Math and analytics are back “in vogue,” says Kathy Lange, member of the Americas Business Analytics practice at SAS. Since she was little, Kathy has seen the world as one big math problem, and her devotion to mathematics is overwhelmingly clear in this lively interview. Read on below, 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?
I lead our analytics pre-sales practice for the Americas. We work across all the analytics areas: forecasting, data mining, text analytics, operations research… the full gamut of our analytics.
How do you use math in your job?
The term “analytics” has become extremely overused, so we need to provide a baseline for what SAS means by analytics. We do a lot of education, both for our customers and within SAS, as to what all the different “flavors” of analytics are. This level-setting is particularly important as we roll out SAS’ initiative around high-performance analytics. More and more folks within the IT organizations of our customers just aren’t clear on the different needs that advanced analytics will place on information management systems.
Personally, I use a lot of math through our SAS solutions, like Enterprise Miner and Enterprise Guide. I’ve never been a great programmer, so even though SAS programming language is very powerful, I can usually get the answers I need through these products without programming directly in SAS.
What is your educational background?
I got my undergraduate degree from the University of Delaware. I was in the math department, and I had to choose between theoretical math, computer science, or statistics. I chose statistics, which I saw as the most practical route. I always wanted to be a practitioner rather than have a career in academia.
From there, I worked at IBM for a while, where I became very interested in operations research. So, I earned my master’s degree in operations research at Union College while I was working. My first position using operations research was helping buyers in the procurement organization figure out the least expensive way to purchase parts for IBM computers from a wide variety of suppliers.
Can you explain the term “operations research” a little?
Sure! The term actually came from the military, where they were trying to manage their operations more efficiently. If there’s an event—a war, a natural disaster, etc.—the military needs to get all of their resources (people and equipment) from where they are to where they need to be quickly and efficiently. Typically in optimization, which is a branch of operations research, you’re trying to maximize profit or revenue or minimize cost. And there are always constraints around things like money and resources. In other words, you’re trying to optimize an outcome while operating within the constraints.
SAS has several solutions built with operations research techniques. We have optimization software that includes solutions for marketing and price optimization for retail organizations, in addition to algorithms for solving a range of other problems. We also provide tools for simulation and scheduling, which are also under the umbrella of operations research.
What about math appeals to you?
When they were young, my kids used to bring home this book called Math Curse and we would read it together. It’s about a student who doesn’t really do much math until her teacher says that almost everything in life can be considered a math problem. Gradually, the student looks at the world and realizes that everything really is math. For example, if I’m driving somewhere, how long will it take me to get there? If I’m buying something, how much money will I need and how much change will I get? That’s kind of how I see the world. Everything I do turns into a math problem.
A funny story: a while ago, I was sitting with a bunch of soccer moms at a game when one of them said, “I never use math in my life.” I was like, are you kidding me? Do you not balance your checkbook? Do you not figure out how to cut a cake so that every kid gets a slice? Do you not compare prices at the grocery store to get a better deal? It’s amazing how many people don't realize that they use math every day.
When I was growing up, I didn’t read a lot, but I worked on a lot of puzzles and played card games—advanced card games for a little kid, like canasta and samba. I was really confident with math, and guess what? A lot of people don’t like math! So that was the career direction that I decided to take. I tried to go into a profession where I would excel, and I also didn’t want to read a lot. It’s kind of ironic that I ended up leading a text analytics group! But I still don’t like reading very much—the technology helps me understand the content without having to read most of it.
Can you talk more about your role in the text analytics group?
I took over this role two or three years ago, and it’s been very interesting for me. There weren’t a lot of people analyzing text yet. SAS has had text mining as part of our data mining software for almost a decade, but at that time, we had just added a bunch of new solutions around content categorization and sentiment analysis. If you think about the market, people are collecting all this unstructured data—emails, product reviews, claims, all kinds of text—and not doing anything with it. I think text analytics is going to be the next big wave of analytics.
With text analytics, you really are taking text and turning it into math so that you can analyze it along with structured data. Given my current role, I kind of wish I’d paid a little more attention in English class!
What’s your opinion on the importance of math in education?
I think it’s very important to make math understandable and not scary to kids. Math sets a good foundation for the process of learning; it’s all about taking a problem and breaking it down into pieces. My two kids are math whizzes, and I think that’s because we’ve always talked about things in mathematical terms, so they get used to thinking logically. Mathematical thinking is a logical process that can really serve people well throughout their lives.
What kind of advice would you give to students studying math?
I think analytics and math are kind of back “in vogue.” Some projections say we’re going to have 50-60 percent deficit in the supply of analytical talent in the market by 2018. So now is definitely the time to go into analytics! And math and science are going to continue to be huge fields. If students keep up their studies in these areas, they’ll have a lot of great job opportunities.
Do you have any hobbies you’d like to share?
I love to cook, and cooking is all about math. I’m no master chef, of course, but being a good cook is all about mixing different ingredients in the right way—a mathematical process. My family grows some of our own food and we’re really into the local food movement as well.
If you know someone at SAS who really loves math, nominate them for an interview! Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.