A senior manager in the analytics product management group, Tonya Balan sees herself as a bridge between SAS customers and R&D, ensuring that SAS products stay relevant to the needs of the customer. With a background in statistics and experience as a college professor, Tonya shares her excellent advice and expert opinions on math, education, and business in this enlightening interview. Read on for much more! And be sure to check out the rest of the SAS Loves Math series and the SAS STEM webpage for more information!
What do you do at SAS?
My team and I are responsible for helping to define features and the strategic direction for all of our core analytical products. That includes statistics, econometrics, forecasting, data mining, text analytics, operations research, and simulation. We act as liaisons between the customers’ needs and R&D, helping to bridge that gap and making sure that there’s a strong customer perspective in our product development process.
How do you use math in your job?
Everybody on my team has some sort of advanced degree in math or statistics or a strong background in those areas. My PhD is in statistics, and I did, at one point in my career, spend a lot of time actually analyzing data. Now I spend less time applying that mathematical technology and more time talking to customers about how they are applying it. I bring my understanding of the subject area to the table, and it helps me figure out exactly what the customers are trying to do. We translate their business problems into requirements that can be implemented in our software.
What is your educational background?
I went to NC State University for undergraduate and graduate school. My bachelor’s degree is in math—I actually went to college intending to be a mathematician or a programmer. But in my junior year, I took a statistics course and really fell in love with the applied aspect of statistics. I decided to pursue a graduate degree in statistics, so I stayed at NC State and got my PhD there.
What about math appeals to you?
Math is very well-defined. There’s a clear set of rules and processes around how mathematics works. Even outside of my work life, I’m a very analytical thinker and I take a very structured approach to problem solving. I think that math has always appealed to me from the perspective of that structured approach; if you just follow the right steps, you’ll come up with an answer on the other end.
What kind of advice would you give to students studying math?
At some point, as you study math—and especially if you pursue a graduate degree—there’s a fork in the road. There are people that study the more theoretical aspects of math and enjoy it, and that’s very important. Sometimes, though, people are put off by that side of it. Learning how to apply mathematical concepts to solve practical problems is equally important. I think at some point, if you’re considering a career in math or statistics, you have to make a decision about which path to follow.
What made me choose statistics was the fact that I was able to apply my mathematical thinking and analytical background to work in other disciplines, like the sciences, business and finance. I enjoyed the challenge of understanding problems and using my skillset to help solve them.
What’s your opinion on the importance of math education?
I think mathematical education is very important, and in fact I’m kind of a teacher at heart. In addition to spending some time on the faculty at NC State, this past semester, I took on the challenge of teaching an evening statistics class for MBA students at Meredith College. Analytics education for MBAs is an area where I’m really passionate, because a lot of times, when you talk to business people, they’ve been put off by math or statistics for some reason—they had a bad teacher, they think it’s hard or boring, or they don’t understand how it applies to their job.
When I taught, I was on a bit of a crusade to bring mathematical concepts to business people in a way that would help them to really see and understand the value of analytical thinking. I think we would be remiss not to teach future business leaders how to analyze data, because in the world we live in, data is not going away. Data volumes keep growing, and the more you can use analytical skills to understand that data, the better decisions you’ll be able to make. I think it’s an area where SAS can help.
Do you have any funny stories about math you’d like to share?
Right after I graduated, I got my first job working for an environmental consulting company. I was this hotshot PhD statistician, and of course I thought I knew everything. I worked on a water quality analysis, co-authoring a paper with the toxicologist. I wrote the statistical section of the paper and, thinking I had done a great job, I sent it to the toxicologist. He sent it right back to me and he told me to rewrite it with less statistical terminology, so that he could understand it. I wrote it again, taking out a few big words, and sent it to him again. And again he sent it right back, telling me to really put it in layman’s terms so that our readers could understand it. So I tried again and sent him another revised copy. And finally he sent it back to me, telling me I needed to rewrite it so that my grandmother could understand it!
That’s sort of a funny story, but he really taught me a lot. He helped me get to the point where I could take hardcore analytical results and make them accessible to almost any audience. That’s a skill that’s stuck with me, and even now when I write, I try to write so that my grandmother would understand.
Do you have any other hobbies or interests?
I really enjoy music. I’ve played the piano since I was a little girl. I actually considered a career in music at one point, but I decided that a career in math might be more lucrative!
If you know someone at SAS who really loves math, nominate them for an interview! Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.