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Creating Data-centric Thinkers in the Classroom and the Office

Javier Leon, Adjunct Professor and Marketing Manager at Saint Joseph’s University and Amazon Produce


Empowering students and organizations in data.

Empowering students and organizations in data 

By day, I work on special projects at Amazon Produce, a major importer and distributor of fruit, based in the United States. By night, I teach as an adjunct professor at schools like Drexel, Villanova, and Saint Joseph’s University. To engage students in the classroom after a full day at work requires passion, and that’s what drives me: a passion for empowering people. My vehicle to do that? Business intelligence (BI).

According to the World Economic Forum, the acceleration of automation and AI will lead to a continued shift in skills that the workforce needs. For example, the need for technological skills (such as data analysis), is set to increase by 60% in the United States by 2030. As a result, the field is booming. Having a background in data science can land you that job or help you get that promotion.

But it’s not enough to simply understand the theory. As educators, we must make sure our students – and our organizations – have the right tools and skills to work with data adeptly.

Educating the Data Leaders of Tomorrow

I started teaching introductory classes in business intelligence at Saint Joseph’s University in 2017. After these, I was given the chance to teach Critical Performance Management – a class largely devoted to data visualization. This class dives into business intelligence tools that students will see in the real world such as Qlik.

Thanks to the Qlik Academic Program we even use Qlik in the classroom. The program provides free data analytics software and resources to educators and students around the world. While education budgets are tight, financial concerns shouldn’t be what holds us back from teaching the BI leaders of tomorrow.

We want to empower students to be data literate when they leave university. And by giving them hands-on experience with cutting-edge BI tools like Qlik, students learn how to create different applications and can show employers they have this experience when they enter the workforce.

A great activity we encouraged our students to take part in to empower them in data and data literacy was #MakeoverMonday. Students analyze a visualization they find in a magazine or online, and then try to make it better. They collaborate with each other to get feedback on the changes they made, which helps foster the collaborative environment they’ll find in the real world. They’re also left with a portfolio of 30 different visualizations. Having this rich experience can make the difference when it comes to landing a job in the data space.

Even though all of this is valuable, I don’t just want my students to learn only the technical side. These students will be the leaders of the future, so we need to look at data holistically. We also help students understand how to get buy-in for a project, and how to fail fast and cheap to decrease risk to their future organizations.

Visualizing Data to Bring Our Supply Chain to Life

While business intelligence is my passion when it comes to education, BI is also an integral part of my 9–5 at Amazon Produce. Our mission is to be the most efficient distribution channel of mangoes in the United States for customers and growers alike.

It’s about sending the right fruit to the right customers at all times, which might sound simple, but we’re juggling over 50 growers across countries and cultures in Latin America. And then our customers, which are some of the major US retailers, each have their own standards and expectations for produce. There are a lot of complexities to our supply chain.

One day, we realized we needed to be more proactive in telling a story about everything that happened along that supply chain. For example, if the produce arrived to the customer in less-than-great condition and didn’t sell as well as it usually did, we wanted to help the grower understand what, when and where it happened.

But when you’re dealing with a product that isn’t manufactured – instead is grown and harvested hundreds of miles away – there are so many variables and potential linked data points to keep track of. Working with Excel spreadsheets, these dimensions didn’t jump out at us.

It was my boss who came to me with a solution. The idea was that everyone at Amazon Produce who is in sales and grower relations would have full access to data visualizations and be able to draw valuable insights about the supply chain from them.

Empowering Colleagues in Data

I started by conducting interviews with the heads of sales and grower relations to gain a rough idea of the parameters of the project. I then held brainstorming sessions with the teams involved, to get a sense of what our end users would need immediately, versus what could wait. I then built the visualizations they needed, as well as the visualizations they hadn’t mentioned, but that I anticipated they would look for once they realized Qlik’s potential. The process until rollout was about nine months.

I’m excited to see how much more productive we will be because people are feeling empowered through these visualizations. My long-term goal for this project is to integrate our data analytics platform with other major databases within Amazon Produce, as well as from government agencies in the U.S. and Latin America. Just imagine what we could do if we linked census data, with weather data, with data from the Mexican mango exporter association, for example?

I have to give a shout-out to my boss at Amazon Produce. He’s always understood my need to share this passion with others and that I’m busy – but whether it’s through teaching or my projects at Amazon Produce, it’s all in the service of empowering others to be data literate and get the most out of their data.

Our progress with analytics reconfirms my belief in teaching. If our staff already had experience in business intelligence, we could skip the education part and get right into innovating with data. It’s exciting to know that my students will be able to join companies and dive right into making an impact.

Whether it’s in the classroom or at the office, I get joy from seeing people transform into proactive, data-centric thinkers. These are the people who will change their organizations. Knowing I had even a small part of that shift is what keeps me going as an instructor and during the implementations we do at work.

Find out more about the Qlik Academic Program here: qlik.com/academicprogram