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SIAM Panel Addresses Applied Mathematics in Industry and Entrepreneurship

By Jillian Kunze

Entrepreneurship is a viable and potentially rewarding career path for mathematicians, but many of the skills that are necessary for navigating the world of industry are not taught in school. Several weeks ago, SIAM hosted an hour-long virtual panel discussion on industrial and entrepreneurial careers for applied mathematicians. The event was organized by the SIAM Industry Committee. Lalitha Venkataramanan (Schlumberger Doll Research) moderated the discussion between panelists Marina Brockway (VivaQuant), John Burke (Applied BioMath), Allen Butler (Daniel H. Wagner Associates, Inc.), and Suhail Farooqui (K12 Insight), who described their own industry experiences and offered advice to students and early-career mathematicians who are interested in entrepreneurship. 

The session began with a conversation about the speakers’ personal career paths into industry, which for several panelists involved starting their own companies. Farooqui, who co-founded K12 Insight to enhance stakeholder engagement in public schools, reflected on the often-winding course into entrepreneurship. “Most of us who journey to start something on our own have a mix of insanity and a deep yearning inside,” he said. “As I look back, there was never really a plan. You follow the curiosity stream of your conscience and keep your heart open to exploring questions.” 

When contemplating a move into a career outside of academia, many mathematicians may be unsure of which skills are most important. Butler, who has been the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Daniel H. Wagner Associates, Inc. since 2008, said that his company’s policy is to hire the best mathematician they can find, as opposed to focusing on candidates with a narrow range of expertise that aligns exactly with the company’s ongoing projects. It is therefore important for a mathematician who is seeking an industry career to be both an experienced problem-solver and a quick learner. Burke, who is the co-founder, CEO, and president of Applied BioMath, agreed with Butler and added that his organization looks for strong communicators. Since Applied BioMath operates at the intersection of applied mathematics and biology, its employees must be able to converse across different disciplines and with varying levels of technicality. 

It is never too early to begin preparing for a career in applied mathematics. During the panel, a high school math teacher asked the speakers for advice on how to best prepare students for potential mathematics careers in industry. Brockway, who is a founder and chief technology officer of VivaQuant, suggested that teachers can look for internship opportunities that are aimed at high school students. Her company offers a number of those positions, which provide students with early opportunities to learn about the expectations and culture of industry work. In terms of school courses, Brockway added that computer science is a must — familiarity with the frameworks of coding languages is a valuable skill that can help students in many possible career paths, even those beyond mathematics. High schoolers should also cultivate soft skills such as “the ability to take initiative, be reliable, ask good questions, and channel a discussion with people who know their field,” she said. 

Clockwise from top left: John Burke (Applied BioMath), Marina Brockway (VivaQuant), Allen Butler (Daniel H. Wagner Associates, Inc.), Suhail Farooqui (K12 Insight), and Lalitha Venkataramanan (Schlumberger Doll Research) participate in a virtual panel discussion on applied mathematics in industry and entrepreneurship.

Conversation then turned to the benefits of start-up incubators, such as Entrepreneur First. The panelists all agreed that working with incubators can help aspiring entrepreneurs learn from more experienced peers, avoid possible pitfalls, and encounter new ideas. Burke emphasized that successful entrepreneurs are good at seeking advice — a quality that universities do not often teach. “It’s a different mindset where you get rewarded for asking for help, which I do think that incubator spaces foster,” he said. “The sooner you get over that hump of asking for help, the better.” Butler assented, noting that incubators create a ready forum for consulting with experienced peers. “Make friends with people who are doing the same thing, even if they're working in a different technology,” he said. “If you try to solve all your problems yourself, you make lots of mistakes. But if you talk to others who have been through the same process recently, you can make much smarter decisions.”

Even established companies should maintain a healthy culture of mutual assistance and growth. Several of the speakers concurred that the health and success of their companies is enhanced by their employees’ continual personal development. When organizations actively encourage employees to work towards achieving their goals in both technical and personal skills, that investment ultimately comes back to the organization. For example, K12 Insight believes that every team member should set yearly goals for growth. “Growth has to be intentionally embraced,” Farooqui said. “There should be a culture of coaching within the company, all the way from the CEO to the most junior team member.” 

One attendee asked the panelists about how to handle recruiters at job fairs who have no interest in hiring mathematicians and only want employees with experience in one specific domain of engineering. The panelists agreed that this kind of attitude is dated, and a company that does not seek out a wide range of backgrounds and expertise will likely not be successful in the long run. But if mathematicians do want to convince a reticent company of their potential benefits as an employee, they could demonstrate their ability to offer a novel approach to a company’s projects by learning about where applied mathematics fits into the organization’s application area.

Strong interviewing skills are essential during any job application process. Candidates can elevate their status in an interview by researching the company’s mission, familiarizing themselves with the vocabulary of the field, and learning about the specific people they may encounter during the interview. Taking a few hours to practice answering interview questions can help candidates overcome nerves and appear well-prepared during the interview. Farooqui noted that privileged students often receive more mentorship in developing interview prep skills than underprivileged students, which gives the former group an edge in the job hunt. He thus asked later-career professionals to help ameliorate this disparity by mentoring underprivileged students in areas that are necessary for making a good impression during the job application process. 

The speakers then delved into the benefits and difficulties of seeking out internship opportunities. “Easing in with an internship will open more doors,” Brockway said. But math majors who lack sufficient experience with research projects may find it difficult to market themselves to potential internship programs. Butler advised students to try taking a course outside their normal wheelhouse, but in a related field — perhaps a class on the mathematics of biology or business. “Then, in an interview, you can say look, my best skill is that I can learn new things, and here’s an example,” he said.  

Networking is also an essential component of the industry job search, though it is inadvisable to ask for job opportunities without laying some groundwork first. “Reach out to people, but make deposits before you make withdrawals,” Farooqui said. “Don’t just reach out because you’re looking for a job. Open your hearts to being curious and see what people’s big challenges are.” Talking to industry professionals can reveal the field’s dynamic and allow an upstart mathematician to connect dots in a unique way.  

The panelists concluded the session by describing how they deal with interruptions and balance the many tasks they must accomplish in a workday. Butler recognizes notifications as they appear and deals with anything urgent right away, but otherwise remains focused on the issue at hand. Farooqui similarly likes to generate a to-do list and always works on the most pressing thing first. He emphasized the importance of delegating assignments, which was one of the most difficult things he learned while advancing his career. Brockway echoed this sentiment and noted that academia generally teaches people to work much more independently than is necessary in industry. 

At the end of the virtual discussion, participants were directed to several helpful resources for finding mathematics jobs in industry—such as the BIG Math Network and the SIAM Career Center—before moving into an online mixer. The panelists encouraged aspiring industry mathematicians and entrepreneurs to take advantage of these websites, as well as the wealth of free online resources for growing technical and personal skills that have sprung up in recent years. “The situation is so different than 20 years ago,” Farooqui said. “There are so many more learning opportunities!”

A recording of the industry panel discussion is available on SIAM’s YouTube channel

Jillian Kunze is the associate editor of SIAM News