Here is an interview with Eric King, President, The Modeling Agency.
Ajay- Describe your career journey. What interested you in science? How do you think we can help more young people get interested in science?
Eric- I was a classic underachiever in school. I was bright, but was generally disinterested in academics, and focused on… well, other things at the time. However, I had always excelled in math and science, and actually paid attention those classes.
I was a high school junior when my school acquired its first computers: Apple IIs. There were no formal computer courses, so instead of study hall, I would go to the lab and tinker. Sure, I would join a few other geeks (well before it was cool to be such) for a few primitive games, but would spend the majority of my time reading about the Basic programming language and coding graphic designs, math formulas and simple games.
I loved it so much that I had decided to pursue computer science as a college major before my senior year and it went into my yearbook entry. Fortunately, my relatively high SAT scores offset my poor high school GPA and squeaked me into the University of Pittsburgh’s trial-by-fire summer program. It was the first time I really felt I had to perform (or else) and had to work hard to overcome poor study habits — but rose to the occasion with room to spare.
I’m glad I did not realize at the time that Pitt was #9 in the nation for computer science. I did have a hint though when I realized the extremely high attrition rate. In the end, our freshman class of 240 graduated 36. I did make it through the freshman year that trimmed the first half of the original group, but was a casualty my sophomore year when I fell short of a passing grade in a core CS course that was only offered annually. I repeated it the following year and graduated with extra credits – to include a directed study in table tennis (no kidding).
I loved the programming assignments but loathed the tests. After slogging through the program and graduating, I took a three month break. I figured it would be my last opportunity to be free of responsibility for that period of time possibly until retirement – and so far, I’m right.
Then, my cousin who graduated with me told me about a neural computing software tools company in Pittsburgh, called NeuralWare. I was always intrigued by “artificial intelligence”, but they were seeking a technical support representative. I realized my junior year that I did not want to code or remain on the technical side for a living, but go into business development, project management, business management and entrepreneurship. Yet, after having survived the majority of the attrition, I did want to complete my technical degree, then seek the business angle.
A short while later, NeuralWare contacted me again to start up their sales operation (a role previously fulfilled a co-founder). This was the start I was seeking: cut my teeth in business for highly technical products. I participated in numerous training sessions for neural computing and related technologies and loved it. The notion that the computer could leverage mathematics that emulated the basic learning function of the brain, or treat a formula like a gene – split it, mutate it, test and progress toward the most fitting solution was beyond exciting to me. So much so, that I’ve not left the technology in the 19 years since.
Drawing others to science, I believe is more a matter of nature over nurture. I am the father of twin boys who couldn’t have greater differences in interests, personalities and talents. In that spirit, I believe that science should be made readily available, involve both theory and practice, and be presented in a manner that motivates those who are drawn to science to excel. But I don’t believe science can be effectively pushed to those whose inherit interests and passion lie elsewhere (reference the character Neil Perry in The Dead Poet’s Society).
Ajay- Describe the path that The Modeling Agency has traveled. What is your vision for it for the future.
Eric- The Modeling Agency (TMA) was established as a highly structured formal network of senior-level consultants in January of 2000. TMA’s initial vision (and sustained slogan) was to “provide guidance and results to those who are data-rich, yet information-poor.” I still have not encountered an organization that holds a larger bench of senior-level data mining consultants and trainers. And to be senior-level, TMA consultants must be far more than technically steeped in data mining. TMA’s senior consulting staff are business consultants first – not rushing to analyze data, but assessing an organization’s environment and designing a fitting solution to resources that support stated objectives.
There are three primary divisions to TMA: training, consulting and solutions. Each division is part of an overarching business and technology maturation process. For example, training generates technology advocates for data mining that encourages consulting engagements which at times lead to productizable vertical market services that create solutions which allow other organizations to capitalize on the risk that pioneering organizations had undertaken, and springboard on the return realized by implementations within their vertical – which leads to new discoveries and innovations that feed back to training.
Beyond further developing the brand of TMA’s quickly emerging niche (described later), our future vision involves developing two specific types of vendor partnerships to allow TMA to redirect the substantial margins enjoyed by its clients through the application of predictive modeling into a residual stream of income to accelerate the growth of TMA itself. While this operation is confidential, we will be pleased to tell our future clients that we do indeed apply our services for the benefit of our own business.
