From figuring out the optimal price a company should charge for soup to forecasting an organization's financial outcomes, each day brings a new business challenge for Wendy McHenry, systems engineer at SAS. Her "How can we help?" attitude is only part of the equation for successful customer relationships. Find out how math has shaped Wendy’s career, how NASA took it to new heights and how the Girl Scouts brought it all home. Also be sure to read the rest of the SAS Loves Math series or the SAS STEM webpage for fresh perspectives on an age-old topic.
What do you do at SAS?
As a systems engineer in the inside sales organization, I support our SMB account executives and the overlay team. My day-to-day job involves speaking with our business and IT customers about how SAS can help them, and demonstrating SAS software products that are the best fit for their needs. My favorite part of that interaction is answering questions about how to solve a particularly challenging problem using SAS.
What’s your educational background?
My undergraduate degree is in applied mathematics/operations research with a double major in business from Carnegie Mellon University. I went to San Diego State University for a master’s degree in statistics, but stopped just short of my thesis because I was given the opportunity to start applying my knowledge to real-world problems. My first job using statistics was also my first job using SAS. It was in the marketing research industry analyzing weekly UPC grocery-store scanner data. Since then, I’ve also worked as a statistician and marketing research analyst in focused areas like federal and local government, health care, financial services, and consulting. I love that SAS has a wide variety of applications, and every job has been a chance for me to bridge mathematics and problem solving. I’ve done everything from figuring out what optimal price a soup company should charge in each and every store to creating the financial forecast for a large organization.
How do you use math in your job?
I use math every day – especially when I am building out a demonstration for a customer. I get a chance to dig in and get my hands dirty in the data. Whether I’m setting up a data management project, running a logistic regression, or figuring out how to help a customer size a new server, I’m constantly tapping into math. What’s wonderful about working at SAS is that I get to speak to different customers every day. And each day brings with it the possibility to solve a new set of challenges.
What about math appeals to you?
As a child, math came very naturally to me. But being a female who gravitated toward mathematics was a rarity when I was growing up. Fortunately, I had my parents and several teachers encouraging me to stick with numbers. I also grew up in Houston, Texas and was intrigued by NASA. After I discovered my motion sickness would keep me from being an astronaut, my dream was to work in NASA Mission Control. I was so bitten by the NASA bug that I asked to go to computer programming camp when I was 11 years old. Soaring to new heights hasn’t been a problem since because there are so many creative ways to apply math. I always thought it would be fun to help design the lines for crowds at Disney Parks. Guess what? Somebody does have that job!
Can you comment on the importance of math in education?
We use math for practical situations each and every day of our lives. For some it’s just more obvious than others. Are you a couponer? You’re using math to figure out what the best deal is on a product you’re purchasing. When you go to a counter-service restaurant, do you ever take a second to determine which line will move the fastest? Do you drive a car? I bet you’re aware of how many miles to the gallon you get, and what the quickest route is to your destination. And how about changing your route based on traffic? You’re using math to do all of this. I agree that not everyone is meant to become a theoretical mathematician, but a basic understanding of mathematics will help you be as successful as possible.
What advice would you give to students studying math today?
What I love about mathematics is that it’s not about just memorizing a series of facts. Instead, I would suggest approaching mathematics as understanding how to solve a particular problem using a particular technique. Before you know it, all of those techniques add up to your math toolbox. Once you have that basic understanding, you can solve any problem simply by opening that toolbox up. Also, I think we have to do a better job at the way we bring math to life for children. If we continue to remind ourselves that math can be fun, the spirit will catch on. How many of us have launched a soda bottle rocket ship? Or learned about probability using M&Ms?
Do you have a favorite math blog or journal?
Data visualization is a pretty cool area of focus, and one that continues to grow in importance. I really like the books of Dr. Edward Tufte, as well as the posts from SAS’ very own Robert Allison. My interest in data visualization goes a long way back. This might partially be due to the fact that the first computer program I ever wrote was of an animated rocket ship – and I had to view it on a lack luster green and black monitor. We’ve come a long way since then with dynamic graphical representations.
Do you have a favorite mathematician?
Judy Resnik had been a mentor of mine for many years. Judy was an engineer and a NASA astronaut. She was sadly one of the crew of the Challenger that perished in 1986. I was only 12 years old at the time, and being in a NASA town, this had a huge impact on me. I met Judy the year prior at a speech, and I have her autograph. She also attended Carnegie Mellon University, as I did many years later. I believe I owe much of my career to the inspiration of Judy Resnik. It is because of Judy that I feel so strongly about mentoring girls in STEM careers.
Are there any other hobbies or interests you’d like to share?
I am beginning my 10th year as a Girl Scout volunteer, and base my experience on many great memories as a Girl Scout myself. In fact, I started a troop with my daughter as an opportunity for the two of us to spend time together. However, I didn’t realize how much I would continue to learn in the process, including everything from camping in 35-degree, rainy weather to cooking dinner using just a cardboard box and the sun. Sometimes when you reach outside your comfort zone, you are surprised by what you can accomplish. I think it’s like this with mathematics. If you can let go of the typical stereotype that “math is hard” and open yourself up to it, you might just find you love it.
Dylan Sweetwood also contributed to this post.