Dudley Gwaltney: First, get to know those involved with analytics. If your organization doesn’t have an analytics group, then see if there is a local SAS user group where you will be able to find people involved with analytics.

Second, explore the educational opportunities in your area. A master’s degree in an analytics-related field has become a requirement for many advanced analytics positions. Luckily for me that was not the case when I started in the profession. More and more universities nationwide are offering programs in advanced analytics, there are now three in Atlanta.

Trent Smith: What advice would you give to high school or college students who are considering an analytics career?

Dudley Gwaltney: There is a misconception that a degree in statistics is the basis for a career in analytics. Today’s advanced analytics requires a combination of statistics, data management, and an understanding of business. The best schools for advanced analytics focus on all those areas, not just statistics.

In my opinion, the number one skill for any analyst is what I call “intellectual curiosity”. Good analysts want to find the answer and will acquire the skills and tools necessary to do so. Unfortunately it is hard to quantify intellectual curiosity. I have seen people with great resumes and background that are very poor analysts because they don’t have intellectual curiosity. On the other hand, I know several great analysts that did not have a great resume but have a strong intellectual curiosity.

Additionally, a great skill to hone is the ability to communicate technical information to the non-technical. Most leaders of organizations do not want to know how the details of the analysis, but how the analysis will solve the problems they are facing. Those that can communicate the value of analytics are the ones that provide the most value to their organizations.

Trent Smith: Being based in Atlanta, where do you seek out analytics talent for SunTrust?

Dudley Gwaltney: Atlanta has become a hot bed for analytics talent and demand. Three local universities offer masters related to advanced analytics, Kennesaw State, Georgia State, and Georgia Tech all offer masters. Additionally, the MBA program at Emory University offers a concentration in Marketing Analytics.

While the number of advanced analytics graduates is growing in the Atlanta, The demand for those graduates locally continues to grow. Atlanta is headquarters to several large corporations that require analytic skills, Delta Airlines, Cox Cable, Coca Cola, Equifax, Synchrony Bank, Southern Companies, and SunTrust to name a few.

The positions on my team all require experience in advanced analytics, especially predictive analytics. I’ve hired analysts from within SunTrust and outside our organization from either consulting firms or other financial institutions.

Trent Smith: What role do you think analytics companies should play in helping to close the analytics skills gap?

Dudley Gwaltney: SunTrust, like many companies, is partnering with local universities to support their advanced analytics programs. As recently as 10 years ago, there were only a handful of universities that had programs specializing in advanced analytics, including my alma mater NC State. Now, more and more universities have or are planning to start advanced analytics programs.

These programs actively look to partner with local businesses with large analytics organizations. Not only do the universities want to expose their students to career opportunities but, more importantly, they want to make sure they are preparing their students for businesses’ fast changing analytics needs.

Also, companies should look internally for team members that have the desire to get involved in analytics. These employees know the business and with training, education and encouragement can become valuable analytical assets.

Trent Smith: How should organizations keep analysts challenged and engaged?

Dudley Gwaltney: I’ll touch on a few things organizations need to do to keep analysts challenged and engaged. As I said before, the number one characteristic of a good analyst is intellectual curiosity. Good analysts are always looking for new problems to solve and new ways to solve them. Analysts want opportunities to learn and utilize new methods. Good analysts flock to organizations that provide those opportunities, and leave those that don’t.

Secondly, analytics is not reporting. Reporting is showing how many widgets were sold. Analytics is understanding who bought the widgets, why they bought the widgets, who is most likely to buy another widget and when, which channels do customers prefer to buy the widgets, will they buy something other than a widget, and many more questions.

Finally, good analysts want to be involved in the organization’s decision making process. They want to know that their input is valuable and their work crucial to the direction of the organization. They don’t want to produce an analysis that leadership will use to make decisions; they want to be at the leadership table explaining the findings of the analysis and working with leadership on how best to act on these findings.

Trent Smith: Financial services companies have traditionally been at the forefront of using analytics. What exciting opportunities might analytics experts see in the future?

Dudley Gwaltney: Traditionally when clients wanted to talk to their bank, they either went to a branch or called their local banker. This is no longer the case. The three top channels where clients access the bank are online banking, mobile banking, and ATM; none of which require the client to speak directly with us. But, they are still talking to us through what they do through those channels.

Our challenge is to utilize analytics to understand what our clients are saying to us when they are not talking with us directly and how do we respond. The response is not always, “You’re approved for a credit card”. They are still looking for us to provide good service and solid advice. We have to make sure we can do it in all channels.

Trent Smith: What’s the coolest or most impactful thing you’ve done or seen done, using analytics?