Ajay- Describe the challenges and opportunities in modeling through recent innovations. i.e social network analysis software and increasing amounts of customer text data available on social media.
Eric- Please allow me to shift the focus of this question slightly. So many organizations are still making their way down the Business Intelligence chain to applying predictive modeling on standard operational data, that social network analysis and customer text analytics remains more of a research endeavor in my opinion. As a practical applications company, TMA focuses its experience in pragmatically applying its business problem solving creativity on operational and transactional data enriched by demographic and psychographic attributes. I feel that the areas of social media and social network analysis are not yet mature enough to be formalized as established practice on TMA’s menu of service offerings.
Having said that, the greatest challenges in predictive modeling are no longer in applying the methodological tactics, but rather in the comprehensive assessment, strategic problem design, project definition, results interpretation and ROI calculation. Popular data mining software is now highly effective at automating the tactical model building process – many packages running numerous methods in parallel and selecting the best performer.
So, the challenges that remain today are in tackling the tails of the process as mentioned above. This is where TMA’s expertise is focused and where our niche is quickly emerging: guiding organizations to establish their own internal predictive analytics operation.
Ajay- In the increasing game of consolidation of business intelligence vendors and data mining and analytics, which are the vendors that you have worked with and what are their relative merits.
Eric- TMA has established formal partnerships with several popular data mining tool vendors and services companies. Despite these alliances, TMA remains vendor neutral and method agnostic for clients that approach TMA directly. Having said that, I will make a general statement that there is notable merit for the organizations that recognize that they must ensure their client’s success in the full implementation cycle of data mining – not just provide a great tool that addresses the center.
In fact, it was one of TMA’s earliest partners who saw the value in teaming with TMA to support the ends of the data mining process (assessment, business understanding project definition and design, results interpretation, implementation) while their solution addressed the middle (data preparation and modeling). They recognized that as great as their tool was, it was still hitting the shelf soon after the sale. The realized that their clients were building very good models that answered the wrong questions, or were uninterpretable and incapable of implementation.
TMA soon recognized that these excellent tools combined with TMA’s strategic data mining mentorship and counsel provided the capability for organizations to essentially establish their own internal predictive analytic practice with existing business practitioners – not requiring senior statisticians or PhDs. This has become a popular and fast growing service, for which TMA’s large bench of senior-level data mining consultants is perfectly suited to fulfill.
And the best candidates for this service are those organizations who have attempted pilots or projects but fell short of their objectives. And while the acquisition of SPSS (who licenses a reputable predictive analytics tool, “PASW”) by IBM (the gold standard for IT and BI services and solutions) may be the closest competition that TMA may encounter, TMA enjoys a substantial head start and foothold with its numerous formal alliances, vendor neutrality and sizable client list specific to predictive modeling. TMA is quickly becoming the standard to turn to for progressive organizations that realize internalizing predictive analytics is not just a matter of when rather than whether, but that it is within their grasp with TMA’s guidance and the right tool(s).
Ajay- What do people at The Modeling Agency do for fun?
Eric- Our interests are as diverse as we are geographically disbursed. One of our senior consultants is a talented and fairly established tango dancer. He’s always willing to travel for assignments, as he’s anxious to tap into that city’s tango circuit. Another consultant is an avid runner, entering marathons and charity races. One common thread that most of us share is our dedication to parenting. We all love trips and time with our children. In fact, I’m writing this on a return trip from Disney World on the Auto Train with my 5 year old twin boys – a trip I know I’ll recall fondly through my remaining years.
Eric A. King is President and Founder of The Modeling Agency (TMA), a US-based company started in January 2000 that provides training, consulting, solutions and a popular introductory webinar in predictive modeling “for those who are data-rich, yet information-poor.” King holds a BS in computer science from the University of Pittsburgh and has over 19 years of experience specifically in data mining, business development and project management. Prior to TMA, King worked for NeuralWare, a neural network tools company, and American Heuristics Corporation, an artificial intelligence consulting firm. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (281) 667-4200 x210.