A Course in Becoming Indispensable

Joel Shapiro sees his MLDS course as a proving ground for data scientists who want to boost their level of influence with their companies and use information to spark change.

Joel Shapiro wants his students in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Machine Learning and Data Science (MLDS) program (formerly the MSiA program) to develop skills to make them vital leaders in their companies.

If he could, Shapiro would change the name of the course he teaches in MLDS to reflect that mission.

Joel Shapiro“What I want to call it is How to Make Data Science Indispensable to an Organization,” Shapiro said. “But that's a little bit of a mouthful.”

As it stands now, the course is called Generating Business Value with Analytics. The goal is to help turn students who are good at data science into students who are also good at solving the problems that businesses truly care about.

These well-rounded data scientists can help develop solutions for the issues the data is illuminating, Shapiro said. 

“When you have data, you have a unique perspective on an organization,” he said. “You can look across an organization and see issues that other people can't.”

If it sounds like Shapiro is passionate about what he teaches, it is because he has built his own career off his class’s foundational principle.

Shapiro started his career conducting research and analysis in multiple policy areas as a doctoral fellow with the RAND Corporation, then moved on to become a senior researcher with Rockman Et Al Cooperative, a company specializing in examining critical issues in education. Today he is a professor focused on data analytics at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, as well as chief analytics officer for data software company Varicent.

Shapiro thrives on helping others understand data and the impact it can have on businesses. He has written articles for Forbes helping business leaders use analytics wisely, and in January 2024, he presented about artificial intelligence in sports to National Football League coaches and executives.

“I love helping people with good tech skills learn how to use those tech skills in ways that businesses care about,” he said. “Where I have had a lot of success in my career is knowing how to work with and talk to people about how data can be helpful.”

The goal Shapiro sets for his students is clear: Show your companies you are incredibly savvy with data, but also show them you can be influential with that data in how you communicate it.

“It's hard, but when you do it well, when you are good at doing both of those things, you are incredibly valuable to businesses,” he said. “I love taking people who have been heads down in their technical stuff and having them break out of that mold a little bit and be influential in ways that aren't just about their own analysis.”

Shapiro believes his class is often a great predictor of which MLDS students are going to be the most successful and influential in business after their graduation. He said those who take the lessons he is trying to impart seriously often come back years later as leading executives who are the key players in their company.

That turns every group of students that comes through his class into a proving ground that Shapiro said he enjoys leading.

“The people who are drawn to performing well in my class are the people who are interested in actually making change at a large organizational level,” he said. “They get the data, they're really good at it, but they understand that being influential and being successful is multifaceted.”

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