“I knew there were techniques that were suited to the problems that I wanted to solve, so I chose to seek out a place where I could learn those techniques.”
Arri Landsman-Roos is a 2013 graduate of the Institute for Advanced Analytics. Currently, he is the Director of Analytics at the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Alec: To start us off, can you talk a little bit more about your background before the program? I know you went to UNC Chapel Hill and studied Economics and Math while you were there.
Arri: I started at UNC as a statistics major and many of the classes focused on theory. I realized I liked the applied portion more than theory. The economics curriculum had more applied material so I sought those courses out. I also was beginning to see this analytics world within sports, which was a cross section of two things I enjoyed. I was trying to find more classes like analytics and also trying to figure out how to do it within sports, although I think I would be happy to just do this type of work with data.
While I was there, I had a few different internships. Some with sports teams, one with a business with sports data. I was enjoying what I was doing in the internships, but I didn’t have a good enough education around analyzing data to make the contribution I wanted to. When I was getting ready to graduate, I was doing interviews with some teams and a league office before coming across the NC State program. It was perfect, one year to learn all these things and hit the ground running if I was able to work with a team or any company doing something cool with data.
Alec: Your story sounds very similar to many stories I’ve heard within my cohort and other alumni as well. Many of us have started on the theoretical side before becoming captivated by the applying those techniques to real data. Can you talk a little bit more about how you came to the understanding that you weren’t well enough prepared to make the impact you would like? What were you lacking before you came to the program?
Arri: It never came up in an interview, but it was more me being aware of my skillset and knowing what I could do with a broader set of tools. I learned that by going to the Sloan Sports Analytics conference and seeing the work that was being done every year. I knew those techniques were not being taught in the classes I was taking. At one of the internships I had I was doing basic regression kinds of work and I understood that I could do this work a lot better with more advanced tools. I felt like I had a limited toolbox to solve a wider set of problems. I knew there were techniques that were suited to the problems that I wanted to solve, so I chose to seek out a place where I could learn those techniques. Within sports, most organizations do not have a large analytics department (I was the first in the department with the Jaguars), so you will not have the same opportunity to learn from other more experienced practitioners that you might have at a bigger consulting or financial services firm.
Alec: I remember the feeling well of being in a room at Sloan and understanding very little of the math being discussed. They do really cool work up there every single year. Do you think that coming to the IAA that you learned the broader toolbox?
Arri: Yeah. I did a side project or two while in school there that helped too. I leaned on the faculty to figure out a way to tweak the technique we learned in class to solve the problem I was working on. I was trying to learn variations as needed to perfect the practice. Once I got to the Jaguars, a lot of the projects I was working on were not as analytically rigorous as those within the Institute curriculum. I was doing things that I could have done coming out of undergrad, but with the benefit of being a year older and wiser. There were also a few projects where I was able to leverage the skills I learned at the Institute to solve the problem at hand. As I spent more time in Jacksonville, and we built things up, more of the analytically rigorous projects became more commonplace day to day. Our team was also growing, so I ended up doing more management than the day to day coding and analytics. Even with that being how it worked out, the skills I learned at the Institute are very helpful in being able to think about the problems and contribute ideas to the team as the manager.
Alec: Can you talk a little bit about your practicum experience here at the Institute (to the extent that you can)?
Arri: We worked with the Houston Astros. The experience of working with the Astros was great. We were working with staffing resource data to optimize that process for the organization. One thing our team realized is that statistical analysis and modeling is not the same as computer science. Our problem had a heavier focus on the optimization piece that was more computer science than statistics. We needed a lot of computing power to get to the optimal number because of the massive amount of paths the organization could take with staffing. This opened my eyes to a whole other dimension of things that we didn’t necessarily cover in school. That’s a great benefit of the practicum is to experience those areas of growth in expertise. Working with the Astros to see how their workflow went was awesome too. During our practicum, we also got to work on a couple side projects that followed the calendar of their season. In sports (and other businesses), you have to get things done by a certain point or you have to wait a whole year to implement that work. Those projects, where you have a week or two to turn something around, are much more similar to what I see now in the professional world. These experiences made the project all the better.
Alec: Can you talk a little bit about your job search experience at the Institute and what you were looking for in a first role after graduation?
Arri: I went through the normal process from the Institute. It was one of my favorite parts of the year. I also went to the Sloan conference again to see if anything would come from it. I’d had success in the past finding internships there. It turned out that the Jaguars had the resume book from the year before and someone who was brought on with the new owners was looking to hire a person comfortable with data. My boss asked somebody who had this resume book, they found my resume (which was not updated with NCSU information) and we talked over the phone. They ended up not having much of a job description but they were interested in hiring a person well versed in data to come in and get the team going. It sounded interesting, and I was still trying to figure out where I wanted to go. I had an offer that I was excited about, but I went down to Jacksonville to interview. After meeting with the organization and taking some more time to think, I knew this was the place for me. I was really given free reign to get the data and solve problems. The organization has always allowed me to explore new things and make suggestions in nearly every area during my time here.
Alec: Did you know you wanted to go into sports? Were you looking exclusively into sports or was it more open?
Arri: It was a matter of being lucky the sports position came up. I was excited about another company with a team that I got along with really well in a great location. I wasn’t thinking about sports immediately, but if sports came up I would look into it. That happened a little earlier than I expected and the opportunity made sense for me so I went for it.
Alec: Were you ready to contribute on day 1?
