Rob Rivens

Location: Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas

Occupation: Director of category insights and sales operations at Truco Enterprises

Education: B.S. in business administration from The University of Texas at Arlington

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Over the last four years, I led the business intelligence team for Bayer Consumer Care. Recently, I transitioned into a leadership role at Truco Enterprises where I provide actionable customer insights and perform data-driven research to improve the company’s national supply chain function.   

I am a father of three and an active member of the Dallas community. I’ve created a leadership program for inner-city middle school children, and I am a Meals on Wheels volunteer. I enjoy travel and have visited five of the seven continents. My passports have many stamps!

What initially attracted you to the data science field?

My role as an operations analyst at American Airlines exposed me to concepts I would grow to love. I was on the team that developed the interactive voice response system (IVRS) for American Airlines’ reservations systems. It was this firsthand experience that fueled my thirst for automation. Seeing the impact on productivity and profitability propelled my interest in computer science. Determined to deepen my skills, I volunteered for numerous implementations of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software and other cutting-edge technology throughout my career. My most transformational role was working on the systems applications and products (SAP) in data processing implementation team at American Airlines. In this role, I was exposed to advanced technological topics and worked closely with advanced business application programming (ABAP) specialists. I learned how to bridge the gap between technological resources and functional users by representing both IT and the business in the identification of problems and their technological resolutions. Although my job title was SAP specialist, I felt more like a scientist … a data scientist! But the various companies I worked for didn’t know what box to put me in. My identity crisis would remain for years to come – until I decided to earn my M.S. in Data Science!

Why did you decide to pursue a Master of Science in Data Science?

Having worked in industries from aviation to consulting, and pet products to consumer health goods, I have amassed a diverse set of practical business skills. In order to do more, I needed an immersion in advanced topics and techniques. I was well positioned for a successful course of study in data science. My next logical challenge was to prove myself by pursuing a master’s in data science.

Why did you choose DataScience@SMU? 

There are many entities offering advanced degrees in data science, but pedigree matters. In a world full of virtual campuses, it is important to evaluate the quality of educational programs and make a decision that will yield a positive return on investment. Born and raised in Dallas, I am very familiar with SMU and its legacy in the Dallas area. Additionally, the mission of SMU resonates within me – particularly, the goals of expanding and sharing knowledge with students through teaching, research and service. I was also excited about the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with the esteemed staff and classmates of varied educational and employment backgrounds. The convenience of live online classes, an interdisciplinary curriculum and project-based approaches were all attributes that drew me to the program. 

Which skills and tools that the program covers do you find most appealing? Why? 

I love learning about advanced statistical techniques and applications. I really enjoyed learning about principle components analysis (PCA) and how it is used to reduce massive amounts of explanatory variables down to more manageable components. During one of our group projects, my team chose a data set containing physical characteristics of cells collected in a cancer study. We were able to apply our knowledge of PCA to reduce the number of variables from 30 to nine and apply machine learning to automatically identify the cells as benign or malignant (via linear discriminate analysis), using a test set of data. We successfully built our model with an overall error rate of less than 5 percent! It was an exciting project and definitely a testament to the power of data science in a real-world situation.

How are you able to apply what you are learning to your current position?

I am able to more intelligently speak to the structure, principles and importance of reproducible research. I am able to utilize the latest tools, deploying a vast variety of data science techniques in pursuit of corporate goals. I have applied machine learning to business intelligence platform creation/optimization and have exponentially increased productivity among internal resources by driving and leveraging investments in technology. I have earned a seat at the decision-making table because I am now viewed as a subject-matter expert in all things data science.

What surprised you most about the online learning environment?

I was most surprised by the personal relationships I have developed with my classmates. I thought being in a virtual setting would remove the human aspect of interaction, but this was simply untrue. For example, during one of our live sessions, one of my classmates sent me a text message asking me what was wrong. I was confused at first, but she then said, “You aren’t smiling as much as you usually do.” It happened to be an extremely stressful time for me, and I was trying to remain focused on our coursework. That said, it was really refreshing and comforting for someone to take the time to check in on me, despite being hundreds of miles apart. This was the exact moment that I knew DataScience@SMU was a game-changer. We don’t just learn about data science in our live sessions – we learn about building teams, looking out for one another and building lifelong relationships. This aspect of the program is truly priceless.

What advice do you have for prospective students?

You will meet people who challenge you, invest in you and force you to escape your comfort zone. I initially was not a fan of group assignments but have grown to love them; there is always something positive to be gained from interaction with like-minded individuals. Additionally, group work has taught me to successfully work with people from vastly different professional and education levels, different cultural backgrounds, and different life experiences. My ultimate advice is to make the program what you want it to be. If you don’t like something, propose a change. If you see opportunities for improvement, share them. This is your program – make the best of it! 

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