Dudley Gwaltney: Several years ago, I built a group of models predicting deposit balance augmentation and diminishment to help our branches better manage deposit clients. The program was extremely successful and within a few years the incremental lift associated with the models topped one billion dollars. It’s not often you get to put a billion of anything on your list of accomplishments.

Check out these previous posts in the Analytics Skills Gap Series

James M. Connolly, Editor of All Analytics

Jim Connolly is a versatile and experienced technology journalist who has reported on IT trends for more than two decades. As editor of All Analytics he writes about the move to big data analytics and data-driven decision making. Over the years he has covered enterprise computing, the PC revolution, client/server, the evolution of the Internet, the rise of web-based business, and IT management. He has covered breaking industry news and has led teams focused on product reviews and technology trends. Throughout his tech journalism career, he has concentrated on serving the information needs of IT decision-makers in large organizations and has worked with those managers to help them learn from their peers and share their experiences in implementing leading-edge technologies through publications including Computerworld. Jim also has helped to launch a technology-focused startup, as one of the founding editors at TechTarget, and has served as editor of an established news organization focused on technology startups and the Boston-area venture capital sector at MassHighTech. A former crime reporter for the Boston Herald, he majored in journalism at Northeastern University.

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Re: The analytics trinity
  • 12/7/2015 9:03:13 AM

I think you will see a growing number of analytics pros going for that masters through continuing ed either taking a class or two at a time while in the workforce or taking a midcareer break for a year or so to get it. I've talked to several educators who actually want you to get out into the workforce and learn the business before going for the masters. The logic being that if you want to learn data science in a way that will be useful for business you need at least a core understanding of how business operates.

Re: The analytics trinity
  • 12/6/2015 4:13:17 PM

With the probable truth that a "master's degree in an analytics-related field has become a requirement for many advanced analytics positions," I'm wondering if the additional requirement of having an "intellectual curiosity" might be a hindrance or complement those that pursue that additional Masters? I'm thinking some with that curiosity quotient might not be inclined to to the college work but would prefer on the job training and certificatons routes.

Re: Billion
  • 11/30/2015 11:57:09 PM

I would have loved to have been on analytics team for the Gap - it was the first retailer to gain $1 billion in a quarter due to how it blended its sales through its separate divisions.  Certainly analytics had to be at the core of the milestone. This was years ago, so I vaguely remember the quarter in which it happened.

Re: Billion
  • 11/30/2015 11:55:10 PM

True about hearing how it helps make their job easier.  Analytics has advanced far enough to where a solutions should clearly state in 3 or 4 sentences what its value is relative to an analytst's tasks or job.

Re: The analytics trinity
  • 11/30/2015 11:51:32 PM

Jim, good question - I do interact with small businesses that have to balance scaling services with analytic resources.  Part time relationships can work, with some ideas as to what resources serves the business best. I've seen small organizations with 10 -20 people recognize what needs appear continously and invest in part time help accordingly.

Re: The analytics trinity
  • 11/24/2015 9:43:39 AM

I agree that business knowledge and experience is crucial to an analytics team, alongside people with strong math skills. For some companies, particularly large companies with plenty of money to invest, it may be fairly easy to integrate people with good business backgrounds who can add their perspective to the research and be in a client-facing role dealing with their peers in business units.

But, what about the smaller or financially-strapped company? How can they bring those business skills to a team that is dominated by the math whizzes? I'm curious about whether some of those companies are able to set up what you might call a virtual business presence, maybe part-time relationships with business people still working in biz units but acting as advisors to the quants.

The analytics trinity
  • 11/23/2015 11:24:32 PM

I'm glad he mentioned that analytics need some combination of statistics, data management, and an understanding of business. Being a math whiz doesn't necessarily qualify you for analytics jobs... and I guess the converse of that is being mathematically challenged doesn't necessarily disqualify you from analytics positions.

Re: Billion
  • 11/23/2015 2:54:56 PM

@PC. What you describe about an analyst measuring success by size of a data file or rate of transactions is reminiscent of the old-line IT thought process. Too many IT directors have put an audience to sleep by talking about how much faster a new system is or how much it cost. What the audience wanted to hear was how it helps them do their job or helps the company.

The same applies to an analytics professional. If they can say that their predictive maintenance plan for machines kept a production line running 98% of the time, compared with 60% in the past, they also can show what that translates into revenue. The business audience and the CEO will listen to those numbers. They don't care how many bytes were processed.


  • 11/23/2015 2:31:56 PM

Yes, it's nice to tie "Billion" to an accomplishnment on the resume. For most, I think this would be about the size of the data file or the rate of transactions.

Being able to say your project contributed a billion dollars as Mr. Gwaltney can say, is ever so much better.

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