Arri: It seems like it went really well. There are things I would do differently, but those are more due to hindsight than my approach. I ended up on a good track. We have grown to be six people as a department and we work on both business and football. To start at an abstract entry level business role and now have a team working on all sides of the organization has been great. I would say I was prepared to come into a more open-ended role due to my experiences with the practicum, my internships, and my classes. I was fortunate to lead the practicum and that experience was a huge benefit for preparing me. It was almost like I had my own practicum team of one in the way that I was interacting with the data and the stakeholders, and it turned out really great.
Alec: We hear a lot about buy in with stakeholders. It sounds like you’ve had it from the moment you got hired. Was that expected? How have you taken that opportunity to bring analytics to the organization?
Arri: I never thought about buy in the way I might now. I was lucky that I had some from the start and it has certainly been increasing. But more than buy in, I think appetite for data is even more important. People can ask for analytics, but without the requisite questions when you sit down with them or the real desire for the numbers you bring you don’t get the same results. I’ve had people knocking down my door for data that they can use in their decision-making process. Those are the greatest people to work with because you can form great relationships with them and they will ask for your analysis more frequently. Finding those people who need data will keep you busy with work. I can think of one department we worked with where we opened up their eyes to how much data they had and how it could benefit them. Now, they are always looking for something new that our team can help them with.
Alec: It sounds like a dream and you’ve got great people to work with. Can you talk to some of the benefits you’ve seen of your work?
Arri: I think much of this was inevitable due to the people here wanting to use data to make decisions. We have built this to the point where it is a natural step in every decision-making process that people are looking at data. You can’t make any large decisions in our organization without reviewing the numbers to some degree. People want to see the analysis, they want to see what has happened, its almost a requirement. Our team is so involved in what is going on and the people in the organization know that if they want something with data they just come to us. We are integrated, we aren’t just the idea people on the side. For example, we have done a lot of work recently with the ticketing department where we are working hand in hand to get the best impact for the whole organization. At the same time, we are working with sponsorship, with finances, with the football side. Every bit of the organization has problems to solve and we are working with people to solve them.
Alec: That sounds like an incredible transformation in four years. Do you ever look back and wonder how you got here?
Arri: These four years have flown by. We look back at old ticketing reports from 2013 and look at what we had back then versus what we have now. How did we get from that point to this point? It has been really cool to look at the growth. It is hard to keep track of every transformation, and we have made a lot of progress. There are always ways to be better, and so we keep looking to develop and grow. How did we get here? I’m not sure, but this is really fun to be working on and there will continue to be new and exciting problems to solve.
Alec: How do you stay in touch with your network within the organization, from the program, or others you’ve met along your analytics journey? Do you communicate and swap stories?
Arri: On the business side people are really open. We aren’t really fighting for the same customers so we find areas where we can help one another. I’ll stay in touch with people from conferences or people I’ve met and talk about what we have been doing. On the football side, it is obviously very different. We are a resource for anyone within the organization. With the business stuff its nice to talk with other people, and we don’t have the benefit of doing that with football projects. Our goal is just to help where we can.
Alec: How do you find time to stay up to date with the newest things in analytics?
Arri: I use Twitter as a news source. Relevant research papers, articles about partnerships between organizations, conversations within the team, each of those help with particular problems that might be of use. I try to pay attention to what people are doing, maybe go to Sloan or other conferences. Mainly I try to create my own data science news source. I’ll occasionally take a class on Coursera to pursue additional knowledge in a particular area. We have grown the team to an expectation that all of us are looking for new interesting things to do and we talk about it with one another over lunch or in different scenarios. We keep one another fresh.
Alec: What is your advice to all of us in the program? How do we make the most of the rest of this year?
Arri: The job search season can seem intense. It was my favorite time because I enjoy interviewing. I know there are other people who don’t feel that way though. Relax. There are plenty of great opportunities out there. This is not the last job you’ll ever get to take. Look for something you can learn and thrive in. Try and look at the job as where this will add the most value for your personal skillset. It might be a little late, but the thing I found most valuable to me was having done a few side projects different from the practicum and from class. A lot of people will talk about their favorite project from class, so for me it was helpful to have a few projects that I could talk about passionately. I could talk about these in a detailed way that was a little bit more unique than the practicum or the class projects. For me, it was trying to predict who would win the NBA MVP. In the best interviews I had, we were discussing that project for the whole time. It gave me a really good feel for how the interviewers would work through a problem if I was working with them. Yes, it is hard to find the time to do these side projects, but they are worth it if you can make the time.
Alec: Last question, for anyone in sports analytics what is your biggest piece of advice for them?
Arri: I feel kind of silly answering this question because of how lucky I was to have the Jaguars contact me while we were in the interview phase at the IAA, but I’ll give it a shot. I think because of how few opportunities there are, a lot of getting into sports analytics comes down to timing and luck, but there are certainly ways to improve one’s chances. My experience is that people who have something sports-related on their resume tend to at least get an initial interview. Whether those candidates should be prioritized is debatable, but getting that first experience, even if it’s just a project with a team, really goes a long way. A number of positions never have a public posting (especially beyond the entry level), so making connections with people in the industry can make it easier to find the openings. I know a number of people have also found their way to teams by developing a presence online (blogging, tweeting, etc.) and putting their work in the public domain. Many teams are reading the research people are doing, so it’s a great way to get noticed for anyone who can make the time between other personal and professional obligations. Even if you make all of these things happen and find a role in sports, it might still mean relocating to a city you’ve never considered living in, so flexibility helps!
Columnist: Alec Brown